Blount Street in Raleigh is named for one of North Carolina's three signers of the United States Constitution, William Blount. (The others: Richard Dobbs Spaight and Hugh Williamson.) It's where the Governor's Mansion is located, and City Market. Arguably, it's Raleigh's most important street, and the Blount Street project Raleigh's most important downtown revitalization opportunity. Yes, more than the new convention center, more than the reconstruction of Fayetteville Street, how the Blount Street project turns out will determine whether Raleigh gets to be a great city or not. Unfortunately, just as critical decisions about the project are about to be made, you and I and the other rank-and-file folks of Raleigh are being told--ever so politely, because it's Raleigh, now--to butt out. Oh, and keep your fingers crossed.
Here's the bright side: The Blount Street project is a chance to wrest ownership of some 30 historic buildings and 18 parking lots away from the state in a six-block area to the east of the state government office mall. Presenting it all to the National League of Cities in December as a case study, the consulting firm HDR Inc. called the district "one of a kind," but also a "damaged urban environment," and that about sums it up. The 30 buildings, along with Governor's Mansion and a few other homes owned privately, still hint at the Victorian-era splendor this neighborhood enjoyed before state government ownership destroyed most of it. The parking lots--and the lifeless "mall"--are the mess they made of it.
But imagine if the remaining gingerbread houses were restored as grand residences in a newly revived neighborhood also graced--using those 18 parking lots--with a mix of upscale and affordable condominiums, some private office buildings with street-level shops and restaurants, and perhaps a theater or two. Hunt around on www.blountstreet.org and you'll see what I mean. HDR's "framework" for the project--a bunch of nifty pictures presented to potential developers last summer to show what it could look like, is spot-on.
To the dark side now: Last summer is the last time anybody but developers was invited into the process. It was in June, actually, when we citizens were allowed to take part in a pair of so-called "Place Making Workshops" in which we all wandered around the district, pens in hand, sketching where the stores should go, how tall the buildings should be, et cetera. Since then--nothing.
What reminded me of my own non-participation was something the mayor of Nashville, Tenn., said at a conference two Saturdays ago in Raleigh called Designing Communities for Healthy Living, sponsored by the N.C. State University College of Design. The day's topic was how unhealthy sprawl is--all the pollution, and you have to drive yourself and your kids everywhere, so everybody's fat--and how downtown revitalization is really the only way to go to stop killing ourselves.
Mayor Bill Purcell's point, however, was that, OK, sure, everybody should get that, but in fact they don't get it, since--and in this respect, Raleigh's just like Nashville, apparently--nobody lives downtown just yet, so they think any money you're spending there is into the ol' rathole type-of-thing. Thus, he said, city leaders need to work very hard to get the people who live somewhere else "to think of downtown as our shared neighborhood." So, he added, "It does not work anymore for people to open up the newspaper and say, 'When did we decide to do that?'"
But in mid-April, we will open our newspaper--or tune in to Debra Morgan--and learn that "we" have decided to award a developer the 30 houses and the 18 parking lots, and he/they/it may or may not want to follow HDR's excellent framework.
That's the gist of what I was told by the State Property Office and by Dennis Rash, who chairs something called the Blount Street Historic District Oversight Committee. The committee was created as part of the legislation that authorized the sale of the various properties. But as Rash says, its authority is "no, nada, none." It's the State Property Office that will recommend to the Council of State whether to sell, and the Council of State--chaired by Gov. Mike Easley--that will make the decision.
And here's the rub, as Rash freely acknowledges: The state wants big money for the properties--$25 million or more, notwithstanding that its stewardship of them has been horrendous. Meanwhile, Raleigh needs a gracious downtown attraction--a walkable, "sociable" (that's the new buzzword in the urban-design realm) place--for its visiting conventioneers and North Raleigh second-neighborhooders to enjoy.
But a developer paying the big bucks is going to want to put up the big buildings, which may not be gracious at all, and in any case will be heavily disposed in favor of the high-priced condo over the affordable flat.
Indeed, when the HDR framework was presented in August, 15 developers and development teams listened. Since then, all but four have faded away, doubtless because they don't see much profit in the deal. Now the remaining four--since vetted for their financial capabilities--are being invited to present their respective development schemes, which Rash says will be offered in the alternative: If you follow the framework, how will you go about it, and how much will you pay? Or, show us a plan you like better, and how much you'd pay if you could do that instead?
These proposals, let me underscore, will not be made in public. Rather, they'll be considered in secret by a five-member evaluation team headed by Rash that includes representatives of the state Department of Cultural Resources, the State Construction Office and the City of Raleigh.
The last one--the Raleigh member--could be in a very awkward position for this reason: Once the developers' pitches are in, according to Rash, his committee will try to negotiate a deal with one of them, so the end result--in mid-April--is a recommendation to the State Property Office and the Council of State to award a contract based on the agreed-upon scheme.
Will that contract be contingent on Raleigh--and its citizens--approving whatever scheme is hatched, and the rezoning to go with it? I asked. "I don't know," Rash said. "We're making up the rules as we go along."
Moreover, Rash said, he'll "be amazed" if what's negotiated follows the framework "precisely."
On the other hand, there will be covenants to protect the historic buildings--that's in the legislation too, thankfully.
Rash himself is from Charlotte--a former banker who now teaches at UNC-Charlotte. But, given that, he knows Raleigh's downtown better than you might expect. Almost 20 years ago, he was the guy who developed Founders Row, the condo project in front of Artspace that was downtown Raleigh's lonely pioneer for a long time thereafter.
Charlotte was busy back then redeveloping its downtown, under the whip of Rash's boss, ex-Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, and Rash remembers McColl asking him then what Raleigh was like, development-wise.
"I told him the community psyche seemed to be that Raleigh wanted to grow, but I wasn't sure that Raleigh wanted to be a city. And Charlotte did," Rash recalled. "Today, I think Raleigh's very intriguing--there's a lot of dynamic now around being a city."
That's why we have our fingers crossed.