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Raleigh's new downtown: 42 floors, Capitol view?


It's not easy for me to say this, but the fantastic unfolding of events in Raleigh in the scant two weeks since the 42-story skyscraper at Crabtree Valley was approved forces me to admit that I was wrong when I criticized that project.

Oh, sure, dozens of you have told me I was right about the Glen-Tree--now renamed "the Soleil Center"--and how appalling it was that the Raleigh Planning Commission and City Council OK'd it in seven days flat. But we mere citizens were not aware of--nor, I concede, would we have fully grasped beforehand--the economic marvels that would flow from the Glen-Tree/Soleil Center thanks to the "invisible hand" that my developer friends also call "the market."

I'm now informed, on deepest background, very hush-hush, that Astral Lodgers Inc. --distant cousins to the Soleil Group--will soon announce a megadeal that will relocate the state Capitol to Crabtree Valley. The new Capitol will be prominently located on Kidd's Hill, part of a cutting-edge, mixed-use project to include ground-level offices and a spa for the governor's staff beneath an "iconic tower" of luxury condominiums and hotel suites that will be visible for miles around. All topped by, yes, a golden dome!

City officials overcame their initial reservations about the height (up to 52 stories) when the Astral Lodgers team agreed to add a trickling "water feature" to the shaft.

"Steve Stroud was right, as he always is," a lawyer close to the deal-making said, referring to Raleigh's commercial real estate broker-savant, "when he told the planning commission that Raleigh needs a four-star hotel at Crabtree to make the RBC arena work.

"But if everybody who shows up in Raleigh for the NHL All-Star Game or an NCAA regional basketball tournament is gonna drive to Crabtree," the attorney, formerly a downtown advocate, continued, "shouldn't the Capitol be there, too? Otherwise, our most important visitors are never gonna see it.

"I mean, let's face it," he said, "Crabtree is obviously our new downtown."

Gov. Easley was uneasy about the deal at first, according to a political aide who insisted he's seen him recently. But Easley perked up when Astral Lodgers made "an extremely generous offer"--the exact terms of which have not yet been finalized--for the current Capitol site.

Their plans for it are undetermined as yet, but most observers in the real estate community agree that the site is underutilized--from a market standpoint--given that the low-rise Capitol is in the shadow of the 30-story Wachovia Center.

Indeed, one source speculated that the Astral Lodgers will try to sign their own big bank--RBC's new headquarters, coming to Raleigh from Rocky Mount, was mentioned--as prime tenant for a state-of-the-art skyscraper that would dwarf the Wachovia and nearby BB&T tower. "Frankly," this developer said, "it's a chance for RBC to send the message that it's an extremely well-endowed bank, too--you know, money-wise." Moving and Shaking As word of the Astral Lodgers deal leaked out, market-driven investors responded with a series of complementary moves that, if approved by the City Council as expected, will virtually remake Raleigh as "the Atlanta of the Piedmont":

Legislative leaders are in talks with North Hills developer John Kane to move the General Assembly to Six Forks Road as part of another mixed-use high-rise. "We wanted to be in the center of Raleigh, too," an aide to House Speaker Jim Black said privately. "But since the constitution mandates a separation of powers, if Easley's going to Crabtree, we'll take North Hills." She also predicted that more lobbyists will buy condos there than at Crabtree, adding tartly: "We'll just see, when it's all said and done, who's got the bigger pickle."

N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake is angling to move the courts to Wake Forest. Either the town or the university; it doesn't matter, sources say.

The Triangle Transit Authority is expected to junk plans for a commuter-rail line in downtown Raleigh and start running on-demand shuttles between North Hills, Crabtree Valley and--via Edwards Mill Road--the Fairgrounds, Carter-Finley Stadium, the RBC Center and the N.C. Museum of Art. "Not shuttle buses," a TTA official cautioned, "more like stretch-limos." Sen. Elizabeth Dole's been asked to help with federal financing: The new TTA market model, she's been assured, indicates that people who buy $2 million condos will ride public transit, but only if it's equipped with recliner seats and plasma screens.

State agencies are vying to be the next one out of downtown Raleigh. The Department of Cultural Resources is looking at sites near the art museum. Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom has her eye on property in Butner, near the new state psychiatric hospital. Treasurer Richard Moore reportedly favors something in Charlotte, where polls show him trailing Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue.

If the Department of Human Services abandons the Dorothea Dix property, sources say, Raleigh will be able to buy it for a song, one reason Mayor Charles Meeker--though initially opposed--has decided not to get in the way of market forces.

While some of this may seem radical, leaders in the development community agreed recently--over crabcakes and gelato at an invitation-only luncheon held at Brier Creek Country Club--that it's only the logical next series of steps in a long process of state government initiatives and city government planning.

State government, these movers and shakers believe, has been getting out of downtown Raleigh ever since the N.C. Museum of Art relocated to Blue Ridge Road 22 years ago, according to a top developer who was present.

Meanwhile, Raleigh's official comprehensive plan encourages sprawl not just when it comes to single-family houses but also tall buildings, offices, shopping and everything else, they noted.

The dye was cast in Raleigh when Crabtree Valley Mall was built and 12 hotels went up around it, a luncheon speaker said as others nodded. From that point on, Crabtree was destined to be Raleigh's real downtown, and the old downtown has since turned into a high-rise office park. Only a determined effort would change Raleigh's direction, and the Glen-Tree/Soleil decision indicates that no such effort will be made.

"Raleigh's comp plan doesn't even say to put the big stuff downtown," another developer noted. "In fact, the comp plan doesn't really have a downtown. Instead, what we used to think of as downtown is just one of three regional centers, and it's the only one that doesn't have a big shopping center in it." (The other two: Triangle Town Center and Brier Creek.)

Officially, he added, Crabtree Valley itself is only a "city focus" area, and the comp plan has a dozen of them scattered all over the map. But as the city's new planning director, Mitch Silver, said in connection with the Soleil case, the comp plan allows "the tallest buildings"--heights not specified--not just in regional centers but city-focus areas, too.

Silver's opinion, ratified by a 7-1 Council vote, that even a 42-story skyscraper in a city-focus area didn't violate the comprehensive plan helped trigger the rush of new high-rise development schemes all over Raleigh, it was agreed among the lunching builders. Worrywarts complain, as usual A few naysayers continue to question how many of these skyscrapers Raleigh can support, given that every time a tall building's gone up before, it's set back development all around it for at least a decade. But in general, everyone who matters in the Capital City is gung-ho for Raleigh's chances to be "a small Atlanta," in the admiring words of City Councilor Joyce Kekas, or at least an imitation Charlotte.

The idea that Raleigh should instead encourage lots of mid-rise buildings and try to fill in all those vacant (parking) lots downtown before shooting for the suburban skies--the antiquated approach espoused by City Councilor Thomas Crowder, for instance--was roundly dismissed as out of touch with the best thinking.

Instead, insiders say, Mayor Charles Meeker--who backed the Soleil--should consider amending his old campaign slogan of "Better, Not Just Bigger." Said one: "It should be the other way around now, shouldn't it?"

There is some concern, however, over a poll taken last week by Dean Debnam's firm, Public Policy Polling. It showed that, of 600 Raleigh residents surveyed, 40 percent thought the Council made a mistake when it approved the Soleil Center, versus 45 percent who supported the decision. It was a surprising result, they thought, given Meeker's popularity and the adulatory coverage of The News & Observer.

Moreover, 60 percent said Raleigh should avoid developing like Atlanta, versus just 22 percent who thought Atlanta was the way to go, according to the poll.

Another issue that troubled the developers briefly was the impact on the new downtown convention center of building a new luxury hotel and conference facility out at Crabtree. But, no problem, they soon decided. The convention center is only a hole in the ground so far. And doesn't Wake County need a new landfill?

Contact Citizen at rjgeary@mac.com

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