A 210-unit apartment complex coming to the former BI-LO shopping plaza on Russ Avenue in Waynesville got the greenlight from the Waynesville planning board last week.

The four-story apartment complex will dramatically change Waynesville’s landscape — visually, economically and culturally.

It will be the highest density housing project Waynesville has ever seen, infusing downtown with 400 to 500 tenants within walking distance, making it an economic engine unto itself.

The apartment complex will help address the chronic rental housing shortage but won’t fall in the affordable housing category. The apartments will have an urban, upscale vibe with rents likely around $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom unit.

A 60-foot-tall facade will directly abut Russ Avenue, but will sport attractive architecture making it an improvement over the abandoned strip mall that’s there now, according to Waynesville Town Planning Director Elizabeth Teague.

“It is a gateway for the community and defines the first image a visitor has for the town,” Teague said.

The planning board spent two hours reviewing the project last Tuesday. It will now go to another public hearing before the town board of aldermen for final approval.

Waynesville Engineer Patrick Bradshaw with Civil Design Concepts represented the developer at the planning board hearing. Bradshaw said the project is a shining example of the town’s new-urbanism land-use strategy that encourages infill development in the town core — a strategy he championed as a member of the steering committee that crafted the town’s land-use plan almost 20 years ago.

“I truly believe this is a project and development type that was contemplated by that group so many years ago and is now truly before us,” Bradshaw said.

The now-vacant strip mall on the 9-acre site will be razed to make way for the project. The low-lying property flanks Richland Creek and will have to be built-up several feet to elevate it out of the flood plain.

Cut-through and greenway

Bradshaw highlighted two major “gives” the developers offered in exchange for project approval. One is allowing the general public to continue using the “all-important cut-through” across the property, he said.

Locals have long-been accustom to skirting through the BI-LO parking lot as a short-cut between Russ Avenue and town.

“A lot of people use this as a cut through, and from a public safety stand point we wanted to maintain that,” Teague said.

The apartment complex won’t be gated, and developers will let the public to keep using the cut-through, although it won’t be a straight shot like it is now. It will make an S-curve to pass between the two apartment buildings before skirting along the backside of the property furthest from Richland Creek.

The other “give” is letting the town build a segment of public greenway along Richland Creek the length of the 9-acre property. The greenway was the biggest topic of discussion at the planning board meeting.

Some planning board members questioned whether the developers should have to help build and maintain the greenway.

“The greenway, once established, will benefit this property in a tremendous way,” said Planning Board Member Don McGowan.

The greenway would be built and maintained at taxpayers’ expense, but the residents of the apartment complex would the biggest beneficiaries.

“It will make their property more attractive,” agreed Planning Board Member Robert Hermann.

The apartment complex will have a pool facing Richland Creek and the greenway.

Bradshaw admitted the greenway would be a huge asset to the apartment complex, but countered that the developer was being generous by even allowing a public greenway across their property — noting the section is a linchpin for the greenway’s expansion toward downtown.

“I would argue that having this piece locked up is critical to any future development fo the greenway in Waynesville,” Bradshaw said.

Teague agreed.

“This is part of our greenway master plan, so this property is pretty strategic,” Teague said.

McGowan still questioned why the developer shouldn’t share in the cost of building and maintaining it.

“We don’t typically ask people giving up the easement to also pay for building the greenway,” Teague said, adding there is currently a spirit of cooperation with the developer to provide greenway access, and it could be problematic to ask them for funding support at this stage.

Dog infusion

The project is the second large-scale apartment complex to come before the town in the past year. The last one, the 200-unit Plott Creek apartment complex, was met with public outcry for spoiling the peaceful character of the surrounding community and dragged on for months, sparking a civil lawsuit.

The public hearing for this project last week was nearly devoid of public comment, however, given the already commercial setting and absence of nearby neighbor. The only nearby property owner who spoke was the owner of the adjacent W C Mini-Storage units.

Barbara Norris said she was concerned about the influx of dogs from the apartment dwellers, who would likely be taking their dogs for daily romps on the greenway to the nearby dog park — passing beside her mini-storage complex en route.

“If you are talking about 50 more dogs, with two trips a day, that’s 100 trips a day. That’s just a lot of pet waste. I am concerned about that. It is impacting me already,” Norris said.

While the town has baggie stations for owners to pick up their dog poop, there aren’t convenient trash cans for disposing of it.

“So they leave it on my property,” Norris said.

She also questioned the impacts so many additional dogs would have.

“Another concern as a taxpayer is you are going to put 50 extra dogs at the dog park,” Norris said.

Bradshaw addressed those concerns by saying the developer will have dog waste stations on the apartment grounds themselves.

“Because they are pet-friendly, their primary approach for their properties are providing twice as many bag-pull stations and waste receptacles as you think you might need. The more convenient you make them, they more likely people will use them,” Bradshaw said.

Bag stations will be diligently replenished by property managers, he said.

Environment

Despite the massive size of the two apartment buildings and parking lots, it will be an improvement over the sea of asphalt that now covers the site.

“Clearly it is a high-intensity use,” Bradhsaw said of the project. “The good news is we are able to situate it on two less built-upon-acres than there is now.”

Given the lack of stormwater control on the site, sheets of water flow across the parking lot every time it rains straight into Richland Creek, carrying trash and pollutants with it. The apartment complex will have a smaller footprint with a net reduction in paved surfaces and will provide a deeper buffer along Richland Creek.

Planning board members questioned why the developers weren’t going to screen the building with trees along the side facing Russ Avenue, however.

Bradshaw said they would be “hard-pressed” to put landscaping along the Russ-facing facade due to the embankment.

The other factor is space. To fit as many apartments on the site as possible, the building closest to Russ will be very close to the road.

But that’s by design, Bradshaw said. The building is placed close to the road on purpose in order to screen the interior parking lots, which are far less visually attractive than the buildings are.

“We typically buffer parking lots. We don’t buffer buildings. We try to bring facades up,” Bradshaw said, citing new-urbanism principles.

Developers

The Bi-LO plaza has been owned since 2012 by RLFP real estate investment firm out of Tampa, with a vast portfolio of commercial, office and apartment developments.

RLFP enlisted a property management and development firm to carry out the project, Tribridge Residential out of Atlanta with family ties to the owners of RLFP. Tribridge has over two dozen apartment and condo properties in six states across the Southeast.

While the shopping plaza was known colloquially as the BI-LO plaza, it’s official name was Mountain Creek Plaza. The apartment complex is being referred to in planning documents as the Mountain Creek apartment project, but it is unclear if that will be the formal name of the apartment complex once completed.

No timeline was provided by the developers for when construction might start.

BI-LO grocery store pulled out in February, followed by a gradual exodus of the remaining businesses over the summer. The loss of BI-LO was the death knell for the shopping center, which couldn’t survive without an anchor tenant.

BI-LO has been shed under-performing stores since filing for reorganization bankruptcy last year. The property owners had anticipated the Waynesville store would be among those to fold, given increased competition in the local grocery market.

They had already put the wheels in the motion to convert the site into apartments before BI-LO made the formal announcement.

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