A Walk Around Caswell Square

Graffiti on a building in Caswell square, December 2016

Some of the locals at Caswell Square, December 2016

Caswell Square has made the news recently as a piece of the state-owned land is being considered to be sold to a private developer. A few buildings on the square are planning to be renovated for medical offices. The North Carolina Council of State needs to approve the sale of these properties.

At first, it doesn’t sound like a big deal but if you aren’t familiar with Caswell Square then allow me to inform you.

Caswell Square is one of the original squares of the William Christmas plan. This plan laid out the street network for Raleigh and was to include five public squares, owned by the state.

You almost certainly have heard of Nash and Moore Square, operating as parks today, and also Union Square, where the historic North Carolina Capitol building sits. Lesser known Burke Square has the Governor’s Mansion, also called the Executive Mansion, and finally, Caswell Square.

Bounded by Lane and Jones Streets to the North and South, McDowell and Dawson to the East and West, Caswell Square, for over 100 years, has had state government buildings on it.

Interior of Caswell square, December 2016

Interior of Caswell square, December 2016

The entire block is now consumed by buildings and surface parking. Some of those buildings are even empty and boarded up. Still owned by the state, they sit waiting to be torn down or for renovation work to take place.

As part of the Governor’s plan, called Project Phoenix, to revitalize the state government complex in downtown Raleigh, a portion of Caswell Square, owned by the state since the birth of Raleigh in 1792, is up for sale for private use.

Plans for medical offices in now empty buildings are on the table as millions of dollars in renovations would take place in the old buildings on the square. The sale would generate $1.75 million to the state.

Preservationists have come forward and claimed that the state should not offload the historic piece of property as it dates back to the original plan of Raleigh, the Christmas plan.

Below, are the three empty buildings being discussed for sale. They are located primarily along Dawson Street, next to each other, starting from the corner of Dawson and Lane.

Empty building on Caswell square, December 2016

Empty building on Caswell square, December 2016

Empty building on Caswell square, December 2016

The Oral Hygiene Building.

For me, I’ve been a huge supporter of the ideas in Project Phoenix but this one makes me pause. Offices can go anywhere but public squares aren’t being planned anymore. I’m not sure I agree with those that want to sell of parts of Caswell Square.

First, let’s take a look at what it’s like around Caswell Square. Below is a Google Map I made. (If you can’t see it, click here)

The square is in green, in the center, with the eight blocks surrounding it loosely categorized. We can notice a few things:

  • To the east and south of the square, the properties today are largely dominated by state government properties, mainly offices and museums.
  • The museums are a relatively new addition compared to most of the other offices, having been there for decades.
  • To the west, you have the fringes of Glenwood South residential, a relatively new addition (The Metropolitan is under construction now)
  • A mix of commercial activity exists to the east and north of Caswell Square including law offices, the Days Inn hotel, Babylon restaurant, and other office space. I would consider this very small scale.
  • Edenton Street United Methodist Church has also owned land, been a presence nearby for quite some time.

The eastern edges of Glenwood South and the state museums are basically the new, the momentum, with the church and state government offices being the old, the legacy downtown. They are starting to mix and this brings us to Caswell Square, stuck in the middle.

We don’t know yet the impact of Glenwood South and how much it’s success could cause more development to the east. Hillsborough Street projects, with 301 Hillsborough being close by, could also impact uses at Caswell Square in the future. Work on Project Phoenix within the government complex could create new uses for Caswell Square.

You also have all the work taking place along Capital Boulevard and the square loop at Peace Street.

NC School for the Blind and Deaf

Caswell Square historical asset, the NC School for the Blind and Deaf. Read more about it on Goodnight, Raleigh.

In my opinion, the future is bright for downtown and taking this opportunity to sell off a historic piece of land for a cool $1.75 million isn’t the right way to go. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the state government complex was built, lots of land was acquired, some with eminent domain. I’d like to see some of that land sold back to private hands for reuse first before even thinking of carving up a major piece of Raleigh history.

I’m not sure I’ll see the day but I’d like to see the state government clean up and efficiently use the properties with no historical significance, the northern end of downtown, before they start discarding history.

NC State offices in the Caswell Building

NC State offices in the Caswell Building at the corner of McDowell and Jones Streets.

Instead of immediate gains, I’d like to see the state, partnering with Raleigh, to use Caswell Square as a way to boost nearby activity. It just so happens you have a top 5 visited attraction, the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, in the state nearby to the square. With the Nature Research Center recently completed, maybe a park extension in Caswell Square could boost the museum’s profile and bring more tourism to the area.

Surface parking around NC State government buildings.

Surface parking around NC State government buildings.

To the east of Caswell Square sits a massive surface parking lot. Parking consolidation is easily a project that the state should undertake, freeing up new land for either more office buildings (mixed-use office buildings by the way) or to be sold for private use.

Ideas like these could have long-term benefits that if done well, could bring the state much more than $1.75 million.

The discussion to sell the land was on the agenda for the Council of State last week but a decision was delayed until a future meeting.

Pic of the Week

The Albemarle Building Renovation, April 2016

The renovation of the Albemarle Building is well underway. The project on Salisbury Street is part of the governor’s Project Phoenix, a plan to upgrade the state government complex in downtown Raleigh.

This renovation may or may not have a big impact on the surrounding area. A modern office upgrade isn’t going to create new activity during off-hours especially on weekends. The government may save on maintenance costs in the long run but this project, I feel, won’t support any of the governor’s claims of creating new development activity and life in and around the state government complex.

It’s possible that if the capacity of workers in the Albemarle Building has increased, more downtown workers may create more business. I feel like that’s a stretch though. Either way, great for the folks working there but this “suburban-urban” building may bring a negligible contribution to downtown’s revitalization.

Heck-Andrews House Sold By The State

Heck-Andrews House

The Heck-Andrews house in a 2009 photo.

After being owned by the state for about 30 years, the elegant Heck-Andrews house has finally been sold. The N.C. Association of Realtors will pay $1.5 million for the house.

Important to note is that this sale is part of the governor’s plans to revitalize the state government area, Project Phoenix as it’s called. The sale of more state-owned mansions along Blount Street is planned in the near future.

For more on the Heck-Andrews house itself, I highly recommend this fantastic read on Goodnight, Raleigh. A Storied Structure: The Heck Andrews House — Inside Out

Project Phoenix and The State Government District

State Government offices along Wilmington Street

State Government offices along Wilmington Street

I try to change up the general location of each blog post in order to touch all sides of downtown Raleigh as the months go on. One area that hasn’t gotten much love on this site is the State Government campus, the collection of buildings to the north of the historic Capitol building. Home to thousands of state employees, very little has changed here in the eight year lifespan of this blog.

The Green Square project being possibly the only exception, the state government campus isn’t seeing the same revitalization that the rest of downtown Raleigh is. And why would it?

From an urban perspective, the campus is nothing but sprawl, fitting in with similar office complexes in RTP than the buildings in downtown Raleigh. It serves a single-purpose; state government which consists of the offices and the politics around it. (protests included)

Sometimes called, ‘The Black Hole’ of downtown, the campus operates on a 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday schedule creating a ghost town outside of those hours. There really is no reason to be there unless it’s a protest or you’re doing work with the state.

The Albemarle Building

The Albemarle Building

I could almost just ignore this area on the blog as most of it is pretty much owned by and operated by the State of North Carolina and the planning dynamic and motivation is a universe apart than that of the City of Raleigh. It just feels more difficult to get the equivalent planning information from the state than from the city.

However, the state government campus can’t exist in it’s current form forever and I’m secretly cheering for an overhaul of that campus. This is why Governor McCrory’s mention of “Project Phoenix” has piqued my interest.

Project Phoenix looks to replace or completely overhaul some of these buildings and bring them up to modern standards. In addition, the Governor has been quoted as saying a newer campus will break away from that single-use environment and include private businesses with hopes of generating activity outside of typical work hours.

The project comes as the state of the campus today is pretty grim with reports claiming billions of dollars are needed to straighten it out. From this recent TBJ article:

Failing HVAC systems, faulty fire alarms, water seepage and asbestos are threatening the safety and security of nearly 10,000 state government workers and contractors who commute into downtown Raleigh each day.

Some buildings are in such poor shape that state agencies have started looking for leased office space instead.

According to a recent State Construction Office report, North Carolina is facing more than $3.9 billion in building deficiencies statewide due to deferred maintenance and repair issues, much of that among the state government’s downtown complex in the Capital City.

*Several state agencies mull move outside of downtown Raleigh

Two buildings mentioned during press conferences and interviews were the Albemarle Building and the Archdale Building, which apparently are in such bad shape that the idea of demolition is on the table.

It’s all talk at this point as plans or concepts have not been released and there’s a State General Assembly to go through but the project could have an astounding impact on downtown Raleigh.

The Archdale Building

The Archdale Building

If the state government campus wants to be woven into the fabric of the other districts in downtown Raleigh, the Fayetteville Street area would be the easiest as a north/south traffic flow already exists. With that in place, access to Moore and Nash Square would follow and even the future Raleigh Union Station.

It’s unfortunate that connectivity to Glenwood South to the campus is a much bigger challenge. The huge gap between Jones Street and Peace Street, created by the railyards and Capital Boulevard, is a barrier for east/west traffic flow. Perhaps one day if thousands more workers and maybe residents are here, some bike/ped bridges could jump across the railroads and Capital Boulevard.

Lots of room to dream here. We’ll keep an eye on this one.