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Built on streets with some lawns and some trees, density works, and walkable, transit-friendly places take shape, not just for the people who live in a given development but for the people who live near it as well.

The most important property in Raleigh 

Form-based zoning. Contextual infill. Transit-oriented development. Place making. I'm reasonably sure I'd never heard any of these terms spoken aloud until I moved to Raleigh and became interested in the planning for its (hoped-for) future as a great new South city.

Twenty-three years later, downtown Raleigh is so much improved that whatever's been done wrong, or left undone, it can be fairly said that the city has moved from its suburban sprawl phase to its urban revitalization phase, and now—thanks to a crappy economy—it's paused in the passage from one to the other.

The task ahead is getting the new phase right. Which brings me to a subject close to my heart and to my home: the Bolton property.

That's the name of a 6.7-acre tract of land located on the southwest side of the new roundabout at Hillsborough and West Morgan streets. Someone said at a community meeting the other night that, in strategic planning terms, it's become the most important tract in Raleigh. A city staffer demurred: There are many such sites, he said.

There are, but because of the economy, this is the only site in Raleigh right now where our brave new concepts of urban revitalization—the form-based, contextual, place-making ideas that everyone's learned and that are at the heart of the city's new comprehensive plan—are about to be tested by an active rezoning case.

First, the location. It's midway between downtown and the N.C. State campus. With the opening of the roundabout last month, Morgan Street is now two-way and becomes a primary route out of the downtown at day's end, potentially transforming the entire West Morgan community. Formerly a pass-through neighborhood, it may soon be a destination. WeMo, some folks there want to call it.

By happy convergence, WeMo is also where a light-rail transit line, if it ever happens, could exit from the main railroad corridor (within which the Amtrak and freight trains run) and continue to downtown Raleigh along a street, either West Morgan or West Hargett. Stand outside Goodnight's, the comedy club on West Morgan, and look around. That's the rail corridor a few feet to the south—and coming by at grade.

This scenario is not a given. In this case, light-rail transit means an electrified system that would function, when it comes into the downtown, as a streetcar line. It may be, however, that for the foreseeable future the only transit connection out of Raleigh to the west—to Cary, RTP and Durham, that is—will be in Amtrak-style trains that are big, infrequent and cannot run on a street.

Either way, though, WeMo near the West Morgan-Hillsborough Street intersection becomes a major transit opportunity for Raleigh, whether as a light-rail hub station or a very busy bus stop on downtown Raleigh's doorstep.

It's a chance, in other words, for transit-oriented development.

So now we come to the Bolton property, so called because the old Bolton Corporation building is there and because the Bolton family continued to own it years after the business closed. Finally, and just before the real estate market collapsed, the land was purchased by FMW Real Estate, a Charlotte partnership whose sky-high dreams seemingly vaporized with the market.

Last year, as the comprehensive plan neared the finish line, FMW and its representatives in Raleigh pushed hard to have the Bolton tract designated for high-density, downtown-scale development. For a time, in fact, the tract was appended to the Central Business District zone and was known—when people saw it on the Future Land Use Map—as the "monster's head" (because, as one resident said, it looked like it was reaching out to eat his Pullen Park neighborhood).

Back then, FMW's Jim Zanoni, a partner, was talking about rezoning the property for buildings up to 10 stories with 150 housing units per acre—in all, about 1,000 units, probably condos. That seemed, to put it mildly, like too much of a good thing in the context of surrounding, single-family neighborhoods and existing WeMo apartment buildings with 30 or so units per acre. Buffeted between complaining neighbors and FMW, the City Council yanked the Bolton tract out of the comp plan and left it blank—undesignated—pending a "special study" process that began in March.

The council adopted the rest of the comp plan and moved to Phase 2, hiring a Denver firm named Code Studio to completely rewrite the city's zoning ordinance. Code Studio specializes in form-based zoning, contextual infill and the other urban standards that Raleigh's old code lacks.

The rewrite, though, isn't finished and won't be for another year.

Too bad, because in the interim FMW has submitted a rezoning application, not for 1,000 condos in high-rise buildings but instead for an as-yet-unspecified number of apartment units to be constructed in two phases at a density of up to 70 units per acre.

So are the residents (including me—I live in Cameron Park on the north side of Hillsborough Street) breathing sighs of relief?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because the scale of development is no longer so overwhelming. No, because what's proposed isn't urban, not so far anyway, and fails to take advantage of the rolling topography of the site, the location or any of the basic concepts of form-based zoning. Rather, it's a suburban-style apartment complex—two five-story buildings on top of parking decks—that would jam the site and require closing a public street (Whitley Street) to fit it in.

I'm not a designer, and I don't pretend to know exactly what the best thing would be for the site. But I do think that a street grid, ground-level shops and a bit of publically accessible open space are the key ingredients in WeMo's future—as in most successful urban developments. They're certainly integral to the kind of form-based zoning the City Council says it wants and Code Studio has been engaged to supply.

Built on streets with some lawns and some trees, density works, and walkable, transit-friendly places take shape, not just for the people who live in a given development but for the people who live near it as well. Otherwise, it's development like an alien presence.

But we're in a bind. Given the economy, a great place may not be possible today. Should we wait—and make FMW wait—until the right thing can be built? Or let them build the wrong thing and live with it in this strategic location for the next 50 years?

I'd like to see if we can all get together on something that's profitable for FMW and works for the city as well. But hey, I'm an optimist.

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