Midtown Raleigh News

Trees would be removed in revamp of downtown’s Exchange, Market plazas

ccampbell@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH Plans are taking shape to revamp two little-used pedestrian plazas off downtown’s Fayetteville Street, and architects are looking to open up the leafy spaces that often don’t seem safe at night.

Market and Exchange plazas connect the center of Fayetteville Street to Wilmington Street and surround the former Wachovia building, which is currently under renovation. Originally designed as side streets, they were converted to pedestrian plazas 50 years ago as a test run for the Fayetteville Street Mall.

The plazas remain today as the last vestiges of the downtown mall era. They don’t get much use because they’re plagued by the same design elements that led to the mall’s downfall: large planters and trees that take up space and make walkers feel unsafe after dark.

Landscape architects from Surface 678 presented their initial designs for the plaza revamp Thursday night. The trees and vegetation will be the first things to go, the architects said.

“We really think that trees are beautiful, but they detract from the ability of people to develop a comfort zone,” landscape architect Walt Havener said.

The trees and planters also make it next to impossible for the plazas to host any events because the open space is so limited. “You can’t use it for anything but what it was designed for – a few seating areas, some plants and walkways,” Havener said.

The plazas’ $1.5 million makeover will begin this summer, and Surface 678’s plans call for wide-open spaces suitable for outdoor dining, markets, small performances and extensions of Fayetteville Street festivals.

“This is an excellent opportunity for these plazas to be integrated into the fabric of downtown,” landscape architect Charlie Bradley said.

The challenge, however, is that the plazas are built on an incline, with planters covering much of the slope today. To address that aspect and keep the spaces handicap-accessible, the new plazas will have two levels connected by stairs and ramps.

Market Plaza will return to the roots of its name with covered stalls to host pop-up markets. Havener said the possibilities include a small farmers market, an art market on First Fridays or even a book fair. Exchange Plaza will have outdoor restaurant seating for Bolt and other spaces, though Bolt’s patio will move closer to its building.

Three high-canopied trees will stay in Exchange Plaza while the rest will be removed. New lighting is planned to integrate the plazas with downtown’s growing nightlife scene. One option is lights suspended 15 feet above the ground – Havener described it as a “sparkling, twinkling canopy above.”

Overall, the goal is to create two distinctive downtown spaces. The reaction from neighboring business owners Thursday was overwhelmingly positive, although representatives of a few shops that back up to Market Plaza expressed concerns about a plan to screen off their back entries from view.

Final, more detailed designs for the plazas will be presented in a few months, before construction begins next summer.

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