Politics and Growth in a 21st Century City

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In the 10 years Charles Meeker has served as mayor of Raleigh, its population has grown by 46 percent.

“The city is a very different place than it was 10 years ago,” said Meeker, who steps down this year. “We’ve had lots of development in suburban areas; we’ve had two major bond issues to increase greenways and develop downtown. The amount of growth was not anticipated 10 years ago.”

As a result of that surprise growth, Meeker said, Raleigh residents have gained more housing, employment and entertainment options. On the downside, growth has placed added demands on the city’s infrastructure, particularly on roads carrying swelling volumes of traffic.

Meeker said, however, that he didn’t see growth as an issue in the upcoming election. Instead, he said, the economy will play a dominant role. The three candidates to succeed Meeker — City Councilor Nancy McFarlane, Billie Redmond and Dr. Randall Williams — say there’s no way to separate the two.

“Growth can be a good thing,” McFarlane said. “It’s all how we manage it and plan for it. It’s tied into jobs; it’s tied into increasing our tax base. Good planning is what makes all possible — I think it’s going to be key.”

The candidates all say they’re also aware of the challenge Raleigh’s projected growth poses to city roads, green space and established neighborhoods. According to the city’s comprehensive plan, population will surge from the current 390,000 to 600,000 residents by 2030.

If Raleigh plans well for growth, Raleigh Chief Planning and Economic Development Officer Mitch Silver believes the city can handle the 2030 population.

“We can certainly absorb that over a period of time,” Silver said. “We have maintained a historical 3-percent growth rate since the city was founded.”

The city’s comprehensive plan is the key to managing growth, Silver said. “We want to make sure that as we grow, we can support that growth with infrastructure and not overwhelm taxpayers.”

To do that, Silver said, the plan concentrates development into a number of growth centers and corridors that already have the roads and other infrastructure to handle greater population density. Higher density linked with a good transit plan, he said, will make it easier for people to travel around without their cars, which will reduce traffic.

The city’s future landuse map, developed with the 2030 Comprehensive Plan, spells out the acceptable density in greater detail. City councilors turned down four out of the 13 rezoning requests last year. Three of the four would have rezoned low-density residential areas into retail.

City officials are working on a new zoning code, but pushed a scheduled July public hearing back to this fall, which will delay its until next year.

To cope with new development’s demands on city services, Raleigh levies road and park impact fees. Road fees range from $347 per 1,000 square feet of mini-warehouse to $4,954 per hole for a golf-course.

The fees are among the lowest in North Carolina, but the mayoral candidates say increasing them in an economic slump might be a mistake.

“When you get people in those houses or apartments long-term the great impact is they increase your tax base,” Williams said. “I think you have to take that into consideration.”

“Back in the height of our economy, it was a different conversation to have,” Redmond said.

“Today, it’s almost like tying one hand behind your back and asking you to go to work.”

All three candidates agree city officials have worked hard to plan for growth rather than just reacting to it. However, Williams said he wants to see more of a “private sector with government facilitation approach” instead of a centralized, government approach. Williams added that by promoting redevelopment, the city government can help preserve Raleigh’s greenspace and natural habitat as the population grows.

Redmond said when some people talk of balanced growth, they mean “make it careful, make it slow, we’re after perfection.”

In today’s economy, she said, that’s a faulty strategy. She said balanced growth should mean “make it brilliant, make it positive.”

For Raleigh to keep growing and continue winning Best City rankings, Redmond added, the city will have to make sure that growth doesn’t hurt the quality of life. To do that, the city will have to continue to invest in infrastructure to keep up.

McFarlane said planning for transit is essential to handle the population influx without overburdening the city roads — greater density and alternative forms of transportation will make it possible for more residents to dispense with cars if they wish.

“I remember going out on [Interstate] 40 and there was no traffic,” said McFarlane, who has lived in Raleigh for 28 years. “Obviously we’ve seen a huge increase.”

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