The battle of 616 Oberlin Road is over. When the Raleigh City Council meets on Feb. 5, a five-story apartment complex will be approved for the site, which is near but not in the Cameron Village shopping center, replacing a one-story office building. Development triumphs again.
A stone's throw down Oberlin Road, a six-story apartment building is under construction in Cameron Village, as is another five-story structure across the way at 401 Oberlin. On one small road, three high-density apartment projects totaling more than 800 units, with parking decks, are in an area that's already congested. And more development is coming—but, so far, not better bus service. Is this a good idea?
According to Raleigh's comprehensive plan, it's a bad idea, which is why City Councilor Thomas Crowder has opposed each of the three projects. The two under way are considerably bigger than they should've been had the comp plan been followed. Now 616 Oberlin is even more outsized, with up to 250 units allowed on this 2.4-acre site—or 104 units per acre where the comp plan calls for just 14-28.
Of the eight Raleigh City Council members, two—Crowder and Russ Stephenson—have a track record of applying good planning principles to development decisions. I'm inclined to share Crowder's conclusion that 616 should be rejected. But Stephenson, who chairs the council's comprehensive plan committee, split his vote on the earlier projects and is backing 616, which gives me pause.
Why the difference in Stephenson's votes?
The short answer is that the Cameron Village project—which Stephenson opposed—came first, setting a woeful precedent for ignoring the comp plan. Also, the second developer, at 401 Oberlin, did compromise a little, shaving one floor from an original six-story scheme.
Similarly, the 616 applicants, led by Raleigh real estate mogul Jim Anthony, have been negotiating with neighborhood leaders, yielding some tucks and trims for the better, though no fundamental change—not yet, anyway.
But the real explanation for Stephenson's votes isn't that two developers compromised and one didn't. Rather, it's that Stephenson is looking for a "teachable case" that will prompt a majority of the council—until now impervious to his and Crowder's laments about not following the comp plan—to suddenly say, "Aha, now we see why this whole looking-ahead thing would be good!"
More below, but first a spoiler alert: The "whole looking-ahead thing" is about jumpstarting public transit in Raleigh before car traffic strangles the city's favorite places, including Cameron Village.
And it's about the half-cent sales tax for transit in Wake County, which nearly all of Raleigh's leaders support even as they fail to apply the planning required for transit to be successful.
Typical citizens, I've found, are amazed at how Raleigh measures the projected traffic impacts of a development proposal—and how there never are any, at least not before a project is built. That's because the impacts are weighed against some theoretical other project—always massive—that the zoning supposedly allows.
So it was with the Oberlin Road developments. None was deemed to generate enough additional traffic to be concerned about. But what about the three of them together? Oh, but Raleigh doesn't consider cumulative impacts.
Except that Stephenson insisted, and Anthony, the developer, agreed, that in the 616 Oberlin case the traffic impacts must account for the extra congestion on Oberlin Road when all three projects are finished.
Crazy, I know. But Anthony acknowledged the problem when he said he couldn't send all the traffic from 616 onto Oberlin Road because of the future congestion; in fact, he said he would need to funnel half of it out of a back driveway onto Daniels Street, in a residential neighborhood. The neighbors didn't like that plan, but they relented after Anthony agreed to pay for sidewalks and pedestrian medians on Daniels. It was also clear a council majority intended to approve the project.
The upshot is that Anthony can build 250 units only if a serious traffic analysis determines that Oberlin Road can handle all three projects without falling to "E"—a failing grade—on the standard road scale. If not, he will be forced to cut the number of units.
As a condition for approval, this is a major step forward for Raleigh, or perhaps I should say a half step. A full step would be to measure how much traffic will be on Oberlin when the rest of Cameron Village is built up, as it will be; or in the alternative, the cost of improving bus service there.
Here's the point: It's past time for Raleigh to get serious about connecting our land-use decisions to future transit plans. That was the big idea behind the comprehensive plan when it was adopted in 2009: Limit high-density developments to places where transit will be offered, and say no everywhere else.
As soon as the comp plan was adopted, Stephenson recalls, council members realized that the scale of development it anticipated around Crabtree Valley would require the construction of giant roadway flyovers or bus transit like Raleigh has never imagined. There is a plan for neither. After the Great Recession stalled Crabtree development, that potential "aha" moment passed.
Now, though, it's Cameron Village in the crosshairs. The gap between the intensity of development that the council is willing to approve and the shortage of road and transit capacity to serve that development is staring members in the face.
This article appeared in print with the headline "No room to move."