Student Housing Plan in Mill Plaza – an Overview

Throughout downtown Durham, many lawns have had black signs with phrases like “Demand a Community Friendly Plaza Plan.” But what exactly are they in opposition to and how is it affecting the residents of Durham.

Colonial Durham Associates, or CDA, owns the plaza that is home to a Hannaford supermarket and other businesses in downtown Durham. They want to build two new large, separate buildings on the 10-acre site. The development would consist of one three-story building and one four story building, each a mixed use of office, commercial, and residential space for students and it has caused quite a controversy. Signs have popped up this summer all over the Durham area as the plan started to gain more attention from residents.

Rick Taintor, the contract planner on the Planning Board for the town of Durham, has been working on this specific project for around 4 years. “There has been so much discussion of this project…at this point, I think there are competing interests. The developer wants to have a project that is a scale that they can get a financial return on. The neighbors would like to have a lower scale, lower density project.” This means that the developer just wants a project that they can make money off of, but the neighbors want a smaller project that won’t disrupt their town or spill over into their neighborhood.

Taintor explains, “the developer and owner of the plaza, Colonial Durham Associates, wants to expand the plaza and add two buildings, replacing one of the buildings in the plaza now. The buildings would be a mix of student housing with a limited amount of commercial space on the lower levels.” The plans call for 258 student beds in primarily four-bedroom apartments in the two buildings, and 411 parking spaces. Sean McCauley, the developer for this plan says “Our desire is that when you come to Mill Plaza you don’t come just to go to the grocery store and leave, you come to visit as many of the tenants as possible and spend time at the plaza.”

The Planning Board plans for the future of Durham by working with members of the community to help to create a better town. Before the Planning Board meeting in August, the site plan did not provide a 75-foot buffer to College Brook, and would not have “a positive economic, fiscal, public safety, environmental, aesthetic, and social impact on the town,” per the Conditional Use zoning. The Planning Board has had multiple meetings on this topic, and in August they gave the green light to the developer to proceed with their revised plan where the parking spaces were pulled out of the buffer of College Brook. It is said to provide more open space and less impact on the environment. As of right now the project is a public hearing.

One of the main concerns for this plaza being built is the fact that they would be violating the wetland setbacks and a December 2015 legal Agreement, destroying a 1.1 acre of wooded hillside in the plaza. Joshua Meyrowitz, a professor at UNH and a resident of the neighborhood affected, has been following this plan closely. He explains, “both plans [Mill Plaza and Church Hill]  are subject to, theoretically, strict Conditional-Use zoning, which should prevent all the things these plans would add: the forbidden additional noise, traffic, light, hours of activity, mass/scale, etc. far beyond what the neighborhood experiences now.” 

Also in opposition, Kay Morgan, a retired ORHS teacher and resident of the neighborhood affected, states, “this is a good neighborhood to be in because of its proximity to the university. I’m not as worried about the impact on the property value, more on the quality of living.” She goes on to talk about how her main concerns are that noise and litter will find their way into the peaceful wooded areas around the neighborhood.

Those in opposition have been going to meetings regarding the Mill Plaza plan in hopes that the Town Counsel and Planning Board will not let this go through. From May to August of this year, those opposed created a petition that got over 1000 signatures and was presented at the August Planning Board meeting. The petition urged the Planning Board to deny the Mill Plaza plan application because it violates their Zoning Ordinance, which was developed by the community to adhere to State regulations and reflect the values of the people. There has also been a lot of support from the residents of Durham by creating and putting up the signs on their lawns to try and sway the views of the Planning Board to make the plan more community-friendly.

McCauley has faced a lot of opposition from the residents but is still confident in his plan. “I envision something different. I think everyone will view this as a compromise. I think it’s a good plan, I think that once completed the plaza will generate significant revenue in property tax to the town, school district, and all the taxing authorities.”

There will be a meeting October 27 where the developers will come back to the Planning Board with more detailed plans on that concept. They will be going through the whole plan set again and asking for a vote for the Planning Board. “If it gets to the point where the Planning Board is comfortable moving ahead with this plan… on the 27th, they will likely ask me to draw up the draft decision and it will include a number of conditions and the findings, and so forth,” explains Taintor.

No matter what happens at the next meeting, the Planning Board vote isn’t the final answer. There is still much more to come. The next step for those in opposition could be “anything from a challenge in court if there is a good reason, to having to live with a massive project that a good number of Durham residents don’t want,” says Morgan.