Raleigh development leader Greg Hatem says the city's downtown is "unlivable." He's wrong. | Wake County | Indy Week
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Raleigh development leader Greg Hatem says the city's downtown is "unlivable." He's wrong. 

Greg Hatem in DECO, one of Empire Properties' retail spaces

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange/Photo Illustration by Skillet Gilmore

Greg Hatem in DECO, one of Empire Properties' retail spaces

Greg Hatem doesn't believe me when I tell him he's about to move two doors down from the neighborhood party house.

During the last month, the 54-year-old married father of two, who has been described as "the godfather of downtown Raleigh's renaissance," caused quite the inner-city stir. He told The News & Observer that the same downtown he had helped create had become "unlivable," a wasteland overrun with bars and full of late-night sirens and screams, puking and partying, bacchanalia and bass.

The bedlam had become so bad, Hatem told the newspaper, that he and his family would soon abandon a chic modern apartment above Fayetteville Street, and seek solace from the modern Sodom through self-exile to the nearby historic district of Oakwood. In this quiet neighborhood of about 600 homes less than a mile from Fayetteville Street, the Hatems hope to find refuge in a glorious 3,800-square foot, 143-year-old Second Empire home that he and his wife, Samantha, purchased in 2013.

Just as downtown Raleigh has become a destination for more than getting a marriage license or going to court, Hatem seemed to suggest that it's time to turn down the volume. For the city's future, it is a pivotal argument.

I met Hatem last Thursday night at the Raleigh Times Bar, the pub and restaurant that his company opened in 2006. It has since become a city centerpiece. I asked him if he'd investigated his Oakwood neighbors.

Did he know, for instance, that on the weekends, a half-dozen 20-something dudes played shirtless drinking games in the yard across East Street? That, sometimes on Sunday mornings, discarded cans of domestic beers still littered their yard? Or that, after one neighbor complained about the noise on the community's listserv, another publicly scolded him, telling him "to move to a retirement community or, if you're not quite ready for that, Cary?"

Leaning over the table for two and laughing, he asked, "Are you being serious?"

I assured him that I was, that I live close enough to know.

"Oh, man," he said. "That's classic."

It's classic because Hatem has earned a reputation for becoming downtown Raleigh's prematurely grumpy old man, or at least for using that guise to influence city policy on traffic, noise and business. Through Empire Eats, Empire Properties and a dozen other corporations, he and his partners own millions of dollars of property and a few hundred thousand square feet of space. Empire holds the leases on some of the city's most popular retail stores, including Stitch and Raleigh Denim.

But his reputation has seen better days: Shortly after his "unlivable" comments, 48 posters went up in downtown Raleigh overnight. A prankster had given Hatem's face the Obama "HOPE" treatment. "UNLIVABLE," the poster read at the bottom. And the comments sections of recent newspaper stories about him are littered with epithets like "hypocrite" and jokes about "The Hatem Plantation" or Empire Property's fictitious ownership of The News & Observer.

Hatem has been here before. In September, he told The News & Observer—always eager for a quote from a developer with more than 40 properties in the city's center—that the Capital City Bikefest needed to get out of his back yard. It was one of the first events to move to a then-empty downtown, and it remains one of the city's most popular annual events.

Not with Hatem. "Its time has come and gone," he said. "I just don't think it belongs on Fayetteville Street." During this year's Bikefest, he told me, Samantha took the kids to New York for the weekend. Of Lebanese descent, he went to Beirut, he said, "so I could get some sleep."

At a Jan. 20 city council meeting, Hatem made a brief two-part plea: First, he encouraged the members to meet with UNC professor of real estate and urban development Emil Malizia, whose unpublished study indicates that Raleigh's downtown is among the least vibrant in America.

After playing to the council's essential fear—following a decade of work to rebuild the city's center, it might still suck—he asked a favor. He wanted the council to place a one-year moratorium on new "amplified outdoor entertainment permits," which would allow sound inside of some restaurants and bars to pass through open doors and windows. Eight bars along Fayetteville Street had applied for such permits. I talked to the owners of six, and everyone agreed their aim wasn't to boost the volume downtown.

Hatem insisted that more research was needed before council should approve these permits. He wanted to see the findings of a new pilot program meant to engineer a positive relationship between loud bars and sleeping neighbors in the party mecca of Glenwood South before creating the same situation downtown. Such tension on Fayetteville Street, he implied, could have disastrous effects for the city's burgeoning middle.

"There is a huge amount of conflict now in the Fayetteville Street district between bar owners and the residents and other businesses," he said, leaning hard against the lectern. "A large amount of it comes from people not being able to sleep at night and folks having to wake up in the morning to the aftermath of what has happened on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It's not pleasant."

Again, the council gave him part of what he wanted, delaying the hearings for those permits for more than a month. A week later, The News & Observer followed up with an obsequious editorial, titled "Lower the volume on Raleigh's boom," that painted Hatem as a victim and an omniscient downtown expert.

"It was the right decision," the piece said. "Rules and regulations have to evolve."

The irony, though, is that the permits in question are a necessary attempt to adopt rules that meet the changing demands of an evolving area. Since Fayetteville Street was reopened to traffic in 2006 after falling into disuse as a failed pedestrian mall, "Raleigh's main street" has slowly become the city's social epicenter. Designers envisioned the half-mile stretch as a locus for events that has fostered several of the city's signature festivities—Wide Open Bluegrass and Hopscotch, First Night Raleigh and SPARKcon.

More revelers need more places to revel, of course, so the number of bars between the State Capitol and the city's performing arts center has exploded. When Empire Eats opened the Raleigh Times Bar nearly a decade ago, very few drinking or eating options were in downtown Raleigh. But there are now at least 15 places to grab a drink—or get drunk, as people do—on Fayetteville Street alone, with talk of more to come.

But Hatem says bars that opened after the Raleigh Times' success, like many of those applying for the new permits, have overlooked an essential component of his vision. By making their money on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, he says, they sit dark and empty for most of the week. That creates a city that feels abandoned by day. The Raleigh Times sells lots of beer, yes, but between it and The Morning Times, someone is eating at one of his establishments 20 hours a day.

This, he says, fosters community.

Hatem cites studies to support that feeling, but he speaks about the street-level situation in subjective, indignant terms. He discusses "bad bars" versus "good bars," pubs with "good character" versus pubs without it, "ordinary noise" versus "extraordinary noise." Some bars have "cultural underpinnings," and the others simply don't last. Hatem likes to cite the state's motto—"Esse quam videri," or "To be rather than to seem"—to criticize places that lure weekend drinkers but little else.

"There's a group of bar owners that don't have respect for the rest of the community. It's just not what Raleigh is about," Hatem says. He refuses to name them. "It's not what we, even as North Carolinians, were brought up on: You respect your neighbors."

Hatem says the Raleigh Times has taken steps to decrease its late-night chaos, including an earlier last call and more aggressive ID checks. When the bar runs out of $2 PBR on weekend nights, they don't add a new tap; they simply shut off sales.

A few days before Hatem's council comments, however, police arrested a Raleigh Times patron for allegedly attempting to steal an officer's gun after he was ejected for stealing liquor. Hatem says that is evidence his system works.

In the summer, the Raleigh Times still shuts down Hargett Street, cramming a few thousand people in front of the bar for a free concert and market. Hatem says that, unlike the competition, it creates no "negative externality." To be honest, both of those statements seem to lack a certain self-awareness. If I'm walking home at night during the weekend, I add a block to my commute just to avoid the place.

Van Alston runs Slim's, one of the downtown bars that Hatem says has a true identity. But Alston disagrees with Hatem's reasoning and vision. How can someone whose restaurants and wedding venues dot the city not admit that he contributes to the volume, too—and possibly created it?

"He's saying, 'I've got mine. I don't want anybody else to have theirs,'" Alston says. "He's built his business, and he realizes he doesn't need his doors open to attract people. I think he does have a heart for downtown, but he's looking at one heartbeat—his. You can't enforce everyone to conform to your vision of downtown. It can't be one heart, one vision."

Hatem, however, says he speaks for at least 100 people who have, in recent years, vented to him about the rising noise. He recognizes that he has the capital—political and otherwise—to be heard. He insists that his position is not about money or competition or his place's veteran status. He says he would gladly give up Raleigh Times' outdoor seating to lower the volume in Raleigh. He hopes to build a fabric of businesses that are "good neighbors" before it's too late.

"There is a minor exodus of people from downtown. It's the dirty little secret that nobody wants to talk about that now they're talking about," Hatem says. "They don't want somebody saying you live in a toxic zone, because it hurts real estate values. But they're so frustrated that they're willing to say, 'This is bad. It's too noisy. We need help fixing it.' I know people that have moved because it's so noisy they couldn't sleep in their apartment."

But as best as anyone can tell, this theory seems to be a boogeyman. David Diaz, the president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, reports that thousands of new residents are expected downtown in the next year. Agents are now leasing the glut of new downtown apartments.

Hilary Stokes, a real estate agent who has specialized in downtown properties for nearly a decade, says that most of her business comes from buyers moving to the middle of the city, not sellers hoping to escape. She sold through a 10-unit set of modern townhomes three blocks from Fayetteville Street months before it will be ready for residents.

"Most of my buyers are well-informed," she says. "The buyers are very aware that it is noisy, and they want to be in the middle of it."

Two weeks after Hatem's presentation, Dan Lovenheim, a bar owner who helped engineer the pilot noise-monitoring plan on Glenwod South, led a contingent of more than 100 downtown business owners, employees and residents to a city council meeting. Smiling through his speech, he made no policy recommendations; instead, he thanked the council for the work it's done to promote "growth, diversity and prosperity."

Lovenheim is one of Hatem's closest downtown neighbors. They both live in apartments above Fayetteville Street and can see each other's space. Lovenheim has been in the city's center since 2001, and he says he has no plans to join an exodus, however real or imagined.

"What Greg is talking about is driving out bars, clubs, restaurants, hospitality, restaurant-bars—things that all led to vibrancy. He's having everybody shut up and go home at 11 at night. That's a misallocated vision," he says. "We're in the central business district in the capital city, and we're trying to have a conversation like it's a residential neighborhood, like it's Oakwood or Mordecai. If you don't want that kind of diversity, go to a neighborhood."

Late last year, I ran into Hatem at The Morning Times, the coffee shop that shares half a block with The Raleigh Times. We stood in line together and made small talk. I asked when he'd be moving in, as he'd closed a year earlier. Though I've aged out of the kind of party houses that will soon provide his neighbors, I live nearby.

"In the next year or so," he answered. "I'm excited to get there."

At the time, Oakwood was embroiled in a debate over the construction of a relatively innocent modern home. Hatem laughed and acknowledged that a sleek backyard addition to his new old home might soon be in order­­—neighborhood policies be damned.

"That's the trouble," he said. "Oakwood doesn't like modern. But I like modern."

He's right. Though that controversial house is finished, I don't know that it will set an easy precedent for modern architecture. He may not be able to recreate his Fayetteville Street digs in the backyard of Oakwood. But that's how cities work, right?

Each sector has different expectations and exceptions, so that an indulgence in one zone might not fly in another. In Oakwood, the noisy kids a few doors down notwithstanding, Hatem's family should find relative peace and calm. And on Fayetteville Street, if Hatem is willing to sell or rent, someone else will find a slick pad at the epicenter of the party. That is, if the city council doesn't shut it down first.

This article appeared in print with the headline "At the Emperor's request."

  • Greg Hatem, the man behind much of Raleigh's resurgence, now says the town is too loud.

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