Raleigh faces downtown flap, spiking rail-station cost

The skyline of downtown Raleigh.
The skyline of downtown Raleigh. 2013 News & Observer file photo

After months of rumblings, the Raleigh City Council has taken up the question of whether downtown Raleigh’s nightlife is going from “vibrant” to over-saturated.

Some downtown residents, most notably the downtown mogul Greg Hatem, have claimed that noise and alcohol are making the city’s core “unlivable,” as Hatem put it. On Tuesday, the City Council and city staff talked about public health, private business and safety.

“Is there some point at which having an unlimited supply of bars is going to preclude us from having those other kinds of retailers?” said Councilman Russ Stephenson, referring to the Fayetteville Street area.

There was no immediate answer to that question, but city staff reviewed a broad range of related issues.

“We ultimately understand and appreciate the fact that when managed properly, vibrancy adds to the ultimate success of the city,” said Marchell Adams David, an assistant city manager who has been focused on downtown for months. “However, with that growth comes some challenges, and those challenges lead us to have to take some tough decisions sometimes.”

Adams David said the city should think about how restaurants use public spaces, such as the sidewalks. She also said the city allows overly long hours for push-cart food service, such as hot-dog stands, which can now run from 6 a.m. to 4 a.m. She said too that some eateries’ outdoor dining areas may be violating accessibility requirements for people with physical disabilities.

The questions are serious enough that nine city departments are collaborating on the questions of downtown, Adams David said.

Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said the city should get the streets clean earlier on weekends, and she asked whether the city could lure more retail through some kind of government program.

“In part, what we have to ask ourselves as a council is, are we willing to incentivize a retail mix, or are we going to wait until we have the residential density ... ?” she said.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane said the city needed to figure out what it wants from downtown.

“It seems as if I’m hearing that we have some issues with the vision that we currently have,” she said.

For now, city staff will keep plugging away at various reviews of downtown policies, particularly the question of how transit and taxis should work in the city center. The City Council also will have to decide several pending noise permits in the Fayetteville district, and later assess the merits of the Glenwood South “pilot” program to ease tensions between bars and residents.

Union Station costs rising

The city will spend an extra $12 million beyond original commitments on its Union Station plan, bringing its total price tag to about $79.8 million. That change will triple the city’s share of the overall cost, from $6 million to $18 million.

Increasing property values and unanticipated utility costs have driven up the price of the station, which was scheduled to begin construction this month on the west side of downtown Raleigh. The new start date could be in May or June; a formal announcement will come next week.

Those changes had threatened to drive up the cost by a total of $16 million, but staff found places to save money, including in the construction method for part of the passenger platform. Part of the platform will be built so it’s more easily removable, easing a later phase of the project. The city also has chopped a stormwater garden from the train-station plan, and made various aesthetic and material changes.

“It keeps operational costs down. It gets us essentially all that we were hoping for in the scope, and I think it gets us a facility that people will be incredibly proud of,” said Councilman Bonner Gaylord, starting a unanimous vote for the new spending.

The city will cover the budget gap through a combination of $8 million in savings from a Falls of Neuse project and $5 million in special bonds that don’t require voter approval. The extra $1 million will be held in reserve.

Kenney: 919-829-4870;

Twitter: @KenneyNC