Guest Opinion: When will the Triangle look like Charlotte?

October 5, 2018 | Triangle Business Journal
Lee Roberts

After a trip to Charlotte, Triangle residents often come back asking when Raleigh will look like the Queen City.

We have similar levels of explosive growth, but when will we have landmark office towers, a downtown NFL stadium, and a light rail system? When will we have the same kind of vibrant central business district, with thousands of office workers spilling onto the sidewalks for a sandwich at lunch and a beer after work?

My answer: Don’t hold your breath. Despite a boom driven by many of the same factors as the growth in Charlotte, the structure of the Triangle is far different. In my view, if you want to know what the Triangle of the future will look like, look to Silicon Valley.

The Triangle shares more characteristics with the Western capital of technology than it does with the Southern capital of banking. Start with the employment base. Among the largest private employers in Charlotte are Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Duke Energy. These employers offer not only high-paying jobs, but are the kinds of employers that have, at least historically, housed their employees in large office towers in downtown business districts.

Here in the Triangle, our biggest private employer is Duke University. A well-paying nonprofit organization, to be sure, but a non-profit nonetheless and, perhaps more importantly, an employer with a workforce spread widely across multiple, low-density locations. The same could be said for another of our largest employers, RTI International.

The biggest for-profit employers are different also. For every Red Hat or Citrix that has chosen an urban setting, there are many more – SAS, Cisco, Fidelity, Cree or Lenovo – all in suburban campus locations that many Triangle residents would be hard-pressed to find.

While this is changing as some employers seek the vibrancy of urban clusters to attract and retain younger professionals, that still doesn’t mean that we will develop a traditional hub-and-spoke commuting pattern like Charlotte.

But as I see it, that’s a good thing. Already, an employer who wants a walkable, “live-work-play” location with food and entertainment options can choose from at least half a dozen submarkets around the area.