Reinventing the Research Triangle Park

RTP, once cutting-edge and now a nerdistan, is reinventing itself along smart growth lines.
RTP, once cutting-edge and now a nerdistan, is reinventing itself along smart growth lines.

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.

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10 responses to “Reinventing the Research Triangle Park”

  1. So we live in the 21st Century, the era of globalism where just in time employment is shared with just in time global employees. What I don’t understand in this world of Big Data though is why we need to exist in a Big Cube?

    RTP is a small cube with parking lots and bosses watching a multitude of cubicles. In the 21st, it;s just not big enough so we need to expand it to spend our lives eating and sleeping in other cubes just a few feet away from our work cube. If Big Data is such a Big thing then why do we do we need Big Cubes? They have a name for that you know. Prison.

  2. I’m not convinced that Va should be “watching”.. I mean hells bells, we better get in the stick.

    I’m also not totally buying into Florida’s thesis.

    Look at – where GOOGLE, and MICROSOFT are located. Look at Boise, Id, Bend, Ore, Butte and Missoula Montana, and Austin Texas.

    I think young people ALSO want outdoor venues for skiing, biking, boating, hiking, camping, 4-wheeling, hang-gliding, etc… Sure they like Starbucks and trendy downtown locations but I’m not convinced they won’t work at places where all these outdoor activities are available to them.

    I think Darrell has a point also – but cube or not – young folks like the outdoors… and outdoors activities …. and I think Florida is off on a tangent about urban – without reasonably close access to outdoors things.

    Why not Va creating its own “Research Triangle” instead of “watching”?

    What is Cucinelli’s “vision” to transition Va to a NC-type job creation/incubation and to start the transition to weening us off the Federal Teat?

    Isn’t it really the height of hypocrisy for the GOP Congressmen in Va voting to shut down Govt at the same time we are addicted to the Federal Teat like it was the govt-spending version of crack cocaine?

    Mr. Cantor – who are you and are you really representing Virginia’s best interests…????

    1. billsblots Avatar

      larry that was a bit all over the place but I agree wholly with you, as I wrote somewhere recently, Virginia’s economy is far more dependent upon Federal dollars gifted to it that are taken out of the pockets of working people in other states, yet all VA governors brag about low unemployment being a result of their policies.

      1. agree.. kinda comprehensive!

  3. The 25 Best U.S. Cities for Tech Startups

    I sort of wonder how this list matches up with Florida’s

  4. Including roads and related land, Tysons is 2000 acres. The developable portion is 1700 acres. The plan would increase residents to 100,000 from 17,000 and workers from 100,000 plus to 200,000. Clearly redeveloping 600 acres is likely easier, but can the smaller size of RTP support the planned growth? And don’t forget, Tysons has the Silver Line and multiple highways running through it. I haven’t been to RTP in years, despite by many visits to Raleigh where my daughter attends NCSU, but I don’t think the RTP has quite the road access as Tysons.

  5. NoVa is not that far away from the outdoor things that young folks like – the mountains are fairly close – with whitewater, hiking, hang-gliding, bike trails, etc so there is boni-fide opportunity to attract that demographic but they will still want cars and car mobility even if they live near where they work – and have METRO.

    My understanding is that Metro to Tysons is close to being open, right?

    1. Given the high rate of joblessness and under-skilled jobs for younger working age Americans, I wonder whether they are, indeed, spending so much money on sometimes expensive recreation.

      The Silver Line is scheduled to be complete in November-December 2013, with its opening for commercial use coming around February 2014.

      1. Young people can be pretty cheap…. consistent with their finances but they also crave active lifestyles… and venues that offer lots of outdoor/active choices.

        I’m not sure Florida has it calibrated that way but Maybe I don’t read enough of him to know for sure.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    A few points about RTP:

    Much of the development there has been sourced by big corporations or government. You have IBM, the EPA, and a slew of Big Pharma, Big Forest and,waiting nearby, textiles and tobacco. It hasn’t really been a place for startups. Richmond, even less so, despite how the Capital of Creativity and RVA spin people put it.

    Ya gotta love the Bacon snobbery about Raleigh remaining a “backwater state capital” had it not been for RTP. Ditto Richmond. What would RVA be without Philip Morris, duPont and Cap One? The big regional banks fled to (guess where?) North Carolina in the 1990s. Raleigh Durham Airport is one hell of a lot more cosmopolitan than Richmond’s. Raleigh has NC State, Chapel Hill and Duke. Big deal research schools. Richmond has U of R and VCU. No contest.

    Richmond is NOT known as an innovative center, at least once you get past Parham Road in Henrico County. Raleigh is.

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