Planning board disparages project for minimal changes to meet code.
By David Leone
WAKE FOREST — Call it a Tale of Two Townhouses.
Tuesday night, the Wake Forest Planning Board shot down one townhouse project and quickly approved another.
What’s different? One requires a special-use zoning to be located in a space designed for offices or retail. The other is properly zoned.
One faced widespread opposition from its residential neighbors, who went the extra mile to hire their own attorney and real estate appraiser to combat the developer’s. The other faces no opposition and desired by its retail neighbors and town leaders.
One plan was previously denied, so the petitioner made minor tweaks to bring it up to code. The other goes above and beyond the town’s design elements, and would include several live-work units — shops with living space above.
The one similarity: The planning board’s nays and yeas are not official — town commissioners will approve or disapprove the plans at their next meeting.
Time for change?
The first project, a 99-unit development called Siena Drive Townhomes requested by developer Russell Gay on 19 acres along the Dr. Calvin Jones Highway just west of Pineview Estates subdivision, didn’t meet the findings of fact in three areas, Planning Board member Steve Stoller said.
He cited the public’s general welfare, including a limited number of recreational opportunities; the possibility it will injure neighboring property values and a potential traffic hazard as reasons for wanting it turned down.
Stoller said he thought that the long, straight streets would be used for drag racing, a concern raised in last month’s 5.5-hour planning board hearing for the special-use permit.
Tuesday’s meeting continued that hearing, though no more comment was allowed by the public.
Last month, the neighbor’s real estate appraiser countered testimony by the developer, claiming there wasn’t enough reliable data to conclude that the project won’t harm property values.
After confirming that the burden of proof that no depreciation would occur falls on the petitioner, Stoller added that to his objections.
Much of the discussion was taken up regarding the legalities of special-use permit hearings and how to evaluate the testimony offered by the traffic engineers.
But other design elements clearly perturbed some board members.
“I feel a little bit like it’s deja vu all over again,” Planning Board member Bill Fisher complained, referring to Gay’s similar proposal from last year.
After town commissioners turned down that townhouse project, citing the need for a real estate appraisal and centrally located green space, Gay waited the six months required to resubmit and reengineered the plan. He removed three of the units in the center of the project and added 4,000 square feet of green space where two of them had been.
“What has changed?” Fisher demanded, later adding, “How do you substantially define change?”
The board voted 5-1 to recommend denial, with Al Merritt dissenting. Planning Board members Keith Weston and Ed Gary were absent and Ward Marotti has left the board.
Live, work, bowl
The second townhouse development, The Retreat at Renaissance, met with unanimous approval by the board.
The East Elm Partners plan calls for 80 townhome and five dual-use units on 11 acres on South Brooks Street in downtown Wake Forest.
The site is bordered byRenaissance Plaza (with Over the Falls Deli and Brooks Street Bowl) to the north, Forest Ridge Apartments to the east, Festival Park and the warehouse district to the west and Franklin Academy Elementary School and the Carolina House retirement center to the south.
South Brooks Street will be connected through to the retirement center as part of the project and a side street stubs out to Franklin Street.
George Young, MI Homes vice president for land acquisition, estimates the townhouses will average in the $225-$250,000 range.
With the addition of the live-work units (retail below, residence above, and garages in the back), the project will be desired by urban professionals and is on the list of neo-urban wants of town leaders and town staff, he promised.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to do this,” Young said. “It’s the first of its kind in Wake Forest.”
East Elm principal Craig Briner, who held onto the property for Renaissance Plaza for years until he could get “quality” tenants, was present for the meeting.
“We’ve worked hard to find the right builder to build the right product in downtown Wake Forest. We think we’ve got it,” he said after the vote. “These guys are stepping up with a great product — a very nice addition to the Renaissance commercial development.”
Also praising the project was Doug Pearce, who built the bowling alley adjacent to the site and is working with Briner on other business possibilities.
He said the project brings home the concept of local shops with local owners, while retaining the small-town feel.
“The vision Craig had, that I bought into … is people can walk everywhere they want to go,” Pearce said, adding that he may move into the neighborhood himself. “It’s a high-end project.”
When asked what the timeline for building will be if it gains town board approval, Briner added: “Yesterday. These guys will be jumping on it They’ve designed this product specifically for this place It’s a big deal to MI [Homes].”