RALEIGH – Is the “pedestrian experience” key to bringing more office workers and small businesses to Downtown Raleigh? Mitchell Silver thinks so.

Silver, who served as Raleigh’s chief planning officer and planning director for nine years before moving on to a role as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, spoke on a panel at the 2023 State of Downtown event last Wednesday.

The Downtown Raleigh Alliance (DRA) released its annual State of Downtown report and hosted a number of speakers, including Evan Raleigh, Assistant City Manager with the City of Raleigh, and Stacey Buescher, Managing Director of Operations for Kane Realty.

“You want to make sure you have that wonderful pedestrian experience, you experience as the first 20 feet of any building, that that really continues to go forward,” said Silver during the panel, which was hosted by Tiffany Barrier, Senior Vice President of Retail Services at CBRE.

Silver, who’s returned from New York City and settled back in the Raleigh area, is Principal and Vice President of Urban Planning at McAdams.

More residential units than ever under construction in downtown Raleigh, report says

‘Crucial to creating a welcoming environment

After the event, I caught up with Lauren Romer, Executive Director of Raleigh Founded, to ask what she thought about the focus on “that first 20 feet.” She told me that sidewalk- and pedestrian-focused initiatives are a big deal for downtown commerce.

“Creating an environment that encourages people to live and work downtown is essential to Raleigh Founded, as an organization that focuses on contributing to and improving our communities,” Romer told TechWire. “We are supporting the Main Street Program, which aims to aid food and beverage entrepreneurs by minimizing the barrier to entry for a brick and mortar store front and offer mentorship.”

She also said that these initiatives can encourage companies and employees to want to be downtown.

“Initiatives and installations that are community-focused are crucial to creating a welcoming environment that makes people want to work with Raleigh Founded and immerse themselves in the community,” said Romer. “We create space that people want to be in, both indoors and out. Our new location will include three outdoor spaces and immense walkability to bars and restaurants.”

By “new location,” Romer is referring to the loss of Raleigh Founded’s flagship Warehouse location. It’s one of the buildings in Raleigh’s Warehouse District that’s coming down to make way for new apartment towers and a local bus depot. Raleigh Founded will replace their “Warehouse” location with a new spot—moving to 509 W. North Street beginning December 2023, according to an email Raleigh Founded sent to members at the end of August.

“Having restaurants and bars around our locations is essential to our business. It was a key part of why we picked our new North Street location, perfectly placed between Glenwood South and Smokey Hollow, which has an inviting and eclectic mix of storefronts,” Romer told TechWire.

Lunch traffic, office traffic

The 80-page DRA State of Downtown report also provided an update on “Move,” one of the initiatives from the Downtown Plan 2025 that was developed by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and the City of Raleigh in 2015.

From the report: “The goal of ‘Move’ is to enhance street character and uses along key streets to make walking, biking, and transit the preferred ways to get in and around downtown, while still accommodating automobile traffic. Actions include creating a complete pedestrian and bike network, enhancing transit, and reviewing parking and street grid enhancements.”

Image: Average pedestrian count during lunchtime | From Downtown Raleigh Alliance 2023 State of Downtown Report

Pedestrian counts between 11 AM and 2 PM have increased 16% year over year, according to the report, with Tuesday seeing the largest increase at 20 percent.

“People want to walk the streets and know this is not just maintained, it’s cared for,” said Silver during the panel.

Also on the panel was Brian Leary, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Highwoods.

“So Mitch said ‘that first 20 feet,’ and something popped in my head when you said that,” said Leary on the panel. “The first 20 feet drives the value of the next 200 feet. Don’t forget that. And in many cases, that first 20 feet really is the first two feet that’s happening on the sidewalk.”