Raleigh’s Downtown Experience Plan exposes weaknesses in transit, housing | Wake County | Indy Week
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Raleigh’s Downtown Experience Plan exposes weaknesses in transit, housing 

The Wilmington Street bridge

Photo illustration by Skillet Gilmore

The Wilmington Street bridge

You couldn't go three minutes without hearing an urban-planning buzzword—"authentic," "connected," "walkable," etc.—but that's to be expected at events like this. The Downtown Raleigh Alliance's State of Downtown is an annual pep rally for the civic booster set of power suits and bearded tech geeks, bankers and developers, planners and politicians. About 500 strong, they crowded into a windowless room on the third floor of the Raleigh Convention Center Thursday morning, smiling and chatting about how great downtown has become.

There was much backslapping. There was no navel-gazing.

"We're seeing growth in every district in downtown!" DRA president and CEO David A. Diaz enthused, a representatively effusive rhetorical sample. Later: "As you can tell, I'm really excited about our future!" Exclamation points abounded. The pep rally had a lot to celebrate.

The numbers in the 80-page State of Downtown Raleigh report tell the story: Downtown's population, about 6,000 now, has risen more than 50 percent in 15 years, and is projected to increase another 40 percent once all the under-construction apartments are built out.

An estimated 18,000 people will live within a one-mile radius by decade's end, well above the 10,000-person threshold urban planners say creates a critical mass that turns downtowns into living, breathing neighborhoods. Already, there's a ridiculously low 2.7 percent vacancy rate for multifamily housing, and everyone expects the 2,000 or so new units coming online to lease quickly, and not cheaply. The demand is there. The supply is catching up.

"We're adding so much housing supply right now," gushes Bill King, the DRA's planning and development manager and the report's author. And it's the right environment for the kinds of vertical fortresses that will define the city's skyline, too: "There's a high enough price to get projects out of the ground, but low enough to finish them. We're in a sweet spot right now."

That sweet spot extends beyond housing: Downtown's retail base has grown 35 percent in just the last four years. Downtown food and beverage tax revenues are up more than 10 percent in the last year alone, an empirical confirmation of what anyone who's spent a Friday evening trying to score a table at Poole's already knows. More important: Downtown, which already accounts for more than 7 percent of the city's tax base despite comprising less than 1 percent of city land, has more than $730 million worth of in-the-works development.

All of which is to say, downtown has arrived. The sleepy urban center of yesteryear, the one suffocated by inattention and decay, has been vanquished. The bold new frontier is upon us. Downtown is no longer just the state's bureaucratic anchor; it's also the Triangle's economic engine and cultural hub, a capital-p Place, the pulsating heart of the region.

Downtown's arrival, however, is an unassailable fact that prompts an unavoidable question: What's next?

Or, as King puts it, "How do you take abundance and guide it in a way that's sustainable?"

  • File photo by D.L. Anderson

On second thought, arrived is the wrong word, implying as it does that that we've reached a terminus. Downtown is still growing and evolving, propped up by banks that are lending, developers who are building and politicians who are listening, not to mention area schools churning out STEM grads by the truckload and a national economy that finally seems to have turned the corner.

It's better to say that downtown is arriving, present tense, a work-in-progress.

Last year, the city and the DRA began charting a map for how that arriving will take shape. The result, the Downtown Experience Plan, is a sequel to the city's 2003 Livable Streets plan, widely credited with kick-starting downtown's resurgence.

While less focused on big-ticket items than its predecessor, the Downtown Experience Plan is nonetheless smart and ambitious. It envisions more and better green spaces and public parks (maybe even a dog park), bike and pedestrian trails and greenways, improved public transportation (and less reliance on cars and space-sucking surface parking lots), urban infill, better sidewalks and a grocery store, block-redeveloping public-private partnerships and special-assessment districts, a world-class entertainment district and a more robust retail environment, taller buildings and maybe a sports stadium.

Meanwhile, it leaves vague the funding mechanisms and hand-waves past thorny questions of affordable housing and historic preservation as blanks to be filled in later. In part that's because the document is aspirational—not all of it will happen, and much will depend on decisions made years from now.

"It's better to be aspirational and audacious than to be conservative," King explains. "We can keep striving toward those things."

As with any such endeavor, it's one thing to sketch on paper where downtown needs to go. It's quite another to get there.

  • File photo by D.L. Anderson

I grew up here," says City Council member Bonner Gaylord. "When I was growing up, downtown was not somewhere people had any occasion to go."

You hear a lot of talk like this from those who came of age when downtown suffered from an almost-institutional neglect, when all the growth and energy sprawled toward the suburbs. In the 1990s, under the conservative Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble administrations, development was booming—just not in the city's core.

"Their view was, let's not waste any more money downtown," says Charles Meeker, who became mayor in 2001. (Disclosure: Meeker's brother, Richard, co-owns the INDY.)

Raleigh wasn't unique. Back then downtowns all over the country languished under the perception that they were dirty and dangerous. But that started to change in the early 2000s, as the city came to realize that having a crappy downtown put it at an economic disadvantage. Raleigh was competing for companies that wanted young professionals, who in turn wanted to live someplace cool. This wasn't it, and that was a problem.

Dan Douglas, a former city planner who wrote Livable Streets and founded the city's Urban Design Center, was instrumental in that turnaround. (Though now in the private sector, he also helped craft the Downtown Experience Plan.)

"We were sort of adolescents as a city," Douglas says. "Now we're teenagers trying to decide what college we want to go to."

Livable Streets, he says, "was the first plan in 20 years that took a holistic look and developed a strategy that was implementable."

There were five central pillars—reinvigorating a moribund Fayetteville Street, building a convention center, improving the pedestrian environment, streamlining regulations and rearranging how the city managed downtown—that were to be put into place within five years.

For the most part, it happened. Fayetteville Street reopened in 2006. Restaurants and bars followed. The convention center opened in 2008. Before the real-estate crash, developers couldn't build downtown condos fast enough. When the economy recovered, the cranes reappeared, this time erecting multifamily rentals.

Momentum is a tangible thing in downtown development. Raleigh finally had it. But success begets its own challenges—as the city is now discovering.

  • Illustration by Chris Williams
  • The bold new frontier.

In the end, those challenges circle the same, almost existential question: What makes a downtown livable?

That question permeates the comments the city has received thus far on the Downtown Experience Plan: The plan doesn't do enough to preserve downtown's character and history, some argued. (Complaints about the former Greek Orthodox Church on Person Street, which the plan envisions razing and redeveloping, appear more than once.)

Others fretted about the onslaught of new high-rises: "The very structures that create the charm and distinction of Raleigh and attract visitors and new residents alike are being razed to create 'new' buildings that are bulky, awkward and/or out of place. We are quickly 'progressing' toward being just another aggregation of cubes."

This concern was echoed by a Friday op-ed in The News & Observer by architect Frank Harmon: "Downtown Raleigh is being transformed by repetitive, five-story, stick-built apartments atop concrete parking structures," he wrote.

To be sure, most of the feedback the city's gotten has been laudatory, and some criticisms are fairly picayune. (One person complained about the report's font selection.) But there's also an undercurrent of anxiety over where downtown's headed and what that destination will look like: Will we develop a viable mass transit system that makes it possible to live here without a car? Will skyrocketing rents gentrify the urban core into a homogenous mush, driving out the artists and musicians and service workers who make the place interesting? Will we preserve what makes downtown unique and rooted in history, or will all that fall by the wayside as we lust after condo towers and corporate headquarters? And is downtown's success as an entertainment mecca ultimately self-defeating?

Earlier this year, developer Greg Hatem made headlines when he told the N&O that the downtown he'd help transform was now "unlivable," beset by too many bars and too much noise.

In January, voicing his concerns to the City Council, Hatem referenced an unpublished study that rated Raleigh low in vibrancy. That study—still unpublished, but destined for the Journal of Urbanism, says author Emil Malizia, director of the Institute for Economic Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—samples 65 of the country's larger downtowns. To assess vibrancy, it examines criteria such as compactness, the percentage of downtown workers who live within a mile of their job, and the ease with which you can get around without a car. (On that last metric, Malizia says, Raleigh fared particularly poorly: "The average for all those cities is abominable. Raleigh is below average.")

Last year, Malizia—who says he's not allowed to share his study until it's published—wrote an article for a different journal ranking downtowns by his measure of vibrancy. Raleigh placed 39 out of 44.

Downtown, Malizia hastens to add, has come a long way, evolving from a 9-to-5 business district into a thriving work/play nexus. The next step is to enhance the residential component and then add the kinds of amenities that go along with it—a downtown grocery store being the most bandied-about example.

In that vein, he thinks Hatem has a point; there should be some separation between nightlife and neighborhood: "Not trying to make the place any less hip or any less weird than it wants to be, but as my mother used to say, there's a time and place for everything."

(Douglas, the former city planner, believes this conflict will sort itself out. "When you have 10,000 people living here, it's a real neighborhood," he says. "If they have a problem with [noise], Council will hear it.")

But just as vital, maybe more so, is ensuring that downtown has a diverse population—not just racial diversity, but diversity of incomes and backgrounds and energies as well—and that means making it affordable for everyone, not just well-heeled white collars. To do that, downtown needs two things it currently lacks: more workforce housing and better mass transit.

The city is working on the former, says Larry Jarvis, director of housing and neighborhoods; a plan addressing affordable housing in and around downtown will be released this summer. Wake County, meanwhile, is developing a billion-dollar-plus transit plan to put to voters next year.

Last week, Raleigh and Wake County officials got a crash course in what could go wrong.

The occasion was a Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce-sponsored trip to Austin, Texas—like Raleigh, the hot-shit blue capital of a red state and one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Also like Raleigh, Austin is grappling with sprawl and congestion and affordability, and not always very well.

"It was a glimpse into our future," says City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin. "It made me feel better knowing that we're not unique."

"While Austin's been tremendously successful," Gaylord adds, "I would never take their successes with their challenges."

In Austin, parents abandoned the central school district for the suburbs; now the Austin Independent School District has 63 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch, indicating the entrenched poverty that augers poorly for academic achievement. Meanwhile, home prices have shot through the roof, pushing families to seek cheaper environs even if that means enduring an increasingly hellish commute to work. Making matters worse, last year voters rejected city leaders' second attempt at establishing an expensive light-rail system.

Today, Austin's highways are in "absolute gridlock," Gaylord says. "They have no real way to deal with that."

There's a lesson there, as Raleigh and Wake County countenance the transit plan, more money for schools and now, the push for a better downtown. "If we don't invest now," Gaylord says, "we may end up in a situation in which we have an intractable problem."

Have your say

Comment on the draft Downtown Experience Plan

Through Wednesday, May 13

Online at www.bit.ly/N1SrqA Also: Downtown Raleigh Alliance office, 120 S. Wilmington St., Suite 103City of Raleigh Planning and Development, 1 Exchange Plaza, Third FloorChavis Memorial Park, 505 MLK Jr. Blvd.


Email trisha.hasch@raleighnc.gov

Phone 919-996-4641

Mail Trisha Hasch, City of Raleigh Planning and Development, P.O. Box 590, Raleigh, NC 27602

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