Devil in the details

If you build it, they will come; and when they come, they will bring Nancy Oatestraffic and public transit needs with them. And we will have to come up with solutions.

The proposed version of Obey Creek has more square feet of built space than Streets of Southpoint mall. The Obey Creek plan has only two forms of egress, as Southpoint did when it first opened. The traffic jams from people trying to get in and out almost sunk that place until Durham approved more driveways in and out. Whereas Southpoint is all retail, Obey Creek has significantly more residential than retail or office. So during morning and evening rush hours, expect the same stalled traffic in Obey Creek’s parking decks as in UNC Hospitals’ decks at shift change, and expect to sit through light cycle after light cycle waiting to get in or out on the way to and from work every day.

Yet the attitude of some council members seems to be a shrug and magical thinking that it will somehow all work itself out.

The N.C. Department of Transportation suggested expanding U.S. 15-501 into 6 lanes to help move the traffic. But Maria Palmer, with uncharacteristic concern for community members’ opinions, took the stand that “there are many [Chapel Hill] citizens who would have lots of problems with seeing a 6-lane 15-501 between [Southern Village] and Obey Creek. I would be one of them. I think we need to push back on these DOT requests. They are still in the mode of creating super highways while our community (and planet) looks to making changes away from a car-centered life.”

In other words, if we don’t have a road wide enough to handle the traffic, people will give up their cars. I predict that will be as successful as my banning Cheetos from the house as a way to coax my husband into healthier eating habits.

Maybe Palmer wants Obey Creek residents and visitors to use public transportation. Except there won’t be any, because the town said it has no money for bus routes to serve the area.

That leaves walking and biking. But the developer has designated the residences as age-restricted senior housing. Retirees will have to bike to the grocery store, concerts and church. Office workers are going to arrive at their jobs sweaty and dusty and bike home at night in the dark. Shoppers must fit all their purchases in the handlebar basket.

For years, community members have been trying to educate the developer, town staff and council members on some of the practical issues of building the 1.6 million square-foot version of Obey Creek. Traffic and transit, stormwater runoff, the increased cost to taxpayers for providing services to what amounts to a small sister city on the outskirts of town.

The developer is pressing hard for council to approve this iteration of the project soon. Will council have the backbone to stand firm until the details have been worked out?
– Nancy Oates

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  1. many

     /  June 1, 2015

    Watch out for an additional +$Billion dollar ask to extend LRT.

  2. Terri

     /  June 1, 2015

    There are two factors with the proposed design that will assure that people will be driving rather than walking or riding their bikes to shop. First, the residential sections are concentrated on the creek end of the property–at the bottom of a very steep slope. Walking or biking up to 15-501 (where the bus stop will be located) will be serious work. Second, there is more than 1 million square feet of parking planned.

    The traffic will be so horrible that DOT will get their 6 lanes and additional driveways as congestion mitigation. A large part of the daily commuting traffic will continue to shift over to Smith Level Road which will then justify DOTs desire to make it 4 lanes.

  3. Nancy

     /  June 1, 2015

    As I recall from a recent council meeting, the 1.6 million does not include parking. So with Terri’s information, the proposed size of Obey Creek is 2.6 million square feet, correct?

  4. “A large part of the daily commuting traffic will continue to shift over to Smith Level Road which will then justify DOTs desire to make it 4 lanes.”

    Which will make the drop-off and pick-up at Frank Porter Graham even more chaotic.

  5. anon

     /  June 1, 2015

    15-501 and smith level even without this will be bad with Chatham county development.

    hard to see this not someday requiring 15-501 6 lanes.

  6. Nancy

     /  June 1, 2015

    Is this how Atlanta’s traffic mess started?

  7. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 1, 2015

    1,600,000 square feet of conditioned space, plus 800,000 square feet of parking.

    Chapel Hill Town Council won’t worry about Smith Level Road, because it’s in Carrboro.

    If 15-501 must be widened, and Obey Creek is built up against the road like East 54 is, will the DOT take land from the Southern Community Park and Southern Village? Or will the DOT require a larger right-of-way in the Obey Creek property, thereby pushing the building lot into the water-quality buffer on Wilson Creek?

  8. Deborah,

    The memo from NCDOT indicated that the applicant (EWP) would be required to cede right-of-way for the road widening. Perhaps they’ll just do away with the Obey Creek internal streets and turn it into a vehicle free urban village. That would enable them to dispense with the 800,000 sf of parking as well.

  9. Geoff Green

     /  June 3, 2015

    “In other words, if we don’t have a road wide enough to handle the traffic, people will give up their cars. I predict that will be as successful as my banning Cheetos from the house as a way to coax my husband into healthier eating habits.”

    The concept of “induced demand” is well known, and means that if you widen roads and don’t charge for them, you get what’s called triple convergence: first, drivers who already take the roads perhaps at off-peak times to avoid traffic will switch to driving at peak times; second, drivers who would have taken a different route will take the newly widened one; and third, those who might have taken transit or non-motorized modes of transport will switch to driving. Here’s a couple of links in the popular press: and

  10. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 3, 2015

    Geoff, there is no other route. And there is no plan for mass transit. Everyone has to cross the James Taylor Bridge.

  11. Geoff Green

     /  June 3, 2015

    Deborah, there is the North-South Corridor Study for future service, and the existing CHT transit service, which includes CHT Route NS, with 55 departures weekdays from Southern Village, and Route V,with 16 departures.

    I recommend reading up on induced demand. At the very least you might find it interesting in thinking about roadway projects in general, even if you’re not convinced it’s applicable to the discussion here.

  12. Terri

     /  June 4, 2015

    Smith Level Road is the alternative to 15-501 and we have been experiencing the heavier traffic from those trying to avoid the James Taylor Bridge bottleneck. We fought for years to get extended shoulders to make it slightly safer for bicyclists. Now that effort feels wasted. And to correct Deborah’s earlier statement, Smith Level Road is within the Chapel Hill ETJ–its split between CH and Carrboro.

  13. many

     /  June 4, 2015

    The concept of induced demand is nothing more than a documentation of the principle of least effort (path of least resistance), This has been “well known” for at least a century. That whole study looks like a jobs programme for traffic engineers and fluff for trade rags to me.

    The intentional injection of artificial traffic jams and inadequate parking has no doubt lead to some creative (and violently destructive) behaviours, but It still does not address the basic point that people still need cars. Just ask any developer or real estate agent how well condos or commercial properties with inadequate parking sell.

  14. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 4, 2015

    The Obey Creek plan, which the Planning Commission has reviewed several times, has no space set aside for mass transit (much like the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code district). The town has no plan to address mass transit needs in the Obey Creek proposed Development Agreement, which will be primarily residential as it now stands.

    Smith Level Road from Carrboro High School down to Route 54 is all in Carrboro, and south of there is indeed Chapel Hill ETJ on the west side and Carrboro ETJ on the left. Mind you, Chapel Hill Town Council does not give a hoot about its subjects in the ETJ whether near Smith Level Road or elsewhere; it might as well be Carrboro.

  15. Geoff Green

     /  June 5, 2015

    Deborah, what kinds of particular accommodations for mass transit would you like to see at the site, beyond a modification of services that currently go to Southern Village?

  16. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 5, 2015

    Hi Geoff,
    No one cares what I say… but I would say that since the Town has “negotiated” 800 dwellings, that there should be a space to which and from which transit should arrive and depart, as in Southern Village. The highway modifications required will make it even more risky for pedestrians or cyclists to cross 15-501, so without a transit stop on site, Obey Creekers will have to take their cars everywhere.

  17. many

     /  June 5, 2015

    Deborah, I agree. there should be a well understood and achievable plan to handle the additional volume.

    The current crop of leaders would have you believe the stone age ended because we ran out of stones. It is incumbent on them to find a better way and design it in, leaving people to the principle of least effort is not a plan.

  18. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 5, 2015

    Two members have already said they will vote for whatever development agreement they are presented with. They are not asking for transit planning.

    Have any of you all ever tried to cross the James Taylor Bridge northbound in the morning rush hour, and southbound between 4:30 to 6:30 PM? That, plus the Town’s refusal to plan, makes you understand why UNCH is shifting jobs out of Chapel Hill.

  19. Terri

     /  June 5, 2015

    Since all the residential development is at the bottom of a very steep slope, and the targeted residents are seniors, it’s naive to think people will walk up that slope to get to a bus stop on 15-501. Look at Southern Village and its spreadout, hilly neighborhood–residents drive to the park and ride lot to get the bus. That isn’t transit friendly development IMHO.

  20. bonnie hauser

     /  June 5, 2015

    What happens now? All of a sudden, staff comes forward with smaller, lower impact options that have the potential to become win-wins. Its brand new and neither the planning board or the design commission have had a chance to weigh in.

    Will council move forward on its own – or give the advisory boards a chance to do their work?

  21. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 6, 2015

    Orange County, which was only notified of the Obey Creek project in mid-March, has not presented its economic analyses– and county tax is strongly impacted by development.

    On a different note, a town staff member told me the town is loath to hire specialized building inspectors to inspect the hospital-sized buildings at Obey Creek– another aspect of planning that is missing here.

  22. Bruce Springsteen

     /  June 6, 2015

    Wait a minute, are people saying that they’re going to build a new development, Obey Creek, and NOT have a bus stop somewhere there? That sounds so strange it makes me think I’m misunderstanding.

    I wonder sometimes about the buses and routes and if anyone is paying attention to how many ride and where the buses go. I get that they want to give people transportation but then again when it’s not uncommon to see a bus, or even one of those double-long buses, with a half dozen people or less on it it makes me wonder if they couldn’t have mini-buses for certain times of day.

    And I wonder why certain areas even get bus service. Say you’re on 15-501 going north. Southern Village is on your left, you pass it, you go over the James Taylor Bridge and then instead of continuing north towards campus, you veer right onto the divided road. Consider the area to the right of that road, up to the Dean Dome intersection. It is a sparsely populated residential neighborhood and it’s close to campus. I was exploring in there once and I saw bus stop signs.

    Why would buses spend time and money serving so few people that would have such a short distance to drive anyway, especially since the reason so many other people need bus service in the first place is because so much land so close to campus is so sparsely populated like that neighborhood? You’d think the idea would be, if you’re gonna take up a piece of land that big so close to campus then the least you can do is drive yourself instead having the town drive you.

  23. many

     /  June 6, 2015


    Has anyone checked with the fire department? With the tall buildings that are being proposed, they may well need another ladder truck. Not a cheap piece of equipment; a new 110′ ladder truck will cost 1 Million+.

  24. Nancy

     /  June 6, 2015

    But, Many, the town has no money in its budget for that, so it just won’t count that $1 million as a cost. That’s the way it has done its fiscal analysis up to this point.

  25. many

     /  June 6, 2015


    Exactly, Beside the truck additional training and personnel will be needed for coverage. In addition the CHFD has been hit by cuts from the state to the UNC fire department budget. We will miss Dan Jones and who ever the new Chief is, better have a good handle on costs.

    This sort of stuff has to be obvious to the elected officials, alternative explanations are just not plausible. Another example of this kind of (seemingly intentional) disregard for the obvious has allowed the schools to get in such a state of disrepair that we are floating a bond to fix them.

    In reality as you know, we didn’t have to float a bond, but it’s better for both the politicians and the school board to let things fester to the point of criticality, then conveniently dump the decision on the voter in the form of a bond rather than demand accountability and fix the problem,

    It really is too bad that political gamesmanship has deteriorated to such an obviously level of deceptive strategies and tactics. what is really tragic however, is that voters are not paying attention in enough numbers until the unacknowledged costs are already baked in.

  26. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 7, 2015

    The million-dollar hi-rise firetruck also requires 3 shifts of 5 persons each (i.e 15 people hired– payroll, pension, health coverage), this according to the asst. fire chief. Police coverage is a per capita calculation (according to the the same source). Obey Creek doesn’t pay for itself, the costs fall on the people already living here.

  27. Alex McCusker

     /  June 9, 2015

    Thanks for the good articles on Obey Creek and also on local retail.

    It does surprise me that the council has been able to change the land use agreed to when Southern Village was initiated.

    Isn’t there some other model of development (perhaps the Charlottesville VA example) than sprawling areas of highly similar retail space? Chapel Hill has a lot going for it, mostly its unique character and moderate scale. Will this expansion help anything in Chapel Hill?