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Carolina Journal News Reports

Brave New World: Raleigh Planners Embrace Compact Growth

Urban growth expert calls new plan ‘anti-Raleigh’

Jan. 12th, 2009
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CJ photo by David N. Bass

Raleigh Planning Director Mitchell Silver unveils the first draft of the city’s new comprehensive plan Dec. 3 at the Raleigh Convention Center.

RALEIGH — Dressed in a crimson-stripped tie and black suit, Mitchell Silver smiled as residents streamed into the street-level mezzanine of the Raleigh Convention Center.

It was the night the city’s Planning Department would unveil the first draft of a new comprehensive plan, a 388-page document dedicated to corralling growth in high-density areas, curbing suburban development, and orchestrating land use during the next 20 years.

Silver, director of city planning, had spent the last two years guiding the project to completion. There had been bumps along the way — he compared the process to “giving birth” — but it was almost over.

As residents milled about, examining enlarged maps devoted to land use, earth framework, thoroughfares, and economic development, Silver took his place behind a raised lectern. Above him white lights bathed the convention center’s vaulted ceiling, a monument to planners’ vision of a revitalized downtown, a remade city that conformed to their view of what urban life should be. The new comprehensive plan was its nexus.

“This plan prepares Raleigh’s development for today and tomorrow,” Silver told the crowd of several hundred, mostly composed of white-collar professionals fresh out of the frosty December air, still dressed in stylish wool and leather coats.

“We have a choice,” he said. “Do we intervene and manage growth, or allow things to go on as they have been? The city council, with the approval of this comprehensive planning process going forward, said we want to manage that growth.”

Twenty minutes later, the crowd dispersed to discuss the plan with city officials, the first step in a series of public feedback events planned for December and January. Silver stepped down from the lectern to shake hands and chat with residents.

“It was a very positive event,” Silver said later in an interview with Carolina Journal. “We got a lot of positive feedback, a lot of encouraging reaction.”

The unveiling, conducted Dec. 3, was the culmination of months of work by the Planning Department and consultants. The city paid $600,000 to hire HNTB, an infrastructure consulting firm, to help complete the project. Now, the draft could become official policy as early as March, when the Raleigh City Council is expected to take a final vote.

Some experts, however, say the plan could have an adverse effect on Triangle residents. “It seems really anti-Raleigh,” said Randal O’Toole, a Cato Institute senior fellow who specializes in urban growth, public land, and transportation issues.

“They’re going to tend to make housing a little more expensive,” he said. “The main thing is that they’re going to make traffic a lot more congested.”

As reported by CJ previously, city planners have faced criticism about public engagement and property rights. Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble, a former Raleigh mayor and city council member, said property owners get hurt when cities impose burdensome restrictions.

“Here’s a suggestion for my fellow elected officials: Take an economics class, and then get back to me on what it is you want to do,” Coble said. “When you truly understand the marketplace and basic economics, and you believe in the free market, then you realize the property owner is the real loser in this.”

Specifics of the plan

The draft plan is built around six policy goals: economic prosperity and equity; expanding housing choices; managing growth; coordinating land use and transportation; sustainable development; and growing successful neighborhoods and communities.

“Due to the rising infrastructure and energy costs, diminishing land resources, local environmental impacts, and global climate change, Raleigh is now committed to a smart growth pattern of development for its future and desires to be a model ‘sustainable city,’” the plan says.

Most residential development in Raleigh is low density, but city planners aim to engineer “compact growth” during the next 20 years by funneling more residential and commercial expansion into high-density corridors. The plan calls for reducing vehicle travel and encourages “walking, bicycling, and transit use.”

It also calls for Raleigh to reduce “global warming pollution;” foster economic development to support and expand the city’s tax base; use a more “land-efficient model” for housing; preserve and maintain parks and open space; coordinate urban design to create an environment that “supports and promotes social interaction;” incorporate public art “into both public and private developments;” and achieve “improved and more effective regional governance.”

The draft devotes 45 pages to growth guidelines for downtown. The city has spent about $9.3 million to renovate Fayetteville Street and $221 million on a new convention center in hopes of invigorating business and tourism downtown.

Silver said that it was “simply not true” that downtown is getting more attention and funding than suburban areas.

“I think downtown tends to have the high-profile projects,” he said. “When you do sewer extensions or other facility improvements, such as road improvements, these have significant costs. They tend not be as high profile as downtown. But when you look at our capital improvement plan and what has been done, actually you’ll see that other parts of the city do receive significant capital dollars. They just aren’t as high profile as a convention center.”

Many of the design guidelines for downtown are specific. The plan suggests that “public art and/or civic monuments” be an “integral part of any building plan,” and that a minimum of “35 percent of each upper story” of a building be windows.

The document contains hundreds of other policy recommendations. Although none is binding, Silver said that the city “can’t ignore the recommendations.” The city council is expected to approve a zoning code update to reflect planners’ new goals.

“If you look at the structure of the ordinance today, there are disconnects between what the zoning allows for and where the market is going, and what our articulated planning goals are and what the zoning plan calls for,” said Ken Bowers, deputy director of the Planning Department.

The plan itself calls for such an update. It says zoning regulations “need substantial revision and reorganization, ranging from new definitions to updated development and design standards, and even new zoning districts … the City plans to undertake a major overhaul of the zoning regulations beginning in 2009.”

Impact on residents

That has free-market advocates concerned that the comprehensive plan could end up hurting more than helping city and county residents. The plan says it will have “far-reaching effects on everyone who lives or works in Raleigh.” Planning Department staff say the plan will not adversely impact homeowners and taxpayers.

“No matter what Raleigh does, the region is going to be adding a lot of people and businesses,” Bowers said. “That isn’t going to be turned around by anything we do in the comp plan. That’s a reality we have to look at.”

But O’Toole said that plans of this nature inhibit growth, “because planning imposes costs on businesses, imposes costs on homebuyers, imposes costs on travelers.”

“To me, this whole idea of a comprehensive plan is likely to impose huge costs on business, so if anything it will inhibit growth. It’s certainly not going to prepare for growth,” O’Toole said.

In a study published in 2006 by the Independence Institute, O’Toole found that regions with growth-management planning experienced higher cost-of-living increases than regions without such strategies.

For example, between 1999 and 2005, housing prices rose by 118 percent in San Francisco, 74 percent in Boston, and 29 percent in Portland. In contrast, prices rose by 20 percent in Atlanta, 14 percent in Dallas, and 18 percent in Houston, all areas without aggressive growth planning.

O’Toole cautioned in the study that not all overpricing is caused by growth management, but that sustained and significant over-pricing appears “to some factor causing a housing shortage, most often a growth-management plan.”

“[Any] policy that attempts to slow growth, direct growth to certain areas, or manipulate densities is likely to reduce housing affordability,” he wrote.

Coble agreed that homeowners and homebuyers are harmed when cities implement “smart growth” plans that seek to limit development. “The people who get hurt are the property owners, who lose their property rights, lose their equity, and lose their future potential to sell because of these restrictions,” he said.

Transit worries

The plan emphasizes public transit, including a regional rail system along high-density corridors. Rail transit has a failing track record in the Triangle. In 2005, the Triangle Transit Authority, now renamed Triangle Transit, scuttled plans for rail because of lack of federal commitment. Transit officials also have been unable to secure federal funding for a rail system recommended more recently by the Special Transit Advisory Commission.

Roger Kosak, a member of the Raleigh Transit Authority, said the city has to determine whether residents are willing to pay the taxes necessary to get a light-rail system in place.

“We need to make sure we have public commitment and funding for the rail system before we’re going to change the density along the rail corridor,” he said. “If you change the density and you don’t get the rail, you have huge traffic jams.”

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.