In what could very well be his last State of the City address, Mayor Charles Meeker said Raleigh should plan now, while the recession stalls growth, for its next ambitious projects: the 306-acre Dix Park, water conservation and public transportation.
Tax revenues have run below projections since September, and city officials have trimmed spending by about 5 percent, Meeker said. Yet a recession, he added, "can actually be a very good time to undertake good planning."
He noted that during the 2001 economic downturn, after 9/11, the council made key decisions that led to the reopening of Fayetteville Street and the construction of the new convention center, priming the city for expansion when the economy rebounded.
On Dix Park, Meeker said it's "not quite the right time" for the city to acquire the land while the state psychiatric hospital there is still needed. But Gov. Bev Perdue has supported the city's vision of an expansive urban park on Dix Hill—all 306 acres of it, Meeker added. "This is a huge opportunity, and we simply have to take advantage of that," he said.
He also called for a stepped-up program of water conservation and re-use including using recyled water to irrigate lawns and providing incentives to help homeowners install low-flow devices like showerheads, toilets and faucets.
Meeker gave a major shout-out to the new draft comprehensive plan unveiled last month by Planning Director Mitch Silver and his staff. Some City Council members have complained about Meeker's apparent rush to adopt the plan before the public has had sufficient chance to read and debate it.
Council's efforts to extend the official public comment period beyond the end of January failed to win a majority vote at last week's Council meeting. The tally was 4-4, with Meeker casting one of the opposing votes. Silver has promised to accept comments unofficially through February, and to write a summary of them prior to the scheduled March public hearing.
Meeker called the draft "a great plan ... the best plan of any city in the country," with strong policies on affordable housing, transit, urban form and bicycles on city streets. He said he wants it adopted quickly so the Council can begin to implement it this summer, before the October elections.
As for transit, Meeker called on the General Assembly to authorize Wake and other Triangle counties to levy a 1/2-cent sales tax dedicated to transit improvements. He's been working on a plan with other Wake mayors, he said, that over the next three years would add up to 75 buses on routes in and out of Raleigh, and by 2019, to launch light-rail service.
It is time to get serious about transit improvements, after a decade of talking about it, Meeker said, "which is pretty much all we've been doing."
Whether Meeker will be a candidate for a fifth two-year term in October is a hot topic in Raleigh political circles. He's been telling allies that he probably won't run, but hasn't closed the door on it completely.
Asked his plans by the Indy, Meeker said, "It's getting close to the time for me to leave," but that he hasn't made a final decision. Right now, that's his answer, he said, and shrugged.