Russ Stephenson | Candidate Questionnaires - Wake County | Indy Week
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Russ Stephenson 

Raleigh City Council At-Large

Name as it appears on the ballot: Russ Stephenson
Party affiliation, if any: Democrat
Campaign website:
Occupation & employer: architect, self
Years lived in Raleigh: 40

1) Given the current direction of Raleigh city government, would you say things are generally on the right course? If not, what specific, major changes you will advocate if elected?

Raleigh is absolutely on the right course and I am proud to have been part of the Council team over the last 10 years that has brought us to the top of so many national rankings. There is always room for improvement. Here are two important areas:

1. Raleigh could become a great city, but only if we have confidence in our potential. In a hot development market it has always been too easy to promote growth without a clear vision of where we are headed, leading to the kind of haphazard, placeless strip development we’ve seen too much of. Raleigh has done many things well over the past decade or so, but has always been unwilling to set a high bar for the quality required to become a great city. As new proposals to boost our tax base come piling in, it is critical that we show the confidence in our potential for greatness and negotiate with top quality developers for top quality projects and related community benefits.

2. Public health and health equity have never been explicit city responsibilities, but they should be. By promoting more walking, biking, greenways and recreation opportunities, Raleigh has been moving steadily toward creating healthier, safer community designs and healthier, safer citizens. Many leading cities are going further in taking responsibility for improving the health and safety of their citizens. They understand the bottom line benefits of lower health care costs, a more productive workforce and the attractiveness to top-tier companies and workers of a health city. Two successful programs are ‘Vision Zero’ ( and ‘Health in All Policies’ ( Both provide a more comprehensive and analytic basis for making city decisions that improve public safety, health and health equity. The Wake County Commissioners have already adopted a policy of becoming the ‘Healthiest Capital County in the Nation’. Raleigh should join with them in adopting policies that do more to invest in the health of our citizens.

2) If you are a candidate for a district seat, please identity your priorities for improvements in the district if you’re elected. If you are an at-large or mayoral candidate, please identify the three most pressing issues the city faces and how you will address them?

The three most pressing issues facing the city are (1) set a high standard for quality, sustainable growth that will make Raleigh an attractive option in the global market for talent, (2) improving public health and safety, and (3) make a much stronger commitment than in the past to providing affordable housing. I describe how I will address items one and two in the answer to question # 1 above. I describe how I will address item three in the answer to question # 8 below.

3) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective as a member of Council? If you’ve identified specific issues above, what in your record has prepared you to be an effective advocate for them?

Growth Management – When I first ran for Council in 2005, Raleigh was in the midst of a major suburban building boom. Home prices had doubled since 1988, but the developer Impact Fees were unchanged. I ran on a platform of making growth pay its own way, by reducing the 80% taxpayer subsidy for new development infrastructure. Once in office, I worked with Mayor Meeker to increase Impact Fees substantially and index fees to the costs of construction.

Environmental Stewardship - Record of protecting wild places:
Since 2005 I have been the leading Council advocate for protecting Raleigh's two state-designated Scenic Natural Heritage Areas (SNHA) and promoting their enjoyment by the public:

(1) Horseshoe Farm Park (HSFP): I led the grassroots efforts of parks advocates to reverse plans to construct a large active recreation facility at HSFP. As a result, the active recreation facility was relocated to Durant Road, on the site of a decommissioned and reclaimed landfill. The Parks Director who opposed 'passive recreation' parks in the Raleigh Parks system retired shortly after this decision and a environmental education center was approved for HSFP instead. In the wake of these events, I led a comprehensive review and re-direction of the Parks Department mission to embrace citizen engagement in parks planning and to place a new emphasis on conserving natural areas, including the creation of a new Nature Preserve category for Raleigh Parks.

(2) Lake Johnson: I worked with Councilor Thomas Crowder to relocate and re-focus the program for a planned community center at Lake Johnson Park. The new location and design of the Lake Johnson Woodland Center takes advantage of the SNHA component of the park and the facility's program was changed from being a general-purpose facility to one that celebrates the SNHA and promotes environmental education.

Environmental Stewardship - Record of practicing and promoting the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources:
As an architect, I practice and promote sustainable design every day. I have a degree in Environmental Design in Architecture (NC State, summa cum laude). I am a LEED Accredited Practitioner and long-standing member of the Sierra Club and US Green Building Council. Since my election to City Council in 2005, my campaigns have always focused on sustainable urban form for the City of Raleigh - turning away from car-oriented sprawl, toward compact, walkable development that is enhanced by environmental stewardship and natural resource conservation.

In 2007, I was one of the original Council signers of The US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing Raleigh to reducing our city’s carbon emissions. That action initiated the creation of Raleigh’s Office of Sustainability and the implementation of a range programs promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy use and production and waste recycling. As a result, in 2011, Raleigh was named by Forbes and Siemens Corporation as the Most Sustainable Mid-sized City in America.

New City Management – Ruffin Hall
With all the excitement about our city's great national rankings and the rising economy it is more important than ever to stay laser focused on executing the strategic goals, with the right management team in place to bring fresh energy and more sophisticated approaches to making Raleigh a world-class city. That is why in 2013 I helped build a bi-partisan coalition of six Councilors to hire a new city manager.

4) Please give one specific example of something you think City Council has done wrong or that you would have rather done differently in the last year. Also, please tell us the single best thing the city’s done during that span.

Wrong: The City Council is near to making the most questionable, cart-before-the-horse decision I’ve seen in years. The city’s current draft UDO Remap proposal aims to up-zone downtown land en-mass without an adopted vision or implementation plan for downtown or any exchange of value for community benefits, such as affordable housing. This proposal also would eliminate all public input for any future project that stays below the proposed height caps. This approach will encourage expedient builders not to go taller than the cap and leave downtown open to another building boom like the one we created on Capital Boulevard. Instead, lets put the horse in front of the cart: Start by (1) adopting our draft $1 million dollar Downtown Vision Plan, which incorporates goals and actions to promote affordable housing, complete streets (accommodating all mobility modes, ages and abilities), diverse retail including a downtown grocery, innovative architecture, inclusive streetscapes, five catalytic project ideas and much more. (2) set implementation priorities, then (3) decide the best way to use downtown up-zonings and other city incentives to implement the vision over the next ten years.

Right: Buying the Dix Park property was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this generation to invest in the prosperity and happiness of future generations. Most of the credit goes to Mayor Nancy McFarlane. Without her leadership, negotiating skill and perseverance it would not have happened.

5) How do you identify yourself to others in terms of your political philosophy? For example, do you tell people you’re a conservative, a moderate, a progressive, a libertarian?


6) The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. If elected, how will your service in office help further that goal?

• I will continue to support Raleigh’s annual Human Service Agency grants to 54 non-profits, totaling $1.26 million dollars.
• I will continue working for adoption of new citywide policies to improve public safety, heath and health equity as outlined in my answer to question #1.
• I will also continue working to substantially increase Raleigh’s stock of affordable housing as described in my answer to question #8.
• I am a strong advocate of the Wake County Transit Investment Strategy and hope to see a transit referendum pass next year. In addition to the economic and environmental benefits, transit offers cost-burdened workers greater opportunities to access better jobs while reducing the costs of car ownership.
• I am a strong supporter of the Raleigh Police Department’s Community Policing practices and Youth and Family Services programs. Establishing strong bonds of trust, understanding and cooperation between Chief Deck-Brown’s officers and Raleigh neighborhoods is vital to the success of both.

Please address, in detail, the following major issues in Raleigh:

7) Now that the city has acquired the 306-acre Dorothea Dix Park, what are some specific things you would like to see the city do with it?

There has never been a shortage of ideas about things to put in Dix Park. The most important first step in planning the park is to step back. I’d hope to engage world-class park planners with a deep understanding of natural systems, cultural resources and urban park design for people. They would need great skill in working with a broad spectrum of stakeholders to frame the overarching principles for success. The most important thing to do with Dix Park now is to engage in a process that yields a strong community consensus vision, trusting that the best specific ideas will rise to prominence in the public’s imagination. From there, the path to a great park is a process of prioritizing, organizing, funding and patience.

8) Between gentrification in historic neighborhoods and expensive rentals downtown, the city has struggled at times with questions of affordable and workforce housing. What concrete steps can or would you take to help ensure that, for instance, hospitality workers can afford to live in Raleigh and especially its urban core? For example, there has been some talk of density bonuses to entice developers to include affordable units in their downtown developments. Do you believe this is a viable idea? Why or why not?

Production Strategy – Raleigh’s draft Affordable Housing Plan & Location Policy documents provide a much-needed update to existing policy documents and describe methods for improving the supply and distribution of affordable housing for a range of incomes. Raleigh’s draft Downtown Plan goes into more detail, setting goals and action items for adding affordable housing downtown.

In terms of concrete measures, I have noted that by some estimates, Raleigh needs to increase its affordable housing stock four-fold. I have called on Council to do two things: (1) set realistic production goals and (2) establish a reliable funding source to meet those production goals. I have also called on Council to debate and adopt Raleigh’s Downtown Plan as soon as possible so that its directives, including downtown affordable housing, become adopted policy.

Funding Strategy - Density bonus programs are a form of ‘value capture’ that has been very successful in providing affordable housing and other community benefits in peer cities. In general, value capture describes a number of methods for dedicating, or capturing a portion of new development’s new value to fund community benefits. Raleigh’s draft Affordable Housing Plan proposes a value capture method where funds are obtained from a development’s new property tax revenues, rather than directly from the developer in exchange for the public’s grant of rights to increased height or density.

9) Related to affordable housing and affordability in general is viable public transportation. What steps can the city take to improve mass transit throughout the city? Will you actively support the transit referendum that Wake County will likely put to voters next year?

As noted in my answer to Question #6, I am a strong advocate of the Wake County Transit Investment Strategy and hope to see a transit referendum pass next year. In addition to the economic and environmental benefits, transit offers cost-burdened workers greater opportunities to access better jobs while reducing the costs of car ownership, leaving more money for housing, food, clothing and the like.

10) The city came under fire at Council meetings in July for the proposed remapping under the Unified Development Ordinance. It is safe to say there was a lot of uncertainty and distrust. Broadly speaking, how do you think the city should approach issues of density and neighborhood livability? And if the city had it to do over again, what about the UDO remapping do you believe should have been done differently, if anything?

Density and neighborhood livability - The UDO is an important set of new rules for implementing Raleigh’s sustainable growth goals. With more infill development closer to neighborhoods, the transitions between them have been the focus of much debate. As an architect, urban design consultant, and Chair of Council’s Comprehensive Planning Committee, I have studied the new UDO zoning rules closely over the last two years and have submitted a list of 11 UDO refinements, improving citizens’ engagement in the rezoning process and improving the transitions between infill growth and established neighborhoods

Do-over? – In retrospect, the city could have avoided a considerable amount of confusion and distrust if it had not been in triage mode to get the job done. But being understaffed and overworked, there was little time to think about quality citizen engagement. Because of the lack of good information, I have made two dozen UDO presentations to industry and citizen groups over the last year. I can attest to how hard it is to distill the UDO’s complexity into a few key points that will be useful for the average citizen.

11) Also on the subject of livability: The issue of regulating sidewalk patios hints at the difficulty this city (like other cities) faces in striking a balance between making its downtown more of a neighborhood and the needs of the businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry, that currently exist. How do you think the city should go about balancing these needs? What does a successful
downtown look like to you?

Ten years ago Raleigh leaders made a bold decision to invest $10 million dollars in the ‘Livable Streets Plan’ to revitalize the core of downtown Raleigh. The transformation has been gratifying with many new offices, condos, apartments and a vibrant mix of cultural, dining and entertainment venues. Over time, the city has not adequately enforced its own rules regulating the private use of our public sidewalks, eligibility for outdoor dining permits, and life safety regulations governing public access and occupancy. Likewise, groups responsible for downtown appearance have been unable to provide the high level of maintenance and cleanliness required to clean up and repair after drunk, disorderly and some times destructive late night revelers. The net effect is that while Fayetteville Street has become a hot late night bar scene, for those who live, work, shop and visit downtown, the city has failed to maintain its Livable Streets vision and its $10 million dollar investment.

The three month trial period for the new sidewalk seating rules are a work in progress, with 10 life safety violation warnings in the first 2 weeks of the trial period. All of the restaurant and bar owners I’ve been talking with have had good ideas about what is working with the rules and where we can make improvements. I’m hoping we can reduce life safety violations to zero soon and keep it that way.

No wants to go downtown Sunday morning and see piles of vomit and vandalized planters filled with beer cans. Everyone I’ve spoken with agrees that all parties need to work harder to improve cleanliness and the maintenance of the city’s investments. For establishments using public sidewalks to generate revenue, there seems to be a consensus that proceeds from charging a fair rate, for business use of the sidewalk could help fund better sidewalk cleaning and / or more staff to protect safety and property on the street. Finally, Fayetteville Street can sometimes look like a flea market, with every imaginable kind of furniture, shading device and yard game. I think there is also a consensus that in order to maintain the high quality appearance of the Fayetteville Street streetscape, there should be guidelines and an approval process for all private furnishings placed on our public sidewalks.

What does success look like? City planning consultants Sasaki Associates spent a year and a half working with hundreds of downtown stakeholders and staff, developing a new consensus Downtown Plan to guide the growth of downtown for the next ten years, much in the same way that the Livable Streets Plan 10 years ago sparked the rebirth of Raleigh’s downtown core. The new 10-year plan’s Vision Statement describes how downtown will be a destination for “culture entertainment, commerce and community. Downtown Raleigh will be an urban neighborhood providing opportunities for households of varied age and incomes, from singles to families, to lead healthy and productive lives”. The plan contains a comprehensive set of goals and strategies to provide everything from affordable housing, urban stream restoration, big catalytic projects and a strategy to ”create a robust retail environment in downtown that expands away from nightlife to include a combination of local and destination retail”. Council should debate and adopt this Downtown Plan as soon as possible.

12) Some downtown businesses have worried that the parking-deck fees scheduled to go into effect at the end of the year will adversely impact them. On the other hand, there are obviously costs associated with both building and maintaining garages, and most other cities do charge for their use. What would be your ideal solution?

This is another area where I’ve heard excellent ideas for the downtown business owners and others. They agree that over time, parking rates will have to adjust to cover maintenance and operation costs, but in the near term rates should be low, so as not to shock the proformas of businesses whose customers are not accustomed to paying extra, especially on week nights. Likewise, there needs to be special consideration for service workers and for church goers.

13) Some recent legislative actions have seemed, to some extent, antagonistic toward the state’s cities: specifically, the repeal of business privilege taxes and the movement toward redistributing sales tax revenue. In your view, how should the city respond to these (potential and actual) revenue losses? Will the city’s property tax rate need to increase? Will services or new initiatives be curtailed? How should the city address its fiscal challenges going forward?

On the legislative side, cities need to be more effective in making our business case that (1) North Carolina cities are, and will increasingly be, the engines of prosperity for our State and (2) that the State should take a broader business partnership role in helping cities compete more effectively in expanding global markets.

On the city side, if revenues decline, we will continue to grow and operate conservatively, as we did during the Great Recession. In November of 2014, Moody's Investors Service ranked Raleigh as 1 of 34 'Successful US Cities' that weathered the Great Recession by demonstrating "inherent economic strength and effective financial management". The city has an excellent record of balancing revenues and services in response to a range of budget constraints – whether economic or otherwise.

14) The city has about 230 employees who earn less than what is generally considered to be a living wage, about $31,000 a year. In your view, is this problematic or something the city should concern itself with?

Raleigh should pay all of its employees a living wage.

15) When is the bike share program going to happen?

I was one of two Councilors who voted to fund Raleigh’s 30-station BikeShare Program in this year’s budget and take advantage of a $2 million dollar NCDOT grant. I will work to get the BikeShare program included in next year’s budget.

16) What do you believe the role of Citizens Advisory Councils should be? If you are running for a district seat, how closely would you work or have you worked with local CACs?

Raleigh’s 19 Citizens Advisory Councils are the city’s indispensible forum for the exchange of information and ideas between citizens, city staff and City Council. Our CAC Chairs are some of the most dedicated community servants in the city. We owe them a tremendous amount of respect and support for all the work they do to keep citizens and Councilors informed.

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