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Can Cary’s New Development Plans Be Derailed?

Cary shares a common link with other U.S, when it saw its core downtown business shrink as new subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks became the norm. But in 2001, forward thinking town officials adopted a downtown master plan to re-define its historic core area with a mix of high density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development. That’s still the end goal, officials say, but a recessionary economy and plan to link Raleigh and Charlotte via high speed rail have caused city planners to regroup – and may cause them to do so again.

In December, town officials decided to delay spending on specific capital projects, including street, landscape, and other aesthetic improvements planned just four years ago. Plans for a digital media center have been shelved indefinitely. Wisely, at a town retreat in January, staff suggested an alternative “districting” proposal for downtown’s core, the area radiating out two or three blocks in each direction from the intersection of Academy and Chatham streets. The new model for downtown splits the area, about 1,000 acres, into three districts with distinct attributes.

“We’re not able to focus on the glitzy stuff right now,” said Jeff Ulma, the town’s planning director. “But it’s an organic process, and I’m optimistic. Everyone wants this to happen.”

For now, the town is doing what it can. The town is renovating the Old Cary Elementary building into a community arts center, acquiring land for a downtown park and designing new signage for the area. Water and sewer improvements are moving forward, too. Officials are taking time to refine old plans for Cary’s core.

The new model for downtown splits the area, about 1,000 acres, into three districts with distinct attributes. Here’s what downtown will look like:

Downtown South

The area surrounding the old Cary Elementary building up north past Waldo Street will focus on preserving and enhancing historic buildings, refurbishing the community center, and creating the town park. The area will feature a new county library and ultimately, a performing arts center if parking issues can be resolved, and a digital media center, if that plan is revived.

Chatham Street

Chatham Street will be the center of retail activity, restaurants, and nightlife, with housing above the commercial development. This will expand the retail hub of Cary and make Chatham Street the primary east-west gateway to the city core.

Downtown North

Previously an industrial area and site of the town hall and the train station, the area between Chapel Hill Road and the railroad tracks between Walker Street and North Harrison Avenue will be transformed by taller buildings, hotels and office space. Downtown North is another proposed site for a performing arts center as some parking is in place. The center would be a needed “destination” in downtown Cary that would draws visitors.

Obstacles to Overcome

Officials also worry downtown redevelopment could be delayed by rail plans as the N.C. Department of Transportation just received a $545 million grant in January to link cites. The Cary train station will be updated and expanded in the process but local railroad crossings could be closed for safety reasons. The resulting change in traffic patterns might not be amenable to the recently-crafted development plans.

Despite the uncertainty that high speed rail could bring to the process, a renewed commitment to development is the air. A revitalized downtown will only make Cary an even better place to live even if the new plans will have to be tweaked in view of the rail project..

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