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Downtown Raleigh: The envelope, please

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Mike Regan, newly elected to the Raleigh City Council on his "Jesus Saves, As Do Tax Cuts" platform, is bidding fair to be the new Tom Fetzer. Fetzer, you'll recall, won the mayor's job a decade ago after beating to death the '92 referendum for a new downtown convention center. He was the darling of the city's right-wing until flaming out in the 2000 gubernatorial campaign. Regan probably can't beat the new convention center plan to death (no referendum this time--hah!), but by asking every pointed question he can think of about it, he's making Mayor Charles Meeker pay a price for pushing it.

And Regan's good looking, which was always Fetzer's best attribute.

Still, at the risk of sounding like Mike or Tom, there are some questions that need to be asked, and answered, before the convention center and the associated plan to reopen Fayetteville Street to cars is put to a final vote. Here are a few of them, following the open house at the city's Urban Design Center last week and the various "briefings" for city and county officials by City Manager Russell Allen.

First, are we trying to make Fayetteville Street a retail-restaurant destination? If not, why are the sidewalks so wide and the roadway so narrow? (Sidewalk cafes dot the official renderings.) If so, where exactly is all the retail supposed to go, given that much of the street is occupied by the county courthouse and office building, the post office, law offices and so on.

Second, are we really fixin' to put another hotel on Fayetteville Street with no storefront retail? We can't have a new convention center without a "headquarters hotel," we're told. And we can't have the hotel without a $20 million public subsidy. But even with a subsidy, we can't get the 450 rooms we wanted (400 so far) and we can't insist that the developer put shops and restaurants on the street front. We're told.

Third, what exactly is the market for the convention center-and-hotel and who's the competition? (Myrtle Beach? Charlotte? Atlanta?) And what are we offering meeting-goers that they won't be able to get in Myrtle? In short, what's the big idea to make downtown Raleigh desirable, and how does the new Fayetteville Street, with or without a convention center, fit into it?

At the open house, Rich Flierl, the architect from the Atlanta firm of Cooper Carry who's been working with the city on the so-called Livable Streets plan for the past year, says his firm is writing an overall downtown development plan and should have a first draft soon. That would help.

Meanwhile, Meeker wants the Fayetteville Street scheme approved yesterday (details to follow) and is pushing, pushing to get the convention center funded while the iron from his 60 percent re-election victory is hot. It's hot, but so far his downtown planning is lukewarm. The best argument for building a new convention center is that it will let us tear down the old one, which sits like an ugly beast in the middle of Fayetteville Street, blocking out the sun and the view from the state Capitol to Memorial Auditorium. Why is it there? No doubt because the people who built it didn't sweat the details.

Who Loves Charles? Ann Akland, a 2001 Indy "Citizen Award" winner, does. When we wrote about her efforts, as president of the Wake chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, to establish a daytime clubhouse in Raleigh for folks needing help but not hospitalization ("The House on Poole Road, Nov. 19), Akland had just discovered that Raleigh's zoning code made doing so just about impossible.

Enter Mayor Meeker. "I have never seen such responsiveness from an elected official," Akland gushes. Amendments have been drafted, and a public hearing set for the Council meeting next Tuesday. It's still a long way to a Raleigh clubhouse, but one big impediment--the antiquated zoning-- is ready to come down.

Free Speech Is Over There: From a 2003 "Citizen Award" recipient, bad news. Lewis Pitts went home to South Carolina to defend Brett Bursey against the charge that he threatened President Bush by holding up an anti-war sign as the president was landing at the Columbia, S.C., airport for a political rally. Bursey was no threat, U.S. Magistrate Bristow Marchant decided on Tuesday. But he was close enough to Bush--and the paying contributors--that the Secret Service's order that Bursey move a half-mile away was reasonable. Since he didn't--$500 fine. But no jail time, which suggests that free speech is still allowed in the Palmetto State, as long as you pay for it, or yell from a distance.

Lame-duck John: Our senator, John Edwards, is closing in on the Democratic presidential nomination, according to The News & Observer. That's great news. Now he can resign that Senate seat he doesn't want any more, and give Democrat Erskine Bowles a head-start on keeping it out of the hands of the Karl Rove Republicans come the November elections. We'd frown on Gov. Easley, after Edwards' resignation, appointing Bowles if any other Democrats were running. But none are, so what is our president-elect-to-be waiting for? EndBlock

We hear Ralph Nader is coming to town Tuesday night, details tba. Email rjgeary@aol.com if you care, and want to know more.

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