Friday, July 28, 2006

Reopening the cap city concourse

It’s just a coincidence that the 2006 General Assembly adjourned early Friday morning and that the city of Raleigh on Saturday reopens what once was a grand concourse running down the hill from the Capitol on Union Square to the handsome Memorial Auditorium six blocks or so to the South. Out with the old, in with the new.
For nearly 30 years, Fayetteville Street Mall was not a street at all – it was a brick-and-concrete park, shaded by Japanese maples, colored by azaleas and frequented, alas, by hardly anyone once the courthouse shut its doors and state workers drove back home.
It was both a pretty place and a sad sight. When I moved to Raleigh in the late winter of 1977 to cover politics for the Greensboro Daily News, the city was well on its way to tearing out the old Fayetteville Street and putting in the pedestrian mall. But it was doomed from the start, in part because retail businesses were still moving to the suburbs, in part because few lived near downtown and in part because the city refused to allow sidewalk cafes or hot dog carts in the first years of the mall. There was little to bring people downtown – other than the lawyers who had cases at the courthouse and state employees who worked nearby.
In time, some of the city’s oldest businesses left – including Hudson Belk Department Store, which had fed the state Supreme Court for decades in its Capitol Room Cafeteria, and Briggs Hardware, a century-old business that sold everything imaginable.
But developers slowly brought life back to an area ringing downtown in an entertainment district that became popular. They built condos and folks bought them, and a couple of years ago, sparked by Mayor Charles Meeker, a lawyer who has walked to work from his home just west of downtown for years, the city council approved another makeover. This one restored the city’s main street, allowing auto traffic, demolishing an ugly civic center that marred the vista between the Capitol and Memorial Auditorium and launching what many expect to be a renaissance. The Fayetteville Street project opens Saturday, and Friday’s News & Observer has a special section about the event and the new street.
It’s been an ordeal to work downtown during the reconstruction, but judging by the work that’s been done this week – park benches bolted down, planters packed with all manner of green things and crews cutting and fitting the last of many hundreds of thousands of pavers – the place is looking spiffy. The Wake County Courthouse has a welcoming new entrance for the first time and new restaurants and bars are opening.
This time, it looks like they got it right.

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