Update on Bolton, aka, the most important property in Raleigh

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At the beginning of June, I wrote a column which my editor titled, accurately, "The Most Important Property in Raleigh." It's the most important to me, anyway, for reasons I explained back then: (1) It's close to my neighborhood; (2) It's a highly strategic location in terms of Raleigh's ambitions for becoming a walkable, transit-friendly city; (3) It's ripe for redevelopment, not that it hasn't been for 20 or 30 years, but now it's under new ownership; (4) It's a chance for the Raleigh City Council to demonstrate that it doesn't just talk the talk about form-based zoning and new urbanism but will actually follow through — and require developers to follow through — in an actual rezoning case.

The property is known as the Bolton tract. It's 6.7 acres on the southwest side of the new Hillsborough Street-Morgan Street roundabout, and if that alone doesn't suggest its strategic importance, perhaps you'll click on the link above and check my reasoning about it; I posted a followup about it a couple of days later.

Well, four and a half months have passed since then, and the rezoning case has been through the Planning Commission and two sessions of the City Council's Comprehensive Plan Committee. A third CPC session is scheduled tomorrow — Friday, Oct. 15 — at 9 a.m. The case could be decided by the full Council as early as next Tuesday.

So how's it going?

IMHO, it's going great for the owner/applicant, a Charlotte partnership called FMW. Not great for the city of Raleigh and its residents.

I should say at this point, too, that I've participated in the rezoning case through the Hillsborough Citizens Advisory Council (CAC), which encompasses my Cameron Park neighborhood and the West Morgan, Pullen Park and Cameron Village neighborhoods. Doubtless, being a participant has an effect on the way I view the case, versus my usual M.O. of forming my opinion by watching from the sidelines. On the other hand, however, I just stumbled across something I wrote in May, before the case got started, as a comment on the small-area study then underway for West Morgan and Pullen Park. Judging by it, being a participant hasn't changed my view of this case much at all — and it remains:

In this area of the city, small street connections like the one potentially provided by Whitley Street would both facilitate and alleviate the effects of desired residential and mixed-use development at a plus/minus 40 units per acre level of density. Without such streets, and without any requirement for a specified amount of open space available to the public (i.e., a paved interior courtyard or walkway does not qualify as open public space), density at that level becomes an intrusive presence in a neighborhood rather than, as it should be, integral to what's around it. Think: Spaceship landing with many residential pods contained within it, plus storage units for motor vehicles that will regularly emerge from the ship. Landing, moreover, on what used to be a public street until the spaceship obliterated it.

Yeah, it's kind of wordy; I wrote it in a hurry. But it does summarize the two main issues going into this case, which were — and are:

(a) Would the applicant respect the urban environment, including the existing streets, or stomp on it?

(b) In return for higher densities — I said 40 +/- units per acre, the applicant is now asking for about 70 — would the applicant provide any community benefits, especially some sort of publicly accessible courtyard or green square that connects whatever's built on the property to the existing streets and surrounding neighborhoods?

Months later, with the case nearing completion, the answers to both questions are:

We have no idea.

Or, to put it another way, unless the Comprehensive Plan Committee shocks everybody tomorrow and does what it so far has not been willing to do, FMW won't be required to answer yes to either question. (On the CPC, Councilor Russ Stephenson is so far the exception — he is trying to get "yes" answers. Councilors Bonner Gaylord and Nancy McFarlane, the committee chair, have been less, shall we say, active on the neighborhoods' behalf.)

And in cases like this, if there's no requirement to do something, it's likely the "something" won't be done.

Does that crank me off? It does, for this reason: Building on streets, and not without them, should be a given in an urban location; so should providing open space when you're asking for an entitlement to extra density, taller buildings and, yes, higher profits.

The point of open space is so your bigger buildings don't overwhelm their surroundings. Ditto for streets, which also provide visual access from a car, a bike or for walkers. This is so basic, and yet to Raleigh officialdom, you'd think we were asking for F, M, or W to cut off an arm.

***


So, I could go on about urban form and what makes a project neighborhood-friendly, etcetera; but I know you're thinking — if you've read this far — why is he blathering on? Why doesn't he just show us a picture of what the proposed development is going to look like? Show us a picture and we can decide for ourselves if we like it.

I wish I could.

But I can't, because there aren't any. And the fact that there are no pictures is, again in my opinion, the biggest failure of all in this case.

FMW's application (you can access the case from this page on the city's website — it's Z-011-10, Hillsborough Street) asks for special treatment under the zoning code — in addition to the requested rezoning, it seeks to have the Bolton tract designated a Pedestrian Business District. This designation will entitle FMW to more than the standard 40 units per acre limit on residential development; in a PBOD (the O stands for overlay), densities up to 320 units per acre are allowed, with the exact limit established on a case-by-case basis.

In this case, FMW wants permission to build up to 285 apartment units on 4 acres. The apartments would be contained in two buildings, each apparently five stories tall in addition to the parking deck (1-level? 2-level?) beneath. On the remaining acreage, the application is for up to 175 more units, with some suggestion that the site might be used for a hotel. Or not.

I say apparently because in support of this special designation, FMW hasn't been asked to produce a single picture, rendering, illustration or even a sketch of what its so-called "district" will consist of. Not even a two-dimensional map of where the buildings would be and where the open space, if any, would be.

Other PBOD applicants have submitted lots of pictures, but come to find out, pictures aren't required if the City Council is willing consider an application without them. Minimum requirements include only such things as sidewalk materials and street furniture types — the latter of which explains why the FMW application does include a picture of the garbage cans it intends to use. (See above.)

Without pictures or a concept plan, it's simply impossible for the neighbors — like me - to judge whether what's in store for the Bolton tract is good, bad, minimally acceptable or likely to be a big ol' embarrassment for Raleigh.

If it's impossible for us, it's just as impossible for the Council.

No pictures or plan, however, works for FMW because it allows critical details that would need to be pinned down for the project to be shown to instead be left vague and open-ended, maximizing FMW's entitlement while minimizing the standards to which it or any subsequent owner can ever be held.

So we're left to guess what will happen:

Best case: FMW sells the property — properties — and whoever builds there surprises us with a good result despite not being required to do so.

Worst case: FMW or a new owner takes advantage of the sketchy standards to max-out the site and, in doing so, erects a giant obstacle between the West Morgan and Pullen Park neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the absence of pictures or a map suggests that the latter outcome is more likely, and even FMW's not proud of it.

***

Two questions our CAC members are asked a lot:

1) Are we holding out for the perfect project?

2) Is keeping Whitley Street in place non-negotiable?

My answers:

1) No, we're not only not looking for perfect, we're pretty much resigned to getting something that's minimally acceptable at best — but we do want it to be minimally acceptable.

That's why we keep asking the Council to insist that FMW produce a concept plan — so we can tell if the concept is minimally acceptable or not.

2) No, we don't demand that Whitley be retained exactly as it is. What we do think, though, is that if Whitley goes away, it should be replaced by a replacement street that allows the neighbors vehicular as well as pedestrian access through the project. Whitley Street is a public street with 50-foot right-of-way. We've suggested the new Oberlin Road in front of Player's Retreat as a possible model for replacing it — Oberlin is 25 feet wide at that point with a 15-foot sidewalk that makes it perfect for small shops of the kind you want in a PEDESTRIAN BUSINESS Overlay District.

I signed a letter to the CPC yesterday as one of the CAC participants trying to make the case for a concept plan. I'll post it below.

Letter from the neighbors:

We, the undersigned, are a group of leaders and interested residents of the Pullen Park, West Morgan, Cameron Park, and Cameron Village neighborhoods.

Our position from the outset has been that the FMW assemblage—the so-called Bolton tract—represents a golden opportunity for well-designed, walkable, and transit-friendly, mixed-use development near the downtown district.

These terms, used loosely for so long in Raleigh, were finally given meaning by the City Council in our forward-looking 2030 Comprehensive Plan. However, should the Council approve the Z-11-10 rezoning application in its current form, it will be ignoring the intent of these terms, as well as other significant portions of the Comp Plan.

We call on the Council’s Comprehensive Plan Committee to insist that the applicant submit a more detailed plan in support of its application for treatment as a PBOD—a Pedestrian Business Overlay District. The plan must show, at a minimum:

· The location and arrangement of both off-street and off-site parking facilities (note that this is actually a required element of a streetscape and parking plan);

· The location, arrangement, and footprint dimensions of the buildings;

· How the buildings and parking will address all existing streets, including Whitley Street;

· Where and how its buildings will incorporate street-level retail and office uses;

· The location and dimensions of contiguous, useful open space—a community square, a green common area, perhaps with a playground—accessible to the general public as well as residents.

The inclusion of these kinds of details is not unusual in a PBOD application. Recent examples include Cameron Village Shopping Center and Glenlake Office Park. Lacking at least a two-dimensional plan (a concept plan), we cannot judge—nor can the Council—whether building 285 apartment units in Phase 1, with another 175 units proposed for Phase 2, will result in the pedestrian-friendly business and residential district we all desire.

As it stands, the applicant presents a vague and incomplete request for significant special entitlements sufficient to crowd the site with parking decks and apartments. Virtually no community benefits have been offered in return—violating the basic purpose of a PBOD—in fact, the opposite is proposed: a very dense apartment complex separating the Pullen Park and West Morgan neighborhoods, even to the point of erasing a public street between them and trading it for an alley. This is completely unacceptable.

Further, no parking plan has been presented to assure that single-use parking won't undermine all of the city’s efforts to re-make Hillsborough Street and West Morgan Street as lively, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly city streets. Raleigh city code clearly states that location and arrangement of parking facilities, both off-street and off-site, is a required element of a PBOD streetscape and parking plan.

***

In summary, we find it incomprehensible that, after all the talk about “place-making” in the 2030 plan, the Z-11-10 application can be given serious consideration without a single map, rendering, drawing, or sketch of what’s being proposed for this sizeable and strategically significant tract.

The applicant is seeking special treatment as a district, but what are they offering the city and the neighborhoods in return? Can it really be that the Council isn't interested in putting our brand new Comp Plan into action to improve this proposal?

We stand ready to work with councilors and the applicant to craft a good plan for this site, as we have all year. We respectfully request that the CPC require a plan, to give both the councilors and the neighborhoods a starting place to ensure that the application will lead to something we can be proud of—and not something we regret for the next 50 years.

/S/ Bob Geary Ana Duncan Pardo Betsy Kane Tom Erwin
John Farnum Sue Adley-Warrick Will Allen Mike Iverson
Jonathan Parker Victoria Shoenfeld Mary Ann Jobe Paul Umbach
Charles Holden Lyle Adley-Warrick Paul Shannon Jean Haines

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