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Here's to you, Andy Leager

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I've been kicking myself for not listening to Andy Leager a year ago when Raleigh was picking a site for its new convention center. Alone on the site-selection committee, Leager argued for putting it where the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce is now, which would have required tearing that building down and also the adjacent N.C. Association of Educators building. I thought that scenario unlikely, so I didn't pay much attention. And anyway, it was clear from the get-go that the downtown business crowd, backed by Mayor Charles Meeker, wanted the center put on essentially the same site they picked for it in 1992, when voters rejected the whole idea. (Since then, the enactment of hotel and restaurant taxes to finance tourism-related facilities--the RBC Center, e.g., and now the convention center--makes voter approval no longer necessary.)

Had folks followed Leager's lead, we would today be designing our new center on a hill overlooking Western Boulevard at the southern edge of downtown. The big trucks that supply conventions--and their trade shows--would've been able to pull in at the bottom of the hill, out of public view. A spectacular high-rise design could've been achieved at the top without needing to overpower its neighbors.

Instead, we--the residents of Raleigh, I mean--are trying to shoehorn our big-box convention center slap-dab into the downtown area, and it isn't easy. The site, on the block bounded by Salisbury, Lenoir, McDowell and Cabarrus streets (with expansion planned for the next block west of McDowell), isn't in the worst place (say, in Moore Square); but it will block the way between the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, where lots of people go, and the West Side neighborhood, where it's hoped lots more people will go--and live--once the TTA rail station opens there.

The trick for Raleigh, as one of its planning consultants, James Moore, of HDR/Dover, Kohl & Partners, said the other day, is making pedestrian connections between those two "pockets" of downtown life, and with the other destination spots in the downtown (Glenwood South, City Market, the Blount Street area)."So that, hopefully," Moore said, "the whole will cohere into a downtown district."

The new convention center is supposed to bring upwards of 350,000 visitors a year into downtown Raleigh. That's the good news. The bad: the center's architects, who include Steve Schuster of Raleigh's Clearscapes Inc., are tasked to design something that will enhance the West Side neighborhood's fabric without, however, being allowed to include any of the sorts of things--street-level storefronts, gallery spaces, restaurants--that would help the big box "fit in." Too expensive, you know.

Schuster's team has been sharing sketches of late at public sessions to general hooting from the bleachers (especially from the newspaper aerie on South Dawson Street) that their efforts are "homely"--and the center must be "exciting." Even, the latest fad word: "iconic."

Iconic was a possibility on Leager's hillside site. Turns out, incidentally, that the Chamber of Commerce and the NCAE both plan to relocate in the not-too-distant future, since their highly valuable land is highly underutilized by their respective one-story buildings. Ouch.

As long as the convention center must be in-town, however, what it needs to be is not iconic so much as unobtrusive--as unobtrusive as it's possible for a 220,000 square-foot building (expandable to 300,000 sf) to be when the general public is not supposed to come in (nor convention-goers to peer out), and yet it must appear as if they could. Lots of small "articulations" are needed, and lots of glass, so that passersby are fooled into thinking that, en route from the BTI to the West Side, it's just one user-friendly thing after another.

And nothing that says: I'm a huge iconic building, and I'm in your unexciting pedestrian way.

***

Next up, Fayetteville Street. A majority on the City Council also blew off Leager early this year when he--and many others--pleaded with them to keep the new Fayetteville Street simple, as in its original design, and not pimp it up with colored pavers, granite tables, and a lot of other streetscape hoo-hah. Just re-open the street as it was pre-Mall, Leager counseled, with its grand view from the Capitol all the way to the old Governor's Mansion, since moved and replaced by the BTI Center.

Unfortunately, Leager, an architect and the owner of a custom furniture-making business not far from City Hall, is not actually a voting member of the council, having finished back in the pack when he tried for an at-large seat in the '91 elections. Consider him an honorary member, however, because once again he was right as rain.

Only this time, fortune may be smiling at last on a Leager plan.

True, the Council voted for the anti-Leager scheme, with its wide, wide sidewalks and a narrow (40-foot) roadbed barely big enough for two car lanes--one each way--plus two parallel parking lanes. In effect, the city was going to take out the disastrous Fayetteville Mall and replace it with a Fayetteville mall-ette, with car traffic allowed but absolutely not encouraged.

And just to dis-courage it more, the approved plan opened the street to cars only from the Capitol to just south of Davie Street, which, if you're counting, is all of three blocks. After Davie, it was to end in a cul-de-sac--and a plaza (aka, mall).

This appeared to be a misreading of the purpose of reopening Fayetteville Street, which is not that it must be the downtown destination but rather that it should be part of an effective street grid connecting all of the various destinations.

Alas, when the bids came in for this supposed $8.8 million project, they were at or above $13 million, mainly because of all the expensive hoo-hah. Rejecting such profligacy, the council told its comprehensive plan committee to start hacking away at the decorations, but committee members soon saw that doing so without changing the basic design that would just leave wide, wide sidewalks with nothing on them.

Why not, reasoned councilors Thomas Crowder and Neal Hunt (both of whom were minority backers of the Leager plan to begin with), shrink the widewalks a bit and thereby widen the road?

As originally designed, Fayetteville Street was 65 feet wide with 18-foot sidewalks. "Scheme B," as pitched by Crowder and Hunt, would restore all but 10 feet of it, allowing room for two car lanes and a trolley lane down the middle, as well as the two parallel-parking lanes; or, in the alternative, it would be wide enough for diagonal parking on both sides, albeit without the trolley lane.

The remaining sidewalks would still be wide (23 feet), just not widewalks any more.

Scheme B, along with a pared-down Scheme A, was on the full council's agenda as we went to press Tuesday.

Meanwhile, more good news from HDR/Dover, Kohl & Partners. Hired to figure out what the city should do with the vacant tracts of land it owns right in front of the BTI Center--the two now used as parking lots and a third that will be created when the old civic center is torn down--the consultants said, we have one word for you. Plastics.

No, just kidding. Housing, was the word.

After a four-day "charrette" with developers and a few citizens, the consultants called for six- to 10-story condominiums with street-level retail or entertainment uses. But first, they said, you've got to have a street. Thus, they called for dumping that cul-de-sac idea and taking Fayetteville Street down almost all the way to the BTI Center. They'd quit at Lenoir Street, leaving a little plaza between their condos where cars couldn't go.

One more block, and we'll get that original street back, BTI to the Capitol, no fooling. 'We have a lot of other 'intimate' streets," says Councilor Crowder. "Historically, this is our ceremonial main street, and it should be returned to that."

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