Barry Saunders

How the Sir Walter residents fare will say a lot about Raleigh’s character

Sir Walter under contract to be sold

Video: The historic Sir Walter Hotel in downtown Raleigh is slated to be sold. The building now has 140 units for elderly, low income residents. Under the proposal, they will have to move out by 2020.
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Video: The historic Sir Walter Hotel in downtown Raleigh is slated to be sold. The building now has 140 units for elderly, low income residents. Under the proposal, they will have to move out by 2020.

Late in the heavy-handed, morality-tale movie “Wall Street,” an older stock broker pulls the suddenly sullied young hero aside and tells him, “Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”

That is the point at which Raleigh residents, indeed, all of us in the state, have arrived.

We must now gaze into that abyss and ask ourselves, “Are we the kind of society that will allow a rich developer to come along and boot old people – forget that “senior citizens” jive – from the Sir Walter Apartments building that has served as their home for so long, with only perfunctory concern for where they go?

Or – and this is to what we should aspire – are we going to be the kind of society that finds a space even in the midst of a thriving downtown for people who have reached their twilight?

Oh, how wonderful it would be if, centuries from now, archaeologists combing through the ruins of what was downtown find – near the sites of TV stations, expensive hotels and restaurants serving $17 crab cakes – the remains of an elderly, less-affluent society.

“Astonishing, old bean,” the future Louis Leakeys will conclude. “One thing we know about this society is that it took care of its elderly.”

The City of Raleigh is not involved in the sale of the property, but Larry Jarvis, Raleigh’s director of housing and neighborhoods, said in a 2015 N&O story that housing for senior citizens is a priority. Other priorities, he said, are providing housing for them in areas within a half mile of proposed transit stations and in areas that are being revitalized.

Laudable goals, both, but the only problem with that is what we’re seeing now: old people and poor people tend to get revitalized right out of the picture.

You know who I blame?

Former Mayor Charles Meeker.

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The Sir Walter building, right, is seen near the Sheraton, left, and BB&T Building, top, in downtown Raleigh. Fayetteville Street runs in the left foreground. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Before Meeker & Co. came along, downtown Raleigh, after 6 p.m. on weekdays and all the time on weekends, was the province primarily of bums and tumbleweeds. Sir Walter residents were safely ensconced in an undesirable location and had no need to fret about being ousted.

After Meeker started making like some municipal Puff Daddy, bringing festivals and parties downtown and making the area more vibrant and thus more inviting to businesses, those residents found themselves occupying a prime spot for ambitious, deep-pocketed developers.

“Any time you have a commercially active area, older buildings can be renovated and resold for a higher dollar value,” Meeker told me Monday. “That can have an adverse impact on lower-income people, including, in this case, senior citizens.

“It’s awfully hard for the city to regulate the private sector,” he said, “but the main thing the city should be doing is creating a lot of affordable housing, two or 300 new affordable units each year, many of which should be in the downtown area. We have some funds on hand, plus the recent one-cent increase in taxes” to help achieve that.

He also mentioned property the city owns “in the central business district” that could be suitable for affordable housing.

Dang. If Meeker had just left bad enough alone, no one would want to come downtown and those old people wouldn’t have to worry about finding new digs.

The most memorably troubling line in “Wall Street” was “Greed ... is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

Well, is it good, is it right, does it work?

Let us stare into the abyss and find out.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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