When City Councilman Thomas Crowder took his colleagues on a 5 p.m. bus tour earlier this month, he could have easily still been at work.
At each stop on the 90-minute tour Crowder, founder of the Raleigh architecture firm Architekturpa, explained why the property in question represented some the worst in modern urban architecture.
“Quality construction,” Crowder said sarcastically at one point in the tour.
Focusing on, and debating, the aesthetics of development in Raleigh has become a staple of this City Council, largely because of the presence of Crowder and Councilman Russ Stephenson, who is also an architect with his own practice.
While their frequent trumpeting of the urban form is welcomed by many, it also has its critics.
Philip Isley, the only council member who was unable to attend Crowder’s tour, said he frequently hears complaints from developers who say Crowder and Stephenson want to redesign projects they don’t like.
Their objections can be particularly infuriating for developers who have spent months, even years, working to meet the recommendations of the city’s Planning Department and the Planning Commission.
“Sometimes the desire to get everything just perfect, as architects do, becomes maddening,” Isley said.
Councilman Rodger Koopman, who admits to being a layman when it comes to architecture, said he understands the frustration some developers must feel.
“At the same time, I don’t think it’s a bad thing if it forces developers to pay attention to the aesthetic component,” Koopman said.
Koopman also notes that Crowder and Stephenson each represent one vote on the 8-person council, meaning their support is not required for a project to get approval.
Crowder and Stephenson were both elected to the council after serving on the Planning Commission. Crowder joined as the District D representative in 2003; Stephenson as one of two at-large members in 2005.
Each has shown a willingness to raise aesthetic concerns about a wide range of projects — with varying degrees of success.
* In 2006, Crowder crusaded for the use of stone walls instead of synthetic stucco on the new Marriott Hotel along Fayetteville Street. Although he failed to excise all the stucco from the project, the developer did eventually agree to trimming back the stucco to 25 percent of the hotel’s exterior, all of it on the upper floors.
* In September, Crowder held up the approval of a new McDonalds on Peace Street because he felt the design could be more pedestrian-friendly. A McDonalds representative said only stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn had the characteristics Crowder was seeking. Crowder said he’d seen them in Tennessee. The council approved the project, with Stephenson and Crowder voting against it.
* Last month, Stephenson wanted to delay approval of the Powerhouse Plaza project in downtown’s Glenwood South district because of concerns about how the facade on a parking deck would look. Mayor Charles Meeker pointed out that, in addition to meeting the city’s current standards, the developer had already agreed to make changes to the facade that will be visible at street level. The council approved the 11-story project with only Stephenson voting against it.
Crowder and Stephenson deny they are against projects that doesn’t meet their personal architectural standards.
“We’re not here trying to impose a personal critique on every project that goes through,” Crowder said. “I see it as helping to educate.”
Stephenson said he doesn’t prefer one architectural style over another — rather, he just wants something that improves the surrounding community. He said he’s trying to raise the bar for what kinds of developments get built in Raleigh.
“For a long time, there was this idea that we were just Raleigh. We can’t aspire to being a really top-notch city,” Stephenson said. “I think that’s changing. I think people want more and expect more.”
Even Isley admits that, as one of two lawyers on the council, people could make the same argument against him and Mayor Charles Meeker as they do against Stephenson and Crowder.
“I’m sure people look at the mayor and me and say ‘they’re meddling in things that we don’t need to be meddling in,’” Isley said.
And if enough Raleigh voters become convinced that two architects is too much, there’s always the ballot box.
“The whole notion behind elected officials is that they will be representative of the community,” said Gordon Whitaker, a professor of public administration and government at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government. “It’s up to the voters to decide which they want to have representing them.”