Chapter 5: Urban Development and Planning
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c h a p t e r 5 Urban Development and Planning The Research Triangle metro area has two distinct physical characteristics . First, most metro areas have at their cores high-rise office and residential towers, public buildings such as courthouses and city halls, major theaters, and retail shopping opportunities . The core of the Research Triangle metro, however, is mostly open space. It is made up of a state park, an airport, and a collection of low-rise office buildings inhabited by research and development firms, hidden behind trees on large campuses. This low-density, monoculture of uses in the heart of the metro has its advantages but it also poses significant challenges in terms of serving the area with public transit and creating the type of mixed-use development that helps to reduce commuting and its related problems of congestion, air pollution, and cost burdens. Second, the development pattern of the Research Triangle metro area is one of the most sprawling in the country. The area is characterized by low-density development, a separation of land uses—such as homes and offices—poor connectivity of streets, and dispersed activity centers. This chapter will discuss these distinctive characteristics of the Triangle and the challenges they present. It will also describe the actions being taken to address those challenges as well as the obstacles to doing more to maintain the area’s high quality of life. PAGE 177 { 177 } ................. 18045$ $CH5 05-20-11 11:12:04 PS T H E T R I A N G L E ’ S D I S T I N C T D E V E L O P M E N T P A T T E R N The distinct physical characteristics of the Research Triangle metro have been influenced by both historical and geological factors . As discussed in Chapter 1, the three towns that define the Research Triangle have very different histories and reasons for being. Raleigh was developed as a state capital, Chapel Hill as a university town, and Durham as a center of manufacturing. The area between the three major towns was largely farmland and forests with scattered hamlets such as Cary and Morrisville. Thus, the middle of what is now the Research Triangle metro area was largely, from a development point of view, hollow. It was the outskirts of all three cities and thus it was a logical place to put a five-thousand-acre airport, a six-thousand-acre state park and, later on, the seven-thousand-acre Research Triangle Park. At the time those development decisions were made, no one envisioned this hollow area between the three towns as the center of a future large metropolitan area. Moreover, those early decisions have had staying power. The idea of swapping more peripheral land for William B. Umstead State Park was proposed in the 1970s as it stood in the way of Raleigh’s westward expansion toward the RTP. Open-space advocates mobilized in defense of the park, however, and this proposal was summarily rejected. The relocation of RDU Airport is very unlikely, given its convenience and the cost of replicating the infrastructure. Finally, although it is conceivable that some parts of Research Triangle Park could be redeveloped into an area of higher density and mixed use, most of it will likely retain its lowdensity campus character due to existing building investments and the desires of its landowners. Thus, it is very unlikely that the Triangle will ever be structured like most other metropolitan areas where the highest densities and most intensive uses are PAGE 178 { 178 } c h a p t e r 5 ................. 18045$ $CH5 05-20-11 11:12:04 PS found in the centers. The Research Triangle metro area’s largely low-density core, for better or worse, will remain a distinctive characteristic of the area’s spatial structure. This is not to say that there are no opportunities for creating higher-density areas in the Triangle’s core. In fact the gravitational pull of the RTP has drawn development toward it, distorting what would have likely been a more conventional suburban development pattern around the individual towns. If we examine the pattern of urbanization from 1950 through 2000 and a projection for the year 2035,1 maps for 1970 and 2000 show evidence of urbanization on the sides of Durham and Raleigh closer to the RTP. (The southwest corner of the park abuts Jordan Lake watershed lands and thus it has development restrictions.) The...


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