City Beautiful 21 » Architecture, Auto Traffic, Carrboro, Economic Development, Piazzas, Plazas, Parks and Squares, Street Design, Walking » Lloyd Farm: What Happens When You Let a Grocery Store Chain Do Urban Design
After several years of hearing suggestions for improvements from adjacent neighborhoods, elected officials, advisory boards and citizens from all over Carrboro, the folks at Argus Development have submitted plans for what they have always wanted to build here – a grocery-anchored strip mall. I first wrote about this project in 2014, nearly 18 months ago, and have talked to many Carrboro residents about it since. Very, very little about the proposal has changed and its chief flaws dating back to 2014 remain mostly unaddressed.
If I was a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, I would vote to deny this rezoning application.
The most recent site plan attached to Tuesday’s packet is below. If you look at the link above to my prior post, you’ll see little has changed in 18 months. I’m going to list several shortcomings ahead of the image below.
- The overall design of the site is simply too suburban, which makes it hard to redevelop into something better in the future. Some of the suburban features damaging this site layout in particular are the gently curving road from the top of the site the area down by the two stores surrounded by stormwater detention ponds. This roadway geometry and lack of buildings along the side of the road will encourage speeding through the site by cars.
- Tax base efficiency for the town. This design incorporates several of the low-value per acre approaches documented in the 2014 presentation by Urban 3 to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce (click to see slides-they’re EXCELLENT!). In a town with a rural buffer, we need to do our best to maximize our tax value per acre on parcels inside the buffer to produce a better balance between commercial and residential tax base in Carrboro, and that means building up in a denser format. The site design for this plan incorporates the limited value proposition of the Timberlyne Shopping Center and the “Older Outparcel Format” on slide 18 with parking completely surrounding a building, providing a much lower value per acre (in this case, about $950,000/acre) than more urban building types such as the Hampton Inn in downtown Carrboro. (Over $33 million per acre!). Go to the final slide and look at the comparison of mall or strip development per acre with mixed-use at 3 and six stories. The Lloyd Property should be in the categories on the right hand side of the chart; instead, it is mostly in the strip mall category, with limited tax base per acre developed and a design that locks that in for probably 30 or more years.
- The massive parking field in front of the Harris Teeter grocery store. I don’t think I have had a single conversation about this project that doesn’t involve someone lamenting the massive parking lot fronting the grocery store, and how much better it would be to have something more akin to Southern Village instead. This suggestion has been made repeatedly to the applicant, and they have done nothing to engage with this community request in their design. The most likely reason is that their client, Harris Teeter, has probably sent some middle management person to the site who looked around and said “yup, this looks suburban, it must have the suburban standard site layout,” which comes with a checklist that says, more or less- “if we can’t have all the parking right in front of the store in a massive parking field, the store will not make money. Our customers are simply too stupid to figure out how to use our stores otherwise.” Harris Teeter’s own store at North Hills in Raleigh shows this isn’t true, but since the corporate grocery office has labeled this “suburban” rather than “urban” they are shoving the standard design down our throats. Let me say that again another way- one of the most significant undeveloped parcels in Carrboro is being designed primarily around the needs of a checklist in a major grocery store corporate office, not the town’s needs and goals.
- The two water detention ponds with the two outparcel sites featuring a triple drive-through (worst kind of drive through!) bank and another retail site are a pretty irreversible suburban set of uses that work to prevent a future urban street grid from being installed while also only supporting low-intensity uses.
- No public gathering spaces. There are two locations titled “Plaza Lawn” on this drawing. Neither of them are likely to be used by many people and become the beloved community space that the Weaver Street lawn is. One Plaza Lawn (bottom left) is going to be nearly empty, all the time. With no adjacent uses other than parking, and a walking path to Old Fayetteville- the side of the site featuring the least pedestrian traffic, there’s no reason to be here. The Plaza Lawn in the curve near the top center of the site will have high-speed traffic on one side, and a retail/restaurant space on the left side. Perhaps there may be some spillover here if this is a restaurant, but if it is a retail store, this will just be another grassy berm that goes unused. Looking at these two sites plus the big green swath of land between the road and the detention pond north of the senior housing, there was plenty of space in this site to create a village green surrounded by active uses, but the parking for the grocery store was too important. Are you one of the folks who was really interested in a gathering spot, or are you interested in learning more about the failures of American “plazas,” and why the Lloyd Farm “Plaza Lawns” fail in the same way? Check out this neat piece by Neil Takemoto on the difference between Americanized “plazas’ and Italian “Piazzas.”
- Age-restricted housing. My most recent post on Lloyd Farm covered the issues with Senior Housing instead of housing for all ages. Click here to read why going from apartments to age-restricted housing presents a dilemma when it comes to equity issues in housing.
- None of the buildings have any relationships with the streets. They have relationships with the parking lots. This means that it will be harder to tear these buildings down and replace them with more dense development in the future, effectively restricting the future economic capacity of one of our limited commercial zones.
- Virtually all of the commercial buildings are one story. Orangepolitics ran a great piece recently on how we don’t have space to receive small and growing companies, and we can’t get ANY of these buildings to have a second story with some space for the next business that breaks out of an incubator to move to?
In closing, I’m going to share a few comments from the advisory boards that I thought were particularly good:
Add multistory mixed use development with ground floor commercial with residential
and/or office use above, and increased clustering of buildings relative to the current site
plan. Consider the model of Southern Village. The current site plan has too many
buildings too far apart with too much separated parking. Building up and clustering
would reduce impervious surface and therefore more effectively address stormwater
runoff and flooding issues. – Environmental Advisory Board
The Board recognizes the need for senior housing in Carrboro, but is disappointed with
the lack of affordable or workforce housing. We would like to see some of the senior
residences made available at workforce rates. A payment-in-lieu should be required as a
condition of the rezoning.- Planning Board
The Board strongly suggests that the final plan reverse the positions of the grocery store
and the buildings facing it. The intent is to reinforce a residential buffer. It would also
serve to decrease the distance between the grocery store and the senior housing.
The rezoning should include conditions regarding architectural standards, including
uniformity of materials and setback of taller buildings in proximity to residential areas,
which mirror the Downtown Districts. The conditions suggested by the Applicants should
also be included, however condition #1 should be amended to reflect the change in
positions of the grocery store and the facing retail buildings.
It seems pretty clear that the rezoning is the last chance to get any improvements to the design or reconsideration of strategies, and I hope the Board signals that this proposal should not proceed unless these issues are addressed. Given we’ve been at this for 18 months formally and longer informally, I’m not terribly optimistic that we’re going to get much better by giving them a green light.
In closing, I want to acknowledge that I think that development processes that don’t make it clear what the community wants and expects make it harder for developers to come to reasonable win-win outcomes for the community. I understand that the proposed investment at this site is a big deal, but I also think a superior project would offer better upside for the town and the developer if they could get past the inflexible approach to the parking on the grocery store and the other conventional mid-to-late twentieth century design approaches they are taking to the site layout and organization. Honestly, I feel like the investors and the Town are leaving profit and taxbase on the table to cater to the checklist at the Harris Teeter corporate office.
Given that we already have a Harris Teeter with a dangerous, pedestrian-hostile parking lot in Carrboro, and that these folks don’t seem to have incorporated much of what the community is asking for, I think that denying this rezoning is reasonable, and that the town should then turn to establishing a process that the TOWN leads to establish what type of development is appropriate for this site. We can (and should) do better.