Gov. Pat McCrory stood Thursday in an empty conference room with a ratty, stained carpet and damaged ceiling tiles.
“This is the room I recruited GE in,” he said, referring to GE Aviation’s 2013 decision to expand facilities throughout the state. “There were broken tables.”
McCrory is showing off the ninth floor of the Albemarle Building, where his transition team worked before taking office. Albemarle, the governor says, is just one of the government office buildings throughout the state that’s in desperate need of an overhaul.
McCrory’s administration is working on what it dubs “Project Phoenix,” an effort to revitalize the state government complex in Raleigh and elsewhere by adding retail and residential uses. The goal is to extend downtown Raleigh’s success and round-the-clock activity to the north.
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“From a land-use standpoint, this is the area where everything basically stops,” he said as walked along Jones Street, where popular museums give way to an office district that’s deserted after 5 p.m.
The office buildings – most of which date to the 1970s – need millions of dollars of maintenance work. McCrory showed a reporter some of the problems in a walking tour of several buildings Thursday, the former Charlotte mayor’s eye for detail showing as he passed the N.C. Museum of History.
“How many trash cans do you really need?” he said of the walkway between the museums. “It’s the little things you first look at.”
Inside the buildings, the governor pointed out harder-to-solve problems: Elevators that routinely break down. Closets full of jumbled, decades-old communication wires. Heating systems so dysfunctional that employees open their windows in January.
“We’re at a point where we’ve reached the life expectancy on these buildings,” Secretary of Administration Bill Daughtridge said.
McCrory faults past administrations for failing to pay for upkeep, and even now, he says legislative cuts have forced the state to borrow money for basic maintenance. “It’s like everyone has had a blind eye and pretended it didn’t exist,” he said.
With such a lengthy to-do list, the governor says many of the buildings will need to be gutted or torn down rather than repaired.
He’s launched a study to determine the most efficient approach for each building – and where mixed-use development would be a good fit. “It’s taken decades for this to gradually happen, and it’s going to take some time to develop a plan that will hopefully last over a century,” he said.
After securing $42.33 million in bond money in the state budget, his administration will gut and renovate the 44-year-old, 12-story Albemarle building. A request for proposals from contractors will go out next week.
Albemarle – on Salisbury Street across from the legislative building – has been largely unchanged since it opened in 1970. The renovation will remove asbestos insulation that fills the ceilings and create a more open floor plan.
Giving other buildings a similar treatment will be costly, especially if some are torn down. But McCrory says taxpayers will save money in the long run because the old offices are so inefficient. Smaller work spaces and modern infrastructure would be less costly.
But some buildings might not be worth saving, McCrory said. He says the partially windowless Archdale building that towers above Peace Street is a prime candidate for demolition. He’s also not a fan of the State Records Building near the governor’s mansion and other document storage facilities.
“That’s expensive real estate for storage – too expensive,” he said.
As the long-term plans take shape, the governor plans to seek input from city leaders and residents, and he hopes to partner with private developers. Already, apartments are under construction within a block of Halifax Mall.
“Hopefully the Albemarle building will show just a glimpse of what we can do, not only here in Raleigh but across the state, and it would have an impact for generations to come,” he said.