During the years I lived in New York, I would occasionally hit a Theater District bar called McHale’s. This was a place patronized by Broadway stagehands, was chock-a-block with Rangers hockey memorabilia and served a mean, and very greasy, burger. In other words, it had plenty of character. So naturally some developer bought the building it was in, tore it down and erected a soulless modern apartment house filled with million-dollar condos.
I was thinking of McHale’s after reading a recent story in The N&O about how Raleigh’s planning commission had approved two more mixed-use apartment and retail buildings on Hillsborough Street that would replace what, in the paper’s words, were “gritty, one-story brick storefronts that housed dive bars and cheap eateries that have defined Hillsborough Street for decades.”
Let me translate that last sentence for you: ‘We’re going to replace a few cool small businesses that maybe aren’t up to chi-chi standards with a couple of boring apartment buildings that will undoubtedly have the same old franchised retail stores on the ground floor.’
Raleigh, I have seen this happen in New York, and it is starting to happen here: You are slowly but surely losing your soul. The combination of rapacious developers and greedy planning commissioners is turning the City of Oaks into a Disney-fied theme park with no character. More apartment buildings and chain hotels are going up, forcing local institutions like Sadlack’s and Schoolkids Records to relocate. For the most part, these buildings lack any sense of architectural distinction, and charge exorbitant rents. They add nothing to the cultural landscape but are sure to make a mint for the people who built them.
Want to know what happens when developers are given full sway in a city? Check out New York’s Times Square these days. As a tourist, you might think all that neon, and all those big box stores, hotels and eateries are really awesome. But I can tell you from experience that the natives absolutely hate the place. It’s nothing more than an overpriced urban theme park that could be anywhere: New Delhi, Guadalajara, Beijing. It doesn’t say “New York.” It says “big money.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to development. What I’m opposed to is development that shows no respect for history, culture or anything else that makes a city special. Want to see real development that honors a city’s traditions? Just head up the road to Durham and the American Tobacco campus.
That is one smart way to re-use old buildings, by creating an urban park surrounded by offices and restaurants.
Charlotte developer Jim Zanoni, whose FMW Real Estate is behind the new apartment buildings in Raleigh, could have done the same with that block of brick buildings. He could have restored them, spruced them up a bit and moved in some cool, small business-owned stores. That would have created a flavor on the west end of Hillsborough that will all but be destroyed by the cash cows he has chosen to erect.
Trust me on this. Once this kind of development gets started, it’s hard to stop it. And all of a sudden, you wake up and wonder what happened to your city. How did it start to look like everyplace else? And what’s the next local institution that will be moved to make way for a boring high rise?
Lewis Beale, a former staff writer for the New York Daily News, lives in Raleigh.