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Downtown summit? First things first

The News and Observer wrote an editorial about the need for a downtown summit. I’ve been pondering it for a while and have a few comments.

Revitalization has been a success, to be sure. But with that success comes challenges the city now must address. Yes, the City Council is doing so in working on a “downtown plan,” but a broader effort is needed, because the boom has brought up some issues.

Therefore, council members can lead the way in calling for a downtown summit of sorts, bringing in not just the dedicated advocates from places like the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, but residents from North, South, East and West Raleigh, people who perhaps, even now, don’t come downtown all that much. Even with all the hoopla, it’s still not uncommon to meet North Raleighites who have never been downtown, period.

Actually, some people will never visit downtown and it doesn’t matter what you try to do to change this. There are suburbanites who don’t “get” downtown and likely won’t ever. And you know what? That’s okay. Raleigh is a big city now and offers something for everyone – for downtown fans and others. You can get by just fine if you never go downtown.

The challenges include: an increasing problem with what to do about trash pickups in the downtown area to ease the frequent sight, particularly on weekends, of big blue barrels on sidewalks or on the street. Perhaps it’s a matter of pickup times, or zoning rules to force new property owners to provide space to store trash. This much is certain: With more people actually living downtown, the city can’t be sending trucks out in the wee hours anymore.

This is the most perplexing issue the N&O raises. What to do about the unsightly blue barrels? You mean, like … I don’t know … maybe pick them up before anyone sees them??? Well, that would require trash trucks to roll before anyone is awake, meaning the wee hours. Or build a giant recycling pipeline and bury it under city streets. Or, we could simply suspend our recycling program around downtown and buy up the rest of Wake County property for new landfills. Barring any of that, though, a truck will have to pick up the recycling and that means it likely will be doing this in the morning.

People who move downtown expect an urban experience. They don’t expect solitude. Heck, my Indian coworkers are so accustomed to living in cities with noise that they are actually uncomfortable if its too quiet. So if trash trucks are out on the streets in the early morning, that’s part of the experience.

And it’s not like the trash trucks that serve my suburban neighborhood are any quieter. The difference is that I have better windows than many of the older buildings found in downtown. Yet there’s nothing keeping the builders of these new downtown condos and apartments from installing good, quality windows in their projects. Unless they’re cheapskates.

And what about parking? There are decks, and on-street parking, and city officials note it’s still possible to park for free on the evenings. But policies seem inconsistent, and the perception on the part of many people who don’t come downtown often is that it’s inconvenient and expensive. The city can change that.

There is plenty of parking downtown, and there always has been. There are parking decks galore. I have never had trouble finding a place to park. The only question is how much are you willing to pay.

I totally agree, though, that policies are inconsistent. Signs on city decks clearly say that parking is free on weekends and evenings, yet these decks are often charging $7 to park during these times. This drives me nuts, so much so that I will soon be scrutinizing the parking contract the city signed with McLauren Parking. If the city wants to charge for special events, it should explicitly tell the public when these fees are in effect – the $7 sign at the parking deck entrances should not be their first inkling. And the parking deck signs need to change to remove the “free on weekends” wording if the city doesn’t intend to honor it. More often than not, it seems when I want to spend an evening downtown I am faced with an unexpected charge for parking when I thought it would be free.

As for road races, I’m all for them. I’m writing a lengthy blog post which explains why. The tl;dr is that we’re a city on its way to 1,000,000 citizens. We are big enough to handle big events, and should be honored that we are attracting them. But more on that later.

Overall, though, the N&O editorial is pointing in the wrong direction. Downtown growth is fine, and it will be fine, because the city has plenty of stakeholders who care about it and because the city has solid development plans to guide its growth. Downtown will be fine.

On the other hand, the newspaper should be asking why the city spent millions of dollars and untold hours of staff and citizen time developing a Unified Development Ordinance that makes development predictable for everyone involved, yet some city councilmembers happily kick it to the curb when the first big development get proposed on Hillsborough Street. The paper might also question why its own stories seem to encourage this kind of behavior.

Our success is no accident – it comes not only from years of planning but from sticking with the plans! The News and Observer should be holding our elected leaders accountable for sticking with these plans and refrain from its recent “any development, anywhere” approach to reporting. Until then I’ll take the N&O’s development advice with a large grain of salt.

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