New merchants chafe at crowds from Moore Square bus terminal

mgarfield@newsobserver.comAugust 21, 2012 

— As Wilmington Street emerges as downtown’s newest hot spot for cafes, shops and bars, tension is brewing over a long-running dilemma: how to handle crowds that congregate outside the Moore Square Transit Center.

Groups of people – some waiting for buses, others just hanging out – gather on the sidewalks outside the center, which is located on the ground level of a parking deck in the area of Wilmington, Hargett and Martin streets downtown.

Business owners say the crowds, coupled with bus congestion along the street, create an uninviting atmosphere for customers.

Few have a better vantage point than David Fowle, whose Wilmoore Cafe on Wilmington Street sits next to the transit center.

“The police cruiser pulls up, and these people just go on down the street,” Fowle said. “They just walk somewhere else. We see it all the time.”

The dilemma is fraught with issues of class and race, given that bus riders are largely minority and many of the new businesses cater to the affluent.

About 100 people attended a community meeting Tuesday at Marbles Kids Museum to discuss potential solutions. Part of the difficulty is understanding that people who stand outside businesses generally are not breaking the law.

“This is one of those situations where we cannot arrest our way out of (the problem),” said Raleigh police Capt. Kevin Craighead. “We’re ready to take some new ideas. I don’t know what the answers are.”

Participants gave a long list of suggestions Tuesday, from turning the transit center into a limited-access facility to opening a 24-hour police substation in the Moore Square district.

The issues have surfaced in part because of Wilmington Street’s new role as a retail and restaurant hub, says David Meeker, a real estate developer who has renovated several old buildings in the district. Meeker is the son of former Mayor Charles Meeker.

‘Product of the success’

“People used to loiter in front of the Wilmoore all the time, but nobody had a problem with it because there was no business there,” David Meeker said. “Now there’s a critical mass of people who care.

“I think it’s a product of the success that everybody’s having.”

There was a time when downtown had far more serious problems with drugs and crime, said Taz Zarka, who has operated convenience stores in the area for more than 20 years.

“It was very bad back in the ‘80s,” he said. “By 6 p.m., downtown was dead and it was all illegal activity. Regardless of what’s going on now, it’s way better (than it was).”

The growth of Raleigh’s transit system also plays a role. Moore Square handles 12,000 to 15,000 passenger trips per day, part of a citywide uptick that has resulted in a doubling of ridership over the past decade.

The city plans immediate changes to ease bus congestion. The R-Line, a free downtown circulator bus, will adjust the location of its stops to avoid backups with Triangle Transit buses.

Built in 1988, the Moore Square Transit Center will get a $3.5 million makeover beginning later this year to widen passenger platforms, add a third bus lane, improve lighting and restrooms and add a bigger information booth.

Long-term, the city plans to shift some bus services to the west side of downtown as part of a multi-modal transit center envisioned in the warehouse district.

Homeless at park an issue

Much of Tuesday’s discussion focused on the homeless population at Moore Square. Participants said the park is often littered with trash and cigarette butts.

A proposed makeover of the Moore Square park calls for a concession kiosk, bathrooms and a splash fountain, but Raleigh officials have not set aside money for the $14 million project because of budget shortages.

Last year, a man was stabbed to death while he waited in line for a free breakfast from a ministry in Moore Square. The stabbing was apparently the culmination of a quarrel between two homeless men, police said.

Despite such high-profile incidents, the park at Moore Square is not as bad as critics portray, said Michael Johnson, who paused while walking through the park Tuesday.

“Most of the time, I come here just to meet my old buddies from when I was on the streets,” he said. “Not everybody out here is homeless.”

Chris Budnick says he grew frustrated listening to Tuesday’s discussion. Budnick works for The Healing Place of Wake County, a nonprofit that serves homeless people with alcohol and drug dependencies.

Moving the homeless away from Moore Square won’t solve the city’s social service challenges, he said.

“How many businesses are willing to step up and hire folks who were previously homeless?” Budnick said. “You can’t just keep shifting the problem away and saying, ‘Not here.’ ”

Garfield: 919-836-4952