People hoping to make a mark on Raleigh today must align their projects with a planning department of about 60 professional staffers and reams of plans and maps.
Herbert W. Stevens was the first of those professionals, and among the last survivors of the city’s post-World War II government.
A planning director of Raleigh and then Cincinnati, he died last Wednesday at 98 in Irvine, Calif., after an aneurysm, with family at home.
“Planning is a fairly young profession, and Raleigh was one of the early cities with a professional department,” said George Chapman, 74, a former planning director.
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The city hired Tecumseh, Neb., native Stevens in 1950. During the next five years, he built the department and the city’s first comprehensive land-use plan.
Fascinated by the flows of people and traffic, Stevens laid groundwork for Raleigh’s Beltline and developed ordinances that guided construction in the postwar boom, planning colleague John Edwards said.
“After World War II, cities were growing like crazy, and they didn’t have any direction, any infrastructure set up,” said Stevens’ daughter, Dee Shandera, 65. “He loved seeing the way cities started and spread out from a central district.”
While Raleigh’s civic discussion today centers on downtown, the city in 1950 saw promise in its undeveloped miles.
Stevens, in his 30s, was a kind boss with his eyes on the future.
“We were plowing new ground. We were learning, and it was a lot of fun,” said Edwards, Stevens’ coworker in Cincinnati. And that early work made Raleigh what it is today.
“That’s simply a reflection of the maturing of our cities,” said Edwards, who’s still working at 82. Back then, he said, “We were expanding, just like we expanded out into the West in the mid-1800s.”
Stevens left Raleigh in 1955 to become planning director in Cincinnati, where in a 25-year tenure he pushed for urban renewal in a built-out city, his daughter said.
As he had in Raleigh, Stevens pushed for planning to include human needs. He also planned a “skyway” system that connected downtown buildings.
For decades, Stevens’ family returned yearly to visit A.C. Hall, another Raleigh planning director, on Emerald Isle.
Oftentimes, passers-by might see “a little bald guy who had the most beautiful sandcastle,” according to Lou Yates, former assistant manager for Raleigh.
Even in his last years, after his wife, Edyth, died in 1996, Stevens continued to pilot single-engine planes. He liked the view from up there, where you could see a city’s story by its shape.