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Published: Business Leader, July 2003

Authors:
Laura Childs and Jessica Willson

No More Mundane Main Street

When you walk through the downtown of a European city, the idea of a main street is captured in every way. It’s no wonder that when visitors from overseas come to Raleigh, they question where our downtown even is. Our streets lack the basic requirements for what the heart of a city should look like. Should steps be taken to help better serve visitors and make the triangle region more appealing for businesses to headquarter and establish themselves?

Jean Laughlin-Davis, director of Lloyd’s Register Serentec, (formerly Serentec of which she was co-founder) appreciates being located in Raleigh’s downtown district. “Downtown is the lifeblood of the community. It’s our heritage and our history. It’s how we got to where we are.”

Likewise, Mechanics and Farmers Bank has been a steady contributor to the downtown landscape since 1923. Stanley Green, Jr., Raleigh city executive and senior vice president at the community bank believes the 5 in 5 plan will “increase motor and pedestrian traffic, economic development, and the area’s viability as a destination for tourists.”

Green, a member of the Convention Center steering committee, sees a positive impact on the region’s economy. “This plan, in strengthening the economic position of our state’s capital city,” he comments, “Has the potential to likewise increase the viability of new business development efforts for the entire region.”

Floye Dombalis has been downtown since 1930; her fourth-generation family-owned Mecca Restaurant still looks the same and has served the same traditions for the past 73 years. She misses the pedestrian friendly streets and wishes she could window shop on her break. Dombalis’ biggest heartache is when she must tell her patrons that to go shopping; they need to leave downtown and head elsewhere.

Margaret Mullen, president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, hopes this will all change. She is the mind behind the machine known as the Livable Streets plan, which includes a five point strategy to revitalizing downtown Raleigh by 2008.

The 5 in 5 plan includes:
-restoring Fayetteville Street and making it the premiere address for businesses and a location for cultural events.
-Improving the safety and appeal of pedestrian capabilities downtown
-Establishing regulatory reform to invigorate business performance
-Expanding downtown management and advocacy

Mullen hopes to restore the concepts of William Christmas, who in the late 1700s envisioned a downtown Raleigh encompassing neighborhoods, civic streets, strategically placed buildings and a site-line from the Capital to the present-day BTI center. Mullen says his vision was lost with the placement of the convention center. “Why they put the convention center where it is – I have no idea. It blocks the view.”

Mullen comes from Phoenix, where she helped successfully revitalize the downtown. She plans to do the same for Raleigh. Her only concern is that our political environment is committed, but we are on a two year election cycle. This means that there are six months of nervous commitment, six months of good commitment, and a year of campaigning.” Not much time to carry a grandiose restoration of downtown to its fruition, but some issues can be overcome. Martin Ames, director of communication and marketing at the Raleigh Convention and Visitors bureau, sees this revitalization as a simple vision: “To create something that speaks to the core of this area.”

ATTRACTIVE PLANNING

Talk of the downtown plan has many Raleigh businesses and entrepreneurs jumping on board. Greg Hatem of Empire Properties is a strong advocate of Livable Streets. He says “ The five in five plan will help refine and refocus the efforts put forth the past several years and help to make Raleigh, with its nightlife, fine dining and entertainment, the downtown urban center of the Triangle.

Laughlin-Davis agrees. “These five things will create momentum in Raleigh. It won’t change overnight, but these are all positive steps in the right direction.” It seems Raleigh can only gain through this revitalization.

Hatem appreciates that Raleigh’s buildings and atmosphere still hold the original fabric of the city’s history. He adds that we must maintain this charm, and “not feel like we have to turn downtown into a Disneyland to attract people.”

Dombalis does want something big; she hopes for a large department store to act as an anchor to draw people. She wants downtown to become a “one-stop shop” covering everyone’s needs in one area. Dombalis quips, “Right now, I can’t even buy a pair of hose downtown.”

Armes appreciates the sprit within Raleigh, but has one complaint. “I think a unique thing about the Triangle is the compilation of a family of communities. What’s lacking is the heart.” The new heart of Raleigh is its revitalization, which concentrates on pumping lifeblood into the Triangle community. The plan for Fayetteville Street highlights businesses, hoping to entice both new and established companies. The convention center focuses on attracting tradeshows and conferences, while improving accommodations for visiting business travelers.

At its core, downtown should exude a family atmosphere; that is what Dombalis’ Mecca has always tried to do, and what has kept them in business for so long.

BUILDING THE HEART OF THE TRIANGLE

Hatem and his team are responsible for many of the renovations already occurring downtown and have chosen to develop in pockets. “This gives us enough mass in a particular area to make an impact, to make it attractive for other developers or individuals to fill in the buildings around us,” he comments. Hatem believes in Empire’s work downtown. “By restoring these building back to their previous prominence, we can use them as the building blocks to an increasingly active downtown.”

Hatem also hopes that by “filling in the gaps,” the area will be safer for pedestrians. He supports the new convention center, but warns that if this becomes the opportunity to go on a “land-grab” for areas outside of the designated site, the city will loose community support by encroaching on other areas without a clear purpose.

For Fayetteville Street’s rebirth, Hatem looks forward to the opening of new businesses and the time when restaurants will repopulate the area.

Mullen wants to work with what Raleigh already has to offer, emphasizing the unique qualities that set it apart from other capitals. “We have great museums, the BTI Center and we are the only capital city anchored by four colleges and universities.”

Armes concurs, “I don’t think we will ever be a big cosmopolitan area – look at the size of downtown. We are a city within a park, towering oaks and everything. I want to keep that appeal.”

As most realtors say, it all comes down to “location, location, location.” Smedes York, one of the father’s of Livable Streets and President of York Properties says, “From a community standpoint it [the Livable Streets Plan] has a lot to do with the image of your city, and that usually relates to downtown.”

By being at the center of a city, a downtown should be the center of activity. Laughlin-Davis is proud of Serentec’s growth, and credits location for a part of their company’s flourishing. “We are a downtown Raleigh success story that others can look at as proof that downtown is a good place to do business; the benefits of being downtown far outweigh any drawbacks.”

IN THE THICK OF THINGS

Ease and accessibility are big concerns with respect to downtown. “As more businesses open up, it fosters a more walkable downtown since more destination sites are closer together,” Hatem believes. “Increasing the density of businesses downtown eliminates many transportation concerns since it creates a pedestrian scale. York has some suggestions to further alleviate pedestrian concerns. “Give better directions and allow parking in front of buildings. I like the whole main street movement – let’s get ours to look like one.”

Mullen acknowledges that Fayetteville Street needs to be more accessible to both pedestrians and vehicles. A better parking garage and easier service to and from facilities would help immensely. Mullen says she has never known of a city that uses towing as much as Raleigh – something that will hopefully change with the revitalization.

The best side effect of the downtown plan is how it will stimulate the Triangle’s economy and encourage businesses of all types. “It’s a unique space for both retail business and offices. By bringing more space online,” Hatem notes, “it will bring more activity downtown to support the other businesses and show people from outside the area that downtown Raleigh is a great destination.” Hatem knows that this plan will help Triangle business. He recognizes that certain individuals and business owners want to live and work in an urban setting. “This plan will provide a framework to relocate your business downtown and live there as well.”

ON THE HORIZON

The consensus of many is that the future looks promising. York knows that Raleigh is a desirable region, but says, “We can’t rest on our laurels.” Dombalis is hopeful; she has been waiting for decades for a more exciting downtown. Whatever The plan has in store, she wants it to help generate business every day – not just for special events. Laughlin-Davis sees Livable Streets as a community effort, “We all need to get on board and look at the revitalization of downtown Raleigh as something that is important for every citizen of this city. Sometimes we need to look at the big picture and do what’s best for Raleigh.”

Laughlin-Davis continues, “Positively, the more businesses and people we have downtown, the better everything will be. We all sustain and support each other. It’s all interconnected.” Mullen is determined to get the ball rolling. She acknowledges, “If we have not made a dramatic change both in perception and look in three years, we will have failed.” But she has high hopes. Mullen recognizes that Raleigh has a population of well educated well-traveled people who know what a state capital should look like. And that’s what she is trying to bring to life. “I am convinced that the citizens of Wake County want to leave, as part of their legacy to the next generation, a strong, diversified economy that includes a downtown that is fun, thriving and a point of pride for the entire community.”

 
 
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