RTP's new Park Center will boost the park's appeal

February 4, 2014 

A triangle has three points, but none of them is in the middle. That also has been true of the social and residential geometry of Research Triangle Park.

The 7,000-acre research park is an economic engine for the region and a great place for 39,000 full-time employees to work. But when it comes to living, dining or entertaining, most people disperse to the three original points: Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, plus other growing towns like Cary, Morrisville and Garner.

As a result, RTP is something of a wasteland for life’s basics. There’s nowhere to live and barely a place to find a cup of coffee, let alone a fine meal or entertainment.

Now the Research Triangle Foundation is launching a plan to change that by filling in a core area of the sprawling park with the first major residential and retail developments in the park’s 55-year history. It will be called Park Center. With apologies to Gertrude Stein, there will soon be a there there.

While RTP was a brilliant and pioneering idea in the mid-20th century, its model has been outrun by changes in the way people work and what they expect close to where they work. It’s not enough to drive into the park, work and drive home. Younger workers want to have the office and the rest of their lives within walking distance, or at least not a long, traffic-clogged slog away.

The Research Triangle Foundation is moving boldly to close that gap in RTP’s appeal by taking on the role of developer and building what those workers and their companies want: offices, cafes, restaurants, retail shops and apartments.

It’s a smart and necessary idea, if also an ironic one. RTP succeeded because it was unlike most other places. Now it will survive by becoming more like other successful places. Nonetheless, the addition of housing and retail is consistent with the park’s history of innovation and adjustment to a changing business environment.

Bob Geolas, the foundation’s president and CEO, touched on that evolutionary element when he presented the RTP expansion plan Monday.

“We think if we create a place that’s constantly being re-imagined and redeveloped, that it will continue to evolve into a variety of technology companies,” he said.

The Park Center development will “re-imagine” a 100-acre site at N.C. 54 and Davis Drive where other projects lost their function or appeal. The RTP Foundation owns the land beneath the buildings, but it had to take out a $20 million line of credit to acquire the buildings. It’s the first time the foundation has been a developer in the park.

The more densely developed Park Center will be on the sites of the old Governor’s Inn Hotel and a nearly vacant 70-acre office park (also called Park Center).

Geolas said the redevelopment will bring new dimensions to a one-dimensional RTP. He described it as “the convergence between science, technology, art and the humanities, which has never really been done here in the park.”

The Park Center project will be the first step in a new RTP master plan announced in 2012. The foundation also wants to acquire and develop 300 acres in the northern end of the park for a project that will be called Triangle Commons. Both centers would be near a proposed Triangle Transit commuter rail station.

That those rail stations are still a long way off points to one hazard of the new plan for RTP. It won’t work well if it’s done in isolation. The new centers will be islands rather than part of a regional commercial and social environment. Connecting them through mass transit is crucial. Orange County and Durham County voters have approved a tax to support development of light rail, but the Republican-led Wake County Board of Commissioners is balking at putting a public transit tax on the county ballot.

As it did a half-centrury ago, RTP is moving ahead. Wake County needs to catch up.

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