Russ Stephenson — At-Large

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Councilman Russ Stephenson

Russ Stephenson

1. Why are you running for city council?

I actually grew up as an army brat and lived all over the place and abroad but I actually have deep Raleigh roots. I live in my grandmother’s house now! I came back here to go to NC State in 1975 so Raleigh as a child was always this magical place. My grandmother and my great-aunt lived together at 213 Oberlin Rd. My great-aunt was a successful portrait painter and she created this historic property where I live now. She was also a nationally awarded horticulturist too.

I had a great experience coming back to study architecture at N.C State, met my wife there. I really got excited about how policy is the way that we do democracy in the United States when I got involved in 1999 with the Hillsborough Street Visioning process. Before then my experience with Raleigh politics has been one where the home where I live now had been condemned twice by city of Raleigh to put a road five-lane road through it in the mid-70s and early 80s.

So my opinion about politics was that it was a lowdown, big money, backroom heavy-handed road building type thing. But then in 1999 with the Hillsborough Street Visioning process there was a woman named Nina Slosberg who went on to be on the N.C. Board of Transportation. She led a visioning process to look at the problems of growth and development from a totally different perspective than anything I’d ever seen before. It was all about Yes we have diverse stakeholders and they have a million different things they’d like to do but what if we all came together and had some open discussions on what we have in common and built on that consensus to create a common vision for Hillsborough St. And that blew my mind! To actually see that kind of process happening.

Of course that was in 1999, and here we are in 2015 and we’ve built phase one. At the time we said we’d make a $10 million investment in the street in order to create a different kind of development. Up until that point it had been all about development centered around cars and car mobility. We said what if we made a place for people instead? Will that attract investment? Walking, biking, great transit and so forth. We made that $10 million investment and years later the estimate that I’ve just heard recently is that we’ve gotten close to $1 billion in private investment along phase 1 section of Hillsborough St. To me it’s very gratifying to see that if we take the approach that’s not about winners and losers. We take the approach that we can have a strong vision and build on it, and that great improvements and investments will come.

So that’s why I got into politics. Over the 10 years that I’ve been on council as an architect and urban design consultant (I’ve been at at-large councilor so I serve citywide) Most of the time I’ve had the care of the comprehensive planning committee. So I’ve been watching us go through the process of writing our comprehensive strategic policy goals of the city turning away from the suburban, low density, greenfield, car-dependent development to a more compact, walkable, mixed-use infill, transit-oriented development. So that was a great experience from 2007-2009.

Following that we have to take all the new zoning rules based on the old development pattern, throw them out and start from scratch with 500 pages of new rules on how we’re going to implement this comprehensive plan. So I’ve been working with staff and citizens for the last six years on the UDO. We adopted it in it’s basic form is 2013. What’s happening right now is the en-masse application of all those districts to replace the old suburban style districts. So the whole process of writing it has been an incredible process. But with all the success with our whole sustainability vision (We were actually ranked by Forbes as the number one most sustainable mid-sized city in the United States back in 2011) Actually I was one of the councilors in 2007 to sign onto the mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement that committed us to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. That was the policy decision that started our Sustainability Office and now we are the number 10 city in the nation for per capita solar production.

We’ve had some great leadership, some great long-term vision and fiscally conservative way of approaching it and we’ve been triple A ranked by all the rating agencies for 36 years. So we’ve just had a great string of thoughtful leaders who put in strong visions of the future. I’ve watched Raleigh as a magical place as a child. Took my wife on our first date down in front of the capitol building to feed squirrels. It’s almost like Forest Gump I guess. But getting involved in this visioning process as the way we do democracy. It’s a good thing if you do it right. All the successes in the last years since I’ve been on the council has been due to a teamwork approach. The potential I see to become a truly world-class city is out there. It’s full of challenges but I love a challenge and in this case it’s not a challenge of winners and losers, it’s a challenge of building strong consensus for something that’s going to be good for everyone. So that. That is why I’m running for council again.

2. What is the biggest challenge currently facing the city, and what would you propose to do about it?

Building that consensus. Managing growth. We’ve had such fantastic success. There are lots of people coming here who want to be part of that success. And that’s a good thing. But of course that kind of growth brings challenges. If we had stayed on a suburban style of growth like we did with our last boom we’d be pushing out into our municipal borders out beyond Knightdale and Rolesville.

Now what we’ve got instead is this more compact, walkable, mixed-use, infill, transit-adjacent type of development. That creates challenges when we want to infill development where all these transit corridors are. The challenge is how are we going to grow that density, that verticality, that mix of uses in a way that can protect the quality of life for the people who are already living there. I went back to school and got a second degree and guess what that was my final project! How to manage those transitions to have a great walkable environment where people in these neighborhoods can support and be stakeholders in that higher density development. Balancing those amenities with the impact has always been and will continue to be the big challenge that we face.

3. A text change ordinance was recently passed restricting sidewalk dining, was this the right move? Why or why not? What kind of balance should be struck between revelers & residents? 

Ten years ago we made this big investment in livable streets where we’d convert downtown streets to be vibrant and walkable. It’s been a fantastic success. What’s happened over time is we’ve lost focus on maintaining high standards down there. And so some of the enforcement of the rules has not been done. Some of the maintenance of the infrastructure of the street furnishings and the cleanliness has not been maintained. So we’ve gotten ourselves into a situation where it’s a great setting for any kind of public activity.

We close down the street for the Blue Grass Festival and Hopscotch and all kinds of other activities. But it’s also a great place for night life. The idea was that we were going to use those public sidewalks in that very ceremonial space as a place to create vibrancy. We had a permit system set up for outdoor dining. But we started approving lots of uses that were not dining. And it’s not been easy to keep up with the repair and maintenance after the drunk and disorderly nighttime revelers.

So the net effect is that we’ve gotten into some public safety issues with brawls and people that have to be treated by EMS. So we’ve got this three-month trial period of these new sidewalk seating rules, and they are a work in progress. What we’ve found in the first two-weeks is that there have been 10 life-safety violations for over-occupancy. That’s not a good thing. So the folks who are saying “why aren’t you enforcing these safety rules?” It turns out it’s inconvenient when you’re trying to pack in a lot of people in to sell a lot of drinks to come in a check your occupancy. But the truth is those are life-safety codes to protect lives. What I’ll say about the three-month trial period is that I’ve been spending a lot of time down there between 12:30 and 1:30 just seeing how things are going. And I’ve been talking quite a bit to the bar owners and the restaurant owners. I’m confident that we are going to get through this. It sort of reminds me of when we first starting having food trucks in Raleigh. Remember there was a lot of interest, really more like hyperventilating going on.

On one side it was “if you let these people in they will destroy all of our brick-and-mortar restaurants.” On the other side it was “If we don’t do food trucks we will be so uncool that everyone will leave.” And now years later we look back on it and say “What was the big deal now?” So I think it’s just like any change. It takes awhile for people to not be afraid of change and sit down and talk about how we’re going to make this work for everybody. That’s what we did with the food trucks.

The problem with this situation is two things: it sat in law and public safety committee for a year and they were unable to do that consensus building part. We got to the point where all the outdoor service permits were running out. So we had to get it out fast and there’s was a unanimous vote on this compromise. When it came out to full council, a couple people objected. We’ll work through it. This discussion is happening right before the election so there are stakeholders and candidates who are taking the opportunity to turn it into an election issue. Which is part of democracy too. But it tends to make it harder to get it out the hyperventilating mode and into the sitting down and talking about compromise mode.

4. Raleigh has ended up on a lot of Top Ten lists in recent years. Why do you think that is?

We have lots of structural advantages. We have a major land-grant university. Obviously it attracts a lot of public sector funding, a lot of grant funding. IT attracts great talent, both in the teachers and in the students. On top of that obviously we’ve got other institutions, many of whose employees live in Raleigh. So we have many structural advantages.

But on top of that we’ve got medical institutions, other colleges and universities. We’ve got this giant gorilla out there called RTP. All of the great multinational corporations with their investments and great talent, we’ve had really great stable leadership. We’ve had a strong vision about how to succeed, how to make investments that we’re going to pay off and still be fiscally responsible.

Livable streets, revitalization of Fayetteville Street and the core. On the fiscal conservative side we understand that we live in a global market for talent and that the only way we can succeed is by competing in the market by offering a real high quality of life at a relatively low cost. People move down here and they pick up their parks and recreation booklet — it’s more like a magazine now — of all the parks, activities and cultural resources in the city and they go “I can’t believe all the fantastic opportunities for doing recreational activities in the city!”

But we’ve made big investments in the basics too (our streets, our public utilities), in moving toward sustainability. We are committed to energy efficiency. We’ve teamed up with Creed for Lead Certification. We’ve just been methodically creating a strong vision to be fiscally sound and competitive in a global marketplace so that people will bring their families and their companies to the area and raise them safely.

5. Council is currently considering a rezoning case that would remap a significant portion of the city. Should this be approved as is, with changes, or not at all (back tot he drawing board). Why or why not?

I touched on the fact that we are doing this one-in-a-lifetime zoning rule change. The last time that we rewrote our zoning rules was 63 years ago. Talk about change. Forget about food trucks, think about all the zoning rules for your city from the ground up changing to try to match up with this comprehensive sustainability strategy The Unified Development Ordinance is going to be a massive undertaking. We’ve been working on it for 6 years. Because it’s so complicated. In fact our former planning director Mitch Silver used to say that the UDO is the DNA of the city.

Now we are at the point where we are going to swap out all the old suburban districts to the new UDO zoning districts. And it’s not an easy thing to do. Because people have many fears of the unknown which are justified. Because we’re making a major change to property that aren’t really understood. It is so fundamental and pervasive at a microscopic scale that it’s very difficult to wrap your head around whether this book full of rules is actually going to implement those sustainability policies that you’ve set for yourself. It’s been a challenge.

I am an architect and for the last fifteen years an urban design consultant. I’ve done planning work for towns from Virginia down to Florida. I’ve actually worked on three plans that have gotten American Planning Association Awards so I’ve got a professional background in all of this. So I’m sort of the resident expert on council. My biggest concern is that we don’t have enough staff to really work it out in the refined details that we ought to. We’ve have great staff but they’ve been in triage mode for the last three years to get this all wrapped up. Even though the code has been available for years. We’ve been learning a lot about the new rules as we go along. As a result I’ve submitted my own list of 11 refinements. They really come back to this issue of transitions.

How do we grow in ways that are more sustainable but also respect and protect the quality of life for adjacent neighborhoods. Over the past year I’ve gone to over two dozen neighborhood and business group meetings trying to explain where we need to make refinements. Our first meeting was somewhat of a debacle because staff is in triage mode. It could have been an opportunity to get valuable information from the citizens but it goes back to the fact that this is a once in a lifetime project that’s hard to predict.

I saw it coming so I’ve been trying to go out and explain the UDO — not in it’s infinite detail but maybe explain two things that are most likely to effect an individuals life. It’s fear of the unknown because it’s so complicated we should take our time. There’s a big rush to get it over with. Staff is burned out. My attitude is that there should not be a big rush to apply these rules.

If we rush without refinements there will be winners and losers. And the winners won’t want to change after the rules are in place. Let’s take a little time. We’ve been working with this dual code situation for the past two years. Staff hates it, but we’ve been learning a lot about the new rules as we go along. Now we’ve got all these people who are aware of how it’s going to impact them, so lets just work out those refinements. I made list of 11 refinement’s.

As one example of the UDO. The comprehensive plan says that street connectivity is a good thing. It’s a good planning principle. The UDO says that whenever there’s an opportunity to connect a street, we’ll always do it. Except for the planning director can use his judgment. But city council cannot use their judgment in that decision. We’ve had a number of cases this past year where it’s been clear that a one-size-fits-all rule to connect is not the most thoughtful approach. So in April I brought forward a text change to give council the authority over these street connections.

There was a lot of resistance from staff. The development community loved it because they can work in a negotiating setting. The neighbors loved it because they can have access to their elected representatives in these decisions. But staff is concerned that a council packed with NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) neighbors is going to influence decisions in a way that is not good long term for the city. But the people who are elected by the citizens should have the ability to listen to their constituents. And the staff.

So we should think about it in a subtler way. For instance, What I’ve been telling my fellow councilman is that we can do both connectivity and less vehicular impact. Instead of making them street connections, let’s make them bicycle and pedestrian connections. Our comprehensive plan says that we want to grow in ways that are less car-dependent. If we want to make it more convenient and safe for people to take care of more of their daily activities without getting into their car, let’s make more ways to do that.

The simplest and fundamental way of thinking about this new zoning code is that it’s planning for people and not cars. We’re going to design the city for people first, not cars.

6. What is the best and what is the worst decision made by city council over the past two years, and why?

The worst mistake is related to the citywide remapping. City Council is near to making the most cart-before-the-horse decision I’ve seen in years. The city’s current draft UDO proposal aims to up-zone downtown land en masse without an adopted vision or implementation plan for downtown, or any exchange of value for community benefits (like affordable housing). This proposal will also eliminate all public input for any future project that stays below the proposed height caps. This approach will encourage expedient builders not to go taller than the cap and lead downtown to another building boom like the one we created on Capital Boulevard

All across the city this remapping has been done so that existing entitlement on the land aligns as closely as possible in the new zoning district to give individuals the same development rights that they had before. It’s a one-to-one remapping. But downtown, staff decided that we really need to boost economic development so lets up-zone all of downtown.

The draft map sort of wedding cake steps down in terms of stories from Fayetteville Street and out. This gives builders the right to build whatever they want. There will be no public involvement. As long as they stay within that height, the public will have no involvement ever again. And likewise we aren’t asking for anything in return but that general term “economic development” and a new tax base.

That all sounds great but that’s exactly the mindset we had when we gave away shopping center zoning to anyone who wanted it along Capital Boulevard. At the time we thought it was a great opportunity to capture this retail tax base, we’ll get economic development, it’s going to be wonderful. So we gave away those zoning entitlements without any vision of what we wanted to get in return other than this mysterious economic development and a retail tax base. Obviously what we’ve gotten for our money is a big long-term problem. Its highly congested, pedestrian-hostile. There’s giant parking lots and lots of stormwater runoff and pollution. People get killed trying to walk across. And it’s going to be very expensive to try to retrofit it to make it better over time.

Contrast that with the livable streets project back in 2003 and 2005. We had a very strong vision of what we wanted to do to revitalize downtown. All the incentives and grants and investments we made were all focused on a clear vision to get something done that brought lots of diverse stakeholders together. Everybody got behind it and its been a tremendous success.

I will say that I made a motion last Tuesday to approve our new downtown plan, which is an incredible document. We hired Sasaki and Associates, and they’ve spent a year and a half talking to downtown stakeholders about what the vision of the downtown should be over the next 10 years. And they have come up with a great plan. But it was just sitting there in draft form as staff was bringing forward this remapping.

This up-zoning of downtown is the most consequential thing we’ll be doing to change the landscape of downtown for the next 20 years. And we’re getting ready to do it without any target to shoot at. We have to take that next step from the vision of livable streets in the core of downtown to all of downtown. This Sasaki plan is great. It talks about enhancing our green spaces, environmental remediation, historic preservation. It talks about affordable housing, why we should be doing and where, and how we should be financing it. That plan is sitting out there in draft form and staff is racing forward to approve heights. I’ll call it a height giveaway.

There’s no target and no vision. We’ve got to put vision before action. Unless you want to end up with Capital Boulevard. The big question still remains: are we going to be thoughtful about this and actually going to use this newly adopted plan as we make decisions about these heights.

The best decision is Dix Park! That’s an easy one, and I give 90percent percent% of the credit to Nancy McFarlane. The person she is made it possible for her to deal with some really difficult people and difficult circumstances. It’s an amazingly difficult process to even have an adult conversation with some of them, and she did it. The force of her character and will really made it happen.

We’d go into these closed sessions to talk about these crazy proposals put forward by the legislators. There would be some counselors who would just go ballistic about it. But Nancy was all about no drama. Obviously there’s going to be a big consensus building about it. But my first thought is to all take a big step back and start framing questions about what we’re trying to achieve and coming up with a shared vision. We’ve got a world class park planner involved. Someone who can holistically understand the hydrology and geography and the human element. This is a once-in-a-life time opportunity.

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