New development code aims to remake Raleigh’s urban core

ccampbell@newsobserver.comFebruary 18, 2013 

  • What’s next

    The Raleigh City Council could vote on the new development code as soon as Monday, when it meets at 4 p.m. to discuss a few lingering questions about the document.

    Once it’s adopted, the guidelines won’t go into effect for six months, giving city leaders time to make any last-minute changes and educate developers and interested residents.

    “It’s something that we’ll continually tinker with,” Councilman Bonner Gaylord said. “I’m ready to get moving forward, get it approved and tweak it as we see fit.”

    The code still must go through the mapping phase, when a host of new zoning designations will be matched to the appropriate commercial or mixed-use district (residential zoning won’t change). Expect plenty of hearings with affected property owners.

    Gaylord said he thinks developers are eager for the finished product. “I think it’ll be an economic spark for us,” he said.

— To see where Raleigh could head in coming decades, look to the rapidly growing east side of the North Hills community.

Several new upscale apartment complexes are targeting young professionals, with another breaking ground this month. With office towers, restaurants and a grocery store within a block, newcomers could theoretically leave their cars behind.

City Councilman Russ Stephenson holds up North Hills as an example of what the city aims to encourage with a sweeping rewrite to its development code. “(Developer John Kane) really was the pioneer who said, ‘We’re going to take a dying mall and show how a walkable compact community center can be developed,’ ” Stephenson said.

The city council and planning staff have been working on the new 300-page code for more than three years. The goal is to scrap the old suburban model in favor of rules that foster a walkable, transit-friendly city with a number of high density, mixed-use districts. After many meetings, the council could adopt the development guidelines – known officially as the Unified Development Ordinance, or UDO – as soon as Monday.

“Our previous code dictated a very suburban development pattern in a lot of circumstances,” Councilman Bonner Gaylord said. “It’s certainly moving toward human scale design as opposed to design scaled for the automobile.”

Only urban areas affected

The new UDO makes few changes to the suburban-style neighborhoods that encompass 70 percent of the city. It’s business as usual for the developers of subdivisions certain to continue on Raleigh’s outskirts. The new guidelines focus on key urban districts like downtown, Hillsborough Street, Cameron Village and Crabtree Valley. “Those are the areas you’ll see change,” Stephenson said.

The guidelines – far more specific than current rules – govern everything from open spaces to bike parking, even determining how close buildings should be to the street. The city council has been meeting weekly since September to iron out the details, and the result should make the approval process smoother for new developments, Planning Director Mitchell Silver said.

Straightforward guidelines will reduce the need for contentious negotiations between developers and neighbors. “Neighborhoods will not have to fight those battles,” Silver said.

Raleigh leaders admit the new code leaves one missing puzzle piece for growth: public transit. That hinges on the half-cent sales tax increase that mayors from throughout Wake County are lobbying for. County commissioners have been reluctant to put the proposal on the ballot.

“If it still ends up being more convenient to get in your car, it’s going to get more difficult to redevelop in these areas,” Stephenson said, pointing to increasing traffic issues. “The whole council sees that challenge ahead.”

The council also considered a proposal to make existing neighborhoods denser by allowing backyard cottages or “granny flats,” popular for elderly relatives and young renters. That plan got nixed last week after attracting more opposition than any other aspect of the new code.

Other new development requirements have passed with little fanfare. Here are a few of the highlights:

Subtler skyscrapers: Pedestrians walking past Raleigh’s tallest building, the PNC Plaza tower, are confronted with a 33-story-high wall next to the sidewalk. Future high-rise buildings could get even taller, but they’d look different at the street level. The section of the building closest to the street will have to be shorter, eliminating some of the canyon effect. “The intent there is to allow more light and air onto the street,” Silver said.

Transitioning to neighborhoods: Residents can get antsy when a commercial or multi-family development crops up at the edge of their neighborhood. To make sure the newcomers don’t harm home values, the new code has specific requirements for separating them from houses. The details vary based on the size, type and location of the commercial development. “In some cases, it’s a fence; in other cases, it’s a landscape buffer,” Silver explained.

More open spaces: The code doubles the percentage of open space required for developments in downtown and other high-density districts. The space must equal 10 percent of the overall building square footage. In the past, developers have used creative options to meet the requirement. The PNC Plaza building put in a rooftop pool area, while the Wells Fargo tower has open space around its entrances and for patio seating at Cafe Carolina. City leaders hope to encourage more privately owned outdoor public spaces like the eatery’s patio.

Smaller parking lots: The new guidelines reduce the minimum number of parking spaces required in many developments – another shift away from car-centric growth. Some businesses could pair up with neighbors that have different hours of operation. “The intent was to provide more options for shared parking,” Silver said. Also, most mixed-use districts will require parking lots in the back, with buildings encouraged to locate close to the street.

Heights vary: Developers will get clearer guidelines for how tall they can go, avoiding drawn-out debates like the one that surrounded a seven-story apartment proposal on Hillsborough Street this year. In Midtown, the maximum will be 20 stories. Downtown buildings top out at 40 floors. Until now, developers had to get city approval for each project taller than three stories.

Better sidewalks, bike facilities: The UDO sets design standards for all new roads to be built in the city. All streets will have sidewalks – some of them wider – and many types of roads will have bike lanes. Also, dedicated bike parking could be required in some developments. “The bicycling public, they’ll see more bicycling infrastructure in place,” Silver said.

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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