Aug 3, 2023 - Business

Downtown Raleigh's recovery from the pandemic is among slowest in the U.S.

Downtown Raleigh foot traffic recovery
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Seasons are March-May (spring), June-Aug. (summer), Sept.-Nov. (fall) and Dec.-Feb. (winter); Visitors determined by counting unique mobile phones in ZIP codes with high employee density; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Downtown Raleigh's recovery from the pandemic has been one of the slowest in the country, according to research from the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

Driving the news: Pedestrian traffic in downtown Raleigh is at 44% of pre-pandemic 2019 levels, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

  • Raleigh's recovery ranked 47th out of the 52 U.S. downtowns analyzed.
  • That's based on anonymized mobile phone activity. (Read about the University of Toronto's methodology here.)

Why it matters: Remote work has emptied many of downtown's tech-focused offices, creating emptier streets and less traffic for businesses catering to workers.

Yes, but: Bill King, the president of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, said the University of Toronto's methodology doesn't accurately capture downtown's vibrancy.

  • The boundaries the study used, for example, do not include Glenwood South and only parts of the Warehouse District, Seaboard Station and state government complex.
  • That leaves out many areas where apartments and restaurants are denser and instead focuses on areas more dependent on offices.

What they're saying: King said there's an east-west divide in downtown Raleigh, where Glenwood South and the Warehouse District are doing well while the Fayetteville Street corridor is still growing slowly.

  • "(T)here is still a lot of work to be done to make our downtown recovery more even and consistent — with our downtown core still in need of plenty of help," King wrote in an email.

The big picture: It's the cities with diverse downtowns — meaning, a healthy mixture of office space, housing and entertainment — that have nearly returned to, or even exceeded, their pre-pandemic foot traffic rates.

  • San Diego, for example, is at 88% of its pre-pandemic foot traffic. That's partially because the city's downtown has long been diversified, and partially because tourism has rebounded, says William Fulton, UC San Diego Design Lab visiting policy designer.
  • Cities with downtowns that almost exclusively catered to office workers are struggling mightily to recover in the remote and hybrid work era. New York is at 67% of pre-pandemic foot traffic, and San Francisco is at a measly 31.9%, according to the study.

Zoom in: In Raleigh, it's become increasingly clear that downtown's office recovery is plateauing and vacancy rates have been increasing — especially with large employers like Citrix going fully remote.

  • In the middle of the week, office utilization is now closer to 60%, according to DRA. But at the end of the week or on a rainy day it falls much lower.

What's next: Revitalization of the main office district could be coming in the near future.

  • Many large residential projects are being built near the southern entrance to downtown Raleigh, which could bring thousands of new residents and more reliable foot traffic for businesses near the Fayetteville Street corridor.
  • The city is also working with a consultant to create a plan to bring more retail businesses, events and public projects to increase activity around Fayetteville Street.
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