Redrawing the Research Triangle

North Carolina's venerable corporate park is showing its age, but an ambitious plan may restore its luster.

This article is part of a weeklong America 360 series on Raleigh.

RALEIGH, N.C. — For decades, a monument to the 1950s has shimmered in the woods due northwest of Raleigh, an enduring tribute to the time when cars were king, suburban living was the idyll, and the fruits of American invention seemed limitless. At the time, the Research Triangle Park felt as futuristic as Tomorrowland, the largest corporate research park in the world, stretched across a campus half the size of Manhattan. Giants such as IBM sent thousands of employees here, transforming this region of North Carolina so dramatically that the area is named for it. "It changed our culture and our destiny," says Bob Geolas, the chief executive officer of the park's foundation. "It changed the way we thought of ourselves."

The park remains the world's largest, but so much of that world has changed, has passed it by. And now it is looking to adapt to a present with wildly different values, one that cherishes urban spaces, entrepreneurship, collaboration, and, well, high-grade coffee. "We have 7,000 acres," Geolas says. "And you can't buy a Starbucks anywhere in this park."

The campus remains home to more than 170 companies — along with IBM, they include GlaxoSmithKline, Syngenta, RTI International, Credit Suisse, and Cisco. But the place retains the feel of a suburban mall that lacks not just a Starbucks but aso an Applebees, much less a Panera Bread or a Sweetgreen. There is no retail. There are no residential units. Compared with the booming start-up tech cultures in the downtowns of Raleigh and Durham, where residents are surrounded by brewpubs and cafes, it's in danger of coming off as a relic of bygone days.

Geolas wants to change that by updating the park's look and feel. "This needs to be a place of great inspiration, but there's nothing inspiring about it," he says. Part of the push is a recognition that the economics that built the park are shifting. Companies are investing differently, particularly in research and development. Technological advancements mean they don't require the kind of space the park provides. And the employees who remain on site want a better workplace experience, Geolas says.

Last year, Geolas and other park staffers took a bus tour of the state to listen to ideas from citizens about how to revamp the institution. The trip was an homage to Archie Davis, who, as the chairman of Wachovia Bank, almost single-handedly rescued the park in the late 1950s by traveling across North Carolina to raise the funds to develop it. The park was conceived as a means of elevating the state's economy beyond the textile and manufacturing jobs that had defined it, by attracting the technology and life-science industries. It was a classic public-private partnership, with the state government and universities working hand in hand with private investment (and it is the kind of activist governmental intervention that has fallen out of favor with the Republicans who have taken power in the state).

To Geolas, who can came off as downright evangelical about the vision, the park had largely become known in more recent times as a real-estate player, slicing off parcels of land from its campus to stay flush. The plan, he says, is to restore its image as a cutting-edge center of innovation, working with its tenant companies to develop new products. "Let's get away from buildings that are all about marble and ferns and fountains and cubicles," he says. The park, he says, must build a "global convergence center," to reach the next generation of innovators and businesses.

The center would include a laboratory space that would import talented students from surrounding universities such as Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State, as well as community colleges, and have them work in teams to solve global problems. "We will have a place in the park where we were tackle interpretative big data," Geolas says. "Maybe it is transformative medicine, maybe it's water inequality, maybe it's food distribution."

The second component will be focused on economic development, wrangling venture capital to help local communities in need. "We want to create an open network that links this community to people around the world," he says. The center would also feature a "new kind of convenience space, different than a convention space," he says. "If you have a product, you can't launch it here. You have to go to Boston to launch it." In other words, the park has no ability to mount a Steve Jobs-style rollout.

The plan also calls for the establishment of a demonstration center, what Geolas calls a technology showcase, that will draw visitor traffic and become a civic magnet. "Think about Walt Disney wanted EPCOT to be — he wanted it to be the living example of the best and the most innovative and exciting things the future has to offer," Geolas says.

All in all, he wants the park to take a page from the New Urbanism, to feel more clustered, more attuned to modern lifestyles, with the idea of transforming itself into a sustainable community. The project, however, remains in the planning stages, and more capital needs to be raised — privately. "We don't want to go to the state and ask for the money," he says. (What went unsaid is that the budget-slashing mood in the state at the moment probably wouldn't support it.) "We intend to make this idea big enough and compelling enough that we'll raise the money to do it," he says.

The overarching goal is to make the Research Triangle Park as relevant to the lives of modern North Carolinans — and the world — as it was in its 20th-century heyday. Geolas says it would show that America can still think big, as ambitiously as it did back in 1956. "If we can't do something like this," he says, "shame on us."