Cary feels backlash after urbanism-focused summit

akenney@newsobserver.comMay 28, 2013 

  • ‘Area conversations’

    Cary will host public meetings in June as part of its comprehensive planning project. All meetings start at 6 p.m.

    •  Tuesday, June 4, Cary Senior Center, 120 Maury Odell Place.

    •  Wednesday, June 5, Embassy Suites, 201 Harrison Oaks Blvd.

    •  Tuesday, June 11, Crosspointe Church, 6911 Carpenter Fire Station Road.

    •  Wednesday, June 12, Colonial Baptist Church, 6051 Tryon Road.

— Elected officials have felt public backlash in the wake of Cary’s Summit on the Future, the blockbuster event that kicked off the two-year Imagine Cary planning process.

At a recent meeting, the Cary Town Council worried that the event pushed one philosophy too hard, and council members called for more-balanced presentations as the town continues its overhaul of long-term municipal plans.

Much of the criticism centered on the event’s $10,000 keynote speech. Chris Leinberger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, suggested that the town focus on “walkable urban” space and mass transit.

Some council members and many of the nearly 700 attendees said they felt that the speech and the following poll questions pre-emptively focused the conversation on the “new urbanist” philosophy.

“I think in some respects they felt like we were telling them what they should want,” said Councilwoman Lori Bush.

Some residents’ “expectations were so out of line with what they got that there was a breach of trust. The last thing you want is something you’re doing in an honorable way to be viewed as surreptitious,” said Councilman Jack Smith. He said the planning process does not have any set objective.

Councilman Ed Yerha described the speaker as condescending and offensive, and he said that the presentation likely skewed attendees’ answers to the multiple-choice poll questions, which asked how Cary should attract business, handle an aging population and more.

In an interview, Planning Director Jeff Ulma said town staff and consultants jointly chose Leinberger from a list of about a dozen potential speakers, including urban-planning celebrity Richard Florida.

“You want a speaker who could talk about how other places have responded to those trends” that Cary faces, such as an aging population and shifting shopping routines, Ulma said.

In retrospect, he said, the town may have made room for conversation and put less focus on the lecture.

Council members and staff did find some things to like about the summit, including a consultant’s presentation of demographic information about Cary. And the meeting apparently didn’t turn attendees off – in exit questionnaires, 97 percent of respondents said they’d continue to participate in Imagine Cary.

The next public input will come via “area meetings,” scheduled for June 4, 5, 11 and 12, plus one more to be added at a later date at the request of council. The area meetings will be heavy on group conversation and planning exercises.

With this next round of meetings comes a chance for Cary residents to express their opinions of the new urban focus circulating around the country.

“Folks are terrified that we’re trying to change the Cary that they love and moved to to raise their family,” said Councilman Don Frantz. “They realize that some of this New Urbanism is inevitable, and we actually want some of that, but I think the majority of people like the fact that Cary is predominately suburban.”

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or

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