Arena Alternatives For Downtown

Isn’t talking about an arena in downtown thrilling? Mayor Charles Meeker seems to be pushing it but the Triangle Business Journal’s poll indicates that many readers are not in favor of it. I welcome the sports arena much closer to downtown but only when it makes sense. I feel it is too early to start talking about building another to replace the RBC Center. Instead, I’d like to bring up alternatives that we could pursue instead of another arena that would add an additional entertainment option to the city.

According to the RBC Center’s website, the construction cost was $158 million. I do think moving the arena closer to downtown will spur its economy and be a catalyst for lots of business openings but at the same time, we will probably be forced to build more parking decks.

There are other downsides to having the arena in an urban setting. Any form of tailgating before hockey or basketball games will be gone, something that is hugely highlighted when the Carolina Hurricanes go to the playoffs. That is something unique to the area, something that not many other places have. I also know that those driving to the arena for games from outside of Raleigh are happy with the ease of access via Wade Avenue. The I-40 to South Saunders exit toward downtown is not the best entryway for game-day traffic so if the arena was built, some highway upgrades would be needed as well.

Rather then build another arena in downtown and add very little to Raleigh’s offerings for its citizens and visitors, here is a short list of attractions we could be thinking about with a $158 million budget.


Aquariums are my personal favorite kind of venue and would be a great addition to the downtown museum offerings. I’m not sure if the numbers would make sense with the largest aquarium in the world seven hours away in Atlanta but a huge aquarium with a unique offering of sea life could draw people downtown almost every day of the year.

Transit Station and Museum

With $158 million, I’m sure a multi-modal transit station down in the warehouse district would be as good as done. A unique architecturally designed building could be built as well as incorporating some of the Dillon warehouses for a huge station with shops and a transit museum, highlighting some of Raleigh’s old streetcar network and history.

Technology and Science Museum

This needs no explanation. As the technology center for the state, Raleigh could build a very unique museum highlighting some of the newest technology being developed out there. This would be an easy field trip for tons of schools around the state. I’m sure donations from a few area companies would not be hard to get either, elevating the look and offering of this science and technology museum.

Buy Dix property and make it a park

Offers like $10.5 million do not seem to get the job done so with a substantially greater budget, perhaps the Dix park vision could come true.

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  1. Some good ideas. I wonder though if a Technology & Science museum could be done as an addition or annex to the current Natural Science museum. Might be easier to launch that way.

    An aquarium would probably have to be done by the city (or county). The state already runs three on the coast (plus the state zoo, and other museums) so I doubt they’d want to do another one.

  2. Here is how I would “vote” on the projects you mentioned:

    New downtown arena: Yes, but in a location that will help us expand the downtown boundaries (i.e. South of downtown, between MLK Blvd and I-40/I-440).

    Aquarium: Excellent idea. My son LOVES fish, so he would go nuts, but until we get such venue he will be too old to remain as enthusiastic :( Still, it would make an excellent addition to our downtown.

    Dorothea Dix campus: I will respectfully, but loudly say NO to strictly creating a park. Personally, I would love to see a mix of 100 acres of residential/commercial redevelopment and the rest 200+ acres dedicated to green spaces and anything that creates an urban oasis. I would love to see something like a miniature of DT Savannah, with historic architecture and numerous squares/plazas, but that is too much to ask, I am afraid :(

    Technology and Science Museum: A no-brainer, in my opinion. We have so many technology companies here that it should not be too hard to solicit their help. I would visit often.

  3. I agree with RaleighRob’s assessment. These are definitely strong ideas. I wonder, though, if we should make the push to divert funds into “essentials” like greater transit options, in lieu of focusing on entertainment projects like a museum or park. Building out the transit infrastructure might open some doors and might make for a smoother transition to a downtown arena (or the aforementioned museums and parks) years from now.

  4. Wow! I often have my own opinion of downtown’s vision, but have I to agree with EVERYTHING that Ernest said above. Arena: has to be downtown and has to have parking for tailgating (a way of life before games and we are one of a kind when it comes to college and Pro-Hockey tailgating)!!!!! Has to have easy access to and from I-440 with additional ramps to new parking area (build arena right off of I-440, does not have to be in the heart of downtown, look at the Philadelphia complex – very Industrial area and a few miles from downtown).

    All other projects should be a go as of years ago, more needs to be done for the children of the Triangle entertainment wise (waterpark near downtown is also a must -GreensborHOLE has one but we do not, what is wrong with that picture – one was considered 8-9 years ago – but as all good Raleigh ideas – this one was never to be heard again).

    ACC Basketball Hall of Fame: What is taking so long for this decision and where is our sports council team to push this with the NCAA? Cannot believe Atlanta will be NCAA football location. Raleigh, get off your hands and pursue this opportunity yesterday.
    Does ANYONE know if we are moving this effort forward?

    Aquarium: MUST BE IN Downtown Raleigh – have NEVER visited the Aquarium on the coast – have been in the area of it, but always wanted to get away form the area, very boring – it’s in the middle of nowhere.

    Dix: Aree with Ernest 120%!!!!!!!!! Must have entertainment and living (some commercial)around the park – just like Central Park NY – What an amazing park, always foot traffic.

  5. I think Philadelphia is a terrible example. They are only now beginning to plan to build up an entertainment district in that area, and to my knowledge SEPTA does not go there. If you are going to build a new arena “near” downtown but not near enough that people can walk there quickly and easily from the businesses and decks in downtown, then you might as well just build it in the current spot. I am torn completely on the tailgating. I am a huge Canes fans, and tailgate all the time before games; it really is a unique tradition to our market in the league, and one that I don’t want to see go away. However, I am dead set on the next arena being downtown. I think the suburban arena is a concept of the past, and in 25 or 30 years (the time when the new arena will be built) it will be extremely outdated. I have traveled to a number of venues around the league and the game day experience is just so much better in the downtown arenas. To have such a variety of restaurants and bars at your disposal before and after the game is wonderful, and there is a much more communal feel with everyone coming together all around town in their jerseys and everything.

    On your second point, I don’t think you’ll ever see another major water park so close to an existing one, but I have always wondered why no one has moved to build at least a small amusement park here. I did some research (posted on Urban Planet) and found that 46 of the 50 largest metro areas in the country have a significant amusement park within a 1.5 hour drive. The only ones that don’t are Detroit, Memphis, Jacksonville, and Raleigh.

  6. Ernest, nice to see you again! ;-)
    I think these are all great ideas, but my reason for commenting is about the arena situation. I didn’t think about until I had been down here a bit, but it blows my mind that a city as small as Raleigh decided to put the “arena district” outside the downtown. If Boston, NY, Toronto, etc. can do it, I don’t see why we can’t. It’s not exactly like it’s crowded downtown here. More to the point, downtown really needs retail and a few more restaurants, but there isn’t the base to support it. An arena downtown with [big] concerts and games would get people down there for weekend afternoons and evenings. Go to Boston with its terrible weather on a Saturday afternoon and there’s families, young couples, old people, single people, tourists, locals, semi-locals… all going to the museums, aquarium, dining, shopping, concerts, shows, etc. I really feel that despite the economy right now, in the next 5-10 years Raleigh could be really great if they plan smart. Otherwise I’m worried it will be just more empty buildings, high-priced condos, and the vacant streets when people aren’t at work or it’s late Friday/Saturday nights.

  7. Jeff,

    Good to see you here, too :)

    You bring some good questions and points to the discussion and I feel encouraged to add my 2 cents. Of course, there are people who will disagree, but I remember the time when the discussion on the arena was taking place. The reasons behind placing RBC Center where it is were all good and solid. First of all, the 3 major players (NCSU, Wake County and City of Raleigh) agreed on a common ground. Placing the arena downtown was a hard sell. They wanted something that while located in Raleigh, it will be easily accessible to Cary, Durham and Chapel Hill.

    Then, there was a good plan for redeveloping the entire area around the arena. Decent, solid plans, with a lot of good urban development envisioned. What happened to it? Good question. A few people know, and a lot more people can speculate. Some developers disappeared, while others couldn’t put their hands on properties they wanted to develop. Too much talk, but without a solid basis. Not all is lost, but it would be very hard to undo the damage that all the crap that went there did for the urban fabric we envisioned and hoped for. In other word, the location was good and the vision was appropriate. No capable developers, though. Not to mention the usual suspect that fight density and urbanity whenever they can. Yes, there are many of those.

    Regarding downtown, we are blessed, in many ways. First of all, we still have an up and coming downtown, with more and more people added to the commercial-business-residential mix. Slowly – too slow to be visible – but we are adding people, while other places are stagnant. I would love to see 50+ story residential towers, but all those places which got such buildings will see a significant reduction in the number of skyscrapers in the future. There are too many empty condos throughout the country and developers stand to lose a ton of money. DT Raleigh is going to be a safe bet in the years to come, IMO.

    I do want to see a downtown arena, and I surely hope it happens. It will benefit the downtown revitalization effort in so many ways!!! I do not want to see tax dollars being thrown away though, therefore I want to see a solid plan in place before I cheer.

  8. I will never understand the constant wanting of more tourism-oriented “stuff” downtown. It’s never-ending. The wish list seems to be never-ending.

    So how much of your personal tax money are you willing to spend to encourage people to drive their cars halfway across the state to visit Raleigh and spend money at businesses you do not own? At what point do we stop subsidizing developers and think about current residents?

  9. I’ve spent time in each of these cities with professional sports teams.

    Memphis has Beale Street (think Glenwood Avenue’s restaurant/bar density combined with Fayetteville Street’s historical context and architecture.) Anchored at one end of Beale Street is the city’s new (basketball) arena.

    For decades, New York City teams such as the Giants, Jets, Devils, Nets, etc., called some paved-over New Jersey swampland home. Occasional trains service the stadium complex. But the Devils have moved. The Nets are trying to leave. The Giants, however, will stay (they’re getting a new stadium there), and the racetrack probably will too.

    In Denver, the football, baseball and basketball/hockey complexes are located close to the downtown core, AND all are serviced by regular light rail lines (extra rail cars are attached to trains on game days). There is a good mix of residential, commercial and entertainment options within walking distance of both stadiums. And for those who drive, an interstate connects all the stadiums — as well as a Six Flags amusement park and an aquarium.

    In DC, the city has managed to support a basketball/hockey arena AND a convention center downtown, mere blocks from each other. But its football stadium is many miles out of town (one of the last Metro stops) and its baseball stadium is in a more industrial part of the city.

    It all comes down to traffic, transit and density.

    In Raleigh, the stadium complex is essentially no-mans land between Raleigh and RTP, filled with state-owned property (the fairgrounds) and large surface parking lots (which *are* great for tailgating).

    Even on game days during the State Fair, traffic still moves fairly well, and most of the main roads (40/440/54/70/1) are accessible.

    But fans and fairgoers don’t get to experience Raleigh or Durham when they come to that part of town. They encounter large lots and uninspiring buildings (Dorton Arena notwithstanding). I support a better connection/relationship between Raleigh and the arena complex.

    The long-term answer is to run nonstop light rail lines from downtown Raleigh and Durham to the arena complex (and to the airport). The short-term answer is to use excess TTA bus capacity (few run at night or on weekends) as an ersatz light rail system.

    Within walking distance, add some hotels at multiple price points and some restaurant options. If an arena doesn’t come to downtown Raleigh, bring downtown Raleigh TO the arena with better pre- and post-game activities.

  10. Jeff S, your observation is correct, and I may also have an answer. Since major projects, such as the Convention Center and the Marriott Hotel, were partly funded by tax revenues coming from the downtown-based hospitality and entertainment venues, the city leaders want to bring more tourist-attractions. This is my guess.

    Andrew, I totally agree with your light-rail suggestion. Getting a downtown arena will be an uphill battle for one more reason: NIMBYs ;) Of course, placing it South of Downtown, near I-40/I-440, may remove some of the headaches, but there are too many NIMBYs near downtown who will scream about traffic, pollution and noise.

  11. The benefits of a downtown arena are the incredible economic opportunities and visibility it would provide. Convention Center skeptics had no idea the positive impact it would bring. It has surpassed expectations. The city of Raleigh needs it. How awesome is it to see overhead shots of arenas in city centers with all of the lights and bustling around it. It happens. It is a natural outflow that the economy expands. Tailgating? Why would this be hindered? A parking lot just that, whether urban or suburban. Raleigh needs to take advantage of the one professional sport team that chose us as home rather than that other NC city that gets alot because they had the foresight to build facilities (and transit) that was progressive and community oriented for a strong city center. Let’s not forget we are the capital city. We should set the standard.

  12. Has anyone been to the TD Banknorth Arena in Boston or Madison Square Garden? Many downtown arenas attract bar crowds not shopping crowds, As cool as it would be to have, it seems more important that we improve transportation options to and from the RBC Center that already exists.

    I’d like to see the city spend some money studying the effects of Goodwill type organizations being situated next to the most important public spaces. I’m not saying they are not worthy, unnecessary or waste of time and effort. But I believe this is a negative impact on the continued growth of downtown. Your average family is not going to visit downtown when they are uncomfortable or feel unsafe, regardless of what’s here to see. So when the crowds go home from the BudLIght concert series, not too many want to stick around. Every spot that has potential seems to be surrounded by loiterers.

  13. Adding an arena downtown may not be the best way to get additional foot traffic in the area – we already have the RBC Center and I know plenty of people who would avoid driving downtown during game times just because of the congestion traffic. Why not focus on developing a stronger transportation system prior to building another arena?

    That being said, we do need more entertainment to drive people downtown besides late at night on the weekends. I like Thomas’s idea of the ACC Basketball Hall of Fame – with all of great teams and fans in this area, that seems like a natural fit. The technology museum would also be a good addition.

  14. Well, you are right, we DO need to develop a stronger transportation system, and if the comprehensive plan is followed, a new downtown area would probably coincide with the start of commuter rail. I think a lot of people are responding to this discussion (not necessarily here but everywhere I have seen it discussed) by thinking “What’s wrong with the RBC Center?” You have to keep in mind, we are talking about 20-25 years into the future here, when the RBC Center would be 30-35 years old. That is when most major league arenas are approaching the end of their lifespan. Whether that is right or wrong is another discussion altogether, but historically that is the case. I also think by then we will be a much more urban city, and a downtown venue will be logical.

  15. I think that expanding downtown – particularly to the South and East – would be crucial to getting a solid transportation system, a new arena and many more amenities. This also means that higher densities should be encouraged and bold leadership must be in place. Of course, Raleigh will be a different place in 10, 15 and 20 years, but we definitely need a strong set of urban guidelines, in order to get our wishes, without bankrupting the city or increasing our debt. Bringing a few private sector players into any major project will be crucial, in my opinion. We need a few good corporate entities to “assist” us, provided there is some benefit to their image, or even tax incentives.

  16. 25 years in Raleigh. The most important factor in making Raleigh a quality city is to focus on character and uniqueness, not “what can we bilk the tax payers out of and build on land we have stolen from property owners?”
    Saving the homes on Blount street is vital! Erecting another hideous structure helps no one- Marriott, Convention center, West st project, 222 Glenwood . Remember the debate on whether to build a con. cen. that looks like an airport terminal?…we have one. Light rail is stupid! Let’s just dig a hole and fill it with money? Didn’t we spend over $100 million for the old jail on Blue Ridge rd? Maybe we can bury tax dollars there? Dix property is huge and can accomodate retail, residential , and a large park. I have a million more things to say.

  17. we lost the ciaa tournament to charlotte, we lost the meac, entertainers cancels a show at least 3 times a year because the arena is literally in the middle of nowhere. why wouldn’t a downtown arena be safe enough for kids. MATT…when was the last time you attened a game at the RBC? we will get the same crowd as now, just in a more urban place with more to do. a downtown arena would be best. besides, how much can be built in the area. Doesn’t NCSU owns most of the land in the area. I don’t think they would be up to selling it either.

  18. my initial reaction to hearing about a downtown arena was- ” harrumph! what do we need that for?”……but, if Raleigh truly wants to be diverse and metropolitan and cultured and all that, we need to take advantage of 2 awesome and diverse possessions- St Augustine and Shaw University. A downtown arena should be built with these 2 historic, black colleges in mind. What could be better than to highlight the high education in our own downtown? They currently have gymnasiums, and they play football games at Broughton high school. Facilities would attract students and athletes and black leaders from everywhere. Put your money where your mouth is, city council, and gives these colleges a break…

  19. Really, that’s what Raleigh needs — a sportz platz in downtown. Soak the taxpayers again for entertainment. Spectacle. Is there no end to the stupid ideas of elected officials? We have crumbling infrastructure, people with no jobs and these clowns want a zillion dollar edifice which will enrich the rich, numb the dumb, and stand empty most of the time.

  20. TRAVIS, thanks for the shout out! lol. First, I wasn’t talking about the people who attend RBC events. You’re right that probably won’t change, though more pregaming downtown will change the scene a bit. I was talking about the URBAN setting that already exists here in Raleigh. Have you ever hung out at Moore Square when there was no event happening? It doesn’t exactly give the warm and fuzzies. Since Raleigh only houses around 5000 people downtown, most people downtown are simply visiting. Why not make it nice so people want to be here whether there is an event or not? Another venue sitting empty most of the time is not going to improve the climate downtown. So while I disagree with John b about building an arena for the aforementioned reasons, I do resonate with his thinking about embracing what makes Raleigh unique. Add a black history museum! Yes, an ACC museum too! A tech museum? WHy not? But great as those places would be, we are still missing the reasons for people to stay downtown even longer. Let’s make the walking streets a reality already with stores that people want to visit! Put a movie theatre downtown! Attract some big names that make people think twice before going to Crabtree. Those are the types of things that give a city staying power.

  21. Yeah, Moore Square does attract a ruff crowd. lol. I think there’s a lot that can be done to improve the city. the core should be an issue at this point. Downtown is in fact small and the only way to expand at this point is to demolish some of the old buildings. I see a lot of old abandoned buildings all over the center city, sitting empty, and taking up space. People always down talk an arena downtown because it can’t hold the crowd or the traffic. Some development needs to happen around the RBC center…enough to accommodate large crowds. More than whats currently being built. However, I still think that Downtown is where the new arena should be. West Raleigh is too far from everything in the city.It’s easy access to Cary and Durham, but downtown is almost equal in distace to the entire city of Raleigh and all of it’s suburbs. We need to do something to make this city standout. I too agree with the museum idea, but I don’t think it should be first priority. We have several museums to enjoy.

  22. Leo, I agree with your point but there’s one aspect you missed. Downtown Raleigh after dark is predicated on eating and drinking at bars that cater to a certain audience. Which is fine. I actually enjoy it. But a downtown arena is really going to fuck with that program.

    Before the uptown arena, parking at Charlotte’s 7th street station was free on nights & weekends. Now it’s $10 for parking ($20 in some places) on “game nights.” I can’t believe I’m typing this, and the average Raleighian might stare at the computer screen in disbelief, but Buckhead’s is the LEAST offensive bar in uptown to grab a drink before a Bobcats game. That’s right. BUCKHEAD. With the money that comes with Canes regulars, the dynamic of DTR is bound to change.

    Will an arena provide an economic boost to downtown? Sure. But it’s also going to bring a Downtown Live-esque crowd 30+ nights a year, and that’s going to piss off a lot of people who like things just the way they are.

  23. I think a downtown can and should cater to a diverse mix of people. The downtown Charlotte crowd you describe was that way before the new arena came. It’s one of the main reasons why I don’t like Charlotte at all. There never was a culture there like the one in Raleigh, so there was nothing there for the arena to ruin.

    I’m not a big fan of the stereotyping of Canes fans either, mainly because I and many of my friends eat and drink downtown, and are Canes season ticket holders as well. I seem to fit into both audiences that you have pitted against each other (granted, I understand what you are talking about, but the Canes fan base is so diverse that it’s ridiculous to stereotype it as all being the “Downtown live-esque crowd”). I’ve never felt out of place at Raleigh Times, Jackpot, or what have you going there in my jersey after a game.

    The one point you make that I do agree is a potential concern is the parking charge one. There always needs to be a way for people to park free after 5 and on weekends to access downtown establishments. Fortunately, by the time this arena would be built, we should theoretically (I almost hesitate to say this) have mass transit in place. Last year I went to the arena in Charlotte, and parked free at a Lynx park and ride and rode the light rail in. It was ridiculously easy, and was something like $3 round trip.

  24. In my opinion, I’m all in favor of the sports complex that we have right now off Wade Avenue. Traffic can shoot in multiples directions and IF handled correctly (big IF) the experience can be better for people outside of Raleigh.

    I also think this conversation wouldn’t be happening if the land around Wade Avenue and the current arena were built up and had all the restaurants, bars, and hotels that may have been planned at one time. Create a Sports Complex District in West Raleigh and connect it with mass transit and we wouldn’t need it in downtown.

  25. Rather than building new stuff, I would like to see our current tourist attractions improved.

    The natural science museum is seeing a lot of additions currently, and I look forward to those.

    The history museum seems to be languishing a bit though. The interior is disorganized, partly closed, full of dead-spaces for offices, and the exhibits it has are a bit underwhelming. They have some exhibit renovations planned, but I would like to see this museum get the kind of love that the science museum gets.

    If they built an addition over the adjacent bare lot, moved all the offices over there, and reorganized all floors of the entire current building, then it would be something.

  26. If we build more museums and things of that nature in the core, we will have the same problem that we’re having now. Unless we find a away to make all of them 24hrs. The traffic will flow during business hours and then is like a ghost town after 5 and 2 years later we will be back to this same discussion. You build an arena and mixed-use all around it. Probably a grocery store, movie theater, hotels, and etc. I honestly think it’s a start in getting more locals to the core. I think we can make do with the museums we have now. we shall improve the infrastructure of some, but it will work. Besides, we have to in the process of being built. I honestly think that at the rate we going are going, we will be a forgotten city in about 10 years. Durham is on the way and moving at a steady pace. Why didn’t the want Raleigh to house the Mudcats? Like johnb2 said, Shaw and St. Augustine’s play home games at a high school.

    I just think it will make alot of sense to move the arena downtown or mega build around it’s current location(which i doubt). Otherwise, expect alot more of he same things. Ask the students which option they would prefer.

  27. The Mudcats had to be 31 miles away from the Durham Bulls thats why they are in Zebulon – exactly 31 miles away.

  28. Museums are good but do we need any more. Raleigh wants to be a so-called 24/7 city.Well…add some lively entertainment like a Movie Theatre,arcades,and maybe extend your hours of services in the area.Got to be abit more creative if you want to atract folks downtown not to mention our guest from out of town. So many friends of mine from the North and West Coast that have been to Raleigh say that,” It’s a nice town but what else is there to do”.Oh well, it’ll be Years before any of this is to come to light,if ever. Good luck Raleigh…You’ll need it!.

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