In Raleigh politics, we've gone from feast to famine in, what, just three weeks? On Oct. 11, we were celebrating the re-election of Mayor Charles Meeker and the election of Russ Stephenson and Joyce Kekas to the at-large City Council seats.
Then last Tuesday, we were treated to the spectacle of our city Planning Commission (including member Stephenson, who wasn't thinking) recommending approval of a 42-story tower at Crabtree Valley with no more analysis or even time given to it than they expended on the new carwash going up next to Frankie's Fun Park. (They don't call our PC the "developers' commission" for nothing.) And now this Tuesday--an hour ago, as I write this--the City Council gave the Glen Tree tower its final OK (with Meeker and Kekas in the 7-1 majority, sadly), spending only enough time on it to list the various issues they were ignoring that should've forced this project to be revamped or else rejected.
So, the official consideration of a building that--if it's actually built, and that's a big if--stands to be the tallest in Raleigh--but located four miles from downtown--lasted exactly seven days. And it was greased from start to finish to be over before John Q. Citizen even realized it'd started.
And be over, it must be said, before Stephenson--who mistakenly assumed that he'd have another shot at whittling this thing down to size after he joins the council next month--could get another shot at it, and perhaps join forces with Meeker, who didn't like its height but caved in weakly at the end, and with Councilor Thomas Crowder, who cast the lone no vote.
Why, those three might actually start a public discussion, and the development crowd was afraid a public discussion could go very badly for them indeed. So they packed the planning commission meeting, and they packed the council, and they got the Glen Tree rammed through without a peep from anybody not on their side.
What a freakin' disgrace. But hey, it's Raleigh. It's just the same old crap.
But, full stop.
I'm taking a deep breath.
Now I'm going to do what the council refused to do--refused even when their popular and just re-elected mayor entreated them. That is, I'm going to think about the Glen Tree project. I'm going to mull it. I'm going to take some time and kick it around in my mind and ask why I hate it so much, which is all I was suggesting to Joyce Kekas that she do yesterday--kick it around as a fan of the project--when I called to ask why she was blowing off Meeker's request that the application be held for a time and considered carefully prior to a final decision. Why was she in such an all-fired rush to say yes?
"I don't see any reason to hold it," Kekas said. Courtesy to Meeker? Not a reason. Case might not be so air-tight? She thought it was. A precedent for spiky towers all over town? Not a precedent, she said. But even if it is, she added, "I have no problem with taking a tall building out of town periodically."
And if, by so doing, Raleigh's fated to be the car-dependent sprawl hell that Atlanta now wishes it weren't? I don't remember asking this, exactly, but I must've implied it, because out of the blue Kekas said, and I wrote it down verbatim: "We are becoming a small Atlanta, I don't care what anybody says."
Well. My own mulling was already well under way at that point, and now I'm all finished. I don't hate the tower per se, though I don't like it, either. What I hate is that it will be a precedent. And I hate the disdain for planning that it epitomizes. Worse than that, I hate the contempt for public opinion that caused five of the eight council members--including Kekas and fellow Democrat Jessie Taliaferro, plus the three Republicans--to insist that the Glen Tree be railroaded through before its opponents, if there were any, could find a way to be heard. Why's the tower so tall? The Glen Tree, if built, will be a 12-story hotel atop a six-level parking deck. (When Crabtree Creek floods, as it often does, only the cars will get wet, because the hotel lobby will be seven floors up.) So how, then, did it come to be a 42-story tower? Because it has 54 condominium units thinly stacked up on top of it like oddly shaped checkers, some of the units large enough that they would occupy a whole floor by themselves. Want a 4,700-square-foot condo overlooking a shopping center and Raleigh's worst traffic?
But, just an educated guess, if those condos don't pre-sell, there won't be a hotel either, because the one doubtless is financing the other.
On the up side, so to speak, it's an interesting way to redevelop the site, which is just north of the Hechts in Crabtree Valley (but on the other side of Creedmoor Road) and is currently occupied by a derelict ex-Sheraton Hotel. The site isn't that small--it's almost five acres--but only 1.37 acres of it is zoned Office & Institutional-2 for some reason nobody can seem to remember. And, also for no discernible reason except that it's a zoning category created specifically so that state government could build its monstrosity of a "mall" in any configuration it wanted, O&I-2 has no height limit. But anything over 50 feet, the Council must approve.
Enter the Soleil group, a Cary-based company that runs hotels. It bought the old Sheraton with the intention--taking what they say at face value--of gutting and upfitting it to Westin Hotel standards. But when they took the place over, they realized--uh, oh--it's much worse than we thought. We're going to have to tear it down and start again. Ouch, huh?
But here's the problem. To be able to afford a teardown, they couldn't just build on the same footprint, they had to build bigger, which meant higher. But only the 1.37 acres were eligible to go higher without a rezoning, which means the condo stack had to be extremely spindly and therefore very high.
Are you with me? If Soleil had used all five acres for the deck-hotel-condo setup, they could've put the 54 condos into maybe six more floors, or seven or eight, but they wouldn't have needed 24 more. But that would've required a rezoning application for the entire site, which takes time and might've generated opposition. But Soleil could build a 42-story tower on the O&I-2 portion with nothing more than site plan approval, which is what the PC recommended and the council approved in the usual wink of an eye.
And by the way, why 54 residential units, exactly? Because O&I-2 does have a density limit of 40 residential units per acre, and that's all Soleil could stack up there without, again, needing a rezoning. Why does the planning process suck? Now, some people love the Glen Tree because it's tall. There's no accounting for taste, I suppose. But the fact that the hotel can't be redeveloped without an outsized tower o'condos on top tells me it's in the wrong place, or Soleil paid too much for it, because a 42-story tower at Crabtree Valley is just going to look ridiculous. Crowder compared it to the infamous "Green Pickle" building in Durham, that awful thing you see driving up U.S. 15-501, except that the "Pickle" isn't but about half as tall. This'll be a joke too, Crowder said.
Glen Tree will be a joke too, that is, unless we surround it with a bunch of other very tall buildings, in which case Crabtree Valley will become our real downtown. But if that's what we want, why are we investing over $200 million in a new convention center and hotel for that other downtown that actually is downtown?
That's the main problem with the Glen Tree. Buildings that tall should be in the actual downtown, not at Crabtree, which isn't even one of the other two "regional centers" identified in Raleigh's very loose-ish comprehensive plan. (The others: Brier Creek and Triangle Town Center. Look for spiky buildings there as well.)
And as for it not being a precedent, how many old office buildings are there along the Beltline that'd be tough to redevelop unless somebody could tear 'em down and build a high-rise in their place? They're not zoned O&I-2? Oh, but let's not forget Raleigh's infamous PDD zoning category, which invites developers to do anything anywhere if they can get five council votes for it.
So what's wrong with that? Only that it's sprawl all over again, except this time with the dense, mixed-use projects that, if you put them in reasonable proximity either to each other or to a transit line, would allow you to establish a transit system and not end up like gas-guzzling, congestion-plagued Atlanta.
On the way out of City Hall today, amid the 100 Glen Tree fans whose business it was--literally--to be there, a woman came up to ask why comment hadn't been allowed before the council vote. She'd just heard about the project a few days ago, after the planning commission approved it, and she'd come downtown assuming this would be her chance to speak against it.
The short answer to her question is that the entire Raleigh planning process is set up to maximize the developers' chances and minimize public input if it's in opposition. But even by that standard, this was a rush job--designed to give her no chance at all.
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