NEW HANOVER COUNTY — On Thursday, the county’s planning commission will consider two requests – a rezoning and a Special Use Permit – for approximately 26 acres on South College Road. It’s a large, dense development, but according to the developer, the apartments planned for the development preserve more greenspace and generate less traffic than single-family homes – even if neighbors and residents around the region would prefer the latter.
The Whiskey Branch development is a three-part project on a 133-acre tract. The development includes a “performance residential” section – Phase 1A of the project that was approved in 2017 and is already under construction, set to contain 88 single-family homes and 82 townhome units.
The current rezoning and special use permit (SUP) applications are for Phase 2B, the “Timbers at Whiskey Branch” apartment complex (the current working name), which will include 324 units (162 one-bedroom, 162 two-bedroom units). A third phase – not yet formally submitted – proposed 200,000 square feet of office space and shopping center.
The Cameron Management group, which is handling the project, is applying both to rezone the 26-acre residential area to condition use and for a SUP to allow denser-than-usual development. Because of the strict regulations of how government boards handle SUP requests, the New Hanover County Planning Commission will only consider the second phase – that is, it won’t consider the shopping center phase.
Hill Rogers, broker-in-charger for Cameron Management, addressed a number of concerns and potential misconceptions about the project.
If all three phases are built out – completion is expected in 2024 – the overall traffic generated by Whiskey Branch will be over 10,000 trips a day. The majority of that, around 80 percent, would come from the shopping center, as Rogers pointed out. The already-approved residential phase will create around 1,500 daily trips, while the Timbers apartment complex will create an average 1,770 daily trips.
Rogers said that, while it may seem counter-intuitive to some people, building denser apartment-style housing actually generates less traffic than single-family houses, according to the traffic engineering standards the guide Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) reports.
According to the TIA for Whiskey Creek, a single family residential home generates an average of 10.5 trips per day, almost double the 5.4 trips per day generated by an apartment unit.
Rogers suggested the following thought experiment: Cameron Management could develop the location “by-right,” meaning that without any zoning modification or public involvement they could build out the 26-acre area at the same density as the neighboring Fox Run Farms (about five-and-half units per acre). There would be around 140 homes producing 1,500 trips.
The apartments will produce slightly more trips, but also provide for more public greenspace, Rogers said. While some neighbors at public meetings have said they would prefer single-family homes to be built next door, with respect to traffic impact the difference may not actually be sizeable.
Commercial traffic and mitigating factors
But, what about the proposed commercial shopping center?
It would be rare for developers to back away from a mixed-use component once it’s been suggested – and comprehensive planning guidelines for both Wilmington and New Hanover County encourage mixing residential with business and retail.
Addressing the nearly 8,000 daily trips that could be generated by a shopping center in Phase 3 of Whiskey Creek, Rogers said there are several mitigating factors. First, he said TIA estimates are usually conservative (meaning they deliberately predict higher numbers to account for unknowns).
Second, Rogers said Cameron’s traffic engineer estimated one-third of the trips on College Road would be “pass-by” trips, meaning drivers that stopped into the development but who would still have been on that stretch of road if the development was not built.
Third, Rogers said an additional 15 percent of the trips would be inside the overall Whiskey Creek development, a traffic engineering principal called “internal capture.” Internal capture estimates the number of traffic trips that will never access the main road because, for example, someone living in the Timbers apartment complex will food shop at a grocery store in the proposed commercial center.
However, while internal capture is a standard tool in for traffic engineering estimates, it’s difficult to say what the real-world result of mixed-use development capture will be for any individual – if residents prefer to shop at certain stores at other developments, they may or may not opt for that preference or convenience.
Lastly, Rogers said that while a shopping center will definitely generate thousands of daily trips, many of them will be from nearby residential developments – those neighboring Whiskey Creek – thus reducing longer-range trips around the greater Wilmington area.
Do we need more apartments?
It’s a common reaction to the announcement of a new development: do we need any more apartments?
For some, the focus of the complaint is that so many new complexes feature “luxury” units. Luxury isn’t a legal or technical term, but it’s a good indicator that the new units will probably be priced above the affordable housing rates for median-earning residents (that is, priced so that tenants spend no more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent).
For others, the complaint is more simply about general housing stock – are there enough new residents to justify the construction of so many new housing developments and apartment complexes?
For the first question, Rogers acknowledged that to get a return-on-investment (ROI) most property owners would be choosing between degrees of luxury, not considering affordable housing. The need to secure ROI also drives the development of taller, denser projects with more units. For example, once a project is tall enough to require a steel frame – and the increased cost of steel – developers are likely to try and go as tall as possible, Rogers said.
For some developers who own land that’s already zoned for denser building, there’s little question about whether or not to exercise their right to generate maximum ROI from their land. In theory, it’s a different story when rezoning, conditional use, or SUPs are involved – Wilmington and New Hanover County could include requirements for affordable housing, but that doesn’t always happen (for example, during the recent explosion of mixed-use developments along Military Cutoff, only one developer addressed affordable housing).
There are also logistical issues with mixing affordable housing with luxury units in the same project, Rogers said. Much of the cost of the buildings isn’t determined by finishing touches that could vary unit to unit, and amenities are usually shared by all tenants. That’s why some developers would prefer to donate to an affordable housing fund rather than include affordable units. So far, however, there’s not a good mechanism to allow that, Rogers said.
So, when it comes to the frequently asked questions – do we need more apartments and do we need more luxury apartments – the simple answer to both, Rogers said, is “yes.” Occupancy at luxury apartments around the region has been high, Rogers said, noting that recent Cameron Management projects have pre-sold at a brisk pace.
As Rogers put it, developers would be making a bad business decision if they sank considerable investment capital into major projects without some assurances that commercial and residential tenants could be found.
Phase 2 of the Whiskey Creek development goes before the New Hanover County Planning Board meeting on Thursday, June 6 at 6 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Andre Mallette Training Facility in the county government center at 230 Government Center Drive.
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