As the Triangle drifts, a growth tsunami looms

Wake Up Wake County, the advocacy group that promotes careful development in one of the nation’s fastest growing counties, held a seminar last week at WakeMed. It took place in the hospital’s conference center, but maybe it should have been in the Emergency Room. When it comes to growth, the Triangle is in serious condition.

Advocates and county and municipal officials turned out for the seminar titled: “Our future: Growing smart with housing and transit.” The keynote speaker was Chris Zimmerman, an economist and former Arlington County, Va., elected official who is now with the organization Smart Growth America.

Between the slides and hopeful talk of well-designed growth, it was hard to stifle a sense of gloom. Transit boosters, local officials and planners are trying to get ready for the people to come, but the truth is Wake County and the Triangle aren’t ready and may never be.

Wake County alone is projected to add more than 200,000 people in the next 10 years. The Triangle’s overall growth could double that. One doesn’t need to be a sentimentalist clinging to the disappearing, small-city Triangle to look ahead and think, “uh-oh.”

67 people a day

We are already familiar with the oft-repeated statistic that Wake County is growing by 67 people a day. Now the greater Raleigh area has made the cut for the top 20 places where Amazon wants to build its second headquarters. If we win, it will bring growth of truly Amazonian proportions – 50,000 jobs and probably the same number of cars. The jobs will pay well, but also will drive up rents and home prices.

Most experts think the Triangle won’t win the bid because we are still too small and lack a mass-transit system. But Bloomberg News reported last week that North Carolina is in the running for another giant headquarters: Apple. If Apple builds its fourth headquarters in North Carolina, it may well come to the Triangle.

Growth isn’t a bad thing in itself. I was a newcomer once, arriving here in 1991. Wake County has grown by a half million people since then. I’ve seen the changes, most of them good – better stores, restaurants, entertainment and culture.

But now the national economy is soaring and growth here is accelerating faster than it can be accommodated. Wake County and the Triangle are attracting both aspiring millennials and retiring boomers. In between are young families with children adding to a Wake County school system that is growing by more than 2,000 students annually.

Signs of trouble

In the face of this growth there are signs of trouble. The Triangle has failed to create a regional government that can coordinate growth. The Raleigh City Council is at Ground Zero of the boom, but can’t manage to approve such obvious steps as allowing smaller backyard dwellings to increase housing density. And the state is going ahead with plans to complete the 540 Loop in southern Wake County. That 28-mile, $2.2 billion highway extension will fuel sprawl even as the Republican-led General Assembly is sharply limiting its support for light rail.

Zimmerman said growth can’t be stopped, but it can be managed. He said that requires that local officials think far ahead, innovate and move fast. Once the surge is on top of you – when traffic is gridlocked and affordable housing is available only on the far outskirts of a city – it’s too late.

In North Carolina, local responses to growth are limited by state law that gives the legislature final say over such tools as impact fees and affordable housing requirements. Zimmerman said Virginia’s cities face the same restraints, but Arlington worked around them by offering developers more of what they wanted in return for more of what the city needed. Arlington was also able to control growth by concentrating new offices and mid-rise housing around Metro rail stops. Wake County lacks a light rail system, but could concentrate new development around a coming network of rapid transit bus lines.

Transit is a key to smart development, Zimmerman said, but what people young and old want most are “things closer together.” They want to walk, whether from home to work, or restaurant to theater.

“What it really comes down to,” he said, “is walkability.”

What it needs to begin with, on the part of government and residents alike, is urgency and flexibility.

By: NED BARNETT, News & Observer

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