A decade ago, Raleigh worried about urban sprawl. Now it’s facing problems of density.
On one level, that’s a good thing. City leaders and officials have been pushing denser development for years. And the results are showing. Neighboring apartment buildings have gone up in the already busy Cameron Village. High-rises are sprouting on Hillsborough Street. The old North Hills mall has become a self-contained development of housing, offices, retail and entertainment. Young professionals are crowding into the downtown area in such numbers that rents are rising and affordable housing is growing scarce.
Now comes a proposal that has many who drive on Glenwood Avenue near the Beltline thinking, “Enough with the density.” The project, called Glenwood Place, would bring a mix of high-end retail, offices, apartments and a hotel to a 42-acre site along one of the busiest stretches of the north-south artery.
Currently, the site is home to low-rise office buildings built in the 1970s, and the area remains leafy and largely residential. However, just north of the site, Crabtree Mall and other commercial buildings create one of the city’s biggest traffic jams during rush hours and the Christmas shopping season. Glenwood Place would add to the crush. Plans for the project call for 140,000 square feet of retail and more than a half-million square feet of office space. The property’s owner, developer Gordon Grubb, already has approval for a 292-unit apartment complex on the site and plans additional condominiums.
That’s dense development, as dense as a mile-long traffic jam.
On a traffic basis alone, the project appears to be too much in the wrong place. The problem could be solved if road improvements opened traffic flow in the area, but that would involve major and long-running construction and an astronomical cost. Grubb has announced that his company, Grubb Ventures, will spend about $2 million to improve access and add a traffic light at the site’s main entrance on National Drive, but that wouldn’t make a dent in the traffic problem. A city study said fixing the Glenwood-Beltline-Crabtree Mall bottleneck could cost $100 million.
But traffic woes alone shouldn’t be the sole basis for evaluating the proposal. There may be less expensive ways of making the site work. Surely it represents a fuller use of the land that’s consistent with the city’s vision of concentrated development mixing residential and commercial uses. Mixed uses also balance the traffic flow, with workers coming in and residents going out. Some may live and work there. And the site’s challenges may give the city leverage to push for more affordable housing within the project.
One lesson to take from this proposal is that Raleigh is nearing the limit of dense development that does not include a mass transit option. A light rail or trolley line would make such projects much easier to accommodate. So long as concentrating development means concentrating traffic, the city will have few sites that are suitable for the type of development it is encouraging.
Perhaps with a transit-friendly Wake County Board of Commissioners newly in place and a governor interested in improving the state’s highways, the city can find support for untangling the knot on Glenwood and find a way to move people through a more densely developed city. Glenwood Place may be the right place to begin finding such solutions.