It's fitting that in this September of downtown Raleigh spectaculars, Live It Up! On Hillsborough Street waited its turn behind the two big festivals located on and around Fayetteville Street. After all, Hillsborough Street itself had to wait until the new Fayetteville Street was finished downtown along with City Plaza and the Raleigh Convention Center.
But on Saturday, it's Hillsborough Street's time to take center stage—three stages, actually—to celebrate the completion of the first phase of a revitalization project conceived in 1999. That was two Raleigh mayors and three N.C. State University chancellors ago. At 2:30 p.m., current Mayor Charles Meeker and Chancellor Randy Woodson will lead a public processional from Pullen Park to the N.C. State Bell Tower, with a street dedication ceremony set to begin there at 3.
Live it Up! On Hillsborough Street (in the logo, a cartoon Bell Tower is the exclamation point) starts earlier. A giant TV screen in the "sports zone" will air the N.C. State-Georgia Tech football game beginning at noon. The sports zone will feature local beers, and the music stages—one at the corner of Oberlin Road and Hillsborough, the other at Pogue Street and Hillsborough—feature bands from 1–10 p.m., with Holy Ghost Tent Revival and Crowfield among the performers.
An international stage near the Bell Tower will host bagpipers, belly dancers and Irish music from 1:30–6 p.m. There's also an eco-zone, a farmers market, an Iron Chef-style organic cooking competition and a kid's zone.
N.C. State senior Joseph Carnevale, creator of the world-famous Barrel Monster, will also be on hand making—well, whatever Carnevale's got in mind.
Wolfing down a pizza slice in his office behind the Mini Mart on Hillsborough Street, Jeff Murison thinks Saturday's events will be an eye-opener for anyone who still think that N.C. State's front door is a dingy place to avoid or whip past in a car. "It's going to be transformative," he predicts, "in how we see the street and use the street, and we invite everybody to come out and be part of that and help contribute to the street's long-term future."
The $9.6 million, 16-monthlong reconstruction project did transform the look of the street for a half-mile stretch from Oberlin Road to Gardner Street. Utility lines were buried. A red brick median and a pair of roundabouts calmed the traffic. On-street parking spaces were added along with new, wider sidewalks.
Visually, it's a winner. But to fully succeed, the investment in new infrastructure, all of which came from city taxes, must be followed by the kind of new business and housing investments sparked by the reconstruction of Fayetteville Street.
It's Murison's job to help make that happen. He's the first executive director of the new Hillsborough Street Community Service Corp., a business improvement district created by the city. The district is supported by funds from the university, the city and by a tax surcharge on the property owners—mainly businesses—along the street, totaling about $350,000 a year. The money is for marketing the street and special events like Saturday's opening.
"Hillsborough is not going to become another downtown street like Fayetteville Street," Murison predicts. "But it should be a very nice blend of attractive dining and retail shops that are attractive to residents, students and visitors alike."
Just in the last month since construction ended, he notes, four businesses have opened: the new Frazier's, a wine bar-restaurant; the Pack Pub House in the Electric Company building; The Pita Pit, a sandwich shop; and David's Dumpling and Noodle Bar, chef David Mao's new venture in what used to be a Darryl's restaurant at the corner of Oberlin Road.
Nonetheless, the major investment opportunities all remain as question marks, given the moribund state of the economy. Indeed, the symbol of Hillsborough Street's future for now is the giant mound of dirt piled up next to the sidewalk across from Cup A Joe:
- What's that pile of dirt? Not clear. We called ValPark, the company responsible for the giant gravel parking lot where the dirt was dumped months ago. No one called back. Neighbors assume it (or they—there's another pile behind the first one) has something to do with the planned construction of a privately owned university dormitory and parking deck on the property behind, and to the east of, ValPark. But they're not sure.
- Wasn't that parking lot supposed to be a nifty mixed-use development? Yes, according to a small-area plan adopted by the city eight years ago. But the property owner, Val Valentine, wasn't held to it: The dormitory and a parking deck were allowed to go ahead, while the Hillsborough Street frontage remains an eyesore.
- What's N.C. State up to, Part 1? The choicest redevelopment opportunities for mixed-use housing and retail on the street remain the parking lot next to North Hall, just west of Sadlack's, and the parking lot at Brooks Avenue. Both are N.C. State properties. But Ralph Recchie, NCSU's director of real estate, says both remain "on hold" and plans for them are uncertain.
- What's N.C. State up to, Part 2? There is some good news: Within six months, Recchie says, the university will package its parking lot behind Player's Retreat ("Hillsborough Square") with its properties on the Bell Tower block—including the Mini Mart strip mall—and issue a "request for proposals" from developers. "We've had to tap the brakes because of the economy, but this should help to keep the momentum going on the street," says Recchie, who is also treasurer of the Hillsborough Street CSC.
- What about Hillsborough Street, Phase 2? City Councilor Thomas Crowder, who championed Phase 1, says it's an open question whether the next phase should extend the project west, to Faircloth Street, or east, down to the Hillsborough-Morgan Street roundabout. He favors going west. Either way, however, there's no money for a second phase, and there won't be without another city bond issue for road improvements. In the meantime, Crowder says, on-street parking could be added east of Phase 1—in front of the YMCA on either or both sides of Hillsborough—at little expense: All they require is paint.