Raleigh, following an adolescence of sprawl, aspires to be an urban adult, a full-grown metro with—everyone say it together now—density!

Ah, density. Is anyone against it? People living closer to their work, closer to each other, getting out of their cars and walking on sidewalks: “The lure of the urban lifestyle,” Columbia University’s Kate Ascher proclaims.

But how do we get from sprawl—with its automobile dependency—to a dense, less car-dependent future? My response: With patience. And care.

Or as my friend Phil Poe, a neighborhood leader in the Brooklyn-Glenwood neighborhood, likes to say, the question isn’t whether density, it’s how much and where—and when.

Which brings me to Raleigh’s new Unified Development Ordinance, the UDO. It’s a rewrite of the city’s zoning code, designed to encourage urban (dense) development and “mixed use”—buildings, for example, with stores and apartments. The old code was vintage suburban.

That said, the UDO is a blunt instrument that, as it seeks to hammer density into the sprawl, threatens to also jam it against, or slam it on, established neighborhoods that give the city character.

That’s one problem with it. A second is that, unless it’s applied judiciously, the UDO will result in scattered density pods—some here, some over there—that fail to support, and worse, undermine, our ability to introduce transit to this wannabe urban city.

I’m absolutely for density if it’s aligned on transit corridors—bus or rail—so people can live without a car or with one less car. Raleigh’s bus system is so shabby, though, that when I say density tied to transit, I’ll settle for having it tied to a plan for transit as long as the plan is real—unlike the plans we’ve had to date.

What I see occurring, however, is density tied to cars. I see the same “repetitive, five-story, stick-built apartments atop concrete parking structures” that Raleigh architect Frank Harmon described so unhappily in an op-ed for The News & Observer. Structures, he added, that residents “enter by car, not from the sidewalk.”

These “uninspiring” complexes, at 100-plus units per acre with a parking space for every bedroom, are rising in and around our biggest shopping malls: Crabtree Valley, North Hills, Cameron Village, and farther out, Brier Creek and Triangle Town Center. Some new ones are located near state government buildings.

To put it mildly, these locations are widely dispersed, too much so for any transit system we can possibly afford to support them—meaning, provide them with high-frequency service at safe, well-designed and close-together bus stops.

You know, like in a city.

On the plus side, putting dense housing alongside shopping and offices does cut down some on total automobile miles traveled. The trip to the grocery may now be half a mile instead of two or three, for example.

Still, most daily trips, even to the grocery, will continue to be by car, because as Harmon says, these places are designed for cars. Ditto our shopping centers. And even downtown, our high-rise towers feature giant parking decks, because if the people living there can get to work on foot, they still need a car to “get around.”

The result of such dispersed density, unlinked to transit, will be that Raleigh is able to keep growing at our current high-octane pace for a bit longer than would be possible otherwise. That’s because, again, the same number of cars in town will travel fewer miles altogether.

But soon enough, the day of reckoning will come when too many cars stacked in too many decks in too many disconnected locations combine with all other cars on the roads to create gridlock—and Raleigh’s growth carousel will s-l-o-w.

At that point, we will not be enjoying the lovely density mix that Ascher sees in other American cities, where diverse homes and businesses are “seamlessly intertwined” by transit, with “symbiotically shared” sidewalks, green spaces and gathering spots.

Instead, our density will be scattered, faux-urban, with hundreds of cars per acre where there used to be 10 or 20, and no symbiosis except perhaps at the bar downstairs. We’ll wish then that we’d planned around transit.

But wait, it’s not too late.

Kaid Benfield’s new book is titled People Habitat: 25 Ways to think About Greener, Healthier Cities. A longtime leader in the smart-growth movement, Benfield is unmistakably pro-density. But he also believes that our “built environment,” like a healthy natural habitat, should strive for “harmony” and “balance” that welcomes the new while still respecting the old.

I consulted Benfield’s book after that disastrous public hearing on the UDO conducted July 7 by Raleigh City Council. Much has been said about it in the two weeks since, including by the INDY’s Jane Porter, and none of it’s been flattering. I’ll just note that the decision to hold a single public hearing—one—for a proposed rezoning of one-third of Raleigh to mixed-use UDO districts all over the city was an insult. An insult, however, consistent with the disinterest too many city leaders have for meaningful citizen participation.

(When more than 1,000 people turned out, overwhelming the capacity of Council’s meeting room, that single hearing was “continued” to last night.)

I was struck by this passage from Benfield:

All too often, smart-growth advocates ignore development opposition (‘we’re right and they’re wrong’) or simply seek to overpower it politically. …

Some pro-development commentators are starting to suggest a different strategy: acknowledge that NIMBY (‘not in my backyard) fears are frequently well-founded, and address them with changes in design, policy and process that respect their concerns.

“Overpower it politically”? “We’re right and they’re wrong”? Sounds like Benfield’s been listening to Raleigh “staff”—they have a bad way of referring to themselves as a disembodied thing—or to the developers and their lawyers who dominate Raleigh politics. Or to certain members of City Council not named Russ Stephenson, Kay Crowder or Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

Or perhaps Benfield’s been listening to the Raleigh neighborhood leaders who come away from hearing cluster-mucks like July 7 just shaking their heads about “government by the people, for the people” in their city.

Incredibly, as loaded against citizen participation as Raleigh’s planning process has been for years, the UDO changes it in ways that make it even harder for anyone but the developer-applicants and their lawyers to be heard. (Anyone, that is, except “staff.”)

The public process is the first thing that needs fixing in the UDO, because the rest of it is, after all, merely code—it’s a set of zoning rules, some good, some bad, depending on how they’re used. And the rules, too, can be changed.

But with the public still struggling to understand what the UDO says, Council and the developers are about to apply it to one-third of the city—setting the stage for a slew of important decisions about how much density to allow, and where.

Before they apply it, the Council should slow down, show some respect and consider the well-founded policy issues raised to date by knowledgeable civic and neighborhood advocates. I’ll briefly summarize four:

• The UDO is supposed to implement the city’s comprehensive plan, but in important respects, it doesn’t. The biggest difference: The comprehensive plan is a good, citizen-driven guide to how much density and where, with recommended limits on building heights for every location. But the mixed-use zoning categories in the UDO (all the ones with “X”—for mix—in the name) have no height limits. So, depending on what a majority of Council will support, any shopping center in town, or any apartment building, could be three stories tall or 13—or 30.

• The NX category supposedly connotes neighborhood-scale mixed-use. But NX allows large stores, including grocery stores, and in a late-breaking change by staff, allows bars that stay open until 2 a.m.—no restaurant needed—not to mention that all the building heights are “to be determined” by Council. Pleas by neighborhood groups like Grow Raleigh Great to use NX sparingly and create a new “small-NX” category with lesser limits on building scale and bars allowed only if they’re in restaurants have been ignored.

• The comprehensive plan identifies possible transit corridors. It also identifies where such potential corridors (roads, streets) are the “edge” of a residential neighborhood. The UDO, as applied, is supposed to balance the two elements, allowing density consistent with neighborhood protection, especially where no transit exists. The old code did so with a category called “buffer commercial.” There’s no real counterpart in the new UDO, and some older neighborhoods are mapped for the dreaded NX category adjacent to houses.

• Rezoning the downtown to towering building heights, up to 40 stories, before developers even apply (and remember they can still apply for more) means the city will give away, as former Councilwoman Anne Franklin says, any “leverage” it might have to negotiate for workforce-housing units, green space, or other public or design amenities as a condition for approval—and a condition for handing the developer a fortune in profits. Franklin wants Council to delay decisions about downtown rezoning until it takes up the recommendations in a new Downtown Experience Plansubmitted by a council-appointed advisory committee which she co-chaired.

Congregations for Social Justice, an interdenominational group, is urging Council to delay the downtown remap until it has a approved affordable-housing strategy in place to use in such talks with developers.
CSJ, meet Anne Franklin. (And Russ Stephenson.)

Final point: I like tall buildings. But the truth is, Raleigh doesn’t need them yet, except perhaps in the very heart of downtown. What we need instead is a lot of three- and four-story condo and apartment buildings that line up in a transit corridor and connect to the downtown, NCSU or WakeMed, our biggest centers of employment.

Buildings at this scale, with living units that open on sidewalks, not into parking decks, generate the coveted “eyes on the street” that America’s foremost urbanist, Jane Jacobs, named as the key ingredient of safe and successful city neighborhoods.

These buildings should include units affordable by working people, not just the affluent. Why? Because a primary target for transit is people who work and need to save some money. Give them high-quality bus service, and they’ll use it and ditch the car.

I’d start there, with medium-density buildings on a small number of transit corridors. Provide excellent service. As ridership grows and cars are ditched, add more density, good sidewalks, some green space—and create an urban neighborhood. Repeat on another corridor.

The bottom line: Cities evolve. Remember what Phil Poe said: How much, where and when.

The day will come, I trust, when Raleigh is chock-full of medium-density buildings on multiple corridors with outstanding transit service, and the next logical move will be taller buildings, and then taller still. If we do it right, we can be Singapore—without the whippings.

Growth is good, I’ve always said, until it isn’t—because the cars have choked it off.