Restore the missing middle of housing

What Vanderbilt Avenue would look like with planned NX5 housing.
What Vanderbilt Avenue would look like with planned NX5 housing. Courtesy of Frank Harmon

I live a block away from N.C. State University in a neighborhood called University Park, where students come from all over North Carolina to leave their empty beer cans and fast food wrappers in my yard.

I like living here. It’s lively. I can walk to three coffee shops and several restaurants and to the College of Design where I teach. I can live with a little litter.

But lately there’s a move to bring more than litter to my street. The City of Raleigh Planning Department is proposing to rezone Hillsborough Street to four- and five-story mixed-use development (NX5) next to University Park.

We all know what NX5 looks like now – five-story, 75-foot-tall stick-built boxes wrapped around a parking structure – because they’re all over Raleigh. Although they increase density and property tax receipts, these container suburbs are inherently anti-urban. Residents come and go not on the sidewalk but through a parking garage. Pedestrian life on the street is reduced while traffic is increased. The effect of buildings like these on University Park neighborhood would be devastating.

University Park is a mix of single-family houses, duplexes, stand-alone apartments and alleyway houses on walkable streets. My neighbors are students, professors, university staff, car mechanics, natural scientists, novelists, baristas and pedicurists, along with many others who enjoy a dense neighborhood that still has lots of trees. Down the street are several churches (including one where we vote), a rose garden, Fred Olds Elementary School and the Raleigh Little Theatre. Two creeks run though University Park, and for the last several years bluebirds have nested here. Some of the brightest minds of three generations have walked along our streets and caught the bus to downtown.

University Park, like many other pre-1940s neighborhoods in Raleigh, has a type of housing known as the “missing middle.” In the 2017 real estate market, the homes available to most of us are either suburban houses with picket fences or five-story stick-built apartments with tiny balconies. The “missing middle” is comprised of duplexes, bungalow courts, four-plexes and granny cottages, which are more affordable.

Pre-war neighborhoods such as University Park, Cameron Park, Brooklyn, Bloomsbury and Oakwood are examples of the missing middle. These neighborhoods are dense enough to support transit and neighborhood shopping, and their mix of housing types provides that most useful urban gift, diversity. Diversity makes possible a mix of people and ideas and builds resilience in accepting growth and change.

It’s possible to see the missing middle being restored to health in other cities. Midtown Atlanta, for example, boasts single-family homes, duplexes, courtyard apartments and mansion apartments not much bigger than a large house adjacent to Peachtree Street and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Imagine what University Park could be with a diverse mix of housing and people adjacent to our own great university.

Midtown is one of the most desirable places to live in Atlanta. And since 2015, a majority of new home owners in Midtown use public transit or bicycles. Portland, Austin and Denver are also building integrated communities, none taller than three stories. Asheville is currently sponsoring a competition for missing middle housing.

Real estate developers like to talk about the “highest and best use” as evidenced by the cash flow a five-story building on Hillsborough Street will produce. Mitch’s Tavern on Hillsborough Street, a scant two stories tall, has served students and neighbors for two generations, and Target has converted the old two-story bowling alley into a retail store. Are these places a “lower and worse use”?

I think about the coeds along our street who put swimming pools in their front yards in spring, of the elderly couple who grow orchids in their ground-floor apartment next door to a family with two young children. A smarter use would be to keep this diversified neighborhood in place and find ways to make it better.

We must ask if the economic success of five-story wood apartment boxes is enough to make Raleigh better. Some of the most popular and urbane streets in our city – Person Street, Hargett Street and Five Points – are three stories or less in height. Five Points and Person Street are adjacent to healthy neighborhoods of houses and apartments.

Neighborhoods that restore the “missing middle” bring a sense of permanence to our collective future. They maintain the city fabric and allow it to grow incrementally. Building on these principles, Raleigh could be a leader in generating diversified, innovative housing and neighborhoods where people young and old, black and white can raise children, walk to the coffee shop and enjoy the fresh air. Kind of like we do now in University Park.

Most of all, we need a return to neighborliness. Raleigh is not urban versus suburban, east versus north, five stories overshadowing two. It is one city.

And that includes places with a little litter.

Frank Harmon is the founder of award-winning firm Frank Harmon Architect in Raleigh and a professor of Practice in Architecture at the NCSU College of Design.

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