At yesterday’s special City Council meeting I made the following remarks regarding the Z-13-20 rezoning request for Downtown South. The measure passed 7-1 with me casting the lone vote in opposition. This is a huge rezoning and deserved better review and due diligence from City Council than a single meeting. Clearly, this was a pre-arranged deal with the developer before the meeting began. A hundred people spoke both for and against. Clearly, everyone’s time could have been better spent.
I want to thank everyone who participated tonight. This is the first formal discussion at City Council about this project. I want everyone to know that I have not had any in depth discussions with anyone on Council about this project. In my view we are at the beginning and not the end of Council’s due diligence. A few weeks ago I did email the Mayor objecting to rushing this rezoning request. I have been hoping that we can continue this process because there are outstanding issues.
First, I agree with recommendations from Planning Commissioners that this rezoning should be resubmitted as a planned development to give the rezoning and the Downtown South project better definition. A project of this size should, as a matter of principle, never be submitted and approved as a general or conditional use rezoning case. There are simply too many variables to make reasonable predictions about the outcome. As the New & Observer editorial staff noted, the rezoning case before us is simply too vague.
The conditions do not address the environmental concerns raised by the community. Flooding is an important component. However, environmental concerns go beyond flooding. They include future automobile emissions from tens of thousands of automobiles that will be in the area daily. They include trash and garbage. They include air pollution, wind tunnel effects and light pollution. They include impacts on wildlife. This development will be at the door steps of the Walnut Creek wetlands. We do not have the details and plans to truly protect the wetlands and the downstream communities from such a high level of development.
A development of this magnitude will, without a doubt, increase property values in southeast Raleigh and especially in the nearby communities. Those property values could easily double or triple. We all know well from the recent assessment that while the City remained tax neutral, the distribution of taxes shifted to those whose properties increased in value the fastest. This project will likely result in a further redistribution of the tax burden from the wealthy in Raleigh to those in this area who will experience rapid increases in their property values.
A condition has been provided to provide what the developer refers to as affordable housing. However, this condition only provides 99 out of the first 999 units of housing to hose earning 80% of area median income. Significantly, the condition sunsets after five years. While Council cannot require a single unit of affordable housing in these 145 acres, we should take the time for further discussions. Developing 145 acres with no room for those with low incomes is not in the best interest of the city.
Next, this rezoning does not address that the properties are located in a federal Opportunity Zone. An Opportunity Zone allows investors to channel capital gains from the sale of assets into qualified funds that make long-term investments in the designated underserved community.
According to a recent article in Barrons, the regulatory framework created by the Treasury Department to guide this program has fallen short in meeting the goals of helping communities in need. Among the shortcomings is the absence of timely disclosure and transparency which are needed to ensure that the investment dollars are supporting the community and not just serving as a tax break for the wealthy.
In lieu of government-mandated disclosure, a voluntary framework has been created called the Opportunity Zones Reporting Framework. This framework was created by the US Impact Investing Alliance in partnership with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University and the Community Development Finance Initiative of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in February 2019.
This framework creates a set of best practices designed to achieve “positive economic and social outcomes in distressed communities. These recommendations were signed by 70 organizations. Neither the Planning Commission nor the Council has received any information about this framework. This framework needs to be discussed before we move forward with any rezoning. Without it, there will be no timely disclosure or transparency for these tax deferred funds. At a minimum we need commitment to following this framework.
Let us remember what Ralph Ellison wrote in 1952,
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
“You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back.”
The Downtown South project could be a great project for Raleigh and for Southeast Raleigh in particular. But so many of Raleigh’s citizens have come forward with concerns. We as a Council need to take the time to openly and transparently consider these issues and work with citizens and the developer to resolve them.
To move forward with this rezoning at this time will signal that Raleigh’s citizens, especially Southeast Raleigh’s citizens, are truly invisible to the wealthy and powerful of this city.
The protests of 2020 should have been a wakeup call. If we continue to treat people as invisible we should not be surprised when they bump people back.