Tar Heel of the Week

Planner envisions a greater Raleigh

Staff writerJune 6, 2010 

  • Date of birth: June 27, 1960

    Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.

    Family: Wife, Mary, is an artist; their daughter, Rachael, 12, is finishing sixth grade. He has two adult children from a previous marriage, Mitchell Silver of Atlanta and Jordan Silver of Raleigh.

    Education: Bachelor's degree in architecture, Pratt Institute; master's degree in urban planning from Hunter College.

    Career: City planner in New York City, 1987-1990; design and policy specialist in the office of Manhattan's borough president, 1990-1994; director of North Manhattan office of the borough president, 1994 to 1997; Abeles, Phillips, Preiss & Shapiro private planning firm, 1997-2001; town manager, Irvington, N.J., 2001-2003; deputy planning director, Washington, 2003-2005; planning director, Raleigh, 2005 to present.

— In a city that can be wary of moving too quickly, Mitchell Silver has quietly worked behind the scenes over the past five years to make the case that Raleigh needs to be innovative and fresh in its plans if it wants to continue riding a crest of popularity.

Now Silver, 49, who took over as Raleigh's city planner in 2005, is about to take his doctrine of calling for cities to be inclusive and responsive to citizens' needs to the national stage: He expects his April election to head the 42,000-member American Planning Association to do that.

Silver is a big-city guy with big-city ideas, trying to make Raleigh - and the Triangle by extension - one of the nation's next "it" zones.

Being a top city in the Southeast isn't enough. Silver's goal is to shape Raleigh into one of the world's attractive cities, something he thinks is possible if residents and politicians commit now to building the public transportation network of bigger cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte and to resculpting Raleigh's suburban neighborhoods.

That's part of what makes Raleigh and the state so interesting to Silver, who cut his planning teeth in Washington and New York City. He sees Raleigh as acity in the building stages, with the potential to become great.

"Part of my job was to really broaden the perspective to a worldwide city and not just a Southern city," he said.

But there's the dream and then there's the political, economic and cultural reality of a city battered by the "Great Recession." Silver has had to navigate in a place where civic leaders can be nervous about acting too much like a big town, or doing things that feel too edgy and avant-garde.

Along with Mayor Charles Meeker, City Manager Russell Allen and others, Silver has had to weather political setbacks, such as the City Council's recent deadlock about whether Raleigh's police, fire and emergency communications operations need to be headquartered in a $205 million, 17-story glass tower downtown.

Then there was the 2006 rejection of a gift to showcase work by famed Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, who designed a futuristic grid of flashing LED lights, a central light cannon and a wall of falling water for a plaza on the south end of Fayetteville Street. Some fretted the lights would spoil the open view north toward the State Capitol; others were downright hostile to the design; Allen questioned its cost and practicality. Plensa and patron Jim Goodmon, the broadcast mogul and philanthropist who offered the work as a $2.5 million gift to the city, withdrew from the conflict. A Plensa sculpture now adorns the Durham Performing Arts Center.

But Silver's focus is on the future. He tries to tune in to communities and spot trends that will give him clues of what the years ahead will look like. He sees himself as thecity's family doctor, checking the health of his municipal patient, assessing the vitality of neighborhoods, diagnosing problem spots and continuing prescription treatments to ensure a long life. He also emphasizes the importance of finding an area's personality, and not losing sight of that.

Will future Raleigh residents want to ride buses instead of drive cars? Will thecity see a huge uptick in singles living on their own, a dramatic departure from the family-oriented neighborhoods that ring the city with two-, three- or more bedroom houses? What will happen to those houses?

"These are things we don't have the answers to," Silver said.

Need for smart planning

Allen, who hired Silver, said Raleigh needs smart planning to shape an economically healthy future.

"Our growth patterns weren't going to sustain us," Allen said.

Silver will spend the next year transitioning into the role of heading the national professional organization of planners and the year after leading the group. He'll be guiding a 13-member board and setting goals for a group that has more than 16,000 certified planners on its roster.

But during that time, he'll still be in North Carolina's capital city trying to push it, and the area surrounding it, to think how it wants to be decades from now. His recent election will just as likely highlight the Triangle and North Carolina, as well as give Silver exposure to ideas and trends being deployed around the nation and world, Allen said.

Early in his career, Silver realized he could set himself apart simply by being able to communicate, a skill that carries through in his daily work as he goes from meetings with concerned neighborhoods to those with developers and city politicians. Many planners get lost in jargon and rules, something Silver, a fast talker, tries to avoid.

When not relaxing with his family in his spare time, Silver tries to reinforce his professional life. He has a keen interest in human behavior, and he looks for clues about the future by studying popular culture. He also mentors other planners across the nation.

Silver started out studying architecture at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. But he turned to planning, in part because of an interest in seeing how cities work and in part because of a tight job market in architecture.

Silver's ability to see beyond the borders of Raleigh and North Carolina has brought him respect.

"He brings sophistication and an outsider viewpoint," said Tom Anhut, a Raleigh-based division president for residential developer Toll Brothers. "He's projecting what Raleigh will become. Most people will tell you that Raleigh will continue to grow, He's been to places that have already done that growing."

Beyond downtown

Among Silver's immediate goals are shifting his gaze outside of downtown to address other spots that need help. Capital Boulevard, a major gateway into the city known for its headache-inducing traffic lights, needs to be scrubbed clean and have vibrant centers, including a possible Riverwalk similar to what San Antonio has, Silver said.

He's also waiting to see how the new Wake school board divides the county into community-school zones, which could have a long-term effect on neighborhoods as people move in or out based on the quality of schools.

Silver has been a key player in pushing forward plans for Union Station, a proposed transportation center on the western edge of Raleigh's downtown that he thinks will become the city's newest hub for retail, commercial and residential growth. The station itself, which the city hopes to pay for with mostly federal dollars, would bring together riders on buses, light rail, local streetcars and trains if Silver's vision is adopted.

Despite all the attention he has been getting nationally, Silver said he wants to stick around Raleigh to see his plans, years down the road, take shape.

"I'm staying put in Raleigh as long as Raleigh wants me here," he said.

sarah.ovaska@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4622

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