Yesterday the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the people tasked with making sure downtown continues on its trajectory toward being A Thing, released a progress report of sorts on the first three months of 2015. Call the source biased, perhaps, but damned if there isn’t a lot to love in there, especially if you’re a fan of density and commerce and not having so much goddamned suburban sprawl, which we are. (And no, Greg Hatem, downtown is not unlivable.)
The highlight: Within the municipal services district (called the MSD), which is merely a 1-mile-square stretch in the heart of Raleigh, there is $273 million worth of development under construction right now.
“That many millions in one square mile,” says Bill King, the DRA’s planning and development director, told me yesterday, “is pretty enormous. I mean, that is just a huge figure.”
Nine street-level business opened in the first three months of 2015 while only three closed—mostly bars and restaurants, although there’s also a boutique. Ten more are supposed to open within the next six months. Office-space vacancy is less than 8 percent. There are 1,840 residential units that are have come online in the last year or are under construction, which is more than half of the 2,811 existing units; when filled out they’ll add an additional 3,000 people living downtown.
Density, as any urban planner will tell you, is vital to building the sort of critical mass that makes downtowns exude vibrancy. More people means more retail, more dining, more bars. It makes it easier to build people-friendly infrastructure, things like mass transit and bike shares, because there are people to use them.
“It leads to a lot more customers for existing businesses downtown,” King says. And urban density, he adds, is a nice break from this region’s tradition of having suburban office parks be the centers of commerce.
So the news is, on the whole, good. We’re not on track to have as many businesses open this year (9 x 4 = 36) as in, say, 2010 (54), but neither are we on track to have as many close (a projected 12 vs. 36). That’s not to say there aren’t problems. You want a mix of businesses, and downtown Raleigh right now is rather heavy on bars and such (much to the chagrin of Greg Hatem), and light on what King calls “soft goods retail”—clothes and books and record and gift shops.
And downtown’s resurgence will of course come with its own set of difficulties to overcome; it’s important to be clear-eyed about that. In just the month I’ve lived here, for instance, more than one elected official has told me that affordable housing will be the next, biggest demon the city will have to wrestle. As expensive, fancy-pants condos and townhouses move into the urban core, gentrification in the inner neighborhoods is going to become a force to be reckoned with, and the city needs to start preparing for that now. Same with transit and making sure that whatever the city and county do connect well with downtown. Same with littler things like parks and streetscapes.
For his part, King says he’s not worried. “You gotta start looking 10, 20, 30 years down the road,” he told me, then added, “I do think the city is being proactive.” He points to the 10-year “Downtown Experience Plan” the city is currently developing. The first two of its four pillars—“Breathe,” “Move,” “Stay” and “Link”—deal specifically with green space (including bringing the greenway into downtown) and enhancing urban mobility (emphasizing walking, biking and transit over cars). The latter two deal with establishing a creative, interconnected culture.
The plan, as presently conceived, strikes me as wonderfully auspicious and ambitious (your mileage may vary); of course, the trick will be in the execution. And there are any number of ways this could go sideways.
All that said, the numbers in this report are the kind you like to see, the kind that lead you to believe that when King says something like, “We’re at the tipping point of downtown becoming something big,” maybe that’s not wishful thinking.