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If you drive through Research Triangle Park, note that the place is more like a tranquil campus than a teeming research and manufacturing center. If you like it, thank Pearson H. Stewart.

He is the planner most responsible for the design of the internationally renowned park, associates and planners say.On Dec. 31, Stewart, 70, retired as the Research Triangle Foundation's vice president for planning. He had held the post since 1958, except from 1977 to 1981 when he was an assistant secretary of the state Department of Transportation.

The park plan - which, among other requirements, restricts buildings to only 15 percent of lots - was unprecedented when conceived more than three decades ago.

But the novel layout is credited with contributing substantially to the park's success. Companies and research firms seeking sites for their facilities were attracted by the charm of RTP's open space.

``The way the park looks and the success it has today are a tremendous tribute to Pearson and his abilities,' said James O. Roberson, president of the foundation, which oversees development of the research park.

``When the original plan was developed by Pearson, there was absolutely no place in the country that was a role model for a park of this size. His plan set the tenor for this park.'

Stewart is reluctant to laud his accomplishments. ``It's very difficult for one person or agency to take credit,' he said.

But David R. Godschalk, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, ``It's fair to say Pearson is the father of regional planning for this area of North Carolina.'

Stewart will continue to work part-time as a consultant to the foundation, acting as a liaison with Triangle municipalities and DOT and helping staffers plan the 2,700-acre Wake County portion of the park.

The 4,000-acre Durham County portion is almost completely developed with more than 50 research firms and organizations with 32,000 employees.

A Boston native, Stewart graduated from Amherst College, and after a stint in the Navy, received a master's degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946, a time when city planning was still a relatively new field.

He thought that ``a person could make a difference (and) I saw city planning as a thing I could use to do something about urban problems,' he said.

Stewart held planning jobs in Tennessee, New Jersey, North Carolina and Rhode Island before coming to RTP in 1958.

The park's founders gave him two assignments: To draw plans for the research park and to help local governments deal with whatever the effects of the new park might be. The latter assignment took the form of the Research Triangle Regional Planning Commission, authorized by the General Assembly in 1959.

Stewart was named executive director of RTRPC and, as such, became the area's first planner with a regional outlook. The commission is known now as the Triangle J Council of Governments.

The planning commission was successful from the outset because it involved top decision-makers, Stewart's associates said. Unlike other regional planning commissions, this one had as its members the mayors of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh and the commissioners' chairmen from Wake, Durham and Orange counties.

``Preservation of open space, attention to water quality and interest in alternate transit systems are three things that regional planning has focused on here for a long period of time,' said Jonathan B. Howes, mayor of Chapel Hill and director of the UNC center for urban and regional studies.

``If Pearson hadn't started the regional planning commission in the same breath with the park, we would have lost probably 20 years of regional planning,' Howes said. ``I just think it would be hard to overstate Pearson's influence in planning in the Triangle region.'

In the early 1970s the council of governments, acting on a suggestion from Stewart, established an authority to provide housing for needy people, recalled former Raleigh mayor Thomas W. Bradshaw Jr.

Stewart, working with a consultant, also began drafting development rules for the new park - at a time when zoning rules were unsophisticated or nonexistent. One restriction, for example, outlawed vibration levels if discernible for three minutes or more.

Buildings were restricted to a small percentage of lot sizes to give RTP a pastoral character different from densely developed areas commonplace elsewhere in the country, Stewart said.

``We knew we didn't want a dense, urban park,' Stewart said. And, ``it was our judgment that it would sell. It was very sophisticated, very avant-garde.'

``The Durham County Commissioners said, 'If you say pass it, we will, but we don't know what we're doing.' '

Stewart likes how the park turned out, and thinks his most important accomplishment was ``getting the concept of open space in urban development to be legitimate.'

``I wish I could be here in 50 years and see if these standards hold up' under the pressure of rising land values, Stewart said. But, he predicted, ``I think it will, because people like it - it's just plain pleasant.'


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