In an ideal, mixed-use world, the overlapping of different types of activities within one building accomplishes higher density, greater convenience for each of the occupants by getting rid of the need to use the car to get anywhere, and fundamentally, letting each of the pieces support one another. The people that live and work within walking distance use the shops. The offices are rented by people that live nearby and because they are surrounded by traffic from the shops. Residences are rented or sold because they are nearby all the conveniences. The collective result is a balanced relationship between the individual parts that allows for their mutual success.
The Creamery and its surrounding development, a mixed-use community located on Glenwood Avenue in midtown Raleigh, attempts the employment of these principles to revitalize the street and encourage development and economic growth. The re-use of existing buildings, and the addition of new ones have attempted to introduce a variety of spaces including offices, stores, restaurants, art studios and lofts into a relatively condensed community. The result is a medium density couple of blocks. Despite subscribing to the premise that higher density is better, the problems that emerge, like lack of diversity, both in people and types of functions that prevent self-sustainability, are due to an imbalance in the type of density. The specifics of The Creamery are also representative of a much broader imbalance in American culture between the types of places we say we want and the types of places we build.
The Creamery as a mixed-use development is flawed by what it excludes. Firstly, it lacks a diversity of types of housing to include low-income and families, a variety of ages and number of bedroom units–as not everyone wants to, or can afford to, live in a loft. Secondly, the types of stores and restaurants that are provided lack the diversity of everyday life. You still have to get in your car and drive to buy milk. The community of the street and the local neighborhood is just not there. The result is an intrinsically flawed urban development.
The businesses that occupy The Creamery all serve the same type of clientele. Yet, even if you are a member of this specific market group, you still don’t have the businesses to support simple, everyday activities like grocery stores, dry cleaners, newsstands, etc., not to mention activities you spend more time on like movie theaters and bookstores. This void prevents the development of a true community, as the automobile still remains necessary for daily city life. These activities are done outside of the area, making the development not a part of the city fabric, but a destination within it like Crabtree Valley Mall or any local strip center.
These factors are only accelerated by the imbalance of shops to housing. There is not nearly enough of a residential component to sustain the businesses located there and thus the development caters to a much broader population: North Raleigh, Cary and other distant bedroom communities.
The premise is one that is optimistically bringing life back to downtown Raleigh, the intrinsic problem is the formula seems attached to a certain clientele that is ultimately limited in population. The people that frequent Glenwood do not live downtown. Thus the model is as a destination from elsewhere providing well for a current regional need, but neglecting its applicability in other places and situations. That market is already filled.
Raleigh is still a horizontal city. The density necessary to generate a vibrant downtown is not a geographic inevitability like New York City, nor a cultural predilection like Paris. Raleigh is poised to be another Atlanta or Los Angeles. The redirection of this path has to come from a conscious desire for community development through true mixed-use urban planning.
Gail Peter Borden is an assistant professor of architecture at N.C. State University’s School of Architecture in the College of Design. He is also an artist, theoretician and principal in the Borden Partnership.