Raleigh’s downtown needs a summit on its future

June 29, 2014 

City officials and downtown advocates join in chorus often these days on Raleigh’s spectacular downtown revitalization. Their pride is justified in many ways: Apartments and condos are exploding, it seems, businesses are opening, old and distinguished buildings are being rehabilitated, and the restaurants reflect the city’s diverse culture.

Middle-aged and older residents can’t help but recall the bad old days, when on weekends in particular it seemed tumbleweeds might blow across Fayetteville Street, or rather Fayetteville Street Mall, and downtown’s reputation was in some ways that of a dangerous place.

Revitalization has been a success, to be sure. But with that success comes challenges the city now must address. Yes, the City Council is doing so in working on a “downtown plan,” but a broader effort is needed, because the boom has brought up some issues.

Therefore, council members can lead the way in calling for a downtown summit of sorts, bringing in not just the dedicated advocates from places like the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, but residents from North, South, East and West Raleigh, people who perhaps, even now, don’t come downtown all that much. Even with all the hoopla, it’s still not uncommon to meet North Raleighites who have never been downtown, period.

Indeed, those who have worked tirelessly for downtown are already on board. It’s others, those who haven’t yet warmed to the idea of enjoying downtown entertainment venues or considered visits to museums, who need to be brought into the conversation.

The challenges include: an increasing problem with what to do about trash pickups in the downtown area to ease the frequent sight, particularly on weekends, of big blue barrels on sidewalks or on the street. Perhaps it’s a matter of pickup times, or zoning rules to force new property owners to provide space to store trash. This much is certain: With more people actually living downtown, the city can’t be sending trucks out in the wee hours anymore.

And what about parking? There are decks, and on-street parking, and city officials note it’s still possible to park for free on the evenings. But policies seem inconsistent, and the perception on the part of many people who don’t come downtown often is that it’s inconvenient and expensive. The city can change that.

Then there are the road races ... so many road races. It’s time to consider cutting back from the 100-even limit, particularly as it affects downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, because there are more people in those areas now. It’s hard for council members to say “no” if a worthy charity, for example, meets the guidelines for having a race. But again, with a summit, problems could be aired and perhaps solutions found.

What it comes down to is that the City Council needs now a reflective look on all that’s been accomplished in downtown along with a look to the future, seeing where fine-tuning is needed, as it surely is.

Much has been done, but the work is not done. Downtown’s success now requires another push to define and shape what it should become. It’s time to take a broad look at where downtown is bound.

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