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Raleigh architect Steve Schuster transforms downtown Raleigh

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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year

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Updated: Steve Schuster died Aug. 16, 2019. He was the 2014 Tar Heel of the Year. This profile originally published Dec. 28, 2014.

It’s a few minutes past the scheduled start time of Steve Schuster’s early December meeting with city of Raleigh staff, where he’ll give an update on his architectural firm’s plans for Union Station, the city’s most ambitious building project since the completion of the new Raleigh Convention Center in 2008.

At a third of the cost of the convention center, the first phase of Union Station is seen by its supporters as no less important to the continuing revitalization of downtown Raleigh. It will replace the existing Amtrak station just as Amtrak increases its train service and ridership, bringing to 293,000 the number of passengers expected to pass through Raleigh each year by 2019. In decades to come, the station also will serve commuter and high-speed rail, and buses.

The corners of Schuster’s eyes crinkle with a smile when he talks about the Union Station complex, a new gateway to Raleigh and a catalyst that could spark hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of private investment in the west side of downtown. It will be functional but grand, centered around a renovated mid-20th-century steel fabrication plant that Schuster calls an “industrial cathedral.” He envisions shops and restaurants and public spaces so inviting that people will come there even if they never board a train.

But two years and thousands of hours into the planning and design process – and months away from the expected start of construction – the city must decide whether to allocate more than the nearly $6 million it has already committed to help build Union Station. The city has asked Schuster’s firm, Clearscapes, to trim several million dollars off the cost, though most of the funding will come from federal and state grants.

Schuster will use this meeting to show the group what Raleigh will sacrifice to make those kinds of cuts. He knows they won’t like it, but he is eager to present the information so the group can take the next step.

He hopes that once they see, they will make the right decision for the building, and for the city, and stand behind him when he asks the City Council to fund Union Station mostly as it has been planned, beginning with at least $67.75 million worth of rail work, building renovation and construction.

In three decades of designing and renovating structures for the public’s use in Raleigh and other cities across the state and the country, Schuster has learned that before he can build the building, he has to build consensus.

2014 2014 Steve Schuster

He does this by holding countless meetings with the people who will own and use a structure; listening to what they say and hearing what they don’t say; envisioning what they want when they don’t even know what that is; and putting together a team that can turn sometimes-conflicting ideas into a physical structure so rooted to its place that it would be meaningless if it were built anywhere else in the world.

When it works, Schuster says, and it almost always does, “the public embraces the building to the point that it has to be built. It’s their building, and they believe it must be built. When it’s done, they believe it was their idea. They think they designed it, and all I did was sort of draw it up.”

There are about 2,500 licensed architects living and practicing in North Carolina, and nearly 800 in the Triangle. Many of them are better designers than Schuster, he says, but none has a deeper appreciation for architecture that understands the history, geography, climate and culture of its surroundings than Schuster and his team at Clearscapes.

“We know this place,” he says.

A love of public work

Government officials, planners, developers, builders, preservationists and businesspeople say Schuster has helped shape downtown Raleigh and other communities in ways that will outlast the buildings Clearscapes has built or adapted. Though not necessarily known for a signature architectural style, the firm has left an indelible mark by creating new buildings and modifying existing ones so they become artful places where the public wants to be.

“Most architects avoid public work like the plague,” says Marvin Malecha, dean of the School of Design at N.C. State University. Public work – funded by public money and subjected to public review and regulation – is complicated and cumbersome. Publicly funded projects are notoriously slow to complete, and some get far along in the design and planning process only to be canceled when a supportive city council or board of county commissioners gets voted out of office.

“You can work on a project in the public sector forever and it never get built,” Malecha says. “It can be very frustrating. Steve has made a commitment to public work. He’s a citizen-architect.”

Though he’s sometimes called “Raleigh’s architect,” Schuster has helped other North Carolina communities tell their stories through their buildings. His firm designed the renovation of a school built near downtown Cary in 1939 by the federal Works Progress Administration into the Cary Arts Center. In its former classrooms and auditorium, children now learn to paint, and crowds enjoy plays and concerts.

Clearscapes helped turn a defunct textile mill in Saxapahaw, in Alamance County, into residential condos, a popular restaurant and the Haw River Ballroom, which hosts live music year-round. The Booker T Theater, in the heart of what was once Rocky Mount’s African-American business district, now hosts well-attended performances, movies and parties.

In Clayton, Schuster and his firm brought two early 1930s-era school buildings back to life as the Clayton Center, and designed a new police station and community center. All three serve as busy gathering places in a town that refused to let the U.S. 70 Bypass turn its historic center into a relic.

“The architectural design is what everyone sees, but how a building is going to be used is what makes it successful or unsuccessful,” says Clayton Town Manager Steve Biggs, who worked with Schuster and his firm on all three projects. “Steve is really sensitive to that.”

1aX833.So.156.jpeg Steve Schuster heads back to his office downtown recently, after picking up his second cup of coffee from Videri Chocolate Factory across the street. Schuster’s firm, Clearscapes, renovated Videri’s space on West Davie Street. [email protected]

Clearscapes founded

When Schuster and artist Thomas Sayre co-founded Clearscapes in 1981, there was no coherent business plan. “We just wanted to mess around with old buildings,” Schuster says.

The pair had met about a year before, when Sayre was designing a playground at a group home for developmentally disabled adults in Butner. A mutual acquaintance suggested he ask Schuster for free advice on how to build it.

Sayre, a Washington, D.C., native who came to North Carolina to attend UNC-Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar, was living in a house in the woods near Morganton at the time. Schuster, who grew up outside Chicago and in Chattanooga, Tenn., came to the state to attend N.C. State University, left for grad school in Colorado and returned in the late 1970s to work. He had a job in another Raleigh architect’s firm when Sayre called him.

Schuster listened to what Sayre was trying to do with the playground, sized it up and told him it was impossible. But the next day, he called Sayre back.

“We started jamming,” Sayre says. “ ‘What if we did this? What if we tried that?’

“I had never worked with an architect before. It was really cool.”

A few months later, Schuster’s first wife left, and he quit a job working for a large developer, both within a couple of weeks’ time. Free to start something new, he began picking up jobs, and Sayre started getting more work, and the two started working on each other’s projects.

Sayre learned the language of architecture, of materials and structure. Schuster learned the importance of buildings incorporating art – and of buildings being art – not just adding art when the building is done.

They decided to form a business together and located it on the east side of downtown Raleigh, in a former gas station at Blount and Morgan streets. Then, because they wanted to work on old buildings – and because no one would hire them to work on old buildings when businesses were still leaving downtown and the place was deserted after 5 p.m. – they bought a few and hired themselves to fix them up.

“They were wrecks,” Sayre recalls. “They had to be, for us to afford them.”

One they bought was a former plumbing-supply building on Martin Street, which they renovated into office space for Clearscapes and two adjoining condos: one for Sayre and his wife, and one for Schuster and his wife, Mary Anne Howard, whom he had married in 1987.

They had to get a zoning variance to move into the warehouse-district space. “Everybody thought we were crazy,” Howard says.

In the first years, the two couples’ cars were broken into so frequently they had a running tab at an auto-glass replacement shop.

Raleigh Convention Center Shimmer Wall The Raleigh Convention Center, at right, and the Shimmer Wall, seen Nov. 16, 2015 were designed by Clearscapes architecture firm. Chris Seward [email protected]

Rebuilding downtown Raleigh

Back then, after watching commerce move to suburban malls and strip shopping centers, only a handful of people in any city believed downtowns would ever come back to life. By the mid-1990s, downtown Raleigh was starting to look abandoned during the daytime as well as at night.

Schuster says Clearscapes got a break when Phil Stout, who then oversaw construction for Wake County, hired the firm to design a new state-of-the-art interactive children’s museum downtown. Halfway through the project, Schuster says, “I told Phil that he had made a decision that he could not justify” in hiring him. But Stout was confident, and the $39 million Exploris opened on Moore Square in 1999.

While Exploris was an important public investment, promoters of downtown believed the real key to redeveloping the 110 blocks at the city’s center was to draw private developers and business owners.

The city would have to do three things to get them to come:

Reopen Fayetteville Street to traffic after its failed experiment as a pedestrian mall, and return two-way traffic to surrounding streets.

Tear down the awkward civic center that blocked Fayetteville Street and the vista between Memorial Auditorium and the State Capitol.

And build a new convention center that could accommodate the kinds of events that would draw people downtown after hours and on weekends.

Led by then-Mayor Charles Meeker, with the encouragement of downtown developer Greg Hatem and a handful of others, the city chose to do all three. The civic center came down in February 2006, and Fayetteville Street was reopened later that year. In 2008, Raleigh’s new $221 million convention center hosted its first events.

Clearscapes was one of three design teams that collaborated on the center.

Schuster approached the project the way he says he does all public work: He asked the people who would use it – the public – how it should look, feel and function, forcing them to decide what they wanted, and to advocate for it.

“I lost count after the first 100 public meetings,” says Schuster, who attended nearly every one.

Listening to input

In meetings, where he figures he spends about half his business-day hours, Schuster is like a human metronome, gently keeping time, constantly driving the conversation forward. He always speaks first, setting the tone and the agenda, then quickly moves to others from whom he needs information.

1gnd3L.So.156.jpeg Schuster looks over a project with Clearscapes architect Elizabeth Caliendo at their office. Schuster often credits Clearscapes’ staff with “doing the hard work” while he conducts meetings. [email protected]

At 63, with white hair and beard, he laughs warmly at other people’s jokes. His voice is on the soft side, with a faint rasp that suggests he didn’t get quite enough sleep last night. His speech is nearly unaccented, even after his youth in Chattanooga and 30-plus years in Raleigh, but it’s full of colorful phrases such as, “Raleigh’s windshield looks brighter than our rearview mirror.”

He conducts meetings the way he designs buildings: efficiently, deliberately, without clutter. Nothing wasted or overdone.

At a meeting this month with a committee at Christ Episcopal Church, which has hired Clearscapes to add on to one of its historic downtown buildings, Schuster came with photos of maybe a dozen church additions in a range of different styles, from one that replicated the original Gothic architecture to one with a boxy, contemporary appendage so incongruous it might have been dropped by a passing tornado. He also brought a cardboard model small enough for the group to pass around, which looked like a gingerbread version of Christ Church with movable pieces.

He knew the extremes would be shocking. He meant them to be. They generated visceral responses from committee members, who suddenly realized what they did – and didn’t – want for their own church, which is a National Historic Landmark and happens to be where Schuster and Howard were married.

“The worst is if they don’t say anything,” he said afterward.

When people talk at his meetings, Schuster watches them and jots down notes. When they’re done, he says, “Let me be sure I understand,” or, “What I’m hearing is,” and then gives a perfect one- or two-sentence summary of something that may have taken them five minutes to spit out.

“People just want to be heard,” Schuster says. “You just have to listen to them.”

q189Z.So.156.jpeg Steve Schuster gesticulates often, whether he is in a meeting or has something to lay a hand on, such as a sketch. Here he looks over a project at Clearscapes in downtown Raleigh. [email protected]

Preserving a city’s character

Since it opened, city officials say, the Raleigh Convention Center has exceeded expectations for bookings, and its visitors have spent millions of dollars on hotel stays, restaurants and shopping. Its Shimmer Wall, an art installation Sayre and a collaborator created to conceal mechanical elements on the center’s western face, turned what could have been a mass of louvered panels into a mesmerizing photo op that has its own YouTube movies.

Raleigh’s chief financial officer, Perry James, says the building is one of the main reasons the International Bluegrass Music Association brought its World of Bluegrass event to town. This year, the weeklong event drew about 180,000 people and generated an estimated $10.8 million in spending.

In the past 20 years, and especially the past five, downtown Raleigh has been transformed as private investors have built restaurants, bars, galleries, shops and 2,600 units of housing.

Clearscapes designed some of those, too.

On First Friday, when most of downtown’s more than two dozen art galleries stay open late, the sidewalks are filled with people, and there are sometimes lines for exhibits and for tables at restaurants.

Those who believed in its potential 30 years ago say revival might have come to downtown Raleigh without Steve Schuster and Clearscapes, but it likely would have been slower to get here, and it could have looked much different. Uptown Charlotte, a high-rent business district by day and a thriving entertainment destination by night, lost much of its historic character during its revitalization, when soaring office towers replaced more modest older buildings.

“Raleigh really is a place with a lot of character,” says Myrick Howard, who has preached the wisdom of reuse as leader of Preservation North Carolina since 1978.

Historically, Raleigh was a small city, centered around government and commercial buildings with some outlying small-scale industrial operations. Renovating those buildings creates more local jobs than new construction, saves resources and landfill space, and lends a sense of authenticity and continuity, says Howard, who is not related to Schuster’s wife.

Any architect can take an empty lot and a pile of money and design a building that will do the job for a client, Howard says. It takes a really creative team to work within the structure of an existing building to make it functional and beautiful for a completely modern use.

“A good renovation architect can’t put a whole lot of ego into his work,” Howard says. “There are probably lots of architects in Raleigh that are much better known because they have left their mark everywhere.

“Steve doesn’t really leave his mark. He lets the building be the main voice.”

Clients are sometimes surprised to find that a firm with Clearscapes’ credentials is based right here in Raleigh, competing successfully against national and international architectural firms, including many that specialize in a particular building type such as hospitals, condominiums or train stations.

When it came time to select an architect for Union Station, “I was a little reluctant to hire someone here,” says Roberta Fox, Raleigh’s assistant planning and design manager and project manager for the station. An architect herself, Fox came to Raleigh in 2009 after working on train stations, cruise ship terminals and bus facilities in the Pacific Northwest.

“I was thinking it was too good to be true that you could find someone right down the street from the Union Station project who is a renowned architect who could really do this project,” she says. In fact, Schuster and his wife can see the site out the bedroom window of their Martin Street condo, where they still live next to the Sayres.

A gateway to Raleigh

Turning a 40-foot-tall former steel plant at the junction of three active rail lines into a pedestrian-friendly transit station and public plaza is a task more complicated than getting trains to run on time.

There is soil and water contamination to deal with, along with track crossings, utility line relocation, site drainage, emergency vehicle access, federal contract bidding requirements, future tenant needs and of course, aesthetics and that elusive quality Schuster tries to imbue in every public project:

“It has be a cool place to hang out.”

The station will have outdoor performance space and room inside to rent for meetings, parties, wedding receptions. Sayre hasn’t designed it yet, but it will include his art.

That is, if it comes to fruition.

Schuster believes it will, and he doesn’t plan to retire until it does. Those who have worked with him say there is no one better at ushering a complicated publicly funded project across the finish line, even if it means he has to help clients negotiate disappearing tax credits and fill out grant applications or advocate for the project before elected officials. For Schuster, that’s as creative a process as the design work he does less of all the time.

“As much as I detest admitting it, at the end of the day, I’m a salesman,” says Schuster. “I try to tell stories in a way that moves people to make good decisions. Instead of selling widgets, I mostly sell ideas.”

He will get a chance in January to sell the Raleigh City Council, again, on the idea of Union Station, this bright new door to their city. He will tell them ways in which he can cut millions of dollars in construction costs, then show them how that would change the look – and feel – of the complex. He will explain how making certain cuts now will increase operation and maintenance costs later.

“It’s their building,” he says. “It must be their choice.”

He believes they’ll make the right one.

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