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Organizing ourselves and our cities


Oh, how you can get stucco: Conceptual drawing of the Marriott Hotel as seen from Salisbury and Cabarrus streets
  • Oh, how you can get stucco: Conceptual drawing of the Marriott Hotel as seen from Salisbury and Cabarrus streets
How's your week been? Mine's been--well, my wife just said something about helping a client group, a low-income neighborhood in Atlanta, "organize their thoughts." That's what I need. Can somebody out there help me organize these thoughts about Raleigh politics:

I run into a leading Raleigh business official at the RBC Center last Wednesday as our Wolfpack men are crushing Florida State. We get to talking about the convention center hotel and the EIFS (aka, fake stucco) issue. There is genuine fear in his eyes as he contemplates what would happen if the hotel developer up and leaves the table. If the new convention center opens without an HQ hotel, he says, meeting planners won't book it until there is one, which will let the naysayers crow that they were right all along about what a waste of money it was. And it'll be 1991 all over again--when the backlash against a failed convention center plan ushered in a decade of Tom Fetzer & the conservatives. My thought: He's got a point. But why is Raleigh in this position?

The next day, I'm reading about the new Friday Center on NCSU's Centennial Campus, part of the College of Education. Dr. Hiller Spires is the director. She says the great challenge of the 21stcentury will be learning to "harness creativity" rather than--as so many organizations and communities are inclined to do--resisting change at all cost. We've got to teach the skill of wanting "pervasive, innovative shifts both in policy and practice," Spires argues. But it's not going to happen in North Carolina as long as we rank 45th in the nation in the percentage of our students who graduate from high school within four years--just 60 do, out of every 100 ninth graders, and only 19 of them have a college degree six years later, she says. My thought: No wonder we're so anti-change. Most of us struggle with the status quo.

On Saturday, I attend the NCSU College of Design's third annual Urban Design Conference, "Designing Sustainable Cities." It's in the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel. Out the window, you can see the enormous hole where the convention center's going to be. So naturally, everybody's talking about the new hotel and about how the Sheraton itself was supposed to be so great but turned out to not look much like its renderings. "Don't give in on the EIFS," one of City Councilor Thomas Crowder's fellow architects tells him. "It's a fight worth fighting." I agree.

When asked whether they think of themselves as conservative, moderate or liberal, more Democratic primary voters--that's Democrats who vote whenever they get the chance, in other words--say moderate (43%) than liberal (32%) or conservative (21%), according to Public Policy Polling. So fight for change, I'm thinking. Just not too much of it.

"North Carolina long has seen itself as a Southern leader in educational and workforce policy," says John Quintero, author of a major policy study for the N.C. Justice Center entitled North Carolina's Unfinished Transformation: Connecting Working Families to the State's Newfound Prosperity. "[But] when it comes to policies that aid low-income working families, the state actually has fallen behind the nation as a whole and behind virtually every state in the South Atlantic [region]." Esse Quam Vederi: The state motto means "To be, rather than to seem."

David Walters, a planner-architect and UNC-Charlotte professor, tells the design conference that when he drove into town Friday afternoon with his wife, they got caught in the afternoon traffic on I-40. As they crawled along for 15 miles, they looked for any other car with more than one occupant. They didn't see a one. Walters thinks you couldn't invent a more inefficient way to live than our pervasive sprawl. The measure of "sustainable" urban design, he says, is whether it's efficient and will last over time.

Ron Tober, CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, is next up. He describes--and shows images of--Charlotte's first-ever light-rail commuter line, which is under construction. Charlotte looked at Atlanta with its sprawl, Tober says, and at Portland, Ore., with its tight urban-growth boundary, and decided that it wanted to be somewhere in between, "but a lot less like Atlanta." That was a decade ago, around the time we started planning the TTA commuter-rail line between Durham and Raleigh. But while we let sprawl persist, Charlotte limited urban-density development to five designated transit corridors. Result: Our project is stalled; theirs, before the first line even opens, has produced $300 million in new private-sector development in the South End corridor alone.

n When the conference ends, some of us go out onto Fayetteville Street. The curbs and sidewalks are mostly in. I'm still anti- the superwide sidewalks; I think we'd have been better advised to build the street wide enough for two lanes of car traffic and a future trolley line down the middle. But Betsy Kane, the shining light on our mostly benighted Raleigh Planning Commission, thinks otherwise. She refers me to Jane Jacobs' landmark book from 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs was for sidewalks 30 or even 35 feet wide. "City sidewalks are conventionally considered to be purely space for pedestrian travel and access to buildings," she wrote, "and go unrecognized and unrespected as the uniquely vital and irreplaceable organs of city safety, public life and child rearing that they are."

n On Tuesday, Crowder is profiled in The News & Observer as the burr in his fellow council members' saddles. He's a "critic in the debate over Raleigh's future," it reports. That's certainly true. But he's too "polarizing," says Councilor James West, "not willing to sacrifice his personal agenda for the common good." Really?

n In the same newspaper, there's an op-ed piece by Jacob Vigdor, public policy professor at Duke. It spells out how Raleigh (and Durham) officials have systematically undermined the TTA project, siting major projects (shopping centers, the RBC Center, large office towers) everywhere but in the proposed rail corridor. "The Triangle's failures consist of considering decisions in isolation [and] caving in to developers who flash even a bit of their own money," Vigdor writes.

About that hotel

So let me see if I can organize my various thoughts, and not just leave them dangling--as per Prof. Vigdor's warning--in isolation. The reason Raleigh's in a bind over the convention center hotel is the failure of its leaders to insist that the developer present a first-rate design or else get out of the picture. And not just one that seems OK. For a change, let's have one that is OK.

The City Council tapped the Stormont-Noble Corp. in January 2004 and put $20 million on the table in direct subsidy, plus the land, plus cut-rate underground parking. Two years later, we're still debating whether to let them use fake stucco and if so, how much? That decision should have been made--in the negative--18 months ago, when there was still time to find another developer if it came to that.

But Raleigh's never been tough on developers, nor has it gone in much for good planning. Its idea of the "common good," to use James West's term, is to get the maximum amount of development in the short-run, of whatever kind, and if it doesn't add up to a sustainable future in the long-run, well, as Keynes said, in the long-run we're all dead anyway.

Should Crowder be pushing, pushing, pushing for no EIFS at all? Yes. If he hadn't, and wasn't still, Stormont-Noble wouldn't have cut the amount of EIFS it wants to use roughly in half already. Should he be pushing, pushing, pushing for a better design? Yes. The design's still not very good, but it's better than it was, and again, it wasn't going to improve if every council member just shut up about it.

Will he get everything he wants? No. At the end of the day, most of us are moderates, and there aren't any perfect solutions. (And we are a little afraid that Stormont-Noble will walk ... though we shouldn't be.) But that doesn't mean we don't do better with a principled fighter in our ranks, urging us on in spite of ourselves. We do.

Finally, does it really matter what the hotel looks like? Does it matter if we don't have a transit system? Yes, in both cases, and for the same reason: Raleigh and Durham are the engines of our state's future growth. If North Carolina's working families are ever going to be connected to our newfound prosperity, they'll be connected to it here and in Charlotte, in universities that can teach the skill of embracing change, and in companies that are drawn here because we do embrace it.

The greater our cities, the more jobs they will generate for us, and the more people they can sustain at higher--and more efficient--living standards. But first, we have to make great cities. Which we know how to do, if we just organize our thoughts to do it.

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