Iron and Design

An early rendering of what the proposed Raleigh Ironworks could look like. Developers say changes to the design are ongoing.

There’s a new district emerging in Raleigh’s northeast corridor into downtown. What will it be like and what will it be called?

A year and a half ago, Cara Galate, the longtime owner of f8 Photo Studios, moved from a 2,000 square foot workspace on Hillsborough Street to 300 square feet at the Loading Dock, a co-working space on East Whitaker Mill Road.

“I wanted to be surrounded by other small business owners,” Galate says. “[Here], I can network with other businesses and startups, which is very appealing for what I want my business to grow into. Loading Dock is thriving, it’s overflowing, and its versatility, and all the diversity of businesses over there, is what is so cool about the area.”

It’s not quite downtown and it’s not quite midtown. It’s artsy, industrial and gritty, like the Warehouse District, but, as North Hills was, its growth is driven by the market rather than government capital and public-private partnerships. Its creative placemaking features, walkability and outdoor spaces will make it feel like the fun parts of the Central Business District. With almost exclusively up-and-coming and locally owned businesses setting up shop there and cheaper land and lease prices, however, it will likely have a character that’s distinctly it’s own.

Maybe we’ll call it the Iron District.

With projects such as Dock 1053, the ongoing revitalization of the Gateway Plaza shopping center and the planned redevelopment of the Peden Steel warehouse buildings and surrounding property, there’s a lot going on in the area surrounding Capital Boulevard, just north of downtown. It’s a draw for people like Jason Widen, an entrepreneur and founding partner of HQ Raleigh, a network of co-working communities which will lease 25,000 square feet, its third location in Raleigh, at Gateway Plaza this summer.

“There’s a lot of economic activity in Raleigh,” Widen says. “With all of this interest in being downtown, it’s starting to price out some of the growth-stage companies. There is growth in the northern corridor and you’re seeing these old warehouses and communities being developed into restaurant and retail space. But [these tenants] don’t want to move just anywhere. They want to move to a place with creativity and character.”

Dock 1053, which bills itself as “a creative community for makers, entrepreneurs, artisans, retailers and forward thinkers” in the heart of Raleigh, originally served as a distribution facility for the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P grocery), and then as a Winn-Dixie. Now, artists and artisans from the Hansley Gallery (contemporary art), Trig Modern (furniture) and Glas (neon glasswork) work alongside brewmasters and spirits distillers at Lynwood Brewing Concern and Pinetop Distillery, and chef and PoshNosh caterer Colleen Speaks and her team at the trendy new Hummingbird Café. In addition, dozens of other creatives and tradespeople, like Galate, rent office space.

Henry Ward, a partner at Loden Properties, has similar aspirations for Gateway Plaza, a 1960s shopping center which is being repurposed for HQ Gateway and a handful of other local tenants, including a coffee and cocktail concept from Seaboard Station’s Brew, Union Special Bakery, Craft Habit (a crafting supply store and workshop) and artist Alan Stewart’s Gateway Arts Project. Ward says he hopes to be done with the exterior upgrades to the space—including renovating the buildings, adding storefronts, signage and murals, planting trees, reconfiguring a concrete parking lot and adding green space—by mid to late summer, coinciding with the opening of HQ.

“From a retail and office standpoint, the types of tenants attracted to this area are definitely all local,” Ward says. “We hope Gateway will be 80,000 square feet of 100 percent local tenants. Your traditional maker type tenants that are making goods, or providing services, are attracted to this area from a look and feel standpoint. Just the overall vibe of these projects, like a Gateway, like a Dock 1053, are more attractive to these tenants than a modern, steel and glass building downtown.”

“You’re talking about a place of formerly industrial character becoming more mixed use,” says Kristopher Larson, president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, who leaves Raleigh to take a position in Los Angeles this month. The DRA helped coin the concepts of “districts”— i.e.. the Capital District, Glenwood South, etc.—that comprise the nonprofit’s downtown service area.

“That, in some ways, is exactly what the Warehouse District was,” Larson continues. “[Spaces] generally built in the early 20th century as a place to store transferred goods going on and off trains. The cheapest way to build that type of building was big, bulky brick boxes, and that lends itself to adaptive reuse, to create places like roomy, airy lofts, and funky art galleries, a sort of repositioning of a segment of the urban form that came in vogue.”

This emerging district likely won’t feel complete until the Peden Steel site at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Whitaker Mill—roughly 20 acres, across from Dock 1053, and home to two warehouse buildings comprising 185,000 square feet of space, with 40- to 50-foot tall ceilings that most recently served as a recycling center—is redeveloped. It’s not clear when that will be, but proposals for the space—tentatively  named Raleigh Ironworks by owner and developer Grubb Ventures—include outdoor event areas, a food hall, 200,000 square feet of office space plus some 50,000 square feet of retail.

Sam Crutchfield, the director of commercial leasing and acquisitions for the Peden Steel property and Grubb’s sister site Dock 1053, calls the area “a little grittier” than other parts of Raleigh, “[The district] that is trying to find its own identity,” he says.

“What’s been fun is that we have been trying to let the neighborhood and some of our tenants create the story there,” Crutchfield says. “Raleigh doesn’t have a lot of traditionally historic buildings or the true gritty warehouse stock that cities like Durham or Winston-Salem, or larger markets like Atlanta—those traditional manufacturing cities—have. This corridor is one of the only neighborhoods where you can have buildings, that kind of scale where you can create an entire district, not just one building here or there.”

Crutchfield says, despite the project’s Ironworks moniker, he’s heard the corridor alternatively referred to as the “Iron District,” the “Dock District” and the “Design District.” He says he’s not sure what will stick, eventually, but that each would work, and that Grubb is “trying to be very deliberate in the design decisions that we make on the redevelopment.”

“The district is unique in that it’s right at the edge of Five Points and Hayes Barton coming from the west, and the more bohemian, creative class neighborhoods, like Mordecai and Oakwood, then across Capital Boulevard, the Lion’s Park neighborhood that’s seeing lots of changes,” Crutchfield says. “Those are really diverse neighborhoods that meet right here in this district and trying to be respectful of the taste and culture of each of those is a fun opportunity. But it won’t be easy.”

Whatever we end up calling the area—whether the Iron District, or something else—it’s shaping up to be one of the most vibrant new parts of our city.

“What makes some of that investment on the Atlantic Avenue corridor so exciting is that it doesn’t have to be built brand new, and ‘let’s try to make it feel old,’” says the DRA’s Larson. “It’s ‘let’s cherish the grit, let’s cherish history, and honor it. But also, let’s make it a place for people.’”

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Jane is the editor of Raleigh Magazine. Questions, comments, criticisms/complaints? Email her at jane@raleighmag.com