Councilors Discuss Merits of Mixed-Use Mandate

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The Unified Development Ordinance might discourage strip malls, but some Raleigh City Council members want a little more assurance

Raleigh City Councilors are in their fifth week of reviewing the UDO, the city’s new zoning code that will bring the 2030 Comprehensive Plan to life. The Comp Plan is the vision for the future of Raleigh and the UDO is the law that makes that vision happen.

Councilors have been reviewing the most-recent draft of the code in weekly, workshop-style meetings.

Stopping Sprawl
Like other growing cities, Raleigh experienced suburban sprawl. Suburban subdivisions began popping up on large swaths of undeveloped land. With them came strip malls and big-box shopping centers along the city’s main thoroughfares such as Capital Boulevard and Six Forks Road.

The Comp Plan envisions Raleigh becoming a pedestrian and transit-friendly community that would allow and encourage its residents to work and shop close to where they live.

Areas where people can live, work and shop are called mixed-use districts. For example, a mixed-use building could have ground floor retail, office or restaurant space, while the floors above contain apartments.

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North Hills is an example of mixed-use development.

The UDO encourages mixed-use development by, “removing the barriers that make it easier for mixed use to be achieved,” said senior city planner Travis Crane at the most recent UDO workshop.

The UDO is a form-based code, which means it regulates how the buildings relate to the surrounding environment and not how they are used.

Traditionally, zoning restricted and regulated the use of development projects. But, while the UDO encourages mixed-use, it doesn’t mandate it.

This seemed not to sit well this week some councilors, particularly Thomas Crowder. Crowder said he is concerned that without any regulation, the city could find itself with more strip retail.

“I don’t think the citizens of Raleigh want to see that happen,” he said.

Planning Director Mitch Silver said it’s hard to mandate mixed use because often there are multiple developers working on different uses for a particular project. The market also tends to adjust itself, he said.

Councilor Russ Stephenson asked if there are opportunities to create incentives for mixed-use developments that are sustainable, compact and more walkable.

Silver said that the market is changing and heading toward that kind of development and developers are looking to build mixed-use projects without any incentives.

“I think the market is the incentive,” he said.

Market trends have dictated the city’s code in the past.

“To say we’re going to let the market determine this, I think is a major mistake,” Crowder said.

Deputy Planning Director Ken Bowers said there are no vacant tracts of land that would be appropriate for this kind of development.

“We’re not talking about corridors going through virgin land. That train left the station many years ago,” he said, referencing the car-friendly development of Raleigh’s past.

It would likely be seen as redevelopment into new uses.

Transit in the Mix
Meanwhile, the future of transit in Raleigh is uncertain, despite assumptions in the Comprehensive Plan that enhanced bus service, commuter rail and light rail are coming.

As Mayor Nancy McFarlane pointed out, “The Comp Plan is based around a transit system that we don’t have yet.”

Mixed-use development often happens around transit centers. Even now, some developers are planning Raleigh projects around future transit.

The building for the new Citrix office downtown was chosen due in part to its proximity to a proposed light rail stop. The parking deck for the adjacent office building will have ground floor retail.

Silver said once the transit infrastructure is developed, the buildings around it will see more redevelopment. As seen in Charlotte, he said, the two-story buildings will be torn down and replaced with taller projects because the land value has increased.

But without something in place, Crowder said that developers won’t create the walkable environment city staff seek.

Thus, transit and development find themselves in a chicken-or-the-egg scenario.

Going Forward
This week, councilors decided to hold off on making changes until they see the case studies planning staff have prepared.

While the case studies won’t directly address the issue of promoting mixed-use development, it will give the councilors a broader look as to how the UDO will fall into place.

The case studies will be presented after a review of the UDO’s Chapter 7. The council began working on Chapter 4 during the last meeting, but didn’t finish.

UDO workshops are held on Mondays at 4 p.m. in the City Council chambers at 222 W. Hargett St.


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