Gov. Pat McCrory wants to overhaul the state government complex with ground-floor retail space and residential development to make the area part of downtown Raleigh's success.
McCrory outlined the plans at a recent meeting of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. He said his administration can "expand the Fayetteville Street experience" to the north and make it a vibrant area that doesn't become a ghost town after 5 p.m.
The effort has been dubbed "Project Phoenix."
"I don't want to segregate Main Street from the governmental sector," he said. "It's void of activity outside of the 'Moral Monday' marches, and it needs to be more than that."
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The governor said North Carolina should renovate and reconfigure outdated, ugly office buildings from the 1970s, and he hopes to save millions of dollars in the process. By creating more open floor plans, he said the state can accommodate more workers in less space, reducing the need to lease offices elsewhere.
McCrory's staff also estimates the state could generate up to $90 million in new revenue if it leases underused space to the private sector. He said many buildings are in sorry shape, and the "patchwork job" of maintenance is costing taxpayers. He estimates the space would rate a D-minus by private sector real-estate standards.
If it works, the governor wants to apply the model to state property in other cities.
"We need to improve the work environment for state employees," he said. "We can lower the square footage but make it better working conditions."
Topping the list are two buildings that McCrory says are from "the worst period of architecture in our history": the Albemarle building on North Salisbury Street and the Archdale building, the 15-story tower that looms over Peace Street.
The 1970s pair "look like they were built to protect the French coast from the Allied invasion," McCrory said. Albemarle - home to the state treasurer and Department of Health and Human Services - is "literally falling down," he said.
The state budget approved this summer allocates $42.33 million in bond money to completely gut and renovate the Albemarle building. The governor is well acquainted with the 12-story structure's failings, having had a transition office there before his inauguration.
McCrory said Archdale, on the other hand, isn't worth saving, and he's calling for it to be torn down. He said the architect attempted to replicate the Washington Monument and failed. "You have two sides of the building with no windows," he said.
But the governor added that it's too soon to know how that project might be funded and what might take the tower's place. "It might be an opportunity for mixed-use buildings - residential and office combined," he said.
McCrory's proposal got a warm reception from the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, which is helping the city plan for the next phase of the area's revitalization. The first draft of the plan will be released Sept. 11.
"There's a strong desire in Raleigh for the state government part of the downtown to look and feel like the one that's south of the State Capitol," alliance president David Diaz said. "We think it really supports what locals in Raleigh have been wanting for years."
State Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, also attended the presentation and said the governor set "admirable goals, but there were not many details about how he was going to achieve that."
McCrory's efforts will face a tight state budget and a Republican-dominated legislature that often diverges from his agenda.
A decade ago, the southern half of downtown Raleigh looked much like the state government complex: Tall office buildings where workers bolted for the suburbs at 5 p.m.
Fayetteville Street on weekends was as devoid of activity as the state's grassy Halifax Mall is today. Raleigh's efforts to bring the city center back to life followed a similar playbook to the transformation McCrory is seeking now.
City leaders invested millions to tear up the Fayetteville Street pedestrian mall - a failed urban planning experiment from the '70s - restoring traffic and building a shiny new convention center.
Raleigh encouraged the construction of thousands of condominiums and apartments, bringing a 24-hour population that helped spark new bars and restaurants.
State officials, however, were absent from the revitalization process. North of Morgan Street, museums and the Capitol building itself remain the only attractions, effectively creating a dead zone that isolates the growing Seaboard Station retail center.
Andrew Stewart, president of downtown's Empire Properties, said he sees a market for the changes McCrory is proposing. "It's so underserved just for basic retail," he said of the capital district.
"I think mixing those uses up is the key. You don't get revitalization from one user, you get it from multiple users using it differently at different times of day."
Diaz said the McCrory administration has been meeting with Raleigh as it develops its new downtown plan this year. He called the partnership "unprecedented."
"We really wanted to collaborate with the state because it's such a large part of downtown geographically," Diaz said.
The city found a willing partner in McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor who has plenty of urban planning under his belt. Out-of-town visitors often judge a city's health by the look of its downtown, and McCrory said the capital grounds can shape one's view of North Carolina.
"I want our state capital to be the shining part of our state," he said.
As an example, the governor pointed to small steps he took early in his term. Walking to his office in the old Capitol building, he noticed outdoor drinking fountains were full of garbage and "hadn't been turned on in five years."
He said he immediately had the fountains cleaned up and put back in service. He's also had ugly concrete barriers removed from a parking lot near the governor's mansion. And he successfully pushed for a minor facelift in front of the Commerce Building on Wilmington Street.
"Those are little steps that I've tried to take to show that the government is healthy and the state is healthy," McCrory said.
Getting the legislature to agree to the larger downtown vision, however, is already proving an uphill battle for McCrory.
The state is fixing up a cluster of historic mansions along North Blount Street, including the 1870 Heck-Andrews House. But this summer, the legislature gutted funding for the effort, diverting $5.46 million from the project to make up for general fund shortfalls.
McCrory said his administration will fight that decision, so that the historic gems don't deteriorate further. "We think they don't have the right to do that," he said of the funding transfer.
With budget constraints making it hard for a historic house to get fresh paint, more sweeping improvements to state buildings could prove slow going.
Stein said that's one area where McCrory is short on specifics. "I'm hopeful, but we really need to see what the plan looks like when it's fleshed out," he said. "I am glad he's trying to be creative and come up with ways to make North Carolina a more dynamic place."
The governor admits the project isn't likely to be be complete before he leaves office. "This is a long-term vision," he said.