Opinion

A rising Raleigh has to preserve a place for all incomes

Smokey Hollow neighborhood’s transformation; bigger, taller

The northern end of downtown Raleigh is changing fast, with the new Capital Boulevard bridge over Peace Street and the rising steel beams of a tower that will house a Publix grocery store and hundreds of apartments.
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The northern end of downtown Raleigh is changing fast, with the new Capital Boulevard bridge over Peace Street and the rising steel beams of a tower that will house a Publix grocery store and hundreds of apartments.

The city of Raleigh doesn’t lack for plans. There’s a department full of planners channeling growth in accordance with a comprehensive plan and a unified development ordinance that covers every nook and cranny of the city.

But for all that planning, it feels like something uncontrolled and chaotic is happening as a new city emerges from the tight and orderly confines of ordinances, blueprints and artists’ renderings. Consider the scene on no longer peaceful Peace Street. An 11-story mega complex of apartments, office space, stores and a parking garage is under construction, looming over a landscape that just a year or two ago was a collection of single-story businesses.

The project, the latest by Raleigh real estate developer John Kane, looks like a spacecraft as large as an aircraft carrier has landed on an unsuspecting southern town. And that’s just the start. Kane is asking the City Council for permission to build a 40-story tower at Peace Street and Capital Boulevard. It would be the capital’s tallest building. No one seems to know where the traffic will go. Or where people of modest means will go. Kane’s company has offered to kick in $1 million toward affordable housing in return for the tower’s approval.

Growth isn’t bad, of course, and it’s certainly better than decline. But somewhere in the process of building more and building up, there needs to be more attention to what’s being built over and who is being pushed out. Good cities, like good architecture, should have a respect for balance and an appreciation for variety. But rapid growth tends to push in the opposite direction, generating buildings that are too big and fueling costs of living that exclude people of lower incomes.

States, cities and companies are taking steps to counter those effects. New York state has passed laws to stabilize rents. Minneapolis just voted to largely eliminate single-family zoning to promote more and denser housing. In San Francisco, Google pledged last week to invest $1 billion to ease the region’s affordable housing crisis.

Now planners are taking steps too. In May, the American Planning Association approved an impressive new policy guide that shows planners how to see development through “a lens of equity.” It is the first time the association has taken such a position.

Susan Wood, a former president of the APA’s Colorado chapter who helped produce the policy guide, said planners must address the gap between access to transportation, affordable housing and health care.

“There is a large gap and evidence shows that that gap is ever widening,” Wood says in an APA video. “If we don’t do something about it, it won’t get better. And planners are the ones to do that.”

The guide pushes planners to encourage development that accommodates rather than displaces. It says, “An equity in all policies approach challenges those planning practices and actions that disproportionately impact and stymie the progress of certain segments of the population.”

This evolving perspective comes after generations of reckless urban renewal that bulldozed human concerns and connections. And it’s coming just in time for cities like Raleigh that are enjoying a back-to-the city movement, but are struggling with how to keep longtime residents in place by maintaining affordability.

Raleigh has plenty of plans, and the fruit of those plans seems to be sprouting on every corner near the city’s core. But the plans need to do more than transform the city. They should also improve it. For everyone.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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