With Raleigh on a roll, leadership must keep up

Raleigh has momentum, and it’s gathering speed. The challenge for the City Council and city government this year will be keeping up. What’s driving the changes is a combination of a hot real estate market, the launch of several major public projects and the increasing payoff of such investments as the new Convention Center and the renewal of Fayetteville Street. The only cloud on the horizon is the Republican-led General Assembly that took away a key local tax, ended historic preservation tax credits and could undo, once again, the conversion of the former Dix Hospital campus to a city park.

Still, 2015 is shaping up to be a year of swift changes that will have lasting effects. The city’s “to do” list includes:

•  Dix Park. The Dix Park deal was done two years ago when outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue agreed to lease 308 acres of the state property to Raleigh for development of a park. Republicans in the General Assembly nixed the deal, ostensibly because the payment to the state was too low, but it actually was because they wanted to deny the Democratic governor a popular triumph as she exited. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory agreed to negotiate a new deal, and two years later it’s on the table awaiting approval by the Council of State.

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and other city leaders and officials will need to work carefully to usher through the deal – an outright purchase for $52 million. Then the task will be to start the planning process for what will be a dramatic open space for the Capital City and those who visit it.

•  Union Station. The small, plain building that now welcomes train travelers to the capital seems a symbol of the undersized vision of mass transit in a region where the car is king. But that is about to change with the final steps leading to construction of an impressive new Union Station in the Warehouse District on downtown’s western edge.

The projected cost has grown by $16 million to $84 million, but the price is still affordable for a city of Raleigh’s size. And this is an expense that could pay for itself in commercial activity. The station plan calls for a transit hub served by trains and buses and commercial space for shopping, dining and offices. Eventually a light rail station could be added nearby, making Union Station a draw for more businesses and housing.

•  Moore Square. The neglected green space on the east side of downtown is about to get a $12.5 million overhaul that could bring new life to this corner of the city. A better Moore Square will help lift the adjacent City Market and build a vibrant new downtown district. The state owns the property, which the city maintains, so negotiations about the new design still need to be completed, but the city is taking an appropriately ambitious approach to reviving a square that had fallen into decline.

•  Moore Square bus station. Another push for the Moore Square revival will come from a planned $6 million to $7 million renovation of the transportation center there. The center will get new elevators, restrooms, awnings and changes in layout. The changes will take idling buses off Wilmington Street and make the area more functional and inviting to pedestrians.

•  Hillsborough Street. The renovations of Hillsborough Street will enter Phase 2 with an improved street-scape and the addition of more roundabouts. Phase 1 greatly enhanced the city’s western gateway and added to the appeal of a college street that runs along the northern edge of the N.C. State campus.

• The sharing economy. The city is trying to accommodate disruptive Internet-based businesses that threaten cabs and hotels. Regulation is needed, but shutting out the ride-service Uber or the less expensive lodging available from Airbnb isn’t an option. Raleigh is riding a wave of change in technology and demographics, and it can’t do that and be closed to the emerging sharing economy.

• Legislative watch. The legislature has shown no qualms about meddling in local government functions. Raleigh needs to be alert and push back against bills that hurt its economy. One worrisome proposal to watch is a change in the distribution of local sales tax revenue in favor of rural counties.

Gov. McCrory has promised to give cities relief after losing the local privilege tax – at a cost of $7 million to Raleigh. Raleigh and other municipalities should hold him to it. Meanwhile, they should push to restore the historic preservation tax credit.