Uptown Charlotte and its sparkling, photogenic skyline reflect the vision of two powerfully linked leaders.
One was banker Hugh McColl, who took North Carolina National Bank into the stratosphere by acquiring out-of-state banks from coast to coast. After he bought San Francisco’s Bank of America, he merged the banks and took its name for the new company. His Bank of America was now a national player.
The other visionary was Harvey Gantt, the first Black mayor of Charlotte and an architect by trade. “In 1983, Gantt was elected mayor, and I was named CEO of the bank,” McColl told The Assembly. “So you had a guy with a lot of money, plus an architect and urban designer as mayor.”
You can’t have a great bank without a great city, McColl reasoned. And so the two set about building both.
Nearly four decades later, the difference between the modern skylines of Charlotte and Raleigh lies within the cities’ two personalities—and their approaches to urban planning.
One focused first on amassing tall buildings in its Uptown district. The other looked to development nodes ringing downtown.
One skyline was revolutionary. The other was evolutionary.
“Charlotte wanted to be a big city—that was their ambition,” said Mitchell Silver, Raleigh’s director of city planning from 2005 to 2014. “Raleigh was reluctant. It happened there by accident.”
Charlotte has been larger than Raleigh for more than a century, and with a population of 900,000—making it the 15th-largest U.S. city—it’s nearly double the size. Both have been high-growth cities for decades; the population of each has roughly tripled since 1980. But they’ve grown in different ways.
At the skyline level, comparisons are stark. Nine of the 10 tallest buildings in North Carolina are in Charlotte.
“Charlotte wanted to look like and be the second-largest financial center outside of New York. It was intentional,” Silver said. “Raleigh’s skyline was not planned. It just happened.”
To be fair, where Tryon and Trade streets in Uptown Charlotte are wide and comfortable, with tall buildings and spacious plazas, Raleigh’s Downtown is restricted by a five-square plan that William Christmas laid out in 1792, centered around the domed State Capitol. Raleigh was built to be the home of state government. Its streets and sidewalks are relatively narrow.
“It wasn’t built for skyscrapers,” Silver said. “The grid is your block size and street width, and Raleigh was frozen with the Christmas Plan.”
Now, as Raleigh booms with a fresh wave of newcomers, city leaders will decide how dense it will get—and where. They are proceeding under a plan that often pushes density outside downtown. In doing so, they are following a model different from Charlotte’s—a vision to which Raleigh leaders are devoted, but one that some Charlotte leaders question.
When McColl set about building the Bank of America Corporate Center in 1992, he wanted to bring in international talent. He interviewed architects Kohn Pedersen Fox, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and I. M. Pei.
But it was César Pelli, architect of the World Financial Center in New York, who won the commission to build the 60-story tower—which became the tallest building in North Carolina. “I wanted a skyscraper that would last forever, like the Empire State Building, and he understood,” McColl said. “I wanted a building that reeked of power and wealth, and that was warm and friendly on the ground level.”
His project architect was Durham native Turan Duda, now a founding partner at Duda|Paine Architects. From 1987 to 1992, Duda and Pelli master-planned an entire block north of Trade Street. They designed the tower, along with the attached Founders Hall—a multi-use atrium space for weddings, performances, and fundraisers—plus a performing arts center and retail space.
“McColl was instrumental in bringing performing arts there, to give people a reason to come back to the city after five o’clock, and to bring entertainment and nightlife back to the city,” Duda said.
McColl not only helped bring an NFL franchise to Charlotte, but financed the Bank of America Stadium in Uptown, where the Panthers play. The Charlotte Hornets followed, and the Spectrum Center was built for them there after a suburban arena was demolished. The sports trifecta was completed when Truist Field—an Odell-designed ballpark that celebrates the Charlotte skyline for baseball fans—was built for the Triple-A Knights in 2014.
These buildings are all in the four-square-mile, walkable Uptown area, adjacent to the symphony, ballet, and museums. McColl likes to say that Charlotte is the only city where you can walk from a football field to the ballet. “That’s the city we built,” he said. “It was not an accident—we did it on purpose.”
To Gantt, Charlotte had a commitment and a set of businesspeople who wanted to be expansive, plus a government that made key investments in infrastructure. “They tore up the streetscape and re-did it,” Gantt said.
McColl retired from Bank of America in 2001. But in 2007 Mayor Pat McCrory extended Charlotte’s growth spurt with a light-rail system that moved toward the warehouses south of Uptown.
Now buildings along its stops in the city’s South End are as tall as 44 stories and earn $2 to $4 more per square foot than their Uptown counterparts.
“Light rail was a two-billion-dollar investment, and it had to pay out,” said Clayton Sealey, a Charlotte planning commissioner. “And it definitely has.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, Uptown Charlotte became a mecca where buildings were roaring in one direction: up.
In contrast, from 1977 to 2006, Downtown Raleigh’s main street was closed, creating what became a deserted pedestrian mall. It was the antithesis of the city’s sprawling suburban success—and a symbol of Downtown’s failed attempt to emulate it.
Ask the leadership in Charlotte today about the lessons a rapidly growing Raleigh could learn from the Queen City’s growth over the past 40 years, and you’ll get a range of answers.
Many point to the lesson of light rail, not only as a way to get around, but also as a development tool for transportation corridors. But that’s an unlikely scenario for Raleigh. For years, Silver and others spent considerable political capital trying to bring light rail to Raleigh, to no avail.
For Raleigh, “light rail is dead,” said Patrick Young, the city’s planning and development director. But he said that Raleigh could have commuter rail, as well as four bus rapid-transit routes connecting to Downtown. (To distinguish the two: Light rail stops as frequently as every few blocks, like a subway line. Commuter rail typically includes one to two stops per city or suburb along a long rail corridor, often operating on tracks located at ground level.)
McColl believes that the biggest lesson from Charlotte is amassing tall buildings in Uptown, which gives a downtown the best shot at secondary opportunities like hotels and restaurants.
“If you build outside the center, you waste opportunities,” he said. “It might be a decade before you build again in the city center.”
But building outside the city center is precisely the path laid out in Silver’s 2030 Plan, which the Raleigh city council adopted in 2009. The comprehensive plan identified eight centers for growth, several of them suburban: Downtown, Brier Creek, Midtown, Crabtree Valley, West Raleigh, Cameron (now the Village District)/University, Triangle Town Center, and New Bern/WakeMed.
“The good news is that the city followed the plan,” Silver said. “The areas that need to grow and urbanize are growing and urbanizing in the eight growth centers, including Downtown.”
If Raleigh and its skyline are now evolving within those eight growth centers, other areas in the city are growing as well.
Glenwood South, in northwest Downtown between Peace and Hillsborough streets, has developed into a lively entertainment center. The Blue Ridge Road corridor, where the North Carolina Museum of Art is located on the city’s western outskirts, is expanding as well. And the Warehouse District, with its 17-story Dillon by Duda|Paine and Union Station by Clearscapes, has opened up new possibilities on the west side of Downtown.
Meanwhile, Kane Realty is pursuing a 135-acre mixed-use district south of Downtown, complete with offices, residences, retail space, and an indoor concert venue. It’s all to be sited on a former industrial area that the city has rezoned for tall buildings and density, including 40-story buildings. “Think about what Midtown looked like 20 years ago, and what it looks like now,” said Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin.
Downtown South’s first building, designed by Duda|Paine, has broken ground. It’s not a tall one, but it’s setting new standards for sustainability: it’s the first mass-timber structure for North Carolina. At six stories, the office building is a modest entrée into the planned development.
More are underway, though none will climb to 40 stories—yet. John Kane, CEO of Kane Realty Corporation, is also building a seven-story residential building, another 26-story tower with 300 units, and a hotel. “There will be a high-rise office building too, but not until it’s pre-leased,” he said. “If we land a big player, we’ll do 35 to 40 stories.”
Kane is testing height restrictions at Midtown in North Hills, a few miles north of Downtown. The company recently built a 36-story apartment building there called The Eastern. Opened in April, it’s now 50 percent leased. And Kane’s looking for more height in the future.
The company has requested that the city rezone three parcels of land there: two for 40-story, mixed-use towers along Six Forks Road, and another 30-story building nearby. These projects have met with community resistance, most notably from Raleigh’s former mayor, Nancy McFarlane, who lives less than a mile away.
She wrote a letter to the city council in opposition to the towers. “North Hills is a great area, but it is not a downtown,” McFarlane wrote. Downtown has a better traffic grid that allows many entry and exits, she said, while North Hills is a suburban area served by just a few roads.
Surprised at the pushback, Kane still believes he’ll get the buildings done, saying they’re much better than the sprawl that creates traffic issues.
“Some are against the urbanity of it, the density,” he said. “But it’s more efficient to live here, work here, and go to the movies or walk to dinner here, versus an office park where you arrive in the morning and leave in the evening.”
Raleigh’s current growth is due in part to a huge demographic shift. Since the pandemic began, people in large metropolitan areas have been migrating to second-tier cities like Nashville, Salt Lake City—and Raleigh.
“Apple making its decision to come here put the city on the map and generated a lot of interest,” Mayor Baldwin said.
As Raleigh continues to grow concentrically, Downtown—bounded on the north by Peace Street, on the west by St. Mary’s, on the south by Martin Luther King Jr. and Western Boulevards, and on the east by Bloodworth Street—remains its beating heart.
The nonprofit Downtown Raleigh Alliance estimates that there’s currently $6.7 billion in the development pipeline of projects planned, in site preparation, under construction, or completed since 2015.
More than 8,300 housing units are planned or under construction, according to its recently released State of Downtown Report. And about 95 percent of Downtown housing units are occupied, said Bill King, president and CEO of the group.
Sealey, the Charlotte planning commissioner, notes that Charlotte hasn’t effectively dealt with its shortage of housing, but that Raleigh’s residential growth downtown offers the chance to do that.
“High design and offices are important, but still, people need places to live,” he said. “The bar is $500,000 to get into a house in Raleigh—so you need to do more for affordability.”
In late August, Zillow noted that the average cost of a single-family home in Raleigh is now $457,510. It’s a point that Young, Raleigh’s planning director, takes seriously. He says the city recognizes that about 50 percent of its housing inventory is single-family, and that those costs have risen 25 percent in the last year. Starter homes are almost out of reach, and the result is a push by the electorate toward more diversity in housing choices.
Young says the city needs alternatives for people living in duplexes and garden apartments, a segment of housing he calls “the missing middle.”
“Townhouses are the new and more accessible option for starter homes, and they’ve been added to the plan,” Young said.
As rents surge—in some areas above $3 per square foot—the cost of living increases. More people are falling into homelessness, and the number of shelter beds is shrinking, Axios Raleigh reported recently.
It noted that more than 1,500 people were counted as homeless this year, up 68 percent from 2021, according to the Wake County Continuum of Care. Investors are swallowing up rental units, and landlords are bumping up rents.
Office space in Downtown Raleigh is not accelerating similarly, due to a lingering question: Is the post-pandemic, hybrid work model here to stay, or will workers return to the office full-time? “People now work in the office on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and maybe work from home on Monday and Friday,” King said. “Is that going to last forever?”
Still, some Downtown offices are being built and others are in the pipeline. There’s a flight away from older spaces and up to quality, such as the recently completed 19-story Pendo building at 301 Hillsborough Street.
The private sector is not alone in targeting Downtown for new construction. The new state budget includes a near–$200 million plan for state buildings there as well. That includes replacing the current Administrative Building on West Jones Street with a $169 million education campus.
King notes that in the Warehouse District, there have been a number of rezonings to 40 stories—the height limit in the 2030 Plan—which means more density there. And even with his proposed tall buildings in North Hills, Kane would like to go even higher. “I hope they lift the 40-story cap,” he said.
So Raleigh’s appetite for sky-high buildings is beginning to grow—both up and out. But will it ever reach the heights of Charlotte? That’s unlikely, unless Raleigh city leaders raise their sights.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Metropolis and Dwell. He is the author of Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015) and editor and publisher of the digital design magazine Architects and Artisans.