The five-story, 200-plus unit student apartment complex proposed for the intersection of Avent Ferry Road and Varsity Drive in Raleigh could permanently change the character of that neighborhood, and not necessarily for the better.
Last week, Raleigh's Comprehensive Planning Committee voted to hold a public hearing on a proposed rezoning of the 2.9 acres of land. As City Council member and committee chairman Russ Stephenson noted, several crucial questions about the long-term implications of the project remain unanswered.
Many neighbors oppose the proposed design and placement of the building, on the grounds that it will create a parking shortage and that it's inconsistent with the City's 2030 Comprehensive Plan.
As proposed by Dallas-based developer Phoenix Property Group, which has built cookie-cutter student housing complexes in college towns across the country, the building would feature what is known as an "urban limited frontage." In other words, the building would sit directly on the street.
Parking spaces are expensive for developers. In this case, Phoenix Property Group would have the financial advantage of providing less parking for the residents—0.68 spaces per bedroom—instead of the 0.75 or more that is typical at developments such as Wolf Village.
Lacy Reaves, the Raleigh-based attorney for Phoenix, told the committee that a study conducted by design consulting firm Kimley-Horn found the parking ratio to be adequate.
But Stephenson, chairman of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, says he and late City Councilor Thomas Crowder shared the concern that the urban frontage proposed for the building would detract from the look and feel of Avent Ferry Road.
Avent Ferry Road is a high-priority transit corridor where buses will run every 15 minutes during peak times. Yet it is also characterized by leafy streetscapes, lawns between the sidewalks and apartment buildings, plus shopping and entertainment centers like Mission Valley mall.
"Our view is that it makes sense to bring buildings in urbanized centers, like Mission Valley, up to the street," Stephenson says, "but it makes more sense to keep the tree-lined, green frontage in between those urban centers."
This kind of "green frontage," however, would mean designing a smaller building, a concept that the developer, whose profits hinge on filling the maximum number of apartments, has been unwilling to discuss.
The frontage that is ultimately agreed to in this case "will have implications for the character of many Raleigh thoroughfares that will redevelop over time with similar density increases," Stephenson says.
N.C. State University has a significant interest in the development, given that the meticulously landscaped entrance to Centennial Campus is diagonally across from the proposed building site, and university students could be the development's largest source of revenue
Stephenson predicts N.C. State University will push for green frontage as well, since it has invested so much in installing landscapes at the entrance to Centennial campus. The university also has an interest in seeing a different type of housing in the building. The four-bedroom, common living space typical of student housing (and that will be a feature of the seven-story student housing complex under construction on Hillsborough Street), is becoming obsolete. Undergraduate enrollment at N.C. State is declining—and will likely continue to do so—as the university shifts its focus to graduate education.
"The complete individual living type with its own kitchen and living area contained within one unit can serve students, young adults and seniors," Stephenson says. "But the rent-by-room with the common living space commonly marketed to undergrads will never appeal to a broader range of renters. That continues to be a concern."
Benson Kirkman, chairman of the Citizens Advisory Council West, says he and the other CAC members have different concerns about the project that he will discuss at the public hearing.
In September, city staff found the proposal consistent with the policy guiding documents, the 2030 Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map, which state that in transit corridors like Avent Ferry, buildings can be up to five stories high. But Kirkman says that because of a hill on the lot, the building will appear to be six stories tall on one side, making the design inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
"If you're going to exceed what those documents say, there ought to be clear justification for the need, or else you should be giving high-quality amenities with it," Kirkman says. "I don't see we are getting either. If they were doing exemplary landscape, that would at least alleviate it. But they are basically meeting the minimum standard."
Stephenson says that under the Unified Development Ordinance— a complete overhaul of Raleigh's zoning code—much is open to interpretation. "At this point, it seems unfair to the applicant to say we have to hold off because we don't like the way we wrote the rules," he said. "We'll see many cases where we'll scratch our heads and say, is this what we really meant? These early cases are case studies of the UDO, to understand how the language needs to be refined."
The City Council will set the date for the public hearing at its meeting this week.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Character flaws"