Morrisville faces hurdles with downtown plan

aramos@newsobserver.comJanuary 31, 2014 

— Despite some setbacks and an uncertain future, Morrisville leaders say they want to move forward with plans to build a downtown off of Jeremiah Street.

For years, Morrisville leaders have dreamed of creating a town core that would draw people to restaurants, stores and public amenities. The dream was finally taking shape, and Morrisville has spent roughly $1 million to acquire about 12 of the 22 acres that are part of the Town Center Plan.

But now there’s a roadblock: The town is having trouble convincing developers to enter into a public-private partnership because it’s unclear if and when property owners of the remaining 10 acres will sell.

The property owners haven’t inked any agreements with the town that would guarantee Morrisville’s right to buy the land within a specific time frame and for an agreed price.

Morrisville hired a consultant to approach property owners. Some said they were willing to sell right away. Others wanted to wait a few years before selling, and some weren’t willing to commit, said Tim Gauss, director of development services for the town.

With the original site in doubt, town staff came up with an alternative 10-acre site off of Morrisville-Carpenter Road. The area is owned by the Triangle Transit Authority.

It’s smaller than the original site, but the project wouldn’t require as much public investment, said Ben Hitchings, Morrisville’s planning director.

The Town Center Plan calls for a recreation center and library, as well as retail stores, offices and apartments.

The library and recreation center were meant to draw people downtown, especially since the Jeremiah Street area lacks visibility from main roads.

Morrisville-Carpenter Road sees plenty of traffic, though. Hitchings said the town would likely have to install turn lanes to accommodate more traffic.

Hitchings asked to do a market analysis to determine the viability of the Morrisville-Carpenter Road site, but the idea was met with some reluctance from the Town Council.

After some debate, council members decided against a market study, and they won’t consider an alternative site until they have exhausted all options at the Jeremiah Street site.

“We want to try to fulfill the dream and also accept the reality of what’s in front of us,” said Mayor Mark Stohlman.

Too much retail?

Council members said they had concerns as they move forward with downtown plans.

Park West Village, a sprawling shopping center at Cary Parkway and N.C. 54, has become a major destination in Morrisville. Councilman Steve Rao said he was worried the town could bring in more retail growth than the town could handle.

“We don’t want to invest in something that we don’t know there’s going to be a lot of people being there,” Rao said of a future downtown.

He added: “What could be that unique draw that we could have there that we know could do well? A farmers market would be a good one.”

A loss of public confidence is also a concern, council members said.

“There’s been an awful lot of investment in this project so far,” Stohlman said. “I think people want to see something besides the town spending money.”

Developers and property owners have made investments based on the expectation that the town would build a downtown near Jeremiah Street, according to Councilwomen Vicki Scroggins-Johnson and Liz Johnson.

“This is not the first time we’ve gone through a town center plan and abandoned it,” Johnson said. “It gives me heartburn. It’s a community vision. There were a lot of folks who bought in Church Townes (development) because of this concept. So I think there is a public perception issue.”

Meanwhile, Councilman Michael Schlink has long said the area around McCrimmon Parkway and Church Street near a future transit station might make a natural downtown.

 

Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews

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