Entering downtown Raleigh from the west these days means passing through a gauntlet of construction barrels and temporary fences. Four of the roads into downtown – Peace, Hillsborough, Morgan and Hargett streets – are narrowed by major construction projects. Dust billows across the roadways; cranes swing in the air.
On these streets, the city’s boom has become a choke point, and that’s a fitting metaphor for what’s happening on the City Council too: The city is growing so fast the council’s progress is being slowed. At issue is a divide over how to respond to the increasing construction and rising population. One faction wants to slow down, protect existing neighborhoods and weigh whether construction projects are good for the city, or just the developers. The other wants to ride the wave and adjust on the fly with the city’s new Unified Development Ordinance as a guide.
There is merit to both perspectives. Rapid growth is fueling gentrification, and displacing longtime residents will increase the homeless population. But Raleigh is a hot city in a booming national economy. There’s no magic dial for turning down growth pressures. All the city can do is shape the new city that’s emerging from the old.
The two perspectives, however worthy, are each pointless if they lead to gridlock. And that’s where the council is now. It’s being called NIMBY vs. YIMBY, the growth resisters – not in my back yard – and the growth adapters – yes in my back yard. Fittingly, the clearest dispute between the two involves allowing homeowners to create small housing units, also known as “granny flats,” in their backyards.
These types of housing – either a cottage or an apartment above a garage – are technically referred to as “accessory dwelling units.” Allowing the units hasn’t been a problem in other North Carolina cities and Wake County voted to allow them in 2014. But a council faction led by Kay Crowder wants to evaluate the idea very closely, so closely that approval has been bottled up in committee for years.
The objections to accessory dwelling units aren’t simply a NIMBY reflex. The objections reflect a feeling in many neighborhoods that growth is eroding the quality of life. Homeowners have had to cope with tear-downs and infill in their neighborhoods and new apartment buildings and shopping centers pressing around the edges. Now accessory dwelling units will add rental housing, more cars and transient residents. It’s natural to say, “Enough!”
But “enough” is not an answer. The people are coming. They have to live somewhere. And it’s best that they’re integrated into existing neighborhoods and denser new housing. The other option is sprawl, which helps no one. The backyard units create more affordable housing without changing the neighborhood. And homeowners may find it easier to stay in their homes and pay rising property taxes when their property provides rental income.
The council likely will resolve the granny flats issue in favor of allowing them. Refusing them doesn’t make sense at a time when the city is under pressure to create more affordable housing. But this backyard dispute illustrates a broader problem. Raleigh is changing, as Mayor Nancy McFarlane has said, from a big small city to to a small big city, but in the midst of the transition its leadership is breaking down.
During the first City Council meeting after McFarlane decisively defeated Charles Francis in a runoff election, a split council voted down McFarlane’s list of council committee assignments. Denying McFarlane signaled that the council’s divide goes deeper than backyard units.
There is a genuine issue of equity in the city and the need to keep the fast-rising downtown from crowding out affordable housing, but it’s a false split on the council. McFarlane has been a careful steward of the city and has led efforts to direct city funds toward affordable housing and raise the pay of city workers. It’s not a matter of one side coddling developers and the other looking out for Southeast Raleigh and neighborhoods disrupted by development.
The council is nonpartisan and traditionally has been collegial and collaborative. That’s kept the city’s growth generally going in the right direction. But as growth pressure gets even more intense, it’s pulling the council apart just when the city’s leaders need to be pulling together.
McFarlane, in her fourth and likely final term, hoped to spend her next two years guiding major projects into place, most notably Dix Park and the Union Station transportation center. Instead, she faces the fresh challenge of keeping the council’s consensus from falling apart.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com