Raleigh seems to be in the thrall of real-estate developers. And that’s a very bad thing for the City of Oaks.
I live in University Park, a wonderful racially and economically diverse neighborhood, with a wide range of housing stock, from homes costing in the $500,000 range to small, one-story rentals. But lately, tear downs and empty space have been filling up with two-story houses of at least 2,000 square feet, with large porches and wooden porticoes, all in the half-million dollar and up range. It’s easy to see what’s happening: as the older African-American homeowners die off, their houses will be torn down, and large, expensive homes erected. Pretty soon the neighborhood will be lily white, upper middle class, and lose most of its character. It’s called gentrification. I call it the development disease.
But that’s not all. Surrounding Cameron Village on Oberlin Avenue are three apartment buildings which have altered the landscape and have absolutely no aesthetic distinction. The newest of these, 616 at the Village, my 21-year old nephew referred to as “generic”; it’s so boring to look at, it practically gives me narcolepsy. Not surprisingly, all of them charge pretty steep rents – a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom at the Village can run over $1,100 monthly.
And then there’s the student housing on Hillsborough, especially the Stanhope, a hulking Stalinist monstrosity that blocks out light and might as well be Stasi headquarters, Berlin, circa 1953. Why anyone would want to live in this, is beyond me.
I could go on. The $900,000 and up luxury condos being built at Oberlin and Van Dyke. The scary-looking skyscraper futurism, something straight out of “Blade Runner,” that North Hills is turning into. Or the recently announced plans for a mixed use development across from Player’s Retreat, which is only guaranteed to heighten the already serious traffic problems in the area.
Trust me on this. Developers do not care about aesthetics, a neighborhood’s character, history, and, for the most part, building housing for people with moderate incomes. All they care about is tearing things down and building something bigger so they can charge higher rents or purchase prices.
I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived in Los Angeles, where endless strip malls have made parts of the city cosmic eyesores. I’ve also lived in New York, where Manhattan has basically become so expensive, thanks to the multi-million dollar condos being built, only Russian oligarchs and Saudi sheiks can afford it. And I’ve also lived in Philadelphia, where a respect for neighborhoods, housing stock and history is practically woven into the cultural DNA.
It seems to me that Raleigh is at a crossroads. It can put a stop to the developmental feeding frenzy, and actually start thinking about what the city should look like in the next 20, 30, 50 years (the city does have a Business and Development Department, but it seems to be a toady for the real estate industry). Or it can pretty much let the developers do whatever they feel like. If it does, pretty soon the city will look like those towns in South Florida, where everything is gleaming new and utterly soulless, where housing stock is prohibitively expensive for the middle class, and working class folks (who?) are shoved out into marginal areas where decent housing and public transportation become a real problem.
- More resident input and veto power over proposed projects
- Demand that all new apartment houses and condo developments include a certain percentage of units for middle income people.
- Any new development must obtain approval of a panel of architects – Lord knows we could use some interesting-looking new buildings in this city.
- Look at other cities worldwide. Learn how they dealt with development, and what they experienced, both positive and negative.
It’s not too late to save Raleigh. But the time to act is now.
Lewis Beale is a journalist based in Raleigh.