City Council At Large: Russ Stephenson

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Russ Stephenson

Russ Stephenson
District: At Large
Age: 57
Occupation: Architect and urban designer
Incumbent: Yes, 8 years
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Why should your constituents re-elect you?

I think Raleigh has had great success over the past 10 or 12 years probably, in rising to the top of the national rankings. And that kind of success doesn’t happen by accident, but by a concerted effort on many fronts to set goals for that success. And so, I think we’ve done a great job, serving the eight years I’ve been on there. I’ve been a strong advocate for high-quality services that are affordable, that attract high-paying jobs.

Of course, along with that comes growth, so the concern there is that the growth is the kind that protects the quality of life for people who are already here. So that includes the environment, the infrastructure, the tax rates. So it’s been exciting for me as an architect and urban designer. One of the ideas we studied in school—something that later on became called sustainable design—our market is really taking them to heart. So it’s great to see the kind of growth and development we are getting here.

We spent a couple of years—2007 to 2009—working on this comprehensive plan which is, this document right here, the community’s consensus vision on how we want to grow in ways that are more compact, walkable, less far flung, expensive to build and maintain infrastructure. And then, that was adopted in 2009. In the last two years, we spent working on, the actual, now we’ve spent working on the Unified Development Ordinance. Those are all the regulations that implement the vision for that kind of pattern of development. This is where we want to go and how we want to get there and how we think that will keep us healthy and competitive as a city in a lot of ways. It’s been exciting to be there, to be part of that.

Most exciting is the fact that the market has really embraced the concepts we are talking about. This idea of LEED buildings that are more energy efficient, ideas that the life cycle of a city facility, if you build it in ways that are energy efficient and with durable materials, you can save a lot of money.

Many issues taken up by the state legislature have a direct impact on Raleigh. How can Councilors work better with the state legislature on those issues?

Well, it’s very simple. The cities are the engines of job creation and innovation in this state and to the extent we can clearly deliver that message to the legislature and they can understand that we’re the people who are making happen what they say they want to do then we’ll get along great. As it is, they take actions that you wonder. Of course, they have a broader mission to serve all the rural areas as well, so that’s a difficult thing for them to do. But and in some ways with the new mobility fund there’s a better understanding how resources need to be allocated to enhance economic development in urban areas.

At one point, in Senate Bill 998, they were going to remove like $19.5 million from City of Raleigh revenue sources. It’s great to say you should economize, but the reality is that Raleigh has the next-to-lowest combined cost of taxes and service fees in the whole state of North Carolina. You know we are running lean and mean as it is, and to say you are going to take almost $20 million out of a $700 million budget without losing quality of service that’s going to impact the quality of life that’s going to impact our ability to attract the best jobs and companies. But fortunately in the final bill, they pretty much said, “Okay, we realize this is not the right solution in the end.” There needs to good cooperation.

Raleigh continues to grow at a good pace, which affects everything from our water quantity to our infrastructure. How do you feel Raleigh can become more proactive about managing that projected growth?

The beautiful answer there is that we don’t have to cast around for what we ought to do. We’ve got a great comprehensive plan vision. We’ve got potentially great, but as yet, not quite tested new zoning ordinances to implement that vision. But the vision is a strong one and it is one that is being proven daily in the marketplace. That this ideas of the triple bottom line, where you look for growth and development patterns that support economic development, environmental stewardship, and social equity as the ways to bring it all together as shared prosperity for the whole city.

And transit is the perfect example of all three of those. Fewer cars means less pollution, less far-flung development. It also means, with transit and buses, more affordable mobility for people like the working classes who spend 50 percent or more on housing and transportation. This creates new opportunities for them to get around, new ways that consume less of their money and gas and insurance and car repairs. The marketplace seems to really love it.

The neighborhoods around Cameron Village want to have a vibrant retail center. Yes, everybody wants that. And they understand that going vertical, mixed-use is the way to achieve that. But they also understand that we’re not interesting in doing the suburban solution of the past, which was to keep widening roads to accommodate cars. And so the solution has been to try to promote the walkability so we can change the rules to make it easier to put in sidewalks.

What do you think are the best and worst decisions made by the Council these last two years?

I guess the best decision was an easy one and that was to say, “Yes, let’s negotiate a lease with the previous administration on Dix Park.” That hasn’t played out exactly the way we expected it to, but I continue to be hopefully that thoughtful people, mainly the mayor and the governor, are going to continue to say, “Yes, we understand that this is really important for all of us.” The decision, if we can see it through; which is going to have the longest-term economic development and quality of life benefits for out whole region in our generation. That’s how big it can be.

The worst. We haven’t really made any bad decisions.

In the transportation bond, I was a little bit disappointed that the bus improvements that we had talked about previously, and the staff had actually produced our first [Bus Rapid Transit], our first sort of semi-transit plan. Bus lines are sort of so mobile that people don’t want to make private investments along those lines too much thinking that the line could change. BRT has more substantial stations; they are sort of elevated, all the ticketing happens inside the shelter. I was hoping that we would go forward with this as sort of our first bite-sized demonstration transit plan.

So I’m a little disappointed that we took a step back from that in the near term, but I guess I’m still hopeful that we will be able to convince the County Commissioners to let us vote on, have sales tax referendum next year.

Raleigh voters will decide whether to approve bonds for a transportation plan. Do you support the bond? If so, what would be your priorities?

It really focuses on catching up on some major road repair and improvement needs that have been delayed since the recession in 2008 and 2009. There was considerable debate about, well there’s a long list of needs. Where do you draw the line and say, “We’re going to try to go ahead and get these now?” So we drew the line at $75 million because we didn’t want our referendum to really confuse the school bond referendum, which is obviously an $800, $900 million price tag. But it was a good discussion. As you can imagine, there’s got to be a geographic distribution. One part of town doesn’t get all the improvements. I think generally everyone—and of course because I’m at-large, I don’t play favorites anyway. I’m all for making sure everyone feels like they’ve gotten a fair shake.

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