The earliest vision of Raleigh, planned by William Christmas in 1792, was a grid in a territory of forest and floodplains near where early lawmakers liked to drink.
Yet, nearly unique among state capitals, Raleigh has no substantial body of water flowing through it. Downtown is abutted by trickling creeks and streams, but there is no great river.
That could change within the next decade if City Planning Director Mitchell Silver's vision is fulfilled. He says he would like to do something "similar to what they did in San Antonio," referring to that city's River Walk, a below-street-level tourist attraction along the San Antonio River that includes restaurants, hotels and shops.
Raleigh's river walks could be part of a new comprehensive urban vision led by design firm Sasaki Associates, which has been hired to help the city develop with a Downtown Master Plan for the next 10 years.
Last week, Raleigh City Council approved the $343,000 contract for Sasaki, which has been the principal on international design projects such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the much-lauded Chicago Riverwalk. Principal-in-Charge Fred Merill of Sasaki said they were attracted to Raleigh because "Raleigh gets things done. We like to see our projects implemented."
Grant Meacci, head of the city's Urban Design Center, said Sasaki was brought in to help weave together big public works projects, such as Union Station, Dix Park and a new Moore Square. The details of the 10-year-plan will be hashed out over the next year, with public input. And both Silver and Merill expressed interest in bringing two "water elements" to downtown Raleigh.
One of these has been in the works for years. A 2012 planning study reimagined the dystopian, warehouse-strewn Capital Boulevard corridor as a bike-friendly, light-rail-connected green space with a "river walk" along the forgotten Pigeon House Branch creek from Peace Street north on Capital.
To make this dream a reality, the city has begun buying property on Capital Boulevard and clearing out its facilities in the old Devereux Meadows site. That is, once the money is there: It will cost $50 million–$60 million over 20 years, Silver said. The Milner Inn and The Foxy Lady, which sit on a crucial plot of land at the convergence of North and South Capital Boulevard, will be demolished. The Milner Inn was contacted for this story but would neither confirm nor deny that the city is buying the property.
A representative of the The Foxy Lady Cigar Bar and Nightclub, which on the same property, said, "We've been hearing rumors about this for 25 years. It's not happening."
Meacci seemed circumspect about the possibility of a river walk in this part of Raleigh. "Pigeon House Branch is a much smaller water body than what they have in San Antonio."
In addition to Pigeon House Branch creek, Silver says, he wants to create a second "huge water element" downtown, through a process called "daylighting"—the opening up and restoring of long-diminished streams and creeks. The second river walk would likely be the Rocky Branch Creek along MLK Jr. Boulevard, on the south side of downtown.
In the mid-2000s, Raleigh's five-year "Livable Streets" plan revitalized Fayetteville Street and helped spearhead a renaissance, bringing more people and businesses downtown. But more can be done. "Right now you can do some of what you want downtown, but not everything. I live downtown and I've still got to drive to the Food Lion on Glascock to pick up groceries," Meacci said.
Silver said that the short-term projects would include public space improvements and "better connections between the districts," such as Glenwood South, the Warehouse District and Downtown. Using the $75 million transportation bond passed in October, the city will start improving the Blount Street/Person Street corridor for bikes and pedestrians. With CITRIX building its new office in the Warehouse District and the first phase of Union Station slated to be completed in 2016 or 2017, the west side of downtown will likely become a counterpart to Fayetteville Street.
New hipster spots like Café de Los Muertos, which opened last week on Hargett Street, could proliferate. Add a new Moore Square, Dix Park, greening of Capital Boulevard and "river walks" at the north and south gateways of downtown, and the city seems unrecognizable.
Redevelopment will likely bring more glossy, expensive condo buildings. "The city is growing. We're going to have to find out where to put 5-, 6-, 7,000 units to accommodate our growth," Silver said.
Merill said that Sasaki had no intention to upend the city. "We're not developers. We provide a vision. The city can adopt it and move forward and take the plan and say, OK, let's go out and do this individual project."
However, Raleigh's design future could be hazy if Silver takes the top planner position in New York City. How would his departure affect the green, sustainable fever dream for downtown? "It would be a big loss, I think, because he's been a huge advocate for the city and really changed people's perception of what Raleigh can be," Meacci said.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A river walk in raleigh?"