The Warehouse District, with its land-hugging, namesake warehouses, blaring train horns and cobblestone walkways, is one of downtown Raleigh's most beloved areas, attracting architects and designers, beer and coffee brewers, chocolate confectioners and young entrepreneurs, artists and thousands of residents.
The long-awaited, $80 million Union Station, when it opens in 2017, will cement the district as a transit hub and a cornerstone of the city. Land values will skyrocket—and, as developers have already noticed, there are still large swaths of property and old buildings ripe for redevelopment.
In late May, the city's Planning Commission unanimously recommended that the City Council rezone the Dillon Supply Co. building—a historic, red-brick warehouse adjacent to the new Citrix building—as well as seven surrounding parcels, to allow for a mixed-use development of up to 20 stories. There are some restrictions: The ground floor must have what city planners call "active uses," things like shops, small businesses, cafés, markets or art galleries; the developer has to include parking structures; and a portion of the site can go only nine stories high.
This proposal, offered by developer John Kane—best known for developing North Hills—doesn't gel with the city's 2030 Comprehensive Plan, which calls for a 12-floor max in this area. Nonetheless, the Planning Commission signed off, saying Kane's development would "encourage growth near major transit facilities and employment centers."
To urban planners, this sort of thing makes perfect sense. As Raleigh planning director Ken Bowers points out, cities often encourage high-intensity development along transit lines to support transit investments and accommodate growth without adding traffic, as well as to create walkable places.
But the people who live near the Dillon Supply building aren't sold.
In March, the Central Citizens Advisory Council voted against the proposal 17-1, with residents saying this project doesn't mesh with what's nearby. Currently, the tallest building in the Warehouse District is the six-story Hue apartment building. They also complained that the redevelopment doesn't respect the district's character and wouldn't enhance public life or provide public benefits. And though Kane has promised to preserve some of the original brickwork, there's no requirement that he keep the iconic Dillon Supply sign painted onto the building's east side. This, too, bothers residents.
"The thoughts and statements by the developer follow the copy-and-paste mentality of growth," says longtime Warehouse District resident Art Howard. "'We need density and this is the solution.' Be it in Raleigh, Denver or Miami, [the developer says] just be happy we are here with our money."
Proponents counter that Kane is an expert at providing retail in public spaces—something everyone agrees downtown needs more of—and that the design will be urban and pedestrian-friendly, footsteps away from Union Station. They argue that the proposal is a strong example of healthy, transit-oriented development.
"Sure, you can preserve existing building styles," says Seth Hollar, a representative of Raleigh-YIMBY—YIMBY stands for "Yes in My Backyard"—which advocates for high-density urban development. "But given the proximity, who will pay for the impact to Raleigh overall of limiting buildings to five stories in that location?"
Will Allen, a Raleigh-YIMBY founder, says he hopes the development, if approved, will in fact change the neighborhood's character, at least to some degree.
"I would hate for people to get off a Union Station train and the first thing they see is a 1960s warehouse rusting and in terrible shape, and looking like downtown Rocky Mount instead of Raleigh," Allen says. "I feel very good about [this proposal]. If not there, where?"
Howard, however, says that while he supports density "with design principles and conditions that respect the place," this project is "a glorified parking deck," with "dead space from the ground up, much of which can be floor after floor of unadorned parking garage." He says condos, apartments and offices—not parking—should wrap the building.
Thomas Sayer, an architect who lives and works in the Warehouse District, says the conversation about the Dillon warehouse needs to move beyond height.
"Yes, there is such a thing as too damn tall," he says. "Whether it's 20 stories or not, I don't know, but it's my hope that there is a really strong basis in considerations of urban design. People talk about an idea being all good or all bad, but it's inherently neither. In theory there's a way it can be done well, but how one makes the tradeoffs creatively is a test of a good designer and developer."
For Howard, the size of the redevelopment is important, but more so is preserving the Warehouse District's character.
"This building, this district, are actual connections to our past, and when the physical connection is gone, then the memory begins to fade as well," he says. "As long as people can see parts of the building and walk sidewalks that reflect the past, they can say 'what was this building?' And there is a link and the history is real."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Vanishing history."