Point of View

No hurry on Phase Two disruption to Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street

November 8, 2013 

Ah, Hillsborough Street. Has any Raleigh street been more over-parented in recent years? When the street was deemed unruly and underachieving back in 1999, a committed group of citizens put forth a bold plan for an extreme makeover. This vision for a string of 13 pearl-like roundabouts with attendant pedestrian “islands” proposed unrestricted pedestrian crossings and slower, calmer traffic that never quite stopped.

Revitalization and redevelopment were envisioned as the “new” street would draw investors and new interest. Boosters pitched, public dollars were scarce. Finally, in 2006, the political climate – and new leadership at N.C. State – began to warm to the idea for a renewed street. Many of the roundabouts were pared back after careful analysis by the City’s Planning Department and long deliberation by the City Council, and a limited scope – west only to Gardner Street –rendered the budget manageable.

Construction was invasive, and many merchants suffered through dust, limited access and significant drops in business. But in 2009, a $9.9 million “phase one” version of the plan was finally completed. The work has certainly yielded many fine benefits – nice wide sidewalks, underground power lines, bike lanes, on-street parking and sleek new LED lights. We can also appreciate some of the more experimental features, which remain works in progress.

The big daddy, the Pullen/Hillsborough roundabout, generated numerous accidents as a two-lane mixing bowl. A one-lane makeover has increased safety but, as predicted, can’t handle peak traffic loads. The unfriendly treatment of cyclists, a common roundabout malady, poses another ongoing puzzle. Study is ongoing, and the relative cost/benefit of this $3 million experiment lies largely in the eye of the beholder.

And the hovering continues. At a recent unveiling of long-awaited “phase two” plans from Gardner to Shepherd Street, three new roundabouts were already in evidence, carved like pumpkin lids from existing street intersections. More pedestrian islands had also been deployed. Resulting impacts to existing businesses were charted in all directions.

Asked whether the phase one work had been shown to actually improve pedestrian safety, the designers replied that such information was being studied and would be forthcoming. Bus service, on-time records – better or worse? Good question for follow-up. Traffic counts? Under way, analysis and conclusions forthcoming. New development? Mostly outside of the “revitalized” area – so far.

So, what problems are we setting out to solve with this “phase two”? The vision from 1999 was bold, indeed. But the challenges, aspirations and dreams today for our growing child in the here and now should be carefully weighed before charging forward.

There really is no hurry. I have yet to find a Hillsborough Street property owner or merchant who is impatiently calling for another round of construction, disruption and more roundabouts. We know pedestrians, bicycles and buses need to be more prominent. We know that 24-hour streets need 24-hour residents, and lots of them, to be healthy and vibrant.

Maybe, just maybe, we will find that Hillsborough Street needs a little less parenting. Today there is a shortage of space for prospective merchants and businesses. The street is full, businesses want to be there and new development is difficult because of a hodgepodge of outmoded zoning patterns. Some of this will be addressed in the city’s new UDO as the area is remapped, but this is at least two years from completion.

Until that work is done, let’s think about sticking to the basics – bury power lines (and there are some big, ugly ones out there), clean up sidewalks, accommodate bike lanes, offer new lighting. And then let Hillsborough Street take care of itself. It is growing up, and we parents might need to back off from helping so much.

Ted Van Dyk, AIA, is principal of New City Design Group, a Raleigh architectural firm with offices on Hillsborough Street and immediate past chair of the City of Raleigh Appearance Commission.

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