WILMINGTON — Last summer, The Avenue mixed-use development on Military Cutoff Road ran into trouble over traffic concerns and an angry crowd at a Planning Commission meeting. Now, months after the Carroll Companies withdrew the project, it appears The Avenue will return.
But things have changed since The Avenue was first proposed. The development landscape of Military Cutoff has become much more crowded – with several large projects proposed along the narrow corridor. And now, a proposed amendment to the city’s development code, drafted in response to the public’s reaction to The Avenue, could change the way projects like The Avenue are handled by the city.
The plans for The Avenue have changed as well. Carroll Companies Founder Roy Carroll said designers may significantly reduce the development’s density – and thus its impact on traffic.
An angry reception
The Avenue first made a splash on July 6, 2017; the $200 million, 44-acre development was designed as a flagship property for the Carroll Companies, featuring 500 apartments, a Westin hotel and a conference center. But the following day, the re-zoning request to replace existing mobile home parks faced criticism from the city’s planning staff about traffic on Military Cutoff Road.
A staff report, released shortly before the Planning Commission was to consider the request, indicated that the development could push traffic on the already-overtaxed road to nearly double its capacity. Susi Hamilton, the former state representative and co-applicant on The Avenue, left the project in January of 2017 when she became the Secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. In July, Hamilton voiced her disapproval of Wilmington Planning Director Glenn Harbeck’s handling of the project: “the city planning director doesn’t seem to understand what makes good economic development.”
The Commission granted developers an extension – giving them until November to consider traffic impact – but neglected to tell the public. A crowd gathered at the meeting, prepared to weigh in on the issue, only to be told by Planning Commissioner Deb Hays that they could not speak on the issue. The crowd grew angry and – despite being told their comments were out of order – made their voices heard.
The Avenue exits, amid an explosion of development
In the following weeks, several additional large mixed-use developments were proposed for Military Cutoff Road, a short stretch of road that has been given a traffic rating of “F” by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
On July 24, City Council approved the seven-acre Renaissance North development, located across from Mayfaire. Two days later, a one-million-square-foot development was proposed on the wooded land between Eastwood and Military Cutoff roads.
In early October, the Carroll Companies withdrew its plans for The Avenue.
Ironically, that withdrawal saved the project. City spokeswoman Malissa Talbert confirmed at the time that, had City Council voted The Avenue Project down, it would have been relegated from consideration for some time. Withdrawing the project held open the possibility of re-submitting.
Fixing The Avenue
After The Avenue project was withdrawn, Republican State Senator Michael Lee took over legal representation for the Carroll Companies.
In late October of 2017, Lee met with Michael Kozlosky, the executive director of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization – the organization responsible for coordinating transportation projects for the greater Wilmington area, including major infrastructure developments like the Military Cutoff Extension. Kozlosky is also the transportation planning manager for the City of Wilmington.
At the meeting, arranged by developer Livian Jones, Lee showed Kozlosky a video about potential traffic improvements. Presumably, these were related to traffic concerns expressed by Wilmington’s planning staff. Kozlosky said he didn’t recall the details of the video or the meeting and didn’t take notes; Lee declined to comment on the details of the meeting, citing attorney-client privilege with the Carroll Companies.
According to Roy Carroll, addressing traffic has been the company’s main concern. Carroll pointed out that the initial plans for The Avenue – those that were considered in the planning staff’s report – were designed to test the maximum development density of the project.
“There was definitely a reaction, and I’ll take responsibility for that,” Carroll said. “The fact is we’d bought the land, but we didn’t know what we were going to do with it. So, because we didn’t know what we were going to put in there, we put everything in there – that’s where we got sideways on this thing.”
Carroll described these preliminary plans as a “worst case scenario” for a traffic impact analysis (TIA), especially with regard to the retail component. According to Carroll, after several months of consulting with both the city and the potential future neighbors of The Avenue, the revised plans will be less dense.
According to Carroll, his company is still planning to propose upward of $2 million in traffic improvements around The Avenue’s location; the number is on the high end of the range suggested in the initial proposal.
A different approach to development?
The angry crowd at the Planning Commission meeting apparently made an impression on city officials; the commission has now been directed by City Manager Sterling Cheatham and Deputy Manager Tony Caudle to consider changing how it handles developments like The Avenue.
The change will allow more people to voice their opinion on projects like The Avenue, but it will also remove the Planning Commission from the official process of approving them.
A proposed amendment to the city’s development code will be considered by the Planning Commission during its Jan. 29 meeting. The proposed change is to City Code Chapter 18, Sections 18-204 UMX (urban mixed-use), specifically with regards to how tall buildings can be (up to 75 feet) and how close development can be built to its neighbors (i.e. its “setbacks”). According to officials in the city’s planning department, the change means a project like The Avenue would apply for a development agreement instead of a special use permit (SUP).
What does that mean?
According to Glenn Harbeck, Wilmington’s director of planning, SUP hearings are quasi-juridical, meaning they restrict who can speak. Harbeck said only residents “with legal standing would be permitted to provide evidence under oath as to the merits (or lack of merits) for the issuance of the SUP.”
By contrast, the public hearing for a development agreement would allow anyone to speak, on any aspect of the development.
According to Ron Satterfield, the assistant planning director who will present the amendment at next week’s meeting, “(t)he Carroll Company’s request brought to the city’s attention that the requirement for a special use permit to achieve the maximum height unintentionally prevented all interested parties from addressing the height issue prior to the public hearing with City Council.”
Although building height was not the only issue – either in the staff report or the public response – Satterfield’s point, more generally, was that a development agreement “was the most transparent” and “provided more flexibility for public input.”
The change will allow more people to voice their opinion on projects like The Avenue, but it will also remove the Planning Commission from the official process of approving them. It was in the SUP process that The Avenue ran into trouble in the first place, although – because the project was continued, and then withdrawn – the Planning Commission never formally discussed the project.
If the city code amendment is approved, The Carroll Companies would still have to request a rezoning of the area — the land is currently zoned for mobile homes. But after that, The Avenue project would go directly before City Council when it returns. And, while Harbeck and Satterfield both pointed out that the planning departments would advise City Council, they would not be part of the formal process of approving a development agreement.
According to Carroll, Wilmington may see that “sooner, rather than later,” if things go as the company plans.
“We’ve still got some conversations to have, but hopefully in the next few months,” Carroll said.
Note: This article has been updated for clarity — Susi Hamilton has not been involved with The Avenue since January of 2017.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.