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Plaza? Or no plaza?

Raleigh takes up art, parks--and sewers

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The question of whether or not to install Spanish artist Jaume Plensa's light show on Fayetteville Street has set off the most amazing debate in Raleigh over whether we're too dull, too philistine, too cheap or too something else to appreciate great art, on the one hand; or, to hear some others tell it, too scared to tell Mr. Plensa that we really don't like what he's pitching.

Me? I like it fine. I just don't think it fits real well--yet--on the 500 block of Fayetteville Street.

A week ago, when we all trooped downtown to see the city's mockup, everybody's attention was focused upwards, on the lights. Would they, if strung across the street, interfere with our just-recovered view of the Capitol from Memorial Auditorium and Memorial Auditorium from the Capitol? Some said yes. Most said no. I said, if they're hung high enough they won't. Otherwise, they will.

But where people should've been looking was down, where Plensa's plaza would be. Here, we were at a disadvantage, because the mockup didn't show the plaza, only the lights. But it's the plaza that's the problem.

Fayetteville Street is 100 feet wide. Plensa's plaza? Also 100 feet wide (and 140 feet long), and raised up 3 feet above the street. We just got through spending $10 million to de-mall half of Fayetteville Street, down to the 400 block, and it's going to cost that much again to de-mall the rest. Why would we want to install a mini-mall at the mid-point?

To be fair, the buildings in the 500 block are set back farther from the street, so cars and trolleys and buses could get around Plensa's plaza, albeit very, very slowly. But to say it would be a bottleneck is putting it mildly.

Could the plaza be smaller? Could it be bisected, or trisected, to let the street go through "under the lights"? I'm no artist, but I don't see why not.

There's another issue, though. The city actually has a plan for the south end of Fayetteville Street, circa 2004. It's never been formally adopted by the City Council, but the council's followed it so far in approving underground parking, a major development deal on the old civic center site, and another deal for a hotel-condo project on Salisbury Street. That plan suggests that the right place for a plaza, if one is needed, is in the 700 block of Fayetteville Street. The idea is to extend the existing plaza--the Lichtin Plaza--in front of the Progress Energy/Memorial Auditorium complex.

We don't need two new plazas one block apart, that's for sure. Maybe we don't need either. But what's clear is that Mayor Charles Meeker and the City Council have a decision to make, and they haven't made it. And until they do, asking Jaume Plensa to design a plaza for the 500 block of Fayetteville Street makes no more sense than asking the city engineers to make up some art for it.

Updating some other Raleigh issues:

  • On Horseshoe Farm Park: Ducking the nature vs. community park issue for the time being, the City Council decided it needed a site visit. Good idea. When they go, they'll find that the park is well off the beaten track, and the only entrance to it is down a narrow country lane that can't easily be widened, given that there are houses (and a pond) alongside. In other words, it's not real accessible to kids with their basketballs, let alone lots of their parents' cars.

    And there's another big impediment to the "community park" idea, with its two-gymnasium recreation center and its outdoor b-ball courts. It's the fact that the 'shoe sits atop a solid granite dome jutting into the Neuse River. To get a sewer line there, according to a memo from the city's public utilities director, Dale Crisp, you either have to drive it (expensively) under the Neuse, through rock and muck, or else attach it (heavily) to a pedestrian greenway bridge that will someday be built over the Neuse. Either way, once past the Neuse it's still got to get through the granite to the rec center.

    On other hand, you can have a nature park without a sewer line (the present case), and put the rec center in one of Northeast Raleigh's several empty strip malls--that is, on a road more-traveled.

  • Speaking of sewers, when the issue of impact fees on new houses was debated in Raleigh earlier this year, someone on Council thought to ask about the city's water-and-sewer "capacity fees." How do they compare with other cities in the state, or towns in the county, City Manager Russell Allen was asked.

    Again, the answer comes from Dale Crisp: Raleigh's capacity fees on new houses are--zero. That compares with fees elsewhere in Wake County that range from a low of $1,178 per house in Knightdale to a high of $6,000 per house in Holly Springs. Cary's? $4,323 average (they're based on house size); Charlotte's? $1,545. Greensboro? $985. (Durham and Winston-Salem? Also zero.)

    Crisp's estimate is that Raleigh, if it decided to charge the actual cost per house of adding additional capacity to the water and sewer-treatment plants, would get about $2,060 per new house. At 5,000 new houses per year, that's more than $10 million a year Raleigh's not getting--more, that is, than it's not getting from the impact fees it could've charged, but didn't.

    The homebuilders thank you, Raleigh taxpayers.

    For more on the Plensa plaza, and to see a picture, visit our Citizen blog at www.indyweek.com, and send your civic-minded tips to rjgeary@mac.com.

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