As one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation for several decades now, Triangle communities, at different times, have become flash points in the debate over growth. Consequently, local leaders have taken pains to manage growth in a way that contributes to our quality of life rather than detracts from it.
The Great Recession removed growth as a hot topic, as jobs and economic development moved to the top of the priority list. Some communities, like Raleigh, have made efforts during the slow down to prepare for the next wave of development. After updating its Comprehensive Plan in 2009, the city embarked on a Unified Development Ordinance or new city code. Its hallmark is new zoning categories that permit a mix of uses rather than separate uses.
In a shift from the Post-World War II suburban development patterns, the UDO encourages compact, walkable communities with retail, offices and residences clustered on transportation corridors.
Over the past year, the new UDO has been the subject of much debate. A small but vocal group has attacked staff and the City Council, arguing the UDO will allow new development to overwhelm the city. The discussion has caused some to wonder whether Raleigh has emerged from the downturn with a vengeance. A new flashpoint in the growth debate may be at hand.
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Periodically, the Triangle Community Coalition has conducted public opinion research on local issues, particularly on growth and development. We recently engaged Fallon Research, a nationally recognized polling firm, to undertake a poll in the City of Raleigh, surveying city residents. The poll takes a snapshot at an interesting time in Raleigh’s history as the next wave of growth moves in new directions.
On balance, the public has a positive outlook. Nearly 60 percent feel that Raleigh is on the right track, and over 60 percent approve of the work being done by the City Council. In contrast, only 30 percent believe the state is on the right track. Despite the improving economy, creating good jobs remains by far the top priority for respondents.
A clear majority believe the rate of growth from retail, residential and offices is at the right pace. Even though growth can create more traffic and place demands on infrastructure, only a minority want to reduce the rate. A majority also supports the goal of encouraging more urban patterns of development. In fact, the vast majority of respondents remain committed to the vision outlined in the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Questions about the recent “controversial” Publix project in North Raleigh were also revealing. More respondents favored the project than opposed it. Moreover, voters would be less likely to support a candidate who voted against the project because neighborhood groups opposed it.
Attitudes on growth have not changed significantly in Raleigh despite tremendous demographic shifts and changes in living patterns. Residents recognize they live in a growing region. It comes with the territory as one of the best places to live, start a business, find a mate, raise a family, retire. The public understands the tension between growth and quality of life can be resolved only through good planning and execution.
If we lose faith in our planning professionals and react to a few loud voices, our framework for growth collapses. New residents will continue to arrive every day. Without a plan, the suburban sprawl that clogs roadways, makes school planning unpredictable and increases infrastructure costs will be inevitable.
Jacob C. Rogers is executive director of the Triangle Community Coalition.