There were two pieces of good news from downtown Raleigh this week, one all over TV and the front pages and another--perhaps more important--further back on the business page. The first, of course, was the massive turnout to celebrate the opening of Fayetteville Street. "I've never seen this many people in downtown Raleigh--ever," marveled Collette George, who moved to Raleigh with her family in 1977--the year after the street was closed to become a pedestrian mall. It was a staggering sight--tens of thousands of people from the Capitol to the BTI Center, meandering up and down like it was the midway at the state fair. "All these people, just to see a new layer of asphalt," said another, slightly more cynical, observer.
Of course, they weren't there just for the street. They were there to see what's been building for years--new restaurants, office buildings, clubs and condos. But it's the latter that are starting to cause concern.
Several people I talked to while staffing the Indy tent talked about how they loved living downtown but were concerned it was becoming too upscale, making it impossible for regular folks to live there. And while it's hard to complain about downtown residences of any kind, they make a good point. Too many of the same kind of people will reduce the range of downtown offerings--too many fancy restaurants, not enough everyday ones; high-end shops but no grocery stores. One downtown resident observed something I'd never heard: Many of the people buying $343,000 downtown condos (the median price, according to the Wake County Revenue Department) are people with jobs requiring them to travel during the week. If that's true, they aren't the ones who'll be supporting everyday downtown businesses.
Here's the good news: As The N&O reported Tuesday in its business section, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and the N.C. Bankers Association are planning to expand a low-interest loan fund aimed at small, downtown businesses to include developers who build low- to moderate-income downtown housing. And, he reported, the city planning commission is considering a proposal to let developers build more units if they dedicate 10 percent of their project to low-income residents.
Putting together all the pieces to create a viable downtown is a complicated puzzle. We've written about the need for the city to recognize the importance of music clubs ("Raleigh rockonomics," May 3, 2006, www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A31223) and about what's happening in other, nearby neighborhoods ("Digging downtown?" March 15, 2006, www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A29165). If all those pieces come together, seeing crowds on downtown streets won't be such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.