The skyline, streetscape and perceptions of downtown Raleigh are about to be transformed. Three new projects – two buildings under construction and one civic campus master plan – will soon confirm Winston Churchill’s observation that “We shape our buildings and afterwards, they shape us.”
Two building by local architects are nearing completion. The third is in planning stages in Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Washington, D.C. office. Along with two 20-story buildings now planned for Hillsborough Street, they’re early steps toward better design.
Union Station on Martin Street in the warehouse district will be Amtrak-operational in early 2018. Designed by Raleigh-based Clearscapes, it’s an adaptive re-use of an existing Dillon Supply building. At four levels, it’s not a tall building – but it will be a game-changing transportation hub with offices, retailers and restaurants.
The station lacks parking, but that’s available across West Street. “On the site proper there are 40 spaces for short-term parking, pick-up and drop-off,” says Clearscapes’ Steve Schuster. “The city is in partnership with Kane Development for a parking deck and 350 spaces for the station and throughout the warehouse district.”
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That parking deck is part of an eight-story pedestal at The Dillon, a 17-level, mixed-use project by Duda Paine Architects, scheduled to open in February. Above the parking deck is a ninth-floor terrace for a restaurant and downtown views, and eight floors of offices. At ground level, 25,000 square feet of space for retailers is tucked into an existing brick façade.
“We wanted a presence and a sense of importance and scale in the way it addresses the sky and the sidewalk,” says architect Jeff Paine. “Buildings like this owe a duty to the city for the skyline that’s a faraway view, and the close-up reading as you arrive.”
None of that’s been lost on the City of Raleigh as it works with SOM to plan a civic campus a block north of Nash Square. “It’s a master plan to consolidate downtown employees,” says Roberta Fox, assistant director of planning. “We currently have six locations downtown and 1,100 employees in a series of rental spaces and others that we own.”
To accommodate them, the city can build 20 levels up, according to Raleigh’s comprehensive plan. And it’s not limited to one structure on the four-acre site or to offices alone. The city, too, is thinking about mixed-use.
“We’re all in agreement that any space that’s a focal point of city government is a site for public gathering with the government and each other,” says Roger Weber, senior urban designer at SOM. “Specifically where the site is located could incur public space, retail space, space to engage with government, and outdoor space that is maybe an extension of the park.”
The SOM/Raleigh collaboration is an encouraging signal from a city where great design has not always been a priority. “The adage used to be: ‘Well – it’s good enough for Raleigh,’ ” laments Schuster.
That’s changing. International landscape design firm Sasaki not was not only the lead consultant for Raleigh’s downtown plan but also for redesigning Moore Square. And New York’s Michael Van Valkenburgh is deeply immersed in developing the Dix Park master plan. Clearly, Raleigh is setting its sights on world-class design.
Drivers of excellence
But how does a community make that happen? It can be difficult, since North Carolina’s state government doesn’t allow local bodies to legislate aesthetics. “City council can lobby for it and advocate for it but cannot deny a design based on aesthetics,” Schuster says. “That takes one opportunity to influence the skyline off the table. So then it’s up to the developer to advocate for good design … and that’s starting to happen.”
The skyline is a key definer of Raleigh’s brand, so how it’s shaped in coming years is no small matter. The city’s comprehensive plan, the aspirational document that contains Sasaki’s downtown plan, sets goals for how Raleigh will grow, adapt or preserve neighborhoods. The city’s unified development ordinance codifies the plan into regulations to guide development. And the state building code outlines regulations that architects must follow when designing a building.
There are height enablers and restrictions too. For much of the central business district along Fayetteville Street, the ordinance allows buildings 40 stories high, then steps down to 20, 12 and seven stories in areas farther away. Buildings on downtown’s periphery are zoned for three to five stories. The intent is density and tall buildings at the city’s core and descending heights out to the edges.
Market forces are drivers too. The risk-taking development community must prove a building is economically viable before it obtains financing. To do a better-designed building means spending more on it, while raising rents above competitors’. “You can design the Taj Mahal, but if people won’t pay for it, it won’t get built,” says John Kane, developer of The Dillon, where three floors of his $150 million venture are already leased.
The architects’ role lies in advocating for design excellence. The ordinance may specify heights and zoning, and developers may provide a vision, but it’s the architects who articulate a building’s grace and beauty. They can persuade developers and elected officials to embolden downtown designs and take more time for better work. “Do good buildings happen without high-quality designers on the team?” asks Schuster. “They don’t – you’ll get bland buildings instead.”
That may be part of the city’s strategy for hiring SOM to help create its civic center master plan. Here, Raleigh is taking the lead and acting as a potential catalyst for excellence in architecture. “Designers by nature are very competitive,” Fox says. “One way to increase the level of design in your community is to hire better designers yourself.”
Changing a city’s skyline and streetscape for the better won’t happen overnight, and demands patience from every stakeholder. “It’s a complex format,” Schuster says. “We have many of the elements coming together, but we have a long way to go.”
Still, these are promising days for Raleigh. Union Station and The Dillon soon will open. A civic center master plan is underway. A redesigned Moore Square is on the horizon, as is Dix Park. It’s time now to enhance the look of our streets and the shape of our skyline beyond these early steps. After all, this is North Carolina’s only capital city.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.