by James A. Bacon
Fifty-five years ago, North Carolina business and government leaders were worried about the Tarheel state’s economic competitiveness. They set aside a tract of land half the size of Manhattan located between three research universities — Duke, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University– and opened up the Research Triangle Park. Five companies located there in 1959. Then when IBM legitimized the region by setting up shop in the mid-1960s, investment took off. The rest is history. More than 170 companies are located in the park today, which remains the world’s largest.
But the park is growing long in the tooth. It was designed for the era of the automobile-centric “corporate campus.” Companies thought it a great idea to cluster employees in sublime isolation surrounded by trees and parking lots. Corporate facilities were self-contained units; no one felt the need to encourage interaction with outsiders — just look inward and get the job done.
But business fashions change. Several years ago, urban geographer Richard Florida dismissively referred to giant office parks like those in the Research Triagnle as white-bread “nerdistans” that did not appeal to the so-called creative class. Young people, the lifeblood of corporate innovation, preferred living in cities. And the theory took hold, hearkening back to the work of urbanist Jane Jacobs, that traditional urban districts foster the connectivity and serendipitous encounters between people that gave rise to innovation. The new aesthetic, popularized by the New Urbanists, emphasized walkable, mixed use development with access to bike lanes and mass transit.
Across the country, office parks are trying to reinvent themselves. The trend can be seen in Tysons, Northern Virginia’s largest commercial district, and in Innsbrook Office Park, Richmond’s. But none are so iconic as the Research Triangle Park, which triggered the wave of technology-led development that transformed Raleigh, N.C., from a backwater state capital into one of the hottest, fastest-growing cities in the country.
Research Triangle Park has no housing component, no retail. It doesn’t even have a Starbucks. It competes with downtown Raleigh and Durham where residents are surrounded by brewpubs and cafes, writes James Olipant for the Atlantic Cities blog. “It’s in danger of coming off as a relic of bygone days.”
Bob Geolas, president of the Research Park Foundation, says it’s time to catch up with the times. ”This needs to be a place of great inspiration, but there’s nothing inspiring about it,” he says. His goal is to restore the park’s image as a center of cutting-edge innovation. “Let’s get away from buildings that are all about marble and ferns and fountains and cubicles.”
One initiative will create a space to nurture innovation in Big Data. Another calls for the establishment of a demonstration center reminiscent of Disney’s EPCOT center, writes Oliphant, a technology showcase that will draw visitor traffic and become a civic magnet. Geolas also wants to embrace the New Urbanism, mass transit, more clustering, more sustainable, more attuned to modern lifestyles.
Under the master plan adopted in late 2012, the Park would evolve from 39,000 employees in 22 million square feet of office space to 150,000 employees in 84 million square feet. Given the fact that there are only 600 acres available for development under previous rules, that will entail some radical changes. No one is counting on much state support, given the cost-cutting fervor of the Republican-dominated legislature. ”We intend to make this idea big enough and compelling enough that we’ll raise the money to do it,” he says.
Up north, Virginians will be watching.