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Designing Wake’s growth 

Where the blue-ribbon gang ends, our good-government group can begin

Last week I was in a grumpy mood over Fayetteville Street, what with the chronic chandeliers, the white-tablecloth restaurant, the strip-mall hotel, and so on. Since then, a three-hour meeting on the hotel design has me convinced that it's even more misbegotten than I knew--see below. But this week I can't help whistling a happy tune about the new Cameron Village Regional Library, which opened over the weekend. It's fabulous. Everybody in the neighborhood says so.

The old library was much-loved and hard-used as a community place, but it was small and pretty dreary, frankly. The new one--at 36,000 square feet almost twice the size--is filled with light and just enough open space to make it comfortable without feeling the least bit vast. We love it.

So thank you, Wake County taxpayers, for the $5 million. Thank you, Cherry Huffman Architects PA, for your cool, never-gaudy design. And thank you, Andrew Leager, whom I cited last week in his role as chandelier critic, and who I've since learned was--with his employees--the maker of all the library's beautiful wood finishes.

Some people don't agree with us, Andrew, that the dichroic chandeliers--14 of them--will look awful on Fayetteville Street if they're allowed to go there. I got one letter from a fellow who accused me, and you, of not being hip enough to appreciate them (I gather he's young); another said I/we remind him of Tom Fetzer attacking the Light + Time Tower on Capital Boulevard (also dichroic).

Ah, well. There's no accounting for taste. And I'm no expert, though I could say that, like pornography, I know good design when I see it. But what I mainly know is that the same design that's perfect for one place can be dreadful in another, and I know some good designers who know that context makes all the difference.

Anyway, any fans of the chronic chandeliers might want to check out Mr. Leager's newest good work before deciding that he's the one who doesn't understand Fayetteville Street.

That said, I was in a very generous mood this Tuesday as I arose before dawn for an 8 a.m. meeting of the Blue Ribbon Committee on the Future of Wake County, a new group appointed by county commissioners to clear the way for future bond issues and tax increases. No, I am not a member. And yes, ordinarily I'm not all that chipper in the a.m. Nonetheless, this is the group that's supposed to help our county commissioners, local officials and state legislators figure out how we can pay for the other new libraries we need, not to mention the new schools, parks, transit systems and assorted "infrastructure" to maintain our--drum roll, please--"quality of life" in Wake County.

A very important job, and these are very important people.

And, of course, I was scouting for my own new committee, now also forming.

You'll perhaps recall that, a week ago, I was bemoaning the absence of a progressive-minded civic group--a good-government group, they were once called--to help steer our elected officials right on issues as small as the chandeliers and as big as the TTA transit system and the forthcoming series of Wake school bond issues. "I'm taking names," I said. "Anybody want to start one?"

Well, here's the rest of that story. A start-up committee, myself included, met in one of our homes, and since then we've all been taking names, with the result that our ranks have grown quickly from the original eight to something north of 30, or maybe it's 50 by now. We'll be meeting again this Saturday (Jan. 28), from 9:30 to 11 a.m., in Room 100A of the Wake Commons Building, in the county office park off Poole Road--our first public session.

Interested in growth issues? You're invited to join us, or just come and listen. Our goal is to create a new civic organization that is pro-growth and pro- the kinds of things that will keep Wake County growing in a healthy, sustainable and equitable way.

To me, that means curbing suburban sprawl, because it's inefficient and costly, while also boosting urban development and the transit systems to support it. It means mixing housing types within communities, so schools are diverse without so much need for "reassignments." It means protecting critical open spaces by purchasing easements or the land outright.

It also means making development pay more of its own way via impact fees (or Adequate Public Facilities ordinances) so current taxpayers don't have to shoulder the growth load alone; but doubtless we'll still need higher property taxes--and maybe sales taxes, too--to start cutting into the school overcrowding mess.

I'm in a good mood about our new library, you see, but I'm in a very bad mood every time I go past Broughton High School, just down the street, with its classroom trailers all over the front yard. Talk about a blight on the neighborhood.

We have about 20 percent of our kids in trailers--1,000 trailers--all over Wake County. Think maybe our school system's been under-funded long enough?

But don't listen to me. I'm not in charge of this good-government group, and I have no doubt that once it gets going--if it does--I won't agree with every position it takes, just as I don't agree with every position the N.C. Conservation Council takes, or the N.C. Public Interest Research Group, or any group for that matter. Though I must admit, I give CCNC and NC PIRG the benefit of the doubt on a lot of things that they've studied and I haven't, because I know they're trying to act in the public interest, not for any personal or corporate gain.

Which brings me back to the Blue Ribbon Committee. It's a Chamber of Commerce-heavy group, which struck me Tuesday--in my benign mood, remember--as good in the sense that these business people know business, but very lacking in one key ingredient, which is that they seem to have taken the critical issues of land-use management and sprawl off the table.

Ken Atkins, Wake's director of economic development, was impressive discussing how the business community has targeted key growth sectors for job creation--nanotechnologies, biotech, advanced medical care and so on. Each of which, he emphasized, demands that our region "be a world leader in intellectual capacity and education" to compete, not just with other regions but other countries, as well.

But when co-chair Fred Day, CEO of Progress Energy Carolinas, listed future session topics, he named schools and roads and jails and water-sewer, but he left out housing and land-use and sprawl. And when he asked his 60-odd committee members if they had anything to add, not one hand was raised.

How can you talk about financing growth in Wake County without discussing how we grow, and whether growth occurs in a way that chokes future development or leads to more. That's where our good-government group can help, I think. I don't know much about nanotechnology (thankfully, folks at NCSU do), but I know that roads have their place and so does transit, and that neighborhood schools work where neighborhoods are diverse, but that reassignments are needed the more economically segregated they are.

Most important, I know that there are a lot of people around here who know more about land-use planning than I do, and I do better when I listen to them. As our Blue Ribbon gang will too, I hope.

Heartbreak Hotel?
About that convention center hotel on Fayetteville Street, the one we taxpayers are supposed to subsidize to the tune of the $20 million: Raleigh City Councilor Thomas Crowder's been saying the design so far looks like a strip mall; now Marvin Malecha, dean of NCSU's College of Design, has joined in the criticism, calling it "very confused" ... "hard to cope with for everybody around it" ... "really feels Eastern Bloc."

Indeed, none of the members of Crowder's Comprehensive Plan Committee, when it met last Wednesday, had a good word to say for what the hotel developer, Stormont-Noble, has in mind. Committee members Russ Stephenson and Tommy Craven were openly critical as well, and while Joyce Kekas said less, she didn't sound like she was real impressed either.

I refer you to our blog--dent ( more on what's wrong with the design. Bottom line, though: Two years after Raleigh tapped Stormont-Noble to build the convention center hotel, based on its pretty pictures and a written pitch that no longer seem to apply, there is still no agreed-upon final design--and no contract. And the company's John Cooper insists that the changes Crowder wants are too expensive.

Which means real trouble for Mayor Charles Meeker and a tough decision: If he joins Crowder and demands major design improvements, maybe Stormont-Noble makes them, or maybe it walks away, in which case the convention center could open in 2008 without a headquarters hotel.

On the other hand, the current design is, in the view of the city's advisory Convention Center Commission, "unacceptable," according to Eric Tannery, its chair. Unacceptable, meaning the taxpayers shouldn't have to accept it, let alone subsidize it.


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