September 4, 2014

Raleigh’s reality: An enviable renaissance

While some are preaching that the very soul of our city has been all but lost to development, others see Raleigh as a maturing city that is as vibrant and urbane a place as ever.

While some are preaching that the very soul of our city has been all but lost to development, others see Raleigh as a maturing city that has made huge strides and is as vibrant and urbane a place as ever.

Though we all mourn the passing of funky local haunts – though Sadlacks and Schoolkids are alive and well in new digs – the alarm bells about the Disney-fication and chain takeover of our fair city are just not borne out in reality.

Take a walk around. Along Person Street, an old gas station is turned into a restaurant here, vacant lots turned into an urban farm there. New local bakery on the corner. Bike shop in a basement. Artist studios and gallery upstairs. On Glenwood South, a new three-story ale house on a corner, a two-story beer garden under way three doors down, both by local entrepreneurs. These are just up the street from a restored dairy housing condos, restaurants and shops. Artist supplies, a vinyl-record store and several galleries can be found one block farther down.

In the warehouse district, a brewery with bike rickshaws parked in the window sits next to a chocolatier across from a barbeque pit, all in restored warehouses and a train depot. Galleries featuring local artists line Hargett Street. Blue jeans are being handmade around the corner.

And let’s pause to reflect on the transformation of the wasteland of Fayetteville Street Mall into a vibrant cultural artery. Those who have been around here awhile will remember the dead zone that was downtown for many years. Now, September alone will probably see 500 live performances between Hopscotch, SparkCon and the International Bluegrass Music Association convention. And in the restored buildings and new corporate towers, we have a broad array of restaurant and retail offerings powered by talented local operators, with almost no chain presence to speak of.

Meanwhile, on Hillsborough Street, Packapalooza hosted over 50,000 people last Saturday, and meal and entertainment revenues are up 17 percent on the street this year. For 50 years, the street was mostly a commuter strip for state employees and a watering trough for students back when the drinking age made such things viable. Now the street is emerging as a place to live, work and shop, thanks to years of community advocacy and nurturing and to new developments that promise residential options and retail spaces.

And over in Cameron Village, which could easily succumb to “chainification” without proper stewardship, most of the restaurants and many retailers are locally owned and operated, nurturing Raleigh-centric personality and flair.

Twenty years ago, the idea of dense, urbane housing returning to the city center was a pipe dream of beleaguered city officials and planners saddled with a city emptied by suburban flight and sprawl. Now, a renewed interest in less car-centric lifestyles has sparked a renaissance of new residential and mixed-use projects of all shapes and sizes, as is happening in other dynamic cities.

The result? The next few years will see a dramatic increase in the number of folks walking, dining, working and living in and around our downtown, making the streets even more lively, safer and energized as businesses move in to serve the new customer base.

Reports of the end of Raleigh as a unique and cool place appear to be greatly exaggerated. Let’s take stock of the immense outpouring of energy, creativity and vibrancy that our local restaurateurs, musicians, artists, community advocates, city leaders and, yes, developers are bringing to bear on our emerging urban environ. Protect what is dear to us, yes, but more than that, nurture and celebrate the vibrant cultural center that we are poised to become.

We are on the cusp of re-energizing our urban center into the envy of cities around the country. We may find that if we pause to reflect on our progress and engage and support our local creative class, the soul of Raleigh is as strong as ever.

Ted Van Dyk, AIA, is a principal of New City Design Group, a Raleigh-based architectural firm.

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