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Raleigh's visionary city councilman announces his impending departure

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I met Thomas Crowder in March of 2003. I was putting together a story about Raleigh development issues. Nina Szlosberg, who was knee-deep in them at the time, told me Crowder was a visionary.

She was right. When I interviewed him, we talked about context, by which he meant that new development should enhance what's next door, not detract from it or overwhelm it. Crowder, a 47-year-old architect and Raleigh native then serving on the planning commission, seemed to know every sub-paragraph of the city's byzantine comprehensive plan and zoning code. I had a dim view of them, but Crowder said they were good for their day, shaping high-quality suburbs when suburban growth was what Raleigh wanted.

He said Raleigh needed a new plan, though and a code to foster urban-style redevelopment of our decaying downtown without hurting adjacent neighborhoods and the people in them. I don't remember if he pulled out his pen and sketched what he was talking about, but he probably did, because that's what Thomas does—where I write words, he draws an image, quickly, to scale, and shows you what's important.

Since that day, we've gotten together dozens of times to talk about the latest development proposal, and as I'd try to figure it out, Thomas would grab his pen, draw the plan and then, with a series of alternative sketches, critique it—the good, the bad, and if it could be better in context.

To the extent that I'm any good at visualizing such things, it's because Thomas showed me how. He also showed me how much the details matter and how they can make or break even the best vision. "God is in the details," he said in that first interview, quoting the great architect Mies van der Rohe. "Some people say it's the devil, but I prefer to put it positively."

It was an ironic comment, because on a planning commission known as a rubber stamp for developers, they called Thomas "Mr. No" for his willingness to cast a lone, dissenting vote when warranted. He was the lone vote against the infamous Coker Towers plan, for example—a project that mercifully was never built, though most of Raleigh officialdom bowed down before it.

That's the thing about Thomas: He doesn't bow down. He does what he thinks is right and he tries his best to stand with Raleigh's regular folks and the long-term interests of the city, regardless how much pressure is put on him to just go along because "important people" say so.

My friendship with Thomas began that day and my admiration for him too. Through 11 years on City Council—he was elected to the District D seat in 2003 and re-elected five times—he's been true to the vision he expressed when we met, that Raleigh should be "a world-class city, but we also want to preserve the small-town southern charm that makes us distinct."

It's been my privilege to watch him. Now, tragically, he's dying.

Over the weekend, Thomas and his wife, Kay, came by our house to tell my wife, Pam, and me that the cancer treatments didn't work. Two rounds of chemotherapy, but his cancer spread. His prognosis is in months, not years. He would make a public announcement Tuesday when the Council met. He's not resigning and will serve as long as his health allows. But the likelihood is that he won't make it until the end of his current term.

If he doesn't, he wants his fellow council members to appoint Kay to serve out the remainder. She's his rock. They're a team. I can't think of a better choice.

Kay had tears in her eyes and Pam and I did too, but Thomas didn't. He's had a great life, he said. He'll die with no regrets. His legacy is his family, Kay and their two children, Rachel and Garrett, who've grown up to be the equal of their parents. Kay called Thomas "brave and trustworthy." I agree.

And then, as we're wont to do, the four of us were off and running about city issues and the many battles Thomas has won and lost in his tumultuous but finally triumphant years.

Raleigh has a new comp plan, which Thomas rightly counts as a victory. We have a new zoning code, which he supported though it's not everything he wanted. But we were laughing, not crying, because we all remember what our downtown looked like in 2003, and though the credit is widely shared for bringing it to life, Thomas played a huge role.

As he did with Hillsborough Street—which should be a winner but may not end up being so, because details matter and the developers are circling. And absentee landlords, remember those battles? And front-yard parking? Thomas fought for years to get ordinances on the books protecting older neighborhoods. He succeeded, and it's pretty funny how many politicians and interest groups he had to convince before he did.

Dix Park? He was the first council member to be for it. Transit? He's been its longest, strongest proponent. Inclusionary zoning? He's still the lone voice there, but it has to happen.

Space doesn't permit a full accounting of Thomas Crowder's record, so let me try to sum it up this way. Raleigh's his hometown and Kay's too, for that matter, and they love it. He's worked hard to protect it and help Raleigh grow into a first-class city with small-town charm. That's his other legacy.

I'm proud of you, my friend.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Thomas Crowder's legacy"

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