Raleigh's Downtown Experience Plan is a beautiful, expansive document, a 10-year vision of swathes of green space and five interconnected districts accessible by foot, bike and bus, sprinkled throughout with shops and galleries, hotels and museums, parklets and public art, restaurants and bars.
It contains strategies for promoting retail, preserving historic buildings, transforming under-utilized city-owned properties and linking the city's greenways to its urban core.
As planning director Ken Bowers told the City Council in a workshop earlier this month, the plan will, in his view, "take downtown from where it is, from good to great."
A sequel to the city's 2003 Livable Streets plan, the Downtown Experience Plan—developed by myriad stakeholders and an advisory committee over the past year, with the help of consulting firm Sasaki & Associates—is still being tweaked, though Bowers told Council that a draft should be ready next month. The final step will be to create an implementation strategy and figure out where the money's going to come from.
But even as the city puts the finishing touches on this vision statement—a sprawling to-do list of more than a hundred proposals—it is also pressing ahead with a plan to change the zoning categories of nearly a third of all properties within city limits. This includes virtually all of downtown; its vast core, including many of the surrounding residential areas, will be classified as downtown mixed-use, or DX in bureaucratese.
This remapping, which drew a venomous reaction from hundreds of residents at two Council meetings in July, will determine building heights and frontages from Seaboard Station, in the newly imagined "North End," to the area around Shaw University and the Convention Center, henceforth known as the "Gateway Center," a skyscraper-friendly entrance to downtown. The end result will be more high-rises, more density and more-intense mixed-use development projects.
To City Councilor Russ Stephenson—who has long warned that the city would be foolish to allow developers to build so high without extracting affordable housing commitments or some other public good—this process is exactly backward. Making these fundamental zoning changes before the vision has been fully established, he argues, is ill advised.
"Remapping has been ignorant of the downtown plan," Stephenson said at that Council workshop. "We are putting the cart in front of the horse before we have adopted any of the action items [in the downtown plan] or even prioritized the top few."
Affordable housing is just one example. The downtown plan calls for "a diversity of housing opportunities," with initiatives that include selling city-owned properties with the requirement that affordable housing be included or provided nearby. Council has had opportunities to do this recently, with Stone's Warehouse and the property at 301 Hillsborough St., but has opted not to. Once downtown remapping goes through, developers will be able to build to the maximum allowed heights—up to 40 stories on Fayetteville Street and up to 20 on many others—and Council will have no power to negotiate with them.
And then there are the existing neighborhoods that will be rezoned as DX as well, like in the North End (which includes Oakwood), the newly imagined Glenwood Green and the whole eastern boundary of downtown, which is currently dotted with low-income neighborhoods.
The downtown plan calls the North End an "urban neighborhood" that "combines new housing options and unique local retail." It says Glenwood is "ideal to accommodate significant new residential development." But once the remapping goes through, these neighborhoods won't have the protections of the neighborhood mixed-use zoning, especially the stricter height limits. And while this could be ugly and noisy in historic Oakwood, it could be devastating for poor African-Americans who live southeast of downtown. When the 20-story buildings start popping up in their backyards, these residents may be priced out of their homes.
Surely this large-scale gentrification isn't what the downtown plan imagines.
"Certainly I would like to get the downtown plan adopted before we move on to the allocation of rezoned heights downtown," Stephenson says.
At the work session, Bowers countered that there were no goals in the downtown plan that could be achieved by negotiating zonings, as Stephenson wants to do.
Other Council members saw it this way as well, and seemed eager to keep the remapping on the fast track.
"The most important thing we can do is embrace the opportunity we have and create that opportunity for downtown," said Councilor Wayne Maiorano. "The way to do that is to move forward with the downtown future land-use map that we've put together."
Mary-Ann Baldwin worried that holding up remapping will adversely affect development projects downtown. She sees the remapping and the downtown plan as different issues with different purposes.
"The vision study doesn't focus on heights except to say they want to see more density in downtown," Baldwin says. "I think the vision statement is more about looking at big ideas, so it's not focused on what the zoning is, but on the feel. Remapping doesn't really have anything to do with what the vision is because zoning isn't going to determine the vision. The vision is going to determine the vision."
But Stephenson believes that, by forging ahead now, the city may miss out on a golden opportunity.
"I just don't think handing out remapping zoning heights shows a lot of confidence in what we can command," Stephenson says. "The most important thing is downtown heights. Shouldn't we be making sure they are leveraged in a way that implements that vision to have a great downtown?"