Maybe there's somebody out there who'd be better on the Raleigh City Council than Russ Stephenson, the architect and city planning commission member. But no one comes to mind. And I'm not just saying that because it was his plan, executed over the course of a tough six months last year, that turned the frumpy middle of our old bungalow into something people see today and go--wow, who was your architect again? (Then they ask who did the work, and that turns out to be Russ's wife, Ellen Longino, and her crew. But she's not running for the council.) No, I'm saying it because Stephenson, the unsung hero of the Battle of Coker Towers, has emerged as the planning commission's leading smart-growth advocate since being named a year and a half ago. Raleigh, meanwhile, for all the hoopla about its new convention center, continues to blow smoke when it comes to the most basic development reforms, endlessly jury-rigging its pro-sprawl comprehensive plan while pronouncing--hocus pocus--that a workable modern city will soon be found under megamall number three.
Right. The council, despite Mayor Charles Meeker's best efforts, can't even bring itself to stop the predatory towing that so discourages first-time (last-time!) downtown visitors. Nor can a council majority be found to raise the impact fees on new development, unchanged since 1987. Forget any discussion of targeted fees--higher on sprawl, that is, and lower (or waived) on good infill, since sprawl puts new development out where there's no infrastructure to support it.
For reasons you probably understand by now, sprawl's not an accident. It's what the real estate agents, homebuilders and highway pavers all prefer, because it lowers their land and construction costs. And the higher tab we all pay in the long run? It's not their problem.
What tab is that? Stephenson's making the rounds of neighborhood groups with a sheaf of studies that finger sprawl as the culprit for our worsening air quality, higher rates of asthma (especially among children), and the newest public health disaster, obesity. If you have to drive everywhere, and you can't walk--lovely as a stroll down Capital Boulevard would be--it could cost you and yours four years off your life, according to a Rand Corporation study published last month in the journal Public Health.
Yeah, but that's worst case, right? Like Atlanta. And Raleigh's nowhere near that bad, is it?
"Not yet," says Stephenson. "But that's where Raleigh seems to be headed." And we'll get there all the sooner, he adds, "as long as the city's most important urban transportation, planning and development goals remain broadly defined and discretionary."
Meaning, of course, that developers are free to ignore them, and council members, too.
Worse, Stephenson warns, hoped-for reforms to Raleigh's Planned Development District (PDD) zoning category have been turned on their head in the City Hall-planning commission sausage grinder en route to a public hearing next month in front of the council.
Instead of making the PDD better by streamlining the approval process downtown and around transit stops, the "reforms" the council is about to consider would make it much worse (or, if you will, developer-friendly), by continuing to allow high-density, mixed-use projects anywhere in Raleigh, but now with an allowable limit of 160 residential units per acre instead of the current 40 units.
Coming to a neighborhood near you, in other words.
"Instead of facilitating high density around our commuter transit stations, where we need it," Stephenson says, "the effect is to let it go anywhere, without regard to the traffic impact--undercutting the whole attempt to steer it to the places where the infrastructure can support it."
Now, council elections aren't til next year--Raleigh elects in the odd years, for two-year terms. But the fat's in the fire already because of the fact that two council members will be leaving in December if, as expected, each wins a seat in the state Senate on Nov. 2. And it isn't just any two members. It's the two at-large members, the ones elected at large along with the mayor. Janet Cowell, the Democratic nominee in Senate District 16, is a pro-neighborhoods progressive with a practical bent; Neil Hunt, the Republican nominee in District 15, is pro-development, but also with a practical bent.
Long story short, both are capable of seeing the big metro picture, even if they don't always agree what to do about it. It won't be a good thing at all if they're replaced by a weak progressive and a hard-right conservative. But that's a distinct possibility.
Assuming Cowell and Hunt both win, their replacements will be named by the remaining six council members, who divide neatly between the downtown Democrats (Meeker, James West and Thomas Crowder) on the one side and the pro-development threesome of Jessie Taliaferro, a Democrat from Northeast Raleigh, and Republicans Philip Isley and Mike Regan, on other side.
But it takes five votes to appoint anybody. Do the math, and you see the need for a compromise: a progressive to replace Cowell, a conservative for Hunt. And then there's the diversity question.
Look for the Republicans to push a white, male appointment, either Planning Commission Chair Dickie Thompson or Scott Cutler, also a commission member. Taliaferro wants a woman, West an African American. Neither--so far--has suggested anybody who fits the bill as a strong progressive. One name floating around is Carter Worthy, a commercial real estate broker who lost to Cowell in the Senate Democratic primary. And former Councilor Benson Kirkman, who was beaten by Crowder in District B last year, wants the appointment.
Rather than end up, on the progressive side, with a weak compromise replacement for Cowell, while the Republicans name a strong conservative to replace Hunt, Councilor Crowder is pushing a plan where both sides would agree to name interim members who agree not to run next year at all.
Crowder's choice on the progressive side: former Councilor Julie Shea Graw, who gave up her seat two years ago but might agree to serve again as long as it's just for a year (according to Crowder). Good idea.
While all this goes on, Stephenson--who'd like the appointment, too--is a candidate in '05 whether he gets it or not. He starts with a base of supporters from the Coker fight, though interestingly, not everyone who fought Coker will back him. He also has a growing list of supporters in other neighborhoods as a result of work he's done on the planning commission, though again, not every neighborhood. Stephenson did a huge amount of the work--including all of the architectural "massing models" and a lot of the smart-growth analysis--that led to the victory of the Neighborhood Coalition for Responsible Development in Raleigh (NCRDR) over the original Coker Towers scheme. But when developer Neal Coker turned his site over to others, and the Crosland Co. project soon dubbed Coker Junior was unveiled, it split NCRDR in half. Some, thinking it was still way too big, wanted to keep fighting. Others, told that neither Meeker nor Cowell would back them again, tried to negotiate with Crosland to tone it down.
Stephenson was in the latter group. For months, he tried to get Crosland to build a more neighborhood-friendly version of its project. Feeling no political heat at all, and knowing that Raleigh's design standards were all optional and easily ignored, Crosland didn't give an inch.
What's going up now along Wade Avenue is almost exactly what Crosland wanted, and the neighborhoods be damned. Whatever you think of it, though, remember when you drive by that the original Coker Towers was at least three times as big and far, far more neighborhood-unfriendly. But it was only when Stephenson modeled it--doing work the city refuses to do, lest it tick off the developers--that people started to catch on to its gargantuan size.
Remember, too, that Stephenson won no new clients on the development side by doing that. Nor did he win any friends on the neighborhoods' side by negotiating with Crosland. Again, he did what the city wouldn't do, because he thought it was right.
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