For visitors entering downtown from the south, the first impression of Raleigh might not be the skyline. On South Saunders Street, the initial sight could just as easily be a Quonset hut, a used tire store or a tattoo parlor called Buck-A-Tattz.
With those vistas in mind, Raleigh leaders have launched the Southern Gateway Corridor Study to plot the future of South Saunders and South Wilmington streets. It’s kicking off this month with an online survey to determine what residents want to see on the heavily traveled roads.
“We wanted people to start to think about this corridor,” said Grant Meacci, who leads the city’s Urban Design Center. “It needs to remain a functioning major gateway from the south for vehicles, but we also have to balance transit needs and (bike and pedestrian needs) that are pretty much ignored out there.”
Raleigh has $150,000 set aside to develop designs for the South Saunders corridor, from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Tryon Road near the Garner line.
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A Raleigh-based start-up company, Cityzen, is seeking input through a website – southerngatewaystudy.com – and various social media tools. Online polls asks about possible beautification efforts along the streets, the balance between cars and bikes and how to encourage various types of development while creating public space.
A vast majority answered yes to the question “Should the city improve the bicycle & pedestrian experience along South Saunders Street, even if it meant traffic delays?” But some vocal opponents in the comments opposed inconveniencing the most common mode of transport for niche groups such as bicyclists.
One question asks about a “brand or theme” that could help the area stand out. With a wide variety of land uses, some responders weren’t sure.
“I think the area doesn't have anything that yet sticks out,” downtown resident Leo Suarez wrote on the site. “The current theme is ‘drive through in seconds’ which isn't very positive.”
Raleigh officials have yet to decide what any improvements might look like, including any public projects to improve appearances or efforts to entice particular types of development.
Meacci said the online poll is just the opening salvo in a lengthy public input process, which will begin more formally early next year with public meetings. From there, it could take eight months before the final recommendations are made.
“There’s a large Latino population down in that area, so we’ll need to make sure that it’s bilingual,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of research to do to figure out the best methods.”
Raleigh notes in its 2030 long-range plan that “the appearance of Raleigh’s commercial corridors, especially U.S. 1, New Bern Avenue, U.S. 70, Hillsborough, and South Saunders streets, has been detrimental to the City's image.” City staff deemed it “essential that these roadways convey a positive impression” in the 2009 report.
Garner sees benefits
Garner, meanwhile, has been working toward the installation of a gateway sign on the northern entrances to town, and plans to improve aesthetics of its highways in the near future. According to Garner’s former economic development director Tony Beasley, Raleigh’s efforts can only help.
“If they start to improve the overall condition of South Saunders Street, if you raise those standards, hopefully it it would encourage better development along that entire corridor,” Beasley said.
Councilwoman Kathy Behringer also sees hope that Raleigh’s efforts will complement Garner’s. She has strongly advocated for increasing funding for beautifying major corridors through Garner, particularly U.S. 70, in next year’s budget. The bond also funds some improvements to U.S. 70.
But Behringer also said the benefits could come with some downside.
“I have a little bit of fear that it might push undesirable elements our way,” she said, later naming crime such as drug dealing as the undesirables. “Sometimes when things are improved in one neighborhood, it just causes some things to move down the road a little.”