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The Raleigh City Council is known for taking its time making decisions, but there’s a lot of talk in the community about the need to move forward on issues such as housing, infrastructure, innovation and big thinking. People are watching and waiting. Here are some thoughts on the five things the City Council must do in 2019:
1. Approve the Dix Park Master Plan.
After a two-year planning process, the master plan for the park has been unveiled. More than 73,000 people have participated in public meetings and events, and more than 14,000 comments have been generated on the online tool, Neighborland.
Michael Van Valkenburg Associates in New York, a nationally recognized parks planner, was hired to create a space unique to Raleigh, building consensus on a multi-generational plan and a way to pay for it. But before the plan was released, controversy ensued.
The Council has a history of asking for public input and then ignoring it. This is a legacy moment. The big question is: Will the Council honor a two-year public process that involved tens of thousands of participants, leadership from national experts and hundreds of thousands of dollars?
2. Housing Affordability and Supply.
During a Raleigh Chamber of Commerce Inter-city Visit to Seattle last April (attended by all council members), elected officials and experts told us to act with urgency on housing. To avoid their plight (the average price of a home in Seattle is $820,000), they urged us to encourage accessory dwelling units, and upzone property along transit corridors to create density and supply. In Minneapolis, officials just made it easier to build “missing middle” housing throughout the city—townhomes, duplexes, triplexes, quads and ADUs.
Raleigh, however, punted on missing middle housing, sending the discussion from the Healthy Neighborhoods Committee to staff. And the Planning Commission took an unprecedented step, voting against a City Council-initiated overlay district governing ADUs, which would make them just about impossible to build.
ADUs already exist in some of Raleigh’s most desirable neighborhoods (Councilor Russ Stephenson has three on his property) as do missing middle housing options. It’s time to stop talking about affordability. The Council must get serious about increasing housing supply and helping our residents build equity. It’s not an either/or answer. City Council needs to act on all of the above.
3. Transit and Mobility.
Transit is closely tied to housing. When I was first elected to the Raleigh City Council 11 years ago, people were vocal about sprawl. Now we have residents and Councilors opposed to density. You can’t have it both ways. A great case in point is Hillsborough Street. After a multi-year citizen engagement process, consensus formed around five-story zoning on Hillsborough Street, one of the city’s most active transit areas. Guess what? The Council opted to limit density to three stories.
The Council is already behind on upzoning potential Bus Rapid Transit Corridors, moving forward on protected bike lanes and connecting land use and transit to build healthy, walkable communities. None of this is easy. But our residents deserve to know how this Council will move forward to address these critical sustainability concerns.
4. Innovation and Big Ideas.
The City’s Vision Statement once started with these words: “We are a 21st century city of innovation…” What happened? Last year, Raleigh took some of the most aggressive steps against scooter companies in the country, charging $300 per scooter (most cities charge $50 to $100) and limiting each company to 500. Simply put, scooters are giving young people, women and people of color greater accessibility to downtown. That’s what mobility options are supposed to do. Sure, the Council should create rules (for example, don’t ride on the sidewalks in the central downtown core) and enforce them. But why stifle a last-mile mobility choice?
The same can be said for short-term rentals like Airbnb. This has been debated ad nauseum for four years. It appears that the Council is getting ready to initiate a home stay ordinance that would prohibit someone from renting their full house and requiring them to be home if they rent out a room. This, despite the fact that complaints are minimal—and the Council ignored the recommendations made by a Short-Term Rental Task Force. What’s up with the over regulation? It’s time to embrace new ideas and move our city forward.
5. Adhere to the Council’s Code of Ethics.
This is City Government 101. Yet some Council members can’t resist attacking staff at public forums, contacting them directly with instructions or insulting them at Council meetings. We have a Code of Ethics to prevent this from happening. Why is this important?
First, the role of City Council is that of a Board of Directors. Members set policy; they don’t manage staff. The City Manager actually runs the City. This has worked well in North Carolina for years. It ensures that government is professionally managed and not politically managed. Second, how would you like it if your boss’s bosses attacked you in public? Wouldn’t that impact your ability to do your job?
The City of Raleigh has an incredibly talented staff. The Council needs to let them do their jobs and respect and encourage them—not criticize or intimidate them. Some Council members need to re-read the Code of Ethics and follow it.
Mary-Ann Baldwin is Executive Director of the Holt Brothers Foundation and co-founder of Innovate Raleigh, a nonprofit that supports the city’s budding entrepreneurs. A 30-year resident of Raleigh, Baldwin served on the City Council for five terms before retiring in 2017.
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Also, it will be nice to remove the height limit of 20 floors in areas that were previously zoned for taller buildings. 301 Hillsborough is a perfect example. Sure, a developer can ask for rezoning, but chances are he will deliver a 20 story box that takes up an entire block instead of wasting time and effort to please the city. Not the most pressing issue, but it will be nice to treat our Downtown as the true center of the city.