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Why is Research Triangle Park building its own mini-city?

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Imagine you could design a city from scratch, unencumbered by the entrenched forces that beguile urban planners undertaking revitalization projects—powerful developers, neighborhood NIMBYs, institutionalized poverty, political factions. Imagine you could make this city a transit hub for commuters from your neighboring counties. Imagine you could lure retail, local retail, to this city by having a built-in, already-established demand—shops, a cinema, restaurants, maybe a grocery. Imagine you had a blank slate, virtual carte blance to take the clichéd live/work/play mantra urbanists throw around and mold it into something new.

Imagine you are Bob Geolas.

Last week, the president and CEO of Research Triangle Park unveiled plans for phase one of Park Center, a massive redevelopment on 100 acres of recently acquired RTP land—the blank slate, if you will. Scheduled to break ground early next year, phase one will feature an amphitheater, two hotels, 300 or so residential units (an undetermined percentage of which will be affordable) and 300,000 square feet of retail space, filled by local restaurants and stores (no Macy's here), Geolas promises. He wants Park Center to connect the hoped-for Durham-Orange County light-rail line to the hoped-for Wake County commuter rail line.

In short, he wants to create what sounds a lot like a mini-downtown, though Geolas doesn't call it that. "We're not trying to pretend to be a downtown," he says, because he doesn't want to compete with downtowns in Raleigh and Durham. But then again, he's not trying to build a town center, and certainly not a "little shopping mall," he says. He wants something that "gets people excited about the future." (At the unveiling last Thursday, he described himself as a member of the "Jetsons Generation," a time when such excitement was palpable.) He wants to use Park Center to better tell the stories of the innovations RTP's companies are producing—and to advertise to business travelers the region's many offerings. He also wants to build a "sky gondola" system connecting RTP to the airport, but that's for a later date.

From a practical perspective, however, what RTP really wants to do with Park Center is to reinvigorate its brand and keep up with the times. RTP was a product of its era, designed in the late 1950s as a suburban, car-centric business park, nothing more. In fact, until recently the same legislation that forbid cities from annexing the park also prohibited RTP from building any residential or retail.

But that model has shifted. Young, innovative tech workers don't want a hellish commute. They want to live near where they work. They want collaborative spaces. They want amenities like a dog park and eclectic restaurants, not a Jimmy John's.

The goal, Geolas says, is to offer the kinds of "experiences" that will keep the next generation of workers interested in RTP's companies, which in turn will both keep existing companies in place and make the park attractive for new, smaller business, especially start-ups—a survival mechanism for the 21st century.

This announcement wasn't a surprise. It's been in the works for years, even before Geolas took over in 2011. And when RTP secured the land last year, Geolas all but telegraphed its intentions. Last week, the Durham County Commission agreed to the park's zoning request and a $20 million loan, an essential part of the $50 million package RTP had to put together to get started. (Another $10 million came from an increased tax on RTP's landowners, the rest from the Research Triangle Park Foundation*.) With the county's commitment, all lights are green.

But this is only the beginning. Whenever phase one is done—about seven to 10 years—phase two will begin, probably with more office space and lots more residential. After that, who knows. RTP has another 300 acres or so to play with, after all.

Reach the INDY's Triangulator team at triangulator@indyweek.com.

*This sentence has been updated. 

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