::Mr. Downtown Raleigh: Greg Hatem
By R.Gregg, Raleigh Chronicle Editor In Chief
Friday, May 25, 2007
RALEIGH - It's hard to find any single person who has had more of an impact on the revitalization of downtown Raleigh in recent years than Greg Hatem, the founder of Empire Properties.
With a new upscale hotel on the horizon, a whole street under development, several restaurants and bar under his belt, and many other projects underway, the leader of Empire Properties has been hard at work.
But unlike other downtown developers, Hatem has focused not on erecting shiny new skyscrapers that are meant to impress, but instead has been steadily refurbishing brick and mortar buildings with character that have been central to Raleigh's past.
His Empire Properties company has a long list of projects. Some new buildings are in the works, but most of them are refurbishments of older structures and they all have been increasingly adding to the downtown energy level.
Arguably, after years of downtown blight, Hatem's opening of restaurants and highly visible urban renewal projects have been instrumental in helping make downtown proper an entertainment district once again, spurring other developments in an area that used to "roll up the sidewalks" at 5pm.
Hargett Street Is The Key
Although Hatem has several new buildings planned including a 15 story hotel that will be built in the next few years (as discussed later in this story), his main focus has been on Hargett Street which intersects the newly reopened Fayetteville Street downtown.
"Hargett is the target," joked Hatem. "That's our motto at Empire Properties."
All joking aside, with at least nine different buildings within one block, Hargett Street has truly been a focus of Hatem's unique style of development.
"We're building a critical mass," said Hatem about Hargett Street. "I believe Hargett is the best place in town."
Although relatively small at only 2,000 square feet, the Raleigh Times Bar, where the building was entirely refurbished before the unique bar was started by Hatem, is one of the jewels in Empire Properties' crown.
The bar is named after the old Raleigh Times daily newspaper that used to be located in the building before the paper was bought out by the News & Observer and then closed in the 1980's. The Raleigh Times bar even features old newspapers on the wall from the last century as well as artifacts found during the renovations.
Reaching Out Beyond The Building
As part of Hatem's philosophy, the bar is not a walled off unit separate from the city but becomes part of the street with plenty of outdoor seating on the sidewalks and also large plate glass windows where passersby can easily see into the bar.
With his other restaurants which include the Duck & Dumpling, Nana's Chophouse, and the Morning Times, Hatem has consistently kept that philosophy of reaching out beyond the confines of the building.
The Duck & Dumpling, one of Hatem's first projects downtown, was one of the first new restaurants in the downtown area to put outdoor seating on the sidewalk. In addition, when the restaurant first opened, Hatem had an outdoor projector at night beam the logo of the restaurant -- a duck -- onto an adjacent building, creating somewhat of a stir and a buzz in the process.
"It spills all this activity out onto the sidewalk," says Hatem of outdoor seating, who added that creating "energy" downtown is an important aspect of what they do.
At the Raleigh Times, visitors are connected to the past just by visiting the building. With old Raleigh newspapers on the wall, exposed brickwork from the building's original walls and even historical artifacts found in the building on display, Hatem makes a bridge between the past and present.
Before Hatem restored the it, most people -- including this reporter -- didn't even know that the building had even housed the Raleigh Times newspaper.
"We're preserving character and charm," said Hatem. "No matter what other buildings are built, we have a connection to our past which is where our character comes from."
At the Times, he tried to leave much of the building like it is, even covering some older brickwork with plexiglass to showcase the original walls while at the same time protecting them.
"At the Times, we left it like it is," said Hatem. "It's almost like being in a museum and you can't duplicate that."
The bar even hosted a reunion of sorts for the Raleigh Times newspaper with around 70 former staffers coming from as far away as New York to visit. Some of their donations of Raleigh Times memorabilia can be seen on the wall of the bar, making the building truly a memorial to a valued Raleigh newspaper that chronicled the town as it grew.
To keep the energy level going beyond the regular workday, Hatem wanted to create a 24/7 activity in the Hargett Street area.
Next to the Times Bar, Hatem has opened up The Morning Times, a coffee shop and quiet sanctuary in the middle of the hustle and bustle of downtown.
Housed in another building that he has refurbished, the Morning Times is open at 6:30am and since the Times Bar closes at 2:30am, Hatem is pretty close to his vision of 24 hours a day activity on Hargett Street.
Although the Morning Times and the Raleigh Times buildings are among two of the smallest buildings he has renovated, Hatem does not underestimate their impact on the downtown community.
"The scale is very human," said Hatem. "It's not intimidating when you walk in."
New Projects Downtown
Across the corner from the Times Bar, Hatem is refurbishing several buildings at the corner of Wilmington Street and Hargett and some are already under lease.
In keeping with his principle of bringing a vibrant energy to his properties, Hatem said that he was pleased to sign leases with the mediterranean style restaurant called Riviera which also has outdoor seating as well as the NC State College of Design offices.
"[We like to have] energetic, creative people downtown," he said.
Empire is also renovating the old Heilig Meyers Furniture Building on the corner where the top two floors are leased out to Cherokee Partners and the bottom floor is going to become another restaurant.
Just down the street, Hatem is also refurbishing the old Highland Furniture Building and a three story Odd Fellows Building (a different structure than the newer 10 story Odd Fellows Building down the street).
The Highland and Odd Fellows Buildings will have another restaurant and a bar in the basement and in keeping with restoring Raleigh's history, Hatem has signed up the Capital Barber Shop as a tenant. The barber shop was in the building before its renovation since 1927.
"We're working on all of them at the same time," said Hatem, who added that they hope to finish up the block sometime this fall.
One block over near the intersection of Fayetteville Street and Hargett Street, Hatem is also restoring the old three story Dollar Store building that dates back to the 1890's.
Office Buildings On Hargett
While Hatem sees the value in smaller buildings, he has not shied away from larger historic buildings which are currently being leased for office space.
Empire is currently leasing out space on Hargett Street in its ten story Commerce Building or as it was originally called, the Odd Fellows Building. The massive structure dates back to 1923.
Empire's offices are located in the seven story Masonic Temple Building across the street which is also owned by Empire. That building dates back to 1907 and houses Raleigh's Urban Design Center.
Big Restorations Planned
Although not downtown, Hatem also has large projects that he has undertaken such as the restoration of the Raleigh Bonded Warehouse on Capital Boulevard where he will be subdividing the front half of the building into smaller office spaces.
In addition, he is undertaking the restoration of the E.B. Bain Water Treatment Plant that from the 1940's until 1989 served as Raleigh's water treatment facility. The 40,000 square foot facility on Fayetteville Road in south Raleigh has been vacant since it was closed by the city.
Hatem says he is also leasing part of the old Jillian's nightclub building, which takes up an entire city block, to the Vintage21 church in Raleigh. The building is in the warehouse district in downtown Raleigh just a block over from the intersection of Hillsborough Street and Glenwood Avenue.
Brand New Building
Two of Hatem's most ambitious projects will be located in downtown Raleigh and unlike most of Empire's other projects, they will involve the construction of entirely new buildings.
The so-called "L Building" will located at the intersection of McDowell and Davie Streets in Raleigh and will feature 100,000 square feet of office space and 15,000 square feet of retail space when completed.
Hatem says he will open another Morning Times coffee shop on the corner as part of the retail space.
Construction on that property will begin in August and everything will be finished in December of 2009, says Hatem.
New Lafayette Hotel
The Raleigh City Council approved the plans for what will be Empire Properties tallest building when completed.
The 15 story Lafayette Hotel is planned for the front half acre of property facing the Progress Energy Center for the Arts in downtown Raleigh. In addition to 125 rooms in the boutique hotel, the building will have 80 condominium units and a "signature" restaurant on the first floor.
Although Hatem says they are still in the design phase, he says that the hotel is designed to appeal to the high end of the market, focusing on luxury and "most of all customer service."
To that end, Hatem has hired Craig Spintzer, the former general manager of the The Library Hotel in New York. Hatem says he is lucky to have been able to hire Spintzer, who has created a reputation for knowing all of his guests extremely well at the Library and catering to their needs.
"We're trying to create an experience," said Hatem. "The first time people walk in, it's an experience, the second time you walk in, you'll feel like you're staying at a friend's house."
Unlike other chain hotels, Hatem hopes to give the hotel a unique hometown flavor.
"People who are living here in Raleigh can define it," said Hatem. "It will be a great venue to visit all around Raleigh."
More Than Just A Business
Hatem's success has come despite of -- or perhaps because of -- his desire to put history and community heritage at the top of Empire's priorities.
He has helped some tenants get into downtown space when they otherwise may not have been able to afford it. For example, altough Hatem himself did not tell the Chronicle about this, the Chronicle learned that he has allowed the Capitol City Barber shop to return to its old space after renovations for the same rent as before. It was important to Hatem for the barber to be able to return to the same space it had occupied since the early 1900's.
In addition, Hatem has been allowing Raleigh artists to display their artwork in renovated buildings for free, rotating them in on a monthly basis.
Many see the Roanoke Rapids native as a good steward of Raleigh. Instead of knocking down buildings, as some developers have done downtown, he is instead trying to save them.
"Where Empire Properties sees its place is in the revitalization of Raleigh," said Hatem. "We're preserving the character of Raleigh."