Wake County

Historic sign stalls redevelopment plan on Hillsborough Street

A tractor sign sits on top of the old N.C. Equipment Co. building at 3101 W. Hillsborough St. in Raleigh.
A tractor sign sits on top of the old N.C. Equipment Co. building at 3101 W. Hillsborough St. in Raleigh. hlynch@newsobserver.com

An old tractor sign became a major sticking point in plans to build a four-story apartment complex on Hillsborough Street.

The Raleigh City Council on Tuesday denied a developer’s request to rezone a 3.2-acre site along Hillsborough that includes the historic N.C. Equipment Co. building, which was built in 1936.

A large sign on the building’s roof displays a tractor known to some as the “big yellow bulldozer.” The sign has been a landmark for decades, and it used to signal to visitors traveling from the west that they had arrived in Raleigh.

On Tuesday, some council members questioned what would become of the tractor sign if the site is redeveloped. Georgia-based Landmark Properties wants to convert the site between Concord and Rosemary streets into apartments and some retail space.

Along with concerns about the sign, council members also questioned the plans for retail and other project details.

“There has not been the due diligence to say, ‘Here’s exactly how it’s going to happen,’ ” Councilman Russ Stephenson said.

Lacy Reaves, an attorney for Landmark, told the council that saving the sign “is a doable thing.”

The proposal, and its failure, signal the sometimes controversial effort to preserve Raleigh’s history while also making way for new development. Hillsborough Street has seen major changes over the years as developers have built new apartments that cater to N.C. State students.

Nearby Stanhope Center, a large student-housing complex, opened last year. Valentine Commons, another residential complex, opened in 2012 at Hillsborough and Dixie Trail.

The N.C. Equipment Co. building has served as the headquarters for online publishing company Lulu since 2009, but the firm plans to leave. Lulu founder Bob Young, who is also CEO of Raleigh-based drone company PrecisionHawk, bought the property in 2007.

Landmark, which specializes in student housing, is behind the Retreat at Raleigh, located about two miles west of the N.C. State campus. The firm is currently under contract to buy the Hillsborough Street property, said Blair Sweeney, vice president of development for the company.

The proposed rezoning of the site would have allowed an estimated 506 residential units. The site’s current zoning allows for up to eight units, according to the zoning application.

Sweeney said Landmark still plans to redevelop the property in some way.

“We’re moving forward with figuring out what that would look like,” he said.

The Planning Commission had recommended approval of the rezoning. Dickie Thompson was the only City Council member who voted in favor of it Tuesday.

Chris Cioffi: 919-829-4802, @ReporterCioffi