Earlier this month, the Research Triangle Foundation, developer for North Carolina's Research Triangle Park (RTP), released a new master plan setting out the foundation's vision for the future of one of North America's oldest and largest research and science parks. Started in 1959, the 7,000-acre RTP is now home to 170 companies with more than 39,000 employees. One of the key challenges confronting the foundation has been the dwindling portion of the park still unoccupied: Only 16 percent of the park's land is not taken up by current owners and leaseholders or by roadways. The new master plan calls for a more intensive development strategy that will make room for many more companies and as many as 150,000 workers in total. How can RTP meet that development challenge while doing so sustainably? I spoke with Liz Rooks, executive vice president and COO of the foundation to find out how the new RTP master plan can help the park to expand, while respecting environmental principles.
Inhabitat: What did the Research Triangle Foundation hope to achieve when it set out to develop the new RTP master plan?
Liz Rooks: Our board recognized that, after fifty years, the way we were doing business needed to change in some respects, if the park was going to remain important to the region for the next fifty years. Our traditional model had been selling large sites to individual companies, but we needed to rethink that model, recognizing that the way people are working today is vastly different than when the park was developed. For example, GlaxoSmithKline is now consolidating all of their employees from the area into their RTP campus but is doing so without adding square footage. They’re doing that through hoteling; the majority of their employees will no longer have individual offices, reducing the need for building space.
Inhabitat: What are the most exciting achievements of this plan?
Liz Rooks: One of the most exciting results is the creation of a mixed-use district in the park. We’re changing the park from a single-use model and actually bringing in residential, developing a center for the park that would create a 24/7 atmosphere, where employees can live and work and play. To do that, we had to make some changes in the allowable uses in the park. Last spring we went to the legislature to ask them to set up a special tax district that would allow us to incorporate residential use in RTP. Another thing we’ve done is make amendments to the general zoning for RTP. We went to both Durham and Wake Counties [RTP straddles the two counties] to ask for zoning changes that would reduce setbacks.
Inhabitat: How are you incorporating sustainability into the plan?
Liz Rooks: One of the ways is by choosing Hines as developer for the Mixed-Use Center [referred to as Triangle Commons in the master plan document]. Expertise in sustainable development was one of the criteria we considered, and Hines is known as one of the greenest commercial developers. The immediate next step is to come up with a land plan for the Mixed-Use Center. In conjunction with Hines, we’ve hired the architectural firm EE&K. They’re a well-recognized firm for doing mixed-use site planning, and over the next three months we’ll be preparing the actual plan for the Mixed-Use Center.
We have a very strong environmental committee on our owners and tenants association. The park companies are very supportive of our sustainability efforts. Our companies have done a lot with photovoltaic solar systems, and the plan recognizes there is more we can do with that. Just changing the basic land form to incorporate a mixed-use center is a major step in sustainability in itself. Developing around nodes will increase walkability for company facilities. People will be able to live and work within walking distance. In water management, we’ve identified natural drainage systems throughout the park and are planning ways to enhance them and do some rehabilitation in those areas. In conjunction with Durham and Wake Counties and the town of Cary, we’re developing a reclaimed water system that will use non-potable greywater for things like irrigation and cooling towers.
Inhabitat: One of the main challenges for RTP seems to be how to do more with a limited amount of acreage. How do you balance this with sustainability concerns?
Liz Rooks: Our master planner told us that you can have more density and can have more nature at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive. If you cluster the development, you will actually get more usable open space that’s not really accessible to people now. Clustering will create walkable nodes of greater density within the park, with buildings clustered around common open space. A cluster might include a full range of uses — office, residential, retail, even an educational component. Or it might be just a denser clustering of research uses. Developing around these nodes can help create a collaborative atmosphere.
I think if we can get more efficient use of the land, that in itself addresses sustainability. Whereas the land might not have been productively used in the past because of excessively large setbacks, by reducing the setback, that creates a better ability for our companies to use their sites effectively. Bringing buildings closer to the road also means they will be better served by trains. Transit is a feature of the master plan. We understand that commuter rail is the most feasible way to serve RTP in the near future, so we’re very supportive of having that happen.
Inhabitat: What influence will RTP have on the design of new buildings, especially as it relates to green architecture? Will new buildings, renovations, retrofits, and so on, have to meet certain sustainable design standards? How will those be enforced?
Liz Rooks: In the case of the Mixed-Use Center, we at the foundation have considerable influence, as we are bringing in the master developer, who will be placing priority on sustainability. One important thing is that the park companies already hold themselves to a very high standard. Our board of design has the authority to approve any new building or expansion. The board is made up of two members from the foundation and two members from the RTP owners and tenants association. Every building that has come through our board of design has been LEED certified at one level or another.
Inhabitat: What role will solar energy and daylighting have in design at RTP?
Liz Rooks: We don’t have any specific building designs yet for the Mixed-Use Center, but solar has been used more and more extensively by the existing park companies. We have a lot of flat roofs at RTP, and companies are finding they can put solar arrays on top of them. Daylighting is a major aspect of LEED building, and in fact, Fidelity has a major project going on on the the campus previously owned by Nortel. Fidelity is taking a 600,000-square-foot building and cutting a core in the middle of it to open it up for daylighting.
Inhabitat: How does the plan deal with issues of open space and green space?
Liz Rooks: One way is by organizing the space so there’s more open space and so it’s more accessible. Another way is by protection of the natural systems in the park. I would say we already have a good start on that by what the NCSU School of Design did for us some years ago. They did a plan for the Wake County portion of the park, identifying environmentally-sensitive land and setting that aside in what’s called natural area preserve — permanent open space owned by the Research Triangle Foundation, such as flood plain, wetland, and natural habitat.
Inhabitat: What is the time frame for implementation of the new master plan?
Liz Rooks: It’s hard to give you an exact date by any means. As far as the early preparatory work, we’re already seeing changes in areas like legislation and zoning. Construction of the Mixed-Use Center could start in two to three years.