Southwest Raleigh residents last week narrowly escaped a monster student-housing complex proposed for the land across the street from the leafy entrance to N.C. State's Centennial Campus. But their victory at City Council will quite likely be short-lived. The location, after all, remains a developer's dream, and the antiquated brick Carolyn Apartments that languish on the property today probably won't be allowed to languish there tomorrow.
The land is just too valuable.
The proposal to rezone 2.9 acres of land at the corner of Varsity Drive and Avent Ferry Road fell just short; even though a 4-3 majority voted in favor of the project, it failed to garner the five votes needed to pass. One council member, Wayne Maiorano, abstained because an attorney from his law firm was representing the developer, Dallas-based Phoenix Property Group. Phoenix, which has built cookie-cutter undergraduate student housing in college towns across the country, wanted to erect a five-to-seven-story, 200-plus-unit complex at the site, with a mix of two-, three- and four-bedroom units.
The complex's would-be neighbors weren't having it. They said the design was too tall and too intense and too close to the street. They worried that it would create a parking crunch in an area where a spot is already hard to come by, given that the developer only wanted to provide 0.68 parking spaces per bedroom, well below the 0.75-per-bedroom ratio common to Raleigh student housing. And they argued that the design would permanently and adversely alter the neighborhood's character.
They found a sympathetic ear in Mayor Nancy McFarlane, one of the three no votes.
"I appreciate the desire to use that urban form," she said before the vote, "but this is not a building that interacts well with the neighborhood."
In many ways, the case is typical of the conflicts Council has seen of late: residents fighting to keep the suburban character of their neighborhoods, developers and some council members wanting to encourage high-density development in the urban core. In this case, the neighbors' objection wasn't to student housing per se, but rather the development's scale.
"They wanted to fit a bigger peg in the hole than was reasonable under the Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Ordinance that we worked long and hard to get in place," says Benson Kirkman, chairman of the West Citizens Advisory Council, which voted unanimously against the project last summer. (The UDO dictates how the vision in the Comprehensive Plan, the document that guides the city's growth, will be achieved.)
Councilmember Kay Crowder, whose district includes Avent Ferry Road, sided with neighbors, too, arguing that with N.C. State moving to cap its undergraduate program and promoting itself as an elite graduate-research institution, more undergrad housing isn't really needed.
Then again, she recognizes that the property will be developed sooner or later. It's just a matter of finding "the right kind of project." To that end, Crowder asked city staff to study the Avent Road Ferry corridor and create "a roadmap ... that will give us clear picture of what's needed on Avent Ferry and the best way to meet those needs."
So what should go in the nearly three acres if not undergraduate housing?
Crowder favors housing aimed at graduate students and young professionals. A smaller housing complex that promotes walkability is consistent with the aims of the comp plan, she says.
Joe Hartman, who lives down the street from this site, says he considers the area more suburban than urban, and thinks whatever goes there should reflect that.
"It seems like most of the City Council and developers want things right up against the street, at seven stories high," he says. "I think they're going in wrong direction with that. You can have density without having canyons."
Councilmember Russ Stephenson, who voted against the project, says that in that neighborhood, "green frontage"—meaning trees and landscaping between a building and the street—is preferable to "urban frontage," which brings buildings right up to the sidewalk.
Developers, however, have bristled at this idea. Lacy Reaves, the attorney for Phoenix, appeared before the CAC five times and City Council at least three times, without offering any significant accommodations to opponents. He maintained that the building design was not too tall for the neighborhood and argued that students rely less on cars now for transportation anyway. Reaves did not respond to the INDY's request for comment.
It's worth pointing out that, although the project failed to pass City Council, it did get four votes; had Maioriano not had to abstain, it's likely the outcome would have been different. Councilmember Bonner Gaylord says he voted with the majority because he the city needs "denser, more sustainable development."
"Raleigh is growing so fast that we have to proactively address our growth to avoid the sprawl and congestion that plague growing cities," Gaylord writes in an email. "Raleigh has become one of the best places in America to live and our success attracts growth, but if we don't manage that growth wisely, we will lose the qualities that people like about Raleigh."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fight the future."