Hillsborough Street is on my mind. It's Raleigh's main street, with due respect to Fayetteville Street. The latter is Raleigh's big-city hub, and we are becoming quite the city—which is great. But we're not so big that people don't nod as you pass them. We're a small town at heart and a college town. And our main street is Hillsborough Street.
So I've followed its ups and downs over the years, writing to encourage its revitalization and to discourage soulless, out-of-character development. In recent months, I've cited a pending rezoning case on Hillsborough Street as an example of the way Raleigh leaders give lip service to good land-use planning—as in the 2030 Comprehensive Plan—but don't follow through.
Today, I want to come at that rezoning case a different way. Yes, the proposal for seven-story student housing on the north side of Hillsborough Street clashes with the comprehensive plan, which calls for three-to-five story buildings max—but perhaps the plan is wrong?
Proponents of the rezoning have offered a different vision for Hillsborough Street:
A student housing village of seven-story and taller towers across from N.C. State and pushing back to Vanderbilt Avenue or even Clark Avenue. Thousands of NCSU students could walk to campus.
Before I discuss it, I want to give a nod to an upcoming series hosted by the N.C. Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (see box, this page). I'm drawn especially to the first topic, Community Engagement and Placemaking, which bears the stamp of the leadoff speaker, architect Frank Harmon.
When I asked Harmon, a brilliant designer, teacher and writer, what prompted the series, he responded immediately: "I saw another dreary set of apartments going up from my office window."
With the recession over, Raleigh can expect a growth spurt in the next five years equal to our last 20, Harmon said. "The whole point is to reach out and tell people that they can have a role in how their city grows."
No question the group known as YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard) and their leader, Seth Hollar, want a role. And their vision is worth considering.
Student housing across from campus has one obvious advantage. Students won't have to drive, or take a Wolfline bus from remote apartments out Avent Ferry Road, say. Where would they park their cars? Some would park (expensively) on-site. But some don't have cars, and others will park more cheaply at remote lots—reachable via the Wolfline.
Bottom line, it's their university. They have as much right as anyone to live next to it.
But they don't have more right, or the only right, which is why I oppose the seven-story rezoning. I see it as the precedent-setting fuse that will quickly blow up a better vision, one the community has been working toward for 15 years that is now beginning to succeed.
I'm referring to "A New Vision for Hillsborough Street," issued in 1999 and the best example of "Community Engagement and Placemaking" I've ever seen. Some 500 people—university people, neighborhood people, city leaders—walked the street and pored over maps, day after day, with the goal of making Hillsborough Street "a destination ... a vibrant, diverse public realm ... a distinct center and commercial district."
Old Hillsborough Street, with its high-speed traffic and rundown look, was pretty junky. As the university's front door, it made a poor first impression, which put off top students and faculty prospects. As a main street connecting the campus to city neighborhoods, it not only didn't connect, it pushed people away.
From the YIMBYs, we hear that the '99 plan is a failure and Hillsborough Street must be given over to high-density student housing.
That's not what I see. I see a Hillsborough Street reconstruction project that took nine years to start and another two to finish—Phase 1. From 2008-12, the Great Recession stopped development everywhere, not just on Hillsborough Street.
But look again. In the intervening years, NCSU has remade its side of Hillsborough Street as a welcoming "place" for the community as well as for students.
Two new theaters. A new student and events center. A new university sports hall of fame coming to Reynolds Coliseum—and AC! The new Gregg Museum in what was the chancellor's residence. A new track and field facility, softball stadium and a nearly new baseball stadium. There's a new College of Management, and wonderful old D.H. Hill Library looks new and is still open to the public.
In short, the NCSU side of Hillsborough Street is a destination, the street itself looks great, and on the north side, there are new restaurants, shops, a new Aloft Hotel is under construction, and new student housing is open or being built—at an appropriate four- or five-story scale.
The key thing that's missing is housing diversity—housing for faculty, other adults, empty-nesters, grad students, and maybe even some affordable units for people who, unlike students, take city buses as well as the Wolfline. But the one thing that will keep diverse housing away is to make student housing so profitable—at seven stories and up—that it stops anything else from happening.
A monoculture of students works for them, but it isn't the best outcome for the university, the adjoining neighborhoods or the city. If it were the only thing we could do on Hillsborough, I'd say do it. But it isn't.
Public conversations on urban design topics: Saturdays, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Workshops, food trucks, beer, children's activities and music. Admission is free.
At the AIANC Center for Architecture and Design, 14 E. Peace St., Raleigh.
June 14: Community Engagement and Placemaking.
July 12: Sustainable Foodways.
Aug. 9: Alternative Transportation.
Sept. 13: Urban Housing (and design competition).
Oct. 5: Fundraising Pig Pickin' and Silent Auction.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Battle for the Soul of Hillsborough Street."