In the center of Raleigh, there’s a revolutionary band at work. They’re determined to bring the old downtown to life. Make it a place people want to come to, walk around in, shop in, be in. Even live in. Not just a place you drive into–and out of–to punch a clock.

One place? No, they’ll quickly answer. Downtown Raleigh is a diverse collection of neighborhoods, “an urban fabric that should be connected by a common thread,” as their leader says. But it’s disconnected, and not just by the Fayetteville Mall (although that doesn’t help) or the State Government complex.

A huge obstacle, they argue, is the Raleigh zoning code, with its built-in preference for sprawl, and especially one provision of the code added a decade ago that was supposed to serve as an antidote to sprawl but instead has turned into the epitome of it. The code is literally pulling the neighborhoods apart.

So while official Raleigh’s attention has been riveted on opening up the Fayetteville Street Mall and getting a new convention center built downtown–a pair of initiatives that most of these folks helped with, too–our small vanguard, meeting in almost total obscurity in their capacity as an hoc advisory committee to the city planning commission, has been concocting a more far-reaching reform.

They’re about to recommend, as early as this week, that Raleigh junk a zoning provision called the planned development district, or PDD, for all new and infill development in older Raleigh–generally the neighborhoods inside the Beltline built before 1945–and adopt instead a strong urban design zoning code.

And if that sounds like planning gibberish to you, here’s the point: The PDD is meant to give developers maximum flexibility, subject only to the City Council saying no. A PDD can be any size–they’ve ranged so far from 1 acre to 945 acres–and it can be virtually anything (except a pure shopping center), of any density and building height, as long as a council majority will support it.

That open-ended, politically fed animal caused some of the biggest knock-down, drag-out rezoning fights ever–Coker Towers, Wayward Farm, and the latest, Colonial Properties Trust (see “Downtown Away from Town,” p. 26)

What the committee is proposing is the virtual opposite: A set of clear design standards that would spell out, neighborhood by neighborhood, what should be built and–especially–the maximum building heights and bulk allowed.

One key objective: To insist that tall buildings–generally, anything taller than 3-6 stories–go in the “core” downtown area. And nowhere else.

The leader of this effort is the chair of the advisory committee, 47-year old architect Thomas Crowder. Not at all coincidentally, Crowder also co-chaired the “Livable Streets” process for downtown renewal that produced–with great fanfare and glitz–the plans for reopening part of Fayetteville Street to vehicular traffic and locating a new convention center just to the west, along with a hotel that would have a Fayetteville Street address. Lately, Crowder’s been talking about a possible City Council candidacy as well, probably in District D, where the incumbent is Benson Kirkman. As much as he likes what “Livable Streets” recommended, Crowder thinks nothing will do more to breathe life back into the heart of Raleigh than requiring that the highest-density projects be in the downtown core, and not–as the PDD allows–anywhere a developer proposes and the council just can’t resist. Too-big buildings will only hurt Raleigh’s other downtown neighborhoods, not help them, he says.

“The issue is vision. What do we want to be when we grow up?,” he says. “If I could sum up what I heard from everybody who took part [in Livable Streets], we want to be a world-class city, but we also want to preserve the small-town southern charm that makes us distinct.”

It went against their current politics, their whole belief system, really, which boiled down to the notion that Atlanta was the ideal expression of democracy, free enterprise, and Christian destiny. There couldn’t be anything wrong with the form of the city, the way it had crept over the landscape in a dynamic efflorescence of money, power and personal freedom, like a pulsating slime mold.

–James Howard Kunstler, The City in Mind, 2002 (Kunstler was in the Triangle last week. See story, p. 11)

There’s broad agreement, as Crowder’s advisory committee settles in for its most recent 7:30 a.m. meeting, that suburban sprawl was good to Raleigh “in days gone by,” as developer David Lasley puts it. But now it’s time for a change.

The committee includes some of Raleigh’s most active downtown and neighborhoods leaders, like Charlie Madison, who chairs the city’s Appearance Commission; Parker Call, who co-chaired the old Vision 2020 advocacy group with Mayor Charles Meeker; and University Park leader Nina Szlosberg, who chairs the Hillsborough Street Partnership. It also has pro-development members like Lasley, Randy Robertson of Highwoods Properties and Mike Horn, of Kimley-Horn, one of the area’s top traffic engineering firms.

Raleigh until the ’60s was a sleepy southern town, the members agree. So growth–driven by RTP and the Triangle universities–was most appreciated. And developers were happy to provide it in the cheapest, most profitable way–by gobbling up the farms and woods to the north and west, closest to RTP. When, in the ’80s, the city finally adopted a comprehensive plan, it merely trotted behind the developers, giving official sanction to what they wanted to do, anyway.

But Atlanta frequently comes up in the group, too, as the thing Raleigh doesn’t want to become. In Atlanta, the sprawl got out of hand, they didn’t know when to stop, with the result that they find themselves today in the dilemma Kunstler, a leading urban critic, describes–namely, the more Atlanta grows, the worse off it gets. The traffic congestion is awful, the air pollution so bad the federal government in 1998 threatened to shut off highway funding, yet most people there, though they decry the symptoms, are oblivious to the cause. So they keep on adding Edge Cities, one after another, while the city center dies.

Atlantans, Kuntsler writes, are like junkies who need their fix of “air-conditioned, glass box office towers” linked by freeways and ever-wider “collector streets.”

Compared to Atlanta, Raleigh’s planning efforts have been pretty good, Crowder thinks, but the zoning codes Raleigh’s produced are nonetheless “very much in a suburban model.” They require that uses be segregated–residential subdivisions here, office parks there, shopping malls somewhere else, and what little industry Raleigh has hidden away from the other three. Segregated uses mean car trips for everything. The spoke-and-cul-de-sac style of streets that goes with it not only precludes walking from home to store but also riding a bicycle, so dangerous are the “spokes.”

The fear that more of the same would eventually make Raleigh “a third-rate Atlanta” is what produced the planned development district ordinance a decade ago. Raleigh wanted mixed-use developments that would blend housing, offices and stores in close proximity.

The models were “new” communities like Reston, Va., in the D.C. suburbs, and the rapidly multiplying “planned unit developments” in neighboring Cary. They were unmistakably suburban in style–the three uses were still segregated within the communities, and parking lots remained a dominant feature. But the nearest grocery store was only one subdivision away from home–and one mile–not seven or eight.

Soon, Raleigh had its first PDD. Falls River, on a 945-acre tract of land beyond the then-existing northern boundary of North Raleigh, was approved in 1994. Today, it comprises some 2,900 houses and apartments arrayed around a village center of offices and shops. And if, when it went up, it was at the Atlanta-style Edge of Raleigh (albeit out by the Wake County landfill, where nobody thought a suburb could go, anyway), today it looks great compared to the monotonous, segregated subdivisions and strip malls that make up so much of North Raleigh.

But if Falls River demonstrated the upside of the PDD on so-called “greenfield” sites, attorney Tom Erwin argues, it also points to why it’s so inappropriate for infill projects within the older city. On a greenfield, the PDD offers flexibility within a suburban context. Downtown, it strips away the suburban zoning rules, but that leaves no standards at all.

Erwin, the committee member who came up with the plan to keep PDDs out of town, is a 57-year-old attorney and former member of the Wake County Planning Commission who has worked with developers. But he’s also a passionate advocate for historic preservation–a man best known around Raleigh for having paid $10 back in 1979 for his stately, 4,000 square-foot brick house, to save it from the wrecking ball, and then moving it, on Super Bowl Sunday, a mile up Hillsborough Street to its present Cameron Park location.

One story Erwin loves to tell (and, as a friend of his, I’ve heard it more than once) illustrates what he’s after. It’s about the day in 1975 when he got wind of plans to tear down the Montague Building, adjacent to City Market and Moore Square, while he was walking past it on the way to his law office. What up? Another parking lot for the office buildings on Fayetteville Mall, he was told.

Erwin wasn’t having it. Within days, he and his preservation friends had talked the owners–actually, a bank trustee representing heirs of the late owner–into renting the building to a nonprofit trust. Today, the Montague Building houses Cafe Luna, a breakout restaurant that’s helped lead to a half dozen more successful eateries in and around City Market. It also houses several smaller offices and the nonprofit Women’s Center. It’s one of downtown Raleigh’s best-looking buildings, notwithstanding its workaday, turn-of-the-century style.

It’s not a huge building. In fact, it’s just three stories tall, with a fourth floor in the basement. But it anchors an unbroken string of two- and three-story buildings along a city street connecting the “core” to City Market–one of the few “walkable” streets in the downtown area. And that, Erwin argues, is exactly what most of downtown Raleigh needs more of: new and restored buildings two to six stories tall and no taller.

Taller buildings than that should be limited to a handful of blocks in the downtown core, Erwin believes. Why? Because for the foreseeable future, most city blocks in Raleigh will have a limited capacity to grow–because of “market conditions,” of course, and also, unless and until bus and rail transportation takes hold for commuters, because the number of cars a city street can handle at “peak” times is limited.

Thus, a downtown block might (hypothetically) be able to support 30 stories of office and residential space. That could be one 30-story building. Or, it could be eight three- and four-story buildings.

Put up the one tall building, and the rest of the street suffers, doomed to be vacancies or parking lots, Erwin argues. He doesn’t have to look too hard to demonstrate his point. All around the 30-story First Union tower on the Fayetteville Street Mall are vacancy signs. Across from the 30-story BB&T tower at the other end of the mall is the rotting hulk of the old Belk building. Around the 20-story Clarion Hotel on Hillsborough Street (the old Holiday Inn), it’s taken years for the street to start to recover.

“Raleigh’s added an average of about one tall building–eight stories or more, let’s say–every decade for the last 100 years,” he says. “None of them had the desired result of saving the downtown. If we wait for tall buildings to do the job, we’ll be waiting until the last ding-dong of doom.” (That’s from Faulkner.)

On the other hand, Erwin believes, a string of mid-sized buildings equals a walkable street and contributes to a downtown that people are drawn into. His favorite example: Savannah, Ga., where the city imposes tough height limits and has a thriving downtown economy to show for it.

The last thing downtown Raleigh needs, Erwin argues, is a PDD ordinance that invites every landowner to imagine that the next 30-story building will be on her parking-lot acre. All that does is feed a market for land speculation in which buyers no longer just imagine the next tall building, but need it to justify the high price they paid.

So Erwin proposed the opposite: A so-called “form-based” zoning ordinance like the one in Savannah that allows mixed-use within buildings but limits how big any one building can be. He adds that it would be a so-called overlay, the significance of which is that no existing building would be turned into a non-conforming use and could be rebuilt as is if damaged.

Surprisingly, a couple of the development folks on the committee liked the idea. Why? Because in contrast to pitched battles like Coker Towers, a form-based code would give developers and neighbors “predictability.”

The choice is ours: either a society of homogenous pieces, isolated from one another in often fortified enclaves, or a society of diverse and memorable neighborhoods, organized into mutually supportive towns, cities and regions.

–Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck, Suburban Nation, 2000

Form-based zoning is a new term for an old idea–successful communities are made up of diverse elements that nonetheless fit together. Russ Stephenson, a Raleigh architect, has been proselytizing on that theme for a decade. Now, watching Crowder’s committee, he’s seeing it take a big step forward.

Stephenson’s business card tells you that he lives and works on Oberlin Road “in the heart of walkable Raleigh.” His house and a studio once used by his great-aunt, a well-known portrait painter named Isabelle Bowen Henderson, make up two-thirds of an urban compound (there’s a rental cottage too), right around the corner from Darryl’s restaurant on Hillsborough Street. Yes, it’s walkable. It also, until recently, was endangered. Raleigh for 50 years has had a plan to turn Oberlin Road into a multilane throughway that would connect Cameron Village to the N.C. State University campus–right through Stephenson’s house.

Not surprising, then, that he got interested in the New Urbanist school of design, and pioneering planners like Leon Krier and the husband-and-wife architectural team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (DZP & Co.), who’ve sought to put people at the center of planning, not the automobile.

Just in the last few years has Raleigh been convinced, by Stephenson and others, to apply New Urbanist thinking to the area around N.C. State. The result: The throughway idea was scrapped, and an ambitious plan to remake Hillsborough Street as a walkable urban boulevard was hatched in its place.

“Traditional ideas of planning emphasized compact, diverse communities, but all that was set aside for the idea of freedom, cars, cheap gas and cheap land,” Stephenson says. “But now the costs of that idea–the externalities, as the economists say–are coming back to haunt us. The bad air quality, the water pollution, the loss of open space, lost time to commuting, and a lower quality of life.”

Lately, Stephenson has pressed on Raleigh a concept called Transect planning created by DPZ, among others. It’s a way of deciding, for every part of a metropolitan area from watershed edges to the city core, how much development is appropriate, how it can best fit into the natural landscape, and–most importantly–how it can be allocated so as to produce the best communities.

The idea is brand new to Raleigh, but it’s gaining ground in a lot of other cities, especially in the South. Nashville is studying it. Also Vicksburg, Miss., and Tallahassee, Fla. Sarasota, Fla., has just finished writing a DPZ-style code. And in addition to Savannah, there’s a new code-adoptee in Georgia–Atlanta, finally recognizing its sins, has adopted a Transsect plan for its downtown neighborhoods.

“From South Florida to Tacoma, Wash., Nashville, Tenn., to Fort Collins, Colo., the very practice of zoning is getting challenged,” says writer Neal Pearce, who specializes in urban issues, “by alternative land regulations [called] ‘form-based codes.’” Basic rules are specified, Pearce adds, but the emphasis is “less on what’s forbidden and more on what’s desired–the kind of town or city that people indicate they want.”

Using the DPZ Transsect model, for example, what results is a classification system, from T-1 (rural preserve, very little development allowed) to T-6 (urban core). If Raleigh were to use that scheme, most of the city would be classified as T-3 (suburban), with residential uses permitted, along with very limited office and retail; or T-4 (general urban), with a wider range of uses but a three-story height limitation.

In the Raleigh neighborhoods surrounding the downtown core–City Market, the West Side, South Hill, Boylan Heights, and Brooklyn-Glenwood–a T-5 classification (urban center) would allow a wide variety of uses, including manufacturing. But maximum height limits of four stories and maximum residential density of 24 units per acre would limit the bulk of any single project and spread the wealth along the city streets.

Where, in Raleigh, would you draw the line between the core (T-6) and the urban centers (T-5)? Or between the T-5 areas and T-4? Stephenson laughs. Transsect “isn’t a purely objective tool,” he says. “It’s a public process, and there is a negotiation that goes on. But the big advantage is, you do it on a citywide basis, and there’s a context for things. There is a core, and other areas are not the core. And at the end, you have a common understanding of what the goal is and a way of reconciling individual property interests and the community interest.”

Nor, Stephenson emphasizes, are the specific building height limits set in stone. Atlanta’s code, for instance, includes downtown multi-residential zones, as they’re termed, where condo and apartment buildings can be 150-225 feet tall–because apartment buildings there already are. “Again, the issue is the existing context,” he says.

New Urbanist policies like the ones used by DPZ also spell out, for each zone, how buildings and homes should address the streets–and each other. Building up the sidewalks is usually required. Parking lots go in the back. Front porches, doors and windows all put “eyes on the street,” making them feel–and be–safer.

Raleigh’s Urban Design Guidelines, adopted last year, are based on the New Urbanist model. The problem is, they’re only guidelines, with no force of law except as developers choose to use them–or if the City Council rejects projects that don’t use them.

So far, as Erwin says, “they’re honored more in the breach than in the observance.”

Mike Horn, of Kimley-Horn, says developers routinely tell him, when they hire his firm to do traffic planning, “that they’re following all of the important urban design guidelines”– he says this to his fellow PDD committee members while showing how they wave the guidelines at him without opening them–by which they mean they’re only following the ones that are important to them.

And that’s how it’s gone in all of the controversial PDD cases; the guidelines were applied selectively, at best. One example: the 600 North Boylan case, now being pre-sold as “The Paramount.” The council approved a 10-story condominium project in the Brooklyn-Glenwood district, allowing 87 condo units on just 1.03 acres of land.

The urban design guidelines say density should be less than 15 units per acre except near rail transit stations. But the developer, Andy Sandman, argued to the council that he needed high density to justify the price he was paying for the land. And, he added, he was only half a mile away from one of the proposed TTA rail stops.

Another example: Coker Towers, 1 million square feet of mixed-use development on 15 acres, two miles away from downtown. the planning commission recommended approval. But it was narrowly rejected by the council.

Stephenson tried to apply Transect in a case known as the Stanhope PDD, which turned into an excellent example of why urban design “guidelines” are easily ignored when considered case by case.

Stanhope is a small community of bungalow houses just west of the N.C. State campus. In between are two big property owners, the N.C. Equipment Co. and developer Val Valentine. Valentine was about to apply for a rezoning to build a dormitory apartment for students plus a parking deck; N.C. Equipment expects, before long, to redevelop its property as well.

Hired by the city to run a small-area planning process, Stephenson worked for months with the two property owners and the Stanhope residents to draw up a plan that would allow the former to maximize the use of their land, minimize the traffic impacts on Stanhope, and achieve a mixed-use “village” feel adjacent to Hillsborough Street by following the urban design guidelines. A limiting factor was how much traffic Hillsborough Street could carry, something already determined in a traffic study by Kimley-Horn.

Finally, a small-area plan was finished and sent to the City Council, which adopted it, meaning it became part of the comprehensive plan. But before it was finished, Valentine applied for a PDD rezoning of his land. The dormitory he wanted to build was about 50 percent bigger than the small-area plan called for. And the parking deck, was eight stories, not five.

Moreover, although the PDD, if approved, would allow Valentine to “wrap” the parking deck with market-rate condos and ground-floor retail space, which the Stanhope neighbors really wanted, it didn’t require that he do so, and Valentine was frank to say that, unless “market conditions” changed, he wasn’t committing to build any of that.

So much for mixed-used, a village feel and the urban design guidelines.

Valentine’s planning adviser, Ben Taylor, told the neighbors they shouldn’t have assumed that he would follow the small-area plan, since the application he’d already filed put in for more. “Watch what we do,” he told them in a meeting I attended, “not what we say.”

City Council approved Valentine’s PDD by a vote of 8-0.

Urbanism in the southeastern United States has a long and proud history in great cities like Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans, where buildings rarely exceed four stories.

–Opening paragraph, Raleigh’s Urban Design Guidelines, adopted 2002

“It’s all loosey-goosey, that’s the point,” Thomas Crowder tells his committee. “If we want an urban code, we have to put one in place and follow it.” Underlining the point, he adds that when Raleigh “wanted a suburban code, we got one and followed that.”

On the planning commission, where pro-development interests dominate, Crowder’s gotten to be known as “Mr. No,” because he’s frequently the lone dissenter in rezoning cases that are recommended for approval 10-1. (The commission advises. The council decides.)

Crowder was the lone vote against 600 North Boylan. “That project should have been closer to the transit station.” He voted against Colonial Properties, the 179-acre tract off the Wade Avenue extension to the west of the RBC Center.

His proudest “no” vote? Coker Towers. “It wasn’t proper infill. The center of the focus area (in the comprehensive plan) is Cameron Village, which is a model of a walkable development. A project like that belongs in the center of the focus area, not way out on the edge.”

Crowder’s “no” votes led to former Mayor Paul Coble blocking his reappointment to the planning commission when his first term expired in 2001. Briefly, he was out of office until Mayor Charles Meeker was elected, after which Crowder was chosen to fill another vacancy.

Which, by the way, is something he’s rather proud of. He’s not afraid to go against the grain, and he speaks with the kind of self-confidence that comes when you’ve won your architect’s license the hard way. Forced to drop out of school and go to work as a draftsman when his father was stricken with cancer, Crowder is one of the last architects in North Carolina to get his license by working his way up via an apprenticeship. He now owns his firm, Architektur.

“We need to get the big picture right,” he says. “Then it’s all about design–scale, massing, windows, doorways. You have to look at things comprehensively. As Mies Van der Roh said, ‘God is in the details.’ Some people say it’s the devil that’s in them, but I prefer to put it positively.

“The thing about suburban growth is that it’s really sort of chaotic. What’s really great about Raleigh’s (original) downtown plan is that it’s very classical, and very orderly. We just need to fill in the missing teeth.”

Crowder’s upbeat about what the “Livable Streets” process produced. A new convention center and hotel will draw more out-of-towners, he thinks, but he’d also like to see something built on top of it–perhaps a new county-city government center–so it’s not just a big box that pedestrians have to walk around to get anywhere. Wrapping it with ground-floor retail space would also help.

The key things missing downtown, Crowder says, are people who live there and the small shops that–he compares it to a shopping mall–“fill in the spaces between the anchor uses and create a walkable environment.” He thinks Raleigh’s City Hall, which is getting to be too small, could be torn down and replaced with condo housing, perhaps mixing market-rate and subsidized units. He thinks the old Durham Life Insurance building between Fayetteville and Salisbury Streets, now used by Wake County government, could be turned into high-end condos. Most of all, he thinks an urban design code would lead the way.

Turning the guidelines into a zoning code–even one that applies only to infill developments in downtown neighborhoods–promises to be an uphill battle. Mayor Meeker, when told about the idea, called it “one approach” to getting good infill projects. “Another approach is to add standards to the PDD,” he added. Meeker wondered whether a code might get in the way of needed density around the downtown TTA stations.

Councilor Neal Hunt, a former planning commission chair who had to push hard even to get the guidelines adopted, said Crowder’s group “has their work cut out for them, don’t they?” But Hunt, who might be the critical fifth vote on a council now split 4-4 between Democrats and Republicans, also said he’d like “more regulation, and less politics” on infill developments. “In general, I don’t have a problem with (regulations) on infill. If it were a whole zoning code, then no.”

Crowder’s first hurdle will be his own planning commission. A fellow commission member, Charles Walker, was an early critic of the code idea on the advisory committee. He’s stopped coming to the meetings. Jesse Taliaferro, a commission member who’s announced she’ll be a council candidate this fall, is doubtful about any proposal that would make the already contentious PDD process more cumbersome for developers.

But Crowder is undeterred. “I love Raleigh,” he says. “But we do a very poor job of evaluating the context of development. The result is that we’re in danger of becoming homogenized, just another place that looks like Charlotte, looks like Atlanta, and then what do you have? We need to build on the beauty of Raleigh and make the most of what sets us apart.”