The newly seated Raleigh Council got more done in its first meeting than its predecessor did in two years.
The real question is, will it be able to keep up the breakneck pace when it comes to addressing more challenging issues like affordable housing?
In a series of swift motions last week, all unanimously approved, the council voted to begin loosening restrictive regulations on accessory dwelling units, short-term rentals, and electric scooters, issues that lingered for months or years under the previous council. If the board—swept into office in October on an aggressive pro-growth platform—follows through and makes good on its campaign promises, it will nix a requirement that forces residents to petition neighbors for the right to build backyard cottages and instead allow them to build ADUs by right throughout the city. It will also legalize renting whole houses on Airbnb and other services (enforcement has been suspended while new rules are vetted) and permit more than one scooter company downtown.
But the council didn’t stop there last week.
It reorganized committee assignments by returning the Growth and Natural Resources Committee to a body of four instead of five. Two years ago, the previous council’s five-member anti-development majority usurped then-mayor Nancy McFarlane’s traditional appointment prerogative and put themselves on that committee, giving them a final say on development issues. While those five could create a consensus among themselves, they also moved at a snail’s pace, and key initiatives lingered in the committee for months or longer. Four of the five are no longer on the council.
Nicole Stewart heads the new GNR committee, while Corey Branch will lead Transportation and Transit. Newcomer Jonathan Melton will chair the Economic Development and Innovation Committee. Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin will helm the Safe, Healthy, and Vibrant Communities Committee—renamed from the Healthy Neighborhoods Committee, a not-so-subtle indication that the main priority will no longer be protecting neighborhoods from growth.
The public also got a glimpse at how Baldwin will run meetings—and not for the best. In the public comment period on Tuesday night, she authoritatively enforced a poorly conceived decorum rule approved by the previous council earlier this year that forbids residents from speaking directly to individual council members. Not only that, but she arbitrarily expanded the rule to forbid constituents from even mentioning the names of individual staff members—in this case, Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown. After the INDY criticized the mayor for enforcing this rule last week, Melton posted on Twitter that the council will look into changing it.
Some of the most sweeping changes came during a lengthy session on Tuesday night, when the council increased zoning for several parcels, which could add more than a thousand housing units throughout the city, most concentrated in a series of up-to-twenty-story mixed-use developments off South Saunders Road near Dix Park.
Compared to the previous council, which would endlessly debate setbacks and traffic impacts, watching these rezoning requests sail through was almost surreal. Even David Cox, the lone holdover from the GNR 5, seemed on board.
But the council’s biggest test is yet to come.
Baldwin promised to move forward with ambitious bonds to address housing affordability and the first phase of Dix Park, what she dubbed Raleigh’s “moonshot” during her swearing-in address.
If it lives up to its moniker, the moonshot will have to be at least as big as the $95 million affordable housing bond that passed in Durham in November. (Baldwin has invited Durham mayor Steve Schewel to give a presentation on the bond and Durham’s housing plans, including Expanded Housing Choices—Durham’s plan allow increased density in single-family neighborhoods near downtown—at a council workshop on December 17.)
More important than the housing bond’s dollar amount is how the council will try to achieve its goals. Will it seek to increase zoning and encourage density in existing neighborhoods or hoard land near transit corridors, concentrating affordable housing along bus lines off Capital Boulevard and New Bern? Will it focus on rental housing or affordable homeownership programs, like in College Park?
And will it move as swiftly on those measures as it did last Tuesday, or stall under the weight of its ambitions?
“This initiative will set the stage for the Raleigh of the future and determine what our city will become over the next decade,” Baldwin said at her swearing-in ceremony last Monday. “It’s our moonshot. Something we, as a city, must do.”
Contact Raleigh news editor Leigh Tauss at email@example.com.
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The glossed over part of this Leigh Tauss puff piece is that the new city councilors are more repressive than the previous one they complained about! There are at least three attorneys on council,Knight, Bufkin and Melton and none of them spoke up when Mayor Baldwin banged her gavel at a woman her dared to say the chief’s name. Her name is public knowledge, D’oh.
Let’s see some real reporting on this council that you worked so hard to get elected or are they immune from criticism?
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