Serious lack of design innovation plagues Raleigh

Recent construction in Raleigh’s Cameron Village
Recent construction in Raleigh’s Cameron Village cliddy@newsobserver.com

Downtown Raleigh’s rapid growth is clearly visible. Our major streets are changing before our eyes. And a disturbing trend has begun to reveal itself.

Downtown Raleigh is being transformed by repetitive, five-story, stick-built apartments atop concrete parking structures. Residents enter them by car, not from the sidewalk. In block after block along Hillsborough Street, Oberlin Road, Wilmington and St. Mary’s streets, these uninspiring structures contrast with the well-designed historic buildings that once defined the downtown district.

Planners say Raleigh will change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50, with much of that change due to multi-story housing. Once the city of dogwoods and grits, Raleigh is definitely becoming more uptown.

The numbers are staggering. Approximately 3,200 residential units were built inside Raleigh’s Beltline from 2000 to 2014. In 2015, over 2,700 units are under construction. That’s roughly three-quarters of the total from the entire first decade of the 21st century – not including any recently completed units or projects planned for 2015 and beyond. This translates into approximately 4,000 new residents downtown and approximately $500 million in construction value. And the current Unified Development Ordinance remapping, soon to be approved by the Raleigh City Council, will make current apartment construction seem small by comparison, especially because Raleigh is expected to grow by 50 percent by 2030.

The investment that’s turning Raleigh into a major residential rental market is unprecedented. Yet there is scarcely any discussion about how this dramatic shift is fundamentally changing inner Raleigh’s appearance and context, or about how such an unprecedented number of renters will affect civic engagement.

Now is the time for those who care about Raleigh’s shape and vibrancy to consider whether a more dynamic, innovative approach is possible.

In other cities, architects and builders are embracing new patterns of urban dwelling, moving beyond the formulaic approach determined by maximum height and leasable square footage.

In Toronto, for example, architects created zoning changes so that lots too small for multi-family housing could be used for single-family homes. The result: Once “leftover” land now contributes to the life and vitality of an entire city.

In San Diego, high-density housing is clustered around islands of nature. Residents explore and learn about nature close to home.

In Hammarby, Sweden, families with children are attracted to high-density housing because of the oak forest that surrounds the five-story buildings.

These projects may be far from Raleigh, but the principles they embrace are not new to our city. Raleigh’s last major downtown housing boom took place prior to WWII, when well-designed housing with street entrances, porches and gardens populated our urban core.

Some of those buildings are still in use, such as the apartment buildings on Edenton and Morgan streets and St. Mary’s Apartments near Hillsborough Street. They have handsome street entrances and generous balconies where friends sit out on a summer evening. In historic developments like the Cameron Court collection and the Boylan Apartments facing Hillsborough Street, parks and gardens are woven between the buildings. Solidly constructed of brick and stone, many of them look as good today as they did when they were built almost 100 years ago.

Good housing is the fabric that holds a city together. As historian Nicklaus Pevsner said, “One building is architecture, two buildings are townscape.”

Sometimes, instead of embracing the latest real estate trend, it’s worthwhile to pause and observe what we have to be proud of and what really works.

In 1960, for example, Raleigh was known around the world for its innovative Modernist houses. These houses improved the lives of their occupants, sustained the environment, respected our region and reached beyond the traditional two-story brick Colonial.

Somehow the value of innovation has been lost since then. We are now entering a new period of urban living. Can we be innovative again?

If you think the answer is no, then expect more repetitive five-story wood boxes and a decline in unit types, variety and quality – not to mention a serious lack of design innovation where mere surface decoration is a substitute for creative thinking.

If you think the answer is yes, then Raleigh could become a leader in sustainable, diversified and multigenerational housing along streets that thrive with children, adults and nature.

Raleigh’s planning department, City Council, developers, architects and builders must begin to consider housing patterns that enhance our daily lives, give back to our city and bring a sense of permanence and quality to our collective future.

Frank Harmon is an architect in Raleigh.


The number of residential units built inside Raleigh’s Beltline from 2000 to 2014


The number under construction this year alone