RDU needs to take care in developing property

March 24, 2014 

Raleigh-Durham International Airport has a delightful dilemma. Some 1,900 acres around the airport represent potentially valuable property that it could develop or leave open for the future.

Anticipating that the growth in airport passengers could be moderate, perhaps 2 percent a year for the next 10 years, airport officials are looking at ways to use all that land.

The nonprofit Urban Land Institute assembled a group of land-use experts to brainstorm, and they generated plenty of ideas.

Among them: using property north of the airport, near Glenwood Avenue, as warehouse space for cargo business; turning roughly 100 acres south of Interstate 40 into a site for offices; developing the 400-acre area around the Brier Creek Reservoir and Pleasant Grove Church Road into a corporate park with hotels and shops.

The group urged caution in development, with a carefully crafted master plan and a high-end standard. Said one, Mulu Birru of Pittsburgh, “You’re either going to be very smart in terms of getting the bar high and having a beautiful airport, or you’re going to have haphazard development.”

The idea of that “high bar” is a good one. Too much of that “haphazard” development, some would say sloppy development, has already happened in the Triangle.

And once again, transit is a factor in planning. Wake County must get on board with Orange and Durham counties in passing and using a transit tax to really get in the groove on building light rail to unite the communities in the area. Only then can reasonable, thoughtful development patterns that don’t rely on new roads be developed.

One contributor to the discussion offered valuable and cautious thoughts.

Michael Weeks, an architect, is a former member of the airport authority and a former chairman of the Wake County commissioners. He emphasized a tight focus on the airport’s core mission.

“It’s nice to have these other economic opportunities,” he said. “But we need to make sure that we don’t get seduced and miss our main mission of being the first-class airport that we need to be now.”

That’s it exactly. It’s fine to float ideas. The process of fine-tuning those ideas gets trickier along the way. For example, one idea is to put car-rental offices and a hotel closer to the passenger terminals. But John Brantley, the airport director for 29 years before his retirement, said that change might put too many cars on the airport’s main road.

Overall, it’s good that RDU leaders saw a need to seek advice and to get it from, in this case, nine people in related fields who could talk to community leaders. But Weeks had it right. The primary mission of RDU is to be an airport, and it must focus on that mission above all. Becoming a real estate development operation, too, could divert attention from that all-important mission.

It’s also important, and some of the feedback echoed this, that environmental concerns play a role in shaping the future of the airport’s property. This is not about “tree hugging.” Having sound environmental protections in the form of buffers helps shape sound economic development.

In acquiring a spacious expanse of land that far exceeded their immediate needs, the airport’s leaders showed foresight. That same foresight needs to be applied in cautiously deciding what that land is going to look like in the future.

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