A new chapter for Fayetteville Street

Reopening Fayetteville Street to cars is the first step in Raleigh's multimillion-dollar plan to lure visitors back to the central city.

Staff WriterJuly 28, 2006 

— It's just four blocks of asphalt, barely enough to pave a parking lot. But after 16 months of dust, roadblocks and jackhammers -- not to mention $10 million -- much of downtown Raleigh's future hangs on this sliver of land. For the first time in 30 years, you will be able to drive a car down Raleigh's main drag or watch a parade between its almost-skyscrapers. So now what?

Fayetteville Street represents Raleigh's best effort to fashion itself into a "real city," to lift its sagging downtown and create something people will appreciate.

But the citywide consensus calls for something more than ripping up the old pedestrian mall, and those with a stake in the results say it will take some complicated chemistry.

"I don't think it's any one thing," said Liz Masnik, who owns The Borough bar and restaurant three blocks from Fayetteville Street. "A supermarket is vital. People need little clothing shops, little affordable tchochke shops.

"You walk through the streets of Brooklyn and Queens, you see all kinds of things that people need to live their lives. You see fruit stands. You see restaurants. You see businesses."

Mayor Charles Meeker dreams of sidewalk cafes, music floating out of storefronts, shoppers on the wide sidewalks.

Developer Greg Hatem is building a boutique hotel with a glass elevator on the side.

Everyone craves a downtown movie theater, and if the deal comes together, Raleigh will have one inside a new office/condominium tower at downtown's south end.

There's already a new Cajun restaurant going up on Fayetteville Street, a revived Yancy's for jambalaya and jazz, and a white-tablecloth restaurant propped up by $1 million in city perks.

Most of Fayetteville Street's eye-catching architecture vanished decades ago, replaced by parking garages and hulking beige banks.

Even if the storefronts come back, the canopies and shingles that hung over downtown in the 1920s will not return. There's just not as much storefront space.

Vista restored

But with the old convention center gone, Fayetteville Street offers an uncluttered view for the first time since the early 1970s.

Sit on the steps of the Capitol, and you can see clear to the columns of Memorial Auditorium.

For the south end of the street, a celebrated Spanish sculptor is working on an art installation that is wilder than anything Raleigh offers now -- and his plans for electric lights and falling water are moving ahead with the help of some practical tweaks.

For many fiscal conservatives, downtown Raleigh needs less of ordinary people's money.

It took $215 million in hotel and meals taxes to get its new convention center going. An additional $20 million is going tor the adjoining Marriott hotel; its initial design met with widespread scorn.

But the City Council is increasingly courted to sign off on new hotel and office tower deals, none of which want a subsidy.

The Site One building, where the movie theater is hoped for, is slated to go up on spec -- without an anchor tenant.

For some, such as Masnik, that's a sign: People with far more money and business experience are starting to sink their fortunes into Fayetteville Street, so there must be some wisdom behind it.

The real sign downtown is working, Meeker said, will come when the storefronts are full not only on Fayetteville Street, but around the corners to Wilmington and Salisbury streets, too.

The city can offer loans up to $50,000 to get those started, as it did for The Big Easy restaurant on Fayetteville Street's 200 block.

At Father & Sons Antiques around the Hargett Street block from "North Carolina's New Main Street," Kirk Adam watches all the progress through a kitschy, oddball eye.

"I want to see people selling imitation Vera Bradley and Louis Vuitton handbags," said Adam, a painter who hawks curiosities as a sideline. "Then I'll feel like we have a city. Oh, and a falafel wagon."

Staff writer Josh Shaffer can be reached at 829-4818 or jshaffer@newsobserver.com.

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