A new advocacy group enters debate over how Raleigh should grow | Opinion

First there was Livable Raleigh, a group dedicated to maintaining the city’s leafy character despite its rapid development.

Now comes Sustainable Raleigh, a group founded by former City Council member David Knight. It advocates for denser growth and taller buildings, particularly along bus rapid transit corridors.

Knight, a one-term council member who lost his bid for reelection in 2022, founded Sustainable Raleigh as a way to campaign for a vision of the city without being a candidate. Knight, an attorney and environmental consultant, said limiting dense development in favor of single-family neighborhoods promotes sprawl that could eventually overwhelm the city’s resources. “We want to make sure Raleigh grows in a sustainable way,” he said.

Knight said the difference between his group and Livable Raleigh is that Sustainable Raleigh supports more multi-family and mixed-income housing while Livable Raleigh defends single-family neighborhoods by following “a NIMBY mantra.”

Livable Raleigh leaders would disagree. They say they support balanced growth across the city, but oppose development that intrudes into established neighborhoods. The group’s motto is “Great neighborhoods make great cities.”

Sustainable Raleigh takes a development-friendly approach. If Raleigh is going to have more affordable housing, Knight said, the city needs more housing of all types and prices.

When I met with Knight last week, he was joined by Wonza Montague, who with her husband, James, has developed properties in Southeast Raleigh, and Sig Hutchinson, a former Wake County commissioner and a supporter of Knight’s group.

Montague, a Sustainable Raleigh board member, said Southeast Raleigh residents can’t stop growth, but they should have a role in shaping it. “People are here. Growth is going to happen. We want to be included a little,” she said.

City Council elections are nonpartisan, though local political parties may recommend a slate of candidates. But the real contest will be between what Livable Raleigh and Sustainable Raleigh represent.

Which perspective will prevail when Raleigh votes in November for all eight members of the City Council, including the mayor?

Hutchinson summarized Sustainable Raleigh’s view of the city’s rapid growth: “We have a great thing going on. We just have to keep it going that way.”

Livable Raleigh is wary of letting developers and the market dictate what Raleigh is becoming. There’s no reason that unchecked development should bulldoze Raleigh’s longtime character, the group says.

Between the two views will be tens of thousands of voters who may not have an opinion. They’ll be drawn to the polls by the presidential and gubernatorial elections. How they vote and how many will vote in the municipal races at the bottom of a long ballot are key questions in the races for council and mayor.

Still, through all the noise of the presidential and statewide races, concerns and hopes for Raleigh’s growth will get a hearing. Knight said Sustainable Raleigh will back a slate of candidates. Livable Raleigh may do the same.

It’s a measure of how important city planning will be in the race that Mitch Silver, Raleigh’s former city planner, announced last week that he is running for City Council. Mitchell, who left Raleigh in 2014 to serve as New York City parks commissioner, returned to Raleigh in 2021. He is currently working for a Raleigh-based engineering and land planning firm. “I want to offer leadership to make sure the city goes in the right direction,” Silver told Raleigh Magazine.

Livable Raleigh greeted Silver’s announcement with an editorial describing him as “a lobbyist paid to undercut Raleigh’s rules.”

The campaigns ahead will ask Raleigh voters to decide. Do they want development that sustains Raleigh’s growth with density and less sprawl, or do they want a city that values its neighborhoods and planning that protects its character?

This election won’t be just about who wins. It will also shape what Raleigh becomes.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com