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Empty warehouses, no trains

What to do with TTA's empty buildings in downtown Raleigh?

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The seven red-brick buildings adjacent to the large Dillon Supply building off of West Martin Street in downtown Raleigh are a melancholy sight. They've remained empty since late 2005, when they were bought out by the Triangle Transit Authority as part of the TTA's plans for a 28-mile rail line.

Problem: The rail line's still in limbo, and so are the buildings.

Aly Khalifa and Isaac Panzarella are two members of DesignBox, a creative collective that opened an office near the old Dillon buildings in March. They've proposed a solution—why not repurpose the buildings as live/work spaces for artists?

"When [the rail line] stalled, that seemed to produce an opportunity," Panzarella says.

Khalifa and Panzarella are gung-ho to see the older buildings repurposed as studios—after all, it's worked for them.

In DesignBox's West Martin Street headquarters, Panzarella eagerly points out how the concrete floor has been polished, how "14 years of paper dust" has been cleaned out of the rafters, and how the walls and ceilings have been painted light, soothing colors.

The building that once held a printing press and, later, a moving company now hosts a variety of graphic designers, animators and other creative types, including Onion Head Monster cartoonist Paul Friedrich.

Panzarella points out that a repurposed existing building can take only a few months to be up and running as a business, while doing a new building from the ground up can take at least five years. According to Panzarella, redeveloping DesignBox's home base only took a few months and less than $100,000.

"The smaller projects seem like the most viable and interesting, because a small business owner can purchase a building and both use it for themselves and lease out part of it," Panzarella says.

Khalifa agrees, saying that turning the buildings into studios would bring additional business to the area. "This part of Raleigh, at least in my mind, is the elbow that connects Glenwood South to downtown," Khalifa says. "There are some real opportunities here."

But what does the TTA make of these opportunities?

In an e-mail, TTA spokesman Brad Schulz says that the TTA has adopted a "wait-and-see" stance on future use of the Dillon buildings, based on the recommendations of a 38-member Citizens' Special Transit Authority Commission.

"The STAC is to have recommendations for studying future transit corridors by late 2007," Schulz says. "A decision on those transit corridors is expected by the planning organizations late next spring [2008]. Once the STAC recommendation(s) has/have been made, TTA will evaluate the land it has acquired for future transit use and explore options for the land's future."

Schulz adds that Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh has agreed with TTA to proceed with further evaluation once the citizens' commission has completed its work. He says that some of the property is currently leased to tenants, and that a decision has to be made on the rest of the property based on whether it's in a transit corridor that will be studied next year.

Khalifa emphasizes that DesignBox does not want to use the buildings personally, but "you can't help but be a citizen and react to this stuff." He sees the empty warehouses as an opportunity to preserve Raleigh's past. "Most of old Raleigh has been demolished and turned into a lot of new buildings," he says. "But I think people are starting to wake up to how valuable the buildings, and their history, really are."

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