It’s been more than three years since Durham County committed $20 million toward an ambitious effort to modernize Research Triangle Park.
The money was pledged in support of Park Center, a project that would turn nearly 100 acres of an aging office park into an urban town center with new offices, apartments and hotels, shopping and greenspace. It was billed as an effort to open up the world-famous business park from a collection of walled off corporate fortresses to a place where people could live, work and play.
But for three years, the project stalled and no construction started, as the Research Triangle Foundation, the not-for-profit that manages the park, went through a leadership change and a potential developer dropped out.
Today, however, after tweaking the plan from 2015, the project has gained momentum and construction on its first phase is expected to start soon.
Last October, the foundation signed an agreement with Willard Retail to start development on the first phase of Park Center, building retail on 12 acres of the property. Willard is expected to begin construction later this year.
The new plans — which bump up the investment of the original project — drew praise from the Durham County Commissioners on Monday, whom the foundation has to update on the project’s progress because of the county’s financial contribution.
In total, the foundation now expects the entire project to have a direct investment of more than a billion dollars, according to Monday’s presentation, up from an estimate of $324 million in 2015.
“I am really excited about this revision,” Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said. “It is a reboot of what we saw almost three and a half years ago. I think it is excellent.”
The project is being led by Scott Levitan, the CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation, who was brought on in 2017. He said Monday that RTP has to cater to three strong demands: companies that want the privacy of an isolated campus, companies that want to be near the amenities of something like a Park Center and startups that need affordable space, such as The Frontier, a collection of old IBM buildings.
“I will say, as we have done recruiting, there is some validity to the original land model of RTP,” Levitan said. “There are companies that want extreme privacy for what they do. There are companies that share with us that Chinese drones park outside of their windows and try to read their computers. As the region gets more dense, the ability to control your boundaries is something some companies want. But we’ve got to find a balance for all of those market demands.”
The Park Center is about striking that balance.
Next up for the Park Center is the expansion of The Frontier on the western half of the project and the creation of retail and greenspace on the eastern half. The Park Center project is split in half by a creek and will be connected via a new bridge.
The focus of the property, which is being designed by the Durham landscape architecture firm Surface 678, is a greenway trail and common areas that will follow the creek through the property, weaving its way between future buildings and streets. The greenway areas are expected to be completed by 2021, according to the foundation’s timeline.
At The Frontier, which is now 70 percent leased across three buildings and is home to more than 100 startups, the foundation plans to build a new outdoor entertainment area called the Boxyard.
The Boxyard, scheduled to open in 2020, will be a collection of 15 shipping containers that can be used by local businesses as affordable space. The containers, which were inspired by a similar concept in Tulsa, Okla., will be retrofitted to hold small eateries and shops to create an indoor and outdoor gathering space.
And on the eastern side of the property, where the most intense development will be, the Maryland-based Willard has signed on to build around 150,000 square feet of retail, including a grocery store and a health club to help bring and keep people in the park beyond normal working hours.
“Driving more weekend and evening traffic to the site is important,” said Michael Majestic, a partner at Willard. “Grocery stores do that all the time. So that will be a key component and that is our main target ... A health club also does that.”
But the most significant construction at Park Center will come several years from now.
Though the foundation hasn’t yet announced a developer or developers for the rest of Park Center, it is targeting the completion of Phase 2 of the property — which will include high rises, hotels, a convention center and apartments — sometime around 2026.
That phase would come with a lot of height, which is not the norm for RTP. The park is known more for buildings with large footprint rather than multiple stories.
But one goal of Park Center is to be a symbol for RTP, and having a building that can be seen from Interstate 40 is something the foundation said it desired.
In total, Phase 2 could add more than a million square feet of offices to RTP as well as around 800 apartments and 400 hotel rooms, according to the foundation’s estimates.
Phase 2 will be important for attracting medium-sized companies to the park — or companies that don’t need a self-sustaining campus, with cafeterias and 1,000-seat conference rooms built in them.
“This (type of office space) allows companies be much more efficient,” Levitan said. “Maybe you pay more to be (in Park Center), but you don’t have to pay for a conference room or a commissary. There’s good interest there.”