5401 North rezoning survives drive-through debate

Staff WriterApril 11, 2011 

— A town center-style development soon to rise in North Raleigh has renewed debate over a polarizing symbol of suburban growth: the drive-through window.

Over the next decade, 5401 North will transform land into yet another concentration of people, traffic and commerce on the city's fast-growing northern side.

The latest plans call for 2,200 homes near streets lined with shops, restaurants and offices, creating what promoters bill as a community with "everything around the corner."

But will old-style suburbia creep into the final product?

At a rezoning hearing last week, Councilman Thomas Crowder cast the lone "no" vote, saying he needed more assurances that developers wouldn't line the road with strips of drive-through businesses.

Crowder got some help from Councilman Russ Stephenson, who asked whether the city could get guarantee limits on fast-food restaurants, big-box stores and gas stations.

Hold on a minute, Councilman John Odom said.

"The people out there need services as they go home," Odom said. "They need a drive-through McDonald's, whether you like those things or not."

The council voted 7-1 for 5401 North, and developers say they hope to start construction early next year on a first phase of homes and offices.

Though they haven't ruled out drive-through businesses, developers describe the project as a place where families can walk to stores and offices.

There's a chance for a gas station, city planners said, but it would have to meet design standards for a clean look and safe pedestrian conditions.

While the development was on hold for two years amid the recession, company officials added more bike paths and walking trails, and tweaked the street grid to better connect with surrounding communities.

Reaching this point wasn't easy.

The developer brought in Dover, Kohl & Partners, a nationally known urban design firm, to review the project and talk with neighbors and city staff about how to improve the layout, first approved by the City Council in January 2007. Construction will unfold in phases over the next several years.

Stephenson ultimately gave his support, saying the project has a better chance to succeed as a compact, walkable community than most developments in Raleigh.

Mayor Charles Meeker said thecity shouldn't restrict the plan to the point that it becomes economically unfeasible.

"We want to give these folks a chance," he said.

In addition to a future middle school and community park, the project could add a hotel or motel and a bed-and-breakfast inn. River Bend Elementary School opened in 2008.

The developers worked to satisfy the city's requests during lengthy talks, Councilman Eugene Weeks said. "We can sit here and pick all day long," he said, urging his colleagues to get on with the approval.

matt.garfield@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4952

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