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Is Raleigh's $180-million gamble on a downtown convention center worth it, or just another dead end?

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Is Raleigh's $180-million gamble on a downtown convention center worth it, or just another dead end?

Bev Gelvin runs the N.C. Association of Nurserymen, which has two trade shows every year. The shows are big enough that they've outgrown the convention facilities in Winston-Salem and are headed this year to the Koury Center in Greensboro, right off I-85. But Gelvin lives in Raleigh, and the association's offices are in Raleigh. So, all things being equal, she'd "love to bring our trade shows to Raleigh" once its new, $180 million convention center is finished--assuming it can handle them. Raleigh's old civic center, it goes without saying, cannot.

So Gelvin was among a dozen professional meeting planners who sat down recently with architect Steve Schuster to discuss what the new center will look like and how it should function. Those are two distinct questions, the answers to which--as the discussion made clear--are potentially in conflict.

Gelvin, like several other planners, is most interested in how the 500 semis and panel trucks that deliver to her shows would access the downtown center's loading docks and where they would park while the shows are on. "From a producer point of view," she says, "ideally we need a city block or two close by to use as a staging area." And most of the people who come to her shows drive their cars, she adds. They'll need places to park, too. In turn, they'll be good for 1,800 to 2,000 "room nights" at the new convention-center hotel the city is subsidizing to the tune of $20 million of its projected $58.3 million cost.

The nice thing about the Koury Center, Gelvin says, is that it's right off the highway, with a sea of parking that surrounds it and an adjoining hotel. Is Raleigh building its center downtown "just to appease the politicians" who insisted it be there, but at the expense of efficiency, she wonders? "It's going to be beautiful, but whether it will be able to accommodate anything other than small meetings ..." She leaves that thought hanging. "I want to be a problem-solver," she adds. "I want it to work."

It will work, Schuster assures her, while also working to enhance the downtown area. His Raleigh firm, Clearscapes, is part of a design team working with bigger firms from RTP and Atlanta. But Schuster's the guy, as he readily acknowledges, who's counted on to understand the lay of the land and how the center can fit into it gracefully while still functioning efficiently, trucks and all. He's well qualified on that score: Clearscapes is located in a converted downtown warehouse almost around the corner from where the convention center will be. And Schuster doesn't just work in the building; his condo is there, too.

Schuster's West Side neighborhood is also where the Triangle Transit Authority is putting its downtown rail station, and the city is hoping a lot of new housing will spring up around it. "This location has great strategic importance to the city's future downtown plans," he says. So the convention center can't be just another "big box," plopped down onto a city block like so many of Raleigh's parking decks have been in the past, without street-level shops, restaurants or even windows to counter the feeling--if you happen to walk by--that you're all alone and in some danger.

This is true, Schuster agrees, notwithstanding that convention centers are big boxes at heart. The key feature of this one will be 150,000 square feet of uninterrupted exhibit-hall space--bigger than a city block--with expansion room to go to at least 225,000 square feet. Add meeting space and a ballroom, and it will total 220,000 square feet at first, with planned expansion taking it to more than 300,000 square feet.

By contrast, the existing Raleigh civic center is just 92,000 square feet in size, with three separate exhibit halls totaling 78,000 square feet. Most of the civic center will be torn down; an addition built on the Wilmington Street side in 1995-96 will be adapted for use as something else, perhaps a ground-floor art gallery or shops with residential condominiums above.

Several designs--or really, pre-designs--are under consideration for the new center, as Schuster shows the meeting planners. Two of them would put the exhibit space underground, going below either Salisbury Street or McDowell Street. A third would put the exhibit hall up in the air, over McDowell Street. Meeting rooms would be at street-level, with windows. All three designs, Schuster points out, could feature street-level retail space on the building's north side, along Cabarrus Street, which is where the center and the West Side neighborhood meet most directly.

The convention center's front door will be on the west side of Salisbury Street. The new hotel, with a Marriott name, will have its address on a reopened Fayetteville Street, with guests entering the convention center either by crossing the street or riding an escalator down to a corridor below Salisbury.

The basic task Raleigh has set for itself is to build a convention complex, at a public cost of $200 million, that will bring big meetings and trade shows into the downtown without stomping the streets around it. But what's at stake with this project goes way beyond that.

Downtown Raleigh's been in decline for at least 30 years while sprawl has swept the city's boundaries far to the north and northwest. In a city of 350,000, only about 1,000 live in the downtown core. Now, Raleigh's leaders, especially Mayor Charles Meeker, are determined to revitalize the downtown and make it a lively place not just to have an office--between state government and the 30-story Wachovia and BB&T Towers, there are offices--but also to live in, shop and hang out.

Step one in that process could have been a lot of things. The City Council, led by Meeker, decided it should be the convention center, and not just for the out-of-towners it's supposed to attract (along with their money).

The main reason is that building the new center allows the old one to be torn down, which allows Fayetteville Mall to be reopened as a street, which is supposed to trigger a series of other initiatives--especially in the Blount Street area near the Governor's Mansion and around the West Side TTA stop--that will spark the hoped-for new housing, stores and vitality.

And, of course, there's a huge decision to be made about the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus, a 335-acre tract with enormous ramifications for downtown, depending on how it goes.

Remember, though, that this is in a city where many of the voters rarely go downtown and don't see why their tax money should be spent there.

What's really at stake, then, is Raleigh's political will to achieve downtown renewal on the scale necessary to make it work. Will the convention center spur the city on to the other, more complex, and potentially much more rewarding, development opportunities that building it is supposed to tee up? Or will it prove once again to be the third rail of Raleigh politics, killing those who touch it and pushing the other initiatives further into the future or off the table entirely.

If the latter happens, it will turn all the predictions that the convention center itself is doomed to failure into self-fulfilling prophecies. Because the center isn't what will make downtown a nicer place. It's the things the center's supposed to lead to that will do that.

Already, the backlash has started. The old civic center is losing $1.6 million a year, says newly elected City Councilor Mike Regan, whose North Raleigh district is the only one with no inside-the-beltline precincts, and even the city's own consultants predict the new one will lose that much or more for at least five years. The consultants, from HVS International in Boulder, Colo., say the new center will draw bigger conventions and more people than the old one, which is "inadequate ... for events that attract signficant amounts of out-of-town visitors and associated new spending."

That doesn't interest Regan, however. A free-market Republican, he argues that if Raleigh really needed a convention center, a private company would be building it. "This is not a business we want to be in," he says.

Regan called a meeting of his fellow conservatives at City Hall a few weeks ago, and 60 of them agreed. State Rep. Russell Capps, R-Wake, assailed city leaders for not putting the issue to referendum. "They know it would lose," he said. Capps' Wake Taxpayers Association led the campaign that defeated a 1992 bond issue for a new convention center. That led, in '93, to a conservative sweep in the city elections, ushering in the decade-long reign of Mayors Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble.

But the convention-hall proponents had a Plan B. They'd persuaded the state legislature--in 1991--to enact excise taxes on all restaurant meals and hotel/motel rooms in Wake County, with the money to be used for "tourism-related facilities." A decade later, the money in the till--plus what's projected to come in over the next 30 years--is sufficient to finance the center without a bond issue. Legally, therefore, no referendum is required.

That doesn't mean the public is persuaded, however. Even progressive folks in Raleigh are asking the same question about the convention center as Regan's friend Tula Robbins: "What's the draw?"

Raleigh's a great place to live, Robbins says, but it's no San Diego, where she went for her last Republican National Convention. "I like Raleigh," she adds. "I don't think I'd want to come here to stay for three nights."

What is the draw? Or better, what could it be? At the city's Urban Design Center, located in an empty retail space a block from the State Capitol building, it is resident planner Dan Douglas' job to describe the answer to that question, and by working with developers and residents, to help turn his description into things that are real.

His pitch: Raleigh can be "the entertainment and cultural center of the region"--between Washington and Atlanta, that is--"with Fayetteville Street at its core."

How's that again?

For starters, Douglas says, imagine that you've just been to the BTI Center for the Performing Arts--to see the North Carolina Symphony, say--and when you come out ... aha! ... the old civic center isn't right in front of you any more, blocking your view. Think about that. You're no longer trapped in a soulless parking lot. You can see all the way up to the Capitol. Heck, with cars going up and down Fayetteville Street again, you can even feel safe walking to the Capitol. "It may seem oxymoronic, but it's the cars that will make it a walkable street again," he says.

Tearing down the civic center is the key to reopening Fayetteville Street, the city's historic main street since William Christmas laid down the original street grid in 1798. Or it was the main street until the 1970s, when Raleigh made it a pedestrian mall and plopped the civic center down right in the middle of it so Memorial Auditorium (now expanded into the BTI Center) was isolated at the southern edge of town.

The upshot: Nobody walks to BTI from a downtown restaurant, and nobody walks to a restaurant from the BTI. In fact, nobody walks on Fayetteville Mall at all after 5 p.m. It's a half-empty office park by day and a dead zone at night, haunted by the ghosts of buildings that used to be banks and law offices and the rusting steel guts of what used to be Hudson Belk's flagship department store.

The city's hopes for bringing Fayetteville Street back to life depend on getting restaurants, small stores, antique shops and the like into the street-level spaces of as many buildings as possible. And if Fayetteville Street can be walkable, why not the other downtown streets? When it was malled, they got the cars. Now they're all one-way, with three fast-moving lanes of traffic that discourage all but the most intrepid walkers from crossing them.

Raleigh's Livable Streets plan calls for most of the downtown streets to be restored to two-way traffic eventually, with one lane in each direction. That would allow wider sidewalks for still more retail shops and restaurants.

First up to be two-way are Martin and Hargett streets, which it's hoped will become key pedestrian connectors between the West Side TTA stop and such places as City Market and the new Progress Energy headquarters building east of Fayetteville Street.

It was Livable Streets, the product of a year's worth of open meetings and power lunches among city officials and downtown business and civic leaders, that put the opening of Fayetteville Street and the new convention center-and-hotel as its top priorities. The point of Livable Streets, however, was to get people to live on them--it was new housing, in other words. A few small condominium developments already exist downtown, and another, the 52-unit Dawson on Morgan, just started construction. But two others, much ballyhooed, are currently stalled. One is the conversion of the Hudson Belk building, which is supposed to become 64 condos above street-level shops. The other is Progress Energy's promised 78-unit condo at the rear of its new headquarters tower.

Without people living downtown, city planners agree, the prospects for lots of stores and restaurants are limited at best. But without walkable streets, people won't live downtown. So the street improvements are critical, and Fayetteville Street is the most critical of all because it's right in the middle of things. And to open it, the civic center must fall.

Which doesn't necessarily mean a new convention center should replace it, or replace it downtown. But the Livable Streets group said it should, on the theory that convention-goers will come out at night to eat, shop, visit the museums and walk the walkable streets.

It made sense to the City Council, especially when Meeker was re-elected in October with 60 percent of the vote. In January, the Council voted for the convention center, 7-1 (Regan dissenting). The Wake County commissioners, whose support is also required to tap the hotel/motel and restaurant taxes, voted for it 6-1, with four of the five Republican members in favor.

So the convention center is a go. But what about making the downtown a place to go to?

Greg Hatem "is the go-to guy in downtown," as Steve Schuster puts it. Hatem's Empire Properties specializes in buying and restoring old downtown buildings. In just seven years, he's acquired a total of 14 of them, most of them small, though he recently added the 10-story Commerce Building, just off the Fayetteville Mall, to his holdings. So he's more than a true believer in the Livable Streets scheme. He's what's driving it.

But Hatem is worried. The group that hatched Livable Streets isn't meeting any more, he says, and the result is that the detailed follow-up needed to make the plan work isn't happening--"Nobody's tying things together," he says.

The immediate evidence of that, he says, is Fayetteville Street. Walking down the mall, Hatem in his mind's eye can see stores in this building and that one, restaurants over here and down there, and housing upstairs in a lot of places. But he thinks the City Council got the basic design for the redo of Fayetteville Street wrong, making the street too narrow and the sidewalks too wide and cluttered. And he thinks it's about to make an even worse mistake by letting Fayetteville Street end in a plaza in front of the new hotel--like others, he disdainfully calls the plaza "a cul-de-sac," since it would include a driveway to the hotel entrance--instead of building it all the way to South Street, where the BTI Center stands.

The latter decision isn't made yet. But the council's thus far had trouble figuring out how to pay the estimated $10 million cost of reconstructing Fayetteville Street only as far as the hotel. Finishing the last block to BTI would cost a great deal more, since underneath it is a parking deck for the nearby Sheraton hotel, and the city doesn't own it. Without serious reinforcement, officials say, the deck won't hold a reopened street.

The council has an engineering firm working up the additional costs, but Hatem's not optimistic. He is, however, emphatic about the need. "Otherwise, we'll be the only city that has a suburban cul-de-sac on its downtown main street."

And if Raleigh's going to pinch its wallet even on this key project, what about the convention center itself, where the council's set an absolute limit of $180 million before it even has a design? Schuster thinks that amount will suffice to get the street-level amenities and architectural details needed to make it a downtown showplace while also giving it the interior facilities--the ample loading docks and such--to make it work for big convention groups. But, Schuster cautions: "It's likely we will have a budget challenge. It's a very tight budget."

Already, the council's trimmed back on the hotel. HVS, the consulting firm, said Raleigh needed a 450-room facility to make the convention center work, given how few other hotel rooms are downtown. (The Sheraton has 352.) But after it capped its subsidy at $20 million, the council got just three bids from hotel companies--all for 400 rooms.

What really concerns Hatem, though, is that the city isn't doing what it needs to do to get housing into the downtown, and especially affordable housing. So far, he says, the only condos "are $250,000-$600,000. Who can live in that?"

To get less-expensive housing options, he argues, the city must do two things.

First, embrace its new rehab-construction code, which allows old buildings to be made safe without forcing them to comply with the standards for new construction, which drive rehab costs off the charts. City inspectors don't really get the rehab code, he says, so they make it hard for developers who try to use it.

"If I have trouble [after seven years of doing rehabs]," Hatem says, "what about the guy who just owns one building?"

The second thing, Hatem says, is subsidize units in new buildings and rehabs with low-interest loans and second mortgages if the developers (and buyers) agree to hold prices below-market for some period of years. Other cities, pushing to get affordable housing downtown, have created significant pools of money to make it happen, Hatem says. Raleigh, so far, offers only $1,500 facade grants, "a wonderful token."

And then there's the Disneyland problem. It came up big-time at a conference on downtown development, "Renewed Communities: Downtown Partnerships for Design and Development," that N.C. State's College of Design sponsored in February. The featured speaker was Jane Thompson, a Boston architect and urbanist whose firm, Thompson Design, is famous for such transformative projects as Boston's Faneuil Hall, Baltimore's Harborplace and the Navy Pier in Chicago.

Thompson's theme: "Cities have to take control of their lives. Get the developers to do what you want and not the other way around, which is the way it's usually done.... Have a plan. Have goals. Be the master developer."

The problem, Thompson said, is that cities sit back while national development firms pitch them cookie-cutter designs from their "bulging catalogues of branded products." These "megaprojects" come complete with a roster of national retailers ("repertory retail"), and if you buy one, it'll look exactly like the one they built in the last city. "Typically, the megaproject is a walled development surrounded by dead streets," she warned, with no one looking out for what's in between it and the next megaproject.

To avoid getting stuck, Thompson urged cities to "guard your own personality": Do a kind of civic psychoanalysis, find what's authentic, and use that to write a comprehensive downtown plan that is broad in its vision but very specific about what should go where and how it all ties together.

"A city is not a theme park, but an interesting place that people actually use," Thompson said. Build that kind of city, "and it will be a place that people will want to visit."

Listening to Thompson, Hatem was thinking about Raleigh's current flirtation with national firms. The city had advertised for a "master developer" to take over some or all of the six strategically located tracts it owns near the convention center site. The two most important are the three-quarter-acre lots that now serve as parking for the old civic center: When it's torn down, they'll be flanking the new Fayetteville Street and could be--well, they could be something great right in front of the BTI.

So what did the national firms pitch? A Planet Hollywood. An ESPN Zone. Branded projects from their bulging catalogues.

"Raleigh is not Planet Hollywood," Hatem exclaimed a few days after the conference. He's ordinarily soft-spoken, but now his voice was rising. "This is where it's most critical that we get it right," he said, "because, if we do something like that down here--one, we've pulled away from what we're trying to accomplish in the rest of downtown, and two, we've destroyed the character of Raleigh.

"Raleigh is a small-scale, wonderful Southern city. We need to maintain our character, and build on it," Hatem said.

Newly elected Councilor Thomas Crowder, an architect himself, heard Thompson, too. He came away as charged up as Hatem. "We have to decide what we're trying to articulate about Raleigh, and be very strategic about how we place things ... make sure the threads go together to form a downtown fabric," Crowder says.

Shopping malls aren't haphazard about what goes where, and downtowns can't be either, he argues. "We need to be our own master developer."

Being its own master developer would be a new role for Raleigh's leaders. The city's comprehensive plan is at best a loose outline, leaving the kind of flexibility for developers that suburban sprawl thrives upon. Moreover, city officials acknowledge a "first-one-in" philosophy that rewards a risk-taking developer who seizes the lion's share of the growth potential in a given area. One tall building now is considered better, and yields tax revenues quicker, than waiting for a lot of smaller ones instead. The latter, though, is what makes for walkable streets.

Meeker, at the downtown conference, talked about that issue indirectly. The nature of suburban development, he said, is that each subdivision, or strip mall, is separate from its neighbor, with no expectation that anyone's going to walk from one to the next. But good urban development requires that the pieces fit together well, "and pay attention to what's next door."

That's the challenge facing Raleigh with the three biggest development opportunities ahead:

Blount Street Scores of Raleigh's finest old homes were torn down three decades ago to make room for the state government complex and other office buildings and parking lots downtown. But 37 such homes, vestiges of the Victorian era, remain in use by state agencies in a four-block area north of the Governor's Mansion, where they're ringed by parking lots with a total of some 1,000 spaces.

At the urging of Raleigh's historic preservationists and state legislators like Rep. Deborah Ross and Sen. Eric Reeves, the State Property Office is recommending that at least 30 of the houses, and all of the parking lots, be sold. But there's a big "if." Whoever buys them must finance new office space for the 500 state employees in them, plus a 1,000-space parking deck. Estimated cost: $28 million.

Potentially, Raleigh could see the Victorians restored as houses, and medium-sized apartment and condo buildings could go up on the parking lots, making the Blount Street area a fabulous attraction for walking conventioneers, who would then have something to see en route to the Peace College campus and the historic Oakwood neighborhood.

A tight zoning plan and streetscape improvements by the city are the keys, along with city funds for affordable housing units. The danger: The state will sell piecemeal to developers (or a "master developer" will sell piecemeal), and the first-one-in philosophy will yield a tall condo building or two but not pretty, walkable streets.

west side Around the TTA station, the city is hoping to see medium-priced and affordable housing built, along with loft and gallery spaces suitable for the "creative class" that is considered the best augury of downtown renewal. A lot of the area is blighted, says Scott Cutler, a planning commission member who's one of the folks working on a small-area plan. But it's also an area where people without a lot of money can afford to live.

Located just below Hillsborough Street, the West Side neighborhood is already dotted with bars and clubs, including a number of gay hangouts. Potentially, it can be a funky area that's fun to walk through at night, with trolley connections to the hot Glenwood South entertainment district on the other side of Hillsborough. But it needs a lot of streetscape improvements, and the convention center must come with street-level shops and attractions, not blank walls. Long-term returns could be tremendous--and important to the revitalization of Fayetteville Street--but not if the council, elected every two years, is thinking short-term.

Dix hill The General Assembly has voted to close Dorothea Dix Hospital, and legislative leaders are keen to sell its 335 acres after perhaps setting some aside for state offices. Mental-health advocates say if the land is sold, the money should be used to help finance the state's shaky mental-health reform initiative, which now depends on a lot of unwilling county governments.

This is the choicest property in Raleigh, overlooking downtown from the other side of Western Boulevard. There's also an old railroad connection to downtown, which in the future could be a TTA spur that goes from its downtown station over to NCSU's Centennial Campus. Guesstimates of what the land would be worth to a "master developer" today range upwards of $50 million, depending on how much the city allows to be built there. On the other hand, People for Parks, a Raleigh nonprofit, is among those urging that 100 acres, or one-third, be preserved as open space, noting that nearby Pullen Park is already overcrowded on a nice summer's day.

Potentially, Raleigh could create a 100-acre park on Dix and allow the rest to be developed. But planner Ben Taylor, who works for developers, warns against "selling wholesale instead of retail," meaning selling before the land is zoned and its maximum density known. Another danger is that condo development on Dix Hill now could undercut the market for housing in the downtown proper. Whereas if downtown were thriving, the retail price of Dix would go way up.

One solution: The city could buy Dix--all of it--while lobbying the General Assembly to sell at a favorable price. A Dix Park would enhance downtown Raleigh now. In the fullness of time, Raleigh could sell the rest of Dix for a profit.

What's the outlook? Marvin Malecha, dean of NCSU's School of Design, says in the 10 years since he came to Raleigh, "the leadership has never been stronger at the council table, or the willingness to see the future." The question is whether building a convention center will exhaust it, or make it stronger still.

"The decade we're in," says architect Steve Schuster, "has the opportunity to set a course for Raleigh to truly be a great city, or we could screw it up. It could go either way." EndBlock

  • Is Raleigh's $180-million gamble on a downtown convention center worth it, or just another dead end?

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