The newly redesigned Moore Square Park, scheduled to open Aug. 2 at 10 a.m., is a wide-open symbol of Raleigh’s commitment to democracy in public spaces.
As I noted in this column four years ago, Moore Square differs from any other open space in the city. For centuries, it’s been a one-of-a-kind gathering place for worship, learning, dialogue and even military drills. Technically it’s owned by the state, while maintained and operated by the city — but in effect, it belongs to the people.
This newest iteration of the square arrives not a moment too soon. The city’s downtown has transitioned from government center to residential, hospitality and entertainment hub. And while Dix Park’s 308 acres southwest of downtown slowly change over the next few decades, the 4-acre, revitalized Moore Square will play an immediate, cross-pollinating role in public life.
It has been dedicated to civic discourse from the get-go.
“There are historic squares across the U.S., and they come from Europe,” says Stephen Bentley, assistant director of Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources department. “They’re places where people came and gathered to discuss the issues of the day — that feeling and identification came from public squares.”
The topography of this Colonial-era square is relatively flat, for good reason.
“People didn’t have telephones or telegraphs for communicating over the park, so they were open and visible,” says Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, consultants on the redesign. “And squares, greens and commons need utilitarian circulation, like the spokes of a wheel.”
Moore Square’s new circulation pattern is in the form of an “X,” a formalized articulation of earlier pathways. Wide entrance plazas have been placed at its four corners: on East Martin Street at the south, South Person Street to the east, East Hargett Street to the north, and South Blount Street to the west. Four additional entrances are placed at mid-block on each street.
Surrounding the entire perimeter is a shade-bearing collection of century-old oak trees, mute witnesses to Raleigh’s history. Their roots are now protected from pedestrian traffic by low-lying iron fencing that steers visitors to entrances.
“We wanted to allow people at the corner crossings to get to the square as easily as possible, and to respect that signature frame of trees around it,” say Zachary Chrisco, principal in Sasaki, the landscape architecture firm charged with the square’s redesign. “The plazas are spacious to allow access to the square and to let the square reach out to the city and open up a bit.”
Sasaki’s plan differs from an earlier scheme that proposed a tall mound at the center of the park, covering a café and restrooms beneath it, with paths around it. As Birnbaum points out, that mound would have broken up sight lines across the square. Instead, Sasaki created a wide-open lawn at its northern and western quadrants, raising its center gently for easy viewing of other vistas.
“You should be able to see all the corners — so that affects the architecture of the park, and gives it a bone structure,” he says. “It’s important to have a café and a play area that do not diminish those historic relationships.”
A dozen trees were removed so the lawn can host concerts, movies and live performances. Trees that were removed included a holly, a magnolia, maples and an older oak at the square’s center.
“They were beautiful, but deteriorating,” says Bentley. “The larger oak took a lot of discussion, but it would have looked out of context.”
Food, and play
The freestanding café, called Square Burger, along with restrooms, utilities, office and information window, now backs up to the corner of Person and Martin streets. It’s a 1,700-square-foot building, a three-dimensional triptych with the 800-square-foot cafe at center, flanked on either side by trellises providing dappled shade for tables and chairs beneath.
It’s clad, brick-like, in bluestone slate, and framed with blackened steel and reclaimed cedar. It’s also understated.
“We kept the format low and tucked in,” says Christine Dunn, a principal at Sasaki. “We wanted it to blend in with the green leaves and dark wood and shadows of the trees.”
In front of it is a water feature for children, designed by Fluidity, a firm responsible for projects at the National Mall and New York’s Metropolitan Museum. To the left is a play area with steps leading up 4 feet, around a 106-year-old oak tree, then down to a stainless-steel slide.
“It’s a component of play, but does not overdo it,” Bentley says. “The rest of the square is for rest and reflection.”
Hours for Square Burger, operated by Empire Eats (owner of Raleigh Times, Sitti and other downtown restaurants), will vary, but lunch and dinner – along with beer and wine – will be served. “It’s the urbanization of downtown,” he says. “Raleigh has invested in the square and recognizes what people want.”
The city and Sasaki worked overtime to uncover all points of view before they began designing. They held sessions with every major constituency affected by the square, including schools, churches, regular users, restaurateurs, business owners, officials at Marbles Museum, the African American community in nearby South Park, and those concerned with the plight of the homeless.
Across Hargett Street, Marbles serves as a key gateway to the square – it’s one of downtown’s top five destinations – while century-old City Market anchors the opposite end at Martin with its Spanish Mission architecture and diverse history.
“It accommodated mixed races,” says cultural landscape authority Birnbaum. “This is the fireplace, the heart of the community. Its relationship to the square should be honored because it’s an icon to the community.”
The “X”-shaped circulation pattern is in part a response to the African American community in South Park to the southeast, linking its citizens to downtown and East Hargett Street, once known as Raleigh’s Black Main Street. That business community may be long gone – Hamlin Drug was the last to leave in 2017 – but the path connecting South Park to downtown is still important.
Before the square closed for renovation, a number of homeless (or those assumed to be homeless) were part of its population. Bentley contends that some were mischaracterized, as they waited for buses with long turnaround times departing the nearby transit station.
Now, he says, the station across from the park has been improved, too, with faster bus service. Nearby Oak City Outreach can help connect people with needed services. “Our belief is those people will be sheltered and the buses will move more quickly, but they are still welcome to come to the square,” he says.
More than 1,000 square feet of granite seat walls have been installed, with custom teak benches strategically inserted at various points. More intriguing is a pair of seating areas nestled beneath shady oaks, created by Dallas landscape artist Brad Goldberg.
One called the Grove Room, near the northeast corner, is a curved spiral of granite seating, designed for intimate conversations. The other on the southwest corner, is a large community table with moveable chairs, created for large gatherings, wedding parties and family reunions – and accommodating up to 50 people.
As Charles Moore, former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, famously wrote in 1965, we all must pay for the public life – one way or another. Moore Square is no exception. The price tag here is significant. Its budget started at $12.5 million, then increased to $13 million.
But this is a square that soon will deliver real value — and new opportunities — to the people of Raleigh. “If an African American couple and a white couple are approaching the center of the “X” at the same moment, what happens?” Birnbaum asks rhetorically.
Moore Square provides the kind of democratic place-making that offers answers to questions like that.
A ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled Aug. 2 at 10 a.m.
A grand opening celebration is Aug. 3 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with vendors, entertainers, an art market and other activities. Music will be provided by Raleigh Rockers, Oak City Voices, Sandbox Band, Shiloh Hill and Ellis Dyson and the Shambles. Upcoming activities include a busker music series, outdoor movies and the Moore Square Market. Go to raleighnc.gov.