CARY — Climb two long, straight ladders to the top of First Baptist Church, and it’s possible, straddling thin metal girders, to steal nervous glances over the diorama-like scene of downtown Cary.
The steeple went up in 1968, but the view from the arched windows has changed little: There’s the same cluster of small brick buildings, the same rows of cottages and the occasional grand old houses.
With a downtown renaissance taking root nationwide, a languid town core has become a problem for this notoriously suburban town. So after a decade of planning, the local government is pushing into unorthodox roles and laying out tens of millions of tax dollars in an effort to rebuild the cradle of Cary.
In planners’ maps, First Baptist Church’s tall white pinnacle would soon overlook a lively night scene, rows of new restaurants, remade roads and a “crown jewel” park. Town leadership aims to undo the downtown-shrinking effects of a half-century of sprawl – and if they succeed, they may rebuff critics who say Cary’s just a bland extension of Raleigh.
“There are so many people in Cary, and the median income is so high, yet people take their dollars ... to Durham, and they take them to North Hills,” said Lauren Schafer, incoming president of the Heart of Cary Association, an alliance of downtown merchants. “The goal is to be a place where people want to come, as a destination.”
Few dispute that there’s plenty of work to be done. While downtown Cary has its share of arts events and concerts, it has little buzz among tastemakers and the younger generations that fill other downtowns on weekend nights.
Nadia Khan, 22, lives and works in downtown Cary, but she doesn’t bother to invite her friends here. Khan, awaitress at Serendipity Gourmet Deli, and her coworkers are often the youngest people on Academy Street – Cary’s equivalent of Main Street.
“It’s a little boring. There’s not much to do for people our age,” said Lindita Yuce, 24, another Serendipity waitress.
Like the rest of its block, Serendipity does much of its business in the lunchtime hours. Some joke a downtown Cary joint could open at 11 a.m. and close at 3 p.m.
And the area doesn’t just have a millennial problem. Linda Buchanan, 56, lives downtown, but she and her husband head to Apex’s close-packed downtown to eat and shop. In Apex, there are “just people walking around downtown, enjoying themselves,” she said. “And in Cary, in the evening, there’s absolutely nothing going on.”
Ed Gawf, Cary’s downtown czar, is just as blunt. While cities like Durham and Raleigh have revitalized their downtowns, he said, Cary is starting from near scratch.
“Here, there’s not a downtown,” said Gawf, downtown development manager since 2011. “There’s a collection of older buildings, but we stopped being a downtown years ago, as suburban development started occurring in Cary. We’re a great series of subdivisions without a downtown.”
Time for intervention?
Unlike Durham, Cary’s downtown doesn’t have a surplus of old service buildings waiting for chic new tenants. The town never had Apex’s dainty line of brick buildings. There are no high-rises offering housing, and few spaces for new eateries or offices. And for the last thirty years, developers have shown little interest in changing that scenario.
For Cary, that has translated into a practical moratorium on development – one that town officials insist can only be undone by dramatic government action.
The town’s efforts began in 2011 with the $13 million transformation of a former school into the Cary Arts Center and continued with expanded public art programs, cultural events and even signage to help people find downtown.
Next on deck is the Cary, a $6 million rehab of a former cinema into a public arts venue, scheduled to open this year. An $8 million revamp of Academy Street’s aesthetics and infrastructure will enter final planning next year. And the biggest project of all may be the “Opportunity Site,” a 13-acre block for which the town has paid almost $10 million over the last decade.
Town leaders say the land will host a “crown jewel,” and its planning has dominated the downtown discussion lately. While earlier proposals showed rolling parkland surrounded by public facilities, Gawf’s arrival brought a more business-minded approach to the park and to downtown in general.
The downtown development manager, a former planning director of Boulder, Colo. and Palo Alto, Calif., wants Cary to set aside the borders of the Opportunity Site for potential private development, with the park itself occupying as little as a quarter of the site. Cary’s elected officials have agreed in part, voting to designate up to half the site for private development.
There are signs these new public-private tactics are working already. The developers of the Mayton Inn, a $9.5 million boutique hotel, will buy town land before breaking ground this summer. The project may benefit from a multi-million dollar water-pressure system that the town is considering.
And nighttime visitors to downtown won’t find things entirely deserted. Partially inspired by the downtown buzz, two dozen businesses opened and only three closed in 2012, according to Terry “Doc” Thorne, president of the Heart of Cary Association.
Among them are the new Unwine’d Wine Bar, and the soon-to-open Academy Street Bistro, both of which are angling for evening crowds. They’ll soon be joined by Larry’s Beans, a Raleigh coffee roaster that will put its first-ever coffee shop in a historic house owned by the town.
Delicate public-private balance
Still, the town’s new courtship of developers has spurred a downtown debate, with the proposed park at the fulcrum. Dozens of downtown residents have said they want open space preserved, while other critics have said the town is too involved with private ventures. Councilman Don Frantz has questioned the town’s plan to buy and resell private land.
Gawf argues that the town can’t simply put money into public facilities. In the public-private approach, the government’s real power is its freedom to take a financial hit while paving the way for private developers, with a potential reward of a new tax base and a reinvigorated public space.
The city of Raleigh has tried the same strategies, selling public land for developments such as Charter Square, according to David Diaz, president of the Downtown Raleigh Association.
“I can’t think of many downtowns that the government did not get involved in that way,” Diaz said.
Even success, though, would leave its own questions.
With the farthest stretches of Cary some ten miles distant, it’s possible that new residents won’t consider downtown their own. They may instead spend their nights out at the mixed-use centers that are emerging as developers’ new favorite model.
There are also those that like downtown just the way it is. Tim Beaver, who keeps First Baptist Church running, doesn’t see an under-developed area when he looks out the windows of the church’s white pinnacle.
The 60-year-old preferred the Cary he found in 1981, when there was less hustle and bustle.
“I wouldn’t want them to change anything,” he said.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary