Even in this time of financial dormancy, with construction projects stalled or dead across the city, the issue in Raleigh's local elections is growth. Raleigh's population is closing fast on 400,000, with another 200,000 predicted to arrive over the next 20 years. Buckle up for when the economy rebounds.
Growth projections are especially thorny because Raleigh's ability to sprawl—to annex into the countryside—is ending. The new people, when they come, will need to be backfilled into the existing low-density landscape. Suburban strip malls must be redeveloped as urban places. Stripped-out roadways must be revamped as complete streets, with bus vtransit, pedestrian sidewalks and bike paths added and car traffic calmed. A system of commuter rail and streetcars is in Raleigh's future.
The sprawl was easy. Urban redevelopment is complicated, requiring creative planning and careful execution. But the payoffs can be great: Strategic locations within transit corridors exist throughout Raleigh, especially from downtown to West Raleigh and Southeast Raleigh, two areas in need of some TLC from the city, and northeast, on Capital Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue.
The City Council is scheduled to adopt a new comprehensive plan in October. But even as the council congratulates itself on a good plan, members caution it will be an airy vision unless followed by a strong rewrite of the city's famously suburban zoning code.
The new "urban form" code must foster higher-density development, but not just anywhere, and not in places where it would clobber adjacent neighborhoods. Fortunately, Mayor Charles Meeker and at least four other members of the eight-member council were attuned to these issues as they reviewed the comp plan .
The council also seems finally to have embraced the mantra of "sustainability" when it comes to the city's water resources and its ability to pay for additional roads, parks and sewer capacity.
Growth will strain all of these elements of Raleigh's infrastructure, forcing city officials to enact conservation standards with teeth (and incentives) and to revamp impact fees so they're lower for developments that use existing infrastructure and higher for the ones that require new.
CHARLES MEEKER, a Democrat, will doubtless be elected to a record-tying fifth two-year term. Quiet and modest, Meeker gets credit for some big accomplishments, including the reopening of Fayetteville Street, which sparked a downtown revival, and construction of the new convention center. He's also taken the lead on protecting water quality in Falls Lake, the city's main drinking water reservoir. He's focused now on beefing up transit and somehow convincing the state that the 306-acre Dorothea Dix tract should be turned into park land, even if some remnant of the state psychiatric hospital remains open there.
In truth, Meeker's been slow to get on the transit bus (or train) and slow as well on affordable housing, an increasingly critical but missing element of Raleigh's putative urban form. He leads from the middle, Meeker says. But the middle in Raleigh politics is pretty conservative.
That said, Meeker is unfailingly polite and accessible to his constituents, even when they're yakking at him. Call him at his law office: He may be the one who answers the phone. He's the master of the city budget. He knows Raleigh's systems inside and out (but trusts city staff to a fault at times). The man is popular and for good reason.
On top of which, none of Meeker's three "challengers," if we can call them that, is mounting any sort of challenge. Democrat Mark Enloe, a database administrator at Family Health International, has some good ideas—a downtown baseball stadium sounds great—but no experience in civic circles. Gregg Kunz, an entrepreneur who's traveled the world, he tells us, has no such experience either, nor any answers to the city's policy questions. He is registered as unaffiliated. Larry Hudson II, an employment recruiter, is a novice candidate who mixes his fiscal conservatism with some smart-growth views (higher impact fees mean lower property taxes, for example). Wake GOP Chair Claude Pope promised to field a Republican challenger. He found one in the narrow slice of Raleigh that's in Durham County.
In this four-candidate race for two seats (the top two win), we endorse incumbent RUSS STEPHENSON, an architect and professional planner who's emerged on council in his second term as its maestro of conservation and sustainable growth.
As chair of the council's public works committee, Stephenson is the go-to member on every road project, sewer extension and water question in Raleigh, of which there are tons. So Stephenson rolls up his sleeves, questions city staff, hears the neighborhoods' concerns—including attending an endless round of citizens' advisory committee meetings all over Raleigh—and comes up with well-reasoned solutions. He fashioned the five-lane design (not six, as city staff proposed) for widening Falls of Neuse Road, to pick just the most recent example. He's been the prime mover in getting Raleigh to stop selling its water cheap and to move toward a two-tier system of pricing to reward those who use less.
In this election as in the last one, Stephenson is the only candidate to earn the endorsement of the local Sierra Club. We, too, are unable to endorse a second candidate, leaving your second vote—if you choose to cast it—up to you.
In her one term, Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin hasn't forged much of a record. When neighborhoods and developers are at odds, she seems to be on the developers' side, though of late such issues have been small-bore. Her marketing skills (she has a consulting business) should've shown up in her role as co-chair of a special water conservation council. They didn't.
Baldwin is odds-on for re-election, however, since neither of the two challengers has put much of a campaign together.
Lee Sartain, an education analyst with the Friday Institute at NCSU, is a smart newcomer with some interesting ideas about economc development and transit. He would also be the council's first openly gay member if elected. But he's raised almost no money, which reflects the fact that until this election season he's never been active in city affairs.
Stephenson, Baldwin and Sartain are Democrats. The fourth candidate, real estate agent Champ Claris, is a Republican for those voters seeking one. But like Sartain, Claris has no record of civic participation. And unlike Sartain, who's voted in city elections since moving to Raleigh, Claris has missed all three of the local elections in which he was eligible to vote.
Councilor RODGER KOOPMAN, a Democrat, has earned a second term in this Northeast Raleigh district. A retired Air Force officer, Koopman has a new gig with an energy systems start-up company that requires him to travel across the country, which sometimes results in missed council sessions. (He's attended 85 percent of council meetings and public works committee meetings since being elected.) But he has a good record otherwise, including leadership on the Horseshoe Farm Park issue—he championed keeping it a nature park—and on raising developers' impact fees. He's for raising them more, he says, but would reduce them for smart-growth developments and eliminate them entirely on projects with 10 percent affordable housing units.
Koopman and McFarlane, who is running unopposed in District A, are part of the sustainable-growth group on council. Republican John Odom, a Meineke franchise owner who is trying to regain the seat he held from 1993 to 2003, is a nice guy but was always laissez-faire about growth.
A tepid endorsement of incumbent Democrat James West, a retired state extension agent, after his 10 years on council would do him no honor. West's Southeast Raleigh district, home to some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, needs more energetic, creative leadership than he's provided. His only opponent, Republican Charles Reisinger, a radio engineer, seems not to be campaigning.
Three-term incumbent Democrat THOMAS CROWDER, an architect, is the clear choice in this Southwest Raleigh district. Crowder is the neighborhoods' champion and the driving force behind the council's pro-sustainability moves. Before anyone else was talking urban form, Crowder was. (And now everyone is, though not necessarily with sufficient protections for older neighborhoods, another Crowder cause.) Crowder pushed for regulation of absentee landlords and got it started via the PROP—the probationary residential occupancy permit program. He's the reason the Hillsborough Street reconstruction project is happening—10 years after neighborhood leaders started asking for it. He was the most effective force in reshaping and improving the new comprehensive plan.
Crowder has been fighting for an affordable-housing initiative, and although he hasn't gotten it, he hasn't given up. He wants a light rail system in Raleigh that goes first toward Cary, RTP and Durham. In service of that idea, he's worked his way up to chair of the Triangle J Council of Governments.
Democratic challenger Ted Van Dyk, also an architect, thinks Crowder's too pushy, though Van Dyk says the two agree on most issues. Van Dyk says the council needs another "positive voice" who works better with developers and other councilors. Not so. It's got enough get-along members.
Jerome Goldberg's name will be on the ballot, but the Wake Board of Elections declared him ineligible to run in the district because he did not meet the residency requirements.
In this Northwest Raleigh district, BONNER GAYLORD, an unaffiliated voter, is general manager of John Kane's North Hills development. He is running hard for a first term with the support of Republican Councilor Philip Isley, who's stepping down. Gaylord calls himself a "new urbanist" and—though he's cautious and non-committal on almost every issue—the fact that he even knows the term makes him preferable to his opponent, Democrat Waheed Haq, who hasn't mounted much of a campaign.
Gaylord and Haq, a civil engineer, sit on the Raleigh Planning Commission, where Haq is a go-along vote for developers and Gaylord at least asks good questions. We've got our fingers crossed on this one.