Raleigh mayor wants recreation facilities in strip malls

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 1, 2014 

— The city parks department typically builds standalone community centers, often surrounded by large parks. But Mayor Nancy McFarlane wants the department to consider another model for recreation that could benefit Raleigh’s struggling retail centers.

McFarlane is interested in putting community centers and other recreational facilities in underutilized strip malls, pointing to a success story in North Raleigh as a model.

The mayor thinks the city could replicate the Greystone Recreation Center, which features an indoor playground, climbing wall and classroom space in the Greystone Village Shopping Center on Lead Mine Road.

“The one in Greystone is a really good concept that’s worked really well,” McFarlane said. “If we have areas that could benefit from that kind of indoor facility, that might be something that could help kick-start some of those shopping centers again.”

According to parks department officials, the shopping center was anchored by a Food Lion and had an 85 percent vacancy rate when the recreation center was planned five years ago. Now the strip mall is a hub of activity for surrounding neighborhoods and includes a coffee shop, restaurants and even a nonprofit community theater space.

“The parking lot is pretty full most of the time,” McFarlane said.

But invigorating the strip mall wasn’t the primary reason the parks department chose the location. A 2008 study identified Greystone as an area in need of recreational amenities, but most of the land in that section of North Raleigh was already developed. Leasing the retail space proved to be cheaper than building, costing about $600,000 to reconfigure the space. The center now runs on an annual budget of $220,000 – including rent payments – and draws about 33,000 visits a year.

McFarlane said strip centers that have lost their anchor tenant could be good candidates for a similar arrangement, pointing specifically to the Longview Shopping Center on New Bern Avenue, where a former Winn-Dixie grocery has sat vacant for more than a decade.

Retail property owners are receptive to hosting government facilities. A real estate broker for the largely vacant Tower Marketplace Shopping Center on New Bern Avenue at the Beltline recently emailed City Council members offering to lease space in what he called “no longer a viable retail center.”

But not everyone in city government is eager to snap up old retail buildings. Raleigh’s real estate services manager responded to the Tower Marketplace broker by saying that no city departments have any interest in the site. And parks officials cautioned McFarlane in a memo that repeating the Greystone model “may not offer the long-term security of city ownership of facilities.”

McFarlane said the model does have its trade-offs. The facilities might have to move if a lease expires, but “it’s less expensive than building from scratch,” she noted.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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