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Raleigh's big thinkers think big

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One "big idea": Float a city in the sky over the railroad on Raleigh's west side. - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY
  • Photo by Bob Geary
  • One "big idea": Float a city in the sky over the railroad on Raleigh's west side.

Our original "big idea," in revolutionary times, was to establish a brand-new capital city for North Carolina—forget New Bern or Hillsborough—and site it on Joel Lane's farm in Wake County. Lane, a Revolutionary War colonel, sold 1,000 acres to the state in 1792 for a sum in English pounds estimated to equal $2,756. William Christmas, a state senator, quickly platted the acreage for resale, carefully preserving five squares for public use including one square in the center to be occupied by the Capitol itself.

Has Raleigh had a big idea since?

The Beltline, perhaps, or Crabtree Valley ("Let's put a giant traffic jam in the middle of a floodplain!").

But seriously, Raleigh's on course to be a city of 700,000 in 25 years or so, and as the city's planning director, Mitch Silver, asks, Where's our Eiffel Tower? Our St. Louis Arch? Our Seattle Space Needle?

Silver is leading the effort to rewrite Raleigh's comprehensive plan, and his motto, taken from Daniel Burnham, considered the godfather of city planning for his 1909 Chicago plan, is: "Make no small plans."

And so it happened that five or six dozen Raleighites—a self-selected group of large thinkers—answered the planning department's call to bring forth their best big ideas at a gathering last week around the bar at Tir na Nog on Moore Square.

Wait a minute, a planning meeting in a tavern?

Yes, to commemorate the likely, if historically hazy, "fact" that the deal for Raleigh was struck in Lane's own tavern, doubtless after the consumption of some alcohol. (Which may explain why the Capitol is nowhere near the Neuse or any other river.)

So, without further ado, some of the brainstorms:

Streetcars: Not surprisingly, many who attended were thinking transit routes, especially streetcars. They had them running up Glenwood Avenue, up Hillsborough Street, and around the horn from the Fairgrounds to Crabtree Valley.

Bridges: For pedestrians and bicycles only, crossing Capital Boulevard and Peace Street in the downtown north area, and crossing Western Boulevard to connect the downtown and Dorothea Dix.

Downtown library: Still missing; some wanted to "float" it over one of the two plazas connecting Fayetteville and Wilmington streets.

River walk: As with San Antonio's famous river walk, Step One is: Imagine a river. A plan emerged to gussy up the neglected, polluted and partially buried Pigeon House Branch creek that parallels Capital Boulevard from just north of Peace Street to the Glenwood South area, a distance of about 1.3 miles. North of Peace Street, the creek runs through Devereaux Meadows, site of Raleigh's long-lost minor-league baseball stadium and now home to Raleigh's sanitation trucks. Step two: Imagine Devereaux Meadows as an urban (fill in the blank).

Don't stop there: Dan Douglas, head of the planning department's urban design center, imagines a linear "district" that includes the riverwalk zone but continues north to Capital Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue and south to Dorothea Dix. Governments and utilities own 82 acres of land en route, he says. The land could be sold and folded into a new "business improvement district"—a BID—where extra taxes pay for extra amenities such as the country's first privately funded streetcar line. (That drew a cheer.)

Up, up and away: Silver got a cheer, too, for his pet idea. Erect a platform—an elevated foundation—over the railroad "wye" between the downtown and Boylan Heights. Presto, semi-abandoned industrial tracts yield buildable "land" up in the air. It's not a new concept, Silver says. Brooklyn's done it, among other places.

A waterfall: Sig Hutchinson, our "Mr. Green Jeans," says it would be the highest in North Carolina. Just build a dike on Crabtree Creek at the quarry a mile north of the mall. (First, acquire the quarry. About that, Hutchinson says: Stay tuned.) Use the quarry to store water, and at the same time create a spectacular venue at the heart of the city's greenway system.

The planning department's still collecting ideas and expects to publish them in booklet form. On Saturday, the kids get their chance—in Marbles museum, not a tavern—at "Kids City Planning Day," 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, see www.marbleskidsmuseum.org or call Trisha Hasch, 807-8480. For more information on the City of Raleigh Comprehensive Plan, see www.PlanningRaleigh2030.com.

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