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An exit interview with Raleigh Planning Director Mitchell Silver, bound for New York City

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Raleigh Planning Director Mitchell Silver will return to his hometown of Brooklyn in May. He has been tapped by Mayor Bill De Blasio to head New York City's 7,000-person parks department—an opportunity most would be loathe to pass up.

For the past nine years, the lauded planner and New York native has been instrumental in revitalizing and redeveloping downtown Raleigh, creating a comprehensive downtown plan, pushing Union Station, and advocating for bikes, pedestrians and mass transit. Silver says he is leaving behind a great team and all the "bones" in place for Raleigh to become a great, vibrant, smartly designed 21st century city—instead of becoming Atlanta Jr. But Raleigh is at a "fork in the road," Mitchell says. The keys are in the implementation of these plans and generating the political will.

INDY: What has been your favorite part about living and working in Raleigh?

Mitchell Silver: The warmness of this place. My identity is so wrapped up in Raleigh. I still want to tweet and talk and give all the talking points about Raleigh. I've just been trying to promote it for so long. It's going to be very difficult to kind of switch gears. I don't care about the accolades. What I care about is when I see people walking the street and experiencing a place I played a hand in, actually enjoying themselves. I planted seeds and now I'm hoping those things will prosper and grow. They better take care of this city because I hope to come back here and retire!

Raleigh is the third-most sprawling city on the Smart Growth America index. Will light rail happen or will this place get increasingly congested and resemble Atlanta?

Light rail is absolutely critical. We're going to build another 35,000 apartments between now and 2025. We can scatter those out beyond a region and hide it behind trees and do the typical fashion we've done for the past 10 years. Or we could concentrate those around a light rail system that will reduce traffic congestion, create great places, create places where both seniors and young people want to live, and create these dynamic exciting livable nodes around the transit line. If we do not do light rail, I challenge someone to tell me—where are you going to put those 35,000 apartments? We need to elevate and dignify bus service so that everyone feels it is an adequate mode of transportation.

If we do not do this, then you might as well take a look at Austin, Atlanta and Houston, because that is exactly where Raleigh is headed. I'm trying to send the warning signs saying—look Raleigh, you're at a fork in the road. You can go in the direction of doing something more cool and more planned. Because my friends in Austin are saying, "Don't do what we did. Please get your transit going, because now we're trying to retrofit it in. Come on down and see what our commute is like. Because that's where you're heading in Raleigh."

Downtown Raleigh is without a doubt more vibrant than it was nine years ago. At least on weekends. But it still feels kind of sterile, like it's catering mostly to young professionals. Will it ever get to the point where it is a full, vibrant urban environment?

All cities go through an evolution. We're now a city on the rise. And you will see those things come online, now with Sky House, Charter Square, you're starting to see some of the gaps filled in. As you get more and more people living downtown you will have a demand for more things. What I'm trying to do is make sure the bones and the infrastructure are in place. So people have to be patient, but it will come.

Raleigh's out promoting its brand as a creative, young-professional city at South by Southwest [music festival in Austin]. How is that a good use of $16,000 as compared to say, using that to directly provide support to young broke, creatives and artists who already live in this city? [See related story, page 35.]

Selling your brand is so important because you are competing against other regions all over this country. There's a buzz about Raleigh, people want to know more about Raleigh and our goal is to attract the creative class, to attract knowledge workers, but also to attract business workers so they know—we want companies to bring jobs so that young people could actually have places to work. People are now looking at Raleigh as a legitimate place to not just open a business but to establish roots here as a company. I understand your point about can those dollars be better spent. I think you have to find a way of doing both.

You've talked a lot about Placemaking. How do these sterile, big-box, condo-like apartment buildings at North Hills, St Mary's, Cameron Village, Valentine Commons build a sense of community and place?

People have to recognize that density is now a new reality for us. We're a growing city; we're a growing state. And the change is coming and we have to figure out how to do that. People are so used to seeing a low-density Raleigh. When things go vertical, it's a bit overwhelming. People adapt over time. About a year from now, it'll just blend into your psyche and people won't even notice the density, I believe.

Where do you see Dix Park going in the coming years? You advocated for development on the site but changed your mind?

That's in the governor's hands and the mayor's hands right now. I think that there's a desire that there should be a park downtown, and I'm optimistic that some agreement will be reached for a portion or all of Dix Campus to be a park. I still believe that on the edge that certainly some development on the Dix Campus would make sense, on the outer edge. I've advocated that, just like Central Park, you have an edge of high-density buildings that help contribute to the conservancy and help support the maintenance of that park as well as the taxpayers.

Is there anything you wish you did differently in your tenure here?

I have to say what I'm going to miss is seeing Union Station. It didn't gain traction after two tries and I was committed to it. To now know that it'll be built by 2017, for me, is a personal pride and joy. Knowing how important that is to shape our growth in 50 years is something I'm going to miss dearly. I won't be there to help in that conversation to move it along. It is hard to walk away from.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Leaving the place he loves"

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