Raleigh’s downtown boom spurred by public role

August 3, 2013 

Gene Roberts, a former News & Observer employee who went on to become a distinguished and much-admired editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, once observed that some news stories break and others ooze.

By the latter, he meant major stories that unfold so gradually that many don’t see the change until they are engulfed by its effects. One such story is happening in downtown Raleigh, and the story is downtown Raleigh. Piece by piece, new arrival by new arrival, the heart of the capital has changed profoundly.

Longtime residents, especially those who’ve worked downtown for about as long as Rip Van Winkle slept (20 years), can find themselves walking the streets feeling a bit like Washington Irving’s bewildered old fellow. It’s still Raleigh, but it’s not the Raleigh they knew.

That feeling grows stronger starting on Thursday evenings and builds through the weekend. The streets of downtown fill with cars and a surprising number of cabs, including pedicabs. Street parking can’t be found. Parking decks fill. People crowd the sidewalks and weave past the tables set up outside restaurants. There is an array of music, art studios and restaurants. The activity hums across the downtown core, in the Fayetteville Street area, the Warehouse District and along south Glenwood Avenue.

Greg Hatem, whose company Empire Properties owns and operates several popular downtown bars and restaurants, has lived downtown for years and has watched the tempo build. “It’s like night and day,” he said of the change. “Now just a regular night feels like a First Friday from 10 years ago ... It’s amazing and it keeps getting bigger.”

Downtown has grown unabated through the worst recession since the Depression. Now it’s thriving and about to really boom. Tech companies such as Citrix and Red Hat are bringing thousands of employees downtown. Some 1,600 rental units are about to become available at various new apartment developments. A new Wake County courthouse has opened, and big, high-rise projects are on the drawing board.

The rise of downtown Raleigh signals an important message for a certain group of the city’s part-time residents and the temporary resident who lives on Blount Street. Those would be the members of the General Assembly and the governor.

The Republicans who now control the legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory are still caught up in an economic philosophy that dates back to when the capital’s downtown after-hours were peopled mostly by ghosts. The Republicans are still quoting Arthur Laffer’s trickle-down theories and following President Reagan’s line about government being the problem, not the solution.

But that’s not what they would see if they would venture just blocks from the Legislative Building. Raleigh is booming because government got involved. It laid the groundwork for a renaissance.

The change started once Raleigh got beyond the low-tax, low-spending mentality of Republican mayors Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble (now a Wake County commissioner).

The election of Democrat Charles Meeker as Raleigh’s mayor in 2001 brought a shift from the politics of “no we won’t” to a vision of “What can we build together?” He pursued that vision for 10 years as mayor.

The city turned the pedestrian mall of Fayetteville Street into a two-way street.

The city and county invested $212 million to build the Raleigh Convention Center. And Raleigh used a downtown district property tax to clean up the streetscape and provide an increased sense of safety. What the city didn’t do is offer a bundle of tax breaks and other incentives to lure businesses.

“You’ve got to have the right kind of public investment to get things going in the private sector, and in my view incentives don’t work,” Meeker said in a phone interview last week. “What you want to do is invest in the public sector, whether it be infrastructure or education, and it will attract the private sector.”

The city’s moves under Meeker during his 10 years in office made all the difference. The city-county commitment to downtown and the Convention Center prompted companies to go ahead with the 33-story RBC Plaza and the 19-story Two Progress Plaza building (now Red Hat) – and that public commitment still drives development. In the 1990s, there was one major private project in downtown: the Park Devereux condominiums on Dawson Street. There have been dozens in the last decade – $2.3 billion in projects since 2003 – and more are coming.

“We’re going to see a lot more cranes downtown in the next 12 to 18 months,” says David Diaz, president of Downtown Raleigh’s Alliance, a nonprofit group that supports downtown’s revitalization. “The public investments made early on are really paying dividends now.”

Republican lawmakers haven’t been swayed by crowds that come to protest. But perhaps if they visited the capital’s downtown on a weekend, they’d be persuaded by the crowds that come to party.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or

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