Matt Tomasulo | Candidate Questionnaires - Wake County | Indy Week
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Matt Tomasulo 

Raleigh City Council At-Large

Name as it appears on the ballot: Matt Tomasulo
Party affiliation, if any: unaffiliated
Campaign website: mattforraleigh.com
Occupation & employer: Urban Planner / Civic Instigator / Designer @ Walk [Your City]
Years lived in Raleigh: 8 years

Given the current direction of Raleigh city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

Raleigh city government is certainly heading in the right direction. However, as of recent, a number of different processes and decisions have caught a lot of attention and resulted in significant backlash by citizens. Raleigh is becoming more sophisticated as we grow, and as we grow, we will face more challenging decisions. I understand that leadership does not have all the answers, nor should they - but they should have a vision for the future of Raleigh that establishes a process and guidelines for tackling these difficult questions. By having a vision and a process, we will be able to better determine what answers and solutions are best for Raleigh’s future. We are growing, there is no getting around that - and we have to embrace that energy. People are moving here because it is a great place to live, so let's capitalize on that. If elected, a major change I would advocate for is supporting smart development - figuring out ways to bridge between our neighborhoods and new development. I would advocate for Raleigh to be a community of 20-minute neighborhoods ( I discuss a bit more below). In its simplest form, the 20-minute neighborhood prioritizes new housing to not be 100% reliant on the car - giving options for new residents to walk, to bike, and to take the business places - organized to support existing and proposed transit - while minimizing additional congestion.

If you are a candidate for a district seat, please identity your priorities for improvements in the district if you’re elected. If you are an at-large or mayoral candidate, please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them?

Development, we need to grow together: I would encourage new, thoughtful and balanced development – prioritizing close-knit, walkable neighborhoods that plan for people to walk and to bike - supporting current and future transit – while helping to minimize congestion and maintain affordable living. All which allows the preservation of our neighborhoods, while creating more public parks that help attract new talent to our urbanizing centers. It is critical that we continue to provide housing and jobs for the 60-70 (depending on your source) people moving to Raleigh each day. People must be the forefront of our policy.

Communication, voices are missing from the conversation: I would create people-sized communication and civic engagement channels. We need quick, easy to understand and engaging ways to connect with citizens around the issues that matter and meet residents where they are. By using simple online videos and writeups with ideas like a mobile City Hall truck we could more effectively deliver information, updates, challenges and opportunities to ALL residents throughout Raleigh. For my campaign, I am leading through action - inviting residents to share ideas about how to make Raleigh better on Neighborland - an easy to use online community tool for communication. I am also posting my own ideas for to better Raleigh, such as alternative affordable housing ideas, transportation needs, and innovative communication strategies.

Creative new solutions are needed: I want to bring a new approach to Council that builds on my entrepreneurial experience of building city-focused businesses. There are new ways to try ideas before we commit large sums (what I like to call “test before you invest” approach - not just in policy but in practice), use data to drive decision-making, and take more creative approaches to public-private partnerships to unlock economic development opportunities and continue to grow jobs in our exciting city.

What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

My life’s work is about helping communities shape healthy, vibrant places for people to thrive. I moved to Raleigh to go to NC State and UNC Chapel Hill to continue my education in Planning and Urban Design. While in Raleigh, I built a business focused on helping cities around the country shape more walkable and bikeable places in towns as small as 1500 people, and cities as large as 1 million people. Over 200 different communities have utilized my program as a first step towards creating more walkable neighborhoods. I’ve worked directly within city hall in cities like San Jose, and Lexington - but have also worked directly with many staff members at the City of Raleigh on a pioneer partnership between the City of Raleigh, Walk [Your City] (my business) and Blue Cross Blue Shield NC. Under this partnership, I am working to design pedestrian street signage for different neighborhoods and streets throughout Raleigh, not just downtown. IMy work with cities has been recognized nationally and internationally in many books, and by folks like BBC News, Wired, TED, The Atlantic and NPR.

Please give one specific example of something you think City Council has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.

The best thing is definitely Dix. Fighting for that as a city, region and state asset is incredible - but let's get to work - there is no reason we can’t start activating it with temporary events so folks can start to explore and understand the magic that Dix is. Voting against bikeshare and not more rigorously pursuing a public-private partnership to help bridge the funding gap was a huge disappointment for me. I would have made sure bikeshare was approved as a critical building block for downtown, and broughten private partners to the table to make up the deficit created by decreased revenue.

How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?

I'm progressive, honest in intention and commitment to our future, but also believe in fiscal accountability and creativity.

The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

Please address, in detail, the following major issues in Raleigh:
Now that the city has acquired the 306-acre Dorothea Dix Park, what are some specific things you would like to see the city do with it?

Let's get people up there! What process are we using to activate the park? People are already using it, so let’s build on that. How can we get the most of the park while we long range plan, fundraise, etc? I’ve heard folks say, we won't see anything in the next 20 years. That would be a travesty. There is absolutely no reason we can’t create temporary programming, events, experiences, and explorations at Dorothea Dix, now. A tremendous example is the Atlanta beltline, a ring of leftover rail lines that circle the city. Atlanta is planning for light rail along the corridor, but once it started acquiring the lengths of track, they started programming it with art, events, etc. Temporary programming helped introduced residents to the new city asset that will ultimately be the transit backbone to the city, but for the time-being - a fun, unique experience for all residents and visitors.

Between gentrification in historic neighborhoods and expensive rentals downtown, the city has struggled at times with questions of affordable and workforce housing. What concrete steps can or would you take to help ensure that, for instance, hospitality workers can afford to live in Raleigh and especially its urban core? For example, there has been some talk of density bonuses to entice developers to include affordable units in their downtown developments. Do you believe this is a viable idea? Why or why not?

There are a lot of different approaches. Interestingly enough, this past Thursday, John Kane said on a panel at Innovate Raleigh that the City should simple make it mandatory to include affordable housing for all new developments. When studying other city’s policies, density bonuses do not necessarily work that well if an “option” - most developer just build to the maximum before needing to include the affordable housing. Other affordability and workforce models I am interested in are community land trusts (which are typically associated with conservation? Since the city controls so much land in east raleigh, a land trust could be an interesting possibility to control one of the biggest market drivers of gentrification, land value. Another, immediately actionable alternative/affordable housing solution are backyard cottages and tiny house developments. Backyard cottages allow for elders to age in their own community, moving to the back yard to live smaller and either make income off their main house, or have their children move in. This was very popular in the early part of the 20th century in the US. Backyard Cottages and Tiny Houses allows for smaller residential units to be included in neighborhoods that otherwise might price people out around downtown. I lived in Boylan Heights in a garage apartment and know that Boylan Heights is an incredible resource for downtown service workers. It works well there and I believe would be a solution in all of the emerging urban neighborhoods - not just those in downtown. After being voted down in 2013, I would immediately support the great work being done by the Mordecai CAC to become a pilot overlay district for backyard cottages.

Related to affordable housing and affordability in general is viable public transportation. What steps can the city take to improve mass transit throughout the city? Will you actively support the transit referendum that Wake County will likely put to voters next year?

Yes, I will actively support the transit referendum. Transit is viable but Raleigh has to do our part. We need to be leaders in getting compact, walkable communities built that support our transit future. I believe Raleigh’s growth needs to exceed anyone's current expectations and we truly need to be building for the transit and active lifestyles. We need do this by committing to Raleigh being a community of 20-minute neighborhoods - where all new residences have access to daily basic amenities within a 20 minute walk or bike ride. By creating environments for a 20-minute lifestyle we can tap into other allied industries and stakeholder groups to ensure that this type of lifestyle is also meeting their goals. This way we are supporting much denser, but human-scaled development that can be placed along corridors and neighborhood centers that supports existing bus service and other future investment. Everyone complains about development for one overwhelming reason - congestion. We need to be proactive about giving every new resident to Raleigh options to live a non-auto-dependent lifestyle, mitigating impact and congestion - allowing those here to keep what they love while also providing for those moving here.

The city came under fire at Council meetings in July for the proposed remapping under the Unified Development Ordinance. It is safe to say there was a lot of uncertainty and distrust. Broadly speaking, how do you think the city should approach issues of density and neighborhood livability? And if the city had it to do over again, what about the UDO remapping do you believe should have been done differently, if anything?

The UDO development process has been very long - but judging by reactions over the last few months, many residents had no idea it was in the works, nor how it could impact them. To me, this shows that there was a fundamental disconnect between the city and residents regarding this topic. If residents had been a bigger part of the development process, and had more time to understand implications of the new zoning, I believe there would much less pushback about density and neighborhood livability if residents were involved earlier. After speaking with residents who attended some of the targeted UDO discusses that planning led in different neighborhoods, many residents just needed some clarification that this process did not mean that they would lose their building, office, or workspace.

Additionally, the flexibility of the UDO - which is needed for our diversifying growth and demand for infill development - is ultimately a benefit and huge advantage of the new zoning - but having sensitivity to existing conditions, character, history and existing business seems like it was overlooked in some areas. I’m not familiar with how many of these new neighborhood centers were re-drawn - but many voices were missing - so if we were to do it again - new efforts - both online and offline - would need to happen to welcome the community to table to give their input and offer opportunities to learn about the changes. Additionally, why couldn’t we have have a pilot UDO zone somewhere in the city? By testing before investing in the full plan, we could have worked out many kinks and shown what is possible through the new zoning.

Also on the subject of livability: The issue of regulating sidewalk patios hints at the difficulty this city (like other cities) faces in striking a balance between making its downtown more of a neighborhood and the needs of the businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry, that currently exist. How do you think the city should go about balancing these needs? What does a successful downtown look like to you?

Balancing the needs between downtown being a neighborhood and a vibrant city center is certainly critical. Fortunately, we have already successfully overcome this “issue” in downtown - in Glenwood South. Over the last few years, both business owners and residents came together and figured out how to respect each other's needs, desires and realities to peacefully and respectfully coexist as downtown neighbors in an exciting new core neighborhood. As Raleigh grows, we have to remember we are all neighbors - and need to respect each other as neighbors. The Glenwood South neighborhood group could function as initial community allies or help shape best practices for residents and business owners to work together on our continual growing pains. My vision for a successful downtown includes a healthy mix of both commercial and residential living - this includes affordable housing, public parks, a grocery store, more density, good design, bike share, dedicated bike lanes, sidewalk dining, better bus service, public art, and slow, safe streets for everyone on foot, on bike or in a car.

Some downtown businesses have worried that the parking-deck fees scheduled to go into effect at the end of the year will adversely impact them. On the other hand, there are obviously costs associated with both building and maintaining garages, and most other cities do charge for their use. What would be your ideal solution?

It seems like there were missing voices and perspectives at the table when making these decisions. It is completely understandable that the city should charge for parking - but how can the city be good neighbors to the downtown businesses that have taken risks and made downtown a desirable place for people from all over the region to flock to on the weekends? We need to make sure that the hundreds of service workers who are working every weekend night are not penalized for working downtown. I believe if more business owners could have input, we could come up with a thoughtful solution that can respect both the businesses and service workers who make downtown tick on the weekends. Downtown is still young, and new - so we need to make sure that we do not scare the droves of folks flooding downtown away. By working with business owners downtown, I’m sure that if all downtown stakeholders were brought to the table, we could figure out a solution that is fair for service workers, early evening diners, and those coming downtown for the nightlife - while still meeting the fiscal needs of the city.

Some recent legislative actions have seemed, to some extent, antagonistic toward the state’s cities: specifically, the repeal of business privilege taxes and the movement toward redistributing sales tax revenue. In your view, how should the city respond to these (potential and actual) revenue losses? Will the city’s property tax rate need to increase? Will services or new initiatives be curtailed? How should the city address its fiscal challenges going forward?

The state impacting tax revenue is certainly disappointing. These revenue losses were cited as the reason for bikeshare not getting approved, even when the there was a grant to possibly cover most of the capital investment. This could and should have been a great opportunity to create a strategic public / private partnership - covering the costs of the bikeshare that we otherwise could not afford due to lost revenue. Regardless of what is happening at the state level, cities across the country continue to have inflating expenses grow faster than revenue - so cities are looking for other revenue and funding options to continue to take proactive actions and make projects happen. We need to look to less traditional funding options and instruments, reallocate funds, think more critically about our operations and not use a loss of revenue as an excuse to not make key, critical decisions for the future of our city. I see bikeshare as a project that was a slam dunk for a pioneer public-private partnership. We already have a perfect precedent right down the road in Charlotte - where BCBSNC fully funded their bikeshare program. Let’s look to other cities for precedent and get creative with our funding and partnership policies.

The city has about 230 employees who earn less than what is generally considered to be a living wage, about $31,000 a year. In your view, is this problematic or something the city should concern itself with?

The city should absolutely be concerned with how much employees make as the city should serve as a leader in the region as a major employer. Living wage is very important, especially as the cost of living in our region continues to grow.

When is the bike share program going to happen?

As soon as financially possible. The study was favorable and there is no reason city leaders should not be able to still pull together funding through partnering with the private sector to sponsor the program. If we let the possible grant go that would cover a significant amount of the capital investment in the program - I can't help but wonder how long it would be until we have the opportunity again to make bikeshare, a basic piece of infrastructure of a 21st century city, a reality in Raleigh. Bikeshare is an economic tool and critical to attracting new talent to the city. Bikeshare helps build a culture friendlier to biking and will also help make more roads safer for bikers sooner, which is critical for us to minimize congestion as we continue to grow at our record pace. Bikeshare provides the connectivity we need for downtown to continue evolve as a great place for people.

What do you believe the role of Citizens Advisory Councils should be? If you are running for a district seat, how closely would you work or have you worked with local CACs?

The CACs should represent the voice of each respective community of residents. I do know that CACs can be inconsistent in approach, operations, organization and effectiveness. Since CACs do not actually have any legal influence on council decisions, residents should better understand the role of CACs to understand how their attendance, votes, and participating at meetings actually has an impact and isn’t just lip service. Even though I am not running in a district, I have worked closely with local CACs, particularly the Central CAC through by business, Walk [Your City]. We worked with the Central CAC to develop a trail of wayfinding signs for the Historic South Park Heritage Trail. The CAC championed the project and we would not have been able to work on the project without their leadership and institutional knowledge. CACs provide a voice for residents, and I do think there are ways the councils can be reorganized to better meet the needs of the residents AND the city - but handsdown believe they are critical to maintaining an active and engaged citizenry.

If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

Early voting begins September 24 and Election Day is October 6th (It is not in November!) Every voice and every vote matters!

  • Raleigh City Council At-Large

More by Reed Benjamin

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