by Bob Geary
Opponents termed it a monster's head, a dragon's head, a clenched fist aimed at their Pullen Park/West Morgan neighborhoods. It was the western-reaching appendage of the new comprehensive plan's FLUM (Future Land Use Map) that sought to extend the Central Business District -- as shown in red in the graphic -- to an assemblage of property at the intersection of West Morgan and Hillsborough Streets known to the community as the Bolton tract.
But the dragon won't be eating the neighborhoods, at least any time soon. Because after months of political in-fighting, the City Council Monday voted 5-3 to chop its head off, lifting the CBD designation from the 6.7-acre Bolton tract and instead making it (along with some nearby properties) into a special study area. In other words, the tract will be the subject of a small area plan to determine the most appropriate future land uses there in some detail.
The vote was a victory for a coalition of neighborhoods including Pullen Park and West Morgan on the south side of Hillsborough Street and the Cameron Park and Cameron Village neighborhoods on the north side. (Disclosure: I live in Cameron Park and supported our neighborhood's position.) On the other side were the owners of the Bolton tract, a Charlotte firm called FMW Real Estate, who fought hard to keep the CBD designation, and some adjacent property owners who supported them. The Bolton tract consists of some 11 separate lots assembled by FMW, including the long-vacant Bolton Corporation building itself.
For some background on the FLUM, see our Indy stories about it here and here. The monster's head has been in it from the December, 2008 get-go, with the Raleigh Planning Department staff and the Planning Commission backing it all the way against a growing chorus of neighborhood voices who argued that the Bolton tract simply isn't in the downtown CBD and shouldn't be treated as if it were.
When the issue finally reached the City Council, a flurry of 11th-hour maneuvering began. The neighborhoods were pushing for a special study. On the other side, FMW principal Jim Zanoni, his Raleigh lawyer Mack Paul, Raleigh Planning Director Mitch Silver and others concocted a 'compromise." The Planning Department's "Memo 9" proposed to change the Bolton designation from CBD to "Community Retail -- Mixed Use," a category defined in the comp plan as:
"... medium-sized shopping centers and larger pedestrian-oriented retail districts such as Cameron Village."
It seemed an odd fit, since Zanoni has consistently said that his firm will seek to have the property rezoned for a mainly residential project of about 1,000 units, or 150 units per acre. Not, that is, for a shopping mall.
The CBD designation calls for densities of up to 320 units per acre (and unlimited building heights). CRMU, on the other hand, is about shopping centers with some complementary residential units, but only 14-28 units per acre unless near a transit stop, in which case the upper limit would be 70 units per acre.
But wait -- in the 11th hour deal, the CRMU definition was proposed to be rewritten (as spelled out in Memo 9) to allow "the highest densities -- no more than 150 units per acre -- reserved for areas within a half-mile of a planned rail transit stop...."
Though the Bolton tract isn't located with a half-mile of a planned rail stop as yet, the Planning Department is pitching the idea of re-drawing the main TTA rail line so that it would be.
The idea is to pull the TTA rail line out of the Amtrak rail corridor as it approaches downtown Raleigh from the west and re-route it along West Hargett or West Morgan street -- making it an electrified streetcar, in effect. If that's done --and it's entirely possible that it will be done -- then a stop could be located not just near the Bolton tract but on it.
The rewritten definitiion -- 150 units, just what FMW wanted -- was posted to the city's website at about 4:30 Friday afternoon. Neighborhood leaders had no idea it was there until late Sunday night. By Monday morning, it was under fire. Mayor Charles Meeker, who on Saturday told me that he was inclined to support the CRMU designation (but at that point, I didn't know about the change to 150 units, and he didn't mention it), fielded a slew of emails and calls from irate neighbors.
When the issue came to a vote at the Council work session Monday afternoon, four Council members were lined up on the neighborhoods' side, and Meeker joined them. They were Thomas Crowder (the neighborhoods' district representative), Russ Stephenson (an at-large member), Rodger Koopman and Nancy McFarlane. Koopman and McFarlane represent other districts.
Voting the other way, against the special-study redesignation, were Councilors Mary-Ann Baldwin (the other at-large member), Philip Isley and James West.