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Cameron Village: Modernism Loses; Bland/Generic Wins

Above: What we're getting. Below: What we're losing

Tomorrow (02/15), City Council will take up the final vote on granting a variance to Charlotte investment company Crescent Resources, LLC. This variance will allow the company to bypass the 50 ft. height restriction on new construction in Cameron Village.  The public opposition to the project was short-lived and even the most picky members of City Council (including one who lives nearby) are heaping praise on it. The vote is only a formality at this point.

I can see Cameron Village from my house, and was utterly let down upon seeing the finalized plans for “The Residences at Cameron Village.” There are many condo projects in Raleigh that fit their environment and are visually attractive, but this is not one of them.

The Cameron Village Library

Love Where You Live

I’ve lived in Raleigh for 7 years now. More than 5 of those years have been in the area between NC State and Oberlin Village. I’m in love with the area I live in. These are some of the things that are within a short walk for me:

Additionally, Downtown Raleigh is a 20 minute walk or a 5 minute bike ride away. After my car was totalled (through no fault of my own), I made the decision not to drive. For over a year I had no vehicle and was able to carry on a completely functional and in fact enjoyable existence. Such a scenario would be unthinkable in my home city of Asheville, even when I lived in a vibrant and thriving part of downtown.

Although this block is vacant because of coming changes, it’s still a part of my neighborhood. I think it would have been nice if the block could have seen its full potential as originally envisioned.

The Block on the Chopping Block

The block that will be leveled to make room for the new development has been mostly vacant for some time. The gas station closed almost 2 years ago, and Village Motor Werks relocated to the Boylan area around the same time.

The last business tenants in the former Ballantine’s Cafeteria building have been vacated as well. It was the temporary home of the Cameron Village Library before relocating to their beautiful repurposed location about 5 years ago. The Ballantine’s Cafeteria Building was designed by Leif Valland, a noted area architect that relocated from New York to Raleigh to work with Willie York and build up Cameron Village.

It’s a beautiful and textbook example of Midcentury Modern architecture.

In fact, all of the structures on the block are from the same period, such as the 400 Oberlin building above. Despite having a metal siding ‘renovation’ which added pseudo-mansard roofing in the 1980s, this building resembled the Ballantine’s Cafeteria Building next door.

The Small Resistance Movement

A few years ago I noticed some signs in the middle of Clark Avenue with the words “Save Cameron Village” and “Stop the Towers.” I was a bit puzzled by this, and kept up with the debates over at New Raleigh. This was change coming to where I lived, and I took up an interest in where things were going.

Emily Biggs is (or was) a nearby resident, and undertook the noble campaign to stop the development which would add a building of unprecedented height for the area: 80 feet, when current regulations allow for only 50 feet. The Save Cameron Village website went dark long ago, the domain no longer registered, and doesn’t have a record of it.

According to City Councillor Bonner Gaylord, some nearby residents were in support of the project:

The site plan approval process was recently converted to a quasi-judicial review process by the NC Legislature. A quasi-judicial review process precludes public comment.  However, there were representatives from neighborhood groups in the audience holding up signs in support of the project’s approval.

I can’t help but think that these residents in support of the project were my neighbors over in Cameron Park. There isn’t a development issue within miles of their homes that they aren’t politically involved in. The fact that they were not up in arms protesting it is a direct indication that they were in support of it. I can’t say much though, as I was too.

Welcoming Change with Open Arms

Despite the prospect of increased traffic and congestion, the loss of beautiful modern architecture, and a building more than twice as tall as most others, I was actually looking forward to this big change in my backyard. Higher density living as a part of mixed-use architecture is what this city needs more of.

While I was less than enthusiastic at the initial watercolor painting-like renderings of the center, I held out hope that the final product would be something more defined, simple, and modern. This is the mantra of the firm responsible for the final design:

We believe in the influence of vernacular, the honesty of modernism, the need for innovation and beauty of simple, pragmatic solutions.

This final design isn’t remotely close to any of those ideas. It has, however, done a great job of taking common cookie cutter-like designs that are popping up all over and affixing revivalist ornament and design details to it. They are taking the Fidelity Bank model of Cameron Village: Revivalist with blatant disregard to common design practices.

In fact, it appears that they looked to the next door McDonald’s for design inspiration: a rectangular tower that serves no purpose, stucco cladding, and random elements thrown in for effect.

This building looks like it was taken out of the Streets at Southpoint and shoehorned in to the middle of humble and modernist of buildings in Cameron Village. If the design more closely resembled the mixed-use buildings such as The Hue or The Hudson, I’d be retaining my initial enthusiasm for a high-density mixed-use project. Unfortunately, the end result will be something that doesn’t look anything like the Cameron Village that I know.

The Loss of Modernism Isn’t Stopping

Unfortunately, The 400 Oberlin Office Building and former Ballantine’s Cafeteria Building aren’t the only ones slated for demolition in the near future. 401 Oberlin (above) is owned by a developer who would like to have a hotel on the property. Although a hotel would not fit in to the ‘neighborhood retail mixed use’ classification, City Council voted to change the designation to that from the previous office-residential mixed use designation.

This opens the door to major redevelopment of the area.

How to Get Involved

Regardless of what my feelings are or anyone else’s may be, “The Residences of Cameron Village” are moving forward. In my opinion, it will be a generic blight on the area–but it’s coming. If you’d like to weigh in, I highly encourage you to be a part of the Hillsborough CAC meeting, this Thursday, February 17th at 7:00PM in the Pullen Arts Center.

You can get an update on both projects, as well as a UDO (Uniform Development Ordinance) simulation exercise:

This simulation will demonstrate how key UDO elements, such as emerging standards for (1) frontages, (2) heights, and (3) transitions, will be applied to commercial areas bordering residential neighborhoods.

While UDO may be tough to comprehend for most folks, it’s the only thing that can be utilized to prevent future developments from being what “The Residences at Cameron Village” will be: bland and generic structures not suited for the area.

Further Reading:

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