RALEIGH — The start of classes at N.C. State University this week will serve as an important test for the stretch of Hillsborough Street emerging from a year-long, $9.9 million makeover that gives the school a snazzy new front porch.
Hopes are high that the street, after more than a decade of revitalization plans and intense debate, scores a high-enough grade to become a vibrant hub of commercial activity - and a spruced-up gateway both to downtown and to the Glenwood South entertainment district.
"This needs to be a home for everybody," said Nina Szlosberg, a University Park resident and one of the leading community advocates for the street's renovation. "If downtown is the heart of the city, Hillsborough Street is the spine."
Gone are the orange and white construction barrels that cluttered the street for more than a year and made daily commutes a white-knuckled bout of frustration. In their place are roundabouts, wider sidewalks and more crosswalks intended to slow down traffic and hand the street back to pedestrians.
The independent businesses that hug the northern side of the road across from campus now cater primarily to the college population. There are T-shirt shops selling Wolfpack wear, a bowling alley, bars and wallet-conscious eateries serving up the pizza and subs favored by students, who start the fall semester Wednesday. Those businesses are likely the immediate beneficiaries of the redesigned street.
But the hope of city and university officials and neighborhood leaders is to parlay the completed project into a wider commercial rebirth, luring a broader spectrum of retail stores, including a pharmacy, and persuading small start-up companies to consider taking a Hillsborough Street address. The ultimate goal: The school's front porch becomes another hot spot, much like North Hills or Glenwood South.
"It's not only about the university," said Ralph Recchie, NCSU's director of real estate, who has been closely involved with the project. "Making it more attractive and safe for pedestrians is for more than just students. It becomes a destination point."
The initial challenge, aside from motorists learning the symbolic mysteries of navigating a double-lane roundabout at the street's junction with Pullen Road, will be reintroducing the notion that the east-west thoroughfare also serves as a gateway to Raleigh.
The eight-block portion of the Hillsborough Street project on NCSU's northern border buried power and telephone lines, extended red brick sidewalks, whittled the traffic from four lanes to two and, in one of the most controversial moves of the project, installed one roundabout on Hillsborough to make cars slow down as they cut across town, and another north of the street that joins Oberlin Road to an extension of Pullen Road. A companion $1.71 million project, to the east of campus where Hillsborough meets Morgan Street, put in another roundabout as the street approaches downtown.
What comes next?
With the excitement of the street's new look, talk is turning to how to make it more of a center and destination unto itself. The spruced-up corridor may soon be blanketed with Wi-Fi. And NCSU officials want to bring in a private developer to reconfigure the commercial block - home to popular haunts such as Sadlack's Heroes and Schoolkids Records - that it owns across the street from the school's landmark Bell Tower.
The Hillsborough Street Partnership, a coalition of business and neighborhood groups, wants to explore expanding the popular downtown rickshaw program to include Hillsborough Street, and to see how to attract small, creative businesses in addition to retail to add economic vitality and life to the block, Szlosberg said.
Some of that's already happening, said Joe Boisvert, a University Park resident who heads the neighborhood association to the north of the street. He pointed to the opening this month of David's Dumpling and Noodle Bar at Oberlin and Hillsborough.
"You're seeing more of the neighborhood going to Hillsborough Street," Boisvert said. "Before, it was sort of, 'That's off limits; that's for the [college] kids.' "
Street 'was beat up'
The future is a far cry from the fate that Hillsborough Street once seemed to face.
The street was one of the first in the city, on the drawing board in 1792 when Raleigh was chosen to serve as the state capital, and named for the Orange County town it led to from Raleigh. When NCSU was founded nearly a century later, Hillsborough Street linked the campus to the emerging city.
But in more recent decades, the stretch of Hillsborough Street in front of NCSU earned a gritty reputation, with worn sidewalks and a smattering of bars, pizza shops and record stores that catered to the college crowd. Four lanes of busy through traffic made it a dangerous place for pedestrians to cross. Predatory tow truck drivers scared off casual visitors.
"Hillsborough was beat up," said Eric Cross, one of the managing partners for Porter's, one of the few upscale restaurants on the street. "The way they kept it, there was a lot of weeds growing up in the sidewalks. Now it looks like we care about it."
The idea to revamp the street was first planted in 1999, Szlosberg said, when residents of nearby University Park first began to reach out to Hillsborough Street businesses and the university to address long-standing tensions between the groups. It took years for the street renovation to take hold, with the first shovels tearing up the street going into the ground in May 2009.
Construction wasn't easy to endure. Businesses saw their sales drop steeply, with crews digging up the sidewalk and street in front of their storefronts at the same time the bottom fell out of the national economy.
But there were surprises, such as the old trolley tracks found underneath some stretches of the street. And
The project's end
Now that the street is finished, businesses are hoping to see the city's investment pay off.
"We're really optimistic that we're going to get back," Cross said. "We'll get back to much more breathing room, and there will be people that come down to see what the new street is like."
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