Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Little Rant About City Planning

I'll be moving to a new apartment in April, and I've started the search now. One of the criteria I'm judging apartments on is their walkability - that is, how easy it is to walk to a grocery store, convenience store, restaurants, bars, parks, playgrounds, etc. I am hardly alone on this: according to a WSJ article, 88% of people in my age group want a walkable, urban setting.

Unfortunately, I live in Raleigh, where such things do not exist.

Come March 15, I will start work in the sprawling, low-density planning disaster known as Research Triangle Park, which is conveniently located some 15 miles from anything that could be reasonably called an "urban center." If I wanted true walkability - meaning I could walk to work every morning - I'd be screwed; the closest housing to my office, as far as I can tell, is located some two miles away. Not horrible - but there's nothing else anywhere near it. The reason for this is that RTP is set up as a collection of large corporate campuses - the closest one could put housing is on the edges of the Park. It'd be nice if RTP picked up and moved itself to either downtown Raleigh or downtown Durham, but that's not gonna happen. So if you want to live close to work, you have to live on the edge of the Park.

One development on the edge of the Park is called Brier Creek, located on the northeast edge of the Park and part of the city of Raleigh, and this is one of the neighborhoods I'm looking at. It is laid out along a two-mile stretch of Brier Creek Parkway. Apartments are at the south and north ends of Brier Creek Pkwy as well as along the west side; shopping is located east of the parkway. The neighborhood is split into three pieces by Glenwood Avenue and Lumley Road. There are two grocery stores, a standard Lowes Foods in the middle part and an Earth Fare in the southern third. There is a weirdly upscale Indian restaurant, a cool pizza place, and another entry in the Triangle's weird obsession with combining sushi and Thai restaurants* in the middle part. There's a great Irish pub and another Indian joint in the south part, and a sports bar in the more-useless northern part. There's an elementary school and a park at the extreme south end (complete with playground). In theory, this should be a fairly walkable neighborhood.

But as I noted earlier, residential areas are either south, north, or west of the main shopping area, meaning that to get to the central part of Brier Creek you have to cross a road. Which would be great, if the city of Raleigh had put so much as a crosswalk across either Glenwood or Lumley. It's not like these are roads you can just dart across, either - Glenwood is a six-lane highway, and Lumley is a four-lane freeway feeder. Crosswalks across the four-lane, relatively high-speed Brier Creek Parkway, for those who live on the west side, are also few and far-between.

So what kind of sadistic fuck puts together a reasonably walkable neighborhood, distance-wise, and then makes walking around it as inconvenient as possible? The only conclusion I can come to is that Raleigh's city planners, to paraphrase Kanye West, don't care about walking people.

It'd be one thing if this were limited to Brier Creek... but it's not. With the exception of Cameron Village, located just west of downtown, there's something about most Raleigh neighborhoods that prevents them from being completely walkable. Downtown Raleigh would be great, except that, for some unknown reason, there isn't a grocery store. North Hills is similarly split into three pieces, and while Lassiter Mill is easy to cross, Six Forks Road, which separates the grocery store and some residential areas from the rest of the neighborhood, isn't (it's a major four-lane road that's in the process of feeding onto the freeway at that point). Crabtree Valley has a big shopping mall, but not much in the way of residential, and there's no park. I'm also looking at Lynnwood, which has a nice neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a locally managed movie theater, as well as a nearby park and grocery store... but the road to the grocery store is narrow and lacks a sidewalk, while the path to the park is a muddy, gooey mess.

Not all of this is the city's fault. The fact that a significant portion of the city's jobs are located on the city's outskirts immediately eliminates the feasibility of a high-density urban core around which everything is based. A multi-centric "Atlanta on steroids" model is probably inevitable at this point. Indeed, considering the location of the Park on the city's western edge, a higher-density, walkable "suburban downtown" in Brier Creek would be ideal from both a sustainability and convenience standpoint. (I've found that the two often go hand-in-hand.)

As such, though, Raleigh is doing a horrible job making outlying centers like Brier Creek look anything like compact, walkable neighborhoods that will attract young and mobile people to the area. I don't know of any plans for making pedestrian travel across Glenwood, Lumley, or Brier Creek Parkway any easier, for example. The rail plans on the city's comprehensive plan website completely ignores Crabtree Valley and Brier Creek, even though the Glenwood Avenue corridor seems like it would be an ideal one for rail transit. The city is to be commended for its work on downtown - however, if the city thinks that it can just keep developing downtown while ignoring density and convenience issues in the rest of the city, they're going to be stuck with sprawl and traffic-choked streets. As I mentioned earlier, the very existence of the Park makes a single-center model impossible.

Pedestrian bridges in Brier Creek, for example, would be ideal and would contribute to continued high-density growth in the neighborhood. Developing a park in Crabtree - there's some open space there - and expanding an existent greenway system in the area would help that neighborhood. Transit that hit all the main growth areas - the Glenwood corridor, the Capital Boulevard corridor, and West Raleigh - as well as the employment centers in the Park would also be great. (The current bus system has one bus line that ends in Brier Creek and peters out at Crabtree, only halfway to downtown. The city doesn't bus people into the Park, and the multi-city Triangle Transit Authority buses ignore Brier Creek altogether.)

But Raleigh seems stuck in the idea that everyone who doesn't live and work downtown is okay with driving everywhere. That's a shame. Many of the 88% of us who want high-density walkable neighborhoods are forced by circumstance to work - and thus, if we don't want twenty-minute drives every day, to live - in suburbia. It'd be nice if Raleigh would at least acknowledge our existence... and build some damn crosswalks and sidewalks for a change.

*Seriously, what the hell is up with that? Sushi and Thai food are not even remotely related, except that they both occasionally feature rice. The flavors and main ingredients are completely different. And yet the combination of the two is everywhere around here. I actually live across the street, right now, from a restaurant called Sushi-Thai. It's like going to Tokyo and finding a Cajun place that serves tacos.

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