Raising The Bar In Downtown Raleigh

As most of you know, the blog has been down for a few weeks as I was out of the country in Australia. The trip was all vacation but it was hard to turn off the thinking cap when we stumbled across something cool in the urban areas of the country. Every now and then, I thought about how things I saw over there could work in Raleigh.

We did see the wildlife and The Outback of the country during our time but the cities are what I want to mention here in this post. By no means am I saying that Australian cities are the shining example to copy. I admire some of the city aspects that have led to an urban environment that I think most readers want for downtown Raleigh.

Everyone agrees that Raleigh is growing and we will continue to grow for the near future. So what kind of city do we want to become?

There were a few aspects of these Australian cities, all larger than what Raleigh is now, that we could grow into but the planning for it has to start now. Urban parks, pedestrian amenities and historic preservation are just a few examples of things that had to start somewhere and over time, they have really elevated these cities in terms of livability and overall ‘interestingness’.

Here are a few points that I feel Raleigh needs to plan or do today in order to help foster urban growth in the future.

Protect Open Spaces
While visiting the city of Perth, I was very impressed with Kings Park. This 1,003 acre park sits on a hill overlooking the Swan River and is a short walk from the city’s core business district. (CBD) The park has been open since 1895 and today two-thirds of it are natural and untouched. Outdoor events take place at the botanic gardens and citizens of Perth just enjoy the open space. The big sell is the amazing view of the Perth skyline and the Swan River right from the park.

I immediately thought about Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix campus and the Dix 306 effort to make it a park. Kings Park was planned to stay undeveloped over 100 years ago and over time, the park is a jewel for the city. Raleigh should follow this same path.

After taking a look at some maps, Perth’s Kings Park is pretty much the same distance to its CBD as the Dix campus is to Raleigh’s CBD. What a huge opportunity for the city and downtown will benefit immensely. We should preserve all 306 acres of the land, no less. I look at the current city council for getting this done. If you support this effort, please make more noise for it.

A City For People
From my point of view, I felt like the cities were built like the ones here in the states. Downtowns, or city centers as they are more commonly referred to, is where the density starts. The center is surrounded by urban neighborhoods and as you continue out the suburbs fill in. The difference, however, is how the cities are well connected with trains, long distance bicycle lanes and other transit for people to get around with. It’s just woven into the culture there.

Raleigh is taking steps towards updating it’s transit but there are smaller steps that can be done to show that the pedestrian is the most important life form in our urban areas. Sidewalks that are wide, maintained, and on both sides of the street are important. The comprehensive plan and the Unified Development Ordinance are helping push wider sidewalks and bicycle amenities into downtown so we may be at the beginning of this change.

Australian cities also use lots of awnings on buildings, similar to the one over the entrance of the Sir Walter Apartments building, providing shelter against the rain. I’m sure the appearance would really irk some people but they are very functional and kept the sidewalks crawling with people even in the rain. And it’s not a new concept for Raleigh at all. Take a look at some historic photos and you’ll see downtown with lots of them hovering over the sidewalks.

In some areas of the cities, crosswalk signs operate slightly different. As a pedestrian, when crossing a one-way street, the walk signal would turn from ‘Do not Walk’ to ‘Walk’ about three seconds before the car traffic light turns green. This helped put pedestrians out in the street so cars are made aware of them. I feel something like this could be done on the busy streets of McDowell and Dawson.

An example would be with a car waiting to turn right onto McDowell Street with a pedestrian waiting to cross at the corner which is to the car’s right. Currently, the traffic and pedestrian light turn green at the same time and anxious drivers sometimes cut off the ‘slow’ moving pedestrian. This leads to close encounters with an exchange of short words and a finger. (I’ve seen it and have done it) But if the pedestrian signal turned ‘green’ three seconds before the traffic light, then the waiting pedestrian would probably be in the middle of the intersection when the car wants to turn. This makes the pedestrian more visible and there’s less of a wait for the car, while the light is green.

Come to think of it, Wilmington and Hargett Street need this as buses taking right turns onto Wilmington Street are not too considerate in some cases to pedestrians crossing in front of them. It sounds like a small change but I feel those tiny details make a difference for the sidewalk experience.

Protect History
This is a tough one. Where can we draw the line on historic preservation? What should be saved and what can we live without? The way I see it, Raleigh’s historic building stock is pretty low so only saving buildings on the scale of Briggs Hardware is too weak in my opinion.

Renovation and re-use should be encouraged and it’s happening today in some areas but not on a large enough scale. As our historic buildings are torn down, including the ones with no architectural contribution, structural reminders of Raleigh’s past are now only kept in photos and memories. More people should realize that we live in an age where things are built with the bottom line being the most important element during construction. This leads to generic and uninteresting structures that are going to look the same from city to city. If all the historic buildings are gone, what differentiates Raleigh than any other city that has torn down it’s past? I think this needs to be worked on in the near future as shorter buildings in downtown and the warehouse district may come down in name of progress.

An extreme example of historic preservation in Australia I want to share was the way the city of Melbourne held onto a lead pipe and shot factory, the fifty meter tower of it being the tallest structure in the city for a few decades. Actually, you may not call this historic preservation but I’ll let you decide.

The Melbourne Central train station was built under the shot factory with a five story mall with movie theater above ground. The shot tower still sits in the central indoor plaza of the mall with a tall glass cone encasing the plaza and the tower as well. The tower now has a small museum and was renovated as store space for the mall.

Don’t Be Scared of Giants
As a followup to the protect history section, I think that we shouldn’t feel scared to build tall next to a short building. Maybe I’m in the minority here but as a pedestrian I see nothing wrong with a three story historic building up against a skyscraper. From afar, sure it may look a little strange but walking around Lang Park in Sydney, there were quite a few examples of old shorties next to giants.

Lang Park is near the area of Sydney called ‘The Rocks’, the site of the original settlement near the water. Since it’s old, almost all of the buildings are two or three stories tall. There is an interesting transition from The Rocks up towards the CBD, where the skyscrapers tower over the history and in some cases are right up against them. It’s tough to describe without seeing it but it really wasn’t a big deal. Trees, which are awesome anyway, helped block out the skyscraper in some cases from a sidewalk point of view and it didn’t matter. If you explore the area on Google, you can see what I mean.

Think about this the next time you walk down the sidewalk in downtown Raleigh. How many floors are you really paying attention to right next to you?

Public Art Aplenty
This one should be easy for Raleigh. Public art seemed to be everywhere and with great open spaces and pedestrian plazas, the art was the final touch to making the experience more enjoyable. First Friday, Sparkcon, and Artsplosure are just some of the few arts events that take place in downtown that push the arts. But they are still events that end and come back later. More public art installations around downtown will let people know that this is an interesting area to be.

As with any trip, the new experiences just flood me with new ideas. The other cities that are doing some of the things we talk about and plan are now doing it successfully. With more people moving here, downtown Raleigh must accommodate the growth along with the rest of the city. There’s no standing still I feel. We just need to walk the walk and get to that next step or else Raleigh will fall into the category of generic city, USA.

Similar Posts:

    None right now. Must be a new project.


Comments are disabled here. That's because we're all hanging out on the DTRaleigh Community, an online forum for passionate fans of the Oak City.


  1. Leo, it is nice to have you back, and I am looking forward to more photos from your trip to Australia.

    I would like to say one thing regarding your “Don’t Be Scared of Giants” section. You are right on the money. Some people seem to have a fear when it comes to mixing low-rises with high-rises. I see no problem with that and having been exposed to such mix I could not agree more with you. It can be done nicely and please everyone.

  2. I agree that Dorthea Dix should be left as is and turned into a Park. Furthermore, I believe the buildings should be converted into usable public spaces such as museum (including a Tobacco Road museum), aquarium, International Welcome Center, or Raleigh Technology Complex with rotating exhibits (4 or 6 month timeframe) from corporation like Epic Games, Red Hat, SAS, etc.. would make for a great tourist attraction. And, there should be some sort of transport from Downtown to the park like a gondola or special train or the ULTRA like North Hills is creating… Add public art such as a giant oak leaf or metal acorn.. very cool..

    Modernize the soccer fields to add seating and concessions. Plus a clubhouse. Close Tate Drive between Dwire and Umstead. Turn some of the buildings into the Raleigh Complex for Renewable Energy and make it LEED Platinum with Solar Panels, Wind Turbines, and geothermal heating..

    Ahh, the possibilites..

  3. Kacey is spot on…I’ve been living in Auckland for the past 3+ months and I think Dorothea Dix could become a space very similar to the Auckland Domain. The Domain is a massive park just outside the CBD but still surrounded by medium-density communities. At the center of the Domain is a beautiful museum, the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and this is surrounded by gardens, nature trails, public art, soccer/rugby fields, and open grassy areas. It also serves as a space for huge festivals (Kiwi Day Out just this past weekend). In my opinion, it’s everything Dorothea Dix should become. Obviously though, Raleigh has a long way to go.

  4. If we keep approving pathetic designs like the Dawson, L Building and now the Edison apartments, we will be generic (we are almost there). Architects like JDavis or develpoers like Empire have no right in Downtown Raleigh, they SHOULD NOT be used at all due to there lack of vision. Look at jDavis website, ALL their designs look alike, no creativity, no vision, nothing unique what-so-EVER.

    We cannot even do banners right to cover an ugly designed building like the L Building. The banners do not even cover the whole building (are u kidding!)

    enough waste of prime real estate downtown. Take one corner of the Edison project and build a 25-35 stroy apartment building. Hey city council, get your heads out of your you know what. Do not approve this pathetic apartment design.

  5. Thomas,

    I am one of those people who totally hate the new Edison incarnation… As much as I like the developer, I hope this crap doesn’t happen. Hell, if we cannot shoot for the sky in DT Raleigh, then where can we? I could understand scaling down one of the smaller components (from 29 to 15 floors), but taking up the entire Davie Str is simply a horrible idea. We will have to look at the parking deck “towering” above this 6-story mess every time we walk by there.

    Anyway, I hope that city leaders give two-thumbs down and don’t let this crap move forward. Saving part of the parcel for future development has huge advantages, with density and tax basis among the top ones I can think. If we want to see increased retail – useful retail, not pawn shops – we need to get the density to much greater levels. We have already gotten several waste-of-space projects, let’s not fall into this trap. Mark my words: If this project gets approved as proposed recently, NOTHING can stop the developer from putting one of the same crap on the other side. Uninspired, cheap-looking, monolithic low-rises that use more space than they deserve and get overwhelmed by parking decks. Is this really the quality we are seeking?

  6. Ernest, AGREE WITH YOU!!!

    How do we prevent city council from approving this pathetic proposal (along with others in the future)? Tired of city council having final approval, there has been no vision on city council for years, they think small and have no sense of architecture for OUR CITY Raleigh

    *******(city council members, especially Odom, Crowder and is it Boner (the clueless guy with the glasses) these three with, oh yes, Stephenson, are the order prevention desk, they are road blocks to Raleigh’s future – they should be on city council in Lizard Lick, NC)

  7. CNN/Money did a article about the Fastest growing Cities in the USA based on figures by the Census Bureau and Ranked,Raleigh,NC as one of the fastest growing cities in the US,Ranked #1. Charlotte was #2. Austin,TX was #3. and so on.I lived in Raleigh ten years now and have saw little growth…But that’s just me…Raleigh lacks a much needed Public Mass Transit,24/7..More Hotels…More business Downtown and Less Sprawl.But,You got to admit that Raleigh is indeed growing,but for a city to grow and thrive you have to have more ammenities in the downtown area for all.Not just for the 9 to 5 workers,but for your Seniors,the Disabled,and the working poor that rely on Public Transit,and Jobs in the downtown area.. With the News of Dorthia Dix Hospital Closing in August,A Major Decision needs to be made if the Property is to Become a Park or Some kind of development that will Become Raleigh’s crown jewel for”ALL” its citizens.Less Red Tape…More Progress and Development.If it is going to take Decades for a decision to be made,then I might as well Move to L.A.

  8. I completely agree with Mark. I have lived in the Raleigh area for nine years now. As an NYC native, who is a Veteran who has had the opportunity to live in other amazing cities, I agree that Raleigh lacks much needed public transportation, and the downtown area has been a “work in progress” since I’ve been here. The city lacks the “wow factor” which appears in the many great cities in America, including Charlotte, NC. Perhaps, the individuals responsible for designing Charlotte, NC should now work to re-invent the wheel for Raleigh, because the city has a lot of room to grow.

Comments are closed.