On July 2, at the Raleigh City Council’s last meeting before its summer break, a handful of residents stepped forward to oppose a rezoning request that might eventually allow developer John Kane to build downtown’s tallest skyscraper, on a site on Peace Street currently zoned for twelve stories.

Their complaints boiled down to the idea that the project was too much. Too tall. Too intense. Too many “transient” renters, as one put it. Most important, too much traffic. 

One woman with cropped white hair and thick-rimmed glasses called a plan to add a bike lane to the project “almost offensive.” (She didn’t elaborate.) Bob Geary, who cast the sole vote against the rezoning as a member of the city’s planning commission, told the council that Kane’s building—in a thriving part of town abutting the nightlife district—would do nothing to alleviate gentrification or benefit the city’s poor, so it should be rejected. 

If you ask him, Geary—a former INDY writer—will tell you he’s the most progressive person he knows. Most of the people who objected to Kane’s development would call themselves progressives, too. In their eyes, they’re standing up to an avaricious developer who is remaking the character of downtown, clogging its streets, and turning it into a playground for the elite.

Kane’s offer to put $1 million into the city’s affordable housing trust fund is woefully insufficient, they say, considering that he hasn’t committed to reserving units in his building for lower-income people. If they had their way—and if state law didn’t prohibit it—they’d require developers to include affordable housing in their projects, especially as a condition for higher-intensity zoning.

But many other people who also call themselves progressives think Kane’s project is a good thing, and the council should stay out of the way. They want downtown to get taller and busier, rather than having development sprawl toward the suburbs. They want more bikes (and bike lanes) and fewer cars (and even electric scooters). 

In short, they want Raleigh to embrace the Big City it could become rather than pine for the Sleepy Town it used to be.

And they believe the way to address the city’s affordability crisis isn’t by going to war with developers but by asking them to build more—a lot more. They want the neighborhoods surrounding the city’s core to become denser, by adding duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units where city rules currently allow only single-family homes. That’s how you build a greener city centered more on mass transit and less on cars, they say.

But these types of changes are anathema to the first camp, whose proponents can be protective of the character of their single-family neighborhoods, annoyed by the prospect of slow-going commutes, and see the second camp as selling out to monied development interests.

These dueling perspectives are often labeled NIMBY and YIMBY, though that’s probably reductive. You could also point to a generational divide at work, with younger residents less fearful of urban development, though this characterization likewise runs the risk of being overly simplistic. 

Each group believes it is espousing smart-growth principles that will prevent Raleigh from repeating the mistakes made by other fast-growing cities, such as Austin and Seattle. And each group also believes that its positions are truly progressive—more progressive—than the other’s.

Broadly speaking, defining yourself as a progressive in terms of national politics is easy: You’re for equality, social justice, universal health care, a robust safety net, and initiatives to combat climate change. You’re also unlikely to own a MAGA hat.

Locally, things aren’t so cut-and-dried.

Almost everyone running for Raleigh mayor and city council is a Democrat. Almost all identify as progressive. But on the thorniest issues facing the city—growth, development, affordability—the council’s current majority and those seeking to oust them stake out starkly different territory.

On the one side are the pro-neighborhood incumbents—the Council of No, as their detractors call them: David Cox, Stef Mendell, Russ Stephenson, and Kay Crowder. They’re skeptical not only of developers and density but of Airbnb and e-scooters. They’re also all white, all over sixty, and all homeowners; three of the four are retired.

Nicole Stewart—who, at thirty-eight, is the council’s youngest member—defines progressive the other way. She sees growth as inevitable and urban infill as a positive force. Corey Branch, the forty-one-year-old mayor pro tem and the council’s only African American, usually leans in that direction, too. 

This October, they’ll be joined on the ballot by more than a dozen challengers seeking to oust the pro-neighborhood incumbents, many of whom are like-minded, development-friendly millennials who also call themselves progressives.

The question facing Raleigh voters isn’t whether they want a progressive government. It’s what kind of progressive government they prefer. 

Their answer will shape the city’s future. 

Here’s how the dictionary defines progressive: “a person advocating or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.”

Here’s how Mayor Nancy McFarlane defines it: “Urban progressives understand that a city is a changing, morphing entity, and it’s our job to put all those things in place that define what kind of city we want to be,” says McFarlane, who announced in March that she isn’t seeking reelection. “Urban conservatives are people that don’t want anything to change.”

Case-in-point: When former council member Mary-Ann Baldwin, the vice president of marketing at a construction company who is decidedly in the build more camp, announced a bid to succeed McFarlane, she said she was doing so to advance a bold progressive vision for the city. Her critics scoffed: How could she claim to be a progressive when she’s so close to builders?

Nowhere have the battle lines over development been more sharply drawn than in the rich enclaves of the reliably liberal California, where a lack of housing supply has driven the price of even modest homes into the stratosphere. 

In 2018, California lawmakers introduced legislation to encourage density along mass transit corridors by reducing local zoning authority. Under resistance from coalitions of homeowners, who called the bill a handout to developers and said it threatened neighborhoods’ character, however, the bill died.

“The larger issue is that too many Democrats have taken a misguided, knee-jerk defense of the restrictive zoning policies that have perpetuated the urban housing crisis,” New York columnist Jonathan Chait responded. (Worth noting: Chait’s critics often deride him as an insufficiently progressive neoliberal.)

These kinds of zoning policies exist in Raleigh, too, and are legacies of segregation, as housing policy expert Richard Rothstein explains in his 2017 book The Color of Law. Nearly a century ago, the city’s school system located the black schools into Southeast Raleigh—near a quarry and a landfill—which quickly concentrated the city’s black population there. After World War II, as whites were lured to the suburbs, government policies blocked many black families from obtaining mortgages.  

In Raleigh, home-buying trends exacerbated economic and racial segregation in neighborhoods, says Asa Fleming, president of the N.C. Association of Realtors. North Hills and Five Points flourished with investments in new single-family homes, while the areas around traditionally black Shaw and St. Augustine’s Universities deteriorated. Compounding the disparity, white families were more likely to sell their homes every ten years, accumulating wealth and driving up prices in their neighborhoods, while black owners stayed put.

North Raleigh is “traditionally where the white families were buying and settling in and moving out from the city,” Fleming says. “Most of the black families were compartmentalized down in the south.”

Their urban neighborhoods were left to languish, often at the mercy of negligent landlords.

In the last two decades, the script has flipped—and so have a lot of houses in these once “undesirable” neighborhoods. Downtowns, including in Raleigh, have become hip again, and developers began turning their attention to the long-overlooked neighborhoods nearby. Formerly affordable bungalows were torn down and replaced with bigger, gaudier houses that fill up an entire lot and start at a half-million bucks; the families once forced to live there are now being elbowed out.

Progressives generally agree that gentrification is bad. In Raleigh, the development-skeptical cohort tends to think that preserving these existing neighborhoods—as well as existing neighborhoods throughout the city—should be the city’s goal. But preservation has a convenient side effect: The wealthier single-family neighborhoods in West Raleigh, the ones with political clout, stay the same, too, which means no apartment complexes or townhomes dilute the inflating values of their split-levels.

It’s supply and demand: Each year, about twenty-four thousand people move to Wake County, but only about ten to twelve thousand new housing units get built. That drives up home prices. 

The build more group says the answer is to work with developers, not against them. They point out that increased housing supply has led to stabilized or even falling market-rate rents in Nashville, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. 

But this will mean changing the city’s rules to encourage denser forms of housing: duplexes, triplexes, quads, backyard cottages, tiny homes, cottage courts, and so on. 

The pro-neighborhood camp, which has controlled the council since 2017, hasn’t been keen on this idea. Instead, it often seems more intent on micromanaging development, including what people can build on their own property. In February, it passed an ordinance requiring homeowners who want to build an accessory dwelling unit to first get their neighbors’ permission.

Even more restrictive are neighborhood conservation overlay districts, which aim “to preserve and enhance the general quality and appearance of established neighborhoods by regulating built environmental characteristics such as lot size and frontage, building setback, and building height.”

The city has twenty NCODs, with two more pending review—for comparison, Durham has two—each freezing its slice of Raleigh in time. Raleigh’s latest NCOD application is for Cameron Village, where modest homes are already priced at more than $450,000.

The message these districts broadcast is clear: If the city must grow, it shouldn’t be here.

In 1970, Joni Mitchell famously sang about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot. A half-century later, that sentiment—that development is destructive—still resonates among Boomer liberals. They’ve seen greed wreak havoc on the environment.   

A year before “Big Yellow Taxi” was released, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Into the nineties, major U.S. cities were choked by smog. Humans punched a hole in the ozone layer and may yet eradicate ourselves through climate change. 

All the while, developers have clear-cut forests and filled in wetlands to make way for endless stretches of tract homes in the hinterlands—housing projects often named for the trees they felled, fed by massive arteries of pavement. 

Literally, paving paradise.  

If development stands in opposition to the environment, being a true progressive means being skeptical of developers. And if growth requires more development, then it’s something to be skeptical of, too.

As council member David Cox writes on his website: “Raleigh is a rapidly growing city. The big question is what will the city be like in ten or twenty years? Will it continue to offer the same high quality of life that we take for granted today?”

Cox, who did not respond to the INDY’s requests for an interview, got his start in local politics by opposing a proposed supermarket in North Raleigh in 2014. His implication is that unchecked growth will inexorably make residents’ lives miserable. During his four years in office, he’s made clear that he sees his job as ensuring that doesn’t happen.

That makes him a real progressive, says Donna Bailey, who chairs the Hillsborough-Wake Citizens Advisory Council. For too long, she says, developers have been too powerful. The council’s majority—Cox, along with Mendell, Stephenson, Crowder, and the retiring Dickie Thompson—are all that’s keeping them at bay and maintaining a balance between growth and neighborhoods.

“I’m a very liberal, definitely a progressive Democrat,” she says. “But I also know that doesn’t mean you just throw away the neighborhoods.”

The pro-neighborhood cotillion talks about balance, but its arguments are frequently framed in black-and-white terms: Paradise or parking lots. Neighborhoods or development. But things aren’t that simple. People are coming. The city’s housing crisis is getting worse. 

Where should they all go?

“All over,” Bailey says. “There’s room to be developed.” That’s as specific as she gets.

Asked the same question, Bob Geary points to the “failing” strip malls lining Capital Boulevard and Wake Forest Road, north of downtown. “We have many opportunities to redevelop those old shopping centers as dense housing, and they are on major [transit] corridors,” says Geary, who lives in Cameron Park.

Better there, he continues, than in the city’s core: “Raleigh’s success as a city is predicated on strong neighborhoods—and especially strong neighborhoods inside the Beltline. It won’t really do to grow in a way that undermines the stability and the desirability of neighborhoods that are well-established.”

This idea hits upon practical limitations. The city can’t force the property owners to redevelop their land. And if it made economic sense to turn them into housing complexes, someone would have done it—which means, if there’s no market for housing, the city would likely have to buy the land or subsidize any housing built there. 

Cox, meanwhile, has argued that, because neighborhoods suffer from poor development decisions, residents should have a say in what happens in their neighborhoods—a veto, like he and his neighborhoods exercised with that supermarket.

The problem with this theory is twofold: One, this kind of hyperlocal decision-making can be provincial, with the desires of the few being prioritized over the needs of the many. Two, not every resident can always participate—young families with kids, for instance, can’t always make it to CAC meetings, which means attendance may not be representative of the neighborhood. 

The result is a series of decisions based on loud but not necessarily widespread neighborhood opposition to projects.

Take the Oxford Road sidewalk, which the city spent five years and more than $20,000 planning before Stef Mendell spiked it earlier this year after hearing from a few upset residents and assuming the whole neighborhood thought the same way. But that wasn’t the case, and Mendell eventually reversed course. (Her opponent, David Knight, says frustration over that episode drove him into the race.)

A similar thing happened in February when Cox tried to redirect $2 million in funds from River Bend Park to another park project. He, too, had listened to a few and thought they spoke for the many. When families who wanted that money to go to River Bend Park pushed back, he relented, admitting, “I, frankly, screwed up this time.”

Brian Fitzsimmons says that screw-up was the straw that broke the camel’s back—the reason he decided to challenge Cox.

“It’s not about all neighborhoods. It’s about a specific set of neighborhoods,” Fitzsimmons says. “There are far too many neighborhoods across Raleigh that have gotten slighted and forgotten.”

“If our priority is protecting our neighborhoods,” says Nicole Stewart, “then what that means right now is protecting a way of life for those who are there already. If our priority is making sure our people have the housing they need, then it means that our neighborhoods are going to change. And that’s not a bad thing.”

This is the mantra you hear from pro-growth progressives: Walkable neighborhoods. Downtown density. Alternative transportation options.

They want to bike to work. They want to walk to an urban park. They don’t mind tall buildings that bring more people and commerce downtown. And they realize that, without changing the city’s zoning template, a lot of that can’t happen.

“If you are not pro-density, then you aren’t an urban progressive,” says Trophy Brewing co-owner David Meeker. (Meeker’s uncle, Richard Meeker, owns the INDY.) “Some of these conversations are hard. The green way to grow is up, and there’s going to be density coming up on these older neighborhoods. It is what it is.”

Just as Donna Bailey believes the council’s true progressives are the ones fighting developers, the wave of pro-density challengers say the pro-neighborhood clique doesn’t deserve that title. 

“I feel that progressiveness in Raleigh, it’s not real,” says mayoral candidate Zainab Baloch. “We think it’s real. We think we’re progressive. But in reality, we are a very conservative city. Our policies are very conservative. We’re not doing anything innovative. We’re not taking any risks. We’re just doing the bare minimum. What’s the difference between having this council in office and a bunch of Republicans?”

Even Corey Branch, who tends to stay out of these fights, admits, “I think, as a city, we’re not [progressive]. When it comes to their neighborhood, [people] are nervous. They’re scared. I think that’s the reason we have so many [NCODs] that come up. That’s why we have pushed back on housing heights and things of that nature.”

Mary-Ann Baldwin says she wants to diversify the city’s housing stock and add density. Council candidates like Saige Martin and Brittany Bryan, who are challenging Kay Crowder in District D, say the city may need to disrupt some neighborhoods to make room for newcomers.

Baloch goes further. She wants to get rid of single-family zoning—which she says was “created to segregate cities”—as Minneapolis and the state of Oregon have done in the last year. Their laws allow duplexes or triplexes in neighborhoods that before allowed only single-family houses in an effort to combat rising housing costs and the racial wealth gap. 

“Minneapolis has long been a progressive city,” says Richard Florida, an economic and professor of urban studies at the University of Toronto. “It’s a city that has long taken inequality seriously.” 

While eliminating single-family is a “YIMBY posture, it’s not a single thrust,” he adds. “It’s knitted together with a broader focus on inequality.” 

Minneapolis’s plan, adopted in December, also addresses access to employment, quality of life, walkability, public transportation, and public safety. In addition, it will require developers to set aside at least 10 percent of large projects for low-income residents, a process known as inclusionary zoning.

Building more housing is a “necessary but insufficient condition,” Florida says. In other words, cities have to build more—NIMBYs miss the mark by focusing on restricting development, he argues—but that alone won’t be a panacea to the housing crisis. They also need to build dedicated affordable housing. (While Raleigh council members have spoken about the urgency of the city’s affordability crisis, they declined to put a housing bond on the ballot this year, as Durham did; they’ll likely do so in 2020 instead.)

Florida suggests following New York City’s model, which requires developers to includes affordability components in their projects or pay a fee. But such inclusionary zoning is prohibited by North Carolina law. 

He also says cities need to take a more holistic approach: They need to focus on creating better jobs and raising the minimum wage so that more people who work in the city can afford to live there. Here again, raising the minimum wage is also prohibited by North Carolina law. 

But Wake County did pass a $2.3 billion referendum in 2016 to improve its mass transit system, which Florida says is another key piece of the puzzle. 

Ultimately, however, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

“My hunch is every city will do it differently,” Florida says. “Every city will tailor it to its own needs. Some will do more wage improvement, some will build more housing, some will do it more market-based, and some will do it more public-based. But out of this, we’re going to learn how to do it.”

Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at ltauss@indyweek.com. 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

4 replies on “Who Are Raleigh’s Real Progressives?”

  1. I have long trusted the Indy on progressive issues. I am very disappointed in this rather convoluted diatribe against honest, sincere, and yes, progressive members of the Raleigh City Council. There isn’t one member of Council who is against more density downtown–not one. There isn’t one member of Council who is against better public transit–to include bike lanes and greenways. There isn’t one member of Council who is against more affordable housing. That said, John Kane is NOT a progressive by any standard and must be ‘assisted’ in doing what’s not only profitable for him, but also in the best interest of Raleigh’s citizens. You promoted candidates for Council in this article who will allow John Kane more freedom for profit as the Council did in the ‘go go’ 80s. Raleigh’s citizens are still paying for the profit given to developers at that time. North Raleigh in particular has extreme issues with stormwater management which climate change will continue to exacerbate.

    Beyond the scope of this article, but in keeping with its ‘progressive’ theme, let’s discuss Mary-Ann Baldwin. While on Council, she fought votes to promote gay rights and gun control. While to her credit, she didn’t actively fight for HB2 and allowing guns on our greenways, Baldwin’s muzzling of the Council vote makes her a progressive of convenience as best. Stop promoting her or be relegated to the fate of the once progressive N&O.

  2. So according to Indy Week, John Kane who is a Trump donor is somehow a progressive now, and anyone who says otherwise is a conservative.

  3. You rightly note that Mr Florida says density alone will not solve the problems. That affordable housing must be REQUIRED and wages must be increased along with building more. You also rightly note that cities in NC cannot legally require inclusion of affordable housing or raises in wages. Where you don’t connect the dots is that those you describe as YIMBYs want to implement the density half of the equation without the ability to implement the half that creates the equity. They are willing to rely on “trickle down” effects with no idea who will get trickled on. While those you describe as NIMBYs or the “Council of NO” have used their pressure to get John Kane to agree to including affordable units in his proposed development and to size it based on the results of a traffic study that will define the impact of all his developments in the Peace St area. Add this to the Go Raleigh development near Union Station that will also include affordable units and the “Council of NO” is actually getting developers to say “YES” and not having to rely on the unreliable promise of “Trickle Down” housing equity

  4. From discussion with a neighbor, “Yeah, I read it. It features Nicole Stewart, and it didn’t sway me. Again, the developer leaning people are being told lies. I’m not totally sure by whom, but for sure Brent Woodcox who is fomenting dissent. He’s an awful right wing lawyer for Tim Moore and Berger. He’s lying by saying that the 4 council members who want to fight the quarry are doing it for political gain. This is so not true. They actually care, and they know that the land owners have a say on what’s done, but Dicky wants the quarry as does Kane. They are both on the RDU AA and have the support of the McFarlanes who want to be part of the good old boys network. The McFarlanes are also funding all of the opponents as much as they are financially allowed to do.

    Nancy has made it quite clear that she considers anyone who votes against her not to be loyal to her. This is not a good leader. It’s what Trump does. And she and Ron definitely are giving gobs of money. She’s told them that she doesn’t need to compromise because she has the votes (on a different issue – Dix).

    The Dicky thing is fact as well. He owns some kind of construction company and wants the quarry. Remember, they made it a lease, not a sale, to get around legalities. This is the worst kind of behind closed doors activity. And also Nicole is best friends with Nancy’s daughter and she votes almost exclusively the way that Nancy wants her to. She claims to be the ‘environmental professional’ on city council and is supporting the lie that the City of Raleigh has no say. Even after the city lawyer said that Raleigh has a say. One other question is why doesn’t Sig Hutchinson fight the quarry? He’s supposed to be Mr. Greenways.”

    Before this, I supported all those excoriated here. Kane, as a political force, is someone to resist at every opportunity. Woodcox certainly is. BTW, the only Richard Meeker registered to vote in NC is a Burgaw Republican, over a 100 miles from the Triangle. Less Independent in name or action, INDY Week risks inching toward deplorable pop media, FOX News, et al. Maybe it’s time for the Independent founders to start “the social democrat” (no caps).

Comments are closed.