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The public is missing and presumed dead in Raleigh/Wake County--just when we're needed the most

The case of the chronic chandeliers 

The public is missing and presumed dead in Raleigh/Wake County--just when we're needed the most

Let's start with an easy one. I think we can all agree, can't we, that the 14 "dichroic glass chandeliers" proposed to be put on our new Fayetteville Street are, as businessman Andrew Leager says, "a travesty"? Leager's right, they do look like "court jester's hats on top of skinny ice cream cones"--appropriate, perhaps, for Coney Island, but hardly what you'd want on your growing city's "alpha" downtown street.

This is in no way to denigrate the motives of the folks who want to put them there, however. It is instead indicative of how far off-base even smart people can get when they're asked to take on a task in isolation, with no idea what the overall objective is and--of critical importance--no larger group of people to check with who do know and can tell them when they're about to miss the boat.

In the case of the chronic chandeliers, we somehow have one artist's studio designing the tops of these things and another studio group designing the bases, which is the only possible explanation why the bases are vaguely classical while the glittery tops scream disco-inferno.

It probably doesn't help, either, that the first is in San Francisco and the second's in Seagrove--which lets them be as far apart as artists' sensibilities can be.

But when Leager went to the Raleigh Arts Commission meeting last week, he found the chandelier discussions focused on how bulletproof they'd be (very), and whether the reflecting glass could blind an incoming airliner (no). Nobody, he told me, seemed willing to mention that circus lights in front of the classical state Capitol might not be just the right thing.

So Leager mentioned it, which is never the most comfortable thing to do all by oneself at a public meeting. But somebody had to do it.

I'll return to the chandeliers below. As silly as they are, though, they are not my point.

Nor is my point the 400-room Marriott Hotel that I, along with my fellow residents of Raleigh, am being asked to subsidize to the tune of $20 million, also on Fayetteville Street. Here, I agree with City Councilor Thomas Crowder, who says that, so far, the design "looks like a strip shopping center," not the eye-catching convention-center headquarters we signed up for.

(Crowder's chairing a "charette-style" meeting of the council's comprehensive plan committee today, Wednesday, at 4 p.m. at the Urban Design Center, 133 Fayetteville St. It's a chance to talk through the hotel's various design problems with Starmont-Noble Development Co., its prospective owners. The public's welcome.)

Nor do I want to dwell on the $1 million that we, the people, are putting in for that "white tablecloth restaurant" at 219 Fayetteville St. on the ground floor (and mezzanine) of a 10-story office building the city purchased a couple of years ago. Building owners routinely "upfit" spaces for their tenants. The city's no different.

I do wonder, however, who decided that we needed a white-tablecloth restaurant in the first place, as opposed to, say, a blue-collar restaurant, or a store (or two stores--it's a big enough space). I also wonder--with Crowder, a progressive Democrat, and Councilor Tommy Craven, a conservative Republican, both of whom voted no--whether the price tag and modest projected payback is worth it.

What is clear, however, is that when the city insisted on "white tablecloth," suitable only for the bidness crowd, not a single restaurateur bid for the prize. Which is why we're having to entice one--the New Raleigh Restaurant Group LLC--with a lot of public loot.

Again, though, not my point.

No, what's striking to me is that in all of these cases--the chronic chandeliers, the strip-mall hotel and the white-tablecloth caper--there is a near-total absence of public involvement, let alone oversight. Where the hell are we?

Near as I can tell, the chandeliers are coming to us through the good offices of Larry Wheeler, executive director of the N.C. Museum of Art. And nobody in authority is brave enough to tell him "Larry, they're hideous." ("Hideous" being the word used privately by one city official; another, also privately, said they remind him of Disneyland. Crowder, never bashful, says he agrees with Leager that they don't belong on Fayetteville Street.)

But Wheeler's just the bagman, actually--the fundraiser. It was Cooper-Carry, the Atlanta firm that gave Raleigh a Disneyland-style design for Fayetteville Street in the first place, that decreed its extra-wide sidewalks should have trees and lights and benches and bollards and art. Or, as Leager says, "ART!"

"We are getting a paste-up of every design idea known to man," Leager told the arts commission. "The fact that these chandeliers are even being considered troubles me, because it indicates that we still have not come to grips with what Raleigh's alpha street cries out to be. ... That is, simple and functional."

As for the hotel design, Raleigh picked Starmont-Noble to be its (subsidized) hotelier two years ago. Why, then, are we still dickering over whether the hotel ought to be brick and stone and glass, like what Starmont-Noble promised in January 2004, or mostly EIFS? (Short for "external insulation finish system," which is plastic by another name.) Why is there no door on Salisbury Street facing the convention center? Why does the front facade, facing Fayetteville Street, remind me of ye olde root-beer stand?

More to the point, why is Crowder left to fight with Starmont-Noble's architects--who, not at all coincidentally, also hail from Cooper-Carry--pretty much by himself?

And if that white-tablecloth restaurant is the right idea after all, Messrs. Crowder and Craven, wouldn't it help if there were citizens involved to say so? Or say it isn't?

I'm talking about folks with no pecuniary interest in the hotel, the restaurant or the jester's hats. Folks whose only interest is that they want Raleigh to be great, and they want to roll up their sleeves and help make it great.

That's the thing we don't have. And it's the thing we desperately need: a citizens group for Raleigh and Wake County.

Wake up, it's 2006!
The little dustups above are of minor importance in the big scheme of things, surely. But there are huge issues ahead for Raleigh and Wake County in 2006, issues that--depending on how they come out--will have consequences for everyone in the region for years to come.

To name three:

  • Impact fees. And/or a countywide Adequate Public Facilities (APF) ordinance, as Cary's Stan Norwalk is proposing. Either way, shouldn't new development be asked to pay its own way? Right now, it's not even close.
  • Transit costs. Are we going to start a transit system? Are we going to try to replace the $300 million-plus gap in state funding for road construction?
  • School bonds. We've got 20 percent of our kids in trailers and other makeshift facilities. We need billions for new schools and renovations of old ones.

    All three are coming up fast. The Raleigh Council takes up raising impact fees next week, and right now the prospects look poor. The Wake school board is already working on a bond package, but without public support it's unlikely to be big enough. Transportation funding will be a top issue in the General Assembly starting in May--which also means it's being decided now.

    When you look out on the playing field of public opinion, however, where's the good-government group for our side? (The goo-goo group, they used to be called, when they used to exist.) The group that studies the issues in detail and can say with some authority "You know, we need a transit system and here's what it should look like ... but we can do without those clown hats, OK?"

    Right now, all you see out there is the nay-sayers, like the Home Builders Association of Wake County, which is all for growth as long as it's subsidized by taxpayers other than themselves. No impact fees, in other words. And the Wake Taxpayers Association, headed by state Rep. Russell Capps, R-Raleigh, is always willing to oppose a tax hike, no matter its purpose, and helped create the current schools crisis by defeating the 1999 bond issue. But how would they pay for: (a) roads? (b) transit? (c) schools? d) growth?

    That's right, our side is pro-growth. And we're pro- the things that a fast-growing county like Wake, or city like Raleigh (or town like Cary), needs to keep growing and keep being a place people want to keep on coming to.

    I look around and I see lots of neighborhood groups, parks groups, arts groups--but no umbrella group of citizens that has the big picture in mind and heart. That's what we need. So I'm taking names. Anybody want to start one?

    If you want to be part of a Raleigh/Wake good-government group, let your fellow Citizen know. The address is rjgeary@mac.com.

    • The public is missing and presumed dead in Raleigh/Wake County--just when we're needed the most

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