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Dan Douglas' European vision for our capital city 

Raleigh, meet Madrid. And Barcelona. And Freiburg.

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Back in Raleigh, Douglas looked for a way to focus the city's political and business leaders on the challenge posed by Europe's cities—and on what he views as Raleigh's vast untapped potential to meet the challenge.

When he opened the books on land ownership within the rail corridor, he discovered what he thinks is the key to getting their attention: The city, the county, the state, the utilities and the railroads already own 120 acres of land there (map), most of it as miserable as that riverfront in Bilbao or the military base in Freiberg before they were turned into great urban places.

For example, Raleigh owns 18 acres along the west side of Capital Boulevard that it uses to park its garbage trucks and other vehicles. The county owns six acres, also with abundant parking, that abut the site of the planned Triangle Transit commuter-rail station at the State Government complex.

If the two governments joined hands and developed their properties according to a common master plan, Douglas thought, and the other owners did the same, imagine the effect they'd have on the privately owned land in the corridor.

To help them imagine it, Douglas started making a plan and picking the brains of everyone he knew who could help him. He took the best of what he heard. The result (map) is as stunning as the projects he saw in Europe.

For starters, he'd eradicate Capital Boulevard as we know it from Peace Street north to the intersection with Atlantic Avenue. In place of that grungy highway, he'd put in a tree-lined boulevard, with stoplights, sidewalks and cross streets that connect to a pair of new frontage streets parallel to the train tracks.

Ripping out the road and installing streets wouldn't be cheap, Douglas says, but it would pay for itself many-fold as a platform for the same kind of dense, urban development as in Freiberg, with new offices, shopping, restaurants and entertainment in the mix with thousands of housing units.

Heavily polluted Pigeon Creek Branch, much of it buried in giant pipes, would be opened up and cleaned, becoming a featured waterway.

Triangle Transit rail—perhaps including a streetcar line up the middle of the new boulevard—would serve the corridor.

"North up Capital Boulevard is the path of least resistance for downtown expansion," Douglas says. Developers know it, and they've been assembling privately owned tracts there and in the rest of the corridor for some time, anticipating the city's push.

But to his knowledge, the vision for that area has been piecemeal because nobody has thought it possible to coordinate development among all the stakeholders for the entire 369-acre corridor. No one has envisioned the corridor's enormous potential if a strong master plan is followed.

Douglas sees his plan as a way to psych up stakeholders and the public to commission a better one.

"Someone said that planning is nothing more than the organization of hope," he says. "Our planning process should be just that—getting citizens to share their hopes, and then working it through to reach a consensus, a vision and a strategy."

The payoff for coordinated planning, Douglas says, is that "the sum of the parts is much greater" than would be realized if everyone acts alone—and everyone's property values increase. But a downside, as Europeans know, is that without inclusionary zoning, low-income people—including young folks, families and seniors—are gradually priced out.

Based on his experience in Europe, Douglas thinks every condo and apartment building in the downtown plan should be held to a 20 percent affordable-housing requirement. And he likes the Euro-style of development: Nothing taller than six stories, with densely concentrated buildings arranged around public squares.

The original plan for Raleigh—set out by legislator and land surveyor William Christmas in 1798—platted the city around a center square (where the Capitol is located) and four other squares equidistant from it. Two remain: Moore Square and Nash Square. The others were taken by the Governor's Mansion and a state office building.

Douglas' plan pays homage to Christmas, placing nine additional squares throughout downtown, including two that would double as green roofs on top of new parking decks. Otherwise, his transit-oriented developments would dramatically reduce the need for additional decks beyond the current total of 40,000 spaces. Without transit, Raleigh would need about 80,000 more parking spaces to support the same number of jobs and housing units he's projecting with it. That amount of parking would be nearly impossible to build, and even if you could, at $30,000 per deck space, it would cost $2.4 billion.

"Sometimes," he says, laughing at the joke, "I call this plan a Christmas present for Raleigh."

So what's next? When Douglas spoke at SPARKcon, he was received with boisterous applause by an audience of creative-class types who grasped immediately what he was talking about. "His vision was rock solid, clear and beautiful," said Aly Khalifa, a product designer and a SPARKcon founder-organizer. "It was just tremendous to have somebody who was so closely involved with city development speak so passionately about Raleigh's future."

State Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Raleigh), who heard Douglas speak to another group, thinks the prospects are improving for cooperation among state government and city and county leaders. She's one of several state and local officials trying to make it happen with regular meetings, she said. "We have something to build on for future projects."

The situation reminds Douglas of what happened when he came to Raleigh seven years ago. As the Urban Design Center's first director, Douglas was charged with getting it off the ground as a vehicle for building the downtown. Meanwhile, Raleigh was starting its Livable Streets planning process to reverse two decades of downtown decline.

In nine months, Douglas managed dozens of Livable Streets meetings and spoke to more than 10,000 members (he counted) of civic groups, neighborhood groups, any group that would have him.

"Dan is a very creative thinker, someone who understands the value of place-making instead of haphazard development," says City Councilor Thomas Crowder, who co-chaired Livable Streets. "His leaving the Urban Design Center is a big loss for the city, but I hope he'll stay involved with our planning—I know he will."

Livable Streets resulted in a broad community consensus in favor of reopening Fayetteville Street, tearing down the old civic center, building a new convention center and otherwise paying to kick-start a renaissance downtown. It also won people over, Douglas thinks, to the value of planning.

As it did, the Urban Design Center emerged as the place where city officials and developers were always figuring, "what's next?"

Douglas thinks Raleigh is ready for a second round of Livable Streets-style discussions, with the focus this time not on rectifying past mistakes but on joining the ranks of the world's top cities.

Ideally, he says, Raleigh could send delegations to the same cities he visited in Europe. Alternatively, their leaders could be invited here. Either way, Raleigh needs to understand who it's competing with for business.

Douglas argues strongly from the creative-class thesis, which holds that the world economy will be dominated in this century by knowledge-intensive businesses and the creative people who run them. Such people gravitate to lively cities, Douglas says. They don't like working in isolation.

When Douglas thinks of Raleigh's economy, he sees a wobbly-legged stool. For companies that still prefer a campus atmosphere, we have the Research Triangle Park. Those seeking an educational campus can choose NCSU's Centennial Campus, which is going strong.

But when it comes to attracting the creative types who want to work in a vibrant city, what's Raleigh's strategy? Douglas's answer: "We got nuthin'."

Well, not nothing. Raleigh has enormous assets, Douglas argues, "if we put them together and use them" to chart a different path for growth.

"It's not going to be easy, the good things never are," he says, his cadence racing. "I mean, if it were, everybody would be doing it. But it's the cities that say, 'This is hard, but we're going to actually do it,' that are going to leapfrog ahead of all the other ones."

  • "If we're the smartest, most creative community in the country, we need to start acting like it."

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