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Coker II: It's Smaller, Not Better


Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker's promise when he was elected last year was to make the city "Better, Not Just Bigger." His point was to rein in sprawl and foster growth from within. But voters couldn't miss the implicit reference to Coker Towers, the mega-project that roiled Raleigh in the year leading up to the election. Developer Neal Coker's "The Oberlin" was narrowly rejected by the City Council. But it still sets people's teeth on edge regardless what side they were on:

• The pro-Coker crowd continues to view his opponents as hypocritical NIMBYs who reject sprawl but won't accept the alternative--dense development in town--if it's in or near their own backyards.

• The anti-Coker side remains amazed at the argument that they rejected an appropriately dense, transit-friendly development in downtown Raleigh since the Coker site was neither downtown nor anywhere near a planned transit hub.

As you may know, your reporter, who lives between downtown Raleigh and the Coker site--about a mile from each--was firmly in the latter camp.

At any rate, Meeker aligned himself with the anti-Coker side and rode the wave of smart-growth activism that it unleashed to a narrow victory over former Mayor Paul Coble, a Coker backer. After he won, 150 of his supporters turned out on a Saturday in March for a "summit" sponsored by the Neighborhood Coalition for Responsible Development in Raleigh. The subject: reforming the planning process. Spirits were high.

Nine months later, Coker II, another project proposed for the same site, will be decided by the City Council at its Dec. 18 meeting. On the activists' side, it's come to symbolize the fact that the planning process hasn't changed at all. They view the new project as smaller, but not better. Opinions of it range from "not that bad" to "so inappropriate as to destabilize our neighborhoods," but no one on the neighborhoods side thinks it's what it ought to be, and they are scratching their heads over Meeker's refusal to back them up when there was still time to get it changed.

Responding by e-mail to neighbors' protests last week, Meeker stopped just short of saying he'll vote to approve the project, which requires a rezoning. He said it's smaller than Coker Towers, and "represents the mid-rise scale that many have been talking about," adding: "While this form of development must respect its neighbors, a more urban form of development has many advantages and will tend to lessen our encroachment on rural areas."

"I think we like Charles as a person," said neighborhood coalition leader Bill Padgett, smiling wanly. But Padgett wasn't pulling any punches. His group is "disappointed" in Meeker and also in council member Janet Cowell, whose election they supported. "I'd just like to see some of our council folks lead for the neighborhoods. Councilors used to say right up front when a project was too big, and developers knew they had to scale it back. Now, we're asked to negotiate with the developer, and it's difficult to do," Padgett said.


Coker II is two separate projects occupying 12 acres of Coker's original 15 (missing are three lots along Wade Avenue). On one side, facing Daniels Street, Trademark Properties wants to renovate the long-vacant Occidental Insurance building. On the other, facing Oberlin Road, Charlotte-based Crosland Co. is asking to build two four-story apartment buildings with attached parking decks.

So far, so good.

The problem, as Meeker acknowledged, is in "the transitions." Redmond's planning a three-tiered parking lot on the sloping lawn in front of the Occidental, facing people's houses. Crosland has a restaurant and ground-level stores, along with a strip parking lot, facing Oberlin Road.

Neighbors reading the city's new "urban design guidelines" think Meeker must have missed Section 3.1, "Automobile Parking," if he's mistaken Coker II for the "more urban form" many are talking about. "Parking lots should not dominate the frontage of pedestrian-oriented streets ... or negatively impact surrounding developments," it says.

They also think he missed Section 2.2, which says residential densities (outside of downtown) should be 15 units per acre or less except near mass transit stations.

Padgett is among those who think the sheer density of the Crosland proposal--370 apartments, down from an initial 425, on less than 9 acres--is what's forcing the parking lots to the edges. The neighborhood coalition's position: The 135-225 units allowed under the current O&I-1 zoning (15-25 units per acre) is enough.

A neighborhood coalition negotiating team actually split away from the larger group on this issue, offering to support higher densities in the middle of the site for open space on the edges, including the Occidental lawn. They got Crosland to pull back a little on the Oberlin side, but on the Daniels side there was no give at all, nor could they get Meeker to back their play--or put up any money to buy a bit of open space from Coker.

Says an exasperated Fran Robertson, one of the negotiators: "If our standard for judging these developments is whether it's better than Coker Towers, we're just in a lot of trouble."


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