Regarding the Rezoning for Downtown South

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.

Downtown South – Who Has Signed Up to Speak?

Who will be speaking in support or opposed to the Downtown South rezoning? Here is what I know. Looking through the list it appears that those in support are primarily developers, business owners, and soccer enthusiasts. Those opposed are primarily social and environmental justice organizations and religious organizations.

Downtown South – Z-13-2020

The following images are slides that present information about the Downtown South rezoning request in Raleigh, NC.

Most rezoning requests ask for a change in entitlements. Often these entitlements pertain to the kinds of uses that are allowed and/or the heights that are allowed. In some cases the uses are restricted to residential uses. In other cases the uses are expanded to include commercial and/or institutional uses. Maximum heights will also vary. In Raleigh certain zoning districts allow up to 40 story buildings.

In this particular case, the requested outcome is for a mix of residential, office, and commercial uses and heights up to 40 stories. These are considered to be maximum entitlements.

This case also comes with a set of conditions that limit the entitlements under certain circumstances. For example, certain uses are prohibited and heights are prohibited provided certain conditions are met. Also included are conditions that pertain to the management of storm water to mitigate possible downstream flooding.

The properties under consideration for rezoning are also located south of downtown Raleigh. They are near historically Black neighborhoods. It is anticipated that this rezoning will result in the construction of thousands of luxury residential units which will raise property values. A major concern is that low income families who rent in the area will eventually be forced to move as property values rise and more properties are redeveloped – gentrification with displacement.

There are also concerns about the road infrastructure, a dramatic increase in the traffic, and the impact of this traffic on nearby neighborhoods.

In the following slide, the highlighted properties are adjacent to the subject property (which is to the north). What the condition says is that maximum heights are 12 stories for a distance of 180 feet from the property line.

In the following slides, the highlighted properties are the subject properties.

In the following you will see Tier 3 site plan mentioned. What is a Tier 3 site plan? At the moment I do not know. But I will update this post as soon as I find out.

Why I Don’t Support Council’s $80 Million Housing Bond

Raleigh is a wealthy community that has seen tremendous growth for many years. In the past, Raleigh has grown outwards with new subdivisions being constructed year after year. Today Raleigh encompasses 144 square miles.

Today it has become more difficult for the City to continue to grow outwards. There are environmental impacts and it is becoming more difficult and costly to extend infrastructure such as water, sewer, and roads. As a consequence we are seeing the construction of more and more rental housing in the form of high-rise buildings.

But this is not, in general, affordable housing. The apartments at North Hills, and downtown near Fayetteville Street and along Peace Street as well as elsewhere in the City are marketed has high-end, luxury housing.

There is tremendous pressure to buy up older, affordable apartments and tear them down and replace them with new, more expensive options. People are being evicted to make this happen and those people are finding it nearly impossible to find a new place to live.

Generally, these displaced people are elderly or working class people who earn below the area median income (AMI). And their numbers are growing. In a diverse city, not everyone is highly educated with advanced degrees in high-tech fields. Today more than 16,000 spend more than 50% of their income on housing. The need is tremendous and growing.

So, when Raleigh City Council voted 7-1 to place a bond on the ballot to raise money for housing, why didn’t they make any significant commitment to truly affordable housing? Why didn’t they address the need that so many in our City face?

Instead, the City Council plans to build market rate and near market rate housing arguing that doing so will help to fund what will ultimately be a handful of “affordable” housing units. For example, in a recent memo explaining how the $80 million will be spent, the City staff states, “30% AMI units (for low wage earners) must be mixed with higher income targets.” In same memo, City staff recommended committing some of the money to only 50 units at 30% AMI or less.

Additionally, City staff recommends committing to 25% of 9% gap financing and 10% of 4% gap financing for 30% AMI. Given that a total of $24 million is allocated for this purpose, the City’s commitment to providing housing at 30% AMI will amount to about 100 units. However, Council did not commit to an actual number of dwellings.

So, of the $80 million that voters are being asked to support, perhaps two tenths of it will be used for affordable housing for those most in need. However, there is no actual commitment.

Early in 2020, the Mayor established a so called compassion fund with $20,000 to help the homeless. To date, not a dollar has been spent to help those in need. City government does not need to be in the business of funding market and near market rate rate housing while building only a small number of affordable housing units (assuming that will happen). Developers in Raleigh do not need a blank check from Raleigh taxpayers.

As a consequence, I do not support the City’s housing bond.

Ending Single Family Zoning: Your Opinion Matters

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Historically, Raleigh's zoning ordinance has allowed properties to be zoned only for single family home - in other words only single family homes can be constructed on those properties. In general, entire neighborhoods have been zoned only for single family homes.

Recently, on July 7th, City Council voted to end single family zoning. On July 7th Council voted to allow so-called "cottage courts" to be constructed on properties that were previously reserved for single family homes.

A "cottage court" is a type of multi-unit housing.  Under the new rules that were adopted, up to 30 units can now be built on property that had previously been reserved for single family homes.

Do you agree or disagree with this decision?

Update from City Council, July 2020

On Tuesday Council took several actions.

First, Council approved allowing Accessory Dwelling Units – you can now build a second habitable structure on your property that meets certain guidelines. In general, I supported this measure. However, Nicole Stewart made a motion to gut most guidelines.

These guidelines included setbacks, heights, and landscaping as well as a prohibition against using the structures as AirBnB type vacation rentals. I felt that these guidelines would provide sufficient safeguards to maintain the peace, quiet, and property values of nearby homeowners. But, without these important guidelines, I voted against the measure.

Second, Council approved doubling the number of units for cottage courts and allowing them in R-2 and R-4 residential zoning districts. Originally, cottage courts (essentially, multifamily units with a common building for facilities such as laundry, recreation, etc) were limited to 15 units and were not allowed in R-2 and R-4 residential zoning districts. Now that limit has been increased to 30 units. This change effectively ends single family zoning in Raleigh. I voted against this measure.

Third, Council passed a change to allow four story buildings to go from 62 feet in height to 68 feet in height and a five story building to go from 75 feet in height to 80 feet in height. My main concerns with this change is that these buildings can be constructed directly adjacent to residential neighborhoods. My opinion is that adjacent to neighborhoods, the height should actually be reduced. Moreover, taller buildings are less environmentally friendly. They are less energy efficient, increase carbon emissions, increase visual pollution, and are more costly to construct and therefore, are less affordable. I voted against this motion.

Fourth, I did support a motion to add Juneteenth as a holiday.

Fifth, I did support a motion to send a letter to the legislature asking for City Council to have more autonomy related oversight of the Police Department. The specifics of that autonomy remain to be determined by the legislature. Effectively, this moves the discussion of police oversight to the state legislature.

Lastly, Council held a public hearing on the $80 million affordable housing bond. At the conclusion of the hearing I noted that Council has not specified exactly how that money will be spent. I do favor an affordable housing bond that will provide real affordable housing. I do not support a blank check for developers. In the end, Council did not adopt any policy about how the $80 million will be spent. As a consequence, I voted against approving the affordable housing bond.

My Questions for Applicants for the District D Vacancy

The following are my questions for all who have applied for consideration to fill the vacancy on Raleigh City Council in District D.

Would you vote in favor of a City council resolution opposing the Wake Stone quarry? Why or why not?

Would you support taking legal action against the Wake Stone quarry?

What should be the City’s policy regarding how to spend the proposed affordable housing bond?

Do you support Neighborhood Overlay Conservation Districts? Why or why not?

Do you support Historic Overlay Districts? Why or Why not?

Would you vote to reinstate Citizens Advisory Councils?

Should City Council have held public meetings and invited public discussion before taking any action on Citizens Advisory Councils?

Have you attended CAC meetings? If so, what was your experience?

Do you support ending single family zoning districts? Why or why not?

Should Raleigh’s Police Advisory Board have subpoena power? Why or why not? If so, how should subpoena power be implemented?

Should Raleigh’s Police Advisory Board have disciplinary power? Why or why not? If so, how should disciplinary power be implemented?

What is your definition of democracy?

Should backyard cottages be used as AirBnB-style short term rentals? If so, will this help or hurt the availability of affordable housing?

Should public tax dollars be used to finance sports arenas? Why or why not?

Is gentrification good or bad for Raleigh? Why or why not?

Should Raleigh eliminate at-large Council members and go to all District Council members? Why or why not?

Should Raleigh increase the number of people on City Council as a way to increase and diversify representation? Why or why not?

Should Raleigh City Council go to four year terms? Why or why not?

Under what circumstances would you vote against a rezoning to increase density?

What does “protecting a neighborhood” mean to you?

What does “defund the police” mean to you? Do you support defunding the police based on your definition?

Moving Foward

Thank you to everyone who participated in the special meeting of City Council. And thank you to the countless numbers who are committed to change and bringing forward a better community and a better America.

It is great to be heard. It is greater when there is action.

One of the key areas of the City’s Strategic Plan is Organizational Excellence. For the past five years I have advocated for a city council committee focused on organizational excellence to review ALL of the city’s policies and procedures on an ongoing basis. I hope we take action to form that committee and begin that important work.

But we must do more. On Wednesday President Obama challenged all mayors, city councils, and police oversight boards to take a pledge to take the following actions:

1. REVIEW your police use of force policies.

2. ENGAGE your communities by including a diverse range of input, experiences, and stories in your review.

3. REPORT the findings of your review to your community and seek feedback.

4. REFORM your community’s police use of force policies.

On Wednesday I personally took this pledge. I am committed to reviewing eight key policies as recommended by Campaign Zero.

And there is still more we can do. Let us bring back our citizen-led Citizens Advisory Councils where people could meet together and with the police. Since February we have lost 72 CAC meetings and 72 opportunities to engage with citizens. Eight of our CACs served southeast Raleigh and the Black community. Today we have nothing and we desperately need the voice of citizens.

And there is still more. I challenge our state legislature to take action. I challenge the legislature to make our state more equitable. To name a few, End gerrymandering, and all forms of discrimination that discourage and block people from voting. Treat ALL drug addiction as an illness rather than a crime. And, Allow cities the ability to require affordable housing.

Let us work together to end the disadvantages so many face simply because of the color of their skin.

Memorial Day 2020

It has been well reported that Adam Smith, one of the leaders of the ReOpen NC, Facebook group has posted a video stating that he is prepared for violence and murder to protect his rights. Presumably the violence and murder would be directed at duly elected officials. This is not acceptable and something that I condemn in no uncertain terms.

I am a 13th generation descendant of Edward Fuller. Edward and his brother Samuel signed the Mayflower Compact. While the Pilgrims certainly had their shortcomings, the Mayflower Compact was not one of them and marked an important milestone whereby people agreed to “bind ourselves together into a civil Body Politick” to which they promised “all due Submission and Obedience.”

On May 30, 1868 James Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery at the first official Decoration Day. He said, in part,

“Peace, liberty, and personal security were blessings as common and universal as sunshine and showers and fruitful seasons; and all sprang from a single source, the old American principle that all owe due submission and obedience to the lawfully expressed will of the majority. This is not one of the doctrines of our political system—it is the system itself. It is our political firmament, in which all other truths are set, as stars in Heaven. It is the encasing air, the breath of the Nation’s life.”

Coming together peacefully in a system of government to enact laws that we willing live by is the hallmark of what we strive for. Or course, we Americans have not been able to achieve this at all times. But we continually renew our commitment to this goal every time we have an election and with every national celebration and observance. As Garfield said, it is the breath of our Nation’s life.

And, this is why today, on Memorial Day, we remember those who gave their lives for this Country.

Side note: at the time of his Decoration Day speech, Garfield was a Congressman from Ohio. He later became the 20th President serving from March 1881 until his assassination six and a half months later.