Hundreds of people packed Raleigh City Council’s chambers on Tuesday night, most of them wearing red shirts in a show of neighborhood solidarity against the remaking of Hillsborough Street, once a pockmarked college strip and now a high-density redevelopment zone.
Neighbors from the University Park area came prepared with their own attorney, Tom Worth, and a high-fidelity video. An unidentified narrator warned that the corridor, and its historic neighborhoods, were becoming a “monoculture” focused only on N.C. State University students.
At issue is a proposal to allow a five-story building on a 2.2-acre lot between Furches and Montgomery streets. The new zoning would allow up to 150 residential units on the site, compared to just 54 under the current rules. The rezoning request has wound slowly through city government, taking more than a year to reach Tuesday’s public hearing. That’s thanks largely to long discussions between the developer and current residents.
“Not since Hurricane Fran came roaring through in ’96 have we seen such unity among our neighbors,” said George Huntley, a resident of Bedford Avenue for two decades. “... The big difference there is that Fran went away.”
Neighbors say the development could put new traffic on their streets and overshadow the two-story homes in the historic neighborhood it borders. Their concerns are familiar along Hillsborough Street, where developers have built hundreds of higher-density apartment units in recent years.
Several residents contend that they weren’t opposed to growth.
“We appreciate the urban lifestyle,” said Jennifer Williams. “My children love walking down to Snoopy’s and getting a hot dog.”
Only one member of the audience spoke in support of the development.
“The reason I support this project is density in the city,” said Evan Brigham, who lives about a mile northeast. “... If we continue to say no to these projects, one after the other, they’re just going to push out to the suburbs.”
There may be room for compromise. The council tabled the matter, giving the two sides more time to talk. The neighborhood recently asked for a 20 percent reduction in the number of apartments and that the building be scaled back from a four- and five- story structure to a four- and three-story structure, along with a change in its driveways and a requirement of ground-floor retail space.
The neighborhood likely has the power to shape the development. They have filed a protest petition, meaning that the project will have to win a 6-2 vote from the council – and three council members expressed serious doubts about the plan on Tuesday.
“It is not fitting with where they’re looking to put it,” said Councilman Wayne Maiorano. It’s one of several “challenging cases” on Hillsborough Street, he said.
Councilwoman Kay Crowder said the proposal’s scale was “way too big,” and Councilman Russ Stephenson made similar comments. Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said the two sides seemed close to a compromise.
The council also held public hearings, then voted unanimously to move forward with a city plan to rebuild a half-mile of the street, introducing new roundabout, and another rezoning for a five-story residential building near Pullen Road.
The Hillsborough Street “revitalization” project will thin the road to just two lanes, with a raised median and new bike lanes, from Gardner Street to the intersection of Rosemary and Shepherd streets. The $13 million project will also introduce roundabouts at Brooks Avenue, Dixie Trail and Rosemary Street, according to city plans.
The idea of the project is that by slowing and simplifying traffic patterns, the city could make Hillsborough Street safer for pedestrians and drivers, drawing more shoppers to a spruced-up strip. The project also could include sidewalks made of brick pavers, buried power lines, and the addition of street lights, art, bike racks, trash-compacting cans, new benches and new planters for trees.
Rusty Mau, student body president for N.C. State University, was one of several speakers to praise the plan. He said that the changes would make intersections safer for students, accommodating the influx of student housing.
“We support high-density growth in the Hillsborough Street corridor,” he said, calling for more student involvement in the city’s processes.
Craig Smith, a resident of Raymond Street, said the plan was a needed fix-up for an “eroding” avenue.
The plan drew criticism too. Chuck Grantham, who owns the sites of several Hillsborough Street businesses, warned the changes would cut off traffic to businesses by slowing vehicles and forcing longer drives. Several business owners joined him in that criticism.
Councilman Wayne Maiorano said he was “a little skeptical of the price tag,” but said it was time to move forward. Councilman John Odom said he wished the state and N.C. State University had kicked in some funding, but he was in too. The council sent the project forward with a unanimous vote.
“But I was hoping that we could do this with a lot less pain,” Odom said.
The city could begin construction by spring of 2016 and finish by fall of 2017. That process could disrupt traffic to business on the streets.
“We need to really pull the stops out and help existing businesses in Phase Two,” said Joe Whitehouse, a developer and member of the Hillsborough Street Community Service Corporation board. “We just need to do everything possible to help them stay in business. It’s going to be a tough time.”
The council also held a public hearing and approved a rezoning for 1912 Hillsborough St., labeled Z-31-14. It could allow for a five-story development to replace the surface parking lot west of the Players’ Retreat restaurant. N.C. State University currently owns the 0.5-acre lot, and Mack Paul is representing the university before council. The land includes a parking lot on the north side of Pullen Road, which likely would be left as is.