200px-RussStephenson12The City of Raleigh will hold elections for Mayor and City Council on October 6th.  In the at-large city council race, incumbents Mary Ann Baldwin and Russ Stephenson will face Matt Tomasulo and Craig S. Ralph.

This blog will include interviews with each candidate, with answers published as they are received.

Russ Stephenson is an at-large member of City Council, having served since 2007.  The DLA asked Russ a series of questions.  Here are his answers:

What factors need to be balanced in providing for downtown Raleigh’s growth as a vital, sustainable, creative environment or both residents and businesses?

The many factors to be balanced are found in our draft Downtown Vision Plan. Emphasis should be on (1) adopting the Downtown Plan (2) setting priorities among the many Plan goals and then (3) take clear actions to implement the prioritized goals. (1-3) = putting Vision before Action!

As an architect and urban designer, affordable housing and Complete Streets (accommodating walkers, bikers and drivers) are two of your primary focuses when considering the downtown development.  How do you best turn NOs to increased traffic and development of high rises into YESes for innovative architecture and inclusive streetscapes?

How to turn NOs into YESes: First, by presenting a clear and compelling vision for the next ten years, as we did with the Livable Streets Plan. The draft Raleigh Downtown Plan incorporates goals and actions to promote affordable housing, complete streets (accommodating all mobility modes, ages and abilities), diverse retail including a downtown grocery, innovative architecture, inclusive streetscapes, five catalytic project ideas and much more.  Second, by including a sophisticated implementation plan that includes funding for things like infrastructure and talented, dedicated implementation staff.

What have been your greatest satisfactions of serving in an at-large position on City Council for the past 8 years, and what calls the loudest for your attention going forward?

My greatest satisfactions are seeing how a clear vision for Raleigh’s future plus hard work have paid off – Examples:

(1) The adoption of our 2030 Comprehensive Plan with strategic goals of turning Raleigh away from sprawl and toward sustainable growth. The growth this plan creates is more compact, walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented and promotes environmental stewardship and shared prosperity.

(2) Being one of the original Council signers of the US Mayors Climate Protection agreement in 2007. This agreement committed our city to reducing our carbon emissions and led to the creation of Raleigh’s Office of Sustainability and a host of innovative programs for improving energy efficiency, waste reduction and the production and use of renewable energy sources. As a result of our actions, Forbes and Siemens ranked Raleigh the #1 most sustainable mid-sized city in the nation in 2011.

(3) The Hillsborough Street building boom. We have seen an almost $1 billion in private investment since the city’s original $10 million public investment based on a shared, sustainable vision for Hillsborough Street.

(4) The great success of the Livable Streets revitalization plan for downtown Raleigh.

(5) The development and implementation of the new UDO zoning code has been a once-in-a-lifetime effort to rewrite what former Planning Director, Mitch Silver, called “the DNA of the city”. The UDO is designed to implement our Comprehensive Plan vision that promotes sustainability’s triple bottom line benefits: economy, environment, and equity.

What needs most attention? When I first came onto the Council in 2005, my biggest challenge was working to reshape Raleigh’s future by turning away from the then-popular low density, car-dependent, strip shopping vision of suburbia.  Over the last ten years we have put a new Comprehensive Plan vision in place for compact, mixed-use growth, creating city spaces that are walkable, less car-dependent, and more environmentally friendly. Equally important, we are implementing that vision while assuring high quality of life standards for more citizens, while maintaining an affordable cost of living. That has a lot to do with Raleigh just being ranked the #1 job market in the US.

Looking ahead, one of our fundamental challenges is to harness the excitement of our city’s great national rankings and the rising economy.  We need to make sure that individual efforts don’t work against each other, but are directed to implement a clear community vision, like the Livable Streets downtown revitalization. The current proposal to spark downtown development by granting up-zoned heights to all downtown property owners is eerily reminiscent of what happened on Capital Boulevard a few decades ago: The city granted extensive shopping center zoning up and down Capital Boulevard in order to capture the highly-prized tax base of new retail development. But without a strong vision for what we wanted in return, the market gave us mile after mile of placeless, car-congested strip development that is hostile to people and the environment, and that will take decades and millions of taxpayer dollars to retrofit.

In the near term, what calls out loudest for our attention is to put Vision Before Action in planning and executing to build a great downtown over the next ten years.  The current proposal puts the cart before the horse: It aims to up-zone downtown land en-mass without an adopted vision or implementation plan for downtown.  This proposal also would eliminate all public input for any future project that stays below the proposed height caps.  This approach will encourage expedient builders not to go taller than the cap and leave downtown open to another building boom like the one we created on Capital Boulevard.  Instead, lets put the horse in front of the cart: Start by (1) adopting the Downtown Vision Plan, then (2) set implementation priorities, then (3) decide the best way to use downtown up-zonings and other city incentives to implement the vision over the next ten years.

In the longer term, Raleigh must continue to execute on the Mission Statement we adopted in 2009 and that has kept us focused on becoming a world-class city:

We are a 21st Century City of Innovation focusing on environmental, cultural and economic sustainability.

We conserve and protect our environmental resources through best practices and cutting edge conservation and stewardship, land use, infrastructure and building technologies.

We welcome growth and diversity through policies and programs that will protect, preserve and enhance Raleigh’s existing neighborhoods, natural amenities, rich history, and cultural and human resources for future generations.

We lead to develop an improved neighborhood quality of life and standard of living for all our citizens.

We work with our universities, colleges, citizens and regional partners to promote emerging technologies, create new job opportunities and cultivate local businesses and entrepreneurs.

We recruit and train a 21st Century staff with the knowledge and skill sets to carry out this mission, through transparent civic engagement and providing the very best customer service to our current citizens in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.

What three adjectives would you use to describe what you love best about downtown Raleigh, and what is needed most to further develop those aspects?

My three adjectives for downtown are diverse (a range of living, working, and recreating choices), vibrant (an exciting place to be for all kinds of people) & livable (a rich mix of amenities and opportunities that make downtown a desirable place to live).  What is needed most to further develop those aspects is to reach a strong consensus about our community’s shared vision for downtown’s next ten years.  So first we need to refine the vision by debating, amending and adopting the Downtown Vision Plan. Clearly delineating this vision will give us a target to work towards over the next 10 years and help us set the priorities needed to get there.

Candidate’s website: www.russforraleigh.com.