Suds and Speculation, October 2009

I was having a conversation two nights ago with a good friend while admiring the view from the patio at the Boylan Bridge Brewpub. Most of it was about downtown and what we “needed”. While drinking some beer, we painted a picture of Raleigh in the future. I, like most, seem to get carried away with grand plans for the city that realistically will take decades to be seen. I always have to drag myself back to earth, however, and when I do, I focus on the near future. I think about the kind of things we can start today or can change in 12, 18, or 24 months from today.

Ever since I got into this whole downtown Raleigh thing, one of my top online sources for information was the city’s Livable Streets site. A key page I would like those interested to see is the Five in 5 Strategy. Even though there are about 130 strategies to the Livable Streets plan, these five:

were chosen because of their ability to be a catalyst for others, to build momentum and to excite all members of the community. One or more of the Livable Streets Partners has agreed to accept responsibility for each of the five. Each has already begun moving toward completion. As one is finished, others will be undertaken until we have the vibrant, active and livable streets that we all desire.

Does City Plaza mark the end of the revitalization of downtown? I certainly do not think we have achieved livable streets in Raleigh. The idea also should not be limited to this area as the rest of the city should have elements of what livable streets are. The Livable Streets website states:

We believe that people make a city great. Yet, so many of the world’s great cities dedicate too much of their precious, limited public space – their streets – to motor vehicles rather than people. We are working to redesign our communities around public transportation and walkable, bikeable streets. We are transforming parking lots into public plazas, busy intersections into town squares, and congested highways into bike paths.

What is urban about a surface parking lot a block away from our second tallest building?

The Five in 5 strategy lists:

  1. Complete a Fayetteville Street Renaissance
  2. Fund and build a new convention center and hotel
  3. Improve the pedestrian environment
  4. Undertake regulatory reform
  5. Expand downtown management

The Fayetteville Street renaissance will be complete with Raleigh Wide Open 4 on October 24th and the opening of City Plaza. If you read this blog, I should not have to prove to you that point number 2 has been complete for over a year now. The next three tasks, I believe, need to work together in order to achieve true livable streets.

City Plaza is a good start to a better pedestrian experience in downtown. The area will have wide, safe sidewalks and approachable retail spaces for people on foot, bikes, rickshaws, anything other then a car. Cars cannot park in the area and can drive through only. The curbless “road” is flush with the sidewalks which will naturally calm traffic down and force drivers to look out for those walking by. I see it as a major sense of place and possibly the most urban block in Raleigh.

The livable streets mentality must emanate from here and throughout the downtown streets. Roads should be made bike friendly and riding should be encouraged, for example with more bike racks, discussed in a post one year ago here. (coincidence, I sware) There should be well paved sidewalks from all the neighborhoods around downtown that make it easy for people to cross streets.

I honestly could go on for hours on this topic but I’m sure most of you have heard most of this fluff about transit and biking and blah blah blah already. The thing is, I believe it is important to keep bringing it up in order to get more people behind it and to make sure our city leaders continue to stick to these values. If you want that dense, tall tower or that twenty-four hour diner or lots of shopping in downtown, it starts with getting people to live their lives in and around the area, OUTSIDE of their cars.

Lots of life on the sidewalks outside of Raleigh Times.

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  1. Question about your picture of the lot in front of Memorial Auditorium and the caption you wrote: Isn’t there a long-term plan to extend Fayetteville Street another block south from Lenoir to South? (Thus, removing that lot?) Or am I imagining that?

  2. RaleighRob, I think it is still undetermined at this point what will happen there. The two lots, sites 2 and 3, I’m sure will be developed at some point.

    As for Fayetteville Street being extended to South Street, I have no knowledge of that happening. I’m sure that may or may not happen depending on what is proposed for sites 2 and 3.

  3. Leo,

    Your ideas and thoughts are right on the money and I see no fault in the way you expressed them. Let me share my thoughts, too.

    The 5-in-5 was a great initiative that did a lot for our downtown. It demonstrated that when the city leaders have a good plan in place and follow it, the private sector will assume some of the burden and continue on. I feel that this vision sort of lost momentum – naturally – and it will weaken after the reopening of Fayetteville Street is completed.

    Regarding Fayetteville Street, RaleighRob is correct: the street will expand all the way to the Memorial Auditorium, as soon as Sites 2 and 3 are developed. But, the RFPs going out will also depend on when Site 1 (Charter Square) and Site 4 are completed. Without a few success stories, it will be tough for the city to attract major developments to Sites 2 and 4, regardless of the strategic location.

    We have come to the point where too many urbanism enthusiasts who still debate on the famous “street-level activity vs. skyscrapers” topic. In my opinion, this is a set of arguments that we need to put to sleep once and for all. Right now, Raleigh needs both: A powerful image (through a great looking skyline) and a superb street-level experience. We can have the co-existence of skyscrapers and older, historic buildings, much like in every major, world-class city, that so many of us drool over.

    Leo, you said, and I am in total agreement with you: “If you want that dense, tall tower or that twenty-four hour diner or lots of shopping in downtown, it starts with getting people to live their lives in and around the area, OUTSIDE of their cars.” You hit the nail on the head. Everything begins with the very element that brings life to any city: The people. The key to strengthening the existing, and getting some new retail and residential options is to have the city leaders focus on relocations. Small, medium and large corporate relocations will make our downtown a great place to work and this has an implication on how many people would like to actually live near where they work. Moving a business from one downtown spot to another is fine, if you are concerned about losing them to a suburban location, but this is not enough. RBC Centura and Campbell School of Law are excellent moves, but we need more and we need them ASAP.

    The lost momentum in high-rise development will eventually return, as commercial banks stabilize and begin to actually loan money again. I expect very little in terms of getting a fast paced construction phase, but if 2-3 of the existing proposals break ground, we may see more developments slowly return. In my opinion, the key projects are the following:

    1. The Edison – While not expected to be completed until 2018, its significance is tremendous. Not only because of its size, but mainly because it will revitalize an entire block, connect the CBD with City Market, and bring a lot of new residents and visitors (if the hotel portions are added).

    2. Charter Square – Very bumpy road I am afraid, but I surely hope that the developers will eventually deliver this project. Let’s hope they do not scale it down. It amazes me how the combined efforts of 4 developers cannot make this happen, but I am still hopeful.

    3. Powerhouse Plaza. For one, it will add to the redevelopment of the East Glenwood South area. Nice to have a Hyatt Hotel and finally get rid of the empty parcel that does NOTHING to the image of that area. I never understood why the developers proceeded with demolition without having secured all the financing and tenants before they destroyed the existing structures :(

    4. Site 4 – With the disappearance of Lafayette, it will become harder to get another investor to look at this parcel. Let’s face it, the parking deck DOES overwhelm Site 4, unless someone with deep pockets proceeds with building a 40-story tower – very unlikely. Personally, I wish someone could buy the entire block, demolish that parking deck and build at least a couple of towers, something like The Edison project, cut in half (2 towers versus 4). It would be unrealistic, due to the excessive cost, though.

    Sorry for the extensive reply. I will conclude by saying that the city leaders should look into creating a pro-business climate for downtown. Cultural activities are great, and we need them, but we also need a few more – and larger – corporate entities to “help” us fund them. Most corporations become good citizens when they move to mid-sized cities like Raleigh. It is possible to encourage the private sector to step up to the plate, even during tough times.

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