Plans move along for Raleigh center

Raleigh's downtown projects 'to improve the life of the city and the merchants'

Staff WriterDecember 17, 2004 

John Sonnhalter's wife discouraged him. His brother said don't do it. And even he saw that downtown was dead after 5 p.m. But eight months ago, Sonnhalter bought the small convenience store at the bottom of the One Hannover Square building on Fayetteville Street Mall anyway.

Now the city plans to tear down the convention center next door. In its place will go a 400-room hotel to serve a new center and a possible high-rise building that could hold restaurants, clubs and condominiums.

It's a piece of the vision that city officials have for the downtown's south end near the BTI Center for Performing Arts and the future convention center, a block west of the existing one. A master plan lays out the so-called convention center cultural district.

The goal is to create a vibrant downtown to help boost the public's investment, including the new center and the conversion of the Fayetteville Street Mall to allow traffic. And it's aimed at turning city-owned property into taxpaying assets.

Officials want a downtown with places to live and work, along with restaurants, shops and entertainment to lure conventions and more visitors.

"I thought it had some promise to it if they ever got to it," Sonnhalter said.

City officials say they're getting to it now.

This month, the City Council:

* Decided to raze the existing convention center, with work starting in September. Officials originally had planned to save the building's east side.

* Authorized up to $72,000 to hire Kimley-Horn & Associates to prepare a study of the conversion of Lenoir and South streets from one-way to two-way traffic.

* Voted to seek a consultant to develop an updated downtown parking study, for up to $80,000.

* Agreed to seek proposals from developers for the land under the east side of the existing center and a .51-acre parking lot bounded by South, Lenoir and Salisbury streets. The council agreed to spend up to $35,000 for a consultant to help. Officials hope new projects on the properties could open in 2008, about the time the convention center opens.

Those parcels are two of five city-owned tracts that city officials hope will interest developers. The plan proposes uses for each parcel, though Dan Howe, an assistant city manager, said the actual projects may differ. The proposals were drafted after talks with local and regional developers and study of downtown's needs.

The master plan also maps out a second phase for the conversion of Fayetteville Street Mall to allow traffic.

The project's first phase opens the street from the 100 block to the middle of the 400 block. The plan recommends opening a few more blocks to Lenoir Street.

The second phase is complicated by a privately owned underground parking garage. The garage sits beneath the plaza in front of the existing convention center on the mall. A study has estimated that it could take $1 million to $3.5 million to make changes so cars can drive over it.

Ernest Bleinberger, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Hunter Interests, a Maryland-based development consulting firm, said the reaction of developers shows that the plan isn't just an ambitious dream.

"This isn't a study that is going to sit on a shelf," said Bleinberger, who worked on the master plan. "We've received a strong level of verbal interest in several of the projects from local and regional development companies."

Two developers agree.

"Downtown Raleigh is viable, very viable," said David Cordish, chairman of the Maryland-based Cordish Co.

Roland Gammon, president of White Oak Properties, said he sees the same kind of energy downtown as in Glenwood South, where he has worked for 20 years. The strip is now filled with restaurants and clubs. "The proof will be in the pudding," he said, "but I think they will all be valid and not too pie-in-the-sky."

Sonnhalter says he likes what he has seen so far.

The former site of the Hudson Belk department store on Fayetteville Street Mall is under construction and will include condominiums, restaurants, shops and a mini-studio for WTVD-TV. Progress Energy has opened a 19-story tower nearby with a parking deck, offices, retail and plans for condominiums.

As a steady stream of customers bought cigarettes, soda and candy at the Quick Stop last week, Sonnhalter pored over a map of the city's plans.

Now, his biggest customers are downtown workers and the homeless.

"In the future, it's certainly going to improve the life of the city and the merchants," he said. "It's good for everybody."

Staff writer Sarah Lindenfeld Hall can be reached at 829-8983 or slindenf@newsobserver.com.

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