Dix Park, mass transit: Mayor Nancy McFarlane's vision for Raleigh | Citizen | Indy Week

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Dix Park, mass transit: Mayor Nancy McFarlane's vision for Raleigh

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The Raleigh City Council is heading to Wilmington for a three-day retreat at the end of January. High on Mayor Nancy McFarlane's agenda for this apparently unprecedented strategic planning event is how to improve communications. By that, McFarlane means that "when people have been together a long time, they can have a lot of stuff built up" and it gets in the way of their listening to one another.

McFarlane isn't naming names, but she thinks the retreat will be a chance for longtime council rivals to get over old "stuff"—she uses the word again—and demonstrate that they agree on mass transit and Dorothea Dix Park, two of the biggest issues in Raleigh's future.

A political independent, McFarlane is starting her second term as mayor—she previously served two terms on council—after winning re-election by a landslide over a pair of Republican opponents. She's the city's undisputed political leader. And Raleigh needs a leader as it struggles with state and county foes on these issues and others. But squabbling council mates make uncertain followers.

"Sometimes people just stay mad about a vote or something that happened a long time ago," the mayor says, choosing her words carefully as we talked at a local coffee shop. But no explanation is really needed. Council animosities have been on display many times on matters big and small. An example of the latter: the retreat itself and where to hold it.

The mayor and the new city manager, Ruffin Hall, wanted to get away for several days to help Hall dive in to council priorities, including any conflicts. Hall suggested going to Wilmington because it's close and, in the winter, cheap.

But Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin objected and pushed for Charlotte in order to look at that city's transit system. When that idea fell flat, Baldwin said they should stay in Raleigh to save money. Newly elected Councilor Wayne Maiorano sided with Baldwin. Councilor Russ Stephenson sided with McFarlane. Ultimately, so did the rest of the council, and they're going to Wilmington. But not before much ink was spilled over this latest split in the ranks and a few thousand dollars in a $705 million city budget.

What's new in the city's power balance is that McFarlane lost an ally, Randy Stagner, in the October elections. Maiorano ousted Stagner, the incumbent in District A, which, as a councilor, McFarlane represented. Maiorano, a Republican lawyer who represents developers, defeated Stagner by hammering him over the council's decision to terminate former City Manager Russell Allen.

McFarlane led the 6-2 majority in favor of replacing Allen. Baldwin and Councilor Eugene Weeks, two Democrats who almost invariably back developers, voted for Allen—and against McFarlane's leadership.

The point is, this "team of rivals" doesn't divide along party lines but rather over development questions and neighborhood protections—with an overlay of personal pique. And on such questions, there aren't two sides but three or four, leaving McFarlane in the position of herding cats. (Why was Allen sacked? The simplest answer may be that he was uninterested in the questions.)

Also new is that these council battles, previously in-house feuds over how much to grow and where, may be stunting Raleigh's bargaining power outside of city hall—which could ultimately hurt Raleigh's ability to grow at all.

With suburban sprawl nearing its limits and downtown revitalization butting up against incipient traffic congestion, Raleigh can't sustain its growth rate without high-density developments. But unless these developments are served by transit—bus and rail—they'll choke the roads.

Transit funding, however, is controlled by the Wake County Commissioners and, ultimately, by the General Assembly, both led by anti-transit Republicans.

Similarly, the future of Dix Park—Raleigh's other big dream—hinges on whether the city can cut a deal with the Republican leaders who tore up the old agreement, perhaps with Gov. Pat McCrory coming to the rescue.

In a word, Raleigh's most important plans depend on politics—and McFarlane's negotiating skills.

As to how she might break through on Dix and transit—what strategies McFarlane will use—that's what we talked about next.

Dix Park: The city has a long-term lease for the 325-acre Dix Hill tract. Or does it? Under a deal negotiated in 2012 by McFarlane and former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, Raleigh gained control of the former state hospital site, which the city hopes to turn into a destination park and tourist attraction. Under the lease, the state retained the right to house some 2,000 Department of Health and Human Services employees in several Dix buildings until a new DHHS headquarters could be built elsewhere.

Republican legislators, though, thought Raleigh wasn't paying enough for the land. So when McCrory was elected governor, they passed a bill in the Senate to void the lease. The bill stalled in the House, after which McFarlane and McCrory signed a "standstill agreement" leaving the lease intact while city and state renegotiated. But first, Raleigh wanted environmental hazards on the site—chemical waste dumped there over the years, asbestos still in the buildings—accurately assessed. That task is behind schedule, but McFarlane thinks it can be finished by March 1.

Then the real bargaining can begin. DHHS, which reports to McCrory, wants to retain 30 acres and numerous buildings indefinitely on the top of Dix Hill. If that happens, creating a top-notch destination park will be "difficult," McFarlane says. She's pressing the state to recognize that if DHHS moves to a new headquarters away from Dix—one it rents from a private developer—it will be eligible for millions of dollars a year in federal reimbursements for program managers' offices. Now, for using its state-owned buildings, the feds give DHHS nothing.

Just by leaving Dix the state would gain.

McFarlane has offered to swap 30 acres somewhere else in Raleigh for the 30 on Dix Hill. Where? That's negotiable. But the best idea, she thinks, would be for the state to put DHHS on land it already owns along Blue Ridge Road in West Raleigh. The state could advertise for developers to put up the building(s) while the city pays for sidewalks, greenways, transit stops—sparking redevelopment in the area.

Currently, the land on Blue Ridge Road is used for a motor pool and other low-value state enterprises. Under an ambitious plan hatched by a committee representing UNC/Rex Hospital, the N.C. Museum of Art and surrounding neighborhoods, the entire corridor would be redeveloped with high-density housing, offices and shopping. With enough density, a planned light-rail stop at the State Fairgrounds would be viable, and bus-transit connections would link it to Rex, the museum and, via Edwards Mill Road, to the high-density developments at Crabtree Valley.

This is just one idea, but McFarlane is excited as she talks about it. Whether the Republicans will share her enthusiasm remains to be seen. "We'd be happy to work with them on it," she says of McCrory and DHHS. "But we haven't gotten that far yet."

Transit: From transit-oriented development on Blue Ridge Road, we turn to paying for transit—and the political obstacles in Raleigh's way.

McFarlane is an ardent transit advocate. Raleigh's future growth, she says, depends on high-density, mixed-use developments in corridors served by light-rail and bus transportation.

But while Durham and Orange counties have taken advantage of the state legislation allowing them to collect, with the approval of their voters, a half-cent sales tax for transit, Wake's commissioners have blocked a referendum—meaning Raleigh and the rest of the county is shut out.

The Wake board of commissioners is controlled 4–3 by Republicans, and it's the Republicans who say no vote. The three Democrats are pro-transit. The four Republicans are up for re-election in 2014, and if they won't relent, McFarlane says, she will campaign against their re-election. "I mean, I think transit is incredibly important to what we become," McFarlane says. "And if there are four people who are stopping it from happening, I think we need four new people with a more progressive point of view."

McFarlane backed the Wake transit plan put together two years ago by Triangle Transit's David King and then-Wake County Manager David Cooke. Eleven of Wake's 12 mayors—all but Wendell's—supported the "David-David plan," McFarlane notes. But the commissioners ignored it.

Recently, the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group affiliated with the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said Wake should now consider a different, buses-only approach, ditching any idea of a light-rail connection between Raleigh, Cary and the Research Triangle Park. Orange and Durham counties, meanwhile, are planning a light-rail line from Chapel Hill to downtown Durham to RTP.

That Wake would refuse to build the eastern half of a regional light-rail system while Orange and Durham build the western half is short-sighted and costly, McFarlane says, because the potential for high-density development around a dozen or more light-rail stations in Raleigh, Cary and Morrisville is "much, much greater" than anything a buses-only system of transit would yield for Wake.

More buses will be the first element of any Wake plan, McFarlane says, and bus rapid transit of the kind the RTA supports can be "adjunct" to the light-rail stations—as it would be, for example, at the State Fairgrounds station, which could connect with buses on Blue Ridge Road and Hillsborough Street

McFarlane urged the commissioners to allow a referendum in 2013, but she sounds resigned now to seeing 2014 pass without one due to the commissioners' intransigence and the RTA's and the Chamber of Commerce's diffidence.

Questions about where to use bus rapid transit and the exact route for light-rail through downtown Raleigh won't be settled this year either, she thinks. But establishing a process for settling those questions—and reaching consensus within the council on how to push the politics ahead—will be up for discussion at the retreat.

McFarlane was supposed to meet with McCrory on Monday to talk about Dix. She calls him frequently. As a former mayor of Charlotte, he always answers—and accuses her of calling him every other day, she jokes.

And so it goes for this part-time mayor (at $17,000 a year) whose days are a whirl of meetings with business and political leaders—allies and foes. She's stopped making self-effacing remarks about how she could do without being mayor. People were starting to get the wrong idea, and at least two council members were hatching plans to replace her.

Now McFarlane says to anyone who asks, "I like being mayor." She likes Hall, the new city manager, who brings expertise on growth and transit issues from Charlotte, calling him "awesome." She's looking forward to the retreat and a fresh start for the council.

In fact, she adds, she wants to keep on being mayor until she's seen the Dix and transit issues to resolution, with the park a reality and a transit plan funded and under way in Wake County. Unless I'm mistaken, that means she'll run again in 2015.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Balance of power."

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