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Best of the Triangle 2013: Best Ideas of the Triangle

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It's Wednesday morning, and throughout the Triangle people are reading INDY Week while drinking their coffee. Suddenly, a round of spit-takes, followed by tweets:

"Hey @indyweek who the hell voted for [insert name of business here]?"

"Why didn't [insert name of overlooked/ignored business here] win?"

"People suck."

The Best of the Triangle issue is always one of our most-read, most-discussed and most-argued-over editions of the year.

A few explanatory remarks: The Readers' Poll is run by the advertising department, which writes the categories, tallies the votes and organizes the party—slated for June 15 at the Durham Athletic Park, where the Bulls of yore used to play.

We in the editorial department supplement the Readers' Poll with other "bests."

This year we've drummed up some Best Ideas of the Triangle—a vision for what would make our region more culturally vibrant and politically progressive: a full-service grocery in downtown Raleigh; food trucks in Chapel Hill; a diner in central Durham; anarchists in Cary; affordable housing everywhere.

We reached out via social media to take our readers' pulses on Best Ideas as well. Among the suggestions: public transit, pedestrian-friendly cities and a greater emphasis on the arts, especially public art.

Whether you agree or disagree with the results and choices, chime in on any of this week's online stories. —Lisa Sorg


Amenities for downtown living

Especially in Raleigh and Durham, our downtowns seem to still be built under the assumption that people don't actually live there: They might drive in to get drunk or see a band or visit a food truck, and then, like a tourist, they leave. But our downtowns are growing not only with businesses but also with denizens. Those residents have to get in cars or on bikes just to get some groceries or a simple prescription filled. Every storefront doesn't need to be a new brewpub, doughnut shop or gourmet burger joint; sometimes you just want to get a frozen pizza and some toothpaste and then walk home. Help us do that. —Grayson Currin


Food trucks in Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, it seems, has been overshadowed by its neighbors when it comes to the culinary. There are notable exceptions, but foodies are likely to find a wider range of options in Durham. The food truck scene is an extension of Chapel Hill's grub gap.

Food trucks roam Durham, Raleigh and Carrboro like delicious, generator-powered cattle. They provide online location updates for their most dedicated fans, people who are willing to sit cross-legged in an abandoned parking lot and eat off biodegradable plates if it means they get an authentic empanada.

No doubt this would work in Chapel Hill. You can't convince us that thousands of Franklin Street teenagers and 20-somethings with disposable cash aren't amenable to dumplings, tacos, barbecue, macaroni and cheese, crepes, pizza and hamburgers.

Yet, as of this writing, Chapel Hill has just one permitted food truck. Compare that to other Triangle municipalities, where dozens of vendors are open for business. It might have something to do with Chapel Hill's unforgiving $600 annual regulatory fee, which, until recently, was charged on top of more than $150 in zoning and licensing fees.

Town Council members voted to slash the fee to $200 last month, bringing Chapel Hill closer to its Triangle neighbors. Annual permitting fees are about $220 in Raleigh and $35 in Durham. In Carrboro, there is a $60 one-time fee and a $25 annual fee.

Chapel Hill's new rules take effect July 1. Expect a minor deluge of food trucks seeking a home in Chapel Hill, although as Councilman Ed Harrison pointed out last month, the town isn't big enough to fit them all. We'll take what we can get. —Billy Ball


A downtown diner for Durham

In another state and in another time, I frequented Our Place, a diner where you could postpone your hangover a few hours with a plate of steaming biscuits and gravy and a cup of 10W-weight coffee.

Our Place attracted a motley cast of characters, and its hygiene standards (and the characters') were suspect. I fondly remember one late night/early morning when my friends and I watched a cockroach scamper around the salt and pepper shakers as if it were competing in dressage.

That's what we need in downtown Durham, sans the roaches—a diner. If not 24 hours, à la Honey's, then at least a breakfast joint without the words "waffle," "pancake" and "house" in the name. A place with a no-nonsense but friendly waitstaff, rotating bar stools and tabletop jukeboxes.

It would serve B&G, eggs, toast, grits, oatmeal, bacon, pancakes (and, this being Durham, their vegan counterparts). It would embrace grease. It would bridge the 20th and 21st centuries: an analog clock on the wall, its second hand languidly marking time, yet free Wi-Fi and electrical outlets in every booth.

C'mon, you Slow Money, Kickstarter-savvy entrepreneurs—there's space for rent next to The Pinhook. —Lisa Sorg


Anarchists in Cary

Cary: so polite, so quiet, so ... ecru. To the town's credit, its leaders are building an arts district downtown, but politically, Cary is pretty humdrum, with a largely conservative town council whose main charge is to decide which subdivision to approve and what taxes not to raise. In fact, the last time Cary residents caused an "uproar" was over the chicken ordinance. (It passed. Power to the people!)

This is why Cary needs to spice things up and import anarchists from Carrboro. The Chiapas of the Carolinas has more anarchists than there are issues to revolt against. (CVS is so 2010.)

But Cary? Conservatism, conformity, chain stores—and not an heirloom tomato in sight.

Carrboro anarchists, you want to rage against the machine? Bike 25 miles east on Highway 54. Bed down at the train station. Down the street, Town Council Chambers awaits your arrival. —Lisa Sorg


Make affordable housing a priority

When Lincoln Apartments, a low-income housing community in Durham, closed last year, about 200 families needed a cheap place to live, and fast.

That was impossible for some of them. And if you're one of the 181,000-plus people who rent in the Triangle, you can empathize. You know that affordable—and clean and safe—housing is scarce, not just in Durham but throughout the region.

In North Carolina, you have to earn $13.63 an hour to afford a typical two-bedroom rental. So if you're working a service job, that apartment is out of your financial reach unless you work more than 70 hours a week.

In fact, it's so expensive to live in Chapel Hill that many town workers have to reside elsewhere. The waiting list for public housing and Section 8 vouchers in Durham is more than 1,000 people deep. Those new condos sprouting in downtown Raleigh aren't geared toward the folks working at the food joints on Fayetteville Street.

Cities need to require builders to include more affordable housing in their new developments. And those new developments need to be near the city center, rather than in the suburbs that make people dependent on cars.

That's not enough, though. As the Lincoln Apartments situation demonstrated, it's extremely difficult for private developers to make a go of affordable housing. That's where city and county governments need to come in. Via grants and bonds—we suggest even using portions of a hotel/motel tax—governments have to make it a budgetary priority to provide housing for the most vulnerable citizens. —Lisa Sorg


Better public transit: we're ready

Oh 15-501, even more than I-40, you depress me: a suburban dystopia of frustrating, ill-synchronized traffic lights, bumper-to-bumper traffic and a checkerboard of big box stores, chain restaurants and empty car dealerships. If it weren't for Sitar Indian Cuisine and The Cat Hospital, I wouldn't travel you at all.

On the Triangle Transit "express" bus between Durham and Chapel Hill (Route 405), you can read and surf the Web, but there's no midday service. That forces you to take the 400, which takes fooorreeevvver. Ditto for "express" service to Raleigh: It rocks in the morning and evening, but midday you have to connect through RTP.

It's a chicken and egg problem: We need more frequent service, but we need more riders to pay for it.

OK, enough about the problems. The solutions: Orange and Durham counties have already passed initiatives to help fund additional public transit, including bus and light rail, although it will take many years for it to be fully built out. Wake County—sorry, but your Stone Age commissioners want no part of it, so you'll be left behind.

We need to build housing and other amenities (groceries, coffee shops, etc.) near proposed rail lines—or vice versa. Reel in the sprawl (I'm talking to you, 751 South). Make it more expensive to drive and park a gas-powered car than to drive a hybrid or an electric vehicle or to take public transit.

In the Triangle, nearly 200,000 people cross a county boundary every day to get to work. There's an influx of nor'easterners who are accustomed to subways and buses, plus natives who would love to ditch their cars for a better alternative. We're ready. —Lisa Sorg


Redoubling our recycling efforts

Recycling is a concept many creative types and business people in the Triangle have embraced, as evidenced by such entities as the popular reuse supply shop and gallery The Scrap Exchange, the nonprofit co-op store Recyclique and the business collection service Shimar Recycling. What seems to be missing is an aggressive municipal initiative.

Think about how often you've walked along a downtown street—in any Triangle town, large or small—and passed a corner trashcan riddled with empty water bottles and soda cans. Is it really so hard to provide a bin for recycling alongside the trash receptacle? Perhaps the thinking is that residents won't notice, that they'll still toss recyclables into the garbage slot. But we'll never know until we give them an option.

The problem is exacerbated at street festivals and other special events, where paper containers and plastic beer cups multiply by the thousands in baskets and bags destined for the dumpster (and then the dump). If permits for such events strictly enforced availability of recycling, perhaps I wouldn't have had to walk off-site at a recent outdoor music gig in Carrboro just to find a proper place to dispose of my recyclable beverage container.

Still, it's curbside collection that matters the most. Two decades ago in Seattle, I observed a gradual awakening: The system went from categorized sorting crates to an all-in-one bin to a full-sized recycling can to, finally, a solution where the majority of household items were acceptable for recycling, with just a small can allowed for garbage. In the Triangle, most of us are still stuck somewhere in the early stages of that evolution. (I curse my city of Mebane when we roll our jam-packed recycling can to the curb every two weeks even as we wheel out our larger but less-than-half-full trash can for once-a-week pickup.)

Durham recently announced it may launch a pilot program for food waste; let's hope other Triangle cities follow suit.

Recycling is a classic win-win: It's good for the planet, and there's money in it for city governments that get their act together. And there's jobs, too—so, make that win-win-win. —Peter Blackstock


An arena in downtown Raleigh

No, we're not expecting the authorities to grab PNC Arena from its perch near the N.C. State Fairgrounds, airlift it to downtown Raleigh and plunk it in one of the few remaining vacant lots around the city. (To be sure, Greg Hatem has some real estate available.) But that hypothetical nonsense does epitomize Raleigh's lack of a central indoor space that can be used by a massive group of people for one purpose—a concert, say, or a monster-truck rally. Sure, the Convention Center is enormous, but how can you motivate one large crowd sequestered into multiple ballrooms or in the drab concrete bunker beneath it? Despite its sporadic bookings and largely makeshift facilities, the success of the Red Hat Amphitheater indicates that folks are ready to congregate in the middle of Raleigh, as they do in many cities around the globe. —Grayson Currin


Reform our elections schedule

Like the other odd-numbered years, 2013 is a classic case of election madness. We're not even talking about the money side of politics—insanity in its own right—but the simple act of scheduling.

Let us explain: The Wake County school board, the City of Raleigh and the Town of Cary hold elections on Oct. 8, with early voting beginning in September. There is no primary, but runoffs, if necessary, are held Nov. 5. The rest of the cities and towns in Wake County vote on Nov. 5, without a primary.

The cities, towns and school districts in Orange County hold their elections on Nov. 5, with early voting beginning in mid-October.

Durham city government (but not the school board) holds its primary on Oct. 8, with a general election Nov. 5.

Geez-us, can't we all get along? This civics boondoggle stems from state laws governing when "nonpartisan" and "partisan" elections are held. As if any election is really nonpartisan. Let's have one day for the primary, one day for the general election, and ample time for early voting. Done, done, and done.

Voter turnout is low in nonpresidential elections. This scheduling steeplechase makes it even more difficult for people to cast their ballots. Add the potential photo ID requirement, and ... wait, could this be by design? —Lisa Sorg


Let there be lox

Where can I get a decent bowl of matzo ball soup? A nice cheese blintze? My mother's side of the family is Ashkenazi in descent, and boy do I miss my bubbe's cinnamon-raisin kugel, to say nothing of the deep-fried, jelly-filled sufganiot. Last Hannukah I tried to make potato latkes, but I charred them to a blackened crisp. And in my attempts to bake challah, I always forget to add salt, like some kind of shlemiel. So forgive my kvetching, but the Triangle needs a real Jewish eatery.

Sure, supermarkets like Kroger and Harris Teeter have a selection of kosher food and wines, but for an exclusively kosher grocery store I've got to schlep myself all the way to Charlotte. Apparently, you can find a good corned beef sandwich at Weinberg's The Delicatessen in Raleigh, but it's not technically kosher.

The Jewish community in the Triangle is at least 15,000 strong, sprinkled across more than a dozen congregations, but there isn't one thoroughly kosher deli in the whole mix, according to Barry Schwartz, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Raleigh-Cary. We would all appreciate a one-stop shop where you can get both your Brooklyn-style soul food plus all the traditional ingredients needed for the perfect seder. I'm pretty sure even the goys would rejoice. —Elizabeth Van Brocklin


Allow municipal broadband

In 2011, Big Cable struck a terrible blow to the public interest. Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink spent large sums of money lobbying legislators to create a bill that would bar cities and counties from building their own broadband Internet networks. As is so often the case, the lobbyists won.

It's an ironic twist, considering how much emphasis North Carolina's conservative legislators have placed on digital learning. In 2011, the United States ranked 28th worldwide for providing Internet access, behind Qatar and the United Kingdom. For Internet speed, the U.S. ranked 8th in 2012, a great improvement from previous years. Our Internet speed, at 7.4 megabits per second, was roughly half that of South Korea.

In Wilson, N.C., where municipal broadband was built before the state law was enacted, the minimum broadband speed is 10 Mbps. Because of competition from the city, Time Warner Cable was forced to improve its own broadband service.

The real losers of barring municipal broadband are rural areas that Big Cable doesn't reach, such as Chatham County. As long as municipal governments can't run fiber optic cables to backwoods without broadband, telecomm giants have no incentive to quickly extend the broadband network that far. Those rural communities, because they have no choice but to wait, are safe money for large Internet providers.

The federal government has created a big pot of money that is slowly helping provide broadband Internet to rural parts of the United States. In the meantime, North Carolina's law means country dwellers will have to wait even longer for high-quality Internet service. —Will Huntsberry


Pay more attention to sports beyond The Big Three

Between N.C. State, Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, the Triangle is a fairly basketball-rich region, right? Yes, but to stop there is to ignore the wealth of other championships that area universities bring back home. Between 2000 and 2010, for instance, Shaw was the only school to win at least one CIAA championship every year—five of them in men's and women's basketball. The Falcons of St. Augustine boast a world-class track program. And don't forget the high schools, either: The women's basketball team at Millbrook in Raleigh went undefeated last season, winning the state championship, ranking No. 38 nationwide and even earning one of 10 MaxPreps trophies. If you like wins and are tired of the Wolfpack's disappointments, you have options, you know? —Grayson Currin


Bicycles: sharing more than the lane

On a very recent visit to New York, I was present for what could be remembered as a seminal week. All around the city—or more precisely, the upper part of Brooklyn and the lower half of Manhattan—people gathered at the hundreds of bike stations and gawked. Bike sharing had arrived, to no little fanfare and false starts, but so many people hadn't heard the news. With 6,000 bikes in the system at this initial phase, ridership was heavy immediately, and despite some inevitable glitches, there's little reason to think the planned citywide rollout won't happen.

Citi Bike is New York's version of a public bicycle-sharing network that has been successful in cities both large and international (Paris, London, Montreal) as well as smaller and American (Chattanooga, Tenn.; Washington, D.C.; Boston). The vision is a fleet of bicycles that are integrated into the mass-transit matrix. System members who have paid the $95 annual fee can swipe their cards at kiosks and check out bikes for 45 minutes at a time. They can ride the bikes all day long, from one side of town to the other, as long as they keep swapping out the bikes along the way.

I spent last Sunday cycling from Crown Heights to Williamsburg to the Navy Yards to Brooklyn Bridge to the Hudson River to Chelsea to Columbus Circle, a trip that required seven bikes and about four hours. It was a pleasure ride for me, not a commute, but the program is intended to be a means of practical transportation.

The effect on my experience of the city was profound. When I lived in New York in the 1990s I often rode my bike, but in the years since I haven't enjoyed traveling about the city as much. Without a bike, my visits were dependent on dreary, stifling subways, torturously slow buses or long, long walks. I realized I was missing the extraordinary mobility I used to have; Citi Bike made me an out and proud, mobile New Yorker again, jockeying for space among the taxi cabs and growling at the tourists to get out of the bike lane.

How might a bike-share program transform downtown Durham or Raleigh? Perhaps you commute by car to work near the N.C. State campus. After work, you could grab a bike to meet a friend at The Remedy Diner. Then another to take you to a show at Memorial Auditorium. Then to post-show drinks at Boylan Bridge Brewpub. And another back to your car on campus.

But it wouldn't be just an upscale urban lifestyle enhancer. Working people with limited car access, especially those dependent on Durham's dismal bus service, would find renewed mobility. The chief barrier to access for the poor, in New York and elsewhere, is that users of the system must have a valid credit card; a significant issue, but perhaps one that can be solved. A bike-share program carries the possibility of helping Raleigh and Durham, in particular, achieve their dreams of 21st-century sustainable greatness. —David Fellerath


Correction: Carrboro's food truck permitting fees consist of a $60 one-time fee and a $25 annual fee (not an $85 annual fee).

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