Edie Jeffreys is admiring the curly leaves and tall, lean profile of a Japanese maple in her shady backyard in Five Points. The tree is a rescue, she explains, from the yard of a property in nearby Fallon Park that was bulldozed to the ground a year ago. Jeffreys' tidy garden, which borders a long, narrow lot—typical Old Raleigh style—is full of rescue plants, but she's proudest of this one. She calls this deep stretch of land her "little slice of heaven," her urban oasis.
"I'm really concerned about keeping Raleigh green," she says. "Let's not just moonscape all the old neighborhoods and take out the old trees."
Jeffreys is concerned about saving the trees, yes. But she's also concerned, more concerned, about saving old houses and buildings, about preserving the unique, historic character of the city's oldest neighborhoods, which find themselves increasingly threatened by the city's rapid growth and urbanization.
For 15 years, Jeffreys has advocated for the kind of growth that protects neighborhoods, for restoring and revitalizing old homes rather than allowing developers to tear them down and replace them with homes double their size. She's beaten back an effort to build townhouses just across the way from her home on Sunrise Avenue, led the fight to secure zoning protections for more than a thousand properties in Five Points East and helped found Community SCALE, an advocacy group formed in 2007 to deal with issues related to infill development.
In the process, she's become one of Raleigh's foremost neighborhood activists, a proverbial voice in the wilderness pleading with gung-ho city officials to slow down and at least think about what's best for inner-core residents before signing off on whatever some developer wants to do. But with the recent furor over the Unified Development Ordinance—an in-process update to the city's zoning rules that has infuriated affected neighborhoods in recent months—Jeffreys has decided that being an activist is no longer good enough.
At the very last minute—on July 17, the deadline—she filed to run for City Council in District E, which stretches from Northwest Raleigh almost into downtown. Jeffreys says she's running to make a statement about the importance of Raleigh's neighborhoods, particularly the older ones inside the beltline, which she argues are under siege from developers buying up homes before they even go on the market.
If she wins, she says she wants to bring a much needed "neighborhood perspective" to Council.
Jeffreys didn't plan to run for another two years, when incumbent Bonner Gaylord is expected to run for mayor. But after hundreds of UDO opponents showed up to berate Council in July, she saw an opening.
"I was very upset about what happened there, and how unprepared the City Council and the planning department seemed to be, and I just couldn't sit back," she says. "I decided it was time."
Her campaign, then, can best be seen as an embodiment of the frustration, suspicion and discontent the city's residents have been feeling. In a very real sense, she wants to ride that wave of misgivings into City Hall.
But will that be enough?
Gaylord, of course, is as tough an opponent as they come—smart and suave and ambitious. He's already banked more than $160,000 for his campaign (the Wake County Board of Elections spokesperson says Jeffreys' campaign-finance reports are listed as "delinquent"), and he has the firm support of the powerful and well-heeled real estate, construction and development communities, which isn't surprising given that he's firmly in Council's pro-growth camp. (Jeffreys also faces newcomer DeAntony Collins.) But the councilman, who is also North Hill's general manager, is more than just a lackey for developers. He's credited with major achievements on Council, including SeeClickFix, an online system residents can use to report issues. He also played a pivotal role in securing Dix Park and luring Google Fiber, and he's been a strong backer of public transit and making the city more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.
Still, it's those big-development connections that Jeffreys wants to use against him. She paints Gaylord as too cozy with builders, unresponsive to the residents he represents and out of touch with what's happening on the ground. She wants to align him with the unpopular surge of teardowns and new, out-of-scale infill development she sees all over the district. She wants to convince voters that she is the candidate who will put a stop to that, the candidate who will preserve Raleigh's old-city charm.
In a very real sense, she's trying to make this race a microcosm of the city's existential question: How will it grow?
And if she wins—a long shot, but not beyond the realm of possibility—it will send a signal that neighborhoods will no longer roll over as the bulldozers come.