Lay of the Land

Research Triangle Park (RTP) is at the beginning of a transformation of sorts. As home to more than 300 companies and over 60,000 employees, what happens every day on this 7,000 acres of land is both a driver for and by-product of our region’s continuing growth. Now more than 60 years old, but with an eye to the future, RTP’s planners and developers are laying the groundwork for some big changes. Travis Crayton, AICP is Senior Planner and Project Manager for the RTP Foundation. He recently spoke with us about what some of those changes might be and why they’re needed.

Travis Crayton, AICP

Q: What types of changes are happening in RTP?

A: A lot of the change currently revolves around our Hub RTP project, which is the first mixed use development envisioned for Research Triangle Park. We really see that project as a transformative moment for the park as we think about mixed-use, and we began to think about creating that downtown center for RTP.

As we think about Hub and the impact that will have for the look and experience of RTP, we have started working with additional stakeholders and our park companies to think about what the future vision of RTP needs to be. So, at this point, it's really a conceptual conversation. We’re thinking about what changes might make sense for the future of our region.

Q: What sparked the need for that conversation to happen?

A: Among the things that we are grappling with and thinking about is acknowledging that population projections for our region show that we're going to grow by a million people by 2050. That's a significant increase for a region of currently 2 million people to absorb. So, the question we are thinking about is, "What does it mean to have 7,000 acres at the geographic center of our region that currently is really only home to corporate campuses? What opportunities might there be? And what strategies might make sense for RTP to think about in being part of the solution to some of the challenges that come with the significant growth that is anticipated over the next 20, 30 years?" Those are the questions that we're thinking about.

Q: There is currently fairly uniform zoning throughout RTP. Is that expected to remain the case in the future, or is that changing?

A: Currently, within the park, the zoning varies slightly depending upon whether you're talking about Durham County or Wake County. But, by and large, the zoning pretty much allows you to build one type of product in the park. The exception to that is where Hub is being developed. That has a separate zoning district and a separate set of regulations that apply to it that enables mixed-use zoning to happen.

In terms of land use, we’re at a point where we have to think back to our original purpose of being an economic engine for growth. The development and land use model that RTP has used have been very successful over our first 60 years. But as you look around the country to peer research parks and innovation districts, we see a different form of development and a different set of amenities that are really informing talent attraction and retention.

We have to look at what those types of places are doing, but we also have to recognize the differences. The Triangle is a polycentric region with multiple downtown centers and RTP at the center of that. We have to consider that in our planning and how we might want to think differently and chart a different course than some of our peer regions. That’s why we are working with our stakeholders to think through how we need to position ourselves in the next 60 years of RTP and the next 60 years of economic success for our region and our state.

Q: How does residential infill play into that picture?

A: We're really thinking about, based on current physical conditions, natural features, and the status of development in the park, where there are opportunities to leverage different types of development and different development patterns than we have used in the past in RTP. Residential infill is one of those opportunities. That's not something we’ve historically done in the park, but it will be done at Hub for the first time. With a million people coming into our region, there's a significant number of housing units we need to add to the supply to be able to accommodate that, and it is definitely something that we’re exploring.

Another piece of the equation is that a number of our regional transportation plans currently call for converging transit along our NC-54 corridor in the park. Hub will create a new corporate visibility opportunity along I-40 and really create a different experience when you travel along that corridor through RTP. So we want to think about how we might expand that in the future and capitalize on it to define RTP in a way that it currently isn't.

Q: Speaking of transportation, why are multimodal transportation and transit-oriented development so important for you all now and for the future?

A: One thing we observe when we look to other regions that we're competing with for jobs, for talent, for economic growth, we recognize that many of those provide multimodal transportation choices in their regions in ways that our area currently does not. For us to continue to compete going forward, we want to think about those amenities that people are demanding and the option to have a variety of commute choices. That’s why we’re working with our partners at GoTriangle, at the counties, at our two metropolitan planning organizations, to think about a different path forward for transit and transportation in our region. We want to be responsive to that demand from the talent that we are competing for.

I think the other piece is we've seen so many case studies around the country of how having reliable frequent transit can be a catalyst for new types of economic development. We want to think about how we can leverage that in new ways for our region. That's very important to us.

We've also been working very closely with GoTriangle. One of the things that they've been trying to do for many years is develop a new mobility hub. Their current regional transit center really doesn't meet the needs of the existing transit network and those transit riders. With us being right at the center of the region, we think having that multimodal mobility hub and transfer center in RTP is a great and exciting opportunity we want to explore. And so, we want to see how we can leverage that for that economic development potential and also create a node of transit connectivity in the park that we currently don't have.

Q: So, other than the Hub project, any other plans for RTP are just conceptual right now?

A: That's correct. I think once Hub is finished, and we're able to look at that project and assess its impact, hopefully its success for RTP and the region, that will help inform this conversation that we're having.

So, there's nothing set in stone yet about what the future of RTP is going to look like. But, in light of all of these changing factors – the continued conversations we have about the future of work and what that looks like – all of those are things that go into this process as we think about what the future of RTP should be. It's really this confluence of factors that are leading to this conversation that we're having right now.

Q: Are you all working on any type of timeline for that conversation to happen and those decisions to be made?

A: We're working toward having a more concrete timeline. I don't think we're setting any deadlines just yet, but we are working toward that. We recognize that, with our growth projections and pressures that we have, this is planning that needs to be done today in order to be prepared for tomorrow. So, we're certainly working on that, but it's definitely a work in progress at this point in time.

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