Infill: New growth ousts old charm | Wake County | Indy Week
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Infill: New growth ousts old charm 

Council slow to respond to residents' plea for help

Three adjacent houses on Perry Street typify Raleigh's infill debate.

Photo by Rex Miller

Three adjacent houses on Perry Street typify Raleigh's infill debate.

The pace of teardowns in her Raleigh neighborhood has reached the point that Edie Jeffreys braces herself every time she goes around a corner. In Roanoke Park, one of the Five Points East neighborhoods inside the Beltline, the modest craftsman-era bungalows and '50s ranch-style houses that Jeffreys so loves are like endangered species now under the onslaught of the new, more muscular (and much bigger) three-story house.

On her street, Sunrise Avenue, three of the latter are under construction directly across from her own small ranch. Down the way, the newly finished house she calls "the Sunrise Hotel" dwarfs a little bungalow that she used to own, which is again up for sale. Touring around, Jeffreys recalls the bungalows lost as a tallish new house is spotted on each successive street; of the 445 homes considered "contributing" when Roanoke Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, 19 have been torn down and many more are on "death row."

So, is this the relentless march of "progress"? Or should something be done?

Jeffreys' answer is that the City Council should bolster its infill rules, both to preserve its history and help retain what's left of its supply of starter- and mid-priced homes near the downtown core. Otherwise, she warns, the "alt-lifestyle type of folks"—younger, older, single, not working for a buck—will be driven out by the better-off professional class. Folks like her, she adds—a single woman who works at SAS and was charmed by Five Points 20 years ago before it was so red-hot.

"You have to appreciate living in one of these older neighborhoods," she says. "I mean, we bought these houses like you would buy antiques, and we've spent time loving and caring for them the same as you would with an antique."

It's not that every old house must be spared, Jeffreys adds. Some are in bad shape and could go. But many have been renovated successfully—or could be. And whatever happens, the point is for the new or renovated place to "fit in" with the neighboring houses, not hasten their demise. Which is what often happens when a three-story house goes up next door to a one-story house, blocking its view and its sunlight. That's especially problematic on the small lots that dominate older neighborhoods like Roanoke Park, where houses are often just a few yards apart.

To complicate things further, builders have unearthed old lot lines that existed, and are therefore "grandfathered" from before Raleigh had any zoning. The practical effect is that what looks like two lots can often be made into three, meaning two bungalow teardowns can be turned into three tall and deep, if rather narrow, new homes. The potential profits "have the SUVs circling," Jeffreys says, as builders scout their next conquest.

It's not just Roanoke Park. It's Southeast Raleigh too, says City Councilor James West, where the downtown building boom is starting to push out the older homes. It's a citywide issue, says Mayor Charles Meeker.

Two months ago, Nell Joslin went to the council representing a coalition of her own Fallon Park neighborhood and nearby Anderson Heights and Bloomsbury to ask for relief. Her group calls itself Community SCALE, short for "streets that connect people under a canopy of trees with architecture of different types and land preserved for a neighborhood everyone can enjoy."

Community SCALE also wants input on new construction, Joslin says. "The pressures on older neighborhoods are tremendous, and those of us who bought our homes to both live in and to sell for a profit later are finding that it can be hard to live in a home when a much larger house is built next door that overshadows one's windows."

Indeed, the infill problem has been raised by virtually every older neighborhood since it arose with a fury in Roanoke Park five years ago in the battle over Bickett Place. A builder had purchased a string of small houses on deep lots along Bickett Boulevard and proposed to subdivide them so that he could build a four-story condominium project across the backyards.

Neighborhood opposition and a lawsuit filed by Jeffreys, among others, led to a compromise, and new houses were built instead. But the infill issue—what was legally allowed on Bickett Place and what is still legal in neighborhoods everywhere else—has festered ever since, with the City Council unwilling to address it.

Citizens' proposals for height limits, design standards or rules limiting how much taller or bigger a new house can be than ones surrounding it have gone nowhere.

Last week, the council finally did vote to put infill on its priority list of issues for the planning department to study. But it rejected Planning Director Mitch Silver's plea for money to expedite the process by hiring a consultant with expertise on how infill is handled in other cities. Silver said that striking the right balance between neighborhoods' interests and the rights of property owners is complicated and yes, his overstretched department could do it "but it will take a lot longer."

Only Councilor Thomas Crowder spoke up for Silver's request. However, it was rejected after Councilors Jessie Taliaferro and Joyce Kekas pressed their view that no outside expertise is needed. Taliaferro said she preferred to develop in-house knowledge. Councilor Russ Stephenson said later that he thinks a consultant could help and will try to raise the subject again.

"There's been a lot of discussion of this issue," Crowder said afterward, "but there's no political will to act. It's not an easy subject, but I believe where there's a will, there's a way, and a consultant could've helped us to break the logjam."

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