On April 17, Raleigh city councilors fired city manager Russell Allen without providing a clear reason.
The decision was unexpected, given that Allen had led the city through a downtown renaissance with the reopening of Fayetteville Street and, despite the great recession, a period of relative prosperity over the last 12 years.
Details about a petty grievance between councilor Randy Stagner and Allen provide some insight into the decision. But Allen’s firing leaves behind more questions than answers. Will the city continue to aggressively encourage a vibrant downtowna recent hallmark of Raleigh’s prosperity and a deterrent to suburban sprawl?
The key faction that voted for Allen’s firing is made up of councilors Stagner, Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson, who have been at odds with some of the city staff’s recent planning recommendations. They represent what Bob Geary, an INDY Week columnist, has called a “neighborhood-friendly” approach to development.
But it can also be argued that their approach is a hindrance to fostering denser populations inside the beltline. Crowder and company have resisted apartment complexes that would increase density around Cameron Village for fear that they would cause traffic congestion in nearby neighborhoods.
This group of councilors also blocked a provision to allow the construction of small backyard houses, aka granny flats, because of worries that slumlords would build shoddy structures, attracting “bad” tenants and destroying neighborhoods.
Allen’s staff recommended approval of such proposals, arguing that the benefits of dense urban growth outweigh the costs.
Councilor Stephenson doesn’t see it that way. He says too much urban density, without supporting infrastructure such as public transportation and bike lanes, will smother the neighborhoods that made Raleigh attractive in the first place.
“We don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” he argues.
But councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who voted against Allen’s firing, doesn’t see the goose or the golden egg as quaint, old-Raleigh neighborhoods. She sees the future in a younger generation moving to Raleigh because of its densely populated, dynamic downtown.
“If you say we can’t have new development without infrastructure, then half of Raleigh wouldn’t have been built,” says Baldwin. “We have to have the density to support the infrastructure and transit. You can’t talk out both sides of your mouth on that.”
City manager Allen clearly understands the development challenges of a “growing, dynamic city,” says Baldwin. “He was a strong leader in that regard. I didn’t see a reason to fire him.”
But Stephenson says the city needs “new expertise” for dealing with what he sees as the pressing challenge of finding equilibrium between density and infrastructure. “We need to slowly change the balance,” he says.
Coming down on the wrong side of growth was not Allen’s only downfall. Recent emails, obtained by The News & Observer, reveal that councilor Stagner was disappointed with how Allen handled a parking problem.
After some confusion over spaces reserved for council members, Stagner asked that parking permits be issued, which eventually happened. He then wrote to other council members:
“Mr. Allen has handled this simple administrative issue with staff poorly. In light of this and other staff-related issues I would like to discuss his future with the City of Raleigh at your earliest convenience.”
But Stagner told INDY Week, “Parking was never a part of the consideration for [Allen’s] non-renewal of contract.” Based on advice from the city attorney, Stagner declined to discuss the other “staff-related issues” related to Allen’s dismissal.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane also dismisses the email exchange. “That was one email between one councilor and Russell,” she said. “It has nothing to do with the conversations that have been going on for a long time.” McFarlane also declined to elaborate on the conversations that have been going on “for a long time.”
Specifically what those conversations were, Raleigh may never know. But we do know this: Since the 2011 municipal elections, the council’s philosophical approach to development has shifted.
In 2006, when Crowder voted against the reopening of Fayetteville Street, he was the only councilor with a record of resisting development in the name of protecting neighborhoods. Now his ranks have grown to include Stephenson and Stagner. And when it comes to development issues, three is enough to build a simple majority on the eight-member council.
Councilors John Odom and Bonner Gaylord, who also voted to dismiss Allen, are fiscal conservatives and not easily categorized. Baldwin has been the consistently strong voice for increasing density. Fellow Democrats Eugene Weeks and Mayor McFarlane have not staked out strong positions.
One issue the councilors agree on is strengthening public transit. They may try to fund better bus service through a bond referendum this fall. And hiring a city manager invested in public transit will also likely be a priority.
But improved transit won’t come quicky. Meanwhile, roughly 12,000 people move to Raleigh each year, and the city council must decide where to put them.
This article appeared in print with the headline “No direction home.”