The establishment of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park in 1959 was aimed at reversing the “brain drain” of graduates from the area’s top research universities seeking science and engineering jobs in the Northeast and elsewhere.
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Beyond providing jobs for North Carolinians, the 1965 expansion of IBM into the Park set the stage for an influx of highly-trained workers attracted to the state’s moderate climate and inexpensive housing on large, green lots.
With the weather allowing near-year-round golfing, one will still hear the lifestyle descriptor, “Tees, trees, and PhDs.”
It’s no surprise now that the Park is now home to 170 companies that include Biogen Idea, Syngenta, United Therapeutics, Cisco, Bayer CropScience, Eisai, BASF, the U.S. EPA, NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS; the only NIH institute/center outside of the DC metro area), and the original research institute that launched the park, RTI International. (Disclosure: I worked for RTI as a research pharmacologist from 2002 until 2008.)
The sprawl of housing developments across the three cities that comprise “the Triangle” – Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill – made RTP a work destination for nearly 40,000 people who would then spend most of their earnings near their homes. Why not? RTP is such a central location: 9 to 11 miles from downtown Durham, 12 to 14 miles from the center of Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina, and 18 to 21 miles from the state capital of Raleigh. Plus, RTP’s early development plan never included housing or retail. Other than
Over the last decade or so, the downtown areas of nearby Raleigh and Durham began attracting young professionals back to the cities with redevelopment of old warehouses, mixed-use developments, and a revitalized arts, culture, and restaurant scene. A market began to emerge for more dense and convenient living that continues to expand. In December, the 23-story Skyhouse Raleigh apartment building broke ground downtown.
Living and light rail?
Yesterday, the foundation that manages central North Carolina’s 7,000-acre research and technology park announced their $17 million acquisition of a central, 100-acre parcel that will “become the geographic and figurative center” of a master plan unveiled last year.
The not-for-profit Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina is banking on private investment in mixed-use development that will also include humanities attractions. Yes, an attempt to make RTP not just a place to live and work, but a place to go.
Research Triangle Foundation CEO Bob Geolas told us yesterday that many of the specifics won’t be worked out for “four or five months.” The Foundation had already secured Hines to develop another, larger tract but efforts will now focus on the more center 100-acre strip called Park Center.
Central to the plan will be an anticipated $2 billion in investment with the potential to add up to 100,000 new jobs to the Park, two-and-a-half times the current number. The plan also includes a long-overdue rail path that would connect Park Center with the three vertex cities of the Triangle.
Currently, the land is home to the former, about-to-be-demolished Radisson Governor’s Inn, the hotel where you likely stayed if you ever came down to visit GSK, the old Burroughs-Wellcome, or any of the earlier Park tenants. A non-descript office park on the west end is between empty and 10 percent occupancy. And the charter Research Triangle High School is slated to remain on the property but in a new facility.
Audacious? Well, no more so than a former southern governor and a few university, business, and banking folks who thought international corporations might set up camp in a 7,000-acre pine forest.
In the 1950′s U.S. South.
A personal take
I can’t predict the timeline, but my take on the ultimate outcome is that Park Center and the other Research Triangle Foundation development plans will work.
1. People *love* Research Triangle Park. Many people *love* RTP and carry deep personal and civic pride in what it has brought to the state. This “RTP Thank You Note” that popped up over the weekend from Ruth Dobson-Torrez is just one example of how dear some folks hold RTP.
2. Some people who made it in the Park are now older and richer. At yesterday’s press conference, I noticed an atmosphere of desire to invest in a legacy (my personal, data-free perception). Most of the original founders of RTP have passed on but those who were their proteges are in their active retiring years, at the peak of their giving years and desire to leave something for the next generation that’s bigger than themselves.
3. A truly central location. You can’t find a more central location in the Triangle than the Park Center property. As I wrote earlier, it’s nine to 21 miles from the major cultural and intellectual centers. It’s right at the intersection of Interstate 40 which runs from Raleigh, Cary, southwest Durham, and Chapel Hill, and the Durham Freeway, which takes you to the downtown Bull City. Plus it’s only a six-mile, eight- to 12-minute drive to RDU International Airport. That’s not a chamber of commerce 8-12 minutes. That’s real. So even if light rail doesn’t get built, everything is convenient.
4. Beautiful environs and existing bike and exercise paths. Do you want to ride your bike without running the danger of being hit by a texting driver? Go to RTP on the weekends. Heck, go to RTP on weekday evening. Wide paths meander through the pines and small hills that will at least get you primed for a 10K run. The crosswalks are wide and well-marked, minimizing the change of getting run over.
5. The young energy is already coming there after work hours. The Research Triangle Foundation’s communications director Erin Monday and her colleagues launched a series of young entrepreneur and lively talk-and-networking events last March. With Monday’s experience on TEDxRaleigh, the RTP 180 series is already drawing 250 to 300 people to the Foundation every third Thursday evening. This young,
6. Low hassle factor for anticipated cultural events. As the downtowns are becoming, as Yogi Berra once said, “So popular that no one goes there anymore,” scarcity of parking is becoming an increasing barrier to taking advantage of downtown activities. No, no, not New York or San Francisco parking. But enough to be a bit of a pain. If Park Center truly develops as a cultural center, the combination of location and ease of parking. Right now, a number of folks on social media say there’s nothing that would make them come to RTP if they didn’t work there. Well, that’s the point of the new Park Center plan.
7. People will really live in RTP if they can. This comes from my own personal experience as a laboratory director for six years in the Park. I’d get quite a few visiting scientists who wanted to come from other parts of the US and overseas to spend three months to a year in sabbaticals, internships or fellowships. Most of these folks will come without cars. While RTP has great bike paths, riding your bike to apartments outside the Park is often treacherous during the work week. For longer-term tenants, a similar situation holds. If there’s a place to live and a reason to live there, young professionals will enthusiastically populate Park Center.
Yes, yes, I’m a scientist and I’ve given a primarily emotional argument for the ultimate success of this plan. But as a student of the 1950s establishment of the Park, the founders thrived on enthusiasm, pride, and optimism. The money then came. I think the money is there.
Of course, I’m not the one with the money. And I’m now at the age and family status that our homestead will remain here near Duke University. But if I was 25 and couldn’t afford living in downtown Raleigh, Durham, or Chapel Hill, I’d want to be part of what’s going to happen in RTP.