All eyes in Raleigh are on Dix Hill, our topic a week ago, and the question of how much of it to save as a great urban park. But meanwhile, what of Kidd’s Hill, which merits its own memorial to the man who, more than any other, paved the way to our rich history of sprawl and misplaced development.
That man would be Kidd Brewer, and I only wish I’d known him when. He was a politicianan aide to two U.S. senatorswho made his fortune buying the land where future roads would go. Nothing novel there, of course. But when, in 1963, he was sentenced to 18 months in state prison for bid-rigging, Brewer responded with a gala “going-in party” at his fabulous house high above Crabtree Creek, to which everyone who was anyone in the Cap City was invited. And when he got out four months later (what’s a little bid-rigging among friends?) and was asked about his future plans, he replied, “I’m going to peddle influence.”
Earlier, Brewer’d made his mark as an athlete at Duke and as the football coach at Appalachian State, where the stadium still bears his name. (His ’37 team was unbeaten and unscored upon.) But his greatest claim to fame came in Raleigh, where in the mid-’50s he bought 115 acres of land outside of town near the intersection of U.S. 70 and the forthcoming Raleigh Beltline.
Where others saw a floodplain, Brewer saw a shopping center, and soon Raleigh rewarded him with its biggest shopping mall by far (at the time, it was the biggest between Atlanta and Washington) smack dab in the middle of where it floods every time there’s a good rain. (Still floods there, in fact, which is kind of funny unless it’s your car they’re dragging out of it on the news.)
While Raleigh shoppers slopped below, though, Brewer took care to preserve Kidd’s Hill for himself, tucking his house in under the ridgeline 120 feet up, near what’s now Blue Ridge Road. The house was a thoroughly modern affair, complete with connecting indoor and outdoor swimming pools. When I moved to Raleigh 20 years ago, it had been turned into a quite nice restaurant, which from its back deck offered a glorious view of floodplain management done wrong.
But that kind of negative thinking is perhaps why Brewer named the house “Belle Acres”and among family and friends liked to call it “Belly Achers.”
Turn the clock ahead to 2006. Belle Acres has burned to the ground. Raleigh is busy up-zoning the land all around Crabtree Valley to allow 42-story buildings, or whatever. (Did I read that the Soleil Center has sold zero units? Gee, there’s an upset.)
And so naturally, some developers have latched onto the 24 acres that remain of Kidd’s Hill, and they propose to buildwell, whatever. A big parking deck, a hotel maybe, stores, condos; you know, they want one of those Raleigh PDDs (“planned development districts”), where you just make up your own zoning, and the word “planned” is there for laughs.
All of which would be neither here nor there in the story of Raleigh’s comprehensive plan gone wild, except that instead of erecting a monument to Kidd Brewer at the top of his hill so that everyone who’s anyone in the Cap City of tomorrow could honor him, these guysthey’re from Atlantawant to tear Kidd’s Hill down.
That’s right. It’d be too hard to build on the existing slope, they argue. So their “plan”self-described as “the judicious use of landscaping”is to take 50 feet off the top and flatten it out.
Not just no Kidd monument, in other words. No Kidd’s Hill, either. Can they do that? Well, it is Raleigh, so the official Raleigh Planning Commission (motto: “We don’t need no stinkin’ planning”) said sure, albeit by a 7-3 vote.
But the Capital Group Sierra Club and the Neuse River Foundation are fighting back. “Removal of approximately 50 feet off the top of Kidd’s Hill is comparable on a smaller scale to the mountaintop removal associated with coal mining,” the two groups complained.
Tim Reed, the Sierra group’s conservation co-chair, even had the bad formfor Raleighto read the city’s small-area plan for Crabtree, which calls for maintaining the hillsides and preserving the trees. “Not grad[ing] down for incongruous, large-footprinted buildings,” Reed sniffs.
Adds Dean Naujoks, the Upper Neuse River-keeper: “The extensive grading, tree removal and plans for parking lots in the floodplain [at the bottom of the hill] will all contribute to existing stormwater runoff, erosion and water pollution problems.”
Next stop for the so-called “Crabtree Village” PDD proposal is the City Council’s Comprehensive Plan Committee, where Councilor Thomas Crowder, the chair, hopes the developers can be persuaded to find a more “environmentally sensitive” way of building.
If not, will the full council turn them down?
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Crowder says.
Crowder points to places like Denver and Vancouver, where developers have used the natural hillsides to advantage instead of leveling them, and he wonders why Raleigh should settle for less. “Raleigh used to develop with the land, instead of trying to dominate it,” Crowder recalls. “Now, though, developers want to sculpt the land to make it work for them, rather than their working with it.
“And then people wonder why we have flooding and water-quality problems?” he adds.
Crowder remembers that Belle Acres featured a zip-line from the house down to Crabtree Creek, He suggested that whatever’s built now could include some sort of cable ride, too.
But it won’t be much of a ride if there’s no Kidd’s Hill.
Contact Citizen at email@example.com. Credit to Charlotte Observer columnist Jack Betts for a lot of the Kidd Brewer lore.