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A mile high in Denver, and down to earth again in Raleigh

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Ironic, surely, that I was in Vail, Colo., when my cell phone rang with the news from Raleigh that an inch of snow had reduced my hometown to gridlock. In Vail, when you're not skiing, you walk or you ride a bus. Your car stays parked.

Further irony: I spent most of the week in Denver, where it was shirtsleeve weather on the pedestrian mall. In fact, I believe that at the exact time the Raleigh City Council was voting, once and for all (?), to tear out part of the ill-fated Fayetteville Street Mall, I was strolling along the highly successful 16th Street Mall in Denver, the backbone of its thriving downtown.

So do I think Raleigh's making a mistake? Yes, but only because we're not tearing out the whole mall and restoring Fayetteville Street, once more, as a real urban street. The difference is this: In Denver, the main commercial street is 15th, not 16th. It's as if Raleigh, with its tall office buildings and hotel (soon to be hotels--two of them!) on Fayetteville Street, decided to turn Blount Street, just to the east, into a car-free zone.

In fact, that might not be a bad idea. Blount Street is where the governor's mansion is, and City Market, and Exploris, Lump Gallery, Shaw University--just need to connect the walkable dots. Connect, but--and here's the point--don't overwhelm them. As the state gets ready to off-load the 25 acres of Victorian-era buildings and late 20th-century parking lots that constitute the so-called Blount Street district, it's critical that prospective developers be told: No high-rises. Walkable.

In Denver, the tall buildings and big hotels are either on 15th Street or they're on 17th and 18th, all of which enjoy free-flowing car traffic, as Fayetteville Street should. But 16th Street itself is strictly low-rise, which lets the sun shine in on the mile-long string of stores and restaurants lining both sides of the mall. (And all brick, not incidentally. After several disastrous fires circa 1870, the Denver City Council decreed: No more wood. Too bad Raleigh never thought of that.)

What remains of 16th Street itself, net of its wide sidewalks, is given over to the free "MallRide" buses that run continuously in both directions so you never have to wait more than a minute or so to jump on. (They do stop for a lot of lights and cross-street traffic, however.)

The state Capitol is at one end of the mall. At the other end is LODO (for Lower Downtown), formerly decrepit slums but now transformed into funky nightspots with Coors Field--baseball stadium for the Colorado Rockies--as its anchor. Think, in Raleigh, of South Street and the West Side district.

Oh, and one of Denver's two new light-rail lines comes into town at LODO, with stops at Coors Field and Mile High Stadium, where the Broncos play football. The second line comes in at the Capitol. More are planned. The two existing lines are carrying 15,000 riders a day; more impressively, between the rail and connecting buses, transit serves 248,000 riders a day.

Denver's all excited about transit because the traffic congestion is awful (third worst in the country, according to its officialdom) and the sprawl's butting up against the mountains--literally. And they love their mountains.

In one sense, comparing Denver with Raleigh is like apples and oranges. For starters, Denver's much bigger (metro area: 2.3 million). And it's benefited at key points in its history from strong mayors with visions of a great city, according to Thomas J. Noel, its official historian. (Link from the denvergov.org Web site to read him.) The first was Robert Speer, whose "City Beautiful" plans were inspired by the futuristic Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The latest, Federico Pena and a coalition of liberals known as "Feddy and the Dreamers," persuaded red-state Coloradans--in the midst of a deep recession--to invest billions of dollars in Denver's parks, transit, airport and, in 1990, a new convention center located right downtown.

Pena's campaign slogan: "Imagine a Great City."

Contrast that with Mayor Charles Meeker's campaign pledge to make Raleigh "Better, Not Just Bigger." Raleigh's so modest. Like the old saying that North Carolina's a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit (Virginia and South Carolina).

So Raleigh tears out part of its failing mall, but not all of it. Better, but not great. It wants Fayetteville Street to be a retail-and-nighttime destination, but also wants the West Side to be a destination, and City Market, and Glenwood South, and Five Points, and Crabtree Valley, and the Fairgrounds--well, all I'll say is, of the bunch, the one that's the most faraway is Fayetteville Street.

So many destinations, so far apart. So many miles to travel when it snows. And no transit. Gridlock.

In another sense, though, Denver's just 15 or 20 years ahead of Raleigh is all. Denver's first rail line opened in 1994. Ours is due in 2008 (or so). Denver's got buses running all over the downtown, connecting the dots. Raleigh's got the Raleigh Trolley, which runs occasionally. Denver turned against sprawl in the '80s and '90s, investing instead in its downtown. Today, its downtown is flourishing. Raleigh's just sticking its toe in downtown with the new convention center--after putting the RBC Center somewhere else. The question is, will both feet follow?

The main difference between Denver and Raleigh is that in Denver, the vision and planning is evident, notwithstanding a lot of sprawl; in Raleigh, we've got a lot of sprawl and we're ever-willing to ignore or make an exception to a plan if a developer asks ever so nicely to be rezoned.

While I was away, the Raleigh Council chose its replacements for departing members Janet Cowell and Neal Hunt, now installed in the state Senate. Long story short, the two remaining Republican members, Philip Isley and Mike Regan, got to pick Hunt's replacement--fellow Republican Tommy Craven. They also got to pick Cowell's Democratic replacement, Joyce Kekas.

How's that? Well, Democrats Thomas Crowder, James West and Jessie Taliaferro each pitched a different candidate, and Meeker pronounced himself willing to accept any of the three. But only Taliaferro's choice (Kekas) was acceptable to the Republicans, who serially refused to support either West's (the Rev. Paul Anderson) or Crowder's (Russ Stephenson). With five votes needed out of six, and no pressure on them to deal for Craven, Isley and Regan in effect were handed a veto.

Previously (in "Desperate Councilors," Jan. 19), I wrote that Kekas is not progressive. A News & Observer reporter asked her about that after she was appointed, and she said she didn't know what the term meant. To me, it means having a vision and bending the developers to it, rather than vice versa. It means imagining a great city.

It's true, as the N&O surmised, I have the infamous Coker Towers project in mind here.

When I was aligned with the activists who were leafleting and demonstrating against (and ultimately defeated) the original Coker scheme in 2000, Janet Cowell--then a council candidate--joined us on the barricades. Joyce Kekas, then on the planning commission, was for the project. As was Taliaferro. As was Hunt.

Ah, well. Water over the dam, hopefully. Can't we all get along? It's just that Coker Towers, whatever else you thought of it, managed to contravene just about every element of Raleigh's loose comp plan. It's too bad Cowell's replacement isn't someone who shares her progressive views the way Hunt's replacement shares his more conservative ones. Regan for Mayor? Meanwhile, don't dismiss Regan's mayoral candidacy so fast. His combination of anti-gay and anti-affirmative action rhetoric, together with his strident opposition to the convention center, could bring voters to the polls who usually sit out the Raleigh elections. Remember Tom Fetzer?

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