Who knew it was even called City Plaza? The empty space in front of the old Civic Center in Raleigh was used occasionally for rock concerts or for a Carolina Hurricanes celebration. But it was only when the Civic Center came down and Fayetteville Street was reopened that the idea dawned about this desolate spot becoming a true center-city gathering place.

That’s when Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Corp., brought the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa to town, and they tried out the idea of a raised public square and light show. After six months of intense debate, Goodmon and Plensa withdrew that plancity leaders decided they didn’t want Fayetteville Street obstructed againbut their vision had taken hold: In some form, Raleigh would have its City Plaza. But what form?

A year later, following an unprecedented (for Raleigh) planning process emphasizing broad public participation, that question is about to be answered. City Plaza will feature shopping, not art, under the design expected to garner final approval by the city council in early September.

The design showcases four transparent glass pavilions, each 30 feet square and 18 feet tall, set in front of the two office buildings that flank the City Plaza space to the east and west. The effect is to put two small retail stores in front of each building, along with four raised pools and four 40-foot light towers.

The light towers will double as art: Greensboro sculptor Jim Gallucci has given them an oak-leaf motif, and the LED lighting itself is programmable to put on a show in whatever color(s) the occasion demands (red for a Wolfpack win).

A video screen, shown in renderings on the city’s Web site (and below), is a probable add-on later when the so-called Site One project is developed on the east side of Fayetteville Street, where the Civic Center itself used to be.

Why give so much of the plaza over to stores? Because they’re the most reliable “permanent, everyday activity generators,” says Assistant City Manager Dan Howe. And everyday activity is what’s sorely missing on the plaza today, since the two adjacent buildingsthe BB&T and Bank of America buildingsand a number of the others nearby have no ground-floor retail space.

Plus, the plaza comes with built-in art: the view of the Capitol looking north and Memorial Auditorium to the south.

A contributing factor: City Plaza is not actually owned by the city. It was given away when the two buildings were developed in the ’80s, together with the parking garage beneath the old Fayetteville Street, then the ill-fated Fayetteville Street Mall.

Thus, anything the city wants to do there today must be approved by The Simpson Organization (TSO), which owns the Bank of America building and the entire plaza up to the front door of the BB&T building.

TSO proposed the pavilions and will own and lease them to tenants under the plan brought to the council by Howe and his boss, City Manager Russell Allen. But Howe emphasizes, and others agree, that the idea for a retail emphasis was the public’s, not TSO’s.

In fact, the only dissenting voices heard about the plan concern the size and permanence of the pavilions, not the retail emphasis. Councilor Thomas Crowder thinks the pavilions will cramp the plaza, arguing that the retail set-ups should be flexible enough (using tents, for example) that they could be taken down or moved when space is needed for a big concert or celebration.

“We don’t have a plaza any more,” Crowder says. “It’s a streetscape now.”

Actually, tents are part of the city’s plan, but in addition to the pavilions, not instead of them. On “fair” days, vendors will be invited to sleeve their standard 10-feet-square exhibition tents in front of the pavilions, creating two rows of sellers on either side of Fayetteville Street, says Kris Larson, senior planner in the city’s Urban Design Center. The tent sleeves, along with movable tables and chairs, will give the plaza lots of flexibility while keeping it active, Larson says. He recently visited New York City’s Bryant Park, the much-envied gathering space next to the New York Public Library.

Given what’s around City Plaza, Larson thinks, “this will be as close to Bryant Park as we can get.”

The collapse of the Plensa project was seen by many in the arts community as an embarrassment for the city and an example of how boardroom-only planningthe city’s process for public art was ignored, for exampleyields bad results. Afterward, officials went to great lengths to launch an inclusive process, and the reviews by participants are positive.

“The planning process was good,” says Beth Yerxa, a Raleigh Arts Commission member and its chair during the Plensa debate. “I like the design, and I’m pretty happy about how it all turned out this time.” A half-dozen other participants echoed that view.

Some, though, see City Plaza as a limited opportunity given the dead-space buildings around it. “I don’t think it will be a famous place,” says Dana McCall, who blogged frequently about it on his old Raleighing.com Web site. McCall notes that Raleigh consulted Fred Kent, the Bryant Park designer whose firm, Project for Public Spaces, is considered the best public-space planning outfit in the country.

“It seems like this plan fits right in line with what PPS has found to work,” McCall says. “All we need is about 100 folding chairs and some chess and checkerboards.

“The real tell-tale for a successful place, according to Kent, is to see people kissing there,” he adds. “We’ll have to wait on that one.”