Ned Barnett

Beneath a quiet City Council election, change stirs in Raleigh

Council members, from left, David Cox, Russ Stephenson, Corey Branch, Kay Crowder, Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Bonner Gaylord, Dickie Thompson and Mary-Ann Baldwin watch a presentation as the Raleigh City Council meets in its chambers in downtown Raleigh on Dec. 1, 2015.
Council members, from left, David Cox, Russ Stephenson, Corey Branch, Kay Crowder, Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Bonner Gaylord, Dickie Thompson and Mary-Ann Baldwin watch a presentation as the Raleigh City Council meets in its chambers in downtown Raleigh on Dec. 1, 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

A curious aspect of Tuesday’s City Council election in Raleigh is the lack of pressure for change.

That’s not to say there aren’t candidates offering change. There are two who are trying to oust Mayor Nancy McFarlane and 21 candidates for the seven other seats on the City Council. But it appears likely that the council will emerge from what is expected to be a low-turnout election essentially unchanged but for one new at-large member filling an open seat.

How is it that a city swelling by some 60 new residents a day, with a booming downtown, fast-rising rents, thickening traffic and commercial development intruding on neighborhoods isn’t also feeling pressure to transform its leadership?

The reason for this tranquility at the top is a simple one. Mayor McFarlane and the council are doing a good job of keeping up with growth while somehow also keeping a changing Raleigh still the Raleigh its people appreciate: a lush, tree-filled “city in a park” with moderate taxes, good services, good schools, plentiful jobs and relatively low crime.

There are issues, of course, and most challengers and all the incumbents cite a common list. In rough order of importance, they are: a lack of affordable housing, increasing traffic congestion and inadequate mass transportation; older home teardowns in established neighborhoods and commercial construction in residential areas; and a shortage of city parks and open spaces.

On each of these, the council has taken effective actions:

▪ On affordable housing: The city has committed to setting aside $6 million annually to support affordable housing.

▪ On transportation: A new train station and mass transit hub are under construction in the Warehouse District, the Moore Square bus station has been renovated and a $206 million bond is on the ballot to pay for the upgrading of roads, sidewalks and street crossings.

▪ On development and sprawl: A Unified Development Ordinance was passed that will push commercial growth and denser housing into “growth corridors” and preserve neighborhoods.

▪ On parks and open space: The city purchased the former Dorothea Dix Hospital property and will create a large “Central Park” in the Capital City. It has also added more bikes lanes, extended its greenway system and started bridge replacements and road improvements that will add a park and greenway trails where Capital Boulevard enters downtown.

As these policies and projects have come about, the council members have maintained, on the surface at least, civility and collegiality. The city is getting bigger, but so far has not adopted the hard-edged council politics of larger cities.

For challengers, this political calm amid rapid growth can be frustrating. It has been particularly so for mayoral candidate Charles Francis. A Raleigh native and a lawyer, he gained the endorsement of the local Democratic Party and has mounted a well-funded campaign built around the theme that Raleigh can do better. But Francis is finding that many in the city think Raleigh is doing just fine.

McFarlane is not a famous mayor. Even after six years as mayor, I suspect she can walk freely in Raleigh without being widely recognized. But she engages well behind-the-scenes and is respected for her effectiveness. Her ability to negotiate with the thin-skinned and often vengeful Republicans in the General Assembly for the purchase of the state’s Dix property showed the value of how she looks for results instead of credit.

But what’s also clear in the calm of this election is that change is coming. McFarlane, if elected, will likely make her fourth term her last. And Francis, if he loses, likely will run again in two years. First-time candidates such as at-large candidates Zainab Baloch, 26, and Nicole Stewart, 36, represent something of a youth movement as a new generation seeks a voice in a city that’s getting younger. The District E race between incumbent Bonner Gaylord, who works for developer John Kane, and Stef Mendell, a neighborhood advocate who thinks its time to rein in developers, represents the growing conflict between Raleigh’s livability and its economic vibrancy.

And the pressures that the current council is managing to stay ahead of will catch up. The city’s rising cost of living, its need for more affordable housing, the gentrification of Southeast Raleigh, worsening traffic congestion and a host of other problems related to rapid growth will give rise to political conflicts and demands for change.

McFarlane says Raleigh is moving from being a big mid-sized city to a small big city. Some in Raleigh are eager to move ahead. Some want to preserve the city as it is now. This quiet election may be the last for that steady, mid-sized city. Bigness is arriving and a more turbulent political climate will come with it.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com

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