In a large city, the apartment building in the center of downtown Raleigh would be just another sleek, glass box with high floors, high ceilings and high rents. But in medium-sized Raleigh, the 23-story SkyHouse tower is both a striking symbol of change and a window into the city of tomorrow.
SkyHouse opened last April on the corner of South Blount and East Martin streets. The tower sprouted in just over a year like a gigantic steel and concrete mushroom on what had been an empty lot. It is the tallest residential building in the city’s history, and its look is distinctive in a city of mostly lower scale, brick buildings.
“SkyHouse was a game-changer,” says Johnny Chappell of Chappell Residential, which sells residential properties in and near downtown. “It’s a building type we rarely have seen here but we’re going to see more of.”
While SkyHouse is new for Raleigh, it’s hardly unique. Novare Group, the company that built SkyHouse, has built towers of the same name in other cities, including Charlotte, Dallas, Denver and Tampa. That there is a SkyHouse here shows where developers think Raleigh is going.
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And it’s a sign to longtime Raleigh residents that the Capital City is already becoming a different place. High-priced condominiums purchased by empty-nesters, executives or well-paid sales people have been part of the city for more than a decade. But the idea of younger people paying $2,000 a month to rent a two-bedroom apartment is new in a city where homes are relatively affordable. But those renters are here and their numbers growing. “It’s a larger group than you would think,” Chappell says.
Certainly they’ve shown up at SkyHouse. The building with 320 apartments ranging from $1,100 to $3,000 per month is 95 percent full, according to Daniel McCormick, a SkyHouse manager.
To grasp how a $60 million SkyHouse happens, it helps to go to the top of it. The building’s 23rd floor features a 5-foot-deep, open-air swimming pool, an expansive patio and grilling area and a bird’s-eye view of the changing city. From the pool deck, you see the gleaming PNC condo and office tower next door and the buildings of the computer software companies, Red Hat and Citrix, that have brought more than a thousand workers downtown.
You also see the old becoming new. Dix Hospital on a hill that will soon be Raleigh’s Central Park. The old railroad station and the new transit center going up nearby. The new towers of fast-changing North Hills in the distance. And below SkyHouse, the other luxury apartments that have or are opening to meet the demand for downtown living: the Edison Lofts, the Lincoln, the L Building and, near the Legislative Building, the Elan City Center.
In its State of Downtown report, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance says the city core that once closed up after dark now has over 7,000 residents, a population expected to exceed 10,000 in a few years. Since 2015 alone, 3,000 downtown residential units have opened, are under construction or are planned.
Bill King, planning and development manager for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, says that the growth in residents must be matched by a growth in jobs and that downtown Raleigh “is well-positioned for that.” With three new office towers under construction or planned, downtown could gain 5,000 office workers in the next few years, King says.
What’s remarkable about the downtown boom is that it has not been especially disruptive. There have been complaints about late-night noise and outdoor drinking on and around Fayetteville Street, but overall the traffic is manageable, parking is adequate and the workday rhythms of the downtown grid can seem not much changed from 20 years ago.
But beneath that stability great pressures are building on two fronts. First, the city must find a way of having its downtown grow up without growing out of reach. While well-paid tech employees can afford the SkyHouse view, many government and service workers cannot. How to keep tiers of affordable housing within the downtown residential market is a challenge not only for the city government but for businesses as well.
The second pressure point is transit. While downtown living offers more opportunities to walk to work and restaurants, it is still automobile dependent. At SkyHouse, for instance, most residents have cars that they park in the adjacent city-owned parking deck. More is available downtown, but you still need a car to shop for groceries or visit other sections of the city and Triangle. A half-cent sales tax increase will be on the Wake County ballot this fall to support expansion of mass transit. If it doesn’t pass, downtown could become traffic-choked, hard to visit and unappealing to live in.
Providing affordable housing and building a web or bus and rail transit are big challenges, but welcome ones in a booming downtown where, for now, the sky is the limit.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org