First Night Raleigh celebrates the new year, but it’s also a measure of another transition: the remarkable and continuing growth of Raleigh.
After nightfall on New Year’s Eve, people will be streaming into Raleigh’s downtown, filling Fayetteville Street from the Capitol to Memorial Auditorium. In one sweeping view will be the measure of a city of swelling numbers and expanding energy. The first First Night was held Dec. 31, 1991, on Fayetteville Street Mall. The crowd was estimated at 15,000 to 20,000. This year, the crowd will easily be twice that size. The turnout will reflect the city’s growth. In 1990, Raleigh’s population was 207,000. Today, it’s more than 430,000.
The First Night festival of music, food and entertainment sponsored by Artsplosure will be a fitting end to a year when Raleigh’s calendar was booked with large public events. There were First Fridays, marathons, parades, the Hopscotch music festival, the Sparkcon creativity celebration and Raleigh’s new major event, the International Music Association’s World of Bluegrass. The weeklong event marked its second year at Raleigh by drawing 180,000 visitors.
“This past year showed that downtown has become really the center for everyone, entertainment-wise,” said Grant Meacci, manager of Raleigh’s Urban Design Center. Now, with more apartments and condominiums opening in and around downtown, he said, the city’s center is evolving. “With the increase in construction, we are beginning to see a place where people can live.” he said. “It won’t be just for entertainment. It will be a grocery store, a pharmacy and the others things you need.”
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So much is going on downtown that the city government is coping with complaints about too much noise and too many street closings. Some changes have and will be made to keep Fayetteville Street, and the south end of Glenwood Avenue, from turning into Bourbon Street. But growth and activity in the capital city can’t be contained.
It has been this way for decades. Raleigh is a place in such transition that those who moved here 20 years ago feel like they’ve lived in two or three different cities without going anywhere. Fayetteville Street went from deserted on weekends to packed and aglow. Glenwood South changed from a worn street of commercial buildings to a street lined with bars and restaurants. The once abandoned Warehouse District now has the Contemporary Art Museum, the tech giant Citrix’s new headquarters and its own restaurants and bars. To the north, a small city sprouted where there was once just North Hills Mall.
Raleigh residents who’ve been here a decade or two are used to growth. (I suppose Raleigh natives who go back further are too stunned to even notice it anymore.) But even for those accustomed to growth, there is a feeling of especially significant change happening now and looming ahead. The Great Recession created a lull, but with the revival of the economy are coming a new burst of construction and a rise in the river of newcomers.
In downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods, construction is everywhere. The L Building is going up on McDowell Street. The 11-story Charter Square office tower is rising next to the Marriott on Fayetteville Street. A luxury apartment tower, the 23-story SkyHouse, is about to open near Moore Square. Apartments are rising on north Wilmington Street across from the government complex, and behind them are new townhouses. Luxury apartments are going up across from the landmark 42nd St. Oyster Bar, and 17 luxury townhouses are going in next to the Hibernian Pub, a business whose 2000 opening helped launch the renaissance of Glenwood Avenue. The venerable bar Sadlacks has disappeared on Hillsborough Street, and a hotel is rising in its place across from the N.C. State Belltower. Up the street, high-rise apartments are going in across from the Cup A Joe coffee shop. In Cameron Village, two new apartment buildings face each other across Oberlin Road, creating a canyon that echoes with a sense of big-city density.
Everywhere in greater downtown it seems the land is moving and the landscape morphing. Last week, news surfaced that even The News & Observer building, a presence across from Nash Square since the 1950s, may be swept up in the tide of change. The newspaper’s 3.5-acre site may be too valuable for typing and printing. Developers might want it for mixed uses that could include a boutique hotel. The statue of the paper’s found, Josephus Daniels, has waved at the paper from Nash Square for decades. Now his arm might have to be recast as scratching his head.
The holiday season brings a sense of going and coming, memories mixed with hopes. For those who knew the old Raleigh, there is nostalgia for the smaller town, the closer town. On First Night, there will be the celebration of the new year in what is becoming a new city. With care, Raleigh can expand without changing its character as a well-run and livable city, a safe, green and welcoming City of Oaks where every New Year’s Eve a big acorn drops and growth sprouts.