by Bob Geary
The official public hearing on the draft comprehensive plan (revised) is tonight --
Thursday, 6:30 p.m. at City Hall. It's previewed in the Indy this week, mainly on the question of whether the plan is too promiscuous with its "growth centers" to actually produce any that will amount to the "walkable urban places" everybody says we need. Mitch Silver, Raleigh's planning director, says it's not -- too promiscuous, that is -- and that the metastasizing Brier Creeks and North Hills's of the world will not undermine Raleigh's urban future.
Silver recognizes, though, that creating "walkable urban" locales requires a lot of very fine-grained, pro-active planning, public investments, community engagement and follow through with developers who must share the vision and help make it happen. Raleigh's limited experiences with that kind of "place-making" include Glenwood South, where the hits outnumber the misses, and Fayetteville Street, a work still very much in progress but so far, pretty good. (B+) On the other hand, Brier Creek was supposed to be "urban" too. But it isn't.
Our next placemaking challenge, Silver says, is on the West Side ("Depot District) between downtown and Boylan Heights, where his imagined "Grand Central Station of Raleigh," a multi-modal center for rail and bus service, could one day go.
Then, perhaps (my list): The other rail-corridor transit stops with the potential to anchor great walkable places within the next decade or so, including the State Fairgrounds area, the West Raleigh station area, and -- in the other direction -- New Bern Avenue (a potential streetcar connection) and the Seaboard Station-Devereaux Meadows area off Capital Boulevard.
Anyway, on Tuesday at the City Council meeting Silver unveiled a an extraordinary plan for the re-deployment of his planning department staff. Don't call it a reorganization, he said. It's a plan to offer new services and stake a claim as the most innovative planning department in the country. It's a plan to make the comprehensive plan work the way it's supposed to.
The basic new service: Planning.
Silver didn't put it quite that way, of course. But he didn't pull any punches either. His staff spends 75 percent of its time pawing helplessly over conditional-use rezoning cases -- in essence, reacting to whatever developers propose ... and propose ... and propose.
"Conditional use" means that, within a given zoning category, a developer offers not to create certain allowed "uses" as a condition of being approved for all the others. E.g., if you'll rezone my land for a strip mall, I'll promise that it will never house a strip club -- that type of thing. These cases often involve developers offering a limited set of conditions at first, but if enough neighbors object and City Council approval looks doubtful, they add more in serial fashion -- more landscaping, bigger buffers, they won't max out the height, businesses won't stay open after 10 -- until the opposition's worn down.
And the planning staff with it, Silver said.
He wants his staff engaged in pro-active planning, not re-active analysis of the eighth set of conditions in a zoning case where maybe the basic use doesn't belong in the first place?
In other words, Silver wants to turn his staffers loose to do great plans that developers will -- ahem -- all rush to follow, if not actually -- it's Raleigh, after all -- be required to follow them. Detailed plans, that is, that will make those damned "conditional use" cases a thing of the past.
So here's what Silver is pitching. He wants to create a "think tank" within the staff, with Deputy Director Ken Bowers in charge. He wants to expand the charge of the Urban Design Center, which under its leader Dan Douglas has heretofore been limited to the downtown area, to place-making throughout the city. He wants his whole department equipped with SAS software tools and 3-D modeling software so everyone can "see," not just read about, what a developer or a planner has in mind. (Be still my heart. People have been asking for modeling in Raleigh at least since the days of Coker Towers, a project that collapsed after the neighbors managed to model it and publish the pictures.)
Silver wants members of his staff assigned to work with the Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs), which is long, long overdue, and he wants to create a "Neighborhood Planning" unit in his department to draw up detailed neighborhood plans. He wants that unit to work with the police department, because the way streets develop has a big impact on their safety.
He's calling all this his "Great Streets, Great Places, Great Spaces" initiative. It will take years to implement, he said. But when it is, he promises, Raleigh's name will be spoken in the same hushed tones as Portland, Oregon whenever great cities are listed or great planning departments celebrated.
Councilor Russ Stephenson said he'll be celebrating. "I'm very impressed with how you've set your sights on improving the planning process," Stephenson told Silver, and on "[doing] things that some of us have been talking about for a long time."