Edie Jeffreys is admiring the curly leaves and tall, lean profile of a Japanese maple in her shady backyard in Five Points. The tree is a rescue, she explains, from the yard of a property in nearby Fallon Park that was bulldozed to the ground a year ago. Jeffreys’ tidy garden, which borders a long, narrow lot—typical Old Raleigh style—is full of rescue plants, but she’s proudest of this one. She calls this deep stretch of land her “little slice of heaven,” her urban oasis.
“I’m really concerned about keeping Raleigh green,” she says. “Let’s not just moonscape all the old neighborhoods and take out the old trees.”
Jeffreys is concerned about saving the trees, yes. But she’s also concerned, more concerned, about saving old houses and buildings, about preserving the unique, historic character of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, which find themselves increasingly threatened by the city’s rapid growth and urbanization.
For 15 years, Jeffreys has advocated for the kind of growth that protects neighborhoods, for restoring and revitalizing old homes rather than allowing developers to tear them down and replace them with homes double their size. She’s beaten back an effort to build townhouses just across the way from her home on Sunrise Avenue, led the fight to secure zoning protections for more than a thousand properties in Five Points East and helped found Community SCALE, an advocacy group formed in 2007 to deal with issues related to infill development.
In the process, she’s become one of Raleigh’s foremost neighborhood activists, a proverbial voice in the wilderness pleading with gung-ho city officials to slow down and at least think about what’s best for inner-core residents before signing off on whatever some developer wants to do. But with the recent furor over the Unified Development Ordinance—an in-process update to the city’s zoning rules that has infuriated affected neighborhoods in recent months—Jeffreys has decided that being an activist is no longer good enough.
At the very last minute—on July 17, the deadline—she filed to run for City Council in District E, which stretches from Northwest Raleigh almost into downtown. Jeffreys says she’s running to make a statement about the importance of Raleigh’s neighborhoods, particularly the older ones inside the beltline, which she argues are under siege from developers buying up homes before they even go on the market.
If she wins, she says she wants to bring a much needed “neighborhood perspective” to Council.
Jeffreys didn’t plan to run for another two years, when incumbent Bonner Gaylord is expected to run for mayor. But after hundreds of UDO opponents showed up to berate Council in July, she saw an opening.
“I was very upset about what happened there, and how unprepared the City Council and the planning department seemed to be, and I just couldn’t sit back,” she says. “I decided it was time.”
Her campaign, then, can best be seen as an embodiment of the frustration, suspicion and discontent the city’s residents have been feeling. In a very real sense, she wants to ride that wave of misgivings into City Hall.
But will that be enough?
Gaylord, of course, is as tough an opponent as they come—smart and suave and ambitious. He’s already banked more than $160,000 for his campaign (the Wake County Board of Elections spokesperson says Jeffreys’ campaign-finance reports are listed as “delinquent”), and he has the firm support of the powerful and well-heeled real estate, construction and development communities, which isn’t surprising given that he’s firmly in Council’s pro-growth camp. (Jeffreys also faces newcomer DeAntony Collins.) But the councilman, who is also North Hill’s general manager, is more than just a lackey for developers. He’s credited with major achievements on Council, including SeeClickFix, an online system residents can use to report issues. He also played a pivotal role in securing Dix Park and luring Google Fiber, and he’s been a strong backer of public transit and making the city more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.
Still, it’s those big-development connections that Jeffreys wants to use against him. She paints Gaylord as too cozy with builders, unresponsive to the residents he represents and out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. She wants to align him with the unpopular surge of teardowns and new, out-of-scale infill development she sees all over the district. She wants to convince voters that she is the candidate who will put a stop to that, the candidate who will preserve Raleigh’s old-city charm.
In a very real sense, she’s trying to make this race a microcosm of the city’s existential question: How will it grow?
And if she wins—a long shot, but not beyond the realm of possibility—it will send a signal that neighborhoods will no longer roll over as the bulldozers come.
Jeffreys has deep roots in Raleigh, no question.
She was born at the old Rex hospital on Wade Avenue. Her father helped her grandfather run the Hayes-Barton Laundry and Dry Cleaners at Five Points (that building burned down in the ’80s). She worked at the launderette as a teenager and attended N.C. State for her first undergraduate year, after which she transferred to East Carolina University and moved back again after graduation.
A software developer at SAS, Jeffreys has a master’s degree in English literature and film studies from N.C. State, and a Certificate in Global Logistics from Wake Tech, where she works as an adjunct professor each fall. She’s traveled extensively through Africa and Southeast Asia to camp, climb mountains and sight-see. Most recently, she traveled to Namibia to catch beetles in the desert with a group of scientists and her boyfriend, an ECU biology professor. But she always comes home—a home decorated with furniture, photos and souvenirs from her travels—on the 1600 block of Sunrise Avenue.
She’s lived in this 1,400-square-foot ranch-style, which she purchased for $195,000, since 1999, and on Sunrise since 1987. Since then she’s seen her neighborhood transform, and she worries that working-class families are being forced out. By the early 2000s, older craftsman-era bungalows and ’50s ranch-style houses were being torn down, their lots razed, trees and all, and replaced with monster houses worth north of half a million dollars.
Developers saw an opportunity in Five Points, just like they did throughout the city. And in 2000, one of them, Mike White, decided to build 21 townhomes on a two-acre lot he’d acquired near Jeffreys’ house. The project was called Bickett Place.
“It was one of the rather nasty situations,” says Phil Poe, who lives in Five Points’ Glenwood-Brooklyn neighborhood. “The developer bought up the properties in a stealth way so you couldn’t tell what was going on, because the properties weren’t under a business’s name or anything. And it just didn’t fit well in the community.”
Jeffreys felt compelled to do something about it. She and her neighbors rallied against the project, petitioning before the City Council for two and a half years. The council eventually approved a 17-condo plan, but she didn’t give up. Because of what Jeffreys calls “the shenanigans” that underscored the deal, she and another neighbor sued the city for breach of due process. A judge imposed an injunction, putting Bickett Place on hold for at least a year. This brought the developer back to the table.
“At first we didn’t want it developed at all, but you can’t stop redevelopment,” Jeffreys says. “But we didn’t want transitional housing. We wanted people who were going to be committed to the neighborhood. The developer came back to us and said, ‘What do you want?’ And we said, ‘houses.’ And there are houses there now.”
There are indeed—roughly 10 large, expensive houses, but houses nonetheless.
After that, Jeffreys says, she realized her community, and others like it, needed protecting.
She and a small team of neighbors worked to change the zoning on more than a thousand Five Points properties to a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District, a category designed to preserve older areas. (The Five Points NCOD is one of 17 citywide.)
At the same time, members of what would become Community SCALE—which stands for (deep breath) “streets that connect people under a canopy of trees with architecture of different types and land preserved for a neighborhood everyone can enjoy”—were staying up late at each other’s dining-room tables, poring over drafts of the city’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan and UDO. Jeffreys was a founding member of Community SCALE, whose mission is to get city codes to require compatible redevelopment in existing neighborhoods.
Around 2007, the climax of the pre-recession housing bubble, SCALE members presented to City Council their concerns about the effects infill was having on neighborhoods. They asked for test cases to determine what the worst-case scenarios would be for houses in Five Points. But the council, Jeffreys says, was largely unresponsive.
“We felt like what was happening was out of balance,” she says. “We wanted cohesion, not neighbors against neighbors. It seems like we had two different sets of neighbors here that don’t mix, and in some ways, that was instigated by the kinds of housing that we were getting. One of the lovely things about this neighborhood is, for those of us who have been here for a while, we’re friendly with each other. We’re here because we love our neighborhood.”
A tour of the Roanoke Park neighborhood brings this dichotomy home.
The massive Revival Way development skirted the city’s requirements by creating its own uniform block of blue, nearly $700,000 three-story houses. The development backs up to the lots of small one-story homes of single people and working-class families.
All over Five Points, there are similar examples, many towering over original single-family homes in various stages of repair. In some corners, this has fostered a tangible resentment of developers.
“It’s like two worlds in the same neighborhood, and it’s sad,” Jeffreys says. “We shouldn’t have that. We should enjoy each other’s company.”
In 2008, the bubble burst. Every bulldozer in Raleigh went quiet.
But during the quiet years, work on the Comprehensive Plan and the UDO was ongoing under Raleigh’s former planning director, Mitch Silver. Jeffreys and her neighbors viewed Silver as a believer in compatibility and historic preservation, and in the rights of citizens to guide their communities’ growth. They weren’t worried.
But by 2015, with the economy recovering and Silver no longer in town—he has since returned to his hometown to head up New York City’s parks department—Raleigh developers had picked up right where they left off. And even worse, Jeffreys says, residents are losing the opportunity to be involved in the rezoning process.
The City Council increasingly relies on city staff to make zoning decisions. And because the overwhelmed planning department is being inundated with rezoning requests, Jeffreys says, staffers “aren’t checking things on the ground because they just don’t have the personnel to do it. … The folks in the planning department are doing the best they can with the code they’ve been given, but they can’t see everything on the ground. And the neighbors who do see things on the ground aren’t getting the kind of help from the City Council that they need.”
Not true, says planning director Ken Bowers. “The fact that we are still undertaking area studies and research shows that we believe we have adequate staffing to handle the volume of rezoning cases that we are receiving,” Bowers told the INDY in an email. “We have not been failing to deliver thorough staff reports, and our staff do in fact conduct site visits of the affected areas.”
Even so, Jeffreys says Council isn’t as proactively involved as it should be in ensuring that residents get what they were promised in the Comprehensive Plan, which was adopted in 2009: things like preserving old homes, thoughtful design and compatible new development. The plan emphasizes that, unlike many other American cities, Raleigh is still in a unique position to preserve many of its historic assets.
“Based on what I’m observing, that is slipping away,” says Poe, who was chairman of the Five Points Citizens Advisory Council for five years. “Unfortunately, some city councilors talk about the plan as only being a guideline.”
And they’re not paying attention to their constituents, Jeffreys adds—including Gaylord.
“The incumbent is someone I’ve never met and that, to me is, incredible,” she says. She’s never seen him at a Five Points Citizens Advisory Council meeting and says he’s had little interaction with the other three CACs in his district.
For his part, Gaylord says the intent of CACs is for citizens to meet independently to provide input to City Council. “I have let the CAC leaders know that I am happy to attend any time they deem it beneficial, and have been to many CAC meetings under that rubric,” he wrote in an email.
Right now,” Jeffreys says, “I feel like the large development community really has an advantage over these folks. We need that neighborhood perspective as much as possible on Council right now. It’s a pivotal time. Otherwise, we turn into just any other big city.”
That is, in fact, her campaign’s raison d’être: She wants to make the UDO work for her neighbors, not just developers. Intertwined with this goal, she says, is improving and expanding the city’s transportation options and protecting its environment and water resources.
“Edie is really concerned about the future of neighborhoods in Raleigh,” says Poe. “She has a lot of interest in the neighborhoods near downtown because she loves their historic character. They’re not like the cookie-cutter situations you see in the subdivisions. She would like to see them preserved.”
The question, though, is whether there’s enough of that neighborhood angst, enough fear of intense future developments, to oust a two-term incumbent who ran unopposed in 2013 and is generally well liked.
Winning won’t be easy, Jeffreys acknowledges. Indeed, as of early August she was still trying to scrape together money to purchase mailers and yard signs. Gaylord doesn’t have that problem.
“It’s kind of intimidating,” she says. “But I hope the big development money doesn’t flood out my message. We still have some beautiful things about the different parts of the city that I think are important to maintain. I just don’t want us to lose the character of the city that we have.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The neighborhood watcher”