For ideas in transforming a downtown, look to Raleigh
By Mark Wineka
When the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, the city of Raleigh celebrated.
Where? In the parking lot of the RBC Center.
It reinforced for Raleigh’s leaders that the downtown no longer represented a symbolic or ceremonial center for the city.
By then, they already had initiated projects to change all that.
Raleigh Assistant City Manager Dan Howe shared the downtown’s transformation Thursday night when about 100 Salisburians met at the Rowan Museum to discuss a new 10-year Master Plan for their own central business district.
Howe said six things helped to improve Raleigh’s downtown: leadership, a plan, strategic partnerships, transformational investments, programming to bring people downtown and good timing.
Besides their economic importance, downtowns are symbolic centers of a community, Howe said.
They also are government centers, heavy tax base concentrations, ceremonial centers and often represent a historical crossroads of two major highways.
Raleigh’s downtown transformation included the new Raleigh Convention Center ó a $226 million, 500,000-square-foot project that required the cooperation of city and county officials who did not always see eye to eye politically.
Funding for the project came from an occupancy/meal tax, and the local leaders overcame the fact that a convention center had been voted down in a referendum about eight years earlier.
The facility opened in September 2008, and it has enjoyed three times the bookings that were projected.
The downtown plan set a goal of doing five major things in five years, something that was easy for the public to follow.
Howe said an important part of any plan is to think about how people will use what you build. He encouraged the Salisbury group to think creatively and not to worry if everything suggested didn’t get into their plan.
But it’s important to sweat the details, too, Howe said. In the transformation of Fayetteville Street, which had become a pedestrian mall in the 1970s, the city of Raleigh decided to provide public grease traps for restaurants.
It’s that kind of small, but important detail that makes a difference, Howe said.
Progress Energy became a key strategic partner in the downtown when it decided to invest $90 million in its headquarters building, which also influenced RBC Centura to put its U.S. headquarters in the downtown.
Durham-based Cree Inc., a manufacturer of semiconductors for LED lights, donated $1 million toward the building of the shimmer wall, which has become the downtown’s signature piece of art.
The shimmer wall takes up 9,284 square feet on the McDowell Street side of the new convention center. It is made up of 79,464 light and dark 4-inch aluminum squares that change in the breeze.
Raleigh’s nickname is the City of Oaks, and the wall depicts an oak tree that changes in shape and even disappears, depending on how the wind blows the small aluminum squares. It also is backlit at night by 56 LEDs, which can produce a million different colors.
Raleigh’s annual Artsplosure in May brings 50,000 to 60,000 people downtown over two days and is the kind of programming downtowns need, Howe said.
Raleigh also got lucky in that its downtown revitalization effort coincided with a housing boom when condominiums were being built downtown because of the influx of new people from the north and Midwest.
The downtown saw some 2,000 new housing units built in a four-year period, giving it a solid core of young professionals and empty nesters.
Howe spent considerable time describing Fayetteville Street’s change from the pedestrian mall to its redesign and reopening to two-way traffic. While downtown pedestrian malls were popular in their day, only a handful in the country worked, Howe said, and Raleigh’s was not one of them.
The image of Main Street is universal in the United States ó so much so that Disney World even recreated it, Howe said.
“We needed a Main Street again,” he added.
Fayetteville Street’s change allowed for it to provide an iconic view once again of the State Capitol building. The other end also opened up to the 1930s performing arts center.
Businessman Jim Goodmon offered to give the city $2.5 million toward a hydroelectronic abstract sculpture that famed Spanish artist Jaume Plensa had agreed to create as part of a plaza that would include black granite, an expanse of grass, a fountain, Italian cypresses, LED light grids and more.
The project eventually had an estimated price tag of $5 million before the city manager took the heat and recommended that it be scrapped. Goodmon took back his $2.5 million offer.
The art debacle had been a one-year distraction, but ultimately it was the right decision, Howe said. A “Main Street” should be a street, not a plaza, he said.
He also advised the Salisburians never to be too deferential to artists or designers. In the end, Raleigh probably ended up with what it really wanted in the shimmer wall, Howe said.
The construction connected to a street transformation is painful for any business. The best a city can do is try to mitigate the hardships as much as possible and get the work done quickly, preferably late in the day or at night, according to Howe.
The Fayetteville Street project had plenty of naysayers, given the expense the city went to a couple of decades earlier in installing the pedestrian mall, Howe said.
After the project was finished, he added, “you could not find an opponent anywhere.”
In July 2006, the city held a party to celebrate Fayetteville Street’s reopening. It expected maybe 20,000 to 30,000 people. Instead 70,000 people showed up.
It was so great, Raleigh held similar parties ó Raleigh Wide Open(s) ó the next two years. Last year’s party celebrated the opening of the convention center. This year, the downtown will celebrate the completion of City Plaza.
Downtown programming now includes movies, a downtown-specific bus route, farmers market, Friday Night Raleigh, First Friday Gallery Walks, Artsplosure and more.
Howe said among the things Raleigh did best for its downtown were relentless leadership by the city manager and mayor; efforts by chief executive officers in Raleigh to bring in conventions; including the public in every step; celebrating the successes with the community; and following up the capital projects with programming.
What would the city change if it could do things over?
Howe said he would recommend less “design by committee” and the writing of better contracts to make sure private partners finished their work in timely fashion.
Again, he encouraged that outside artists be given honest feedback.
He also suggested building a retail incubator strategy.
“Retail is always the piece that lags,” he said.
Local retailers usually can’t pay the premium rents often demanded, but they bring the richest benefits to a downtown, Howe said.