Commentary

Ford: Jobs, energy with capital's new gateway

steve.ford@newsobserver.comAugust 5, 2012 

Venturing along a two-block stretch of S. West Street on the edge of downtown Raleigh, it is as though you are poised on a pivot between past and future.

On both sides loom the cavernous red-brick structures that once were the home base of Dillon Supply, the venerable steel products and industrial equipment company.

The building that used to house the company’s main office and wood-paneled showroom now carries a sign warning that it is unstable, evidently the result of water damage from leaking roofs. Well, the roof might cave in, but the walls look as though they could stand forever.

Except for the lack of activity, the scene is mostly unchanged from when I first started working downtown 31 years ago. But that pivot between past and future in the core of Raleigh’s intriguing Warehouse District is about to kick in.

It used to be common to see flat-bed trucks being maneuvered into or out of the Dillon steel center, at the northwest corner of West and Hargett streets, perhaps to pick up a load of rebar.

Vacant for the past several years, that building – a mid-20th century industrial archetype of brick, massive girders, skylights – is in line for a trip to today’s high-tech frontier. It will become the Raleigh headquarters for Florida-based Citrix Systems, a leader in remote access to computer applications. (I’m writing via a Citrix interface right now.) And Raleigh will take a major step down the path explored so successfully in Durham, where old tobacco buildings that once defined the city’s identity have been adapted to the modern economy and lifestyle.

Several hundred techies added to the Warehouse District workforce? You can bet the folks up the street at the Roast Grill, quirky hot-dog place extraordinaire, won’t complain – unless they just don’t want to deal with the crowds.

But if Citrix will bring a welcome jolt of energy to the old Dillon complex, just wait. Dillon’s former Viaduct Building, tucked inside the nearby set of railroad tracks known as the Boylan Wye, is on the drawing boards to become Raleigh’s new Union Station, ambitiously envisioned as a Southern gateway.

That’s in keeping with passenger levels at the current, undersized Amtrak station on Cabarrus Street, second in boardings in the Southeast only to Richmond (which sees many more trains).

Planners for the city and for the state DOT’s Rail Division want to transform the rail nexus between the Boylan Heights neighborhood and the Warehouse District into a serviceable center for rail travelers – local and long-distance – while also improving freight mobility through that congested zone.

It’s a complicated undertaking. CSX, Norfolk Southern and the state-owned N.C. Railroad all have ownership and operational interests. Rail lines extend from the Wye in four different directions, and any realignments have to be carefully plotted.

But with all that in mind, a design for new passenger platforms linked by concourses to the new terminal is taking shape. Schematics for the terminal’s interior layout have been drawn, and track upgrades to accommodate more trains, passenger and freight, are being proposed.

Raleigh now has four daily round-trip passenger trains (eight stops), with direct service along the East Coast as far as New York and Miami and west to Charlotte. More Charlotte runs could be added. Then there’s the possibility of Triangle-area commuter trains, sponsored by the N.C. Railroad.

And while the Republican-controlled U.S. House has been in no mood to go along with the Obama administration’s push for high-speed rail (if the White House likes it, they’re against it), Raleigh remains a key link in the proposed Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor between Charlotte and Washington. The more crowded the interstates become, the more attractive a fast-train option becomes as well.

Crowded interstates? We won’t have to look far. Once the state DOT begins its scheduled three-year overhaul of I-40, Raleigh’s southern Beltline, folks who commute in the highway’s squeezed-down corridor may be begging for relief. Catching a train in Garner for a ride out to Research Triangle Park may begin to seem like a pretty good idea.

So with Citrix at West and Hargett and the new train station nearby on Martin Street, how long might it be before the rest of the old Dillon complex is also transformed? It won’t hurt that eventually the terminal could become the anchor for a larger transit center, with access to buses and light rail.

Put simply, this strategically located section of inner-city Raleigh where the industrial past is evolving into the high-tech, creative future is about to take its inherent coolness to a new level. The public investment that’s involved could pay handsome dividends in attracting residents and jobs. What’s not to like? Nothing at all.


Want to find out more about how plans for the new train station and track improvements fit together? Drop by an NCDOT information session from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. tomorrow, Aug. 6, at the Raleigh Convention Center, Ballroom B.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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