“Over the next few weeks, the Grassroutes Column will visit a number of southern cities and cover their regeneration in a series called New Directions for the Old South. The first part of this series, on the choices made on the design of Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, ran earlier this week.
Though Fayetteville Street’s renovation and conversion from pedestrian mall to street has clearly been the crown in Raleigh, North Carolina’s overall renewal efforts, it is evident that the progress in improving the city’s center in the last few years hasn’t stopped there. Indeed, the large increase in the number of restaurants and shops along the downtown’s main drag has spread out into the areas close by.
That’s no coincidence. In fact, the reopening of Fayetteville Street in its new form has coincided with a serious rethinking about how the whole central area of Raleigh works. The good functioning of each is reliant on the other. The lesson here is that downtowns do best when they’re renewed in a holistic process, not in a series of disjointed projects.
The planners at the city’s Urban Design Center (UDC) laid out their overall project for downtown in 2002 with the Livable Streets plan, written primarily by then-director Dan Douglas, now working in the private sector. The program had five major elements: the reconstruction of Fayetteville Street; the building of a new convention center; improvements to the pedestrian environment; a reform of regulations affecting downtown buildings; and the expansion of downtown management in the form of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. All five elements of the plan have now been implemented.
Thus the improvements I described on Fayetteville Street were backed by a whole range of other changes in the city as a whole. Said Douglas, “You can’t just build something and expect it to be successful.” Conversely, opening up the city’s primary street to traffic was just one of several interventions designed to improve the functioning of the city center.
Perhaps most significant was the ban on free parking downtown. Inspired by Donald Shoup’s illustrations of the “high costs of free parking,” city leaders agreed to simply charge for every space available. They also eliminated minimum parking space requirements for buildings or businesses of less than 30,000 square feet. These efforts, staff at the UDC argue, have reduced the amount of driving back and forth in search of spaces; it has also increased the use of parking decks. Finally, it encouraged people who worked downtown to walk to and from shops and restaurants that they might visit during the day. This increased foot traffic at the area’s businesses and reduced the number of drivers on the road.
Similarly, in conjunction with the reopening of Fayetteville Street to traffic, city authorities converted the streets running perpendicularly through it from one-way to two-way operation. This made downtown less of a maze for drivers and as a result made it more accessible to people who are unfamiliar with it. In addition, the city implemented new signage throughout the streets, both for pedestrians and for motorists. Signs are easy to read and understand and include maps and other useful features.
Meanwhile, the government provided a number of facade grants for buildings along Fayetteville Street, providing up to $10,000 in municipal aid per building. These grants were phased in along with the renovation of the street so that almost everything, not just the pavement, looked new once it reopened for traffic in 2006.
It would be impossible to quantify which of these improvements provided the definitive step forward for the city, but together they have produced a far more active and interesting environment than was previously present in downtown Raleigh. The integrated approach used to achieve these results should be an interesting example for other cities hoping to reactivate their own center cities.
Disclaimer: During the summer of 2005, I worked as an unpaid intern at the Raleigh Urban Design Center.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation and governance.