The most important element in a comprehensive plan, says Raleigh Planning Director Mitch Silver, is the vision statement. You pick a point in the future2030 in this case. You determine your desired outcome: What do you want your city to look like? Then you write down the policies that will make it so, draw a land-use map to go with them and adopt zoning codes to steer it. Pretty dry.

But it wasn’t dry at all when an energized Silver described his own vision for Raleigh at last month’s meeting of the Special Transit Advisory Commission (STAC), a 29-member regional body studying whetherand howto graft a rail and bus system onto the fast-growing Triangle. Silver told them transit “is not an option, it’s a necessity” if Raleigh and its neighbors are to remain economically competitive.

“All great cities have great transit,” he declared.

But to make transit work, Raleigh will also need growth management, Silver continued. Raleigh’s new comprehensive plan, expected to take shape by 2009, will emphasize both: City leaders are intent on changing development patterns from strictly suburban to newly urbanand on designating specific transit corridors where it’s possible to create the dense, but also walkable, bikeable places that appeal to young folks and empty nesters, too.

Raleigh’s been looking at possible streetcar routes, Silver said, rapid-fire. It’s getting into matters of “public realm.” It’s going “multi-modal.” It’s hoping the region will go that way with it.

“When I took this job,” Silver concluded, slowing his cadence for emphasis, “everybody said, ‘Please, we don’t want to be Atlanta.’ What’s ironic is that we seem to be making all the same mistakes as Atlanta did. But the good news is, we still have time to correct our mistakes.”

The combined effect of the STAC process and writing a new comprehensive plan is that Raleigh now has a once-in-a-generation chance to set a new course for development after an era of sprawl. The big ideas: sustainable development and “placemaking.” The first is about the efficient use of resources, including land and water. The second is a practice gaining momentum nationwide and was employed during the redevelopment of Fayetteville Street, with help from the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a New York-based nonprofit.

“Placemaking is not just the act of building or fixing up a space, but a whole process that fosters the creation of vital public destinations: the kind of places where people feel a strong stake in their communities,” according to PPS. “Simply put, placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential.”

If recent Raleigh elections are any indication, most voters are ready for the change. Since 2001, they’ve steadily replaced the laissez-faire, mostly Republican members who controlled the city council in the ’90s with progressive-minded Democrats and one independent who favor stronger planning and neighborhood protections.

The Oct. 9 elections completed the transition, as newcomers Rodger Koopman and Nancy McFarlane, the independent, defeated a pair of developer-friendly incumbents, cementing in place a new, 5-3 majority led by Mayor Charles Meeker.

Another indication of the public’s readiness: a series of public forums sponsored by Silver’s department under the banner “Designing a 21st-Century City” is drawing audiences of several hundred each. The fourth and final forum, on “Form-Based Codes,” is scheduled for Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. in the downtown Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Earlier topics included “Transit-Oriented Development” and “Public Realm: How Do We Create a Pedestrian-Friendly City?”

The forums were designed to whet public appetites for the detailed labor involved in writing the new comprehensive plan, which will be only the second in Raleigh’s history. The first one was adopted in 1989.

An opening round of public workshops is coming in two weeks:

  • Nov. 13, at The Church of the Good Shepherd, 125 Hillsborough St.
  • Nov. 14, at NCSU’s McKimmon Conference Center, 1101 Gorman St.
  • Nov. 15, at North Raleigh Church of Christ, 8701 Falls of Neuse Road.
  • The three sessions are supposed to be identical. All are scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m.

    Silver is quick to say that the final decisions about the plan are up to the public and the council, not him. He promises a robust public participation process, both before and after the plan is adopted.

    If so, it will be a big change from what happened two decades ago, says Anne Franklin, a council member then and a citizen participant now.

    “The biggest piece missing in the old comprehensive plan was communication with the public,” Franklin says. “I see this comp plan as an opportunity for community discussionyou want a product, but you also want it to give people the tools they need to be involved with their city into the future.”

    Such public involvement will be even more critical, she adds, as Raleigh moves from the old single-use model of development to mixed-use and greater densities in core areas. “Any time you have to mix up your life with something or somebody else that’s different, it’s a lot more complicated,” Franklin says, laughing.

    Silver came to Raleigh two years ago after stints as a city manager in New Jersey, a planner in New York City and the deputy planning director for Washington, D.C., as it rewrote a comp plan in 2003-04. Talking about Raleigh’s land use prospects, he’s like a kid in a candy-design store, grabbing old reports off his shelves to underline his points.

    “I love this stuff,” he finally says, shrugging.

    What Atlanta got wrong, Silver says, is that the city and its suburbs failed to plan as a region. Consequently, they ended up with a sprawling highway network that was both costly to maintain and jammed with traffic. The congestion got so bad that the region’s growth was slowed, hurting its economy, while planners struggled to retrofit the sprawl with urban redevelopment and a transit systemat huge expense.

    Raleigh and its suburbs “are in much the same situation,” with every municipality making its own decisions about growth, he says. But the problems aren’t as advancedyetand the STAC process offers some hope for a transit-led collaboration. (See “What’s up with the STAC?,” page 15.) “Balanced growth cannot be accomplished by Raleigh alone,” Silver says. “This is going to have to be a regional planning effort.”

    Silver expects the comp plan effort to focus on much the same list of potential transit corridors as the STAC, including the “linchpin” TTA rail corridor, Capital Boulevard, East Raleigh and the Glenwood Avenue-N.C. Hwy. 70 corridor. A big issue will be whether it’s even possible, over the next 20 years, to make transit connections between the various focus-area “dots” in the current comprehensive plan; they include such strip-development sites as Triangle Town Center on Capital Boulevard and the Brier Creek area near RDU airport, both of which were designated as new “downtowns” but haven’t turned out that way.

    Other issues the plan will address, he says:

    “Predictability” should replace the old “flexibility” when it comes to development issues;

    Teardowns, infill standards and transition zones between established neighborhoods and urban development locations;

    “Equity” for lesser-income folks in redeveloping areas; transit helps, but affordable-housing options are needed too;

    Public investmentsa closer tie is needed between the city’s capital improvement plan (CIP) and its land-use planning; to date, developers have driven land use and city investments followed;

    Which way(s) should downtown grow? Raleigh’s current downtown is smallbut with transit-oriented development, there are a lot of ways to extend it.

    The point of transit corridors is to foster dense, mixed-use developments without, however, flooding them all with automobiles. Instead, they should “work like a necklace of pearls,” University of California-Berkeley expert Robert Cervero told a Raleigh audience, with each transit station creating a gateway to interesting streets where people don’t need or want a car.

    That’s where public realm comes in, Silver says. Transit stations don’t work if they dump you in a place you don’t want to be and can’t get around on foot. So a good comprehensive plan follows corridor selection with policies to govern building design, scale and articulation, and earmarks capital investments so the designated streets have the requisite pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, seating, lighting and open space.

    Investments will also be needed in affordable housing programs, Silver says, either by the city, private developers or both.

    “As we urbanize and become more dense, [housing] prices will go up, and that will require some public interventionas you provide for affordable housing, someone has to pay,” Silver says.

    Silver’s consultants also are working on a “greenprint” of open spaces and on public art. “Raleigh’s got a lot of blank walls,” he comments. “Are we averse to murals? I don’t know.” But Raleigh, he thinks, can gain a lot by paying attention to the little details of “texture, view corridors and the beauty of simple things.”

    “We’re going to elevate the placemaking,” Silver says. “We want to be experience-builders.”

    Lest such subjects as view corridors sound elitist or a waste of money, they’re anything but in the competition among regions for “sustainable” economic development, according to Ken Bowers, Silver’s deputy and the comp-plan project manager. A study done for the U.S. Department of Transportation, entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight: Capturing the Demand for Housing Near Transit,” indicates that up to one-third of householdsincluding many younger, highly educated people without kids (or savings)are looking for lively places to live with diverse transit, housing, work and entertainment choices.

    For one thing, such places save on transportation expenses. For another, they save the environment.

    With its current pattern of spread out, thinly populated subdivisions, Raleigh-Durham ranks third-worst among U.S. metro areas on the “sprawl scale” as measured by Rutgers University, Bowers says, and is sky high in terms of vehicle-miles traveled per capita. Our region’s VMT average is 8.7 miles greater than the U.S. average, 6.4 miles more than our “peer” metros, and 4.4 miles more than the average of the 10 worst on the Rutgers scale.

    On the other hand, Bowers says, there are places in the region where mixed-use is working to cut auto travel and VMT rates dramatically. One is downtown Raleigh. Another: Southern Village in Chapel Hill. If the Triangle worked the way those places do, he says, studies show that the result would be 630,000 fewer automobile trips per day, 94 million fewer gallons of gasoline consumed, and 920,000 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the air.

    What’s more, Raleigh is running out of land to sprawl into. The city has about 40,000 more acres of buildable land available to it. It can keep on spreading growth across them “like peanut butter,” Silver says, or it can create dense communities in transit corridors while keeping some of the land as open space.

    Changing from current development patterns to new ones, however, will not be easy or quick, warns Betsy Kane, a professional planner and until recently a member of Raleigh’s planning commission. Market forces continue to push suburban styles, she says, and if Raleigh wants to create alternatives to them, its design policies must be strongand strongly enforced.

    “If we don’t get there, it’ll be because we didn’t put the metrics in place to measure what we wanted, or else we didn’t follow through with the measurements.”

    Former planning commission chairman Bob Mulder agrees. “The old comp plan was mightily abused,” he says. So he’s telling people in his Northeast Raleigh neighborhood, “If you don’t like the way things have been going, you need to get involved in this comp plan process.”