At a time when many in Raleigh are leery of dense development, one of the city’s most prominent and influential businesses is pushing for a taller downtown.
Empire Properties, run by real-estate magnate Greg Hatem, is asking the City Council to allow for significantly taller buildings on 25 of its properties in downtown Raleigh.
The company’s request comes as the city continues its efforts to apply new development zones to thousands of properties. In most cases, the new zones would closely resemble existing zones.
As part of the remapping process, affected property owners can ask the City Council for a zone different from the one proposed by city staff. Many have asked for more restrictive zones, but Empire wants to expand its development possibilities.
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Councilman Russ Stephenson introduced Empire’s requests during a remapping work session on Monday, and the council is expected to consider them in October or November.
On Empire sites where the city caps building height at seven or 12 stories, the company wants permission to build as many as 20 stories. On most sites where the city wants up to four or five stories, Empire wants 12.
“We have to get more comfortable with having density in our downtown,” Hatem said in a phone interview Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean every building needs to be 60 stories, but if we top ourselves off at four or five, that will limit us.”
The square footage of all downtown Raleigh buildings wouldn’t even cover all of downtown if spread out like one big single-story building, he added.
Most of the properties are located within two blocks of Fayetteville Street or in downtown’s warehouse district, where the council recently approved a 17-story tower that will be the district’s tallest when completed.
Empire is asking for up to 40 stories on its property at 300 Hillsborough St., 20 stories on 14 of its properties, up to 12 stories on nine of the properties and up to seven stories at 425 Person St. – which the city aims to cap at three stories.
The company proposed the zones after careful review of each property’s character, age and location within the city, Hatem said, noting that three Empire staff members have master’s degrees in regional planning.
“We didn’t just go with DX-20 for everything,” he said, referring to the zone Empire requested the most. “We went with things that seemed to make sense.”
Empire tried to rezone the properties more than a year ago but was told to submit its requests to the council as part of the remapping process, Hatem said.
Approximately 16 of the properties are vacant or mostly vacant, he said. Empire has projects it wants to get off the ground on some of the sites but is waiting to see what the council will allow, he said. He declined to provide details.
“We need to know what we can build before we roll them out,” Hatem said of Empire’s ideas. “What we get approved will help us determine where to build.”
It’s unclear whether the council will approve Empire’s request. Any of the Empire sites for which the council doesn’t change zoning in accordance with the remapping process would likely have to go through the standard rezoning process, during which each individual property goes before the Planning Commission and City Council.
“It’s expensive for the developer and time-consuming for the city,” Hatem said of the normal rezoning process.
Hatem has given money to the campaigns of several council members, including Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Kay Crowder, Bonner Gaylord and Stephenson.
The donation won’t influence their decision, Crowder said.
“Lots of people who own lots of properties downtown give to lots of candidates,” she said. “We need to be fair with every decision we make, no matter who it is.”
Stephenson said his introduction of Empire’s requests doesn’t mean he’ll support them. He wants to examine how Empire’s proposals match up with the downtown Raleigh vision plan the council adopted Tuesday.
“Nobody’s getting a sweetheart deal from me,” Stephenson said. “Let’s look at these in the context of what it is we as a community are trying to accomplish (downtown).”