In battle for neighbors’ support, North Raleigh Publix opponents win big

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJune 19, 2014 

  • The Publix debate: A primer

    All the hubbub over a proposed grocery store-anchored shopping center might make those outside the neighborhood wonder: What’s the big deal?

    Here’s the background on why the North Raleigh Publix has become the most hotly contested development in recent memory:

    Why are neighbors so concerned? At first glance, the Publix proposal looks like most of the strip malls that seem to dot every major intersection in North Raleigh. There’s a grocery – in this case just under 50,000 square feet – with smaller retail spaces and parking out front. But most sit at the intersection of two four-lane roads. The Publix site would likely have entrances on two-lane residential streets that serve as entryways for the huge Bedford and Falls River neighborhoods. Opponents worry the location will mean heavier traffic as shoppers cut through quiet, narrow streets where their kids play. But a traffic study commissioned by the developer found the center would have a “modest impact” on traffic.

    Why does Publix want this spot? Bedford/Falls River is one of the wealthiest areas in North Raleigh – a prime location for a higher-end grocer to enter the Raleigh market. Opponents have suggested Publix take a vacant Kroger space up the street in Wakefield, but developers say the grocer “doesn’t like the market it serves.” A location at the entrance to Bedford could pull customers away from two Harris Teeter stores a mile down Falls of Neuse Road in either direction.

    Why do Publix opponents want to change the city’s development code? The opponents have joined neighborhood leaders elsewhere in the city to form Grow Raleigh Great, a group lobbying for changes to Raleigh’s new development code. They say the code should better distinguish between two zoning classifications: neighborhood mixed use and commercial mixed use. While the commercial designation typically applies to larger shopping centers, Publix developers want to rezone the site to neighborhood mixed use. That category currently lacks a maximum amount of retail space. Limiting the amount of retail in the neighborhood zone could force Morgan Property Group and other grocery developers to seek the commercial designation – effectively a higher hurdle to clear in a rezoning application.

    Who gets the final say? The Raleigh City Council. Before it gets to them, city planners and the appointed planning commission will weigh in with recommendations, but the council doesn’t have to follow them.

    When will this be over? Not anytime soon. City planners are reviewing the case now, and no date has been set for a hearing at the planning commission. So expect the debate to drag out for months before the council votes.

— Supporters of a controversial Publix shopping center on Falls of Neuse Road appear to be outnumbered by a well-organized neighborhood opposition.

The North Citizens Advisory Council held a June 5 vote on the proposed rezoning, and the vote total was unusually high for the city-sponsored community group: 522 opposed, 23 in support.

But the developer, Morgan Property Group, said it had asked supporters of the project to sit out the vote, citing a desire to maintain civility amid a contentious debate. Morgan’s president, Trey Morgan, said he had “no desire to pit neighbors against one another.”

Opponents of the development questioned whether Morgan has enough supporters to influence the vote. Morgan said last week that he estimates the project has “several hundred” casual supporters, but most aren’t actively lobbying for the Publix.

“The number of core group of supporters – the people who are really active in marshaling their friends – is no more than say 10,” he said.

A few of those supporters wrote to the Raleigh City Council expressing their views. Jessica McCollough told council members not to take the vote seriously because no proof of residency was required to participate.

“There really is no way to be sure that the results of this vote are valid,” McCollough wrote in an email. “There are many local people here that would love to see Publix move into our area, my family included. The proposed building site is already at least partially zoned for commercial use.”

Opponents of the Publix say the numbers show an overwhelming majority of surrounding neighborhoods are against the project. The CAC vote total, neighborhood resident David Cox says, leaves “about 2900 additional supporters. But I wouldn't call them casual supporters. We have their names, addresses and signatures on a petition opposing rezoning.”

The level of opposition to the Publix center exceeds some of Raleigh’s most contentious rezoning battles of recent years. Dwayne Patterson – who’s helped organized CACs for 15 years as head of the community development department – said he’s never seen such high turnout for a CAC vote, although the department doesn’t keep records of past vote tallies.

Patterson said the biggest vote he recalls came in 2001 when neighbors rejected plans for the Coker Towers project on Oberlin Road, a 15-acre “urban village” with shops, towering offices, a hotel and hundreds of condos and apartments. The News & Observer reported that “more than 100 residents” voted no while 24 cast ballots for the development. Developer Neal Coker eventually scrapped the proposal, and the site is now home to Oberlin Court, a much smaller mix of apartments, shops and restaurants.

Despite the unfavorable CAC vote, Publix developers are looking ahead at the next step of the review process: a hearing before the Raleigh planning commission later this year. Morgan hopes talks will move toward specific city guidelines the development plan can address.

“The city as part of this process needs to set the parameters of this debate,” he said. “Then there may be further discussions with the public.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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