Midtown Raleigh News

City planners respond to complaint; special meeting canceled

City Councilman Russ Stephenson has canceled a special council committee meeting set for Tuesday, after city planners resolved a Walgreens developer’s questions.

Stephenson took the unusual step of calling for the meeting earlier this month, saying city planners had failed to respond to the inquiries about the planned drugstore in Northwest Raleigh.

Deputy Planning Director Ken Bowers issued a one-page response to the questions Aug. 8, two days after Stephenson brought up the topic at a council meeting. Planners and developers came to an agreement Thursday on changes to Strickland Road in front of the store. Stephenson has championed developers’ plans for a pedestrian-friendly look, with parking close to the street and sidewalks directly in front of the store.

Planners, however, had worried the unique design could impact traffic on the suburban thoroughfare. In the Aug. 8 email, Bowers says the plan “would lead to compatibility issues with other segments of the corridor and impact the property across Strickland Road.”

Stephenson has been talking with Planning Director Mitch Silver about the issue, and the councilman said Thursday that he sees his involvement as a success.

“I’ve accomplished my job, which is to bring people together to get things done,” he said.

Stephenson saw the Walgreens plan as a case study for the city’s new development code, which goes into effect Sept. 1. The developer’s proposed street layout is modeled according to the new code. When Stephenson first broached the issue Aug. 1, he told Silver the special meeting should also address “how staff sees suburban retail intersections being urbanized incrementally over time.”

The issue got heated when Stephenson made his request at the Aug. 6 council meeting. He lashed out at planners for not giving developers “a predictable process.”

Silver suggested that planners meet privately with the developers, and Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin pointed out that the special committee meeting doesn’t “follow protocol.” The comprehensive planning committee typically reviews development applications that require in-depth discussion; the Walgreens developers hadn’t yet submitted any formal paperwork. They were seeking planners’ advice in advance of their application.

Others also voiced concerns about Stephenson’s intervention on behalf of attorney Tom Erwin, a neighbor and campaign contributor of the councilman. “I want you to know that I am greatly concerned about your actions in this case,” Raleigh resident Hugh Stohler wrote to Stephenson. “City council members must not act as managers of things for which procedures are in place ... it calls into question confidence in the fairness of how Raleigh city government can apply regulations.”

An hour after the heated council exchange, Bowers emailed Stephenson to explain the miscommunication.

“I did reply (to the developers), but I did not follow up with more detailed comments,” Bowers wrote. “That was my oversight and I take responsibility. ... I was very busy with meetings the first three days of last week, and then I was in Florida visiting my dad and dementia-afflicted mother.

“I let it fall through the cracks.”