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Research Triangle Park—the grandfather of corporate complexes of its kind—is getting a people-friendly makeover to draw top talent and startups
The rolling woods along Interstate 40 in North Carolina between Raleigh and Durham have little in common with a bustling urban streetscape. And that is exactly according to the plan used 50 years ago when Research Triangle Park opened amid the area's three big universities—Duke, North Carolina State, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Today the research park's 11 square miles remain an oasis of manicured corporate campuses, wide commuter roads, and landscaped parking lots. It's "Ward Cleaver's version of the perfect industrial park," quips Brent Lane, director of the Center for Competitive Economies at UNC-Chapel Hill. But in a few years, some of this acreage should feel more like a densely packed suburban center. As research parks sprout up inside big cities around the globe, the grandfather of today's research and development complexes is under pressure to make itself livelier. So it's adding facilities tailored to startups as well as shops and housing at the park's edges. The goal, says Rick L. Weddle, CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, which manages the park, is to make the place "consistently more attractive to the brightest minds in the world." The evolution won't be simple. Because the park is designated as a self-taxing authority and subject to zoning restrictions in two counties, residential housing construction must be limited. Covenants with the park's board and its roughly 170 corporate residents—owners such as IBM (IBM) and Cisco (CSCO) buy their land from the foundation—require consensus on land-use changes. Retail and Housing
As a result, Weddle, who has been in the job for five years, has focused on development around the periphery and is planning a few dense "nodes and niches" within it. Those include a 25-acre retail and housing site near a forthcoming transit hub and potentially a 100-acre site that currently hosts office space, a couple of bank branches, and a vacant shopping center. "Let's not kill the goose that laid the golden egg," Weddle says, referring to the park's model of historically catering to large companies. Even with its new amenities, Research Triangle Park, as a whole, will never have the walkability of newer urban centers designed to encourage collaboration by funneling researchers and scientists in related industries into shared spaces in offices and outside. Encompassing 20 times as much land as the average 365-acre U.S. science park, the park is just too big. That has forced Weddle to think beyond land development and consider other ways to make the complex feel vibrant and small. Startups may occupy a former government agency lab that has been converted for incubation space, complete with affordable and flexible lease terms. He has brokered an on-site evening MBA program there through North Carolina State and hopes to repurpose the lab facilities to attract daytime "co-workers," or freelancers and mom-and-pop firms that don't want their own space. To urge park employees to network, he has started "Techie Tuesdays," an on-site happy hour, and he's developing a Web site to promote local speeches and "meet-ups" for interest groups. Even a mountain bike trail was built. That's a big shift for the foundation, which has long focused foremost on the needs of its corporate residents. Now the spotlight is increasingly on employees. "Over time," says Weddle, "this will tip to where it's even more about the people."