by Bob Geary
Note, first, that Raleigh adopted its current comprehensive plan in 1989, after the regional rail transit plan was hatched. The ’89 comp plan, in theory, should've stemmed the rampant sprawl and prompted dense developments to occur in close proximity to the planned station stops along the rail line, thus supplying the residents and the destinations (offices, stores) needed to make it hum. [CP, T & Splatter - I: The Back Story]
Didn’t happen. Dense developments were allowed to go elsewhere, and so they did, and they never came to rail line, which therefore never materialized. The sprawl, of course, continued apace – fueled, ironically, by the dispersal of the dense developments that did occur.
So now, 20 years later, Raleigh Planning Director Mitch Silver and his deputy, Ken Bowers, have unveiled a new comp plan – in draft form – and vow that it will … it must … usher in that same rail line together with a “very robust bus system” to mesh with it.
With transit, they say, Raleigh can reverse its sprawling ways and achieve a more efficient, “urban form” using re-development and dense infill projects that don’t – because of the transit – need a lot of suburban-style parking.
Without it, they warn, Raleigh’s sprawl will make Atlanta’s pale, and Raleigh will lose favor as a location for talented people and the businesses that depend on them.
Our 2 Planning Crew is singing the right tune, imho. The melody is sweet. But I’m afraid that underneath, the lyrics and arrangement – the actual text of the comp plan draft, that is, and the maps that go with it – are unfocused and discordant.
Here’s my fear: That once again, we have a comp plan that is meant to spark transit, is imagined to spark transit, but will not in fact spark transit in the way its authors or transit supporters intend. It may instead have the opposite effect of reinforcing our car-dependency and our sprawl.
I say this, and I hope I'm wrong and that Silvers and Bowers, who are very smart guys, are right that this is a great plan that will do what it needs to do to make Raleigh a 21st century city. But after a lot of time spent studying it, and listening to them present and take questions in various venues (and these two have been everywhere -- give them credit for yeoman labor), and especially after attending the forum Wednesday night organized by City Councilor Thomas Crowder, I'm of a mind that the upshot of this plan will be a diffuse bus system that doesn't qualify as transit -- and no rail transit.
Crowder's questions, and the questions and comments from his panelists and people in the audience, were provocative, as were Silver's and Bower's answers -- provocative in the sense that the two were candid and thus also revealing about the plan's internal contradictions.
I do think this plan will reduce somewhat, as Bowers said, Raleigh's high per capita rate of vehicle miles traveled per day, which is considered our and the Triangle region's Achilles heel in the competition to be a top location for growth companies and creative-class professionals. Lots of North Hills-style developments around town should allow people in the Raleigh of 2030 to live closer to where they work and shop, thus cutting their required car miles. But car miles they will be nonetheless, not transit miles.
Two points here, in a preliminary vein.
One, I don’t think of transit, or urban form, as effetes for the elite. I think of them as money-saving alternatives for people who don’t make a lot of money, don’t want to own two cars or perhaps even one, and don’t want to drive all over town for food, clothes, jobs or a beer after work. I also think of them as land-savers, in the sense that if we can achieve densely populated inner-city places, more of our outer-city farms, woods and open space can be preserved for everyone’s enjoyment. Free enjoyment.
I think of them, moreover, as a more efficient way to live for a society that desperately needs to be more efficient with its money, its time and its use of precious natural resources.
Two, I realize a comprehensive plan is just a plan. It can’t force itself on folks, or make people do what they don’t want to do or can’t do. And in North Carolina, comp plans have a weak status in law, especially when stacked up against a zoning code. Comp plans are policy statements (visions, a blueprint, as Silver says) that tell us, at most, what the zoning should or shouldn’t be in any given place. But whatever the zoning is already for that place trumps any plan unless and until the zoning is changed.
So whatever the comprehensive plan says about transit stops or density locations, unless and until the city’s zoning code is changed to reflect its vision, the existing zoning stands.
[And if the zoning is changed in ways that are contrary to the comp plan, once again, the zoning’s the thing, not the plan, which any good lawyer with a developer (and his rezoning application) for a client will tell you “is only a guideline.”]
All that said, a strong, clearly worded comp plan can often serve as a firewall for citizens trying to stop the bad rezonings and a spear for those pushing for the good ones.
A mushy plan, not so much.
The draft plan that Silver, Bowers and their staff and consultants have produced is full of melodic sentiments, but the words behind them too often are mushy, as in “consider,” “study,” and “explore.” Policies are suggested, or recommended, but not declared with words like “shall” or “must.” Even “should” is used sparingly.
On this point, Bowers said Wednesday that the word choices were deliberate, because words like “shall” would have the force of law.
And that’s a bad thing?
Silver added that the comp plan he inherited, 20 years worth of overlays, amendments, guidelines and small-area plans, too often conflicted with the adopted zoning (or even, he insisted, with other parts of itself), “creating a lot of confusion.”
All the “shalls” and exacting policy boundary lines didn’t help, he might’ve added but didn’t, when five members of the City Council were regardless determined to approve a developer’s conflicting project.
Silver made it clear he wants the new comp plan to be a general vision for the city, not a specific guide to how particular communities should develop. Let the zoning code be that guide, he said.
Silver’s goal, and the Council’s (or Mayor Charles Meeker’s, at any rate, with a majority of councilors giving mute backing), is to rewrite the entire zoning code once the comp plan is adopted, using the plan to shape the code.
But what went through my head as I listened to the planners’ song, and to some very smart questions posed to them by a panel of community leaders and several audience members, was this:
The current zoning code is extremely permissive. This new comp plan seems intended to rein it in somewhat – that’s the tune, anyhow – and to corral 60 percent of Raleigh’s growth into transit-friendly places. Catchy. But the plan’s soft words will be a weak battle cry in any effort (read: fight) to downzone anybody’s property.
Meanwhile, the new plan invites higher densities (upzoning) in various and far-flung places and along the many so-called “multi-modal corridors” that are anything but multi-modal. In short, it bids fair to add permissiveness on the pretext of high-quality bus services that don’t exist and aren’t likely to exist any time soon.
Take, for example, Capitol Boulevard. It’s a major thoroughfare in the existing plan; in the new plan, it’s a multi-modal corridor. But guess what? Calling it a swan doesn’t make it one, and Capitol Boulevard is not a place where a sane person would walk, ride a bike or cross the road to catch a bus. Indeed, when Urban Ministries moved its operations out of downtown to the old (donated) Harris Wholesale building on Capitol Boulevard, it discovered that its clientele – mostly low-income folks – could not get there on a bus. That’s because, the city’s bus administrator David Eatman tells me, there’s no place on that part of Capitol Boulevard for a bus to stop.
And this is not some remote location on Capitol Boulevard I’m talking about, this is half a mile out of the downtown – where no CAT bus goes today.
The same problem applies to Glenwood Avenue/Route 70, also imagined as a multi-modal corridor ... all the way out to the still-sprawling Brier Creek development. The Triangle Transit Authority at one point scouted possible bus-stop locations for service between Crabtree Valley and Brier Creek and came up with bumpkis -- no natural gathering places nor even a place where a slow runner would chance crossing the road to catch a bus.
In addition to Glenwood/70 and Capital Boulevard, the designated multi-modal corridors include Wake Forest Road, Six Forks Road, Creedmoor Road, Louisberg Road, Poole Road, Rock Quarry Road, Garner Road, New Bern Avenue, Oberlin Road and Hillsborough Street.
In other words, pretty much every spoke in the Raleigh wheel of roads would now be deemed multi-modal even if – think about these roads now – there’s not one multi-thing about them.
On top of this, a whole lot of other roads – Millbrook Road is a good example – would be labeled “urban corridors.”
And what’s supposed to occur on these many splendered roads? High-density mixed-use development is “encouraged,” especially for any tired old strip shopping center that’s out of gas and might be replaced by a retail-office-housing combo. “Explore density bonuses” for such re-do projects, the draft comp plan further suggests.
OK, so any strip mall in Raleigh – the stuff of sprawl, let’s recall, along with the platted subdivisions that adjoin them – is now a candidate for high-density redevelopment, which makes a lot of sense until you look at a map and realize that, unless there’s some rhyme, reason or connection between them, the dense redevelopments are going to be splattered all over town the same as the strip malls were.
Time to look look at the "Growth Framework" map from the comp plan (below, or for the original go to the PlanningRaleigh2030 website -- map is at the bottom) and while we do, remember why the ’89 comp plan failed to achieve its goal of a commuter rail service. It failed because the dense developments needed for the rail line went instead to Crabtree Valley, to North Hills, to the Triangle Town Center area, to the Brier Creek area, to Blue Ridge Road and Falls of Neuse Road and everywhere but the rail line.
Perhaps, post-'89, if the dense developments had gone -- since they didn't go to the rail line – to just one of those locations rather than to all of them … had they lined up along one road rather than be splattered onto many roads … had that one road been redesigned to have bus lanes and bike lanes and sidewalks with a park and a “village center” or two, then maybe we’d have a BRT (bus rapid transit) line up and running there today, and the heck with the rail line.
But they didn’t, and we don’t.
Take another look at that Growth Framework. The brown splotches, and the big purple downtown, are "growth centers." The blue ones are "community centers." In all, 35 "centers" -- a word that suggests centrality, but is anything but apt for these amoeba-like zones -- are invited to be "transit-oriented," as are any redeveloped strip malls. The circles are the rail stations, supposedly the prime transit-oriented development (TOD) zones.
I ask you this: Do the splotches complement and support the rail TODs? Or do they compete with them? Looking again at Capital Boulevard, where the buses will traverse the "multi-modal corridor" while the closest TODs are actually located in a rail corridor that follows Atlantic Avenue, I think the answer is they compete. Developments steered to most of the growth centers, in fact, located as they are on the concrete ribbons formerly known as highways, may one day be bus-transit oriented, but they're assuredly not TOD-oriented.
Now it’s fun to imagine that a futuristic Raleigh could support frequent, on-time bus lines on a dozen or 25 different routes that connect to the downtown, and the hoped-for rail corridor, as well as to each other. Hell, we could be San Francisco, where you jump off a streetcar or bus and another bus comes along in a minute or two … and if that bus isn’t going where you want to go, in another minute or two another one arrives, and then another, and another …
But in San Francisco, the streetcars came before the growth, and the growth fell in along established transit routes. There are places the transit doesn’t go in SF – or doesn’t go with any frequency – but here’s the thing: Not many people live there.
The opposite is the case in Raleigh, where the transit (or better, the hope of transit) is chasing the growth -- but the growth is running away from it.
And this is, remember, not the "Futuristic Raleigh" plan, it's Raleigh2030, which means the timing of things -- which comes first, which comes after, and which comes after that -- is critical.
In Raleigh, do we really think that people in 2020 are going to ride a bus to North Hills and then, having done their business in Target, hop another bus to Crabtree for a Cheesecake Factory dessert, followed by a third bus that goes to the rail station at – uh, which rail station would that be exactly? – to catch a ride home to West Raleigh?
Get your sundial out for the trip schedule on that one.
The Growth Framework map invites density not just on the perimeter of North Hills, Crabtree, Cameron Village and so on, but in splotchy patches at some remove from them. It's only illustrative, Silver says. Don't draw any policy implications from it. No developer will ever be allowed to claim density rights just because he's in a brown splotch.
There's also a much more detailed Future Land Use Map to consider, along with the acknowledged absence of discussion of "transition" zones between, say, the density sprawling out of Cameron Village and the established neighborhoods that would have to be mowed down to make way for it.
And the way Downtown Raleigh is shown, it's the monster that will devour Caraleigh and points south and west unless tamed, which Silver says a revision of the draft plan will do.
These subjects and some others merit a closer look than I can give them here, and will be subject of a "Comp Plan, Transit and Spatter III: Pick Your Spots (wt)," to follow.