Chief Planner Charts New Course

By Cece Nunn, posted Oct 1, 2021
Glenn Harbeck, the city of Wilmington’s director of planning, development and transportation, retired Sept. 30. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
When Glenn Harbeck came to Wilmington as a young planner in 1979, the landscape looked a lot different than it does now.
Over the years, Harbeck left and then came back to the Port City before retiring Sept. 30 from his post as the city’s director of planning, development and transportation.
Harbeck grew up in New York, moving to North Carolina in 1976 as a result of a fellowship to the graduate program in city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill.
When he got to Wilmington more than four decades ago, the city had not been discovered on a national level, he said. Its major roads weren’t clogged with traffic. Planning tasks were conducted by a joint Wilmington- New Hanover County planning department that reported to both the Wilmington City Council and the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners before the county established its own department.
“When I left the city in 1985 to go into consulting, development was still focused primarily on single-family homes on large lots,” Harbeck said. “When I returned to the city in 2012, concepts like mixed-use development had finally gained traction, largely as a response to traffic problems caused by decades of sprawling, automobile-dependent development.
“Coming out of the Great Recession, multifamily developments had become the predominant housing form, largely due to land availability, housing demand and affordability.”
Before his last day with the city, Harbeck answered some questions about his life, career and planning.
GWBJ: What led you to become a planner?
Harbeck: “I think my parents had an appreciation for what makes a great community. Within one mile of the lot on which they chose to build our home were two corner stores, the elementary school, three churches, a liquor store, a pizza parlor, the local fire house, a barber shop, a community park, a local tavern, an old-time filling station, a couple small fabricating shops and the ‘mighty’ Wurlitzer manufacturing plant. Near our home, and mixed in with all these services, was a compact neighborhood of porch-front homes on 50-foot lots with sidewalks, streetlights and magnificent street trees. … We rode our bikes everywhere when the weather permitted; walked when it didn’t.”
GWBJ: What brought you back to Wilmington after having spent most of your career in private practice?
Harbeck: “After 27 years, I felt that I had experienced all I could in the consulting field. At last count, I had worked with about 100 local governments on a wide variety of projects. When the planning director’s position in Wilmington became open, I threw my hat in, just to see where it might go. After a meet-and-greet with the city’s department heads, I was impressed by the caliber of the leadership team. That sealed the deal for me. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s been an honor to work for the betterment of my hometown these past several years.”
GWBJ: What has been your biggest challenge as planning director?
Harbeck: “The No. 1 problem we hear about from our citizens is traffic. A big challenge is convincing people that adding another lane to a highway seldom reduces traffic congestion. In fact, it usually makes it worse. Going on a diet by loosening your belt is no solution. The addition of more lanes to roadways has unfortunately been proven to be an expensive, vicious circle of road construction and urban expansion in cities across the nation. Instead, we’ve got to learn to build our city, our county and our region in smaller, walkable, mixed-use centers.
“The traffic generated by a persistent pattern of development where housing is separated from services and job centers, where you’ve got to have a car for everything, has been the ruin of too many communities. Wilmington and New Hanover County can do better.”
GWBJ: You were involved in the early stages of rail realignment (the initiative to move the freight rail line out of the city to a more direct route into the port). What’s your take on that project today?
Harbeck: “Rail realignment is set to be a gamechanger for our city and region. When I brought that dormant idea to the attention of City Council in 2013, it was as a means of avoiding the construction of Independence Boulevard extension (north from Randall Parkway) on a 300-foot-wide, 20-foot-tall berm to pass over the existing rail line on the north side of town.
“In addition to avoiding that destructive, elevated barrier within our northside neighborhoods, moving the freight rail line out of the city could (1) allow the rail corridor to be repurposed as a greenway/bikeway, (2) create a useful trolley service to many different parts of the city, (3) eliminate major traffic delays at over 30 rail crossings in the city, (4) remove concerns about train derailments and chemical spills and more. It won’t happen quickly, but it will change the future course of Wilmington forever – for the better.”
GWBJ: Why step aside at this time?
Harbeck: “Our city now has its first truly comprehensive plan since the 1940s. In the five years since its adoption, the policies of that plan have been fully integrated into the development review process of the city. Likewise, as of Dec. 1 of this year, Wilmington will have a newly minted land development code. … The new code promises to make Wilmington more walkable and bikeable, while bringing services and housing more convenient to each other. With the comprehensive plan well-established, and the new development code set to lead our city well into the 21st century, I feel pretty good about moving on.”
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