The Triangle is growing apart, separated by geography, politics, transit and identity | News Feature | Indy Week

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The Triangle is growing apart, separated by geography, politics, transit and identity

Broken links



At night, it's "a long, dark drive" from Durham to Raleigh, Roger Krupa says. There's nothing to see for 30 miles but streaking headlights and taillights and signs promising that you're not lost, even though you don't seem to be anywhere.

Click for larger image • The bewitching hour: Five o'clock traffic on Interstate 40 outside of Cary. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

As director of the Raleigh Convention Center, Krupa is the city's chief downtown booster. He had dinner recently in Durham, he confides, almost in a whisper. It confirmed his view that Durham is too far away to be a major source of visitors for Raleigh events. "Durham's not on our radar screen," he says, shrugging.

Raleigh isn't on Durham's radar, either, retorts Reyn Bowman, executive director of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau. Durham is the hub of its own region with Chapel Hill, Bowman says, adding: "I'm not sure it's ever been about Durham needing Raleigh, as it is Raleigh needing Durham."

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The Triangle is not what it used to be—and maybe it never was. Despite local business leaders' efforts at linking the region—and cooperation that produced the airport and Research Triangle Park—geography, politics, culture, economics, land use, transit and even cities' individual identities are pulling the area into two distinct, increasingly estranged regions: Durham and Orange counties to the west; Wake, Franklin and Johnston counties to the east.

But according to national urban policy expert Bruce Katz, Raleigh needs Durham, and vice versa. And the two cities also need Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chatham County, if the Triangle is to be a thriving metropolitan area.

Urban "metros" are the engines of economic prosperity in this century, says Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He spoke at Raleigh City Hall last month, armed with statistics: The Raleigh-Cary metro is the nation's 52nd largest, according to the U.S. Census, with a population of 950,000; the Durham metro ranks 85th with 450,000 people. The two are well-positioned to be a powerful, "two-place" region, Katz said, like Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., or Seattle-Redmond, Wash.

This synergy can happen, Katz added, only if the Triangle reins in sprawl—the area rates among the nation's worst of the largest 83 regions on that scale—and connects the cities with mass transit. Otherwise, he warned, the Triangle will lose out to bigger, better-planned, and more "efficient" regions with a higher quality of life.

Melanie Eberhart, a Durham neighborhood leader, agrees. One of the few out-of-towners at Katz's talk, Eberhart moved here from the Midwest in 1998. A single parent, she landed in Durham because she found a house she liked that she could afford. Durham? Raleigh? She didn't know the difference. "I saw the Triangle as one area when I was considering the move," she wrote in an e-mail.

A decade later, she has changed her mind.

"I see so much that should be coordinated on a regional level, but that isn't, that it frustrates me no end," Eberhart wrote.

Her list includes water, air quality, transportation, open space, inter-city competition for jobs. "I don't know if we are a metropolitan area except in name or geographic conglomeration of people only."

The regional disconnect also frustrates Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Corp. Widely considered to be the Triangle's "Mr. Regionalism," he argues that "the folks" in the university, nonprofit and business worlds are cooperating to make the Triangle one place. It's the government officials and some civic promoters who don't get it. "They're obstacles," Goodmon says.

In the early '90s, Goodman worked with sports entrepreneur Hill Carrow on an ambitious "Triangle Central Park" plan to build an arena, baseball and soccer stadiums, hotels and a regional convention center near Research Triangle Park. As they envisioned it, a new city could grow up around it, helping pull together the region's two sides. They had Wake County's backing, but not Durham's—the Bull City didn't want their baseball Bulls to move—and the scheme fell through.

Though, as Carrow quips, all the elements exist today, just not in the same place. "We call it Triangle de-Centralized Park."

Deflected but not deterred, Goodmon proceeded to do business in Durham, buying the Bulls and developing properties adjacent to the city's new baseball stadium. His belief in regionalism is stronger than ever, he says, though his approach has changed. He now sees Durham and Raleigh as "different places in the same market" with complementary personalities that should grow in tandem and be sold as a package. Instead, the two city governments do the opposite, engaging in counterproductive competitions—as do the county governments, chambers of commerce and convention and visitors bureaus. He has taken to asking, only half-facetiously, why we need two of everything.

Several years ago, the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau refused to back the CIAA basketball tournament because it was a "Raleigh" event (before the league moved it to Charlotte). "When I heard that," he mutters, "I about had a damn conniption."

So Goodmon has taken a different tack. He's banking his regional efforts on organizations that are working together: Triangle United Way, Triangle Community Foundation, Leadership Triangle and others. "People live regional lives," he says, despite the parochialism of their local officialdom.

Before the 1950s, says David Godschalk, UNC professor emeritus of city and regional planning, Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh were not considered part of the same region, let alone as the Triangle.

If not in different worlds, the cities resided in different river basins: Chapel Hill and most of Durham drained to the Cape Fear River, while Raleigh flowed to the Neuse. The soils in between were considered unfertile, which is why few people lived there.

But in 1959, state leaders created Research Triangle Park on 7,000 acres of that unwanted land. RTP was designed to spark collaborations among the scientists at the three major research universities—N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke—and attract corporate and government agency scientists interested in collaborating with them.

Click for larger image • The Research Triangle area, circa the 1960s - PHOTO COURTESY OF RESEARCH TRIANGLE FOUNDATION OF NORTH CAROLINA
  • Photo courtesy of Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina
  • Click for larger image • The Research Triangle area, circa the 1960s

RTP started slowly, but by the '80s, it was a sensation: Employment in the park was closing in on the current 40,000 mark, and to the east, it was jump-starting the once-sleepy Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

And so the Triangle was born.

A series of "World-Class Region" conferences began in 1987, convening the leading business, arts and government officials from Wake, Durham and Orange counties. They vowed to be collaborators, notwithstanding their earlier provincialism.

"We have learned the necessity of sharing resources," the conferees said in a 1992 vision statement, "though the lessons have not been easy and they are not yet fully learned. Our inability to cooperate and unite in common goals limits us."

Ironically, RTP and RDU, though models of collaboration, posed geographic obstacles to regionalism, Godschalk observes. The reason: Nobody could live in either one. The airport was open space, ringed—as flight safety requires—by low-rise buildings. The park, too, was developed as a woodsy, no-density campus. Its governing covenants prohibited housing from being built, allowing its research labs to operate in peaceful isolation.

With Umstead State Park, their neighbor in north Raleigh, RDU and RTP institutionalized a "hole in the donut" where the densely developed core of an urban region would customarily lie. "They weren't framed as a core, of course," Godschalk says, sighing. "They were products of their time."

If geography separates the Triangle's east and west coasts, politics walls them off. To the west, on the Durham-Chapel Hill coast, think blue—not the color of Carolina or Duke—but Democratic blue. To the east, the Raleigh-Wake coast, think a heavy dose of Republican, if not Wolfpack, red. Since 1972, the end of one-party Democratic rule in North Carolina, Orange County has voted for the Democrat in every presidential election; Durham in all but the '72 landslide. Meanwhile, Wake has voted Republican every time, albeit narrowly in '76, '80 and '04.

Today, the sharp edges have smoothed, but Durham-Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Wake remain far apart politically. The former's legislative delegation is composed of nine Democrats, no Republicans. The latter is made up of eight Democrats, five Republicans. The Durham and Orange county commissions are homogenously Democratic. The Wake commission leans 4-3 Republican. State House Speaker Joe Hackney, D-Orange, comes out of the environmental movement. House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, got his start fighting abortion rights.

The region's most vocal progressives—state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, and state Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham—hail from the west. The region's most ardent conservatives—state Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, and Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble—come from the east.

Political divisions have stymied efforts at Trianglewide projects on everything from cultural centers to transit. A good example is the failure of the proposed Terry Sanford Institute for the Performing Arts. The idea, championed by the ex-governor and later by a nonprofit he helped establish, was to create a national teaching and performance center for theater and dance that would be a draw throughout the Southeast.

The plan disintegrated, says Wib Gulley, former state senator and Durham mayor, and now general counsel at the Triangle Transit Authority, when backers split over whether it should be located in Durham or in west Raleigh on a site Gov. Jim Hunt had secured. But at the time, Raleigh's Republican leaders weren't interested. They were focused on expanding what's now the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Moreover, they didn't want to support a major regional arts complex in Durham.

Ten years later, Raleigh retains the 2,277-seat Memorial Auditorium, anchor of the Progress Energy Center; meanwhile, the Durham Performing Arts Center, a 2,800-seat hall, is scheduled to open within a year. Both venues will host touring Broadway shows. Neither is a major, or even minor, regional institute, which is what Terry Sanford had in mind.

In sports, the Triangle claims two minor-league baseball teams: the Triple-A franchise Durham Bulls and the Double-A outfit Zebulon Mudcats. It also is home to the United Soccer League squad Cary Railhawks. But the Triangle's only major-league franchise is a hockey team, the Carolina Hurricanes, whose arena, the RBC Center, is in west Raleigh.

In collegiate sports, Duke and UNC share a U.S. 15-501 connection and a liberal arts tradition. Each is the cornerstone of its city and town. N.C. State University, while it boasts the largest student body of the three schools, isn't as dominant in Raleigh.

Yet sports originally served as the Triangle's regional glue. The 1987 U.S. Olympic Festival was an event unprecedented in these parts, and unsurpassed since. A staff led by Hill Carrow and 7,000 volunteers staged Olympic-level events for 4,000 athletes who were potential members of the U.S. team. Competitions were held from Johnston County to the Greensboro Coliseum and at the region's universities, where the athletes and their coaches were also housed. An enormous marketing effort, backed by the Triangle's biggest companies, turned out 300,000 fans.

Heady stuff, says Carrow, now the owner of a Raleigh-based sports marketing company, for a "region" whose various chambers of commerce had literally never met. "At times," he laughs, "it seemed like we were pulling people kicking and screaming to the table." By the end, they were staging "business after hours" parties together, something that dissipated over the years but was recently revived.

A little-known fact about the '87 festival, Carrow says, is that it spawned the region's "first little mass-transit system." A fleet of buses was assembled to shuttle the athletes and fans, helped by a federal grant and state money. Transit to connect the far-flung Triangle was a priority for the first "World-Class Region Conference," also held in '87. "The feds and the state really wanted to use us as a test case," Carrow says. "It worked fantastic."

Two years later, the TTA was established to draw up a long-range transit strategy and to operate bus services across county and municipal lines, supplementing local and university bus companies.

Yet, it became evident that the two sides weren't equally committed to regional transit.

The TTA governing board, appointed by the three counties and their four largest municipalities, was wildly uneven in clout. From the Durham and Orange side, the appointees have tended to be top elected officials like the immediate past TTA chair, Durham Mayor Bill Bell. But Raleigh, Cary and Wake County maintained a wary distance by naming un-elected, sometimes obscure, representatives to the board.

Underfunded, the TTA was further hamstrung when, in 1995, it issued its "Recommendations for a Regional Transit Plan," including an ambitious commuter rail line from Raleigh to Durham to Chapel Hill.

The initial rail segment between Raleigh and Durham was designed to spark dense development through the region's core. A central station was planned at the eastern edge of RTP, where it was hoped a giant, mixed-use "Triangle Metro Center" would spring up.

The rail line would fill the "hole in the donut," creating places that, in the aggregate, would constitute a new city—a linear one that would connect the region's two sides. Such vitality in the core, the TTA argued, if served by transit, would breathe some life and much-needed housing into the then-moribund downtowns of Raleigh and Durham.

Although the plan was endorsed by the region's two metropolitan planning organizations, when the TTA went to the General Assembly to receive approval for local funding, only Orange County legislators supported the agency's request for a regional sales tax increase of one-half cent. Wake's more conservative delegation balked, as did Durham's progressives, influenced by the strong opposition of Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, who opposed using the sales tax for anything. The split left the TTA to support its transit plan with only a small tax on car rentals, which helped to doom it 10 years later when the Bush administration cut back sharply on "New Start" rail projects.

The demise of the rail initiative has contributed to the area's persistent traffic headaches, which further divide us. Ed Johnson, a senior transportation planner, has designed a graphic showing traffic flows in the region. The patterns look like a pair of sparklers shooting from Raleigh and Durham, with a smaller sparkler emanating from Chapel Hill. A big line runs through the middle for Interstate 40, but otherwise, RTP and RDU are, indeed, the hole in the donut.

"You could argue there's a de facto urban growth boundary" between Raleigh and Durham that prevents them from growing together, Johnson says.

"Basically what we've got is, people commute from all over to all over," with the greatest concentrations into and out of the two downtowns, he adds. "But it's such a diffuse pattern, it's a real challenge to find places where the density is intense and pervasive enough [for transit] to make a difference."


Within the numbers, though, there's a definite east-west divide. Over the last decade, population in Durham-Chapel Hill has grown at about half the rate as Raleigh-Wake. The fastest rates of growth are in the outlying counties to the east and west: Chatham, up 17 percent; and Franklin, Johnston and eastern Wake, including the eastern half of Raleigh, up 24 percent.

Johnson is executive director of the Raleigh-based Capital Area MPO, one of the Triangle's two metro transportation organizations; the other is the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro MPO.

The two agencies grew separately from their Raleigh and Durham beginnings. Now each is recognized as the controlling agency for funding purposes in its "region" by the federal government. Johnson advocates merging the organizations, and the Capital Area board has voted to do so—twice; DCHC said no both times. The main reason is that the Capital Area territory and funding are more than twice as large as DCHC's. In addition, the western part of the region is trying to become more compact and is spending more money on transit. The Capital Area region, as Durham's Reyn Bowman put it acidly, is still in its "Oklahoma land-rush phase," with developers calling for more roads and elected officials scurrying to answer their call.

Johnson, who grew up in Durham, worked 13 years for the state Department of Transportation on Durham-Chapel Hill issues before going to work for the City of Raleigh and now for the Capital Area MPO. He has seen the political divisions. "What I can say is, there is a degree of animosity and suspicion about the others' thoughts and actions ... [and] they don't tend to know each others' problems."

The Triangle's most serious problem is its inability to do long-range land-use planning and manage growth regionally, says Chapel Hill Town Council member Bill Strom. That schism arises from the two regions' markedly different attitudes about how—and how fast—to grow.

Durham and Chapel Hill are intent, Strom says, on tying growth rates to available infrastructure resources and redeveloping their downtowns to be "transit-oriented."

Orange County, in particular, has established an official urban growth boundary. It also requires developers to ensure roads, sewers and schools are available as new developments are built.

It's unsettling, therefore, Strom says, to see "how robust" growth has been in Wake County, which is having trouble sustaining itself. With its own water supply at Falls Lake dangerously low, Raleigh is casting covetous eyes on its western neighbors' more plentiful Jordan Lake.

But growth in the west "is a little schizophrenic too," Strom acknowledges, adding that developments in Chatham County "look just like Zebulon." In Orange County, developers are pushing to build the Triangle's third megamall at Buckhorn, near Interstates 40 and 85 in Hillsborough. If approved, the mall will join Durham's Southpoint and Raleigh's Triangle Town Center as monuments of sprawl.

Orange County has little choice, says Commission Chair Barry Jacobs. With Southpoint and a host of smaller malls on the county's borders, "we're leaking so much sales-tax revenue," which contributes to Orange's high property tax rates—the highest in the region.

Moreover, legislative proposals to allow regional revenue-sharing—an idea that would help the Triangle's counties to coordinate their development plans—have dead-ended in the General Assembly, Jacobs says, because lawmakers are afraid to buck the powerful development and real-estate lobbies, which oppose them.

Nonetheless, Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon is optimistic, based on the most recent elections in Wake County in which smart-growth advocates won control of Cary Town Council and the mayor's office and a majority of seats on Raleigh City Council.

Gordon, who serves on the TTA board, agrees that "west and east haven't grown together on our attitudes about growth." Yet, in the face of mounting regional water and traffic congestion problems, she says, the two sides will be forced to do so.

A funny thing has happened to the Triangle since '96, when the cheering stopped for the TTA's rail plan. Downtown Raleigh started reviving, as did downtown Durham. They did so separately, without a rail link, or really any link, except I-40, to each other.

New highways were constructed: Interstate 540 around Raleigh. And existing roads were widened: U.S. 1 to Wake Forest, where the population has increased 100 percent in a decade, and N.C. 55 to booming Apex. The Durham-Chapel Hill connection via U.S. 15-501 became so congested that it vied with I-40 as the corridor with the highest regional transit potential.

Better roads fed Raleigh's and Durham's suburbs, and the suburbs in turn seemed to feed their respective cities. The growth of the universities contributed to the cities' vibrancy, too.

The major cities' independence means that when Raleigh markets its events at the Progress Energy Center, Roger Krupa says, it doesn't target Durham or Chapel Hill, but rather Cary, eastern Wake, and Johnston and Franklin counties. And after a big show at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in southeast Raleigh, long lines of traffic head not west, but east, as people go home to Rocky Mount and beyond.

Durham's Bowman doesn't dispute this duality. The Triangle, he says, isn't like most metros. It's "polycentric," with Durham-Chapel Hill anchoring the center of a region that draws from Granville, Person, Alamance and Chatham counties—as well as Raleigh.

The major cities' downtowns "became more self-sufficient," if still somewhat interdependent, says Harvey Schmitt, president of the powerful Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. With Bowman, Schmitt conceived of branding the Triangle as an extended "family of communities." The members have different personalities, and some have grown distant over the years, he says. "But from time to time, they do have common interests."

Those common interests have broken down over the past year, as the regional Special Transit Advisory Commission has struggled to agree on how to link the Triangle with high-speed rail.

When the STAC reached the decision stage, it was apparent that many Raleigh-Wake members were envisioning two separate rail systems, with their own linking Cary to Raleigh and Raleigh to Franklin County along U.S. 1. Raleigh business members were ready to postpone indefinitely a rail link from Cary to RTP, thus leaving a gap between their side and any rail transit built on the Durham-Chapel Hill side.

When Cary officials protested, the full STAC restored the missing link on its planning maps, but questions about which rail segments should be built first (and when), and who should decide, remain up in the air.

Orange County, meanwhile, was eager to start a light-rail link to Durham that would run along U.S. 15-501, and eventually connect to a commuter rail line west to Burlington.

It's not that Orange County doesn't want to connect to Raleigh, says Commissioner Jacobs. But Orange leaders are "scared to death" about car traffic to the proposed UNC expansion, Carolina North, if efficient mass-transit service isn't available.

Click for larger image • Former state Senator and current General Counsel for the Triangle Transit Authority Wib Gulley talks with Sandy Ogburn during a break from a STAC meeting. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

These polarized transit plans are aggravating to Durham representatives like Sandy Ogburn, a former Durham City Council member and TTA official. Caught in the middle, Durham wants the region connected, not two separate systems. "There's no question we're a single region," Ogburn says. "Now it's time we started acting like one."

STAC officials are nearly done with their work. Now the question of regional cooperation will be tackled by the Triangle J Council of Governments. Under the leadership of Orange County's Jacobs and Raleigh City Councilor Thomas Crowder, the council plans to launch a three-year "D & I" initiative, short for "Development and Infrastructure." Triangle J is a study group; this initiative, funded by the counties, cities and four regional universities, including N.C. Central, could give the council, if not actual power, at least a significant role in regional power-sharing.

David Godschalk says this idea is long overdue. He points to problems of resource conservation, air and water quality, and affordable housing that are best resolved regionally—and very hard to resolve otherwise.

For the Brooking Institution's Katz, there are benefits of scale if Raleigh and Durham grow together. Brookings' research shows a correlation between productivity and regional size. And creative people are the key to competitiveness, Katz argues. They're also mobile, and "they want to live in regions with the highest quality of life."

"It's hard to think how any healthy metro can function without state-of-the-art transit and the land-use development patterns that go with it," Katz says.

Melanie Eberhart agrees. She lives in Durham; her partner lives in Raleigh, where he works. They get around—to Cat's Cradle and the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, to the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh. Once a month, she and her son drive to the Colony theater in north Raleigh for the "cult classic" movies. But increasingly, they stick to Durham. One word: traffic.

"There's no mass transit," she wrote in an e-mail, "even though, I understand, it's been under discussion for decades! If we're going to be a destination location, we have to do better together, or no one will want to come here to work because the problems will outweigh the benefits."

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