When Vic Lebsock began working for the city, there were only 22 miles of paths for walkers and bicyclists to enjoy. Now, 25 years later, the city boasts more than 100 miles of greenway trail, one of reasons cited when Raleigh is named to “best of” lists.
Lebsock is retiring; his last day of work was last Friday. Before he left, we spoke to him about his work, what it means to Raleigh and what it has meant to him. Below is a transcription of our conversation. Editor’s Note: Some answers were shortened for better flow.
Record: When was your first day?
Mr. Lebsock: January of 1989.
Are you off to do something else or is this real retirement?
This is real retirement. The hope is to do some part-time work similar to do what I’m doing now, but not anything full time.
So 25 years of greenways. What has stood out the most in that time?
You know, in 25 years what I remember the most are the people that I’ve worked with, the people I’ve encountered, relationships I’ve made or maybe sometimes relationships that I haven’t made, but — being a public servant, sometimes people aren’t necessarily happy with everything I do. But it’s the people that I remember.
There are some significant projects that have occurred in that time and most of them within the last five years. Completion of the Neuse River Trail has been a significant milestone. The soon-to-be completed Crabtree Creek trail all the way across the city, too, all of those are significant projects. Like a lot of projects, or a lot of positions that you stay in for this long, 25 years, it’s just the persistence of doing what you’ve done, staying on the course, getting up everyday, coming to work, and sometimes at the end of the day you feel like you haven’t accomplished anything, but you look back over 25 years, you’ve accomplished a lot.
According to the city’s website, greenway projects first began in 1974 and now we have 100 miles of trails.
And when I started we had 20-some miles.
Was it ever in your vision that we’d reach 100?
No. I mean obviously, the goal is to build more and more, but there was never a goal to reach a certain plateau or a certain level. And I tell the public, too, what’s important to me, is that I’m a planner that is interested first and foremost in protecting the land [on] that the greenway, the trails, will ultimately reside. But as human beings we need just that green space as much as we need the trails.
Is there anything you wish you could do that you’re not going to finish?
Actually, this is the right time to retire for me. I feel like reaching that 100-mile plateau, completing the Neuse River, completing the connections across the city, really has completed a system that is at a good point. There are places to go that I would never be able to achieve anyway. If I stuck around another 15 years I probably wouldn’t accomplish it.
What needs to happen now, it’s time for me to leave, because there’s a newer generation that have fresher ideas, that has greater knowledge of the modern world than I do. I don’t work in the social media area. I am not that familiar with computers and apps and all of that. I think there are places that the greenway system that will go that maybe aren’t going to depend on it, but that are going to be enhanced because that’s available now. So it’s time for me to move on and let somebody else that has familiarity, excited to deal in that media or in that environment, get on with it.
Were there ever other goals, in terms of trying to make connections or put greenways in certain areas?
I think this is a way to describe that: In the early years of my career here, the objective was to deliver a greenway trail to a community or to a neighborhood. There was never — we have a system plan, but there was never a desire to put it together. It was more delivery of service to residents all over the city. So what our intent was, we looked around and said where do we miss delivering some aspect or some access for folks to get on the greenway trail? Probably the mid to late 1990s, philosophically we changed. At that point, we looked at the greenway system from the perspective of, now we’ve got all these pieces, now let’s start tying them together. That’s when it was important to move forward with tying it together.
It was Mayor Meeker as much as anybody that saw the vision of the Neuse River Trail the entire length all the way to Johnston County. We had proposed, I had proposed including it in the funding that we were seeking at that point and getting it to Poole Road or the southern end of the city and he’s the one that pushed it beyond that. There have been folks all along the way that have been the political or the advocates that have helped me do my job. I implement; they’re the ones that know how to navigate through politics, through maybe through some of the difficulties, the objections, better than I do.
In terms of the projects, or a project that’s always difficult, I think one and it’s still not quite done, and that’s the one on Crabtree Creek that would connect across the quarry site into Umstead. We have the land, we have the lease now. Its just a matter of doing it at this point. And that will happen. In fact in the last days here, I’m working hard to try to get an engineer on board to get started with the design of that. That will be the last thing I do with the city is get that started and then somebody else will carry it through to get it completed.
Was that one of the longest ones because it was held up so long?
No, actually it’s not. It was held up — I started working on that, or thinking about it in 1991. I tell folks when I’m out in the public that as a planner in this program, you can’t think about just next year. You’ve got to think about 20 years down the road. Other examples of that, in the early ‘90s we worked with NCDOT to make sure we’ve got tunnels put under 540 that then was built 10 and 15 years later that now we’re just connecting to, to get under 540. There are barriers and future barriers that will come. And frankly that’s been the biggest problem when we changed philosophically from pieces delivery to connecting the system, is you immediately begin to recognize barriers in the way that was going to make it difficult to complete the system. Whether it was the Beltline, 440 or 540 or whether it was a river and stream that had significant cost to cross it or you know, all of those are factors, a railroad that’s in the way and you have to figure out some way to get through, under, over, around. In the early years of the greenway system, not only was it a delivery of greenway to residents, it frankly was the low fruit on the tree. It costs a lot of money today because now we are doing those connections that involve bridges over 440 or suspension bridges over the Neuse River or any of those.
A little while ago you mentioned some of the barriers and you talked about physical ones, but then you mentioned objections. Do you find a lot of objections from people who don’t want greenways?
Yes, there are objections. But I can tell you that, again, in 25 years, that those have become less strident. And I think it’s because it is a network now and a good share of residents, users, recognize the value and the importance of that in the city, so it becomes — and they also recognize when done well, there really aren’t, those are perceived objections rather than real. The perceived objections always are, nearly always are related to increased crime, drop in property values. Just invasion of my privacy. Those are the objections we used to hear continually all the time. but today those are far less because we can demonstrate that doesn’t happen. Property values actually increase. There’s neither an increase or decrease in crime that occurs with a greenway, as opposed to what’s on the street on the other side of the house. So those are — we still have to explain that. We still have to work with a few residents when we’re planning and trying to move forward. but they’re not nearly as strident as 25 years ago.
You said people are starting to recognize the value of a greenway to a city. In your mind, what is that value? Why do cities need greenways?
Benefits of a greenway. That’s what you’re asking for. First of all the benefit is environmental. We’re protecting the land, the water, the vegetation and protecting that land. As I said first of all, as a greenway planner, my first objective is to protect the land. The other benefit are those recreation values, or the quality of life for you as a user. I can leave my life in this office or wherever and spend some time in nature, spend some time with myself, or with friends, but usually in a much different environment, not usually, all the time in a much different environment. There are economic benefits to a greenway. Business community recognize the value. It is one of the factors that has raised the entire city of Raleigh to the level it has in terms of being one of the best cities to live in or to work in. Business CEOs cite the quality of life here as an attractive feature and the parks and greenways are an important part of that.
Do you have information about how many people use the greenways?
Actually we don’t. I wished we did. We did a very informal user count about a year ago and we found great variability in the number of users. We think, for example, in the Shelley Lake area, in that loop, we have somewhere in the range of half a million to three-quarters of a million users in a year. But at the same time, we did a count on, for example, on Walnut Creek, and the number of users were very low — although with the completion of this last section of Walnut Creek that has significantly changed, too. But that’s observed and not real data.
You talked about the barriers a little bit. Is that the biggest challenge in doing what you do?
Challenges. The physical barriers: the user, property owner barriers, which we’ve talked about, too. I think there is — it’s not another barrier per se, because I work with these folks a lot, but there’s — the utilities or the other agencies that share the same land with us and dealing with that coordinated activity, for example public utilities the next couple of years is going to be working on Crabtree Creek and much of the older section of it is going to be torn up. Those are not necessarily barriers, but trying to keep even with what they’re doing so that we can inform our public, umber one, and number two, ensure the most and the best coordinated activity we possibly can.
Anything I haven’t asked you about 25 years in greenways that I should be?
It has just been fun. It is my passion. I tell folks around here I’m the curmudgeon, but you shouldn’t write that down. There is .. you asked about barriers. There is another barrier or aspect we deal with, too, and that’s on the development end. When a developer comes to the city and does his, proposes a project, residential property we can request, we can get the greenway area needed for ultimately to build the greenway trails. Non-residential we can’t do that but we work with them to protect in some way the best we can the corridors that are the greenway corridors so we have this connectivity. And those developers and their attorneys and whatever — frankly, they’ve begun recognizing the value of the greenway to their overall development. And it’s certainly much easier to work with most of them today than it was 25 years ago. What I’ve really found is that if they’re local developers, local attorneys that we’ve dealt with, they recognize and usually it’s rubberstamped; they understand what we want. If they’re out of state, they may not have dealt with the significance of or the value and they sometimes are more reluctant to work with us. Whether it’s a barrier, it’s a hurdle to work through.
As Raleigh continues to grow, and more development comes with that, is that going to be a challenge for your successor?
Actually, probably less. We have ordinances in place now that protect against — it is probably less of a challenge today than it has been because we have ordinances in place that allow us to protect that land automatically. Up to 19 … just before I got here, we relied upon negotiated acquisition or donation or just however we could get the land to preserve the greenway corridors and ultimately build the trails. In 1987, the city adopted the facility fee which allowed for that automatic protection. So new development is easy.
The difficult area then becomes the older parts of the city, that have been previously developed, and you have to in many cases fit the greenway in. I think, well, you look at this map up here there are some corridors that still remain in older parts of the city that are going to be difficult to get a greenway trail built. For example, the Brentwood area. It’s older. The land was not necessarily preserved so fitting a greenway into that area at some point in the future is going ot be difficult. But by and large, we’ve already built the more difficult areas. In terms of land acquisition.
Looks pretty impressive now, 100 miles.
I think we have one of the more extensive greenway systems in the country. Particularly if you define greenway as trails that follow rivers, creeks, streams within the city. There are lots of cities that have developed a greenway system but they work within the street right of way most of the time. And to me, and this is a personal prejudice, I had to work harder to do that.
What new directions do you see for the greenway system?
New directions are going to be users that do want to use it for long distance, either commuting or traveling long distance for exercise.
Our system plan, our revised greenway master plan is looking at developing hierarchy, but different classifications of trails so that we can define the user type and then the trail type that would support the mixture of users that we foresee. Crabtree Creek, because it runs right across the city, we see that as being an important not just recreation but commuter trail. As a result, at some point we’ll probably look at rebuilding that with a wider greenway cross section.
Amenities. We started with pieces of greenway all across the city. Because they were pieces, serving local neighborhoods, we never even thought about restrooms. You talk about the public today are demanding restrooms, demanding water fountains, because now they spend a full day on a greenway, enjoying it however they enjoy it.
And the other thing that we’re missing that is going to come about is — in recreation you talk about programing. And on the greenway we’ve never done any programming per se. I see possibilities of more racing events. Can we do bicycle training? Can we do bicycle touring? Can we look at the visitor’s center, visitors bureau and develop a program that is supportive and adds to the experience of visitors to the city? Those are things we’re just — beginning to develop. The mindset of trying to be creative and think about what we can do, what we can’t do. Do we have the resources, or what are the resources to make it happen. Those are the new directions that the greenway is moving.
Any advice for whomever is next in this office?
There are not many more days for wisdom, so I’ve told everybody around here 25 cents for the easy ones, 50 cents for the juicy ones. Advice? My greatest advice is “just hang in there.” It’s a slow process. And I think I almost started this interview the same way, is one day at a time, you get up, come to work, do something and five, 10, 15 years down the road you’ll look back and see you accomplished something.