Published: Business Leader, July 2003
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.”