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Raleigh's rebranding 

Are the city's best features being ignored?

Click for larger image • The work is almost finished outside the Raleigh Convention Center.

Photo by Derek Anderson

Click for larger image • The work is almost finished outside the Raleigh Convention Center.

The scene: Downtown Raleigh two Saturdays ago. A small crowd gathers near the Governor's Mansion to watch as a pair of still-grand 19th-century homes are jacked up and wheeled to their new locations as part of the 21st-century Blount Street Commons development (see "History on the move at Blount Street Commons"). Houses, then state offices, now houses again—it is, indeed, "history in the (re)making," as the developer says.

(Or as one bright newraleigh.com blogger terms it, "The Parade of Homes.")

Click for larger image • The Merrimon-Wynne home, a classic 19th-century Victorian mansion weighing around 250 tons, is moved across Blount Street to its new location in the Blount Street Commons redevelopment project near downtown Raleigh. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON
  • Photo by Derek Anderson
  • Click for larger image • The Merrimon-Wynne home, a classic 19th-century Victorian mansion weighing around 250 tons, is moved across Blount Street to its new location in the Blount Street Commons redevelopment project near downtown Raleigh.

Given the almost irreparable harm long since wreaked by state government northward of the Capitol, this faux re-creation strikes me as the best possible thing, since authentic history no longer is.

I soon find myself comparing it to the featured exhibit at the supposedly for-real N.C. Museum of History: a hall full of carved duck decoys with the title, Art DuckO.

Ouch.

Governor, we have company coming to Raleigh—11 million visitors a year, according to the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau (GRCVB), with our new, $221 million convention center opening this weekend—and for our birthright, we're going with fake ducks?

At the south end of downtown, meanwhile, on the plaza in front of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, a few hundred folks are in line to enter Levity III, the inflatable, 10,000-square-foot luminarium brought here from England for the weekend. It's part of "Art on the Edge," a city-sponsored bill that includes acrobats, local theater and local bands.

The wait for Levity III, which was almost nothing the day before, has grown to an hour, and people are feeling quite festive—they've come to the right place, clearly, since everyone else is here too. While they wait, they can chat about the feverish construction they see all around, including the giant hole where the underground parking is going in.

Near the front of the line, I see Karen Rindge with her daughter, Savannah. Karen is president of WakeUP Wake County, the civic group pushing for better planning on schools, water, transit and—well, you know the list of our neglected public needs. (Disclosure: I helped start the group.) She's upbeat about transit's political prospects. While we chat, one of the burgeoning fleet of Raleigh Rickshaws arrives with its two passengers, exploding the canard that Raleigh has no mass transit at all.

What do you think of this? I ask, gesturing toward the luminarium. "I think it's really freakin' cool," she responds, "that we have contemporary art in downtown Raleigh and a line to get in!"

Click for larger image • Levity III, an inflatable, 10,000-square-foot luminarium, was brought to Raleigh from England for the weekend as part of "Art on the Edge" - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Over to the new convention center. It's a block up and one block west of the luminarium, with the new Marriott Hotel on Fayetteville Street in between. At a sidewalk table in front of the Marriott, I find Beth Yerxa, a member of the Raleigh Arts Commission, enjoying a beverage with her son, Daniel. "I feel like I'm in a big city," she exclaims. She's been checking out the hotel for an event she's part of this winter. "It's fabulous," she says. "Have you been inside?"

Yes, I answer, and it's quite nice, though I'm not much taken with the exterior design, which seems more Myrtle Beach to me than Big City Raleigh. The hotel's backside faces the front of the convention center on Salisbury Street. It wouldn't matter, perhaps, except there's not even a door to the hotel on the Salisbury Street side. (Via an escalator, the hotel is connected to the center below ground.)

Thus, to view the Convention Center plaza from the first floor of the Marriott, you're forced to push aside some sturdy, pastel-colored window curtains that are clearly designed to keep you from seeing it and looking for the missing door. For our $20 million public subsidy, this is the best we can do?

I'm still in a fowl mood about Art Ducko and about to launch into my piece on the neglect of the historic Pope House, just visible across the way on South Wilmington Street, plus all the other ways Raleigh's downtown renaissance is falling short. But Yerxa quickly dismisses my negative vibes.

She and I both moved to Raleigh in 1987, when the downtown was so empty, and suburban sprawl so rampant, that there was no urban core to pick at—only a corpse. "We're getting there, Bob," she reminds me softly. "Don't be so pessimistic."

Pessimistic? To the contrary, the opening of the convention center is cause for great optimism, for it marks the culmination of a plan hatched two decades ago by the late Mayor Avery Upchurch and a city council that included a younger Charles Meeker, now 58 and the mayor since 2001.

Click for larger image • Inside Raleigh's new convention center - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

But with that plan complete, if in somewhat adulterated form, Raleigh needs to get busy on an equally farsighted new plan. More farsighted actually, since the old one took so long to execute that we can hardly claim to have gained on the urban curve.

That '80s plan, which a few people still have in their desk drawers, called for removing the old civic center from its misbegotten location in the middle of Fayetteville Street; building a new N.C. State University sports arena downtown; and placing a pair of new, smaller-sized performing arts venues on the streets between City Market and Memorial Auditorium, the existing large one.

In the intervening years, the arena ended up at the Fairgrounds and the arts venues, instead of being freestanding buildings, were tacked on to the auditorium as wings, creating the Progress Energy Center. The demolition of the civic center and construction of a new convention center on Salisbury Street, which was ticketed to be the first big thing, ended up coming last after Raleigh voters rejected a 1992 bond referendum to finance them.

The Republican politicians—Gary Pendleton, Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble—who led the '92 bond revolt thereafter took power in Raleigh and Wake County, slashing budgets for a decade, during which time downtown Raleigh lost even more ground to sprawl.

Only in 2006, when the civic center finally came down and the historic vista was restored from the state Capitol at the top of Fayetteville Street to Memorial Auditorium at the bottom, was the basic wisdom of the '80s plan revealed.

By then, the decision had also been made—by Mayor Meeker and his Democratic-majority councils—to junk Fayetteville Mall and reopen the street to automobile traffic. When an amazing 70,000 people showed up two years ago for the inaugural "Raleigh Wide Open" celebration—71,000 would not have fit on the four city blocks reopened at that point—it was testimony to our tremendous pent-up desire for Raleigh to become a vibrant central city at last.

But from the '80s to today, think how the world has changed. Travel, by air or car, was easy then, and cheap. Now it's expensive and a pain. Meetings then required travel. Now they can be held online, making it all the more important that conventions, if held, be in places interesting enough to lure the reluctant trekker out for adventure.

And think how Raleigh has changed. Back then, our dining choices were the Irregardless Café and Durham. In the '80s, a convention center big enough to hold a regional car dealers association, say, was our best shot at drawing a crowd to Raleigh. Now, on any given weekend 30,000 people or more roam downtown Raleigh for the restaurants, the bars and the scene around Fayetteville Street and Glenwood South. A convention center is hardly critical to our success any more—though to repeat, removing the old civic center certainly was.

What is critical these days, and the GRCVB's staff and their marketing consultants have figured this out for us, is that Raleigh be as "smart" and "dynamic" as the new visitraleigh.com says we are. Visitor surveys found, according to marketer Michael Altman of Cundari SFP, that "nothing really jump(s) out individually" about Raleigh. But our guests are struck by the energy of this place, underscored by the many construction cranes, the legions of students and the buzz that we're cutting edge when it comes to science and technology.

In other words, if we're not happening yet, we will be, and the GRCVB's new "re-branding" irons—a new logo, brochures, the lot—aim to convey that sense. "Any good place brand," Altman says, "has to have that dreamy, aspirational element to it."

Any good place, too.

Size matters

Raleigh: Raleigh Convention Center (Opens this weekend)
Size: 500,000 square feet, including a 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall,20 meeting rooms and a 32,617-square-foot ballroom
Visitors: 11 million expected each year

Charlotte: Charlotte Convention Center (Opened 1995)
Size: 280,000 square feet
Visitors: 500,000 annually
Fact: Well connected to regional bus and rail transit: Both LYNX light rail and Charlotte Trolley streetcars operate through the facility.

Atlanta: Georgia World Congress Center (Opened 1976)
Size: 1.4 million square feet
Visitors: 1 million annually
Facts: Fourth largest convention center in America. Located downtown and served by MARTA rail.

Orlando: Orange County Convention Center (Opened 1983)
Size: 7 million square feet of total space (as opposed to exhibition space)
Visitors: 1.4 million each year
Facts: Second-largest convention center in the U.S. Frequently used as refuge and staging area for hurricane relief. Endangered gopher tortoises relocated to new "environmentally sensitive" home in 2000 to make way for expansion. Near Mickey Mouse.

New Orleans: New Orleans Morial Convention Center (Opened 1984)
Size: 1.1 million square feet
Visitors: Claims 10.3 million out-of-state visitors from 1984-2005
Fact: It's adjacent to the nightlife-oriented Warehouse Arts District

When I get dreamy and aspirational, here's what I'd like to see in Raleigh:

First off, I'd like to see us show off our science. Our N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, unlike our state history museum, is first-rate, but its main attraction is dinosaur fossils—currently supplemented by a visiting exhibit, The Dead Sea Scrolls. Raleigh, lacking glamorous places to market (a la Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco), can surely market our brain power.

So where's our "living laboratory" of nanotechnology, solar power—nuclear power for that matter—and all the cool engineering work they're doing, so we hear, at NCSU and in RTP?

This is not solely, or even primarily, for the benefit of our visitors so much as it is for us, and for our kids, so they start thinking of science as something everybody can do, as opposed to that strange brew only Einsteins can concoct.

Four or five years ago, I had a chance encounter with Pamela Blizzard, a co-founder of Raleigh Charter High School who was then starting something called the Contemporary Science Center (CSC). Her purpose was to introduce high-schoolers to applied science as conducted, for example, in the labs at GlaxoSmithKline and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in RTP; eventually, she hoped to create an actual "center" somewhere in Raleigh, an excellent idea I envisioned taking shape somewhere between Dorothea Dix and NCSU's Centennial Campus.

What happened? Well it seems Durham beckoned rather than Raleigh. The CSC has partnered with the Museum of Life and Science and, in October, will unveil its new "immersion lab—a lab that recreates the look and feel of a lab in RTP," Blizzard says—on the second floor of the Durham facility.

This is a good thing for Durham, but what about Raleigh? And yes, I'm aware that the state Museum of Natural Sciences is planning its own "NatuResearch Center" as part of the Green Square expansion project slated to open in 2011. With luck—no, with generous state funding—it'll be the start of something. But aspirationally, only the start.

The second thing I'd like to see us do is embrace our history, starting with the Pope House, whose fate is very much up in the air. Dr. Manassa T. Pope was a graduate of Shaw University and Shaw's Leonard School of Medicine, which at the time was the only four-year medical school in North Carolina, black or white. Pope built his house on South Wilmington Street in 1901, as Jim Crow was taking hold, but because his grandfather was a freedman before the Civil War, Pope was among the very few African-Americans who retained the right to vote after the turn of the century. In 1919, he ran for mayor of Raleigh on a ticket with Calvin Lightner, whose son Clarence became Raleigh's first black mayor in 1973.

Short strokes can't do justice to the telling, rich history of Pope's life. Nor, so far, can his house, the last vestige of a thriving African-American community that grew up around Shaw, but which has given way almost completely over the years to parking lots and a McDonald's.

By happy chance, though, Pope's two daughters from a second marriage late in his life returned to the house in the '70s and lived there into the '90s, which is why—I'm told—it remains a virtually intact museum of Raleigh's racial and cultural history. Pope's papers are preserved, from his medical license to his voter registration card.

But no one can see them (and I've never seen them) because the house is closed and likely to be moved off its site unless the city saves it. Fundraising efforts have stalled; the city's focus now is on an African-American Cultural Center somewhere, perhaps in a glass box on the first floor of another Fayetteville Street high-rise.

You can read about this at www.thepopehousemuseum.org, a Web site that itself has been static for the last two years. If you do, consider this: Raleigh has no visitors center. The old state center is closed. The city never had one. And the Raleigh City Museum, which began in 1993, has never been well supported and must struggle to survive in its small, first-floor location in the old Briggs Hardware store at 220 Fayetteville St.

Why not put the three entities together, a block from the Marriott? Leave the Pope House where it is, build a visitors center and history museum next door to it, and include the African-American center in the museum.

Raleigh's black and white histories, after all, are inextricably tied, and altogether horrible, fascinating and celebratory—a story the Pope House tells as well as any glass box ever could.

I think a smart city knows where it's been as well as where it's going. And, by the way, the third thing I aspire to is a transit system—buses, streetcars, trains—so we can get there efficiently, economically and smartly. With a transit system, we can achieve urban densities and keep growing. Without one, we're going to choke on our cars and the ugly parking decks that are metastasizing out of downtown and into the surrounding neighborhoods.

Finally, we need some faith in our ability to be smart, and not be dopes. City Councilor Thomas Crowder is right when he says Raleigh's leaders seem to be acting out an '80s-era inferiority complex (see "Me build pretty one day"), where we're afraid to say what we want from growth for fear all the developers will desert us for Cary or Charlotte or, I dunno, South Carolina.

Our downtown needs space for music, the arts, affordable housing and diverse populations in addition to the $300,000-plus condo buyers. Fitting all that in, without jamming the one thing onto the other(s), is what smart design and planning is all about. Right now, the giant boxes of condos have the little galleries and music clubs on the run.

We can do this, right? After all, we're the smart, dynamic, fun city of the future. Right.

  • Now that the Convention Center is complete, Raleigh needs to get busy on an equally farsighted new plan.

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