Raleigh's City Council chambers overflowed last Tuesday evening, packed with people unhappy—sometimes vehemently unhappy—about how their properties and neighborhoods will be rezoned as part of a massive citywide remapping.
Convinced there's some jiggery-pokery going on in the city's planning department, or on Council, or somewhere, one resident after another railed (in two-minute bursts, lest they run afoul of Mayor Nancy McFarlane's merciless timekeeping) for three long hours against increasing density just about anywhere in the entire city. For council members, who offered the requisite thanks to the crowd for participating in democracy, the 10 o'clock adjournment couldn't come quickly enough.
Despite the furor, this remapping was neither new nor unexpected. In fact, the city had been building up to it for years—first with the comprehensive plan in 2010, then with the Unified Development Ordinance in 2013. Now the city is determining which areas fall within the new zoning districts created by the UDO.
Still, people could be forgiven for being confused: If you're not fluent in bureaucratese—or if you don't make a living watching City Hall, or even if you do—this stuff is headache-inducing.
But last week's meeting also exposed a simmering undercurrent of distrust—not just of the city's motivations and seeming willingness to jump into bed with whatever developer promises the next shiny thing, but also of where this city's inertia is carrying us. Residents are worried about more density, more high-rises, more bars, more noise, more bulldozers knocking down old buildings. More than that, they're worried that the city they love is fundamentally changing.
To help make sense of how something as opaque and banal as zoning could arouse so much angst, we've compiled a list of the 10 things we learned during last week's marathon hearing. Consider it your primer for the next UDO bitch session, 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 21.
The city has a communications problem: Planners sent out 45,000 postcards inviting comment from residents who live on or near parcels of land—approximately 41,000 acres—that are slated to be rezoned. They got only 1,800 comments back, which they took as a sign that most people were happy with or at least ambivalent about the remapping. But then hundreds of people showed up to the first UDO hearing, many saying they were confused about why the city was rezoning their property and shocked that planners could even conceive of putting a multi-story apartment building in their historic neighborhood. Sure, the city did what the law required, and some especially active residents have been fighting this rezoning for months. But for too many people, this was new and sudden and scary.
The City Council will only vote to make zonings more restrictive: Yes, most people at the hearing wanted
more-restrictive zonings in their neighborhoods, but not everyone. (For example, food-truck vendors; see facing page.) And while this rule, announced on the city's website in advance of the meeting, no doubt kept developers and their attorneys at bay, it also seems rather unfair to arbitrarily disqualify one side of the zoning debate ahead of time.
No. More. Bars: This was the single-most reiterated request. There are, according to a multitude of speakers, far too many places around town to get blackout drunk, and this is a problem that needs fixing. (This is a family city, and oh my God, are those people smoking
on the Jimmy John's patio?) They complain of drunken carousers out at all hours and barf-soaked sidewalks following the weekend revelry. They live in Oakwood to avoid the downtown bacchanal—and have you heard that downtown is unlivable?—and they surely don't want the nightclubs to follow them.
Oakwood people are high maintenance: Speaking of Oakwood folks, they may exist in a bubble of antiques and caviar, but they're also usually pretty in the know. So it was surprising to hear many of them say they only found out the week before that large portions of the neighborhood would be rezoned. Oakwood—one of the oldest neighborhoods in Raleigh, the most historical of the historic districts, the one with the Governor's Mansion—is a special snowflake, they argued. What the hell were the planners thinking trying to bring neighborhood mixed-use, with its gauche three-story structures and traffic and retail frontage and bars, to the 600 block of Watauga? They've lived in New York City before; they don't want to live in its debauched little sister now.
Southeast Raleigh residents just want to stay in their homes: They're worried about the downtown and residential mixed-use parcels that line the edges of downtown for an entirely different reason. "Compatible height limits" could mean luxury condos and high-rises, which could mean rising property values, which could mean that the residents who live there now could no longer afford their taxes, which could mean they'd be forced out. And what's the city doing to slow this gentrification creep? Not enough, they say. "We are under a serious threat," fair housing advocate Octavia Rainey told Council. "This new plan does not guarantee that black people will be living in historic black neighborhoods."
North Raleigh is about to riot: How many times, and in how many different forums, do these people have to ask the City Council not to rezone the intersection of Dunn and Falls of Neuse to a commercial district? They don't want gas stations, drive-ins or drive-throughs. They don't want a destination shopping center or a grocery store. And besides, they've already beaten back the developer several times, most recently in May. Yet here it is again, like an undead horror-movie villain. And so they wonder: What exactly do they have to do to kill this sucker for good?
Glenwood-Brooklyn is the only place in town that's cool with everything (or not). Glenwood-Brooklyn is one of two neighborhoods in Raleigh currently zoned SP R-30, a designation that offers protections to neighborhoods but has no equivalent under the new UDO. So city planners zoned it R-10, a residential district that maxes out at 10 units per acre. Residents are fine with that, but some still want those special protections, particularly limitations on the sizes houses can be, and they're wary of neighbors who run businesses out of their houses.
People would really appreciate it if developers stopped cutting down legacy trees: Raleigh is the City of Oaks, not the City of Scokes (Google it), so could you developers and utilities companies please stop cutting down legacy trees? Gah!
To a solid cohort of Raleighites, the city's centuries-old white oaks are way more important than whatever cement-and-plywood monstrosity some developer wants to erect in Boylan Heights.
People would really appreciate it if developers stopped tearing down historic houses. Here's the thing, historic-district residents told Council: We're tearing down old houses—inside the Beltline—and replacing them with big, fancy new ones. What's next, tearing old houses down in Oakwood for parking lots for apartment dwellers? That's what happened in Charlotte; are we Charlotte now? Nobody wants to be Charlotte. No thank you.
People would really appreciate it if developers just went straight to hell, period. Oakwood and Boylan Heights don't want density because they're historic. Downtown doesn't want density because it will change its character. Southeast Raleigh doesn't want density because of gentrification. North Raleigh doesn't want density because of pollution and traffic. The Wake County Taxpayers Association doesn't want density because it hates sustainability. Can't we just stick with the urban sprawl that's worked so well for so long?