Raleigh City Council debates renovation of downtown's Moore Square

ccampbell@newsobserver.comApril 15, 2014 

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Christopher Counts Studio’s version of an overhaul of Moore Square, which included plans for a café, lawn amphitheater, civic plaza and farmers market, won national design awards in 2009.

CHRISTOPHER COUNTS STUDIO’

— City Council members debated plans to renovate downtown’s Moore Square on Tuesday, with some arguing that money should go to aging parks facilities elsewhere in the city.

The latest estimates for the square’s revitalization – which includes an outdoor cafe, granite plaza and tiered lawns – show the project will cost $12.6 million, less than earlier projections. Raleigh has debt capacity to borrow $15.3 million without a ballot referendum.

“Moore Square plays a key role in shaping and redefining the experiences of downtown Raleigh,” parks planner Cassie Schumacher-Georgopoulos said, adding that the renovation will create “an outdoor living space for downtown.”

Plans for Moore Square were drawn up years ago but were shelved because of funding shortfalls during the recession. Now Raleigh can afford the project, but it’s competing with other on-hold park needs.

Moore Square stirs an ongoing debate about whether the city should invest more money in downtown or shift the focus elsewhere following the city center’s recent successes.

Councilman Thomas Crowder said the Moore Square price tag raises concerns, even with the available debt capacity.

“We’ve got other community centers that are over 40 years old that need repair,” he said. “I’m all for renovating this park, but the tune of $12 to 15 million concerns me.”

By contrast, the recent renovations at Pullen Park cost $6.3 million, and a proposed renovation for Chavis Park is $12.5 million.

With high-rise luxury apartments and other new developments rising around Moore Square, others on the council said the renovation is money well spent.

‘It’s embarrassing’

Councilman Bonner Gaylord said recent trips to other cities “underscored to me that Moore Square is the premier downtown park for Raleigh, and it’s embarrassing. … I can’t think of any other facility in Raleigh that is so centrally located and so in need of development.”

City Manager Ruffin Hall said he’ll be calling for a vote on Moore Square borrowing at the council’s next meeting on May 6. If approved, final design work could get under way this summer and the refurbished park could open in about two years.

Hall recommends borrowing the full available $15.3 million, using the remaining $2.7 million to replace an aging fire station on Oberlin Road. “It’s got some structural issues that need to be addressed within a reasonable span of time,” he said.

The borrowing on May’s council agenda will set the stage for a larger parks bond referendum likely in November. Funding Moore Square separately would make room for more parks projects in the bond package. The parks department has identified $106.78 million in projects to consider, including the neighborhood community center renovations Crowder wants to fund.

Four possible packages

The council reviewed four possible bond packages Tuesday, ranging from $39 million to $109 million – and coming with property tax increases ranging from 0.61 cents per $100 valuation to 1.72 cents. A smaller bond would fund mostly renovations at existing parks, along with increased accessibility for the disabled and $10 million to buy future park land.

Paying for bigger projects like a new Pullen Arts Center, an upgraded Walnut Creek Athletic Complex and a community center at Baileywick Park would require a bond issue of $90 million or more.

None of the possible park bond packages proposed Tuesday include funding to buy the Dorothea Dix property. Negotiations over the 308-acre site continue with state officials, but City Council members said the purchase would likely be put to a bond referendum.

That could force city leaders to make some difficult choices – asking voters to approve a larger bond issue on the ballot or delaying smaller projects outside the downtown area.

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

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