29 July 2007

Local 'growth' on the move...the not-so-slow assault continues

As a part of my job, I sometimes get to travel around a few of the local towns here: delivering supplies, fixing errant computers, making last-minute package drop-offs and pick-ups. Sometimes to my support but more frequently to my displeasure, I see more and more of the 'open spaces' I used to enjoy have been gobbled up by one development land scheme or another. In some ways...and I'm not complaining about this, as I fully realise that parts of this country would kill for our problems with development and the needs for new housing...we are at a crossroads here. Full to the brink within existing communities, roads overrun with traffic as this area really has no major plans for public transport (other than a bus system), and everyone wanting to 'have land' for some peace and quiet, it's really no major surprise that rural and small town areas are under siege. Growth is eventual, growth is happening, and growth can be good. But sometimes growth advances unchecked, and without a full regard for what it takes down in its path.

The problem is that with growth, those coming from the larger more 'established' locales want those same amenities and comforts in their new, smaller digs. Such as malls. Such as coffee houses or fast food drive-thrus on every third corner. Such as large 'box-store' shopping chains. Such as businesses that seem to travel together in some sort of commercial packs...packs that eventually try to overtake and drive out their locally-owned counterparts. To only a measured degree (and only with some extreme government zoning rules) have these assaults been held back. The problem with growth...not only here locally but also on a national scale...is that just like with our interstate highway system, after a very short bit of time everything starts to look, and feel, and act the same. Many years ago, we Americans effectively killed off the great Route 66 Highway in favour of Interstates 85, 95, 40, 77, dozens of others. With Route 66 (and other great roads like it), the drivers knew where you were at all times and cared about the businesses and towns along the way, because each was unique. Unless you are of a certain age or unless you've actually been on on what's left of Route 66, you can't really 'get' what exactly you're missing now. Now (and Lord knows the WR and I can testify to this from our adventures driving back from western NC on I-40 two weeks ago), everything looks the same. Same restaurants, same gas stations, same rest stops, same hotels...no matter if it's Winston-Salem or Graham here, or even if you've been through several states and are just passing through to someplace else.

Somehow it hit me this last week just how much things are growing...again...here locally. And honestly, I thought were we pretty much at our max here, as Orange County is busting at the seams anyway with Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough alone. (According to Orange County's Economic Development Commission, although, the county grew only 5.6% from 2000-2005, in comparison to some other neighbouring counties which saw growth at an average of 14.6% for the same time period. For all intents and purposes, these three towns are all the county is now, and where one town stops and another begins is pretty much open for debate.) For instance, the other day I made several trips from work to our local storage unit and then onward to two recycling stops. I drove by 'the old neighbourhood' of where I used to live practically every trip. While I lived there in an old run-down and landscape-overrun house (hey, it was the college years, it was cheap and it was a great place to study), the streets of which it cornered itself on were only known, let alone used, by the locals who actually lived there. Unfortunately, on Wednesday, it was a traffic nightmare, as God only knows how many people were cutting through to avoid not one, but two, major construction projects...one essentially on each end of this formerly-tranquil street.

Yes, it's wonderful that Carrboro is getting a new high school (complete with virtual tour!), and yes, it's wonderful that a new mammoth park is under construction for all the new residents, but this great neighbourhood only knows of the endless stream of cars and people wanting to get to the movies, or Wendy's®, or the bank (a bank which was built in another large development just a few years ago and less than a mile away) just a minute or two quicker. But there is no longer any quiet here, in that area at least. And the residents know it: at least 5 houses in the neighbourhood are up for sale now...and no one used to sell their homes here...no one. The serious volleys of growth haven't even started being launched yet, and the area already has casualties. It was sad looking at what I once knew, and loved, so well...disappearing right in front of my eyes.

We are on-location witnesses to the creation of our own "Telegraph Road", the same that Dire Straits lamented decades ago. (YouTube (albeit shortened) video link here.) (Lyrics from LyricsFreak here.) (Ed: a fabulous song, maybe even their best, by a greatly under appreciated band, at least here in the States.)

Now, it sadly appears, that my good friends to the south in Chatham County and in Pittsboro specifically are next in the cross hairs. The quaint little antiques and small-town focused town (population of about 2,500) has not only caught the attention of dozens of new home buyers willing to commute to Raleigh or Chapel Hill or Cary, but (as one could probably predict) also commercial investors. Except the would-be commercial developers are thinking big scale...very big scale. A scale that would not only dwarf Pittsboro's business and commercial front as I and other locals know it, but also dwarf some of the largest commercial developments in the area.

From "The News & Observer" newspaper article of last Monday (ed: link to Crossroads Plaza my own):
This rural strip could become home to a shopping complex more than twice the size of Cary's Crossroads Plaza.

The Pittsboro Place development could have 2 million square feet of retail and commercial space and more than 300 residential units at a cost of up to $600 million, if developers are successful. The project, which would be built over 10 to 15 years, could include a movie theater, a bowling alley and various national chain restaurants in addition to retail stores.

Even by optimistic standards, Pittsboro is only supposed to grow to 7500 people in the next three years (although 'how' that will happen I'm not sure I understand, considering water supplies to new homes is/has been a major issue for years). Orange County citizens (15 miles+ to the north) already have places to shop at in Chapel Hill and Hillsborough; after all, Durham County is only about another 10 miles away from those customers. Citizens of Wake County (20 miles+ to the east) certainly have more than their share of sprawl growth in Apex, Holly Springs, and, of course, in Cary. (Cary is sometimes regarded/hated as the aspiring 'wanna-be place' to live in the Triangle region, and has the stores, zoning ordinances, and activities to prove it.) Areas west and south of Pittsboro are largely agricultural and rural...and even then, Siler City and Sanford still offer many shopping venues.

So, even if the Pittsboro population triples every three years for the next decade (which is impossible to fathom, let alone actualize, but work with me here) up to about 67,500 people, this new development will be (according to the "Chatham Journal Weekly" article) the approximate size of 6 Wal-Mart® SuperCenters, plus some additional parking, miscellaneous buildings, 300+ residential units, building towers and the like. Shoppers are notoriously lazy in the US compared to other parts of the world, so where are all of these shoppers...who exactly will sustain such a place as this project as clearly Pittsboro cannot keep tripling every three years...come from?? Are people in Cary and Chapel Hill and Durham really going to drive to Pittsboro to shop at the same stores more readily and locally available to them? Ummmm...no.

Dear bloody hell.

Someone has got to be kidding. Or smoking something really, really strong.

The county can't even provide reliable and cost-efficient water and septic hookups (even when we don't have to conserve water, unlike this year) to its new citizens, but this mammoth offering to the consumerism gods is actually under zoning consideration. Perhaps I shouldn't be crying over the fate of my lovely old south Chapel Hill area, but rather be focusing on Pittsboro and the likes of businesses such as S&T's Soda Shoppe instead (read my brief mention of Pittsboro and S&T's here). And maybe I should take more pictures before things change again...and perhaps change for the worst.

UPDATE: The meeting held at the Chatham County Courthouse from last week (mentioned in the above "News & Observer" article), attracted so many speakers to the hearing that it's being continued until tomorrow night, Monday July 30. (It's still being listed as 'TBA' for an exact location and time, but I will update as soon as I can get the correct information.) The meeting will be held at the Courthouse at the Pittsboro Circle (roundabout) at 6:30pm.

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