Last Friday, Mitchell Silver finished out his term as chief city planner in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he’s now in New York, soon to start as the city’s new parks commissioner. He’s previously worked in planning in New York and Washington, D.C., among other jobs. We caught up with him as he was packing, on his last full day in Raleigh, to talk about his time there, among other things.
What was the biggest thing, moving from larger cities like D.C. and New York to a smaller city like Raleigh, that you didn’t anticipate?
One, being in a mid-sized city, there’s more focus on implementation and the ability to get things done. You don’t have the same bureaucracy as larger cities, so they’re a lot more nimble, a lot easier to work across department lines. But more importantly, it’s a lot easier to get things implemented.
Tell me a little bit about the development code rewrite in Raleigh.
We started with the comprehensive plan in 2007, and it was adopted in 2009. That set the vision and values for the city, and then we codified those visions and values, so we immediately started on the development code. That was adopted last year and went into effect September 2013.
What do you think was the most ambitious aspect of the rewrite?
It shifted from a conventional code to a context-based code, or a form-based hybrid. That was a huge shift for Raleigh, which has thrived on traditional codes since the 1950s. There have been amendments, but this was the first major rewrite since their first code in the 1950s.
Is there a lot more density allowed downtown and in the inner neighborhoods?
It’s a tough question to answer. We do allow up to 40 stories, other locations throughout the city [are limited to] 20 stories, but there is a lot more density in specific locations throughout the city. We call them growth centers. So in those growth centers, depending on which one you’re in, you can go up to 12 and 20 stories.
Is the code trying to move away from variances and toward as-of-right development?
That’s correct. Rather than having an ad hoc decision-making process, the code now explains exactly what you need to do to get your approval, so a lot more of it is by-right. Almost 100 percent of all administrative approvals are now handled by staff. So that will save both time, money and, in our case, will encourage predictability. Follow the rules, and you should get approved. We’re working out some of the kinks, because any new code has some issues to work out. Staff is developing a list of all the fixes that need to be submitted this summer.
What’s an example?
I think one of them was our sign regulations. The other one was a tree ordinance …
I see what you mean about a mid-sized city getting more into the weeds and the specifics of things.
The public cares more. In Raleigh, we have a downtown and a midtown. In New York, you have so many retail areas that nobody pays attention. With [Raleigh], we have very few and select retail areas, so everyone pays attention.
In San Francisco and Boston, a lot of tech firms are moving from Silicon Valley and Route 128 to downtown and into Cambridge. Are you seeing any of that similar movement?
It’s one of our strongest industries, and it’s growing. We have Red Hat, Ipreo, Citrix. We are actually competing quite well against Austin. And in terms of gaming, we’re the strongest market in the country. The cost of living is cheaper, you have a lot of engineers right nearby because of N.C. State.
Almost all of them are moving downtown, and if they’re in a suburban office market, they’re looking for space downtown. We actually have an innovation and entrepreneurship manager, so businesses find space downtown. We also have something called HQ Raleigh, ThinkHouse Raleigh and American Underground — there are a lot of coworking spaces that are popping up all over downtown. And they’re filled within a month.
Those types of tech firms like old warehouse renovations. Is that true in Raleigh?
It’s the same, but the problem is, we weren’t known as an industrial city, so the areas where you have some of the old industrial buildings are limited. But they are moving into those locations, both the tech firms but also the makers. We call it the Warehouse District on the west side, right near our new Union Station that’s going to be built. Citrix, which runs ShareFile and GoToMeeting, has a major headquarters that employs 750 or 850 there. And as a result more tech firms want to be around Citrix.
Which neighborhood are you going to live in when you move to New York?
Downtown Brooklyn. They say Fort Greene, but it’s on the edge of downtown, near Pratt.
What’s your favorite New York City park?
I’d have to say Prospect Park, because I grew up next to it [in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, in Flatbush], and I probably know that park better than any other park. I spent my entire childhood in Prospect Park, so I know it like the back of my hand.
Ruling out Raleigh and New York, what city in the United States is the most exciting in terms of planning right now?
I’d put Philadelphia on that list. With Mayor Nutter and the plan, the code, after years of being stuck in neutral, having a very bizarre both planning and zoning scheme, Philadelphia to me was one of the refreshing places that are doing some exciting things.
It seems like they’re pursuing the same movement away from variances and appeals towards as-of-right development …
Man, I was a consultant there doing work maybe 10 years ago, and I was stunned by their calendar, overwhelmed. It showed that their code, their process was broken. And being a leader on green infrastructure — just so many things coming out of Philadelphia, it’s one of those cities that I personally kept an eye on in terms of the innovative things they were doing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.