Another zoning battle is brewing in Raleigh, between an out-of-state developer and neighbors who say a high-rise student-housing project doesn't fit with the city's Comprehensive Plan.
Phoenix Property Group is pushing to build a six-story, 200-plus-unit complex at the corner of Avant Ferry Road and Varsity Drive. The property is immediately across from N.C. State University's main campus and abutting Centennial campus to the east.
Based in Dallas, Phoenix has built cookie-cutter student-housing complexes all over the country. Neighbors and members of the Citizens Advisory Council West (CAC West for short) question whether a project of such large scope is warranted, given N.C. State's dropping enrollment numbers. The original proposal from Phoenix was submitted to the City of Raleigh's Planning Department in May. Since then, the plan has been debated at two CAC West meetings. At the last meeting, residents voted 12-0 against the project.
"An issue that comes up repeatedly is the number of cars associated with students at N.C. State," said Benson Kirkman, chairman of CAC West. "I've been told repeatedly that the number of cars students have is at least 20 percent higher than the number that the University reports, because they just don't have the data to substantiate the real numbers."
In an Aug. 5 evaluation, Raleigh Planning Commission staff said the project was inconsistent with the 2030 sustainable growth Comprehensive Plan and the Future Land Use Map. The Comprehensive Plan and the Future Land Use Map—policy-guiding documents crafted with substantial citizen input—limit the building height in the area, where buildings are one and two stories, unless special conditions, like superior architecture, community amenities or more open space, are met.
Lacy Reaves, the lawyer for Phoenix, says the Comprehensive Plan is only a "guideline" and that it is up to the City Council to determine a project's appropriateness. Raleigh City Council recently approved re-zoning for a controversial seven-story student-housing project on Hillsborough Street, across from Cup A Joe, that many residents felt was inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
"To just bypass [the Comprehensive Plan] and say it's just a guideline ... is a direct contradiction to what I believe the city of Raleigh is all about," Kirkman said.
CAC residents are also concerned about the potential parking situation, speculating the development won't provide enough spaces for its residents, who will end up parking on the street.
Reaves says that Phoenix's analyses show that the 0.7 parking ratios have worked in other college towns where they have built student housing, such as Charlottesville, Va., Minneapolis, Fort Worth, Texas and College Park, Md.
He said students are much more likely to bike, walk or bus to get around and that many of them don't bring their vehicles with them to college.
"The last thing in the world this developer wants to do is to invest millions of dollars in a project that won't work," Reaves said. "This project is being developed by a company that knows what it's doing and it's been successful in this kind of development."
Last week, at another Planning Commission hearing, Reaves said he had amended the zoning district height designation for the plan to a maximum of five stories instead of seven, offsetting another vote that likely wouldn't have gone his way. But Reaves said there had been no changes to the actual building plan and that one side would still be six stories high.
"It's the same building, we were just able to respond to concerns of the CAC and other questions raised about the case," Reaves said. "There will be an area of the building ... that will appear as six levels, but it will be built back into the topography which actually rises both to the south and the west."
Planning Commission chair Steve Schuster said Reaves put in the request to change the zoning designation the night before the meeting. Schuster, an architect, said the case will go back to the planning staff for due diligence.
"We have to have staff review the differences and make new recommendations in light of the new zoning district," Schuster said.
James Brantley, a planner for the city of Raleigh who assembles the staff reports for zoning cases, says Reaves' amendment will make the project compatible with the Comprehensive Plan.
"It's more likely now that the Planning Commission will vote to approve the project," Brantley said. "That's just my observation from having done this for many years. I haven't heard any major objections."
But Kirkman said that he does not think the change addresses the CAC's concerns.
The Planning Commission will vote on the case at its Sept. 9 meeting. Kirkman said Reaves has not asked to attend another CAC meeting.
"He's playing games with the CAC," Kirkman said. "There's no change other than the labelling. If it's the same height and the same plan, a duck is still a duck."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Follow the plan"