Roger Perry, the founder of East West Partners, is practically etched into Chapel Hill’s landscape. Meadowmont, East 54, Village Plaza – each offers the town a place to live, shop and relax, the staples of the mixed-use developments for which Perry is known.
But, his sights over the years have moved to Durham as well, including The Bartlett, Davis Park and Liberty Warehouse. The locations in both the town and the city have similar features, whether single family homes or luxury condos, but we wondered
if the development process between the two locales might have been different. It made us curious. Can development in Chapel Hill and Durham be fairly compared? Or are they apples and oranges? And if so, which is which? Perry spoke with us about his experience in developing both places, and how listening to both the community and the marketplace is one of the most important parts of a successful negotiation. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Chapel Hill has a reputation for having a Byzantine approval process for new development. Is that reputation earned?
There is nothing new in all of that. I’ve been here for 36 years now, and that is kind of the way it has always been in Chapel Hill.
The approval process is very long, expensive and unpredictable. But if you work with the [town] and work with the elected officials, you may not get what you want, but you can
work to a resolution. Process is a big component of Chapel Hill. There are a lot of people in Chapel Hill who would rather not see the town grow, who have used the process in order to retard growth, which makes it more difficult yet. But, we’re used to it, so we kind of understand it, and we try not to get too frustrated.
How is Durham?
It’s not necessarily easy in Durham either, but it is not nearly so subtle. It’s much easier to figure out what you are or are not going to be able to do in Durham in a much shorter time. I don’t always agree with their decisions either, but you don’t have to go through so much analysis and process. Durham is more certain about what it will allow and will not allow than Chapel Hill is. And Durham knows what it wants and where it wants it.
Is the craft of development universal, or do you always have to take a community’s particular idiosyncrasies into account?
There is no point in trying to get approval for something the community doesn’t want, because you won’t succeed. Now, you modify to their desires, you try to convince them of the things you can do and can’t do, you try to show them, perhaps, how doing it a different way than they might think might be an acceptable and perhaps better way. So it’s kind of a communication process and a good-faith process as you go through the approval.
Meadowmont and some of your other developments have
a neo-Urbanism vibe to them – homes with front porches and other elements that enable community. Was that intentional? Can it be replicated in Durham?
It was very intentional. I don’t think you can replicate it
even in Chapel Hill anymore because there are no more parcels available in Chapel Hill big enough to accommodate
a Meadowmont or a Southern Village. Chapel Hill has an urban growth boundary around it, and it is pretty much impossible to redo that unless you completely redevelop an existing area, and I don’t think the economics of that are viable yet.
In Durham, there are places you can do that, and Durham is willing to grow geographically as well. Chapel Hill is not willing to grow geographically. It is happening in Chatham County. You look at Briar Chapel, which is the evolution of Southern Village and Meadowmont, and there is capacity in Chatham, and there is in Durham, and there is in Alamance County, but not in Chapel Hill.
You made your start in sales and marketing. How did that experience prepare you for being in charge?
You learn interpersonal skills, and you learn how to communicate. You learn to listen. The most important trait a person can have is the ability to listen to other people and to the marketplace. If you don’t, you won’t succeed. Learning how to listen and communicate and how to solve people’s needs is part of what sales and marketing is all about. When you learn how to do that, it translates into other areas. And when you listen, you have to learn to respond in such a way that a consensus can coalesce around a particular idea. That is what takes so long in Chapel Hill, getting all the disparate interests to come together in a solution that everyone can embrace, even if they’re not totally satisfied. And then you have to dovetail that solution to make sure it is acceptable to the marketplace. Durham is a little easier in that regard.
How much work goes into a project before building actually begins?
We don’t buy land speculatively. We only buy
a parcel when it has been fully entitled, and we are fully comfortable with its market viability. With Meadowmont, that whole process from the time we started working to the time we put the first shovel in the ground was nine-and-a-half years. We built Meadowmont out in about five years. It took longer to start than it took to finish construction once we started.
What is the secret to maintaining patience over those years? Well, in my case, I was too dumb to move on.
Has development in Durham peaked, or is it still wide open?
I don’t think we’ve approached the ceiling yet. I don’t even know where the ceiling is.
I think there’s going to be significant additional growth in Durham.