RTP begins updating its master plan

A review of the master plan might allow higher density and mixed uses.

Staff WriterSeptember 4, 2010 

A New York urban design firm will spend the next 12 months reviewing the Research Triangle Park's master plan and major changes in how the region's biggest economic engine operates are likely as a result.

The review, the first update to RTP's master plan since the nearly 7,000-acre park was formed in 1959, is intended to make it more competitive at a time when companies are flocking to urban areas that offer employees more amenities.

"We want this plan to be transformational in nature," said Rick Weddle, CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation, which runs the park. "Everything is on the table. There really are no sacred cows."

A task force made up of foundation board members has chosen the architecture firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners to lead the review.

The firm's previous projects include Battery ParkCity in Manhattan and Reston Heights, a 50-acre suburban office park in Virginia that was converted into a mix of residential, retail, office and hotel space.

Among the changes on the table is altering RTP's zoning and land-use rules to allow for high-density centers that could be home to retail and residential development - things that are not currently allowed.

Such vibrant centers have become crucial to attracting companies, particularly those with lots of younger employees, said John Stubbs, a broker at Jones Lang LaSalle, who represents tenants in the Triangle.

Companies that would have automatically gravitated to RTP 20 years ago now have the option of locating in downtown Durham, downtown Raleigh or Cary.

"It's kind of a 1970s park," Stubbs said. "We need to make sure we put a real polished shine on this phenomenal campus."

RTP is home to more than 170 companies, government agencies and other tenants that employ 42,000 workers and 10,000 contractors.

State bylaws dictate that only research and development-related companies can locate within the park.

Those bylaws should be tweaked to allow for more types of companies, said Jim Anthony, a Raleigh real estate investor who owns two buildings in the park.

Anthony said other rules, such as the requirement that buildings be set back 200 feet from the property line, prevent owners from developing at higher densities.

"There are many cases where sites are constricted by these overly onerous development restrictions," he said.

RTP had one of the highest vacancy rates in the Triangle - 26 percent - in the second quarter. That reflects the large number of empty, older office buildings in the park.

Weddle said the review is likely to take up how best to redevelop the older campuses of some of RTP's largest tenants. Both Sony Ericsson and Glaxo SmithKline, for example, have announced plans to vacate older buildings they own in the park.

Any changes to the master plan will need to be approved by the park's tenants and the Research Triangle Foundation's board.

Changes to the bylaws would likely require approval by the state legislature, while zoning changes would need to be approved by either Wake or Durham county officials.

RTP is known for not rushing when it makes changes. The foundation recently announced that it would put up new signs in the park after talking about doing so for years.

Although the master plan review could have been done years ago, Weddle said he thinks the timing is ideal given the economic upheaval that has taken place in recent years.

"This is a very treasured and important resource," he said. "Yes, it needs to be cared for and maybe changed, but it needs to be done in a very thoughtful way."

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4548

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