The City’s Latest Plan for Downtown Raleigh Hopes to Invigorate Fayetteville Street and More

Aerial photo of Fayetteville Street from 2019

[Quick note, most of the photos here were taken on a weekday morning. I was trying to beat the heat plus it’s been a busy summer for me. I mention this because I typically try and get photos with people in it as that is more interesting than the opposite but sometimes you can’t help when inspiration strikes, am I right?]

Announced back in July of this year, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance (DRA) and the city have partnered with a few consultants to create a plan for Downtown as the last few years have seen unanticipated changes. The largest of those being the uptick in remote and hybrid work and how downtown businesses were reliant on a certain number of workers coming to the office and frequenting them for lunch and goods. It is also a great time for a new plan as the previous downtown plan was implemented in 2015 and plenty of policies and recommendations from that one have already been put in place.

The new plan has four key focus areas which include:

  • Providing a retail strategy for downtown with a focus on the Fayetteville Street corridor
  • Defining opportunities to support a thriving Minority and Women Owned Business community
  • Examination and strategic positioning of the downtown office market
  • Identification of catalytic projects to stimulate and grow the Downtown Raleigh economy

I copied those straight off a DRA Instagram post so make sure to follow them as we go through the process. (as well as for other downtowny things) Speaking of the process, their announcement has a nice timeline of key deliverables. Each piece is completed at different times but the full report will be ready by Summer 2024.

Screenshot of the 12 month process to make the plan

I’ll have to admit that the topic of creating more businesses owned by minorities and women is complicated so I’ll leave that one to the report and will be interested to read it over when it’s ready. I remember some work on this was being done before the pandemic so an updated strategy seems appropriate. In the mean time, consider these lists of women-owned and black-owned businesses the next time you are out in downtown.

As far as office goes, I’ll also leave that to the report. It doesn’t seem like office tenants are in bad shape as the recent DRA 2Q 2023 report shows vacancy at 84.4% and rising. It just “feels” like there’s less office workers during weekday hours. Here are some stats straight from that report.

Screenshot of office market highlights and statistics from 2Q 2023

I’d like to take a closer look at Fayetteville Street today and just share some general thoughts around the street, mainly around the built environment as you’d expect from this blog. There certainly are a plethora of opinions out there, make sure to share yours on the DTRaleigh Community, but I’m skeptical of a continued push for retail along our main street.

I expect that the realm of this plan won’t involve a major rebuild of the street. There are probably ways to activate what we have rather than spending millions on a new street or hoping (praying?) that we get prettier buildings in place of the existing ones.

So with that said, here are some of my own observations and what I’ve heard from chatting with folks.

The Buildings Do Not Flow Very Well

Photo of Fayetteville Street from 2023

Fayetteville Street gets called “Raleigh’s Main Street” but I think we need to be honest with ourselves that the street is not a Main Street at all. At least not in the traditional sense where a main street is lined with shops and restaurants, attracting visitors and encouraging them to stroll up and down. On Main Streets, window shopping is easy and spontaneous encounters, requiring very little planning, take place.

Fayetteville Street had this but we’d have to go back to the way it was built probably 70 years ago to see it. The 200 block’s side-by-side buildings, especially with the historic structures on the western side, are what we need more of and have lost over time. Instead, we have an inconsistent building form going down the street. One example would be the Wells Fargo tower with its blank walls and set back lobbies that create a gap in the pedestrian experience.

Photo of Fayetteville Street from 2023

You actually may get a better chance at retail, again from my point of view, on the parallel streets of Wilmington and Salisbury. The buildings are shorter, the spaces are smaller and cozier. Something probably needs to be put in place to tie these streets with Fayetteville Street.

I could see a real comprehensive “Fayetteville Street District” being put in place here. We technically have that as the DRA points out but I’m not sure you can feel that you are in a district when walking here. If we can elevate the district and make it have that greater sense of place, it could tie it all together somehow.

The Street is Wide

Photo of Fayetteville Street from 2023

Or at least wideR than most streets in downtown. This is all according to plan. The original plan for our city, the William Christmas plan, called for a central square (Union Square) with four main streets, one going in each cardinal direction. Those streets were to be 99 feet wide, much wider than any other street as part of the planned city. Over time, Fayetteville Street become our business center and here we are today.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but the fact that the street is so much wider than the others means that it requires more people to activate it. To me, Fayetteville Street doesn’t have the pedestrian traffic right now to keep it lively for 16 hours a day, every day of the week. This hurts the streets reputation. When you pair this built form with my earlier point, with bank lobbies and blank walls, the spaces that are on the street have to do more of the heavy lifting.

By the way, I think a 16-hour/7 day, fully-active district is what we should be aiming for.

Another way I see it is like a shopping center missing the grocery store in the middle, the anchor tenant, that drives a lot of people to the area. What could this be for Fayetteville Street? (I think City Market has the same issue but that’s for another post)

This dynamic is probably tied most to the dip in office workers that are now coming in less frequently than before. Personally, I think this will sort itself out over time, I’m talking a good decade, but it doesn’t hurt to try something that could see an uptick sooner rather than later.

The Street Can Handle a Big Time Destination

Related to the above point and the big ideas topic of the report from the consultants, I’m hoping that they suggest something much bigger than more shops and restaurants. (and how to get one of these in place) I’d love to see two or three major draws that are open practically every day of the year. The street doesn’t need a facelift, the street needs something people want to go to.

Sure, if every space had a restaurant open all day and people were lining down the block to get in, I wouldn’t complain. However, since I’m opining here I do think we need to get the big idea juices flowing again. I know you can’t snap your fingers and it magically opens overnight but why not consider:

  • A Museum of Technology at 227 Fayetteville Street. Make it the best one in the southeast.
  • Buy the Brigg’s Hardware building and increase the size of the City of Raleigh Museum
  • Open a North Carolina Craft Beer and Distillery Museum and Store in PNC Plaza
  • “The Bonus Room from Marbles” has rotating year-long, special exhibits for kids in The Hudson
  • Artspace and the City create an “Art Hub” and it also acts as the First Friday central point

These are just ideas off the top of my head. We need more of them but my main point here is that I think the street needs to find an anchor, some kind of institution that just pulls people towards it. Once we have that, then the shops and restaurants and other things start to open up around it.

A smaller focus is to support businesses, as it always should be, but we need a strategy to land a “whale” and park it on Fayetteville Street.

Photo of Fayetteville Street from 2023

One opportunity I really see is the street taking hospitality to a whole new level in this future that I’m imagining. With a big anchor along it, I think it would be great if a hotel or two was also present here. The Marriot is fine but what if an entire building was converted to a hotel? 227 Fayetteville comes to mind or my favorite historic structure, Raleigh Banking and Trust Company Building.

Think Big

What ideas might you have? The planning process claims there will be opportunities for all of us to take part so I hope we can flood the consultant team with big ideas for the street.

I’ve been running this blog since about the time the street was reopened to vehicular traffic in 2006. The latest street design had events in mind, particularly to support the Raleigh Convention Center, which opened around the same time. Events are no problem here and I think these should continue. However, there may be an argument for moving events and allowing the street to take on a more organic life of it’s own. I’d be interested to see if the report comments on events or not as I feel it almost has to.

Lastly, I can’t help but point out a common thread about connecting downtown to Dix Park. A fun thought experiment could be to imagine being in Dix (maybe you’ve parked your car there if you drove) and you want to get to Fayetteville Street for a meal. How could people “feel” like Fayetteville Street is close enough to go to but also leave that car since they know they can easily come back for it after their visit? I think this would be huge in changing the dynamics not just for Fayetteville Street but for other districts as well.

Good luck to the consultants. I’m eager to see what they come up with.

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