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A 15-minute-city? Leaders propose rezoning all of RTP and adding a drinking district

In 2021, Research Triangle Park found itself at a crossroads.

Record numbers of people nationwide were leaving their jobs, and companies attempting a return to the office without losing employees found themselves questioning the decades-old planning philosophy that carved RTP into large corporate campuses that workers drive to five days a week.

Where were the restaurants? The apartments? The nightlife? In most of RTP, it wasn’t within walking distance.

Scott Levitan, Research Triangle Foundation’s CEO and president, said 20% of RTP — 1,400 acres — is parking lots.

“RTP isn’t broken. RTP has been a huge success story for our region and for our state and for our country,” he told the Durham County Board of Commissioners last week. “But the development model for RTP has not really kept up with the way innovation communities around our country and around the world have evolved.”

Pfizer’s new gene-therapy facility in Durham, N.C. The pharmaceutical giant opened the new facility on Dec. 15, 2021.
Pfizer’s new gene-therapy facility in Durham, N.C. The pharmaceutical giant opened the new facility on Dec. 15, 2021.

So now the foundation, which stewards the park, is embarking on an ambitious 50-year-plan to craft a “15-minute city” that will require rezoning the entire park.

The 15-minute-city is an urban planning concept where residents can access their everyday essentials — work, school, grocery stores, parks, restaurants, health care — within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or public transit trip.

RTP today

Research Triangle Park, founded in 1959, is dominated by the technology and biological science industries.

It’s home to more than 375 companies and 55,000 employees, the foundation reports.

At 7,000 acres, it could house all of these regional hot spots with room to spare:

  • Downtown Raleigh

  • Downtown Durham

  • N.C. State University

  • Duke University

  • UNC-Chapel Hill

  • N.C. Central University

Boxyard RTP has a variety of restaurants and vendors as well as ample outdoor patio seating.
Boxyard RTP has a variety of restaurants and vendors as well as ample outdoor patio seating.

RTP is already undergoing a $1.5 billion transformation with Hub RTP, which will be the park’s “downtown.”

Hub RTP includes offices and Boxyard, a collection of shipping containers filled with restaurants and shops. More shops and offices, an apartment building and a large parking deck will open in 2024. A hotel, more apartments and an eight-story life science tower are also planned.

But, the foundation’s senior planner Travis Crayton said, that’s just one development. At 100 acres, it can’t serve the whole park.

“The guiding question for RTP 3.0 is: What’s next?” Crayton said. “We need more mixed-use nodes. Hub can’t be the only one.”

The projection of Hub RTP, including a hotel, housing, and the Via life science tower.
The projection of Hub RTP, including a hotel, housing, and the Via life science tower.

RTP 3.0

Research Triangle Park straddles Durham and Wake counties, both of which have special zoning designations for it.

Those zoning designations are intended for research in low-density, campus-like settings. Large buffers are required, which is why the park is so forested today.

Levitan said they aim to ask both counties for a new overlay for the park by the end of 2024, giving private land owners considerable options for future development.

The overlay would introduce three new “place types” to the mix:

  • Enhanced corporate campus: Would allow existing corporate campuses to grow, plus add shops and restaurants accessible to the public

  • Residential neighborhoods: Incorporating a variety of housing types, plus amenities like grocery stores that create a “15-minute-city.”

  • Mixed-use density node: Such as Hub RTP.

They also plan to craft a new RTP Planning Board, to which developers would bring proposals before submitting them to planning staff:

  • Because landowners in RTP are governed by private covenants, the RTP Planning Board could require environmentally sustainable design or affordable housing, which the state of North Carolina preempts local governments from doing.

  • “It’s almost like a workaround, in a way, for things that we can’t do,” Durham County Commissioner Heidi Carter said.

Scott Levitan, president and CEO of The Research Triangle Park Foundation describes the latest growth and development in the park during as event at the Boxyard on Friday, June 11, 2021 in Durham, N.C.
Scott Levitan, president and CEO of The Research Triangle Park Foundation describes the latest growth and development in the park during as event at the Boxyard on Friday, June 11, 2021 in Durham, N.C.

An RTP drinking district?

The park’s leaders also are exploring the possibility of a 100-acre RTP social district, where people can stroll around drinking alcoholic beverages in specialty cups without risking an open-container violation.

Both Durham and Raleigh created social districts downtown last year after a 2021 state law allowed them.

“If we are not doing this then we are not staying competitive,” Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said after hearing the foundation’s presentation last week.

RTP is expecting to mirror downtown Durham’s social district rules, with projected hours of 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

A social district, where alcohol can be consumed outdoors in specially branded cups, is being proposed inside Research Triangle Park.
A social district, where alcohol can be consumed outdoors in specially branded cups, is being proposed inside Research Triangle Park.

They plan to launch in late 2024 with a social district around Horseshoe, a U-shaped set of buildings with restaurants, shops and offices beside the park’s first 406 apartments in Hub RTP. Horseshoe will also include an outdoor seating courtyard, a lawn and stage, a splash pad, public art, and a walking loop around a stream.

The area is northeast of Davis Drive and N.C. 54.

They eventually want it to span 100 acres, connecting to Boxyard to the west. Amanda Ronan, who directs placemaking for the foundation, said they’ll apply for the full 100 acres from the start.

Nimasheena Burns, vice-chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, asked how drinkers would safely cross the massive parking lot between Boxyard and the rest of Hub RTP.

“That is part of the reason that we’re going to focus on the east side to start,” Ronan replied. “What are they doing during that walk? We have some ideas, but we don’t have them [figured] out yet.”