The ornate wrought-iron detailing and balconies reminiscent of homes in New Orleans's Garden District—not to mention its location on the east end of Hillsborough Street, Raleigh's historic thoroughfare—have made the Velvet Cloak Inn an icon since the early 1960s. It's hosted countless weddings and events, housed famous guests, and served as Governor McCrory's campaign headquarters as well as an informal space for late-night legislative sessions.
But now Willie York's pet project, named for the garment Sir Walter Raleigh laid in the mud for Queen Elizabeth, will likely be torn down to make way for 150 student-apartment units inside a six-story, block-long, brick-stucco mixed box. The site has sat vacant for nearly a year, after owner David Smoot repossessed condos he'd sold to elderly and disabled tenants. After a deal with a Chicago hotelier for the property apparently fell through, an Atlanta-based development company bought the two-and-a-half-acre property. Peak Campus hopes to have the new building completed by next summer.
Neighbors living in the adjacent Cameron Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, aren't at all sold on the project, however. They don't agree with Peak's interpretation of the city's development code, which has resulted in a six-story design on a site that they believe is zoned for five stories. They don't believe that Peak has met the UDO's landscaping requirements, and they think that the project skirts requirements for trees and a wide sidewalk.
"Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the project simply lacks the quality we expect on one of Raleigh's grander, more famous streets," wrote Neil Riemann, president of the Cameron Park Neighborhood Association, in an April 5 letter to the developer and city staff. In other words, they think it's ugly.
In part because of its high-profile location, the project is the first major test of Raleigh's newly adopted unified development ordinance. And it has exposed weaknesses in the way the new code is being applied, the biggest being that there are fewer opportunities for neighbors to engage with projects that don't require rezoning, since site-plan proposals no longer go before the city council or any city commission. Instead, these projects only require staff approval to move forward.
"We were able to provide some input [to the developer] because we've been doing this for a long time, but for most people in most neighborhoods, they are not even going to know this kind of thing is going on," says Riemann. There are benefits to a public process, he adds, "particularly on things where you can't really make rules, like 'how does something look?'"
Peak filed its original design plans with the city in March; since then it has made refinements based on feedback from city staffers and residents. The new design eliminates much of a large concrete wall across the front of the building, says Jonathon Barge, vice president for development for Peak Campus. The building's façade was updated as well.
"Our designs are evolving, and we are very early in the process," Barge wrote in an email to the INDY. "We will continue to engage the community, listen, get input, and make adjustments as we move forward."
But Riemann says Peak has been unwilling to budge on the height issue. This is a foremost concern, because three properties that contribute to the historic character of Cameron Park—homes built in the twenties and thirties, each around thirty feet tall—are located just twenty-five feet from what would be the eastern wall of the new building. The structure would tower over them, creating an incompatibility that could lead to the eventual demolition of the homes.
Peak says it designed the building to be several feet below the allowed height for the site's zoning, and the bottom floor is actually a basement. City planning staff will make the ultimate determination on the height question in the next few weeks; the site plan is still under review, meaning staffers can still bring up any UDO-related issue with Peak.
But under the UDO, when the planners make a decision, the city council's hands will be tied.
City council member Russ Stephenson says this isn't ideal. He's looking at ways "to bring site plans that have substantial impacts on surrounding contexts or in high-profile locations" before the council for review.
"There's also discussion that the Appearance Commission review upcoming site plans, to see how they're panning out relative to the UDO's intent and purpose," Stephenson says. "Then we can have a more predictable process where everyone knows up-front what the expectations are and have a clear expectation of development built to UDO site-plan standards."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Velvet Fog"