New plan puts former downtown project back on track

mquillin@newsobserver.comMay 6, 2013 

  • Democrats want to hear from Fetzer, too

    The Wake Board of Commissioners received a brief update on legislative matters Monday from Denise Foreman, assistant to the county manager.

    And the board’s Republican leadership received a request that future updates from the panel’s lobbyist be shared with members of both parties.

    Foreman showed a 5-minute video put together by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, made to remind county leaders across the state that many state legislators are unaware that much of what they do affects those at the county level.

    After the video, Democratic board member Caroline Sullivan asked if commissioners get updates from their hired lobbyist.

    The board hired former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer in February to push the Republican majority’s goals of allowing the county commission to take over the construction, maintenance and ownership of schools; to change the way school board members are elected; and to help fund the construction of charter schools.

    Board Chairman Joe Bryan told Sullivan, “We do.”

    Democrat Betty Lou Ward then asked if it would be possible for the entire board to hear from the lobbyist, since he is being paid with public funds.

    Bryan said there was no reason why that couldn’t happen.

    — Martha Quillin

— After two thwarted attempts, developer Greg Hatem told county commissioners on Monday he finally has the right design, the demand and the financing to start a prominent downtown Raleigh building project he first committed to in 2007.

Hatem’s Empire Properties first entered into an agreement in March 2007 to build what became known as the L Building — because of its shape. — that would wrap around two sides of a county parking deck at Davie and McDowell streets. The county built the deck and a firewall to separate it from what was expected to be a mixed-use building with retail space on the ground floor and condominiums above.

But then the economy went into recession and Hatem lost his financing for the building. He then tried to build a combination of retail space and offices, but couldn’t get loans for that, either, unless he could lease more than half of it before construction began.

Since the parking deck was built, its bare walls have been a reminder of the economic downturn both to the county and to Hatem. He has invested heavily in downtown Raleigh and is a strong proponent of the city’s “Livable Streets Plan” to link office and residential uses to amenities such as restaurants, museums and other venues. In 2011, students from the N.C. State University College of Design created 20,000 square feet of banners to cover the unfinished concrete facade.

Finally, Hatem told commissioners Monday, banks have begun to lend again, and what they’re most interested in is rental housing. So the new iteration of the L Building is retail and restaurants on the ground floor, and 83 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments above. The building also will house the Raleigh offices of Balfour Beatty Construction, which will be one of the partners in the project as well.

“This is the perfect project at the perfect time,” Hatem told commissioners.

Hatem was before the board to ask for an extension of his May 16 construction start deadline, which was an extension of earlier start dates.

Hatem told commissioners he knew the site would be a challenge, in part because the building could only be 39 feet deep.

“We didn’t know it would be this difficult,” he said.

He asked for a Nov. 16 start date, which commissioners granted. If he fails to make the deadline, Hatem could lose $60,000 in escrow funds the county holds for the development, in addition to the earnest money. Commissioners approved the request.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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