Tar Heel: Stuart Levin’s vision for Raleigh’s Blue Ridge Corridor is taking shape

Dr. Stuart Levin practices medicine on Blue Ridge Road, near his home. In the past seven years he became a key advocate the area.
Dr. Stuart Levin practices medicine on Blue Ridge Road, near his home. In the past seven years he became a key advocate the area.

Seven years ago, internist Stuart Levin found he had a sliver of free time on Thursday afternoons that he thought he might put to use for his community. He decided to spend it exploring an idea that he’d been turning over in his mind for years: how to best manage growth in the area surrounding his practice on Blue Ridge Road.

The area is anchored by Rex Healthcare and boasts attractions such as the N.C. Museum of Art, the State Fairgrounds and the PNC Center. It is traversed by greenways and dotted with green spaces such as Schenck Forest, which abuts Levin’s backyard. But the attractions felt disconnected, without sidewalks or public transportation to connect them. The area didn’t even have a name.

So Levin set about creating that cohesiveness through hundreds of conversations held with stakeholders of all stripes every Thursday. Through those talks, he formed the Blue Ridge Corridor Alliance, now a nonprofit that has worked extensively with the city of Raleigh to create a plan for the area that highlights its current assets and paves the way for new ones.

That plan was honored Thursday with a nomination for a planning award from the Urban Land Institute. And implementation of the plan is gaining momentum with improvements to the N.C. Museum of Art that include a pedestrian-friendly streetscape now underway.

Dan Gottlieb, director of planning and design at the N.C. Museum of Art and an early collaborator on the Blue Ridge project, is heading the expansion of the museum’s park that is designed to mesh with the larger corridor plan. He says Levin’s determination moved the project forward when it threatened to founder at various points. And he continues to advocate for better planning, land use and transportation in the area.

“He brought together everyone from the guy who owns the hardware store down the street to state senators and congressmen, and he got them all on board,” says Gottlieb, who is on the board of the alliance. “And he kept that candle burning and the conversation going to the point where there’s quite a bit of momentum.”

Throughout the process, Levin learned a lot about urban planning, and developed a particular interest inbuilding a healthy community that offered ample opportunities for exercise. He now gives talks on the topic to medical students, community groups and others.

Filling a vacuum

Levin was born in Philadelphia, but moved to Hattiesburg, Miss., at the age of 13. It was a culture shock; he recalls seeing Ku Klux Klan members handing out flyers and being surprised by the turmoil at the newly integrated schools.

His interest in the topic led him to study segregation as an undergraduate at Duke, spending hours sifting through old news reports on the topic. He ended up earning a double major in history and biology, then went to medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He moved to his current practice in 1995. As an internist, he is mainly focused on primary care, but he also has a specialty in pulmonary medicine that led him to spend part of his time each week at Rex Healthcare.

But in 2008, his practice decided to end their work at the hospital. The move, part of market forces that affected many practices, left him with some time on his hands.

“I had a vacuum that I felt like I needed to fill,” says Levin.

Levin had lived and worked in the area for decades by then, and had seen its rapid growth. Early on, some of his main concerns were traffic issues and the placement of planned greenways. But when he looked at the area on a larger scale, he was struck by how the hodgepodge of businesses and other entities seemed to make the whole less than the sum of its parts.

He knew that Rex Healthcare was planning an expansion, and that the museum was planning a new building, and he wondered about other plans for the area. Gottlieb recalls early conversations with Levin where they hashed out ideas. At first, they thought all that was needed were sidewalks. Over time, the idea for a more comprehensive plan – an identity for the area – took form.

Beyond sidewalks

Levin started out in 2008 by meeting with hospital representatives to talk about their expansion plans, and then he involved N.C. State, which has its veterinary college on Blue Ridge and the N.C. Arboretum nearby. Soon, Levin had pulled in urban planners with the city and raised enough money to hold an open planning meeting on the area in 2012. The meeting resulted in a plan for the district that is now part of the city’s unified development ordinance.

The plan divides the area into three districts: the heath care district focused on the area surrounding Rex, the arts and open space district including the museum and surrounding greenways, and the entertainment district including the PNC Arena and fairgrounds. Plans call for pedestrian infrastructure and transportation within and between these sectors, as well as residential and commercial development.

The plan envisions wide sidewalks leading from mixed-use developments along Blue Ridge, where people could walk to the museum or the fairgrounds, or bike to Umstead or Crabtree parks.

As Levin worked on the plans, the idea of creating walkable communities started to take hold, and urban infill picked up speed in Raleigh. The group’s ideas were embraced as he continued to discuss and present them at meetings and in journals.

“It sort of became a steamrolling effect,” Levin says.

Implementing such a plan is a long and complex process involving multiple partners, including the state, which owns a lot of key land along Blue Ridge. But Levin and other supporters continue to support new developments even if they are sometimes slow in coming.

In the meantime, Levin’s Thursday afternoon meetings continue, even though the extra time he once had in his work schedule has disappeared. He has collected a wall of books at his house on urban planning, Raleigh history and his new focus: how the way a community is built affects the health of its residents.

“In the end, this sort of bled into my professional life,” he says.

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Stuart J. Levin

Born: October 1962, Philadelphia

Residence: West Raleigh

Career: Internist, Wake Internal Medicine; Professor of Medicine, UNC-Chapel Hill; President and Founding Chair, Blue Ridge Corridor Alliance

Education: B.S. Biology and History, Duke University; M.D. UNC-Chapel Hill

Family: Wife and three children

Fun Fact: Levin says his mother was so embarrassed about moving from Philadelphia to the small southern town when he was a teen that she moved her family and their belongings at night without telling anyone.