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At Raleigh's City Plaza, everybody gets to play

A proposed meeting place in the middle of Fayetteville Street would put people over traffic

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Without doubt, I am a public-participation whore. Give me a seat at the table—any table, as long as it's not in another room—and a generous supply of blue, red and yellow stickies, and I'm a happy citizen, ready to make my opinions known on subjects ranging from the occupation in Iraq (blue on "get out, it's lost") to the roundabouts on Hillsborough Street (start with ones at the east and west ends).

So I was a like a pig in pig-doo the other night, sitting as I was with my fellow "creative minds" at Table 8 in the Sheraton Hotel, and considering (at the behest of my city) the best use of the downtown Raleigh place formerly known as Plensa Plaza but hereafter to be called—ah, what was it at the end? City Plaza?

City Plaza it is.

See how easy I am?

Include me in the discussion, in other words, and even when I know that the folks in the front of the room are steering our talk, plumping stuff they've pretty much decided before the likes of me were brought in, I'm still a whole lot more likely to be nodding yes at the end and joining in the groupthink than if they'd drafted their final report first and asked my opinion of it later.

(And considered it never.)

Anyway, I say all this for two reasons. One, I'm convinced that the scheme we great minds have settled on for City Plaza is better than Plensa Plaza would've been—but you should take the rah-rah that follows with a grain of salt, since I can't deny how I've been co-opted. And two, for the life of me, I don't know why we don't use public participation in Raleigh more, since it's so much easier to get buy-in from folks if they were listened to and not just run over.

So, City Plaza. This is the acre or so that occupies most of the 500 block of Fayetteville Street, including the space in front of the Sheraton on its west side and in front of the nondescript office tower opposite on its east side. Since both buildings are set back farther from the street than all their neighbors, and since the 500 block is about midway from the Capitol to Memorial Auditorium, the effect is a natural gathering place within a block of the new convention center.

No need to belabor what happened to Spanish artist Jaume Plensa's lights-and-faucets design for the space. Suffice it to say, he drew it up first (at the behest of a local patron), consulted the public second—and only for purposes of explaining why we should love it—and in so doing missed the whole point of reopening Fayetteville Street to vehicular traffic.

After the Plensa plan fizzled, the city's Urban Design Center was called upon, together with the citizen-members of the Raleigh Arts Commission, to pick up the pieces. Which—and here comes the rah-rah—they have.

Their new scheme is to run Fayetteville Street right through the middle of the plaza, where it belongs, but without any raised curbs or sidewalks, only well-marked boundaries on a flat plane. In other words, cars will proceed, but very slowly, whenever the plaza's going strong because everything about the place will say that it's for people first, cars second.

Then—and here's the other cool idea—the rest of the plaza will be set up so that it can accommodate lots of different, active things, not just one static Plensa thing. It might be a beer garden one weekend, a Shakespeare Festival site the next. Or a dance hall (with flooring). Or an outdoor shopping mart.

It'll have lights, like Plensa's design did. But unlike Plensa's, it'll be flexible lighting, shining here today, but there tomorrow, depending on what it is that's supposed to be illuminated.

And unlike Plensa's plaza, this one will be able to accommodate good sounds—and bands—too.

Now, this is not what I ever had in mind for the place. But since I (and anybody else who wanted to come) got to kick it around in the early going and pitch my two cents in, guess what? I'm ready to say it's much better than what I had in mind.

Details to follow, with the Dans (Dan Howe, the assistant city manager, and Dan Douglas, the UDC director) tasked with getting the City Council to sign off on the basic concept of flexibility, rather than a permanent plaza design, before any get decided.

But from the 80 of us who came together last week, there was no shortage of such suggested details, including a video board to plug events or play selected music; a "voting kiosk" where citizens' views could be sought; or—and here's my favorite, from Dana McCall of raleighing.com fame—a "waterway" from Wilmington Street into the plaza, with the water ("It's the nectar of Gaia," he joked) going up and dripping down (pumps, you know), while mirrors make it look like it's going down and dripping up.

Did I get that right, Dana?

Bottom line, City Plaza should be "a kinetic, ever-changing place," says Beth Khalifa, a Designbox member and one of many artists who helped the Dans hatch their plan. And if you hear from a friend that "I don't know what it is, you just have to go down and see it for yourself," she adds, that'll be a sign that it's working as advertised.

By contrast, we citizens are still waiting to hear whether there's a role for us in helping decide where the Triangle goes next, transit-wise, following the setback to the TTA's Durham-to-Raleigh commuter rail line. Mayor Meeker? Mayor Bell? Where's that public process? Do tell Citizen: rjgeary@mac.com.

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