City leaders want Raleigh to be considered one of the coolest, best places for young people to live in America.
But, when faced with some programs or rule changes that might reinforce a progressive image, Raleigh’s City Council has hesitated.
Last year, the council heard requests to legalize home rental services like Airbnb, adopt a bike-rental program across the city and loosen regulations on food trucks, which have gained popularity nationwide. Months later, those requests are still under consideration, even though the proposals are high-demand items for many younger residents.
Young voters such as James Riley, an Airbnb host in Cameron Village, are keeping an eye on the council. Riley, 32, wants Raleigh leaders to govern and create laws without making mistakes. But he also doesn’t want them to take so long that they appear out of touch with young residents.
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“It reflects on Raleigh as a progressive or regressive city,” he said. “So far, they’ve been more reactionary.”
Council members have a list of concerns for each proposal – from Airbnb bringing too much traffic, food trucks bringing too much noise and bike rentals costing too much. On the other side, residents and business leaders say progress is needed if Raleigh wants to compete for young talent and tourists on the national stage.
Friendly Airbnb rules and innovative transportation options like downtown bike-rental programs “are becoming almost an expectation of visitors of a city of our size,” Dennis Edwards, president and CEO of Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“They might be younger, but they have good incomes, and want and expect good amenities,” Edwards said. “They feel very comfortable using the sharing economy system. It’s their expectation that they’re going to be available, and I don’t think it’s going to go away.”
The bike-sharing proposal calls for the city to place 300 bicycles for rent at 30 stations in Raleigh, including most of the city’s universities. The food truck proposal is a six-month trial that would allow trucks, which are currently prohibited from operating on public streets unless they’re part of an event, to park in one of five spots downtown and serve during lunch hours.
“We want things now, cheap and easy. Those all fit in that criteria,” said David Shaner, 27, a Raleighite who founded Offline Media and runs it from the HQ Raleigh incubator downtown.
City leaders and staff have been working on the three proposals for several months.
How they got here
Raleigh started down the path toward forming Airbnb regulations in December 2014 after the city cited a man for renting out his home to short-term visitors, a practice which remains prohibited in most areas of the city. After a committee spent months forming proposed regulations, the City Council in November sent them back for further review. The proposed regulations are still being crafted by the Text Change Committee, a subgroup of the Planning Commission, which is scheduled to go over them again March 15.
The City Council first started considering a bike-rental program – also known as “bike sharing” – in February 2015. After rejecting the idea last summer, councilman Bonner Gaylord and local supporters broached the issue again on Feb. 16. The council delayed a decision until its March 15 work session.
The proposed curbside food truck program went before the council in November after more than 1,000 people petitioned the city government to loosen its rules. Council members, however, said they worried that noise from the food truck generators would bother downtown residents. The city’s staff is still researching the proposal, which has no date to reappear before the council.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who’s scheduled to give a “State of the City” speech on Monday, says she recognizes the importance of catering to younger residents.
Looking at ‘market drivers’
The city in recent months has allowed food trucks to operate – albeit on private property – in more areas of town. It has added bike lanes throughout the city. The council also supports a proposal to expand Wake County’s transit system to including commuter trains from Raleigh to Durham by 2027. And it aims to promote Raleigh’s reputation for live music by soon launching a monthly music television show at an estimated cost of $4,500 per episode.
“As a city that’s competing for talent with cities around the world, you have to look at what those market drivers are,” McFarlane said.
She expects the council to address each of the three issues this year but suggested city leaders’ support may vary topic to topic.
The council, she says, is almost certain to pass Airbnb regulations. Home rentals are technically prohibited, but city staff is barely enforcing that rule. Council members are waiting on city staff and committee members to put finishing touches on rules requiring all Airbnb hosts to take out special-use permits.
The goal, McFarlane said, is to allow Airbnb but to regulate it in a manner that limits noise and traffic in neighborhoods. She also wants the regulations to somehow prevent people from buying up Raleigh’s affordable housing stock downtown and turning it into rentals – a worry young people should share, she said.
Bike-share support shows ‘demographic shift’
The council will likely legitimize Airbnb soon, McFarlane said, but not before it decides the fate of the proposed bike-sharing program. McFarlane said that she’s intrigued by the proposal and won’t predict how discussions will play out but that several council members are concerned about cost.
To install the stations, the city could use a $1.6 million federal grant and make a one-time payment of about $425,000. But city staff estimate annual operating costs at $653,000.
Staff expects to collect $215,000 in annual user fees, and councilman Gaylord says he has privately secured about $250,000 from potential sponsors. But even if the other revenue projections pan out, some council members aren’t willing to pick up the remaining $188,000 or so each year.
Many U.S. cities – from Alexandria, Va., and Boston to Spartanburg, S.C. – are home to bike-sharing programs. But some of them, including Charlotte’s, operate without government support, and that’s how some council members want Raleigh’s program to develop.
McFarlane is undecided. “I’ve gotten a lot of emails on my personal and business (accounts) asking for it,” she said. “This is part of our demographic shift.”
Curbside truck service in doubt
The future of the proposed food truck pilot program is less certain, she said. Like Airbnb regulations, the program won’t cost anything other than staff time. But it may tie up too much staff time, McFarlane said.
Under the proposal, city staff would run a lottery system to decide which trucks would get to operate curbside from a public parking spot in one of five areas of town. Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis run similar programs. McFarlane said she would rather keep the city’s parking spots open and instead allow trucks to operate in vacant lots around town, as do Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore.
Others, like councilwoman Kay Crowder, have said they’re worried that noise from truck generators would disturb downtown residents and that curbside service would potentially take business away from brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“We have to figure out how to engage these things in a way that best protects our citizens,” McFarlane said.
A reactionary council?
The council is proceeding with caution, she said, because its decisions will be watched and debated not just by residents but interest groups and state lawmakers, she said. The three proposals, respectively, have drawn support from such companies as Citrix and Rex Healthcare as well as groups such as WakeUp Wake County, Advocates for Health in Action and Generation Opportunity, a conservative group that lobbies for 18- to 34-year-olds.
“While too many young North Carolinians still can’t find work, a growing number of millennials in Raleigh are finding jobs in the sharing economy through Airbnb and food trucks,” said Anna Gravely, the director of GenOpp’s North Carolina chapter.
“We urge the council to continue to support the free market so Raleigh can become an even more vibrant and attractive city for young people,” she said.