Growth is Inevitable, Raleigh's Success is Not

By Brent Woodcox

Ned Barnett's column in the News & Observer this weekend nails it when it comes to the challenges that growth will pose for Raleigh and the failure of our elected officials to create a coherent plan for the future. Raleigh is going to grow by leaps and bound even by the most conservative of estimates. We must plan for it if we will successfully weather any growing pains that come with it.

That's the essential failure of NIMBYism in Raleigh. Unless we are going to build a wall around the city, people will continue to move here. If you turn them away from your neighborhood, they'll just end up somewhere else in the city. Often, that has meant building new neighborhoods (and the infrastructure that comes along with them) on the edges of town. This encourages sprawl, leads to decreased density and is the opposite of ideal, modern city planning. It also increases the environmental footprint of the city in a way that any self-respecting progressive should oppose. 

For all the talk of "planned" or "managed" growth, the plan seems too often to be to just say no to everything. But that doesn't make the newcomers go away. It doesn't stop the steady stream of new citizens setting down roots in Raleigh. And quite to the contrary of the folks who say they want to plan Raleigh's growth, it directly leads to unplanned and mismanaged growth in ways that set our city back, costs our taxpayers more and saddles future leaders with even more messes to clean up.

Raleigh does need a plan for growth. But "no" is not a plan.

Transit boosters, local officials and planners are trying to get ready for the people to come, but the truth is Wake County and the Triangle aren’t ready and may never be.

How do you prepare for a tsunami?

Wake County alone is projected to add more than 200,000 people in the next 10 years. The Triangle’s overall growth could double that. One doesn’t need to be a sentimentalist clinging to the disappearing, small-city Triangle to look ahead and think, “uh-oh.” ...

We already familiar with the oft-repeated statistic that Wake County is growing by 67 people a day. Now the greater Raleigh area has made the cut for the top 20 places where Amazon wants to build its second headquarters. If we win, it will bring growth of truly Amazonian proportions – 50,000 jobs and probably the same number of cars. The jobs will pay well, but also will drive up rents and home prices. ...

In the face of this growth there are signs of trouble. The Triangle has failed to create a regional government that can coordinate growth. The Raleigh City Council is at Ground Zero of the boom, but can’t manage to approve such obvious steps as allowing smaller backyard dwellings to increase housing density. And the state is going ahead with plans to complete the 540 Loop in southern Wake County. That 28-mile, $2.2 billion highway extension will fuel sprawl even as the Republican-led General Assembly is sharply limiting its support for light rail.

Zimmerman said growth can’t be stopped, but it can be managed. He said that requires that local officials think far ahead, innovate and move fast. Once the surge is on top of you – when traffic is gridlocked and affordable housing is available only on the far outskirts of a city – it’s too late.

In North Carolina, local responses to growth are limited by state law that gives the legislature final say over such tools as impact fees and affordable housing requirements. Zimmerman said Virginia’s cities face the same restraints, but Arlington worked around them by offering developers more of what they wanted in return for more of what the city needed. Arlington was also able to control growth by concentrating new offices and mid-rise housing around Metro rail stops. Wake County lacks a light rail system, but could concentrate new development around a coming network of rapid transit bus lines.

Transit is a key to smart development, Zimmerman said, but what people young and old want most are “things closer together.” They want to walk, whether from home to work, or restaurant to theater.

“What it really comes down to,” he said, “is walkability.”

What it needs to begin with, on the part of government and residents alike, is urgency and flexibility.

“Uh-oh” won’t be enough.
— Ned Barnett - N&O
Brent Woodcox