Growth isn't the only issue in Raleigh. But it's the only one the city council has much authority over. Meanwhile, all the other issues—schools, crime, gangs, poverty—are heavily influenced by the decisions the council does make about the development of our employment centers, housing, parks, transit services and such. In short, by the decisions it makes about growth.
Raleigh needs a strong land-use plan that will manage density, curb sprawl, create transit corridors, and be clear about where those corridors aren't. It needs infill standards and an inclusionary zoning ordinance to add affordable units to the high-rise, high-end condos. It needs "streetscapes" that invite pedestrians and bicyclists and that s-l-o-w the car traffic. And it needs substantially higher impact fees.
Over the next 18 months, Raleigh officialdom will write a new comprehensive plan. The launch for public involvement starts in a month. Which begs the question: Will the council support a strong plan or insist on another weak one?
This election will determine whether Mayor Charles Meeker, who's unopposed for re-election to a fourth term, will have a working majority on the progressive side of these issues. Currently, he's on the short end of a 5-3 split, with just two of his fellow Democrats, Russ Stephenson and Thomas Crowder, supporting him on development issues, while the other three regularly join in a voting bloc with the two Republicans.
The two contested races for district seats offer excellent chances to unseat incumbents and thereby turn the council around, from a 5-3 majority in favor of what developers want into a 5-3 majority that listens to neighborhoods as well. (In the other three districts, the incumbents are unopposed for re-election.) And key wins in the at-large races can help Meeker hold the two Democratic votes he currently has.
There's one standout in this field of six for the two seats: Incumbent RUSS STEPHENSON, who gets our firm endorsement. He's Meeker's close ally on opposing developer John Kane's quest for a $75 million subsidy to pay for the parking decks at North Hills East. He also supports the mayor on higher impact fees and sustainable growth policies. He's made his mark, in just one term, as a leading advocate for pedestrian-friendly developments downtown and in other Raleigh neighborhoods. An architect and partner in a planning firm that works on the public side in other states and in some North Carolina municipalities (but not in Raleigh, because it would be a conflict of interest), Stephenson knows how to make mixed-use projects work—how to put office buildings, homes and shopping in close proximity, that is, by the judicious use of open space and deft design.
If there's a rap on Stephenson, it's that he tries so hard to bring developers and neighborhoods together, the neighborhoods sometimes conclude he's not fighting hard enough for them.
On a better council, Stephenson would shine for his positive attitude and willingness to look for the fabled "win-win." And he does fight—for tougher sanctions against slumlords, more traffic-calming work in neighborhoods, and reasonable rules on infill and teardowns. And above all, for strengthening the city's 18 Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs), the under-staffed and under-appreciated bodies that are supposed to help regular folks have a say in Raleigh.
The other at-large seat is held by Joyce Kekas, who is not seeking re-election. She's part of the five-member majority, so her departure gives voters a chance to do better. But neither of the other two at-large candidates with "active" campaigns—including money from developers—is very strong on development issues. But the strongest candidates haven't raised much money at all and seem to have little chance of winning.
Because she's the best on the issues, and would be best on the council, we also recommend a vote for HELEN TART, even though she's not raised much money.
A Democrat, Tart is a neighborhood activist who recently took early retirement from the production department of The News & Observer. A solid Meeker supporter, she opposes subsidizing Kane's decks and supports higher impact fees. She also tells audiences that they should vote for Stephenson even if they don't vote for her. That's because, Tart says, her campaign isn't about her. It's about better transit and neighborhood protections "for you guys."
Tart, as a member and former chair of the Raleigh Transit Authority, has pleaded for years for more money and better transit service—to deaf ears. And Tart wants every neighborhood that asks to be enabled to write, with the help of the city's planning staff, its own conservation overlay district. That's fancy language for some serious zoning code instead of one of those toothless small-area plans; good idea.
We also like Will Best, an unaffiliated voter and state Department of Commerce analyst who, at 29, is the youngest candidate in the race. Best says younger folks are unrepresented on the council. True. And as a former planning staffer at City Hall, Best presumably knows the issues; he just isn't clear about how he'd decide most of them beyond having "an open mind." But he does get the simple questions right: No to Kane, yes to higher impact fees.
One of the candidates with an active campaign is Mary-Ann Baldwin, a marketing professional who's worked for the Carolina Hurricanes and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and is employed by Stewart Engineering, which does construction work in Raleigh and beyond. On Kane, she says she'll support decks at North Hills if the city can charge for the parking spaces, but Kane's rejected that proposal. She's undecided on subsidizing his parking decks. As for impact fees, she says, they're high enough now.
Baldwin's the leading fundraiser in this race, with $58,000 collected through the end of August. Her contributors aren't exclusively from the development side, but a lot of them are.
We'd like to support the other active candidate, Paul Anderson, pastor of a North Raleigh church who ran unsuccessfully for the District A seat two years ago. Anderson's election would add a second African-American member to the eight-member council and one of the few ever elected citywide, which would be a positive outcome. Anderson promises to be a "bridge builder" and to help with affordable-housing and the homeless. But he's been fuzzy about growth issues, including Kane and impact fees. As best we can tell, he's against using tax-increment financing to pay for Kane's decks, but would consider "other tools," of which there are many. And he's either against raising impact fees beyond the small cost-of-construction escalator already built in, or else he's open to "looking at" something more. With his fundraising and campaign appearances, he's letting himself be bundled with Baldwin as the development side's preferred candidates.
David Williams is a conservative Republican who is strongly anti-Kane subsidy but also strongly anti-downtown spending, anti-taxes and generally anti-progressive policies for Raleigh. A financial consultant, he's raised little money except for a $5,000 contribution from his mother.
In District A, which runs generally up the middle of North Raleigh between Creedmoor and Wake Forest roads, we support challenger NANCY MCFARLANE, a pharmacist and business owner. She's a political independent with progressive views and a lot of know-how about Raleigh's growth issues. McFarlane's been a leader in the Greystone neighborhood for years, and is a frequent visitor to council meetings on the subject of North Raleigh's overdevelopment relative to its ability to handle more traffic and more stormwater runoff.
McFarlane calls herself a "practical problem-solver," emphasizing the need for a new comprehensive plan that allows for continued growth while also protecting Raleigh's natural resources and saving open space. She's anti-Kane subsidy, and backs Meeker's position on impact fees—which would mean a 100 percent increase. She's for empowering CACs. If she wins, she'll be a breath of neighborly fresh air in place of the incumbent's arch-commercialism.
Incumbent Tommy Craven is a partner in the development consulting firm of Priest, Craven & Associates. He's a conservative Republican who knows a lot about growth issues but predictably thinks "the market" (read: developers) has the right answers and the public's views are generally misguided or irrelevant.
Strange for a conservative, Craven's for spending $75 million on John Kane's parking decks. He contends—incorrectly—that it's no different than the city building decks downtown to support development there. It is different: The city charges for the downtown parking spaces, making its money back.
Otherwise, Craven's out of the tax-cutting Republican mold, frequently avowing that Raleigh spends too much on projects like the new convention center and is indulging downtown at the expense of the rest of the city. Nonetheless, Raleigh continues to subsidize sprawl at taxpayers' expense with its low impact fees.
In District B, which is in northeast Raleigh except for an inside-the-Beltline sliver between Wake Forest Road and Capital Boulevard, our endorsement goes to RODGER KOOPMAN, a relative newcomer to Raleigh but a fast learner.
Koopman moved here from California in 2003 to run the local office of a utility-services firm, a job he left after a corporate takeover. Before that, he was a career Air Force intelligence officer who served in Southeast Asia and Saudi Arabia, among other places. He's an unabashed idealist and progressive who, until he came to Raleigh, was interested almost exclusively in national and international issues. But since he arrived, he's thrown himself into the local growth debate, aligning with progressives in favor of smart-growth and higher impact fees to help pay for the roads Raleigh needs. He opposes subsidizing Kane's decks. He's a proponent of a living-wage ordinance.
Koopman, a Democrat, lost a close race last year to conservative Republican Paul Coble for a Wake County Commission seat. He's backed by a coalition of neighborhood activists and parks supporters disappointed in the performance of the incumbent Jessie Taliaferro.
Taliaferro is smart and works hard on council; she is progressive in some ways. supporting major downtown investments and backing union dues check-offs for city employees. But on growth, she's a consistent yes vote on rezonings, and an impediment to community initiatives such as infill standards. She authored the token impact-fee increase the council used to thwart Meeker's initiative. On Kane's parking decks, she began her answer on our Indy questionnaire: "Kane's request has not been presented to the city council, so I am not familiar with it."
The third candidate, Republican Angel Menendez, is a retired Marine recruiter with a two-note campaign: no tax increases, ever, and no more spending downtown.
Raleigh needs more and better parks, including a destination Dorothea Dix Park if the state decides to sell those 306 acres. By law, municipal impact fees can be used for parks and roads. Raleigh's are quite low.
So there's no money in the till for Dix, nor any in this bond issue. The $88.6 million bond is designated for other worthwhile projects, including greenway acquisitions along the Neuse River from Falls Lake to Johnston County. Raleigh needs fees and bonds. So we recommend a YES vote.
Disclosure: Pam Wilson, wife of staff writer Bob Geary, contributed $300 to at-large candidate Russ Stephenson's campaign.