Up front, let's stipulate that the fabulous things Dan Douglas envisions for downtown Raleigh aren't all going to happen—at least, not in every detail. And maybe in no detail: The state and the city have a long history of not working together. Add in the county, two public utility companies, three railroads and Triangle Transit, and the number of permutations for how this scheme goes awry are to the nth degree.
Still, everything Douglas is talking about in his plan is not only feasible, it's there for the taking if Raleigh's leaders can get together and commit to the goal of economic development on a world-class scale. Douglas, who wears his passion for cities and planning on both rolled-up sleeves, believes this to his core.
"It absolutely can be done," he says. "We just need to think bigger."
The "it" is a nonprofit development corporation similar to the one that created the Research Triangle Park a half century ago, but this time it is aimed at making North Carolina's capital city the equal of any in the world for economic innovation and quality of life.
The state would be a partner in the corporation, as would the city, Wake County, Progress Energy and Public Service of North Carolina; also, the CSX, Norfolk Southern and North Carolina Railroad companies and Triangle Transit.
Combined, Douglas says, these partners own 120 acres of vacant or underutilized land in the prime railroad corridor that runs through the heart of the city and up Capital Boulevard to Atlantic Avenue. The partners would donate their land to the corporation, which Douglas calls Capital City Partners, giving it an enormous asset with which to leverage private and public development—commercial, residential and cultural—on a grand scale.
The corporation would then hold an international competition to produce the best possible master plan for downtown development. This could include new public squares, transit stations, high-tech businesses, high-density housing—a significant amount of it, affordable—arts and cultural hubs: All this, to create a bustling, vibrant, walkable and green downtown.
By following the plan, the corporation and private developers would be drawn to the "transformative investments" needed for a great center city to emerge, generating new taxes for the government partners, new business for the railroads and utilities, and new revenues for the corporation to continue its work.
The number of jobs in downtown Raleigh, now about 40,000, could be doubled in the next two decades, Douglas estimates, and the number of people living downtown could increase from fewer than 3,000 to between 25,000 and 30,000.
Douglas' thesis is attracting attention in policy circles for a couple of reasons. Until recently, he was Raleigh's chief downtown planner and advocate. As director of the city's Urban Design Center, he was widely considered to be the pied piper of downtown's potential and a strong creative thinker.
Douglas relished the job, he says, and left only when KlingStubbins, one of the nation's biggest architectural and engineering firms, offered him the chance to create a new corporate-level planning unit based in its Raleigh office. He's now their "planner number one," he says, a note of amazement in his voice, "building an international planning practice from 333 Fayetteville Street."
The second reason is that nearly everything he foresees happening in downtown Raleigh, he saw for real somewhere in Europe when he traveled there two years ago on a prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship.
When Douglas returned, the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy, stalling Raleigh's boom and giving it, as Mayor Charles Meeker says, some breathing room to plan for the next big wave of growth. Douglas used the time to consult with colleagues, refine his plan and crystallize the one big idea that could bring the rest of it to fruition.
Raleigh would go, as he foresees it, from languishing among the worst cities in the country in terms of wasted land and energy—a city built on sprawl—to being the greenest city in the Southeast and among the greenest in the world. It would be transit-oriented, not just car-dependent. It would be the kind of creative city that drives and thrives in the world economy.
"If we're the smartest, most creative community in the country," Douglas said when he presented his plan to SPARKcon's "Ideas Spark" audience last month, "we need to start acting like it."
His Eisenhower Fellowship experience opened doors for him in Europe, and opened his eyes. In eight weeks, he traveled to 14 cities in five countries and met with 75 leaders, including the prime minister of Ireland and assorted royalty in Spain. Everywhere he saw cities taking charge of their futures with strong planning, rather than (as here) depending on the piecemeal choices of private interests.
These world-class cities are taking advantage of transit and energy-efficient design to create densely populated yet highly livable places, Douglas found. Public squares and affordable housing are required in every development. They help bring the cities to life.
Douglas had read about the European style for years; he'd heard about it at conferences and seen the PowerPoint presentations. But it was a different experience to view it close-up, especially in places he'd visited earlier in his career that were stunningly better. "That was the surprise," he says, "to see that they weren't just talking about it, they actually did it."
Several cities had wrestled with the question of what to do with abandoned industrial land in their downtowns. It was the same problem Raleigh confronts with its old industrial corridor, which follows the train tracks through the western part of the city and into the downtown area before turning north up Capital Boulevard.
In Bilbao, Spain, city leaders created a nonprofit corporation called Bilbao Ria 2000, which began by accepting donations of land along an industrial riverfront, including several polluted brownfields. The corporation, which included the landowners, paid to clean it up, and it got the properties rezoned according to the winning master plan from an international competition.
A Bilbao official gave Douglas his favorite new saying: The only two entities in Spain that can print money, the official said, are the central bank "and any city government that upzones a property."
Flush with its upzoned assets, Bilbao Ria 2000 entered into deals with developers for high-density residential and commercial projects. The profits helped pay for new streets, a riverfront park, a pedestrian overpass and the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum. Some went back to the corporation for future projects.
The result, Douglas says, is that 83 acres of abandoned land were transformed, and "Bilbao is now the darling of any international discussion of urban design."
Douglas saw the model repeated on a bigger scale in Barcelona, where a nonprofit corporation assembled the equivalent of 110 city blocks, a land area equal to all of downtown Raleigh. Some of the Barcelona land had been used for railroad switching yards. Again, it was reminiscent of the Capital Boulevard corridor in Raleigh, which is flanked by the CSX and Norfolk Southern yards.
Barcelona's master plan called for burying the rail yards and building the new city over them. It targeted "knowledge-intensive" businesses, including telecommunications and medical technology firms, with density bonuses to developers able to sign them up as tenants.
Barcelona has set a goal of providing 130,000 jobs for the area—more than three times the number of jobs in downtown Raleigh.
In Madrid, Douglas was fascinated to see an old municipal slaughterhouse transformed into a thriving arts, entertainment and retail venue. Its size—about 1.3 million square feet—is roughly equal to unused space in buildings on the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus in Raleigh, he noted.
Freiburg, Germany offered a different lesson. There, on an old military base, the city created one of Europe's greenest, densest districts. Like most of Europe, it adheres to a six-story limit on building heights. It features walkable streets, bike lanes and excellent transit, so efficient that 40 percent of resident families don't own a car.
What all families do own is a home with solar panels on the roof. Heat and air conditioning is cheaper because of the district's cogeneration facility. Some of the homes are located in co-op housing communities designed and built by the owners without a developer, reducing housing costs.
The before picture of the Freiburg district, Douglas says, looked like Capital Boulevard just north of downtown Raleigh. The after view cemented in his mind an image of what that area of Capital Boulevard could become.
In a report he wrote for the Eisenhower Foundation, Douglas pointed to lessons learned in each place. They included the importance to cities of preserving old buildings while supplying modern amenities like free wireless access, solar and cogenerated power, and efficient transit.
But the primary lesson, Douglas wrote, is that cities "must have the will to change." If they do, then the second lesson applies: Complex public/private partnerships.
Every city he visited, Douglas wrote, was following a specific economic development strategy to attract the creative class of highly educated people and the companies they work for. All were convinced that to attract them, cities must be vibrant, efficient and green.
"It was exciting," Douglas recalls. "And they all thought of Raleigh as a leader in the United States because of the Research Triangle Park. But it was also disappointing, because I realized that Raleigh as a city had no economic development strategy at all."