I don’t usually think about North Carolina’s metropolitanization as I make my weekly drive from my home in Durham to visit my mom in Raleigh 25 miles away. But questions about how places in the state are becoming more “metro” erupted when I looked at the News & Observer on Sept. 13.
There on the front page was a story about the plans of technology consulting giant Infosys to employ up to 2,000 workers at a “Raleigh site.” “There goes another tech company locating in downtown Raleigh instead of Research Triangle Park,” I thought. “Guess the economic future really is urban.”
But the story said the facility would be on Alexander Drive in the area known as “Brier Creek.” That is about as far away as you can get from downtown and still be within the legal confines of Raleigh. I pass by Brier Creek on my route and never thought of it as being “in the city.”
My practice is to avoid congested Interstate 40. Instead, I get to mom’s retirement community by starting on N.C. 147 out of Durham. I get off on Alexander Drive and turn left through the eastern end of Research Triangle Park. After a quick right turn on 70, I merge onto the 540 outer loop and drive on to my mom’s place about nine miles away in suburban Raleigh.
On Alexander, I pass by an entrance to the IBM campus, still the largest anchor employer in the Park. Soon, the Park’s formal boundary ends. Then comes a nondescript combination of two thin shopping strips, a handful of newly built distribution centers, entrances to smaller residential developments, and a good amount of undeveloped land.
But vestiges of RTP still appear. For example, I pass the campus of medical testing company LabCorp. While outside the confines of the Park, the LabCorp facility and other places in the surrounding area still have a special “Research Triangle Park, North Carolina” zip code.
A little farther down on Alexander is a sign indicating that I am leaving Durham County and entering Wake County. I soon come upon the massive new suburban and corporate mixed-use area known as Brier Creek.
On the edge
I still feel that I am on the edge of the RTP area. There is not a skyscraper or even a 10-story office building anywhere in sight. In my view, the mixed-use oasis of Brier Creek is an up-to-date extension of the RTP model. It’s an RTP 2.0 with a new suburban element rather than an “urban” area.
I am not the only one who thinks so.
“It’s exciting that Infosys chose North Carolina and particularly the Research Triangle Park,” Gov. Roy Cooper declared at the Sept. 12 press conference. “Global business consulting and information technology company Infosys has selected North Carolina’s Research Triangle region as the location for a new technology hub,” proclaimed a press release from the state’s Department of Commerce.
I understand why Raleigh city officials claim a big win with the Infosys announcement. After all, they offered a million-dollar incentive package (in addition to the state’s $25 million package) to help lure Infosys to the Brier Creek site. And they stand to gain way more in enhanced property plus other tax revenues.
Infosys even says it is deciding whether some of its workforce will work at other places in Raleigh. Perhaps it will place some employees closer to downtown at N.C. State’s Centennial Campus so that they are near the university’s data analytics experts. That would be neat for Raleigh. (Of course this triumph will be diminished if Infosys fails to follow through on its promise to recruit heavily from local Triangle universities, instead relying on the importation of indentured H-1B workers.)
But the bottom line is that Infosys’ mother-ship will be in non-urban Brier Creek. After first touching the Brier Creek area, you need only hook less than a mile on Alexander to reach the four-story “Legacy at Brier Creek” site where the Infosys operation will initially be housed. It’s not a self-contained campus in the RTP style. But it hardly has an urban air. The Legacy is being built in the midst of neo-suburban residential development alongside undeveloped land on which Infosys can expand.
Updating the non-urban model near RTP’s boundary and being close to the neighboring Raleigh-Durham airport turned out to be more important to Infosys than locating downtown. “The thing about downtown is, expansion is always going to be an issue,” Infosys president Ravi Kumar told the Triangle Business Journal.
Revising the ‘vision’
Thus Infosys’ decision seems to expose the half-truth nature of the vision – associated with such prophets as Richard Florida – that tech companies with millennial-heavy workforces are compelled to citify. Driving on Alexander to The Legacy also makes it hard to understand the recent insistence of a Bloomberg View writer that even such new developments continue “the great urban revival.” And it makes absurd the recent claim by a Wall Street Journal technology writer that RTP and its non-urban character should be relegated to the dustbin of historic failures.
The News & Observer reported that the average age of an Infosys employee is 27 and that Infosys projects average pay of $72,146 at its new site. Brier Creek is certainly the antithesis to a Brooklyn-esque hipster enclave. But does anyone really think that Infosys will have trouble employing all the reverse-commuting millennial techies it wants? Moreover, as MIT Professor Alan M. Berger has recently pointed out, Census Bureau residential-pattern data indicate that millennials are “not a monolithic generation of suburb-hating city-dwellers.”
So the emergence of Brier Creek on the edge of Raleigh and Infosys’ location there are both part and parcel of our state’s metropolitanization. City and country are indeed merging. But here’s the crucial thing: metropolitanization North Carolina-style is not simply urbanization. It involves far more than expansion of the densely packed, vertically built city style. Significant parts of downtown Raleigh are certainly becoming more vibrant and self-consciously urban. At the same time, however, metropolitanization is also encouraging the opposite. As the city grows outward, it is becoming less urban and something more indescribably in-between.
Mac McCorkle is Associate Professor of the Practice and director of the Master’s Program at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This article originally appeared in RealClearPolicy.com and is reprinted with permission.