After 111 years on the Martin Street block, The News & Observer has moved into the heart of Raleigh's downtown revival, a shift of just a few blocks that reflects the company's continuing transition from a traditional newspaper to an around-the-clock digital news operation.
The N&O has signed a long-term lease for two floors of the 17-story One City Plaza, which will elevate the company's presence in a way that wasn't possible in the fortress on the corner of Martin and McDowell streets. The plaza on the south end of Fayetteville Street is a gathering place for office workers, residents and tourists.
"I feel that The News & Observer was doing wonderful journalism but had lost a little of the connection to the community," said Sara Glines, who has been The N&O's publisher for about a year and a half. "Some of that is the era we're in, and so I think it is important for us to become essential and to have people feel like we are in the community with them. We're not just telling them about it, we're actually right there with them."
The N&O leaves three acres of prime real estate amid speculation about what will replace the old building with its vertical louvers and aging parking deck.
Acquisition Group, the California investment firm that bought the property from The N&O's parent, California-based McClatchy, in November for $22 million, so far has been noncommittal about what it will do with the site. Any change, however, will have a significant impact on the downtown landscape.
Company president Sam Sotoodeh has said Acquisition is considering building a hotel with offices, apartments and stores. Rather than tear down the current building in the near future, the firm could rent or lease part of the building until it is demolished. But Sotoodeh says the project won't be rushed, so it's too soon to know what it will comprise.
Three years ago a local development group made plans to build a large hotel with rental and owner-occupied multi-family homes on the property, which sits across from Nash Square. They would have retained The N&O's offices in a renovated part of the building, but last year the plans fell through when the parties determined it wasn't financially feasible.
The new owners are likely to eventually tear down the building and parking deck and start from scratch with something much taller and denser, said Steve Schuster, a founder of the downtown design firm Clearscapes, which worked with the local investors on the previous proposal.
The city of Raleigh has zoned the area for the broadest category of uses downtown. It allows for a mixed-use development with storefront retail up to 20 stories tall. The previous investors planned to ask for approval to build up to 40 stories, potentially making it the highest building in downtown Raleigh.
A city-commissioned report in 2015 calling for more hotels downtown prompted the Raleigh City Council to ease parking requirements in order to spur hotel projects. Now nine hotels have been built, are under construction or are planned. But more large hotels are needed, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
Schuster said the outcome of The N&O block will be an important one for the city, as the east-west corridors of Hargett and Martin streets are increasingly used for walking between the central part of downtown and the emerging warehouse and Glenwood South districts to the west. Salisbury Street is also seeing the beginnings of commercial activity, he said.
"That block arguably is one of the most important private sector development blocks in our downtown today," Schuster said. "All of us are looking with great interest as to what the new owner and their design team will do on the site."
Regardless of the fate of 215 S. McDowell St., The N&O had a deadline to move.
A new home
Although months in the planning, the transition into new offices was swift. Over three days a corporate moving company from Charlotte hauled 680 crates to the highrise owned by Raleigh-based Highwoods Properties. About 175 employees have taken over the first and 14th floors under a 10-year lease.
Reporters, photographers and editors will work at street level in a building that opens onto the City Plaza area of Fayetteville Street. Advertising, the publisher and business operations are on the 14th floor. Raleigh architectural firms iS design and Maurer Architecture designed the new offices with an emphasis on open space and natural light. Common areas were designed to invite collaboration and private "phone boothlike" rooms to provide privacy. It's a far cry from the 1950s-era building that was left behind.
In preparation for the long-anticipated move, The N&O dismantled its printing press and installed a new one at its facility in Garner.
The company donated office furniture to area schools, and gave the North Carolina State Archives thousands of printed photographs, from the 1950s to 2000s, negatives from the 2000s and digital images on discs dating from 2000 to 2009. It also gave the state archives microfiche copies of newspaper stories organized by subject.
Since the early 1980s, The News & Observer has been transferring to the state archives negatives dating from 1938 to the early 2000s. Archivist Kim Andersen said all of the files donated by The N&O so far fill more than 600 cubic feet of space.
"The N&O negatives, prints and digital images are a treasure trove of information not only on Raleigh history but the history of the entire state, particularly the eastern half of the state," Andersen said. "We are so happy to be the custodians of these pictures, to be able to provide for their long-term preservation, and to share them with researchers across the state and the world."
Changing with the times
The N&O isn't the only newspaper to leave an iconic building that was once a symbol of its role in the community.
McClatchy has been selling some of its buildings to free up cash as it wrestled with falling revenue and continued its transition to digital media. McClatchy companies that have moved out of their longtime headquarters include The Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star and The Charlotte Observer.
A number of other newspaper companies have also sold their land holdings for capital.
The Los Angeles Times recently announced it would move from its historic Art Deco building to a suburban campus. The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News, San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Boston Globe all have moved into smaller buildings.
"The nation was full of these iconic newspaper buildings in downtown," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill and a former longtime reporter and editor at The News & Observer.
"Newspaper buildings tended to be part of the rootedness, part of the infrastructure of downtown. As newspapers have changed so have the buildings and so have the locations."
The N&O has followed that pattern and its locations through the years have, in part, mirrored Raleigh's growth.
In 1907, The N&O was located on the east side of Fayetteville street, about halfway down the block and across from where the Sir Walter Hotel now stands. As the city spread out, then-owner Josephus Daniels moved it to 114 W. Martin St. The Martin Street location was replaced by the McDowell Street building in 1956, but the press and composing room were in the center of the block and stayed there when the new building was erected in 1956. The Daniels family owned The N&O for 101 years, selling to McClatchy in 1995 for $373 million.
The return to Fayetteville Street comes as Raleigh's "main street" is seeing both commercial and residential growth.
Publisher Sara Glines said it was important for The N&O to remain downtown but in a way that invites a closer connection to the growing region and keeps pace with readers' preferences.
"It doesn't matter where you want to find us, we're going to try to be there — maybe not necessarily newspapers, but today we are print or digital or social media or cell phone," she said. "Wherever you read us and wherever you need us we're going to be there."
Videographer Casey Toth contributed.