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Durham Mall Plans Move Forward Amid Continued Debate

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DURHAM — Despite a spirited gathering of concerned residents, the Durham City Council approved a controversial zoning change early Wednesday morning that allows a new mega-mall project to move forward.

Before the vote, developers promised millions of dollars for road improvements. Opponents say that is not enough.

"They're spending $223 million on the project. Now when you say they're going to spend $13 million on roads - $13 million is a lot of money - but compared to $223 (million), I still think they could probably afford more," says opponent Pat Bocckino.

Transportation managers say mall developers have done more than enough. It will not be perfect, but they say it is a good deal.

"It's obviously in their best interest to be able to get to and from their project," says Mark Ahrendsen, Durham's transportation manager. "Our feeling is that, even with the traffic they generate with their improvements, we will see an improved performance."

Acting on a DOT suggestion, a SPUD, or single point urban diamond, interchange is planned for the area.

"It's only approved now, so it's not even under construction," says Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson. "There is a lot of work to do to mitigate the negative impacts that people perceive, and actually try to maximize the positive side of it."

Tuesday night, Durham residents packed the 150 seat council chambers to capacity, and a crowd of more than 200 people spilled over into the lobby, watching the hearing on a television monitor.

"I think the turnout here tonight is much larger than I expected," says Durham resident Paul Triuldi. "I think it shows that a lot of people are really concerned."

Residents had 45 minutes to voice their concerns about the Southpoint mall project. Developers will build a 1.3 million square foot shopping center at I-40 and Fayetteville Road. Opponents say the project will bring unchecked urban sprawl to the Bull City.

"I'm opposed to the mall because I don't think the highway structure can support it," said mall opponent Graham Green. "It seems obvious that the city and the developer, as well as the state, are not prepared to put up the money to make the highways work."

But Urban Retail Properties, the company proposing the project, has said it will spend millions on road improvements.

"We have addressed every issue that has been raised," says John Silverman, the mall developer. "We have made every change requested, and we have complied with each and every traffic improvement suggested."

The Southpoint project is expected to initially generate 40,000 to 45,000 vehicle trips a day. The company's proposal satisfies theDOT.

"It would work for at least the short-term, for the interim term, to handle their traffic," said Gary Faulkner, DOT design review engineer.

The DOT anticipates Urban Retail's road improvements could run into some trouble soon after the mall and subdivision are completed in 2002.

"Now long term, obviously the way that RTP is growing, we don't expect it to last for very long. And that's a concern," said Faulkner.

Besides concerns about the Triangle's already troublesome traffic situation, others worry about the effect Southpoint could have on the other big mall in town.

A local real estate analyst believes Southpoint will just drain the main anchor tenants from nearby South Square Mall.

"You get a new mall and you kill an old mall. And what hurts is you're not just killing South Square Mall. You're also damaging the businesses that surround it. The residential neighborhood that surrounds it," said real estate analyst Eric Karnes.

These future concerns are what Southpoint opponents hope weigh heavily on the minds of Durham City Council members in the future. The council debated the issue for two hours before announcing their decision.