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Young Influencers Series: Raleigh is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and, among all age demographics, the population of 25-34 year-olds consistently shows the highest growth rate from year to year. In recent interviews with Raleigh Magazine, some elected officials have expressed a desire to see more Millennials represented in local government. In this monthly series, we speak with the city’s civically engaged young people who we believe will be Raleigh’s future leaders.
A year ago this month, a two-story Colonial with gray vinyl siding and single-hung windows rolled down the streets of downtown Raleigh.
In its new home on East Lenoir Street, the 19th-century house, currently undergoing restoration, will open as an eight-room boutique hotel called Guest House this summer. It will be the culmination of a vision and years of planning from urban planner and designer Matt Tomasulo and designer Nicole Alvarez, the husband and wife team who wanted to save something old and bring something new to downtown.
You may know Tomasulo, 35, from his work on the city’s Planning Commission or on the board of the Dix Park Conservancy or from an unsuccessful city council bid in 2015. He’s also the founder of urban projects such as Walk Your City, which uses coded signs to encourage people to walk places, and City Fabric, which prints city maps onto T-shirts to spark conversation.
For his ingenuity and visionary ideas—and his drive and ability to bring them to fruition— Tomasulo has earned a reputation as being one of the city’s most creative and promising young leaders.
“I realized I was really passionate about the city I lived in,” Tomasulo says of transitioning from traveling constantly to promote Walk Your City, which had generated interest from cities all over the country and internationally, to running for council. “I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of communities on creating great places for people and decided there was an opportunity there. It’s what ultimately led to Guest House. I wanted to learn to deliver something, learn to provide something this city doesn’t have, and to learn while doing it.”
It’s this experimental approach to problem-solving that Tomasulo practices that he believes will best serve Raleigh in tackling some of the biggest issues the city faces as it continues to grow, including its perpetual lack of affordable housing. Nothing the city will ever do, he says, will have 100 percent consensus but it’s important to try things out, to test things, to take steps to move forward.
Steps such as piloting legalized backyard cottages and experimenting with communal housing—Tomasulo has a proposal before the city to convert two historic properties to co-living spaces for low-income residents—could allow more people to live in and on the edges of the city’s most popular existing neighborhoods.
“It’s the in-between option if you want to be close to everything and live in a great neighborhood,” Tomasulo explains. “You hear this term ‘missing middle.’ How can we find creative ways for people to live where they want to live without drastically impacting neighborhoods?”
Other problems he sees, including mobility, economic inequity and poor citizen engagement, can begin to be treated in ways that aren’t burdensome to the city but that make a meaningful difference to people who may feel left out, or whose voices aren’t always heard.
During his 2015 campaign, for instance, Tomasulo floated the idea of taking a cue from a successful Boston program and funding a mobile city hall, where a truck and a couple of staffers would travel to different Raleigh neighborhoods each day (and evenings) to inform and engage citizens around what’s going on in local government. Most importantly, Tomasulo says, busy residents who can’t attend meetings would have a way to talk to the city about the issues that they care about.
“The proof is in the streets,” says Tomasulo, who owns a home in east Raleigh, of why the 2017 municipal election seemed to underscore that some residents feel overlooked or uncared for. “I walk and ride my bike a lot and so do other people in my neighborhood, probably more than anywhere else. Why aren’t there crosswalks at every intersection, where everybody walks and bikes? It’s about prioritizing people, showing there’s investment, acknowledgement and care. It’s basic but whole neighborhoods have no crosswalks, no stop signs around schools. It blows my mind.”
In his two years on the Planning Commission—Tomasulo was appointed just after the council adopted Raleigh’s new zoning code, the UDO—he has seen firsthand how development and the physical form of the city shapes the ways we live and how Raleigh will grow, and how development unifies and divides politically diverse people. It’s work he’s found at once rewarding and frustrating.
Making oft-needed text changes to the UDO to accommodate new projects in a rapidly changing era is a laborious process, one Tomasulo believes would better serve the city if pilot projects were allowed to address unforeseen issues as they inevitably arise. But seeing how new development improves quality of life, sometimes vastly, Tomasulo says makes the work worthwhile. He points to Hillsborough Street’s new streetscape as an example.
“It was painful, people didn’t want it, and I personally don’t agree with some of the design decisions,” he says. “But it would be hard to say it hasn’t helped turn Hillsborough Street into a nice place for people and provided amenities for people where they can walk and bike from those neighborhoods. The street is a great equalizer.”
Another great equalizer, and perhaps the project that has captivated and excited Tomasulo most, is Dix Park. Tomasulo is pleased that NC State, with its Centennial campus located adjacent to the 300-acre Dix property, is an engaged partner and he believes the park will function to connect the city more. He sees opportunities for the park as a testing ground for physical and mental health research. He envisions new neighborhoods nearby—with affordable and senior housing—that could provide homes for 20,000 to 80,000 people to live within walking distance of the park.
“There are opportunities for it all,” Tomasulo says. “This is a transformational opportunity for the city beyond being just a park. Seeing how spaces like that have become the hearts of communities and regions gets me really excited.”
Planning for Dix Park is expected to accelerate through 2018, with public meetings to gather citizen input and presentation of the final plan to the council scheduled for 2019.
Between planning Dix, opening Guest House and serving on the Planning Commission, Tomasulo’s schedule seems full. But in just over a year, Raleigh will be gearing up for another municipal election. Does he plan to run again?
“I’m never saying no,” Tomasulo says. “I’m excited to be in Raleigh, it’s exciting to see people who grew up here moving back, and lots of newcomers. I hope more people who are investing in Raleigh for the long-term will have a voice at the table and that, as a city, we’ll continue to welcome more and more people to these conversations.”
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