When it opened 100 years ago this week, City Market replaced a musty, unpleasant building on Fayetteville Street and provided Raleigh’s meat, fish and produce vendors a clean, modern place to sell their wares.
A century later, the market’s place in Raleigh is far less clear.
As the rest of downtown booms, the century-old market building is used only about six or seven times a month for special events. The surrounding buildings, which have become synonymous with the market and under the same ownership for decades, have seen countless small retailers come and go.
But with hundreds of apartments under construction within a couple of blocks, along with the ongoing renaissance downtown, City Market’s owners and others feel as though its best days are just ahead.
“We’re on the edge of a new frontier of downtown,” says Michael Hakan, who along with his late father, Joe Hakan, bought City Market in 1995. “That’s an exciting place to be.”
Hakan says until now, City Market has been isolated from the rest of downtown and hurt by a perception that the Moore Square area was a hangout for homeless people and unsafe. He sees the city’s planned redevelopment of the square as a key to making the area feel more inviting, particularly to people who will soon move into apartments at the Edison, the Lincoln and SkyHouse, a 23-story tower one block west. Those residents will look to the market as their neighborhood center for retail and restaurants, he said.
“I think all the downtown working residents of SkyHouse and the other apartment buildings that are built around here are going to want a neighborhood that they can walk in safely and comfortably and that they can enjoy,” Hakan said. “There’s going to be a very positive transition. We aren’t going to be a voice in the wilderness anymore.”
David Diaz, president of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, agrees. City Market hasn’t been helped by the shabbiness of Moore Square, he says, or by the lack of a big anchor tenant to draw people from beyond downtown.
“It’s been one of those areas where it’s sort of been an unfulfilled revitalization,” Diaz said. “Having said that, I think that this area has in some ways the most potential to go through dramatic change than any area downtown in the next five years.”
One of the mainstays of the modern City Market is Big Ed’s, a breakfast and lunch restaurant, where you can still get country ham with red-eye gravy and scrambled eggs with pork brains. It opened in 1989.
Sam Hobgood, who bought the restaurant from Ed Watkins 10 years ago, says the influx of workers and residents downtown has boosted business 15 percent to 20 percent in the last decade. Already, a group from Citrix, the computer software company moving into new offices on the other side of downtown, has booked a big breakfast at the restaurant.
Big Ed’s has tweaked its menu to appeal to the changing demographics downtown, adding items like oatmeal and turkey sausage. Hobgood says the restaurant draws younger customers and more families than when he bought it.
“We felt like there was going to be continued growth in downtown Raleigh,” he said. “And that has come to pass.”
A modern market
City Market opened on Sept. 30, 1914. Raleigh architect James M. Kennedy designed the building in the Spanish mission style that was popular at the time for train stations and other public buildings. It had a tile roof and broad overhanging eaves that sheltered fruit and vegetable growers on the sidewalk.
Inside, the building had a concrete floor, white enamel brick walls and a refrigeration system, all in contrast to the 46-year-old building it replaced, as The News & Observer noted at the time.
“The old market, dark and close, with its worn wood work, saturated with the odors of heat, will have no further place in the nightmare of the shopper after market products,” The N&O wrote. “Dainty slippered lassies may trip in to the new sanctum of the stockyard and the farm without hesitation and without reluctance.”
By the 1950s, though, many of those lassies were going elsewhere for their meat and produce. Willie York opened a state farmers market off U.S. 1 north of downtown in 1955. Two years later, the City Council adopted a resolution that said supermarkets had made it “unnecessary in the public interest that the City Market be continued,” and city officials began looking for other uses for the building.
The city planning committee voted unanimously to turn it into a courthouse and police station. Instead, the city sold the market at auction in 1959 to Herbert Seligson, who converted the interior to a furniture store, while fruit, vegetables and flowers continued to be sold outside under the eaves.
After shoppers and retailers fled downtown in the 1960s and 1970s, City Market was central to the city’s plans for revitalization, said Smedes York, a former council member who was mayor from 1979 to 1983. The city planning department presented a scheme to turn the area around the market into a retail center connected by a shopping arcade to the Hudson Belk store on Fayetteville Street, a project meant to mimic a suburban shopping mall.
In 1983, the city picked Cranston Development Corp., a Pittsburgh company, to turn the market into a “festive retail center” of specialty shops and restaurants, setting the course for City Market through today. G. Wesley Williams, then director of the Raleigh Merchants Bureau, said of the plan: “It would have to appeal to the human spirit and have a warmness that will cause people to go there just to be in an interesting place, in addition to satisfying shopping needs.”
After several years, Cranston pulled out of the project, with most of the market still empty, and the city brought in NCNB Community Development Corp. and York Properties to manage it in 1988. Their strategy was to establish restaurants as anchor tenants. Ed Watkins turned down the chance to put his restaurant inside the historic market, York says, choosing instead the building behind it. That allowed Greenshields Brewery and Pub to go in the market building in 1989.
‘It’s getting there’
Greenshields remained open longer than most of the shops and restaurants that have passed through City Market. But a kitchen fire followed by a dispute between Gary Greenshields and the Hakans over the building’s upkeep closed the brewpub for good in 2004.
Dechen Paldon, owner of a Tibetan gift shop called Dechen Collections that opened across from Greenshields 14 years ago, says business fell off when the pub closed and most of the retailers who were there at the time have since gone, too.
“Since they closed, it has been slow,” Paldon said of Greenshields. “Very bad.”
Business has slowly improved, she says, and as downtown has attracted more people, she thinks Raleigh residents are less fearful of the area than they used to be.
The new retailers at City Market enjoy other advantages their predecessors never did, including the larger convention center, a bustling restaurant scene and a growing number of workers and residents.
Kaitlyn Herold, who along with her mother, Stephanie Herold, opened the women’s apparel store Dogwood Collective in April, says the hotels, concerts and other special events have brought customers to her shop. Retail in downtown Raleigh is still in its infancy, Herold said, and the arrival of hundreds of new residents in coming years will give it a boost.
“People want to feel a community in downtown Raleigh,” she said. “And it’s getting there.”
While City Market was once central to the city’s plans to revitalize downtown, a draft of the latest downtown plan describes it as one of the underdeveloped areas in need of attention. City Market “remains underutilized as a commercial/retail hub,” the plan says.
Hakan acknowledges as much about the historic market building. He says he’d like to see it used more intensely, but is coy about what the future might hold for it. Showtime Events, the company that runs Cobblestone Hall, the event venue in the rear of the building, will soon open 214 Martin Street, another event and pop-up restaurant space in the front of the building that has been vacant since Greenshields left.
Hakan says he can’t understand why it’s been so hard to fill the spot.
“I wish I knew why. It is a beautiful unique building,” he said. “I certainly didn’t anticipate such difficulty. But that tide is reversing very strongly.”