The new Durham City Council had its first test this week, and it failed miserably. Its members had the opportunity to make a statement about the principles they stand for and the kind of city they want Durham to be. They could have said that we, the people of this city and this region, determine the kind of place we want to live, not whoever shows up waving the most money in our faces. They could have said no to a quick-change proposal that threatens to undo years of promises and careful planning, and reminded developers that zoning changes are not government entitlement programs for real estate companies to make the maximum return on their investment.

Instead, the City Council caved. Well, actually, four of its seven members did. John Best Jr., Eugene Brown, Howard Clement and Thomas Stith all decided that John Silverman of Midland Atlantic Development Co. could go ahead and build a SuperTarget discount store, almost that much space again in more retail, a hotel (or motel), and a handful of offices next to Southpoint mall instead of the mixed-use development that had been planned there (three hotels, a major office complex and a few stores). Silverman is the man who helped negotiate the deal that led to creation of Southpoint, and he pledged that the area around the mall would be a model of urban design, a gleaming new city where people would live, work, walk and shop. This is not the first time Silverman has reneged on that promise–he developed another strip shopping center across Fayetteville Street from the mall after saying that it would be a mini-downtown of its own. At one point, he even sold the property to Lowe’s for a big box store that so infuriated the neighbors, he had to take it back.

This was one of the last chances to do something right around Southpoint. It was just four years ago that developers and city leaders vowed that the area around the 1.3 million-square-foot-mall would not become the concrete maze that made South Square, the recently demolished mall up the road, so ugly and maddening to get around. Newspapers heralded “an urban village of offices, apartments and four hotels, connected by a new boulevard and walking trails. There, residents and office workers will mingle with shoppers as they stroll to lunch or sit at outdoor cafes.” Instead, the glowing proposals for mini-cities around the mall became asphalt fields, big boxes, strip shopping centers and a seven-dealership “autopark.” The word “park” has never been so misused, unless it means the kind of lot that local roads are sure to become.

Monday night’s vote mirrored the kind of slobbering, crack-like addiction to the false promise of sales tax and jobs that led to the demise of the rest of the area. Gee, the developer said, the office market is glutted, so we can’t build that. Instead, let us change our plan for a mixed-use community to the one where we can make the fastest buck. The council fell over itself to say yes. Council member Howard Clement even called it a “no-brainer.” No-brainer is right.

Part of the problem is the city’s mixed-use zoning designation, which allows a developer to build stores, hotels and offices with no residential component. But part of the problem, too, is city council members (not Mayor Bill Bell, Diane Catotti or Cora Cole-McFadden, who voted against the project) who jump for developers, without even bothering to ask how high.