Millennials spark dramatic turnaround in downtown Raleigh

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Raleigh is topping just about every list out there these days that has to do with growth, livability and places to work. City officials say much of that has to do with an area that was struggling just five years ago.

With public and private effort, downtown is quickly becoming the heart of the capital city.

Downtown Raleigh has seen dramatic growth that is only expected to continue. (WNCN)
PHOTOS: See photos of downtown Raleigh’s growth

“I think it’s a great time to be in downtown Raleigh to watch the exciting new changes that come every single year,” said bar owner Zack Medford. “We’re seeing stores open their doors that we never would have expected before.”

“You look down any given street and you’ve got new apartment buildings, new office buildings. I mean, you see new startups everywhere,” said Alex Johnson, field director for Generation Opportunity.

Downtown Raleigh is surging and  one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. There are 80 stores, 129 restaurants and 1,127 hotel rooms. And downtown is home to more than 7,800 people and 54,600 workers.

Bill King, development manager for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, is proud of the city’s growth.

“This is really new for the Triangle where now we’re trying to be more of an urban center. So this will give us an urban core that we’ve never really had before,” King said.

Thirteen construction projects finished up this year, 13 more are underway, and another seven have recently been announced. The investments, including the Edison Tower and Charter Square North, will bring an additional 300 hotel rooms, 2,700 living units and 2 million square feet of office space in the next several years.

“A lot of the development we’re seeing down here is led by the private sector, private developers who see the opportunity and are building it,” King said. “So our market is hot enough that it doesn’t always just have to be public investment.”

The opportunity is based on movement. There is a flocking to the city’s center right now that’s led by a younger generation of risk-takers. The organization Generation Opportunity, which advocates for issues that matter to millennials, has been active in downtown’s recent boom.

“Business owners downtown, they are younger generation business owners,” said Generation Opportunity’s Johnson. “Look at food truck owners, restaurant owners, bar owners. Look all across Glenwood South —  it’s younger generation individuals starting up these businesses.”

One good example of this is Medford, who owns three bars on Fayetteville Street.

“When we first opened there was pretty much nobody else on Fayetteville Street,” Medford said. “There were only a couple other bars and restaurants nearby. Most people were down on Glenwood South or North Raleigh. But we decided that we really wanted to see what downtown would become.”

Medford and other millennials are the pulse of downtown, creating a more urban and vibrant environment.

“We see lots and lots of young professionals, especially with the new tech jobs coming in,” said Medford.

This influx of young workers is another reason why plans are focusing on walkability. City developers want folks to park their car and leave it for days.

“You’re going to have people actually able to walk to where they work, walk to where they eat, they shop, where they go out, which is new for the triangle and really unique,” said King.

They’re planning more greenways, bike paths, even an entirely new entertainment complex next to the convention center.

“There are some large parcels of land that can be used for sort of an entertainment district, or a cultural hub,” said King.

Plans for the future of downtown Raleigh and what it could be are numerous and expansive. But plans change, especially depending on the future growth of the area in the next couple years and whether or not everybody else jumps on the downtown Raleigh bandwagon.

“As everything sort of contracts and becomes such a critical mass downtown, there could be another flight from the center of the city in maybe the next 50 years,” said Ernest Dollar, executive director of the City of Raleigh Museum.

Dollar knows quite a bit about the growth patterns of Raleigh’s center.

“Downtown has seen a resurgence of interest and population. Certainly with the reopening of Fayetteville Street in 2006, we’re starting to see a lot more people come back to downtown,” he said.

Both Dollar and King know several issues need to be addressed to keep momentum moving in the right direction.

“Affordability is a challenge. We need to make sure we have some affordable housing. We have an enormous number of service workers down here,” said King.

Another issue is livability. While city planners want downtown to be a one-stop-shop, retail stores are relatively few and far between. There is also the glaring absence of a grocery store.

“We are only starting to see the forefront of those businesses moving back,” said Dollar.

“It’s usually the last part, and it responds to when people are here,” said King.

Playing into livability is transportation. It’s an area that officials are working hard to figure out.

“We absolutely have to figure out transportation. We’re going to need to have a transit system that connects us to the rest of the city and even the rest of the region,” said King.

The $79.8 million investment in the Warehouse District will do quite a bit to help, but it’s still years from being completed. Most developers think the area will overcome any obstacles and continue to grow, and the current boom will go down in Raleigh history.

“We’re just at the beginning of a dramatic change for this downtown,” said King.

“We’re really shaping the city into something, a great place to live, not only for young professionals, but people in their middle ages and beyond,” said Johnson.



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