Ned Barnett

Growth presses Raleigh’s controls

There was a 1960’s musical called “Stop the world – I want to get off.” Sometimes it feels that way in Raleigh, doesn’t it? Growth whirls nonstop and people accustomed to a smaller, quieter and more predictable city yearn for a way to stop their worlds from spinning.

Vertigo is understandable. Raleigh’s population doubled in the last 20 years. It’s expected to double again in the next 20. In a typical year, the city approves permits for 5,000 to 6,000 new housing units. Industrial, commercial and institutional space is expanding at the rate of 5 million square feet a year – the equivalent of 10 Wells Fargo towers.

The growth is fed by a national population shift toward the Southeast. It can’t be stopped, but it can be controlled. Instead of old Raleigh being built over, the city’s traditional character can be enhanced. It can remain a green, safe and pleasant City of Oaks, but with more people and the amenities that come with a larger market.

Striking that balance requires a city government that is both accommodating to growth and resolute about maintaining quality of life standards. Some city residents long active in planning issues and others drawn by new, disputed development think the city is struggling to stay within the bounds of well-planned growth. They predict a sharp rise in local protests as homeowners see high-rise apartments and commercial buildings rising on the edges – and sometimes within – their neighborhoods.

Already there have been skirmishes over highrises on Hillsborough Street and in Cameron Village. There was a fight about a Publix grocery store planned for a residential community in North Raleigh. Southeast Raleigh is concerned about the fast pace of gentrification. And residents of downtown’s new condominiums and apartment buildings complain that the boom is getting too loud, with too many festivals, bars with outdoor seating and live music.

David Cox, a computer scientist who led resistance to the Publix store, says residential resistance isn’t a NIMBY response. It’s about maintaining the right balance of size and intensity. “It’s not an issue of preventing development. It’s what will be appropriate development,” he says.

It’s not that the city hasn’t planned for growth. It spent years developing a comprehensive plan. Then it translated the plan into a Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), a complete rewrite of the existing zoning code. On July 7, it will hold a public hearing on the final, granular stage – rezoning approximately 30 percent the city.

Philip Poe, a former longtime member of the Citizens Advisory Committee in the Five Points area, said the city is having trouble converting its vision into reality. Development proposals and tear-downs are disrupting neighborhoods where residents thought zoning would prevent oversized homes or commercial projects. Some may be surprised that new zoning maps might allow a restaurant across the street, or a four-story apartment building near the entrance to a single-family housing development.

“It’s nice to have words on paper,” Poe says, “But how well do you execute? That’s where we’re stumbling and falling on our faces.”

Ken Bowers, Raleigh’s planning director, says it’s not a problem with execution. It’s that development now has changed from putting up homes on former farmland as the city expanded outward to adding density to already developed areas. The comprehensive plan encourages less sprawl and people increasingly want to live in settings where they can walk to buy food or find entertainment.

Bowers notes that the city still has open land in its northeast and southeast sections, but development is pushing inward. He says there is “a shift in where people want to live and work and that’s pushing development to become denser and more urbanized.”

The standards of the UDO, Bowers says, will channel that growth in a way that even a more urbanized Raleigh can still live up to its motto of being “a city within a park.”

“We have an opportunity to preserve a lot of what is green and pastoral even as we accommodate growth,” he says.

City Councilwoman Mary Ann Baldwin hears the complaints and worries about Raleigh growing erratically, but she thinks the city government has a good grip on the pressures. She said upgrading the comprehensive plan and shaping growth have been preoccupations of the council since she joined it in 2007. She says the city has stressed transparency and communication about more intensive growth, but she knows that new construction and denser development will catch some people off guard and upset others.

“It’s change and change is hard. A lot of what we are experiencing are growing pains,” she says. “Leading through change can be difficult, but I believe we’re doing the right thing for our community.”

Some people engaged in recent development disputes worry that developers have expertise and resources that outweigh the influence of neighborhood groups,. Baldwin says that’s not the case. “Nothing is more powerful than a citizen’s voice,” she says.

It’s good she feels that way. By the looks of development and the response of residents, Baldwin and other council members will be hearing a lot of those powerful voices.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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