Wake County

Three roundabouts, $13M would slow, simplify Hillsborough Street traffic

This portion of Hillsborough Street between Gardner and Rosemary streets is under consideration for renovation by the Raleigh City Council to match the work done three years ago from Oberlin Road to Gardner Street. Looking west, Hillsborough Street is cluttered with utility lines and aged street lighting on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C.
This portion of Hillsborough Street between Gardner and Rosemary streets is under consideration for renovation by the Raleigh City Council to match the work done three years ago from Oberlin Road to Gardner Street. Looking west, Hillsborough Street is cluttered with utility lines and aged street lighting on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Raleigh’s plan to enliven Hillsborough Street has revolved around a central idea: Slow down traffic.

The city already has spent $10 million on the college drag’s “ revitalization project,” which tried to make Hillsborough easier terrain for pedestrians but resulted in something of a pain for drivers.

Now a $12.9 million second phase is in the works in sections of the street located farther west, or nearer the I-440 Beltline, than the first project. The Raleigh City Council will soon consider a further narrowing of the road and the construction of new roundabouts at Shepherd Street, Brooks Avenue and Dixie Trail, among other changes.

“The intention of the project was to de-emphasize the street as a corridor meant for through-traffic,” said Eric Lamb, transportation planning manager for Raleigh.

“You don’t go down Hillsborough Street trying to get anywhere fast.”

That philosophy will get a public airing as residents and business owners offer their comments at a City Hall hearing Feb. 3. The plan already is proving divisive.

“The irony is that the revitalization has already taken place, and we’re still clinging to a plan cooked up in a church basement to bring new attention to a down-on-its-luck street,” said Ted Van Dyk, an architect and principal at the New City Design Group.

Like the project’s first chapter, phase 2 would include cosmetic improvements, reduce lanes to two, from three or four, add bike lanes and limit on-street parking. Drivers would be barred from making left turns.

Along with the roundabouts, planners say, those changes should slow, smooth and simplify the flow of traffic, making it safer to cross the street on foot or to cycle along new bike lanes.

“The rationale is to improve both the appearance and the function, to make it safer for pedestrians, to make it more visually appealing and user-friendly,” said Jeff Murison, director of the Hillsborough Street Community Service Corp.

Lamb points to a reduction in crashes involving pedestrians as a sign of the first phase’s success.

Since 2010, when the first roundabouts and “road diet” were completed, there has been a 70 percent reduction in crashes involving pedestrians within the project’s bounds, from about 2.2 per year in the six years prior to construction to about 0.7 per year since. That’s likely a result of simplified traffic and fewer lanes.

“In terms of pedestrian safety, we absolutely succeeded,” Lamb said. The total number of crashes also has fallen by about 31 percent, to 52 crashes annually.

Business concerns

Yet critics say the changes would be disruptive, unnecessary and expensive. They still remember that construction during the first phase added to a drop-off in business for Hillsborough Street establishments during the recession.

Moreover, they worry that the design of the project itself will deter customers. Traffic along the first “revitalized” section dropped from 19,000 vehicles per day to 15,000 per day after completion, according to Lamb.

“You’ve got to have traffic. They’re trying to turn it into a park,” said Chuck Grantham, who owns two commercial buildings along the phase 2 frontage, along with residential duplexes nearby.

The project also would eliminate an as-yet undetermined amount of on-street parking, and drivers would have to use the roundabouts to switch directions or reach businesses on the opposite side of Hillsborough.

On the other hand, residential construction on Hillsborough is accelerating, and business growth should come with it. Murison counts at least seven major construction projects on the street, mostly within the bounds of the first two phases of the project.

“It’s a stronger economy, a growing city. But it’s also because of the city’s investment and the improvements that were made,” he said.

Mitch Hazouri, owner of Mitch’s Tavern, said that Hillsborough Street would be fine without the intervention. He thinks that the changes to the road, especially the elimination of on-street parking, are killing Hillsborough’s character, and edging out older, smaller businesses.

“It’s still a real place, and that’s why they’re screwing with it,” he said.

Some neighborhoods supportive

Van Dyk thinks the road’s reconstruction budget should instead be spent to improve lighting, sidewalks and the “streetscape” of a much longer stretch of Hillsborough.

Off the strip, the project has the support of some residential neighborhoods. Donna Bailey, who lives just north of Hillsborough Street, describes the first phase as a success.

“I think the improvements on Hillsborough Street are going to make it a much more desirable place,” she said. “Phase 1 worked, so let’s do phase 2.”

Councilwoman Kay Crowder, whose district includes Hillsborough, said she that has heard concerns from businesses but that her constituents overall are supportive.

The project design can only move forward with the Raleigh City Council’s approval, and the elected officials say they’ll be listening carefully.

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