Hopes for Hillsborough Street

Residents, students and business owners seek a new image for part of the thoroughfare

Staff WritersMarch 15, 2009 

— For years, Hillsborough Street has been a traffic-choked dividing line between N.C. State University and the rest of Raleigh, a magnet mostly for those looking for cheap pizza and beer.

But on Saturday, students and community members gathered for what they hoped was the rebirth for a signature section of the thoroughfare that runs through the university area.

The Hillsborough Street Renaissance Festival drew a modest crowd to a rain-soaked stretch of pavement. The weather dampened the event but not the hopes that Hillsborough Street can become a sort of community plaza that unites the city and its university.

"I would like to see a more active place that my children would want to come to as much as they beg me to go to North Hills," said Milt Rhodes, president of the University Park Neighborhood Association, who was staffing a soggy tent. "This is a kickoff for a renaissance in the thinking about Hillsborough Street."

Rhodes' association joined campus environmental groups, local restaurateurs and bands, and student chefs on the street Saturday. In one tent, people formed a drum circle, banging empty water jugs and detergent bottles. In another, they tasted barbecue prepared by the school's fraternities.

The idea for the festival started with three NCSU engineering students who wanted to raise money for campus charities and draw attention to environmental causes. But as they began organizing, a grander concept emerged.

They saw it as a way to erase the street's image as a divider -- home to rowdy bars that irritate nearby homeowners -- and turn it into a place where families, business owners and students could come together for a day.

"We didn't want this to be just a party for a bunch of college students," said Jenn Halweil, one of the organizers. "This is about giving the street back to the entire Raleigh community."

Halweil and other organizers canvassed the neighborhoods and businesses and talked to city and university officials. In the end, more than 200 people were involved in planning the festival, Halweil said.

The renaissance they imagine will take a more concrete form in May, when the city is planning to begin a year-long multimillion-dollar makeover of Hillsborough Street that has been talked about for more than a decade.

A central stretch more than a half-mile long will be turned into a streetscape with traffic circles, more parking, more room for bikes and buses, buried utility lines, wide brick sidewalks that can better accommodate pedestrians and cafe tables, brick medians and more trees.

The redo is aimed at making the street safer and more welcoming and turning it into a destination that generates buzz, like the city's thriving Glenwood South area, but with its own distinct feel.

Students said Saturday that they were excited about the changes to the street, which has lost its appeal even for students in recent years. Some said they hope the new street can compete with Chapel Hill's Franklin Street, which draws people from around the region to shop and eat.

"You hear so much about Franklin Street; that's the big thing, Franklin Street, Franklin Street," said Chris Davis, a junior who was helping his fraternity brothers cook a pig for a barbecue contest. "It's nice to bring people to Raleigh instead."

About the time construction starts, advocates for the area hope a new nonprofit group will start work. The group would "manage" the street, bringing a coherent approach to marketing the area, keeping it cleaner and safer with the help of roving "ambassadors" and generally advocating for it. The group will be funded partly by city and university grants and partly via a new tax for property owners in a special district there that the Raleigh City Council approved last summer. The tax takes effect July 1.

The approach is similar to that used by businesses in Glenwood South and downtown Raleigh, said George Chapman, a former Raleigh planning director and now chairman of the Hillsborough Street Partnership, an advocacy group.

Chapman is one of many who hopes the festival will become a yearly event. He said it helps cultivate common ground between the many groups that live, work, eat and drink on Hillsborough Street.

"We don't always have the same goals," he said, "but this is one opportunity where we can have something together."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 929-829-4526

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