Midtown Raleigh resident Larry Helfant shares his insights and concerns about deficiencies in Raleigh’s planning for growth.
The recently announced phase of the North Hills expansion (Z-67-21) will result in a further degradation of neighborhood quality to the people that live and work in North Raleigh (Midtown). This area has struggled with rapid growth for the last ten years without any significant expenditure on roadway infrastructure.
The area between North Hills and Wake Forest Road has seen and will continue to see explosive growth. While some like the retail improvements to the area, they come at a high cost. Homes values have increased, but so has traffic, both on main transportation corridors and neighborhood streets. The only noticeable City Council effort to relieve some of the traffic and congestion is the Six Forks Roadway Improvement project, which has been in the planning stages for years.
Finally, after years of exhaustive complaints over lack of infrastructure planning, residents and City planning staff crafted the Midtown Saint Albans Area Plan (MSA). It includes road improvements and suggested zoning changes along major corridors. One of the amendments in that plan was to increase density by raising the building heights to 20 stories in North Hills from the current limit of 12 stories. While increased density was expected in the future, it was balanced in the MSA plan by transportation planning for roadway improvements with supporting infrastructure spending. That plan took three years to develop with a massive amount of citizen input. So you can imagine the current shock to the community when further expansion of North Hills was requested (Z-67-21), which included multiple 40 story buildings along Six Forks Road, an internal 30 story building, and a 12 story building along Rowan Street, a narrow neighborhood roadway. If you look further, you will see that Fire house 9, at the corner of Rowan and Six Forks will have a 12 story structure next to and behind it, across from a private school and private residences. Patrick Buffkin, the councilor who represents the area, was recently quoted in the media stating Raleigh’s rezoning process is broken. One of the ways this manifests itself is by ignoring the policy prescriptions of Small Area Plans that were developed with sizable citizen input, reviewed by the Planning Commission and approved by City Council.
Of special note – at the Dec 7, 2021 meeting, The City Manager reported that the Midtown Small Area Plan was awarded the “Best Specialized Plan in Transportation” from the NC American Planning Association. Will City Council adhere to the recommendations of this award-winning plan?
REZONING REQUEST DEFICIENCIES
The rezoning does not include any tiered transitional building heights and no road set backs. Besides the obvious traffic impact on a small subdivision road, sight lines for traffic and pedestrians entering Six Forks Road will be severely limited. The fire service that will be utilized in the event of a high-rise emergency will have limited options for fire station expandability and capability due to buildings on two sides of their site. There is already so much growth in this area that the Midtown area was removed from Raleigh’s Economic Opportunity zone map, where the city specifies areas which should receive more attention for development. The North Hills mall area to Wake Forest road via Saint Albans road is now saturated, with Midtown Exchange and Midtown Innovation center yet to be built out. This has already prompted a traffic calming project on Hardimont road, another neighborhood street that connects Saint Albans to Wake Forest road.
There aren’t any allowances for affordable housing in this area and there aren’t any transit improvements. Both of these items were recommendations in the Midtown Saint Albans Area Plan. Those working in retail outlets and service industries will not be able to afford the additional housing being offered at this site. Removing parking lots and open space in the North Hills area also removes any possibility of a transfer station for future bus rapid transit access at this location. Although the City staff is working on policies for affordable housing on transportation corridors, no such affordable housing is being planned for the North Hills area.
While the Midtown plan does have policies that encourage the provision of affordable housing for buildings greater than 7 stories, no developer has followed this guidance to date. Need I say more? In all of the discussions for the Six Forks plan, area residents didn’t support twenty stories. Now they may have to contend with increased density and 30 and 40 story structures. This area is not downtown and it hasn’t had any roadway infrastructure spending for at least ten years.
To make matters worse, while Midtown is experiencing phenomenal growth with density, there are three pending rezoning projects which will replace 1000 existing affordable housing units with new development. While there may be future affordable housing, none of the developers have committed to it to date.
‘F’ TRAFFIC RATING
By the way – Six Forks Road and some side streets will be revised and expanded from Rowan to Lynn Road. The original plan included revisions from the beltline to Lynn. The funding for that stretch of roadway improvement from the beltline to Rowan was removed from the budget in the latest revision. The level of service for the highway in this area before was “F” and estimates are that it will still be “F,” especially with the addition of more density to the area without roadway improvements!
Everyone recognizes the need for more density citywide, particularly along major transportation corridors. Why is it so hard for the City Council to plan for increased traffic in concert with rezoning? The North Hills rezoning will require a new TIA (Traffic Impact Analysis), but it will not take in all of the extra congestion on neighborhood streets or cut-through traffic that will clog roadways and endanger residents as drivers seek alternate routes of travel. While there may be significant improvements in walkability and bike travel in the area, the added traffic improvements from the additional lanes planned for Six Forks will not be completed in time to impact the added density from execution and completion of both phases of the North Hills expansion.
To date, no money has been budgeted in the current capital improvement budget to implement the infrastructure improvements outlined in the Midtown Saint Albans Area Plan adopted in May 2020! Yet rezoning for added density continues to be approved by City Council in this same time period.