It's no coincidence that good things have been happening in Raleigh since Mayor Charles Meeker took office in 2001. In his two terms, Democrat Meeker has hacked away methodically--which is his style--at the tangle of deferred maintenance and stunted aspirations that held Raleigh back for eight prior years under Republican mayors Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble.
Meeker's signature projects, when they're finished, will be the new Raleigh Convention Center and a de-malled, reopened Fayetteville Street, linchpins of an ambitious downtown redevelopment plan that is already sparking new, private-sector investments. But equally important, if not more so, he's begun--with the help of a few progressive-minded Council members--to catch the city's infrastructure up to its previous decades of suburban sprawl.
The scandalously undersized sewage treatment plant, from which our "effluent" slopped regularly--and illegally--into the Neuse River? The many neighborhoods flooded in a rainstorm by poorly planned developments "upstream"? The fact that, until last year, Raleigh's buses didn't run on Sunday--and still don't run out to Brier Creek, where some of our New Orleans refugees were living without cars, of course. Meeker is on all of it, though never in a pell-mell rush.
Meeker faces only token opposition from Republican J.H. "Joe" Ross, a retired State Capitol police officer, and Steven Hilton, a Libertarian. Both are perennial candidates with an aversion to government spending. Ross's particular target this year is the TTA commuter rail line--he calls it "the train to nowhere."
But Meeker needs some help on council. He lost a close ally, and a second, sometimes helpful member too, when Democrat Janet Cowell and Republican Neal Hunt went to the state Senate last year. That left him with a bickering group that was barely able to pass a weak tree conservation ordinance, for example, and still tends to favor developers over neighborhoods when it comes to growth.
Emblematic of the latter: The council's refusal thus far, with the exception of Meeker and Councilor Thomas Crowder, to consider increasing Raleigh's ridiculously low impact fees on new development. Low impact fees mean the costs of growth--and sprawl--are disproportionately thrown back on Raleigh's established neighborhoods, mainly through the property tax.
Fortunately, there is help available. In the race for two at-large council seats, the standout candidate is Democrat Russ Stephenson, an architect, land-use planner and neighborhood leader in University Park who is also the hardest working, most imaginative member of the city's planning commission.
If your image of "neighborhood leader" is a sharp-tongued critic, perhaps we should also say that "Russ for Raleigh"--as his signs read--is a quietly persistent advocate who is nonetheless open to compromise, a quality that has gotten him in dutch once or twice with other neighborhood leaders who aren't.
Stephenson tells the voters that Raleigh's whole zoning code and impact fees--or lack of them--were well-designed when Raleigh wanted to extend its suburbs. But the code's requirements about setbacks, buffers and open space have nothing to do with good urban development, and in fact get in the way. That leaves the city trying to discourage sprawl and encourage downtown and infill development with exactly one tool--the so-called planned development district (PDD) ordinance, which essentially lets developers build anything anywhere if they can get five votes for it on the council (out of eight).
The result, Stephenson says, is constant fighting between neighborhoods and developers, with no rules either side can depend on, only "guidelines" that are easily ignored.
Stephenson wants Raleigh to consider "urban form" zoning, which encourages mixed-use development but limits building sizes so they fit in with what's around them. He also advocates higher impact fees on sprawl, but waiving them for developments downtown or in places like Southeast Raleigh where the city wants developers to look. And he's for preserving the Dorothea Dix tract as parkland.
For the other at-large seat, we recommend Democrat Joyce Kekas, an incumbent appointed after the Cowell-Hunt departures last year, over former Councilor John Odom, a Republican. Kekas is "pro-growth," which translated to pro-developer in her six years on the planning commission. But she says she has an open mind about Raleigh's impact fees and zoning rules, and she's been a good listener in her short time on council. She's also got a good record of professional (marketing) and volunteer work for various Raleigh nonprofits, including International Focus Inc. and the Raleigh City Museum.
Odom, a businessman who served for 10 years, is a nice guy and former Democrat who's gotten ever-more conservative (he's always been pro-developer) as the years went by. Or perhaps the right word is inconsistent. In a lackluster campaign for mayor two years ago, Odom went completely out of character at the end with a scurrilous attack on his old friend, the squeaky-clean Meeker. This year, Odom started his comeback campaign with an ill-advised "What Happened?" letter that lampooned projects he previously supported, including a city-subsidized convention center hotel. And he opposes the $20 million affordable-housing bond issue, but still says he's pro-affordable housing.
The fourth at-large candidate, Ed Carson Jr., is a restaurant worker who is liable to say almost anything about any issue and need not be considered.
Oddly, in four of Raleigh's five council districts, the incumbent is running unopposed. And in the fifth, District A (North Raleigh), incumbent Republican Mike Regan, the ultraconservative who at one point was a candidate for mayor, isn't seeking another term either, though the other at-large appointee last year, Republican Tommy Craven, is.
Craven is a land-use planner who's aligned with the developers, opposes higher impact fees and suggests vaguely that Raleigh should cut spending and thus build new roads and other infrastructure without needing to resort to periodic bond issues.
We recommend the Rev. Paul Anderson, a Baptist minister who formerly served as head of the city's Human Relations Commission. Anderson's views on planning are unformed, but he's a proponent of improved social services, and as the council's second African-American member (James West, in District C, is the other), we think he'd add more to the discussion about how Raleigh should progress than the conservative Craven.