Raleigh leaders pause downtown project over affordable housing and height concerns

Raleigh leaders put a proposed downtown redevelopment on pause to talk with its architects about affordability and building height.

The City Council sent the rezoning request from Steve Schuster and Thomas Sayre to its Growth and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday night over the objection of some council members.

“I believe if you’re waiting to get this affordable housing question [answered], that building will probably fall in before we get this done,” said council member Dickie Thompson. “I don’t think that’s fair to hold that over this developer’s head until we may or may ever come to a conclusion on what we may or may not ask a developer to do.”

Schuster and Sayre, of the firm Clearscapes, designed several notable projects downtown including the new Union Station, Raleigh Convention Center, Go Raleigh Station and Contemporary Art Museum. They are asking for about an acre at West Martin Street near Nash Square to be rezoned for buildings up to 12 stories tall. The project would include retail, office, residential and public open space, but few specifics have been revealed.

The 12-story limit would only be used on the property’s surface parking lot, and two historic warehouses would remain on the property, Schuster told The News & Observer previously.

The project was moved to the five-person council committee at the request of council member Russ Stephenson. Earlier this year, Raleigh leaders approved a policy that lets the city accept affordable housing from developers who are negotiating for rezonings. State law prohibits inclusionary zoning, which is a tool some states and cities have used to require affordable housing in new projects.

The council will set a “difficult precedent” if it doesn’t start talking about affordability downtown, Stephenson said.

“We are sort of at a tipping point here in our discussion about housing affordability in the city of Raleigh,” he said. “And whether we as a council are going to make a consistent commitment to have a conversation about including affordable units.”

Some saw the change as a way to get more affordable housing while others worried the council would start denying rezonings to force developers to “voluntarily” offer affordable housing.

There needs to be housing for people of all incomes throughout Raleigh and in downtown, Schuster wrote in an email to The News & Observer Thursday.

“We want to support a broad range of housing price points here, for lots of reasons, not the least of which I live here and want real people as my neighbors,” he said. “The reality is there is a gap between what the construction cost of lower-cost units is and the income that they will produce. Other cities provide assistance with the gap financing. What we do not want to do is increase the price of the ‘normal’ units to subsidize the lower cost units since that only leads to an even larger wealth gap in our downtown.”

Stephenson also said he had questions about how tall the building would be, how far they would be set back from the street and how the developer would maintain the historical nature of the two warehouse buildings.

In an email, Schuster said they thought they had addressed Stephenson’s concerns and that they had met with each council member before the public hearing Tuesday night. No one spoke against the rezoning during the hearing, and it received a favorable recommendation from the city’s planning commission and the Central Citizen Advisory Council.

To help ease concerns from the council, the rezoning request says the two historic buildings would remain and building height would be limited to five stories in the area of the existing structures. The taller buildings would have to go through the Raleigh Historic Development Commission, which works to preserve and protect the city’s historic resources.

The next Growth and Natural Resources Committee meeting is 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Raleigh Municipal Building.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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