Friday, Mar. 25, 2011

Reigning in Sprawleigh

Over the past decade and then some, Raleigh, North Carolina, has piled up a litany of placements at the top of livability lists. The city has been called the best place to reside, work, play, start a small business and relocate. The result: Raleigh's population has grown faster than nearly any other major American city in the past decade. And that mostly unchecked growth has led to a less desirable moniker: Sprawleigh.

Last year, a report by a group called CEOs for Cities identified Raleigh as one of the worst commuting cities in America. In metro areas with extensive urban sprawl, such as the Tarheel capital, residents might average as much as 240 hours per year in traffic because commuting distances are much longer.

Ahead of that negative press, city officials had already embarked an ambitious rezoning called the 2030 Comprehensive Plan for the City of Raleigh. The teeth of the plan is a new development code designed to increase density by catering to a younger working populace that wants to live closer to in-town jobs, as well as catering to aging boomers who also appreciate walkable neighborhoods with dining and shopping options. Raleigh wants to redevelop a number of areas along specific transit corridors that will entice future growth. To get there quickly, the new code will be half the size of the previous one, easier to understand, favorable to mixed use projects and with an expedited approval process, according to Mitch Silver, Raleigh's chief of Planning and Economic Development. "We wanted to have a conversation on what is a 21st century city. Raleigh is a city coming of age, kind of in an adolescent period. We asked, When we grew up, did we want to be like Atlanta or did we want to be like another city?"

Over the past three decades, Raleigh was like a lot of places in the south and west that were eager to grow and did so without much forethought. Even in cities that had plans, such as Raleigh, the speed of expansion proved overwhelming. Millions of Americans were relocating in a gold rush search for better jobs and warmer climes. With space to stretch, not having to build up meant building out.

From 1950 to 2000, Raleigh's land use grew 1670%, 3.5 times faster than the population, which increased by 480% to about 400,000. And that has created a massive problem; in a national 2002 sprawl study by community advocacy organization Smart Growth America, Raleigh was ranked third worst, based on measures of density, mixed use, centeredness, and road connectivity.

Sprawl isn't new. It began with the advent of the automobile that allow homebuilders to turn rural tracts into widely dispersed suburban neighborhoods. Renowned city planner Earle Draper, who coincidentally designed the historic upper class Hayes Barton neighborhood in northwest Raleigh, described the problem: "Perhaps diffusion is too kind of a word," he mused, but he later got to the point. "In bursting its bounds, the city actually sprawled and made the countryside ugly," said. He added that the outward growth was "uneconomic of services and doubtful social value."

Silver agrees. "First and foremost it's the cost. As you start to expand your network, there's more cost for infrastructure, there's more cost to maintain it, and in many cases you don't get the highest yield per acre in terms of your tax base." On top of that, an Urban Land Institute study from 2009 claims most traffic, 80%-to-85% of it, is created not by work commutes but by the need to drive for daily errands such as shopping, ferrying kids, dining out and so on. "There's added travel time and issues to air quality because you produce more in terms of emissions and greenhouse gases," said Silver. "There are quality of life issues and real tangible economic issues."

To combat all this, Silver, who moved to Raleigh 2005 to take the job of city planner, began developing the city's first comprehensive plan since 1989. In October 2009, the 2030 Comprehensive plan was approved. It took a polycentric approach and created a growth framework map in which 60%-to-70% of all new growth would be channeled towards eight centers and 12 multi-modal corridors. The plan also targets 18 areas for economic growth and revitalization. "Right now,' he says, "most of our thoroughfares are designed to get cars in, get cars out, and we want them to accommodate more modes of transportation, biking, walking, bus, and in some cases, light rail as well as cars."

It is defined by six themes: Economic prosperity and equity, Expanding housing choices, Managing growth, Coordinating land use and transportation, Greenprint Raleigh sustainable development, and Growing successful neighborhoods and communities. "It's not just a vision of where we want to head. The code will ensure that we now have rules to make that happen," he says.

Rezoning has already demonstrated success. The main downtown drag of Fayetteville Street which had been closed off into a walking mall in 1976 — an idea that lots of cities have tried unsuccessfully — was reopened for traffic in 2006 which generated downtown development dividends. The project cost $10 million but has translated into more than $3 billion in construction downtown, according to Silver.

As for the new plan, perhaps the smartest thing the Raleigh team did was to instill ownership of the process among all constituencies from the beginning. "When I travel the country and hear the pushback in many circles to smart growth and sustainability and planning in general I don't think they see the competitive advantage you can have by embracing planning as a true partnership with all of the sectors."

The city brought in some of the biggest names in the planning business for a lecture series with topics that included: design of a 21st century city, the hidden costs of free parking, transit-oriented development, creation of a pedestrian friendly city, and traditional codes versus form-based codes. The planners did attractive presentations with grandiose but sometimes logically problematic themes such as "We are making new history", Great Streets, Great Spaces, Great Places", and discussions of iconic architecture and a vibrant downtown center.

Not everyone sees the beauty of greater density. When speaker Christopher Leinberger, a developer and a fellow at the Brookings Institute equated an increase in drivable suburban neighborhoods with a lower quality of life for everyone living in them, offended suburbanites shot back at what they perceived as elitist narrow-mindedness. People like their leafy suburban existence. In an editorial written for the Raleigh News & Observer last June, Grady Jefferys, a former editor for the paper and author of "Fighting Annexation: How To Protect Your Property Rights Against Municipal Tyranny," railed that, "Silver should do us all the favor of keeping his big city ideas to himself." Jefferys laments the passing of a smaller, more user-friendly Raleigh of 50 years ago, claiming that the city's ills, "are the handiwork of professional planners whose arrogance made them believe they knew what was best for the rest of us."

Unable to lock the door as Jefferys and other dissidents might wish to do, Raleigh has to figure out how to grow smartly. Otherwise, Sprawleigh will find itself on the wrong end of the livability list. Mayberry's gone metro and there's no going back.