With one eyesore gone, will Raleigh's southern gateway be revitalized?

A processing plant that has been seen as an impediment to revitalizing Raleigh's southern "gateway" is being demolished.

The owner, Minnesota-based Cargill, says it doesn't yet have plans for the 10 acres between South Wilmington and South Blount streets. But the plant's demolition has sparked interest from developers scouting the last major redevelopment area outside of downtown.

"Things are moving faster than we thought," said Dhanya Sandeep, a planner with the city's Urban Design Center. "The private sector is moving fast."

Sandeep said the property had been considered the most long-range and speculative of four focus areas that comprise city planners' vision for Raleigh's southern gateway, primarily because it would require moving the plant.

The Cargill operations sit amid the blur of dilapidated buildings and bland landscape along the approach to downtown. Mostly idle since 2014, the plant once processed cottonseed oil and then dog food before turning to soybeans in 1985.

A study completed by the city last year envisions a massive makeover of the area that entails re-routing streets and building mixed-use offices and residences to create an attractive welcome to the capital city. Part of the revitalization strategy anticipated Cargill moving its plant somewhere else.

A rendering of what the area south of downtown around the Cargill plant could look like when fullly developed. Joe Skibba Courtesy of Raleigh Urban Design Center and SKIBBA Illustration

Raleigh city planners in 2013 began talking to businesses, residents and others about what people would like to see as they approach the city from the south. Last year they came up with recommendations that, if implemented, would transform the area into something unrecognizable. But that won't happen unless public and private money is put into it.

"Everybody agrees with the vision, the recommendations the community and elected officials believe have merit," Sandeep said. "But that doesn’t mean we have money allocated as yet to make it all happen."

Changing the south side will take a lot of work, such as creating roads that connect neighborhoods rather than divide them, improving infrastructure, protecting natural resources, and making pedestrians feel they won't be victimized by a crime on the greenway trails that run through the area, or be hit by a car during heavy traffic. Also, the city owns a substantial amount of property in the area, including a homeless shelter.

"Auto-oriented development patterns have made safe and efficient pedestrian and bicycle mobility a near impossibility," the city noted.

Sandeep says despite the extensive work and lack of funding, the ambitious makeover isn't just fantasy, since improvements could be made in smaller increments and not all at once.

That part of the city hadn't had a planning study in decades, and participants in the study came away feeling the time was right, Sandeep said. A number of business owners, for example, said they would invest in their property if the city would help, she said.

James Goodnight, who is turning an old tractor and truck warehouse complex in Southeast Raleigh into a taproom and art haven, said the site has potential.

"It’s a high traffic area with proximity to downtown," Goodnight said. "I’m sure someone will want to throw up some beige apartments there, but hopefully we can do better than that."

Developers circling

Local developers began guessing about what Cargill's plans might be once the bulldozers started knocking down buildings at the plant.

One local developer says a residential component that might make sense is second-tier, for-sale townhouses priced in the $350,000 to $400,000 range. Renters tend to want walkable neighborhoods, Gregg Sandreuter said, and downtown is just a little too far to be considered convenient.

"It's walkable, yes, but it would be a long walk," he said. "You wouldn't live there to be living in downtown. I do think if you can buy a townhouse at an appropriate price it will go like wildfire."

Sandreuter was part of a development group that built the 23-story Skyhouse luxury apartments on Blount Street and the West condominium on North Harrington Street, both downtown.

Another local developer, David Meeker, who's also a co-owner of Trophy Brewing, said the demolition surprised him but is encouraging.

"I'm super excited about it," Meeker said. "It would be a great balance if something more market-based was there. It could be a good mix of anything."

He said the sale price of the land could be dampened if there is environmental clean-up to contend with on the site. But Meeker said the price will probably still be "steep."

The county last assessed the land there at $2 million.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, CraigJ_NandO