Hacking Downtown Raleigh’s Empty Lots

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Editor’s Note: This post has been updated from its original version to correct the spelling of Greg Pahel’s name.

There’s enough empty space in downtown Raleigh to hold the Mall of the Americas.

Of course, the space isn’t in one solid block. Instead it’s 100 acres of empty, undeveloped property scattered around 754 acres. Because of that, entrepreneurs may not know that there’s a perfect site downtown for their new project. Likewise, landowners  may not have the ideas or the financing to develop their property.

That’s the problem architects Brett Hautop of Gensler, and Matt Griffith and Erin Sterling Lewis of in situ asked attendees to tackle at a June 5 Raleigh “hackathon.”

More than 30 students, residents, city staffers and real estate professionals discussed how to make information on empty lots available online; crowdsourcing community input on potential uses; good temporary uses for empty property; and how to keep the proposals from becoming a mess for property owners.

If, say, an owner allows a neighborhood soccer field on his property until he’s ready to develop, Hautop said, the neighborhood may be outraged when he decides to build on “their” soccer field. And what happens if a crowd-sourced idea catches fire with the public but the owner turns it down?

“Suddenly, you have 200 people with pitchforks saying ‘This property should be a potato farm!’” he said.

Hackathons originated as intense, collaborative coding and software-design sessions in the IT industry, but they’ve spread to other industries. For the June 5 session at Raleigh’s Urban Design Center, the attendees divided into small groups tackling multiple questions:

•What permanent development is Raleigh lacking?
•What temporary uses would benefit downtown?
•What tools and information systems can help people figure out potential property uses?
•What type of information should be shared and available?
•What would make it easier for landowners to capitalize on the temporary use of their property?

One group devoted itself to listing examples of city projects elsewhere that Raleigh could use as a role model. The list included developments in Atlanta, Tokyo and Lima, Peru, as well as Durham’s American Tobacco campus.

Another table kicked around ideas for temporary uses — dog parks, skate parks, vegetable stands, bicycle stations, trunk stores and pop-up fitness centers. Trunk stores and pop-ups are short-term commercial ventures. Hackathon attendees said if they did good business, it could encourage permanent development on the same sites.

At the tech-ideas table, Raleigh resident Adam Chasen said what was needed was an “uber match.com” where landowners, financiers and entrepreneurs with ideas could all search for each other. The group also recommended that any database or website for empty-site development include details on zoning and land-use codes, making it easy to know what can be developed on a given property.

Other ideas included information booths to guide visitors around town, or smartphone apps that could tell the history of particular sites.

Hautop said he, Griffith and Lewis would collect the hackathon responses and possibly place them online in blog form. Then they’d figure out the next step to keep things moving forward.

“This is the first step,” Hautop said. “The biggest challenge is keeping the momentum going.”

Greg Pahel, a member of the Downtown Living Advocates, suggested recruiting volunteers to identify the empty sites. Then the group should contact the owners to confirm they were okay with being in the database, he said.

Griffith said starting small, finding two or three interested owners who wanted to participate, might be the way to go.

“If it’s successful, I bet a lot of landowners would be interested,” he said.

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