2012 brought another year of controversies and new development to Raleigh.
The Wake County school board struggled through more turmoil between Democrats and Republicans, while GOP leaders at the county level pushed back efforts for a sales tax to fund transit.
Raleigh’s downtown continued to develop with new shops and restaurants, and the city made strides toward a planned Central Park on the Dorothea Dix campus. An expansion to the state’s science museum created another tourism draw.
Here’s a look back at the top stories from the past year. In Wednesday’s edition, look for a preview of the big issues to watch in the new year.
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State leases land for Dix park
After years of discussions, state leaders and Raleigh City Council members approved an agreement to preserve 300 acres at the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus. The city is now working on plans to create what’s been called Raleigh’s own Central Park.
The agreement followed years of advocacy from a group of business leaders called the Dix Visionaries. They have pledged $3 million for a park master plan.
Under the deal, the state will retain ownership of the land; the city will pay $500,000 a year, plus 1.5 percent annual increases, in a deal worth $68 million over the 75-year life of the lease.
Outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue made the agreement a priority for her final month, pushing the lease to a vote with little public vetting. That didn’t sit well with Republicans, who wanted to wait until new GOP state leaders are sworn in next month.
School board scraps leader, assignment plan
The Wake County school board had another turbulent year, scrapping both its superintendent and another student assignment plan.
The Democratic majority voted to oust Superintendent Tony Tata in September, saying relations with the previous Republican majority’s hire had becomed strained. His firing came as the board rolled out an address-based assignment plan to replace this year’s plan, which gave parents a choice among multiple nearby schools.
As the school year began, parents complained of buses running hours behind schedule – a problem that took weeks to resolve.
In December, the board focused on ironing out the details of next year’s assignment plan. The end result will restore 2011 assignments for most families, with some reassigned to new schools in northern Wake.
Commissioners nix transit-tax vote
Republicans on the Wake County Board of Commissioners kept a half-cent sales tax increase off November’s ballot, largely avoiding major discussions on a regional transit plan that garnered support elsewhere in the Triangle.
The GOP-led board also weighed in on other hot-button issues, including a resolution voicing support for the constitutional amendment against gay marriage, which passed in May.
The year ended with three commissioners’ seats on the November ballot. With Democrats James West, Caroline Sullivan and Betty Lou Ward winning election, the party make-up of the board won’t change.
Downtown gets more retail, new hotel
Downtown Raleigh’s revitalization hit a new stage in 2012: After years of growth in the nightlife scene, shopping options are starting to follow with numerous store openings this year.
Wilmington Street has seen the most activity, with specialty flip-flop shop FeelGoodz and jewelry store Moon and Lola opening in the spring, followed by artisan incubator shop Kindred in the fall. At Hargett and Salisbury, Deco Raleigh opened with unique gifts and affordable art.
The restaurant scene downtown also saw plenty of change, with Bolt Bistro replacing The Mint, a fine-dining eatery on Fayetteville Street that had received a major investment from the city. Down the street, Port City Java went out of business and two new Asian cuisine options opened: Bida Manda Laotian Restaurant at Moore Square and Zinda, a pan-Asian eatery on Fayetteville Street.
With more downtown draws, tourism officials say the area needs hundreds of more hotel rooms. A 126-room Hampton Inn & Suites opened in November in Glenwood South, and both the Clarion Hotel and the Sheraton Raleigh Hotel will undergo major renovations soon.
Peace welcomes first men
The historically all-female campus north of downtown added its first male students in August, part of the transformation from Peace College to the coed William Peace University.
While much of the outcry over the changes has died down, some students and alumnae still aren’t comfortable with men on campus. And even supporters of the decision say the change will take some getting used to.
The transformation – coupled with lower admission – has more students applying to the school, with applications up 22 percent from last year. The change also brings new traditions and athletics. A renovation to the athletic center included new locker rooms for the first men’s sports – golf, cross country and basketball. Next year, men’s soccer and baseball will be added.
Science museum opens expansion
The Nature Research Center, a $56 million expansion of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, opened in April with a 24-hour celebration.
The 80,000-square-foot facility has been in the works for more than a decade. The NRC aims to make science approachable and relatable, giving the public access to researchers as they work.
A pedestrian bridge over Salisbury Street connects the new center to the old museum, and the SECU Daily Planet gives downtown a new landmark with a giant globe looming over the street.
Train station plans take shape
Engineers are fleshing out their plans for the $60 million passenger train station, set to open in 2017 in a recycled warehouse at the foot of Martin and West streets in downtown Raleigh.
In September, the Federal Railroad Administration announced $22.3 million in federal support to fully fund the Grand Central-style station in the warehouse district. The new depot in the old Dillon Supply Co. Viaduct Building will replace the city’s cramped, 50-year-old Amtrak depot on Cabarrus Street.
It’s expected to be part of a transit hub connecting fast interstate trains, regional commuter trains, and local buses and light-rail trains.
Wells tainted near Wake Forest
Two rural neighborhoods west of Wake Forest got disturbing news this year: residents had been drinking well water laced with trichloroethylene, a chemical that’s known to cause cancer, liver problems and other illnesses.
Along Stony Hill Road, officials from state and federal environmental agencies discovered that 21 wells were tainted with TCE. Those homes now have filtration systems, and water lines are under construction so they can close the wells.
A few miles north in the Mangum Estates subdivision, investigators sampled 57 wells; 12 have TCE and nine of those are above the maximum federal level, five parts per billion.
Regulators think a former circuit board manufacturer on Stony Hill Road could be responsible for the contamination there. A neighbor has said he saw the business owner washing circuit board parts with a degreaser containing TCE more than 10 years ago. Officials said it could be designated a federal Superfund site in the future, which would allow more funding for cleanup.
Wake Forest revamps main street
Construction caused hassles along downtown’s South White Street for much of the year as the town worked on a major streetscape project.
The improvements include new sidewalks, better parking and landscaping and extra safety features to slow traffic at the Jones Avenue intersection. It had been scheduled for completion in October, but the final touches weren’t in place until this month.
The project’s completion was welcome news to downtown merchants, who saw business slow as customers faced street closures and limited parking.
The streetscape project will ultimately include two public art pieces: a brick bench under the shade of a metal “tree” and a gateway and water feature.
Staff writers Colin Campbell and Matt Garfield contributed to this report.