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Smart Growth Questions

Everywhere you turn in Raleigh, somebody's decrying the city's development sprawl and polluted air. Last week, it was Tom Worth, a top developers' lawyer, who took up the mantra. What he was pitching, a project on a horse farm in North Raleigh, "offers the opportunity to break the mold, and raise the bar," Worth said, because it would mix housing, offices and retail stores in one locale not far from I-540.

It's a project, however, that Wayward Farm's neighbors say is too much in the wrong place.

Mixed-use offers the hope that people working in offices can walk to lunch, and if they have to drive to a store for a curtain rod, at least it won't be 10 miles away. But mixing stores and offices into residential neighborhoods is dicey business, because--in the absence of mass-transit alternatives--it generates high volumes of car traffic that people don't want where they live.

So, put your mixed-use projects near transit hubs, yes? Or, since there are no transit hubs in Raleigh yet--just sprawl--put mixed-use where hubs can go in the future, or else scale down the density so the roads don't have to be widened. That's what Mayor Charles Meeker and at-large City Councilors Janet Cowell and Neal Hunt got elected last year promising to do: Strengthen Raleigh's land-use plans and hold developers to them.

Or try, anyway. The problem is, the developers want to make money now, not in some transit-oriented future. On top of that, the economy's lousy, which makes elected officials reluctant to be "anti-growth."

Three big projects, all controversial, are coming soon to the City Council for rezoning decisions. When they're decided, we'll know more about whether Raleigh's ready to change things or just talk about it.

Rezoning No. 1: Stanhope. This was to be the prototype for a new way of doing business. Under the auspices of the Hillsborough Street Partnership, a civic group, two big landowners and the residents of the tiny Stanhope neighborhood thrashed out a small-area plan for a very strategic location: It's on the western edge of the N.C. State campus, within half a mile of a planned TTA rail transit stop, and it's a key place if the city's ambitious plans for remaking Hillsborough Street are going to succeed.

Under the small-area plan, developer Val Valentine would be allowed to add University Towers II, a private student-housing complex, and a new parking deck to his original UT project. The deck was to be "wrapped" within another mixed-use building (not for students), with street-level retail oriented toward a new plaza just off Hillsborough Street.

Valentine's rezoning application, however, doesn't follow the plan. His proposed UT II--with 350 units--is 40 percent bigger, and his parking deck is eight levels (900 spaces!), not five. The biggest issue, though: No wrap-around building. "He wants to build it," says his planner, Tony Morris, "but he's looking at the market forces, and he can't commit to it."

Stanhope neighbors like Peggy Seymore assumed, once council approved the plan a few weeks ago, that Valentine's project would have to conform to it. Suddenly, Seymore says, they're realizing that's not necessarily the case. "I've had two different Planning Commission members say they thought we were all for this," she adds, shaking her head.

Q: Will the city insist on high-density mixed-use where it wants it?,

Rezoning No. 2: Wayward Farm.This is a high-density "urban village" proposed on 56 acres. It's at the outer edge of a "city focus" area, the boundaries of which are hazy. The outer edge should be lowest-density, neighbors think. "When we hear the developer say he's conforming to all the new urban design guidelines," says Nancy McFarlane, "that would be great if this were an urban area. But it's not."

However, traffic is so heavy at the center--at Six Forks and Strickland roads--that city planners want to pull some over to Strickland and New Lead Mine Road, where Wayward Farm is. If developer Arthur Sandman's project is approved, he'll help pay to five-lane New Lead Mine. People who live there, hearing that the road carries just 6,000 cars a day but can handle 40,000, don't think that's progress.

Q: Is high-density mixed-use near the Outer Loop raising the bar? Or more sprawl?

Rezoning No. 3: Coker II. The granddaddy. Developer Neal Coker's grand plans for this site, at Wade Avenue and Oberlin Road near Cameron Village, were beaten in one of Raleigh's biggest rezoning battles ever. Now, Crosland Co. is trying to build on part of Coker's tract. It's scaled down, but still high-density: 50 apartments per acre plus office and retail. The plan puts the least desirable parts right in the neighbors' faces: On one side, a strip-retail center facing Oberlin Road; on the other, a big parking lot across from the houses on Daniels Street.

Q: Should mixed-use blend into established neighborhoods? EndBlock

Small-area planners and other citizens can reach Bob Geary at rjgeary@aol.com.

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