Six teams of designers reimagine Raleigh’s downtown
by J. Michael Welton
photographs by Smith Hardy
Saturday morning, May 19, dawned on an optimistic note. A royal wedding was about to take place in London’s Windsor Castle. In Baltimore, Bob
Baffert was grooming Justify, his Kentucky Derby winner, for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
In Raleigh, a different kind of alliance and race were slated to commence. There, five highly talented New York designers joined 60 Triangle architects and citizens to embark on a charrette—an intense, nine-hour planning workshop. Their focus: 81.2 acres in downtown Raleigh, currently occupied by Central Prison and the Governor Morehead School.
The site is an isolated island and massive roadblock to a unified downtown. If, as some planners believe, the prison eventually moves elsewhere and the school is reconfigured, these 81.2 acres flanked by Pullen Park and Boylan Heights could align a new connective spine for the city. It would lead up from the Farmers Market and N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, through Dix Park, across Western Boulevard to the site itself, and east to downtown Raleigh.
The 81.2 acres could become a mixed-use campus of green space, residences, and commercial development. That’s why some of the best architects, landscape architects, and urban planners from New York and the Triangle gathered in a third-floor Citrix cafeteria that morning. They wanted to take the lead in how Raleigh might evolve over the next 50 years. “It was for the design community to come together for a common cause,” says Brad Burns, an associate at Gensler’s Raleigh office. “It was to develop a line of thinking and consideration that’s better for the community than the way it’s been done by the government or private groups.”
Traditionally, when a city wants to build something, it approaches a developer and then an architect. Here, designers and community members turned that process on its head, taking the lead to imagine what the city could look like. “Twenty-five years ago, Durham and Raleigh were saying: ‘Please, Mr. Developer, come and put something here,’” says Durham architect Ellen Cassilly. “Now they can say: ‘Hello, Mr. Developer, these are the standards we want, and if your development fits with our vision, that’s wonderful. You can come, but we want 51 percent of the project to be open space.’”
Spurred by their New York counterparts, the Carolinians were thinking big. “It was nice to have someone push you out of your comfort zone to be bolder,” says Raleigh architect Tina Govan. “They took leaps that locals might not have taken.”
Each of the New York designers is involved in and around the development of Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, the largest private mixed-use development in the nation. Michael Samuelian is responsible for its $25 billion master plan and its 17 million square feet of space. Marianne Kwok of KPF is design director for two towers there. Claudia Cusumano of KPF is project manager for 30 Hudson Yards, which reaches up 1,300 feet. Architect Andre Kikoski designed 33 floors of residential interiors at One Hudson Yards. And North Carolina native Thomas Woltz, a landscape architect, designed a five-acre park there. “They brought a perspective about designing and implementing large, bold projects with a level of sophistication and urbanity that we don’t yet have in Raleigh,” says Michael Stevenson, an architect in Perkins+Will’s Durham office. “But we’re getting there.”
When Central Prison was built in the late 19th century, it was on the outskirts of town in a rolling landscape. “The land starts to undulate with valleys and hills, but best of all, it’s covered in a mature hardwood Piedmont forest,” says Raleigh architect Frank Harmon. “This kind of landscape is very special. It’s warm and has beautiful colors.”
Today, it’s in the heart of downtown. And to reimagine the site, this charrette—called Connections 81.2 and organized by Erin Sterling Lewis of Raleigh’s in situ studio and Oz Ozburn of Chicago’s Design Ecology—broke up into six visionary teams. “When developed properly, it will be a main connector for the most important entities our city has,” Lewis says. “We need to open it back up and celebrate it.”
Once the teams got down to business, the energy in the room changed radically. “There was a methodical but frantic level of work—innovation to the max,” Ozburn says. “It was intoxicating. We had to pull people away for lunch.” At day’s end, six hypothetical master plans—each different, and all ambitious—had been developed for public display on Sunday. “What rose to the top was that no one stayed within the 81.2 acres,” Lewis says. “They reached out north, south, east, and west to connect. There were roads, greenways, streams, and land-bridging located against existing structures.”
The solutions were as varied as the teams that created them, with open space that covered between a third and a half of the property. “We saw it as starting off from downtown, with a land bridge across the rail yard and high-density development to the west, gradually tapering down to mid-rise and then stepping down as it gets near the park,” Stevenson says. “Really, it was paralleling and stepping down like Hillsborough Street as it moves west.”
Another team proposed covering over two blocks of rail lines and building atop them. “We were pushing tall buildings over the rail lines and then getting rid of Ashe Street so there’s green space between Pullen Park and our 81 acres,” Cassilly says.
The 19th-century prison wall became a focal point, both as a memorial to those who served their time or lost their lives inside, and as a celebratory space. “One piece was using the wall more as remembering the past, but also to create a welcoming public space for gathering,” says Katherine Hogan of Raleigh’s Tonic Design.
Harmon suggested placing shops, markets, and fairs of different kinds on the prison space that he calls one of the most hidden and secret sites in all of North Carolina. “It was very dark, and we wanted to bring light in and make it free and open,” he says.
As for Morehead School, Hogan’s team placed it at the center of a one-stop campus dedicated to social services—a central place where people could stitch broken lives back together. “We were looking at using design for training and mental health and wellness, so social services were not separate entities,” she says.
On that day in London, an interracial royal couple was joined in marriage. In Baltimore, Baffert’s Justify triumphed handily in the Preakness. And in Raleigh, the first of what promises to be a series of annual design charrettes took root and flourished.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for local, national, and international publications. He is also editor and publisher of an online design magazine at architectsandartisans.com, which was a partner in producing Connections 81.2.