Cary News

March 23, 2014

RDU Airport could become a ‘real estate player’

Advisers sent to the Triangle from the Urban Land Institute suggest hotels, warehouses and offices on hundreds of idle airport acres. But a former airport board member warns that RDU should not “get seduced” by the lure of economic development.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport should start planning hotels, warehouses and offices to make money from hundreds of idle acres it will never need for aviation purposes, a visiting team of land development specialists said Friday.

“You really have to take the attitude that you are going to function like any other real estate player in the region,” said Mark Troen of the Winnmark Group, a New York real estate consultant. “Think of it as perhaps one of the primary components in your future, for generating revenue.”

Air passenger traffic is still healthy at RDU but expected to grow much more slowly than the vigorous Triangle economy – by perhaps 2 percent a year over the coming decade, airport leaders say. So RDU trustees have sought advice on how to develop up to 1,900 acres that generate only a little income now from parking, logging and other uses.

The nonprofit Urban Land Institute assembled nine developers, architects and planners who spent a week in the Triangle, interviewing 85 community leaders and brainstorming development ideas they thought would make a good fit with the airport and the region. Some airport observers worried that their proposals carried economic and environmental risks.

The visitors were asked to focus on a handful of outlying tracts, but they also offered ideas that could transform the airport’s heart.

Business travelers would like a high-end hotel with meeting space, they said, “a virtual office” located close to the passenger terminals.

“This is really accommodating early-morning travelers who do not want to get up at the crack of dawn, then take a bus, take a taxi to the airport or drive,” said Kate Collignon of HR&A Advisors, another New York real estate consultant. “They want to be able to walk from the (hotel) to the terminal to catch their early-morning flight.”

Many RDU travelers now ride shuttle buses to pick up their rental cars a half mile south of the passenger terminals, and airport officials have been thinking of pushing the rental agencies even farther away, to the airport’s southwest corner. But the panelists urged RDU to follow the lead of other airports by moving in the opposite direction – installing the car rental agencies in the ground floor of the parking garage between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2.

Three potential sites

The panel saw economic potential in three RDU parcels.

North of the airport, near Glenwood Avenue, a 96-acre tract could be developed for flex and warehouse use to support air-cargo business at RDU. But that potential could be some years in the future.

“We recognize that air cargo right now is a very, very small part of the activity here,” Collignon said.

South of Interstate 40, where RDU leases 200 acres to Wake County for the Lake Crabtree County Park, there could be room for “98 acres of offices tucked into the woods,” said Pittsburgh architect Rob Dower.

The most expansive, long-range proposal was aimed at more than 400 acres around the Brier Creek Reservoir – a flood-control lake seen as a development magnet – and Pleasant Grove Church Road. The visitors sketched a corporate office park with a hotel, shops and other amenities. As encouragement, they flashed a photo of Google’s campus in California.

Underlying the specific proposals was a big-picture recommendation: the airport should take plenty of time, create a long-term master plan, and set high standards for anything it develops.

“Whether you like it or not, there will be a lot of development within the airport and outside the airport,” said Mulu Birru, a Pittsburgh development consultant. “You’re either going to be very smart in terms of setting the bar high and having a beautiful airport, or you’re going to have haphazard development around the airport.”

Former airport board member Michael Weeks of Raleigh worried that RDU might lose sight of its priorities.

“It’s nice to have these other economic opportunities,” Weeks 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.”

Jean Spooner, whose Umstead Coalition looks out for the interests of the airport’s biggest neighbor, Umstead State Park, said she had “a slight concern” about developing offices at Lake Crabtree County Park. The wooded area, used by the county on a short-term lease, is laced with trails.

“It’s very hard to have a truly forested, sensitive development there,” Spooner said.

John Brantley, who retired in 2011 after 29 years as airport director, agreed with Spooner that the Lake Crabtree land was not a great spot for investment.

He said he hoped RDU would focus first on the Brier Creek Reservoir tract.

“It’s a beautiful site, close to the airport, a very good location,” Brantley said.

Brantley warned that putting a hotel and car-rental offices close to the passenger terminals would generate too much automobile traffic for the main airport road.

“From the car rental standpoint, instead of a few buses carrying a lot of people, it’s essentially every car going right into the midst of your highest-traffic activity,” Brantley said. “You’re trying to put two gallons of water into a one-gallon jug.”

Raleigh developer John Kane, an RDU board member, welcomed the car-rental and hotel proposals.

“We don’t have a hotel on the property any more, but we used to,” Kane said. “It would be more convenient now for a lot of people.”

RDU Director Mike Landguth said airport administrators and board members will take a careful look at the new proposals, to be detailed later this spring in a report from the Urban Land Institute.

“Our primary mission is still delivering the air service for this community,” Landguth said. “We’re not going to lose sight of that.”

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