Research Triangle Park officials shift focus

Residential, retail construction now planned off I-40
Feb. 03, 2014 @ 06:24 PM

The nonprofit that manages the Research Triangle Park has paid about $17 million for nearly 100 acres off Interstate 40 where they plan to modernize the park with new, more urban infill development.

Bob Geolas, president of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, the group that manages the nearly 7,000-acre business park in Wake and Durham counties, announced key purchases on Monday that give the foundation control over 100 acres of land bordered by I-40 and N.C. 54.

“(This is) maybe the biggest news we’ve had to share since the creation of the park itself a little over 50 years ago,” Geolas said. “We believe that today, everything changes.”

The move to redevelop the park off I-40 is a change from where park officials had previously planned to start the redevelopment effort. In November 2012, they unveiled a new master plan that proposed three new higher-density clusters of development, including apartments and shops in a cluster known as “Triangle Commons.” Park officials had planned to start construction of apartments and shops on about 50 acres near the corner of Cornwallis Road and Davis Drive.

On Monday, Geolas announced that the focus would shift.

Besides buying the long-time hotel in the park, the Radisson Hotel, for $6.7 million, the foundation in December bought the building that houses the Research Triangle High School, a public charter school that opened in the park in 2012, for $4.9 million.

On Friday, he said, the foundation closed on a nine-building office park known as Park Center, which largely has been vacant in recent years, for $6.2 million.

“That's an $18-million investment,” Geolas said. “It's the largest investment we as a foundation has made in land since we bought the park 50 years ago. But we have no doubt about that investment's return. We are banking on the people of North Carolina.”

On the nearly 100-acre site, the foundation wants to see as much as 3 million square feet of new residential, retail, hotel and other development, including spaces where entrepreneurs and executives can meet. The exact specifications of those construction plans haven’t been detailed yet. Geolas said park officials soon will move forward with a site plan.

“Our plan doesn’t stop there,” Geolas said, adding that although park leaders want to start the redevelopment in the land off of I-40, he said they still plan to move forward with the acquisition of land near the corner of Cornwallis Road and Davis Drive.

Geolas said Monday that park leaders can move more quickly with redevelopment on the 100-acre tract.

“(The) decision to move to this site, instead of staying at Cornwallis and Davis, gives us the opportunity to speed the process up by at least a year, if not more, in order to start…,” he said.

And while both areas are near new stations proposed as part of a light-rail system that was envisioned for connecting Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, Geolas said the land in the 100-acre tract wasn’t seen as nearly as attainable.

He said the owner of largest tract – a group of office buildings known as Park Center – “thought more of their property value than the market did.” 

The owner, GE Asset Management, was looking to sell the property at auction as recently as June of last year. At that time, the nine-building property was about 10 percent leased. But at one time, the office campus housed tenants such as Lenovo, IBM Corp. and the research institute RTI International.

Geolas said officials at Research Triangle High School encouraged the foundation to move forward with the deal. The foundation has owned the land that the school sits on, but in December, it bought the school building and the school’s land-lease. The foundation wants the school to remain on-site, Geolas said, but in a different facility.

Pamela Blizzard, managing director and founder of Research Triangle High School, said it’s exciting to think about the school being in the middle of the “grand vision” laid out by Geolas. The school, which has a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, now has 250 students in ninth and 10th grades, she said, and is now enrolling a new ninth grade class.

“So what it means is that we will be working with them to figure out a new place for the school, hopefully exactly right in this Park Center development, as they call it,” Blizzard said.

Ultimately, Geolas said, the foundation’s plan is to also buy land the land at the corner of Davis and Cornwallis and connect two clusters with an “innovation corridor.”

All told, Geolas said, the two clusters would create the opportunity for 6 million square feet of new development, $2 billion worth of private investment and an estimated 100,000 new jobs within the Research Triangle Park.

Geolas said that would be “maybe the largest private investment made in the name of the people of North Carolina.”

“By bringing these two properties together, with the idea of creating a corridor that would link the north rail station with the Triangle metro station, we now have an opportunity to create our own corridor for personal rapid transit, biking, walking, a great connection point that will link all of this together,” Geolas said.

The property off of I-40 is well-positioned, said Smedes York, president of York Properties and a member of the foundation’s board. He said I-40 is the “main street” of the Triangle, and park officials want to see retail, residential, office space for smaller start-ups, and other development in the park along the highway.

Madhu Beriwal, president and CEO of IEM, a disaster and emergency management firm, and a member of the foundation’s board, called the new plan a potential “rebirth” for the Research Triangle Park.

Beriwal said the development can create retail opportunities in the park that are desired by younger workers, as well as multi-tenant spaces that can attract smaller companies.