When Raleigh City Councilman Phillip Isley finished his 15-minute speech about the benefits of Bickett Place, half the audience in the city council chambers on March 19 applauded. Developer Mike White received handshakes in deference to his public vindication, and the neighbors continued to boo and scowl.
The fight over White's proposed 21-unit townhouse development on a 2.1 acre tract of land he cobbled together in Raleigh's Five Points neighborhood will continue for another week as the two sides try to compromise one more time. Mayor Charles Meeker told the parties they must return with their proposals by Friday, March 29, at 5 p.m.
For Meeker and the new city council, Bickett Place is a first, small taste of the fight over future infill development in the center of Raleigh. After Neal Coker's huge row with the surrounding neighborhoods last year helped bring down the developer-friendly Paul Coble administration, Meeker took office vowing to protect homeowners and hold developers to tougher standards.
But Meeker and his "smart growth" supporters must walk a fine, contradictory line: "Smart" infill helps to prevent sprawl, but because it's infill, someone's backyard will always be affected. The city wants to attract good development, but how many builders are willing to go through the two-year ordeal that White continues to weather?
"They tell me they want something that fits with the neighborhood," White says. "You can just look around here and see how many high-density developments there are. It fits in perfectly, and mine will be even more architecturally beautiful than any of them. If they didn't want those, the neighborhood should have had the land rezoned after some of those other projects were built."
Councilman Isley accuses the mayor and some on the city council of bowing to NIMBYism. He says that Bickett Place is a landmark project for the city and will prove if Meeker's "smart-growth" campaign was "hollow political rhetoric" or if the city is really ready to change and grow responsibly.
"Perhaps we should adopt policies like Cary where every tree looks the same, where you can't fly a flag that doesn't meet regulations," Isley said at the meeting.
Raleigh neighborhood activist Parker Call, a leader in the fight against Coker Towers and a key organizer of the Neighborhood Coalition for Responsible Development in Raleigh, says that neighborhoods have a right to say "when" on developers' plans. She has been advising the Bickett Place opposition.
"A neighborhood can absorb only so much before it caves in," Call says. "The people who are fighting this are people who came in and renovated; this is a neighborhood on its way back."
Both sides agree that the city's lack of vision and systematic planning is at the core of the debate. The city's comprehensive plan, promoted by Raleigh's planning department, is a patchwork of neighborhood plans and old rezoning decisions that, because they contradicted the plans, were added as amendments to them. The result is a very general layout of the ideal city along with 12 chapters of vague, sometimes contradictory details.
It's a work in progress, all agree. What that means, White says, is that he's the guinea pig as projects like Bickett Place are used as test cases that end up constituting the plan.
Typically, emotions mingle with facts and cloud the debate. White says he'll lose everything if he doesn't get this approval. And he says he's been burned before trying to cut up pieces of land to create denser housing projects.
"I was not going to go through that again," White says. "So I did a lot of research before I began putting this project together." He says he wasn't going to take chances with the $1 million it cost to buy out five houses and two backyards from homeowners surrounding the land. Because of the financial losses of his last failed venture, he moved into one of the modest houses himself. Now he says he's being used as a punching bag for people who don't want to see "progress" in their backyards.
"It's so presumptuous for them to say all I care about is money," White says. "I'm not a big corporation. Everything I have, from my retirement to all my savings was in this deal. These people don't know me, they don't know what it's like to not sleep at night, not knowing if you'll make the interest payments."
Kleber says all White needed to do was ask the neighbors what they would like built on the wooded plot.
"We are not unreasonable neighbors," she says. "Look at how we worked with the people who built that small shopping center on Whitaker Mill. We can compromise."
White says that's not true. After seven meetings over an 18-month period with the neighborhood association, White says he realized he could never satisfy this group.
"It cost me more than $150,000 in architects' and planners' fees to make the changes they kept asking for," he says. "I even agreed to tear down my own f-----g house for the entrance." And the players change regularly, he says. "We have a whole new set of people at these meetings now than were there in the beginning."
For the neighbors, the issue is whether a development "fits in" with its immediate surroundings or overwhelms them. Kleber, who like a number of White's neighbors, lives in a one-story bungalow, argues that a three-story townhouse complex within 20 feet of her backyard is too much, especially since White's tracts rise above their lots.
The association has depicted the problem on its Web site, where White's townhomes are shown looming ominously over a little bungalow.
Kleber says White's profits would come at the expense of her privacy, adding that she wouldn't have bought her house last summer if she'd known about White's plans. "Who would have thought that something like this would come along? The infill codes were written for vacant lots."
"We have yet to define quality infill," Call says. "Our comprehensive plan is like spaghetti. There's no plan or commitment where there is going to be revitalization or rehab. The city's a hodge-podge."
Kleber, who recently moved to the Triangle from Arkansas, says the older charm of the neighborhood needs protecting. "There's something very wrong with Raleigh," she says. "If there was a comprehensive infill plan, this never would have happened."
White, who grew up in Five Points, says he has as much, if not more, allegiance to the look and feel of his hometown as any transplants. "I bought and renovated a number of houses in that area," he says. "I took the risk and they are enjoying the benefits."
Frustrated and close to tears, White says he doesn't want to be the villain. "It's so frustrating," he says.
Those fighting Bickett Place are also frustrated, but undeterred. "The neighbors here won't stop," says Kleber. "You've awakened a tiger here."