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Raleigh neighborhood leaders aim to cut Neal Coker's new high-rise project down to size

Especially when he's styling in his personalized team jacket from a Batman movie, developer Neal Coker can be one cocky dude. Which, by the way, he knows. He gets carried away. Just now, though, he's into it, telling folks who live in the central Raleigh neighborhoods that surround his new mega-development plan that they're a bunch of NIMBYs--you know, the kind of people who want the city to keep growing, just not-in-my-backyard. Worse, he says, they're hypocrites, at least the ones who've been spouting "smart growth" theories about infill, and stopping sprawl, but now won't practice what they preach. His project is smart growth, he insists, and yet they're all against him.

Coker, whose investor-backers in his Raleigh-based First Colony Property Co. include brother-in-law Alan Horn, chairman and chief operating officer of Warner Brothers, is pitching a mixed-use, high-density scheme like nothing else seen before in the Triangle or, he says, anywhere in the southeastern United States. It'll have upscale condominiums, prime office space, stores like Crate & Barrel, a top-of-the-line hotel and (at the time of this meeting in November, but since dropped) an assisted-living community for affluent retirees and a 16-screen movie complex. A total of well over 1 million square feet of construction, not counting the underground parking, on the southeast corner of Wade Avenue and the Oberlin Street bridge just north of Cameron Village--comparable in scale, someone points out, to Crabtree Valley Mall.

Hearing that, Coker's listeners gasp audibly. But wait. All this is planned for a tract of land just 15 acres in size, so the buildings must be tall--up to 16 stories tall. Somebody whistles. There's nervous laughter. The current zoning would allow maybe one-third as much density. This must be a bluff, a man says. I can only hope that this is far more than what you ever expect will be approved. "I need to tell ya," Coker shoots back, "this is not a bluff."

What's offensive to us, a woman tells Coker, is that because we've built a successful community here, you think you have the right to exploit it for your profit at our expense. "I understand your concerns," he answers, "I just don't think they're valid."

More than a hundred residents--my neighborly self among them--have turned out for this church hall get-together to take the measure of our antagonist. With few exceptions, we leave angry and perplexed. Angry mainly about the traffic projections: Coker's own consultants estimate that what he's proposing, if built, would add at least 13,000 car trips a day to Wade and Oberlin, both of which are over capacity now. The city's traffic department is making its own study with help from the state Department of Transportation, but the results haven't come in as yet. They're unlikely to project less new traffic than Coker, however.

Why perplexed? Well, for one thing, Coker's proposals fly directly in the face of the city's comprehensive plan, and the relevant small-area plan covering Oberlin Road. Both would focus intensive redevelopment in the area at Cameron Village, a 600,000 square-foot shopping center-office development that could easily double its density by adding upper floors or by replacing the parking lots with a deck. Everything on Wade Avenue, including Coker's tract, is supposed to remain commercial. Moreover, massive development is exactly what a special "overlay" plan for Oberlin Village was meant to stop. The plan, adopted by the City Council in 1995, commits the city to "retain the historic scale and character of the neighborhood" by, among other things, slowing the traffic down and conforming zoning "to the current built environment."

Yet Coker has been anything but conciliatory. As someone says to me on the way out, either Coker's awfully reckless, or else he thinks he's got city approval lined up already for the rezoning and comprehensive plan amendments his project would require.

The other thing we're puzzling over--we NIMBY-hypocrites who live close to Coker's towers--is his attempt to seize the smart-growth mantle. To the sketchy material he's presented to the city planning department so far, he's attached a written set of smart-growth principles adopted by a group of environmentalists, builders and community leaders called the Triangle Smart Growth Coalition. The coalition wants walkable communities, served by public transportation services as well as roads, with affordable housing choices included in "mixed-use activity centers" built with shared green space.

It's hard to see that kind of community in Coker's towers-and-pavement plan. There's no affordable housing in it. It's all upscale. It's not in an area for which transit service either exists or even is planned (other than infrequent city bus service). It contemplates one drive-through road, not walkable streets.

Indeed, what Coker's proposing could swamp the diverse mix of neighborhoods that exists in the center of Raleigh now, starting with the most affordable homes. Still, we don't want to be NIMBYs. Is it possible a real smart-growth development could emerge from the fray? That is the question.

The Coker-First Colony tract is about as "inside the beltline" as you can get in Raleigh, with all the economic benefits that term implies. Indeed, Coker says it's the only place in the city with the "compelling demographics" to justify what would be more than $200 million in investment capital. Draw a circle a mile around the site, he says, and the average house within it would have a tax value of $345,000. The tree-lined streets of Hayes Barton and the rest of Raleigh's old, prosperous neighborhoods are close by, although the nearest neighbors--Cameron Village and especially Oberlin Village, an historically African-American enclave started by freed slaves after the Civil War--include both expensive and inexpensive housing, offices, shopping and parks.

This isn't downtown Raleigh, where a pair of 30-story office buildings bookend the Fayetteville Street Mall, and a project the scale of what Coker's proposing would be welcomed with open arms. But it is at the heart of the city's economy, less than a mile north of the N.C. State University campus and mid-way between the state government complex and the land-rush territories out by the Entertainment and Sports Arena in West Raleigh. It's also, not incidentally, high ground for Democratic voters in the city. While "outside the beltline" blooms Republican, inside remains Democratic soil, and nowhere do the Democrats fancy themselves more progressive than in the neighborhoods currently organizing to defeat the Coker plan.

Since that November meeting, the leaders of nine neighborhood groups have been meeting weekly, trying to get a handle on exactly what Coker has in mind and on the relatively new and untested PDD (planned development district) zoning classification he's applying for. A public hearing in front of the City Council Tuesday, Jan. 16, at 6:30 p.m. in city hall is only the beginning of what will be a months-long process of review, first by the planning commission and then the Council, which makes the final decision.

One thing complicating the issue is that Coker's proposal, like any big development, is more conceptual than real at this stage and is in constant flux as he and various partners (including the Crosland Group Inc. and Lincoln Harris LLC, big names in the development business) attempt to market it to tenants. In November, Coker said the assisted-living center might be built by the Duke University Health System. At a subsequent meeting in December, Duke was gone and so was the center--and so was the movie complex--and in fact neither was ever in the material he'd given to the city.

Who'll build the hotel? Coker hopes Marriott Corporation will put up one of its Renaissance Hotels, but no commitments have been made, nor can they be while the rezoning is up in the air. In December, Coker said he'd downsize the biggest buildings to 14 stories as an accommodation to the neighborhoods. When I interviewed him last week, he said "15 or 16 stories are still possible," and the revised materials he submitted to the city Dec. 20 continue to ask for heights of 16 stories and more than 220 feet--higher, that is, than the Archdale Building at the north end of the state government complex downtown.

Coker said last week that, without the assisted-living center or movies, his plans now encompass 1.2 million square feet of space, a major reduction from the nearly 1.6 million total in November. But he's added commercial, retail and condominium space in unspecified amounts. So it's all a moving target? "Sure. That's a little bit of the nature of any development," he said.

The other big complication is the PDD process. Coker's tract is currently zoned O&I 1, a somewhat misleading designation under which he could perhaps build 500,000 square feet of office-institutional space (the exact number might be less, according to city officials, depending on how setbacks and other requirements would apply), or he could put up about 350 housing units. Or he could build some of both. Small retail shops could also be part of the mix, though no more than 10 percent (or 50,000 square feet) of the total. In other words, the existing zoning would allow the mix of uses he wants to build, but nothing like the density he's asking for, or the ritzy stores he wants.

The PDD classification, though, has no up-front limits at all. Everything is negotiable. And while the planning commission, after its review process, can suggest what the limits should be, the City Council would be free to ignore its recommendations and negotiate directly with Coker--and renegotiate, for that matter, once the project got started--if it decides it wants to rezone.

Fearing that kind of wide-open process, neighborhood leaders are unanimous that the Council should reject Coker's rezoning request outright, or at least refuse to consider it while a serious study is made of future development in central Raleigh and how a project on this site would fit in. After all, the issue isn't just what Neal Coker gets to build. It's also what his project would lead to next--and whether it's what the city really needs.

On the question of central Raleigh's growth, Russ Stephenson lives at ground zero. Stephenson's property on Oberlin Road has been in the crosshairs of development--literally--for half a century. Yes, it was 1950 when the city first set out to widen Oberlin Road, around the time Cameron Village opened up--the first shopping center ever built outside of downtown. Stephenson's house used to be right up against the road. Years ago, it was moved back 150 feet to get away from the traffic, and now it stands like a refuge from the automotive front, surrounded by English gardens, cobblestone walkways and a pair of modest outbuildings in the style known as Colonial Revival. It's on the National Register of Historic Places--yet it's a stone's throw from Darryl's Restaurant on Hillsborough Street.

Twice in the '70s and early '80s, Stephenson's grandmother, a noted portrait painter named Isabelle Bowen Henderson, went to court and fought off the city's attempts to condemn her land to make way for the so-called Ferndell Connector. The idea was to punch a major highway through, all the way from Glenwood Avenue to Western Boulevard, by expanding Oberlin Road and Pullen Road, realigning the latter through Pullen Park. "Right through the middle of this room," Stephenson laughs, gesturing around what is now his architect's studio.

The city tried again in the mid-'80s with a somewhat different plan called Century Boulevard, this time intended to speed traffic across town to the front door of N.C. State's then-new Centennial Campus, which was planned to open onto Western Boulevard.

None of these efforts succeeded, of course, and the highway plan is considered dead--though as Stephenson knows, the city still owns most of the right-of-way it would need to revive it, and the Ferndell Connector remains on its list of long-term transportation projects.

The Coker project alone might not be enough to raise the Ferndell Connector from its grave, but it could start the pavers rolling by setting off a high-rise building frenzy on Oberlin and especially on Wade. That's Stephenson's fear. Coker's tract is hardly the only one on Wade Avenue with an O&I zoning designation and old buildings on it. Oberlin Road would be ripe for development, too, if the opposition of the Oberlin Village Neighborhood Association could be swept aside.

Stephenson, however, is no NIMBY. Rather, he's pro-smart growth for the neighborhood, and thinks if the Coker project was done right, it could be a model for rebuilding the center city in a way that both increases building densities (and heights) and reduces car traffic, making it much more attractive and--in the parlance--"pedestrian-friendly."

How could that happen? The key, Stephenson thinks, would be for the city to embrace public transportation systems and refuse absolutely to widen any more roads to accommodate development. In fact, he'd like to see Oberlin Road returned to just two lanes of automobile traffic for its full length (in front of Cameron Village, it's three or four), with sidewalks and bicycle lanes on both sides to encourage "human traffic." Public transit there could take the form of a trolley service, with frequent runs from the neighborhood to Hillsborough Street and beyond. Eventually it could connect across the N.C. State campus to the Durham-to-Raleigh commuter rail line, assuming the Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) ever gets it running.

The transit would support the density, and the density the transit--without destroying the neighborhoods.

Coker's proposal asks the city to add turn lanes in front of his project on both Oberlin Road and Wade Avenue. To Stephenson, that's exactly the wrong thing to do. "They need to take that enormous wide roadway and make it an enormous wide sidewalk, so that it's a place where people want to be. Cars will still come through, but they'll have to be gentle about it."

Stephenson prefers the approach taken by Post Properties, a major development company, at Riverside, a project along the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta. It's mid-rise, with wide sidewalks, and housing along a rise that looks down on a village center. "The thing that appeals to me about it is that it's an attempt, in an auto-dependent area like Atlanta, to put cars in second place and concentrate first on making a place where people would want to get together."

How would he change the Coker project? "That's hard to say," Stephenson muses. "But right now, it's certainly completely automobile-oriented--it's set up for you to drive into the underground parking, hit a button, go up the elevator to your condo, and never see another human being. Let's think of it as trying to create a community, not just high-dollar square footages."

For Raleigh, at least, that sounds a little--what, futuristic? "Back to the future," Stephenson laughs. We need to remember the things we did a long time ago so we can think far enough ahead."

Nina Szlosberg, the president of the University Park Neighborhood Association, doesn't find it the least bit far-fetched. "It's not like it isn't happening anywhere in the country," Szlosberg says. "It's happening everywhere in the country." Just not here. Not yet.

But if she has anything to say about it, it will--and soon.

Szlosberg is the driving force behind the Hillsborough Street Partnership, which seeks to transform Raleigh's main street in just the way Stephenson describes for Oberlin, allowing for new development at higher densities while at the same time slowing the cars down and inviting pedestrian traffic back. In its first year, the partnership ran an eye-popping design charette that turned neighborhood residents on to the kind of street Hillsborough could be, then followed up with public and private fundraising to pay for a feasibility study of the ideas that the charette generated. (See "Deliver Us From Sprawl," Dec. 1, 1999.)

Clearly, what happens on Oberlin Road will have a big impact on Hillsborough Street and University Park, and Szlosberg has joined the ranks of neighborhood leaders opposed to the Coker project as it stands. But like Stephenson, she thinks it can be saved. "I am eternally optimistic, and I do believe that there is an opportunity to negotiate some kind of compromise that will be acceptable to everybody," Szlosberg says.

Coker would have to cut back his density, she thinks, and work with the city to get transit service running in the area. What frustrates her is that the kind of collaboration she wants--and that the Hillsborough Partnership is trying to achieve--is so rare in Raleigh. Instead, developers make their plans in private, and when they spring them, the neighborhoods fight back for their lives.

"All this process is on the back end, and it's almost always confrontational," says Szlosberg, who saw a lot of it in her days as a reporter for WRAL-TV. "I just hate that. It's so counterproductive, and it requires people to spend so much of their energy in negative ways. And that just can't produce positive results for the city."

One person who agrees with that is George Chapman, who heads the city's planning staff. Chapman is keen to get mixed-use developments tried in Raleigh--he thinks they can improve on the traditional separation model in which you live in a residential neighborhood, work in an office park, shop in a mall, and drive, drive, drive. It hasn't been proven that mixed-use cuts auto travel, he says. But it stands to reason that if some people, at least, can live and work and shop in the same place, it'll cut down on the six car trips a day we're all averaging.

Moreover, Chapman wants to see mixed-use projects go inside the beltline instead of sprawling out into the countryside. That can't happen if neighborhoods resist change, he says.

Unfortunately, Chapman says, Raleigh's first efforts to encourage mixed-use projects were a total bust. A half-dozen developers all exploited its so-called "mixed-used master plan" zoning to get shopping malls in where they otherwise couldn't have gone, and not one of them ever delivered the required housing and offices that were to follow. "My favorite is Paddington Station," Chapman says. "It was supposed to be a mixed-use, transit-friendly development out at New Hope Road and Atlantic Avenue. What we got was a Wal-Mart in a strip mall."

Two years ago, the City Council adopted the PDD approach. It dropped all the rules the developers weren't following anyway, Chapman says, in hopes they would feel free to negotiate what they really wanted with the city and affected neighborhoods. The carrot: no ceilings on density if all sides concurred.

Chapman concedes, though, that in connection with the Coker project, PDD hasn't really worked either, because Coker himself "hasn't established a good, constructive dialogue with the community." Nor, he says, will the planning commission's PDD review necessarily tell citizens whether the project fits with other developments that may come in its wake.

That's why some neighborhood leaders want the City Council to simply turn Coker's rezoning down flat and leave it at that. Fran Robertson, for example, who's leading a revived Cameron Village association after many years in which it had nothing to do, thinks the 500,000 square feet Coker can build now is plenty. There's one four-story office building on the site now (the old Occidental Insurance headquarters), and it's 60,000 square feet. Coker could build seven more like it without any rezoning, Robertson notes. "We are a mixed-use community already," she says, "but if they put too many more cars on the roads here, they're going to kill the thing they say they want."

Oberlin Village leaders agree. Development all around has whittled the original enclave to one-fourth its 19th-century size. "This could be the last nail in the coffin," says David Haywood, who helped get the neighborhood overlay plan enacted. On the other hand, he says, a scaled-down plan--with stores the neighborhood can afford--could help preseve it. "The whole question is, who benefits from this? Right now, only the developer would benefit."

So what happens now? Most of the neighborhood groups are willing to consider some change from Coker's current O&I zoning, but only after the city has completed a new small-area plan that considers how it fits in with future development throughout central Raleigh. "The City Council and Mayor (Paul) Coble should treat this as a real opportunity to do this right, and put together a plan that can serve as a model for the rest of the city," says former City Councilor Charles Meeker, co-chair of Vision 2020, a citizens group formed last year to push for better city planning.

The small-area process is designed to get citizens actively involved in planning, and would attempt to spell out how much traffic the existing roads can handle, what new capacity is needed, what transit services are needed (and who should pay for it), and how to include affordable housing in new developments.

The idea that citizens should help plan for the use of his land appeals to Coker not at all. He says he's spent $10 million already acquiring land and paying consultants, and that carrying the property without developing will cost him another $1 million a year. "Personally, I think that what they're proposing is disingenuous," he says, "because the longer they can stretch it all out, the greater chance they have to kill it."

Moreover, Coker says, there's a big difference between abstract plans and getting real projects launched in a competitive marketplace. "All the pretty things that you could imagine won't happen unless you can raise the dollars to make them happen," he says.

Still, Coker concedes that he and his partners "have any number of scenarios" under which they can make money on the property, and many fallback positions as far as density and the mix of what's built. "Frankly, if we didn't, we couldn't have raised the money to get this far," he says.

Coker's best-known in Raleigh for building the project called 510 Glenwood Avenue, a seven-story, mixed-use building with attached parking deck that is about to join the real-estate parade in the hot area known as Glenwood South. Vision 2020 calls the project "well-planned and high-quality," and neighborhood groups give it high marks as well. They hope Coker will work with them to produce another.

On one point, Coker and the neighborhood groups no doubt agree. "The history of Raleigh development," he says, "is largely uninspired and a series of missed opportunities."

If the Entertainment and Sports Arena were downtown, for example, then perhaps he could consider putting his project there too, he says. But so far, government--city, county and state--haven't put the "infrastructure" in place downtown to make large-scale private development possible.

Similarly, Coker dismisses critics who want him to limit retail in his project to small shops meant to serve the neighborhood. He calls that "Mayberry" thinking: People only want "Floyd's Barber Shop" there, but he can't raise money unless he includes stores that will draw people from a distance--which kind of defeats the mixed-use purpose.

Nonetheless, Coker may have to consider the views of his critics. Enough of the property owners surrounding his land have signed formal protest petitions that his projects will need six votes out of eight, rather than the usual five, to win a rezoning.

The project is in City Councilor Benson Kirkman's district, and Kirkman, after expressing initial enthusiasm for Coker, has backed off in the face of the neighborhood groups. Kirkman now says he's opposed to the project "as presented," and says "at least the rudiments of a new small-area plan have to be on the table before this [rezoning] can go forward."

If Kirkman sticks to his guns, it's likely that at least two, if not all three, of his fellow Democrats on the Council will back him up. That will leave Coker three choices: limit himself to 500,000-square feet, negotiate with his neighbors for more, or sell the land.

Without a new study, however, neighbors cannot possibly say whether Coker's high-density project should be allowed to go ahead. It violates the only land-use plans the city has for their communities. Those plans might be wrong, but there's no way to tell that if all you get to consider is 15 acres at a time. To get "smart growth," you have to look at the bigger picture. EndBlock


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