Ross: The ability to do big things

October 25, 2013 

Kirk Ross


Can we do big things anymore?

This kept going through my mind as the shutdown/debt limit crisis unfolded and a solution to the stalemate twisted its way through the government. Throughout the multitude of media prisms, dysfunction was the one common facet – dysfunction to the point of paralysis.

The shutdown – and I’ll stop talking about it in just a second – showed in sharp relief just how handcuffed government has become – how the growing polarization and alienation of political adversaries has dragged even the most common-sense decisions into the ideological street fight.

There is supposed to be a point where politicking ends and governing begins, but we can’t seem to find it. Not even at the state level where one party has a pretty strong hold of things. Despite a solid majority, maneuvering to gain favor in the next election cycle is shaping policy and direction and often at the expense of doing the right thing.

Here, we are about to send another slate of candidates to their fate. We are not so polarized politically as in some communities, but we are in how to move forward – and maybe even whether forward is the right direction.

I’m worried that here, too, we have lost the ability to do big things. That would be swell if this were paradise. It’s not.

As much as things have changed here in the past quarter-century, most of it hasn’t. The layout is pretty much the same. Sure, we figured out how to pack more people into places like Meadowmont and Southern Village and how to encourage a few more stories downtown, but the buildout in our area has been pretty much a reaction to growth.

We’re now in an era of infill, where change is much more difficult. At the same time, the areas of town that boomed in the 1960s and ’70s along with the Triangle are in need of redesign, not just new buildings. Areas with great commercial potential like the northern 15-501 corridor are at risk of becoming dead zones without new infrastructure, amenities and traffic routing. Downtown could use all three as well.

It’s not like we’re unaware of the big things that could be done. There have been charrettes and task forces and all sorts of visioning on these matters. But for all the planning and dreaming, real change is illusive. You have to wonder whether in the current climate we could agree to build a network of greenways, establish an urban services boundary or convert the bus system to fare free.

In this era, maintaining the status quo comes at a cost. Not being able to redesign and redevelop areas already built makes it more likely developers will look to undeveloped land or buy up low-income housing for a project.

Without the ability to do big things, to be proactive in adopting new ideas and adapting to changes in how people live, cities and towns are little more than a collection of neighborhoods governed by a common council. I’ve heard that said about Chapel Hill more times in the last couple of years than I care to count.

So, good luck to everyone running this year. If you manage to win, please do something. Thanks in advance.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at

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