Do you want a 30-story tower built across the street from your neighborhood? That’s the question at the heart of a long, messy debate over Kane Realty’s proposal to put 12-, 30-, and 40-story towers on the outskirts of North Hills.

The well-known real estate developer embarked on an effort to renovate North Hills about two years ago, when the old JC Penney shut down. Kane Realty announced plans to build two new office towers, an apartment building, and a public plaza on the site of the defunct department store, all anchored by businesses on the ground floor.

Next up was the “North Hills Innovation District,” a roughly 33-acre site between St. Albans Drive and I-440 that would be home to three new apartment complexes, two office towers, and a food hall, again anchored by businesses at street level.

Now, with construction under way at both sites, Kane Realty is proposing another series of new developments along Six Forks Road and I-440. About four months ago, the company asked the Raleigh City Council to approve a rezoning request for 30- and 40-story towers on land that was originally zoned for 12-story buildings, a proposal that was met with immediate backlash.

“It’s a traffic nightmare”

Larry Helfant, chairman of the Midtown Citizens’ Advisory Council (which the city no longer officially recognizes since it formally abolished CACs in 2020), is one of the people leading the charge against Kane Realty’s rezoning proposal.

If the proposal is approved, a 30-story tower could go up at the intersection of Six Forks Road and I-440, across the street from a traditional neighborhood currently composed of single-family homes. Twelve-story buildings would also be allowed on land originally zoned for five stories.

“The number one issue is building heights, and I just don’t understand it,” Helfant says. “Kane has been reasonable in all his development in the past. This one has no logic to it at all.”

There is some order to Kane’s plan. Although Kane Realty’s proposal is well beyond what the existing zoning allows, the taller towers are planned for the heart of North Hills, in areas that abut Six Forks Road and I-440. On the land closer to neighborhoods, Kane Realty has proposed the shorter 12-story tower.

Helfant, however, says he doesn’t want office or apartment towers overshadowing the neighborhoods or the existing buildings in North Hills. He also opposes Kane Realty cutting down trees around Big Branch River, where other Kane Realty properties are planned. The heavily wooded area, across from another neighborhood, will be deforested significantly to make room for new construction.

Helfant is also worried about tall apartment buildings bringing an influx of traffic to Six Forks Road, which he says is already aging, overcrowded, and unsafe. He and his neighbors want to be able to walk their dogs, stroll to a local park, or send their kids out on bikes, he says. They’re in favor of building connecting greenways and preserving natural areas.

“To get down [to North Hills], it’s a traffic nightmare,” says Shane Collins, another concerned resident. “We live in the area, and we just don’t go there because it’s a mess. There’s too much traffic, and we’re going to have more traffic with more towers and more density.”

These concerns—building heights, traffic, and the environment—are common criticisms raised at most hearings on new development. It’s easy to lump them together as part of a broad “anti-development” stance. There’s a lot of emotional rhetoric: people imploring the city council not to “destroy neighborhoods” or talking about how the developers will “come for you next.” But these protesters have some legitimate concerns.

Many across the city are frustrated by tall towers developers are building to necessarily increase density but also to increase profit. They’re discouraged by the heavier traffic and higher cost of living these new buildings will bring. Residents across Raleigh share Helfant’s opposition to the new development.

“[The concerns are] pretty widespread and even broader than the immediate neighborhoods,” says city councilman Patrick Buffkin, who represents much of North Raleigh in District A. “Folks in Quail Hollow in North Hills, Lakemont, they have felt the brunt of being in a place that has changed probably more than any other part of the city. And what that means is cut-through traffic.”

Over the past several months, the city council has worked with Kane Realty to add a number of conditions to the new development, many of them transit related. Kane Realty agreed to reserve land along Six Forks Road for a new city bus station with a seating area and covered bus shelters, since the proposed rezoning overlaps with an existing bus station. They also agreed to the construction of new bike lanes and four new bike share stations.

Another condition was that the company reserve land along Rowan Street for a future expansion of the Raleigh Fire Station, since the existing station does not have the equipment or employees needed to adequately protect such tall buildings.

The reservation of the land, valued by Kane Realty at between $20 million and $22 million, will have a “significant public benefit,” the company argues. But Helfant says the rezoning conditions were added out of necessity, not in a good-willed effort to improve the area.

Two weeks ago, the city council heard Kane Realty’s rezoning proposal yet again but ultimately sent it back to the city’s transportation and transit committee to refine some of the existing conditions, namely to address continuing concerns about greenways and bike lanes, building heights, and affordable housing.

A fight to improve Midtown

Residents’ opposition to the new North Hills development hinges on a few things, primarily the development’s violation of the Midtown–St. Albans Area Plan, which the city council adopted in 2020. The plan, created in response to increasing development in Midtown, addresses the area’s need for more connecting roads. It also recommends buildings rise no higher than 20 stories and says plans for 20-story buildings should include improvements to public space and contingencies to mitigate the environmental impact.

The plan is one of dozens of small-area plans across the city, which are mostly driven by long-term Raleigh residents. Many of these plans limit new development and call for the preservation of green space. Some residents argue the plans contain critical recommendations that should be followed no matter what. Others see them as blunt-force tools to stop any and all new development.

As a city council member, Buffkin says he gives different small-area plans different weight. The more recently a plan has been adopted, and the more detailed it is, the more weight it should receive, he says.

“Once you get past five or seven years, it’s probably time to revisit and question whether the plan remains appropriate,” Buffkin adds. “A small-area plan is not an absolute requirement. We have a state statute that says it’s policy guidance. It should be considered, but it’s not a hard-and-fast regulation or prohibition.”

The Midtown–St. Albans Area Plan is one of 25 city policies staff considered when making their recommendation to council. These policies outline the kinds of things the city council wants when it comes to new development, such as higher density, more housing, opportunities to bike or walk, renovation of underdeveloped property, and access to public transit.

Whether or not Kane Realty’s proposal offers these things is a matter of opinion. City staff concluded the company’s proposal complies with 22 of the 25 policies, including recommendations that the new development be compatible in height and density with the surrounding area. In an effort to get the rezoning approved, the company has offered to institute a 12-foot stepback for buildings taller than 13 stories at the intersection of Lassiter Mill Road and I-440.

One major policy the initial proposal violated outright, however, was the recommendation that residential towers include affordable housing. The policy states that 10 percent of apartments in such towers should be affordable to people who make 80 percent of the area median income (AMI).

In Raleigh, a person making 80 percent of the AMI makes about $59,950, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s a pretty high bar for affordable housing—most teachers, electricians, chefs, and police officers make much less than $60,000 a year. Still, at that salary, an affordable apartment would cost no more than $1,499 per month.

In an effort to assuage the city council’s affordable housing concerns, Kane Realty offered last week to make 10 percent of any apartments built along Six Forks Road “affordable housing.” In this case, that means 600-square-foot “micro-units” that cost roughly $1,332 per month, hardly an appealing prospect for a midsized housing market like Raleigh’s.

With that kind of rezoning condition, it’s hard to see how Kane Realty’s planned apartment buildings would actually lead to more reasonably priced housing; even when an apartment costs less than market price, it’s still out of reach of many middle- and lower-class workers, and 600 square feet doesn’t even approach the realm of feasibility for a working-class family of three or four.

Regardless, most, if not all, apartments in North Hills seem to be marketed as luxury units for the wealthy. Apartments in the 36-story Kane Realty complex called the Eastern cost well beyond what most Raleigh residents make in a month: a 600-square-foot studio starts at $2,400 per month, according to the complex’s website, and a three-bedroom penthouse costs upward of $14,169 per month. The building comes equipped with a rooftop lounge, resort-style pool, private dining room, expansive gym, and a spa for residents and their pets.

Why approve this rezoning?

Ultimately, many on the city council are supporting Kane Realty’s proposal as a part of a larger pro-development strategy. Even with the outrageous rents, Kane Realty has built or is building more than 1,000 apartments in North Hills, a significant boost to the housing supply that could ultimately ease prices in the greater market. The company is also asking to build “up” rather than “out,” which is more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Approving rezoning requests is also an end in and of itself. When developers come to the city council with a rezoning request, members face a choice: work with the company to get what benefits they can, or stonewall new construction, worsening Raleigh’s existing housing crisis.

Once the city council rejects a rezoning request, it can’t consider any other new projects in the same area until two years have passed, Buffkin says.That means the city council can’t necessarily wait for roads and other infrastructure to expand before approving major new developments. It has to take each project as it comes.

“[People ask], ‘Why do you approve new developments before you have a plan for funding and building the infrastructure?’ It’s terribly frustrating to the public and it’s frustrating to me, too. One of the realities of it is [the city council has] no control over when somebody asks for a rezoning,” Buffkin says. “In this environment of fast growth, we can’t really afford to stop growing and changing for a couple of years and just get overwhelmed with what’s happening around us.”

Buffkin, who isn’t running for reelection, says, right now, his priority is funding the Six Forks Road improvement project, which will build sidewalks, bike lanes, and additional car lanes along the road. Design work for the project, which covers Six Forks from Rowan Street to Lynn Road, is nearing completion, Buffkin says.

“It does not get to the roadway directly in front of North Hills, but that is in the long-term plans. Everybody knows we need to get it done,” Buffkin says. “That will be tremendously expensive, because it will probably require replacing or expanding a bridge over the belt line. The funding is the problem.”

For decades, Raleigh’s city council was dominated by rigid zoning rules and skepticism about new developments that limited housing supply and contributed to the Triangle’s current housing shortage. Now, council members are playing catch-up.

Buffkin says he supports Kane Realty’s proposal in part because it offers public transit and options to bike, walk, or ride the bus to North Hills. The proposal also includes the kind of mixed-use development the city council wants to see within the city limits.

“The project asks for a lot and it offers a lot,” Buffkin says of the proposal that goes before the council again at its next meeting on September 6. “Urban developments like this project support public transit. They support efficient use of utilities. They offer people the option to walk, bike to their destinations because there’s so many destinations in one place.” 

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