On Tuesday, the Council of State will be asked to approve the sale of three vacant buildings on a third of an acre in downtown Raleigh to a private developer for $1.75 million.
But critics say that financial windfall for the state comes at the price of selling off a piece of its heritage: Part of one of the five squares laid out in the original plan for Raleigh in 1792.
The .36-acre site the state wants sell on the corner of Dawson and Lane streets is on Caswell Square, a companion to Burke Square that contains the Executive Mansion; Union Square, where the State Capitol sits, and Nash and Moore squares, Raleigh’s two oak-shaded downtown parks.
“Selling off part of one of the original 1792 squares for private development seems a great shame to me,” said Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina, a statewide advocacy group. “It’s the first time that has happened in the city’s almost 2.25 centuries. All five squares are still intact and in public ownership and use.”
The proposed sale is part of a larger effort by Gov. Pat McCrory, called Project Phoenix, to review the state’s use of property and sell off land and buildings it no longer needs.
Also on the Council of State’s agenda Tuesday is the proposed sale of a single-story building and a parking lot on 1.7 acres off West Peace Street in downtown Raleigh for $4.85 million. The 10-member council consists of the top state-wide elected officials, including McCrory, his rival in the still-contested race for governor, Attorney General Roy Cooper, outgoing State Treasurer Janet Cowell as well as two members — Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin and Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson — who lost their bids for re-election last month.
John LaPenta, the deputy secretary of the state Department of Administration, notes that the Caswell Square property being sold is dominated by an old steam plant that has been vacant and deteriorating since the early 1990s.
“Caswell Square has been used for office buildings for more than 100 years,” LaPenta said. “The sale of the building, which is only a small part of the nearly 5-acre square, will allow for the private sector to renovate the blighted building, further revitalizing the Capital District.”
The idea for creating Raleigh’s five squares is credited to William Christmas, a surveyor and state senator from Franklin County who was asked to lay out what would become Raleigh by the commission working to establish a state capital in Wake County. Christmas’ 1792 plan called for Union Square, with “a beautiful eminence which commands a view of the town,” for the future State Capitol, with four other squares “reserved for Publick Purposes,” including on one a future home for the governor.
To motorists passing by on Dawson and McDowell streets, Caswell Square doesn’t look like the public park it once was. In the late 19th century, the state chose to put the state school for the blind and deaf there, and the school’s old turetted dormitory, completed in 1898, remains on one corner. Other state buildings and parking lots followed, leaving only a patch of tree-shaded walkways on the south side facing Jones Street.
If the Council of State approves, the northwest corner of the square would be sold to Caswell Square Medical LLC, which includes Milan DiGiulio, an orthopedic surgeon with an office in Cary. DiGiulio said he and his partners have a plan for the site but want to make sure the deal goes through before sharing details. The sale is contingent on re-zoning and site plan approval.
Douglas Johnston, a retired attorney, is part of a group of preservationists who are urging the Council of State not to approve the sale. They acknowledge that the three buildings are beyond saving, but want to see Caswell Square remain in public hands and perhaps someday again become a public gathering place as some of the other state buildings outlive their usefulness.
Johnston’s advice to the Council of State for the property on Tuesday’s agenda would be to “tear down the buildings, plant some grass and give the staff instructions about making it as square-like a place as possible.”
In a two-page statement, the preservationist group wrote: “The buildings may be dispensable; the land that the square occupies is not. It is a one-of-a-kind property to be dealt with for the long term and with respect. The public’s square is not just another stop on a Monopoly board. It is a real community asset and deserves to be valued as such. It’s part of the state’s brand – that no sensible business person would chip away and destroy for short-term profit.”