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Soon, you won't be able to see the Capitol for the trees


Take five minutes, if you're going to Artsplosure in Raleigh this weekend, to get over to Fayetteville Street. It's a mess. I hope you like it as much as I do. Looking north, you can actually see the state Capitol, now that all the clutter of the ill-fated mall's been torn out. Looking south, the ill-fated Civic Center still blocks the view. But imagine the Civic Center not there, because in a few months it won't be. Then the old downtown street will really be reborn, wide and handsome, all the way to the BTI Center for the Performing Arts. I still don't see the point of the extra-wide sidewalks and squeezing down the street to make room for them. You tell me where all those café-restaurants--"like Glenwood South," as Mayor Charles Meeker's taken to saying--are going to be? I see offices and hopefully stores with the eateries to the east and the west. However, even I recognize that the sidewalk horse is long gone from the barn.

Maybe it's not too late, though, to stop the installation of lots of little street trees that eventually will grow to be big street trees--and branch out toward the middle of the street, thanks to the extra-wide sidewalks--that will once again block the view.

Come to find out, as I did when I dropped in at the city's Urban Design Center, 133 Fayetteville St., that City Manager Russell Allen also liked the no-trees option when the subject came up back in '02. But Allen, folks at the UDC said, deferred to "the public," which insisted that the City of Oaks' main street ought to have trees.

Whatever Progress Energy and the Chamber of Commerce wanted then, however, perhaps the membership could be polled again now that the finish line is starting to be in sight?

At the UDC, as city staffers and their design consultants were poring over blueprints for the south end of the street, the table talk seemed to be that we're getting the tree thing exactly backwards--we've got them planned where they don't belong, and thus we're thinking of not putting them in down by the new hotel, where they do belong.

Well, think about it. But my point here is to induce you to stop in yourself at the UDC, which is the place to go for all the latest news on downtown developments, good and bad.

The ebullient Dan Douglas, city planner in residence there, will tell you the good, complete with pictures and renderings. Raleigh, where almost nobody lived downtown a few years ago, has more than 1,000 new downtown housing units under way or on the way, and another 1,000 easily imagined up in the area around North Blount Street and down where the Civic Center is soon not going to be. "Assume two people per unit," Douglas says. "By 2008, we'll have 7,000 people living downtown."

Oh, he adds, and a grocery store over by the Seaboard Station, next to Peace College, if Fowler's Market comes in as planned. Now that's good news.

The bad? Raleigh still can't bring itself to tell a housing developer, look, we want life on our downtown streets, so either design your condos so they open onto the street or else put them above some ground-floor retail. Look at the Dawson, going up on West Morgan Street, or the Paramount, that jalopy on North Boylan up by Peace Street, to see what I mean. On the other hand, 222 Glenwood looks a lot better in its early sketches.

Worse, Raleigh hasn't a clue about inclusionary zoning. The "affordable" housing projects are over here (Gateway, nearing completion just south of Western Boulevard) and over there (Carlton Place, soon to get underway a block east of Moore Square), but there are no Chevy-class units in any of the Lexus-class projects, and that's a shame.

But do check out Capitol Park, the Raleigh Housing Authority's HOPE VI project that used to be Halifax Court. It's a mix of market-rate and subsidized housing, though with far fewer low-income units than before. Then look at The Village at Pilot Mill, just north of Capitol Park, where the old mill site's been turned into Raleigh Charter High School, some offices, and 104 houses that were "in the 180s" three years ago, Douglas says, but are now "in the 300s."

You can mix 'em, in other words.

Fans of downtown development will want to invest $10 in the "Art of Downtown Living Home Tour" organized by the UDC, which takes place on Saturday, May 21, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are on sale now at the UDC, 807-8479; check for details. Included for your money: developer Greg Hatem's very own flat, in the old Raleigh Times building on East Hargett Street. Hatem's the guy who's bought up half the downtown already. Who can resist that? The impact of impact fees What's the biggest issue in the '05 Raleigh elections? Try impact fees. The City Council just got a report on the subject from its consultant, Duncan Associates, and it merely serves to underscore the obvious: Raleigh is letting developers off scot-free, but the burden's landing on everybody else courtesy of higher property taxes.

The council hired a consultant as a way of not raising impact fees a year ago, when Meeker's effort to do so was blocked by a combination of recalcitrant Democrats and anti-fee Republicans. Instead, the council voted to increase the property tax a penny--the first such increase in a decade.

Now, another property-tax hike may be on tap as the Council tries to issue long-delayed park bonds already approved by the voters and to get public support for yet another road-building bond issue of some $60 million.

Enter Duncan, with its key findings. First, Raleigh's impact fees are far lower than the average in North Carolina. Second, Raleigh's fees are essentially unchanged since 1987, when it was the first municipality in the state to have them. Third, "fee revenues are paying less than 20% of fee-eligible parks and roads projects." In other words, Raleigh could get those parks bonds out, and roads built, with higher fees if it wanted to.

Moreover, Duncan notes, impact fees are zoned. Thus, higher fees charged to developments in fast-growing north and east Raleigh could be used to pay for needed parks and roads in fast-growing north and east Raleigh.

Instead, however, residents in the older downtown neighborhoods and in south Raleigh are being asked, in effect, to subsidize developments elsewhere in the city even though they "already have roads and parks in place that have excess capacity."

How far out of whack are Raleigh's ancient fees? According to Duncan, the average charge in North Carolina for a new single-family house is $4,038, and nationally it's $7,635. Fees elsewhere in the Triangle range from $3,155 (Durham) to $6,175 (Carrboro), as of its March 2005 survey. And Raleigh? $1,152.

Meeker's only council ally on this issue, now that Janet Cowell's in the Senate, is Thomas Crowder. Others are iffy (James West) or flatly opposed and aligned with the developers (Michael Regan, Philip Isley, Jessie Taliaferro), or newly appointed and not heard from yet (Joyce Kekas, Tommy Craven.)

But with the 2005-06 budget season coming up, Kekas and Craven will be forced to stake themselves out before the fall campaign, when both--apparently--are planning to seek election at-large. If they side with the developers and against the mayor, they'll open the door to a progressive attack from the likes of prospective candidates Russ Stephenson and Benson Kirkman.

Meanwhile, Duncan Associates, having finished its analysis of the problem, is back to the council looking for direction on phase two--"the actual study required to update the fee program." Update, of course, means increase it.

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