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Blank Check for Progress

Theories and practice of mixed-use development fight for the soul of downtown Raleigh


Raleigh's population has nearly doubled in the last 20 years, and now nearly 300,000 people are jostling for space in the state's capital. Suburban sprawl is lapping up against surrounding watersheds, and smog and traffic congestion are haunting a city that prizes its quiet neighborhoods of broad lawns and shady verandas. Now, city planners and developers are looking at one downtown neighborhood, Glenwood South, as a new urban frontier. Their principal tool is a bold aesthetic called mixed-use development, which could dramatically alter the way people live.

At its core, mixed-use (aka "infill" or "New Urbanism") proposes to return to the patterns of urban living that existed in America prior to World War I (and continues to thrive in Europe), and the invention of the automobile. It holds that people should live close to where they work, or have convenient access to mass transit if they must travel outside their neighborhoods to their jobs. In two layman-friendly books, The Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler lays out the New Urbanist vision. In the latter, he writes that after the invention of the automobile, "the stage was set for the wholesale abandonment of the cities, the adoption of a view that lead ultimately to the extreme separation of uses and the perversities of contemporary zoning laws, and the establishment of the anti-city known as suburbia."

The rub, however, as Raleigh lawyer and neighborhood planning veteran Mack Paul notes, is "that people say they don't like sprawl, but they also don't like denser urban development." Last year's fracas over Neal Coker's massive proposal for Wade Avenue called The Oberlin--dubbed "Coker Towers" by outraged neighbors--was an unfortunate belly flop of an introduction to mixed-use, and led some observers to caricature the area's residents as NIMBYs. In reality, many downtown residents are eager to see development that will make their neighborhoods cozier, more convenient and less car-dependent.

The neighborhood now officially known as Glenwood South has been quietly moving toward the ideal of mixed-use development. Most of the district is bounded by Peace Street to the north, Hillsborough to the south, St. Mary's to the west and West Street to the east. A few years ago, the neighborhood was (and to a certain extent, still is) "a sleepy area with small offices of interior decorators, landscape architects and construction companies," according to Martin Stankus of the Raleigh planning office. Another factor that led to Glenwood South being the target of development is its future proximity to mass transit. Triangle Transit Authority's planned light rail network calls for a station to be built along the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks that run to the east of Glenwood Avenue.

The heart of the neighborhood is Glenwood Avenue, and the vanguard development is The Creamery. The Creamery project was no less than a salvage operation in which post-industrial firms swept into space vacated by an old-fashioned manufacturing concern--in this case, the Pine State Creamery, a dairy that folded a few years back after some seven decades of operation. When the law firm of Michaels & Jones needed to expand beyond the space afforded by their office on West Chase Boulevard, they decided that they wanted to purchase a building of their own. Rather than developing a property in a suburban office park, as might be expected, the firm, since renamed Martin & Jones, looked downtown and saw a historic building beckoning for a tenant. It was a calculated gamble. When they purchased the property in 1997, there was no guarantee that other firms and developers would follow them into this relatively obscure urban frontier. According to the firm's office administrator, Kim Hill, the law partners, most of whom are native to the area, "felt that it was important to help the city develop and grow." It was lonely going at first. "Nothing was going on two years into [The Creamery's] development," property manager Terry Mikels recalls.

Today, the refurbished facility is mixed-use to the max: The anchor tenant is the law firm, whose spacious art deco office is on the upper floor. In adherence to the ideals of mixed-use, retail space is located at street level, including restaurants and nightspots like Enoteca Vin, Sullivan's and the Rhino Club. Furthermore, one wing of the building contains 10 residential lofts, which rent for about $1,200 a month. All of the lofts are occupied. (See "It's Not New York, But ... ," p. 50.)

Following on the heels of the Creamery development was another infill project called 510 Glenwood. This building, located next door to The Creamery is an unfussy facility that also contains office, retail and residential space. As it happens, the site was developed by Neal Coker. His building features street level retail space, and upstairs office and residential space, in accordance with mixed-use principles. Furthermore, it has a parking deck tucked away discreetly from the street, and a rounded turreted entrance on its northwest corner, a strategy that, according to the New Urbanists, makes the street more pedestrian-friendly and inviting. Despite its New Urbanist trappings, 510 Glenwood strikes some as a rather massive, unsubtle building, but approbation for the facility is widespread enough that even architect Russ Stephenson, an opponent of Coker's Oberlin project, cites it as "the closest thing I can point to that is a good mixed-use project."

Although these developments suggest a neighborhood hitting its stride, a walk around the district reveals something else: A surprising lack of bustle, and the people who create it. Indeed, the number of "Office Space Available" signs posted up and down Boylan, Glenwood and the cross streets of Johnson and Tucker suggest that business has yet to flourish in the district. In fact, both 510 Glenwood and the Creamery have substantial vacant space, on the street level as well as upstairs. Two months ago, Bogart's, a large restaurant with a postwar trenchcoat and cigarette theme, named after that era's signature personality, opened on the ground floor of 510 Glenwood. Manager Izzy Horton reports that while they've been doing beaucoup business on the weekends with people who flock to the neighborhood specifically for entertainment, the weekday lunch traffic has been only "moderate ... not what we'd like it to be." Both Horton and waitress Tisha Edwards express enthusiasm for the promises of a more urban, mixed-use neighborhood, with Horton noting that he spends up to two hours a day commuting to work from his home in Wake Forest, "depending on traffic." Edwards and Bogart's hostess Mickey Kavanaugh also bemoan the recent demise of two youth-oriented retail shops in the vicinity--a clothing boutique and a record store.

Right now, the densest, and tallest, residential development in the area is Glenwood Towers, a drab 145-feet-high building situated across the street from 510 Glenwood. Operated by the Raleigh Housing Authority, Glenwood Towers is a public housing facility that is home to senior citizens with little disposable income. Otherwise, the immediate area is thinly populated. A crucial part of the New Urbanist vision is that people should be living in communities of work and retail, and Glenwood South, for the time being, seems sorely in need of people.

Developer Andrew Sandman proposes to provide exactly that, and then some. He has a rezoning petition before the city that would allow the construction of a massive new building in the midst of a fairly drab stretch of North Boylan Avenue, which runs one block to the west of Glenwood. Called 600 N. Boylan, this project would house 87 luxury condominiums on 1.05 acres of land (two businesses would be displaced by the project). The potential for controversy centers on two aspects of the proposal. One issue is the impact on local traffic that a minimum of 87 new cars would have on the vicinity. Furthermore, the design will feature a subterranean parking deck, noting that visible parking lots are one of the biggest no-nos of New Urbanism. "Parking lots create holes in the streetscape," concurs Stankus, explaining that New Urbanists feel that streetscapes should provide enclosure, which storefront parking lots do not.

The other major area of contention is that the proposed facility will rise to about 125 feet, including the top of the elevator shaft, according to project architect Ted van Dyk. However, the street is presently zoned for small businesses, with no building height to exceed 40 feet. This is where the most radical and politically troubling aspect of mixed-use comes in. It is the contention of New Urbanists--from founding gurus like Peter Katz and Peter Calthorpe to fervent believers like Kunstler--that zoning laws are pernicious impediments to sensible development. In Home from Nowhere, Kunstler dismisses zoning laws as a relic of the industrial age, when citizens had an understandable interest in segregating the belching factories of the day from the places where they ate, slept and raised their children. Whatever the benevolent intents of single-use zoning laws, they have undeniably helped to create the sprawling, decentralized Nowhere that so many Americans live in, a culture in which it seems normal to spend two or three hours a day driving from residential zone, to retail zone, to work zone, and, finally, to gas station zone.

A few years ago, Raleigh began taking a few tentative steps toward an embrace of New Urbanism--among those measures was the drawing up the Urban Design Guidelines. The guidelines propose the remaking of urban Raleigh as an Arcadia of friendly, attractive mixed-use neighborhoods that are designed for the comfort and safety of pedestrians and bicyclists. Automobile traffic is accommodated, with parking lots to be shielded from view of the streets. Inevitably, the guidelines contain recommendations for the design and placement of light rail stations.

However, the Urban Design Guidelines have yet to be approved by the Raleigh Planning Commission. Mayor Charles Meeker notes that one of the remaining issues of contention is how much binding authority the guidelines will have. Meeker, who was elected last fall as a progressive advocate of smart growth policies--and with the overwhelming support of the neighbors of Coker's failed Oberlin project--is a proponent of the goals outlined in the Urban Design Guidelines.

In the absence of any binding New Urbanist guidelines, Raleigh is experimenting with a special zoning category called the Planned Development District, or PDD. Glenwood South received this designation, which means simply that existing rules are open to challenge. In other words, the city is saying, "'make up your own zoning, and we'll negotiate with you,'" says van Dyk. Although PDD encourages innovation on the part of developers, the end result is that politicians must step into the fray and mediate disputes. This regulatory vacuum means "that the only rules are what markets will bear and politicians will permit," says architect Russ Stephenson, who is a member of the national Congress of New Urbanism. "When neighbors hear these are the only rules, they get nervous," he continues. Mayor Meeker, however, cautions that PDD is still in its infancy, "and we don't have many examples of it [in practice]."

In the case of 600 N. Boylan, developer Sandman is asking the city to waive the 40-foot maximum height. However, in a concession to the smaller buildings in the vicinity, van Dyk's proposal will include a series of setbacks at various height intervals that will free up some sunlight for the neighbors. Despite the proposed setbacks, it is an open question whether the (mostly commercial) neighbors will be amenable to a building that is at least three times the height of their own. While van Dyk claims that there have been minimal objections raised to the height of the proposed building, one concerned neighbor, Phil Poe, definitely has a few. Poe, who is active in the streetscape planning of Peace Street, notes that the proposed density of the project exceeds the recommendations of the as-yet unimplemented Urban Design Guidelines, which say that density should not exceed 40 units per acre, and furthermore, that building heights in the most urban areas should not exceed six stories. At 87 units and nine stories, the proposed development at 600 N. Boylan is well in excess of both. Van Dyk maintains, however, that the project would not be economically viable at a lower density level. In the absence of binding guidelines, ad hoc civic debate is the order of the day, and Andrew Sandman's rezoning petition will receive a public hearing on Feb. 5.

It remains to be seen whether PDD will be an effective way of promoting smart growth. According to Poe, it's vital that "the city council starts stepping up to the plate" and setting firm guidelines. Mayor Meeker agrees that "we do need standards, and that's what the Urban Design Guidelines propose." In the absence of clear guidance, however, the city could see battle after tedious battle between developers flying the flag of New Urbanism and residents who want assurances that their single family homes will not suddenly be engulfed by the second coming of midtown Manhattan. What is clear is that the rebirth of Glenwood South and other urban frontiers will take more than just building new facilities and renovating old ones. Creating the new urban space will exact a similar investment in the toil of building consensus. EndBlock

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