So you think you know how to do “smart growth”? OK, you’re in charge. What’s the right plan for the land around the Entertainment and Sports Arena in West Raleigh? By the way, the decisions you make will be very important to the Wake County school system, which could use some “smart” thinking to get its $500 million bond issue passed. When you’re finished, please talk with the members of the state’s Legislative Commission on Smart Growth, which thus far has reached just one conclusion: It needs all the help it can get.

First, West Raleigh. The land surrounding the arena, which includes the State Fairgrounds, is mostly wide-open spaces, but it’s starting to fill up fast–apartments here, a new office complex there–and without much thought. Belatedly, the city is devising what’s called a small-area plan, and every two weeks or so people are getting together with Raleigh’s planning officials to talk about what they want there and what they don’t want.

A handful of people whose families go way back to when West Raleigh was out in the country “really resent the fact,” as Ann Allred put it, “that the land around us is being, literally, raped.” Others, relative newcomers like Janet Cowell, think there’s still time for citizens to shape the inevitable development of the area so that its remaining woods, streams and meadows are preserved.

That remains to be seen.

So far, what’s shaped the area is a series of ad hoc decisions by state and city officials to locate the arena, the N.C. Museum of Art and the Rex Hospital complex there, close by the Beltline and I-40, rather than in downtown Raleigh. Now, one arm of the state, N.C. State University, is selling a 159-acre tract of virgin land close by the arena while another, the State Fair, part of the Department of Agriculture, is looking for a way to use the 144-acre tract it owns behind the fairgrounds for more parking.

Oddly, the fair’s property is zoned for industrial use, a vestige of another era, according to city planner James Brantley. But that designation is a fiction that only serves to remind the participants that, while they can “plan” for the area, its actual zoning–the thing that will decide what’s allowed and what isn’t–is not under their control. The city only zones land for real–by “rezoning” it–in response to a request from its owners. It does not do so just because everyone else in town wants it zoned for, say, one-acre houses.

This is consistent with hoary state laws that exalt property rights and limit the ability of a community to say what should happen on somebody else’s acreage. Meanwhile, “smart growth,” as Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, says, remains just an idea in North Carolina, and is a long way from becoming a set of policies that would help community leaders direct, or even influence, a land developer’s decisions.

Hackney is co-chair of the legislative study commission, which last week hosted folks from Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey and other places where smart-growth initiatives have made more headway. Their message: Growth follows the money. State and local officials can steer development by spending money where they want development to go (“incentives”) and by sending a bill to those who build elsewhere (“impact fees”). It’s not a complicated formula.

But as Mike Carpenter, a commission member representing the state’s homebuilding interests warned, it’s “very controversial” with developers. And a lot of rural communities see it as a way for the cities to steal funding from them. So even a modest bill, like the one that would have required builders to elevate new construction two feet aboveground in a floodplain, could not pass the General Assembly this year until it was amended so as to be virtually useless.

The upshot of this for West Raleigh is that the residents can’t tell developers what to do, nor can they count on state officials to back up a smart-growth plan with any money. Their only hope is to put a plan on paper so good that no developer, and no city council, will dare ignore it when the next strip shopping center plan comes along.

What kind of plan would that be? Members of the small-area planning group have noted four critical elements. One, as Charles Bachmann suggests, is that the fairgrounds area be the centerpiece of a major park and recreational center. The State Fair wants extra parking for just 10 days a year. The rest of the time, its land can be ball fields or picnic grounds. Second, Richland Creek and its tributary streams should be protected by much wider buffers than the 50-foot strip required by state law (the Neuse River watershed regulations).

Jean Spooner, head of the Umstead Coalition, says that if Raleigh would adopt an ordinance against building on fill dirt in a flood plain, that alone would protect a lot of the area’s woodlands.

The third element is the city’s greenway system, a small part of which is already in place along Richland Creek. When it’s finished, greenways could connect the area–via Umstead State Park–to the planned Cary greenway system and, from there, to Research Triangle Park. In other words, you could ride a bike to work in RTP if you lived there. Fourth, the Triangle Transit Authority is planning not one but two commuter rail stations to flank the fairgrounds. So you could catch a train to RTP, instead, or ride to work at Duke or N.C. State.

The transit stations mean that lots of people can live in the area without necessarily adding to the road congestion. And here’s where the schools come in. Still smarting from the beating it took at the polls two years ago, the Wake school system is coming back to the voters with a smaller bond issue, $500 million instead of $650 million, that will be on the ballot in November. The difference is coming out of the older schools in the system, mainly inside the Raleigh beltline, that urgently needed renovation in 1998 but now, apparently, don’t.

The new, smaller bond issue will pay for 14 new schools the fast-growing system desperately needs, all of them in the western and northern parts of the county. Only 25 of the system’s older schools, down from 58 two years ago, are in line for improvements.

Where this really cuts is at the school system’s effort to maintain racial diversity–now officially cloaked as economic diversity–within each school. The new schools are targeted for areas that are affluent and mainly white. Many of the older schools are in black or integrated neighborhoods. To attract white (upper-income) students to them, they’ve been designated magnet schools, with special programs and some extra operating money.

But as parents told Wake Schools Superintendent Bill McNeal at a public forum last week, the magnets’ dilapidated facilities are no match for the new buildings the system’s putting up, and top students increasingly are choosing the latter. One, Charles Putterman, said stuff from the ceiling of Ligon Middle School’s orchestra room is falling on his youngest child’s head today just as it did when he sent his oldest child there 12 years ago. “The school is in a sad state of repair, there’s no question about that,” Putterman pleaded.

Other parents, though, were complaining about the suggestion made at a school board meeting by Wake’s director of magnet programs, Caroline Massengill, that one way to protect the magnets would be to keep similar courses out of other schools. This was reported by The News & Observer as a recommendation against letting other schools have elective courses and sparked a backlash that forced McNeal, two days later, to say that Massengill was just passing along one principal’s idea, not endorsing it.

If you looked for a place on the Wake County map equidistant from Raleigh’s inner-city neighborhoods and the growth hot-spots of North Raleigh, Cary and Apex, a place well-served by major highways and future transit stops, your finger would land in West Raleigh very close to the sports arena. Perhaps new schools could be built there, using a new fairgrounds park for their athletic fields–with two weeks off for the fair?

These could be “neighborhood schools,” too, if apartment and condominium housing were built in the area outside the floodplain with a mix of expensive, affordable and low-income (subsidized) units. Then there’d be less need to bus in poor kids or rich kids for diversity’s sake.

They could even walk to school on a greenway.

The idea some residents seem to have that West Raleigh can remain in its current, pastoral state except for a big arena and a few hotels seems, at best, unlikely. But that’s no reason it has to be a hodgepodge of whatever developers want to put there, either. While state policymakers continue to talk about smart growth in the abstract, here’s a chance to show how it can be done. EndBlock