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Hits and errors

Raleigh's costly planning miscues-- and the return of Erin Kuczmarski



The point that Danny Coleman wants to make about Haywood Street in Raleigh isn't that it's so awful. It's that it would take so little to make it great--a showplace for his needy near-downtown neighborhood in Southeast Raleigh--but city leaders instead seem content to have it stay second-rate. Coleman thinks it bespeaks Southeast's "stepchild" status in general, which is unarguable. But it's also indicative, in my view, of how blind Raleigh is when it comes to the subject of design standards for urban development throughout the city.

Think of the biggest, "best" developments in Raleigh lately, the ones Mayor Charles Meeker is apt to mention when he's on the subject of "downtown renaissance." The Progress Energy tower. The Paramount. North Hills. Coker Jr. (or The Oberlin, if you prefer). Right, the last three aren't downtown, but they aren't in the part of Raleigh that should be Wake Forest either. At any rate, all four projects should have been home runs for the city, but instead they go into the scorebooks as extra-base hits with an error (Progress Energy, North Hills), plus a couple of long outs.

Why? It's those darned details--the ones the devil's always in?--that good design standards help you get right, while the lack of same leads to trouble.

Progress Energy? The city put up $10 million worth of parking in a deal that called for the company to finance street-level stores (with condos above) on the back side of its corporate headquarters, facing Blount Street. Then, when the building was finished, gee whiz, it turned out there was just no market for stores back there--but wasn't that the whole point of the deal, to help jump-start retail south of City Market?

A missed opportunity.

As for The Paramount, it's too tall for where it is, and instead of street-level retail, West Johnson Street gets a two-story parking deck to look at. The Oberlin's just not very appealing. (But that doesn't mean, as our friend Ruth Sheehan wrote in the N&O, that the original Coker Towers plan was therefore better; prettier, maybe, but much, much worse for the site.) And North Hills? Really nice overall--so why was it necessary to put a four-story wall o' condos, with no buffer, up against the residential streets of the North Hills neighborhood? That's maybe the biggest shame of all, since there were so many other ways it could've be done--if the City Council had insisted.

But, you say, didn't Raleigh adopt Urban Design Guidelines, in big Capital Letters, to address just these sorts of issues? Yes, and how many times since then have you heard a developer say (or, usually, it's his lawyer) "they're only guidelines"--and then they tell you "and we're in compliance with all the important ones."

Important to whom? Urban design is about making sure your project works well not just for you but also with what's around it, since in a city--unlike in the 'burbs--the buildings, stores and condos are in very close proximity to each other. Playing well with others is the concept we're going for here.

Now for Haywood Street. It runs north-south with a jog in the road at Lenoir Street. North of Lenoir, about all you can say for it is that it's paved. It wasn't all that long ago when it wasn't. But it's the stretch to the south of Lenoir, which ends at Martin Luther King Boulevard, that Coleman's concerned about. Here, Haywood Street all of a sudden has two pretty swanky residents. On its east side is the new front door of the re-oriented Ligon Middle School, a gifted and talented magnet school. On its west side is the rolling tract that used to be the Chavis Heights public housing project, but is about to be turned into a mix of new upscale and subsidized housing--thanks to a federal HOPE VI grant--by the Raleigh Housing Authority.

Beyond Chavis Heights is Chavis Park, which if you've never seen it (and if you're white, chances are good that you haven't) rivals Pullen Park in West Raleigh--carousel and all.

So, in a neighborhood where the slumlords have held sway, suddenly you've got a signature school redesign across from a signature housing redevelopment in front of one of the nicest urban parks you'll ever see--wouldn't you want a first-rate street running between them? Absolutely you would, and if you were Coleman--a longtime neighborhood leader who's currently co-chair of the South Central Citizens Advisory Committee--you'd see it as your job to make that happen.

Especially if, as is the case, Haywood Street today is little better than a paved alley. It's narrow here, wide there, a parking lot in some places, and not only isn't it crowned like a real street, it's the opposite, with old drains stuck right there in the middle for all to see.

Thus, when the school system presented its plans for Ligon, Coleman was there; but the school folks said Haywood was a private street belonging to the RHA, not the city. So they carved out some bus lanes on their side of it and that was that.

Then, when the RHA came in with its Chavis Heights plans, it was discovered (aha!) that Haywood's not owned by them at all. And, unlike virtually every other developer you've ever heard of in Raleigh, the RHA wasn't going to be required to improve the public street in front of its project, either.

So ruled Eric Lamb, the city's transportation chief, who said in an e-mail to Coleman that after kicking it around a bit with his street maintenance people: "The consensus is that we will allow the existing section to remain. We can't justify requiring the developer to completely reengineer the street when the existing pavement and drainage appears to be functioning adequately. We are going to require that repairs be made to one or two of the drainage boxes that are somewhat depressed from the existing pavement grade."

As you might imagine, this frosts Coleman no end, and he plans to take the issue up with the City Council next month. Number one, he says, it's not fair--even Lamb can't point to a single other public street in Raleigh with drains down the middle, only private streets. But fairness aside, Coleman says, it's not smart. "Here we have a beautiful new front for Ligon, and there's a catch basin right in front of it."

As Coleman says, if the RHA won't pay for the street's improvement, as it should, then the city will have to do it--because to leave such an obviously important detail undone, or done badly, would turn two more home-run projects into hits for the owners and errors for the neighbors.

"The biggest thing," Coleman believes, "is the mindset. Is it still 'anything goes' in Southeast Raleigh? We've got to get the message out that we're paying attention over here, that citizen activism is at work, and that if you invest your money in our neighborhood, your money will be protected and you'll have a chance to be successful."

It's a message, I would argue, that applies everywhere in Raleigh.

Erin Is Back!
Remember we told you about the developer's coup that unexpectedly toppled Erin Kuczmarski, former chair of the Raleigh Planning Commission. Well, it turns out that one of the three new members picked by the Republican-controlled Wake County Commissioners did not live, as required, in the part of the county that's under Raleigh's control (the city's extra-territorial jurisdiction, that is). Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled City Council--especially Mayor Meeker--was up in arms about the dirty deed done to Kuczmarski. So--good news. On Monday, the Wake Commissioners named Kuczmarski to that third slot--her old slot, in effect.

She's not the chair anymore. But count this as a win for the good-planning side.

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