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Once Raleigh's most eccentric, vibrant boulevard, it withered after years of neglect. With its renewal under way, can it regain its charm?

Keep Hillsborough Street funky 

After the city's open house for the Hillsborough Street roundabouts project last month, some of us walked over to Players Retreat, a 51-year-old neighborhood saloon, to watch our Carolina Hurricanes battle the brutish New Jersey Devils. It was Game 7, and the Canes stole a 4-3 victory that night with two goals in the final 80 seconds, which caused everybody in the place to go completely nuts.

This, I thought, is what Hillsborough Street must've felt like in the glory days. Then it was the Cardiac Pack winning NCAA basketball championships in '74 and '83. Now it was the Cardiac Canes, but it captured the same feelings: A fabulous victory for our underdog team and city, and the extended Raleigh family was joined as one—state legislators, city officials, neighborhood folks, and because the bar is around the corner from the N.C. State Bell Tower, the regulars who once bled only Wolfpack red but now bleed Canes red too.

No one ran into the street that night, that I know of anyway. But if they did, they were on the right street for it.

Because whatever other streets may claim (Fayetteville Street? Yeah, it's very pretty, very ceremonial), Hillsborough Street is Raleigh's true main street—in sickness or health.

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Video Hillsborough Street: A visual postcard

10 things you probably don't know about Hillsborough Street

Archival photos

Interactive Clickable map attached to VoiceThread, where you can share your stories about Hillsborough Street via text, audio or video

Street schematics courtesy Raleigh Planning Department

Virtually everything that gives Raleigh its identity is on Hillsborough Street or connected by it: The Capitol, downtown, the university, the old fairgrounds, the new fairgrounds, Glenwood South, Pullen Park, the Oberlin community, the Democratic and Republican state headquarters. I could go on, but it usually clinches such arguments to note that the YMCA where Andy and Barney stayed is on Hillsborough Street—or it used to be. There's a new "Y" where the old, Andy-era one stood, and the new one bares its back to the street. Drive around to the front if you've never seen it; there's a small roundabout in the giant sea o' parking and a splendid entryway for members only.

But that's part and parcel of our story too: It's not all tinsel and triumph on Hillsborough Street. It's also neglect, disjunction and the history of Raleigh, good, bad and whatever you'd like to make of the "Pink Panty," a strip club that operated not so long ago on Hillsborough Street across from the Christian Science Church.

Yes, Hillsborough Street had its decadent days, and a time before that when it was vintage, and a time since when it became the congested traffic mess it is today. Maybe it has a bright future.

Strike maybe. As we contemplate the construction destruction that has suddenly ripped into Hillsborough Street this month, consider that with the right mix of new and old, town and gown, sufficient density to support transit but not so much that it jams the neighborhoods and clears out the funk, Hillsborough Street can again be the place where Raleigh's disparate parts are joined in an authentic urban whole.

Consider, too, that many of the street's needed ingredients are hidden in plain view, like the old Varsity, a marquee movie house back in the day that later showed porn flicks and then was turned into a McDonald's restaurant. But the McDonald's failed—that's right, a McDonald's on the doorstep of a major university failed—indicating how serious the problems had become on the street. After that, neighborhood leaders floated a plan to make the space into a State lecture hall by day and a theater-slash-coffeehouse by night. It didn't happen.

So for now, it's a stripped-down student bookstore that, like many other locations, awaits its new life as part of a new main street for Raleigh.

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Hillsborough Street Textbooks was once a movie theater, then a porn theater, before morphing into a McDonald's, which closed. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Gus Gusler remembers Hillsborough Street in its heyday. He's an entertainment lawyer (his clients include Hootie and the Blowfish) who owns Players Retreat and lives in the adjoining Cameron Park neighborhood, where I also live. In the early '70s when Gusler was student body president at State, he worked as a cook at P.R. What's now a pool room, he recalls, was then a jazz piano club and the "Morning Room," which before noon featured a nice breakfast served on a white tablecloth.

In 1972, Gusler says, The Morning Room also served up big helpings of politics as unofficial headquarters for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Hargrove Bowles' campaign against Republican Jim Holshauser.

By then, State College had evolved into a major university with big-time basketball, and when Stormin' Norman Sloan's players were missing at bed check, the first place he looked was Players Retreat.

(They must've been in good hands, because the '73 and '74 teams, led by David Thompson, were arguably the best in NCAA history. Bowles, however, lost.)

Gusler recalls Hillsborough Street as the stage for North Carolina's biggest anti-Vietnam War protests, which he helped organize. "There were two marches, one after Kent State in '70 and the other, I think, after Nixon mined the harbors in Haiphong in '72, and both times there were 10,000 people, huge crowds, and the thing was that even though State was the most conservative of the campuses, all the students from Chapel Hill and Duke came over here to march because it was the state capital."

By 2004, though, when Gusler bought P.R., it was hurting and Hillsborough Street with it. And while Gusler, with some money and loads of personal time, has nursed the business back to health, it's been an uphill effort, he says, given the deterioration around him.

Gusler's place is located at the epicenter of the first phase of the roundabouts project, just a few hundred feet away from the major roundabout being built at Hillsborough Street and Pullen Road and across the street from the second, smaller roundabout where Pullen Road and Oberlin Road will be joined.

"I don't know what the absolute best thing to do would be," Gusler says, "but the city did a good job downtown and I trust that they will here too. But we gotta do something."

No question, Hillsborough Street is an odd mishmash these days, from the big hole in the ground two blocks from the Capitol, where an ill-advised high-rise was supposed to go, to the Waffle House out toward the fairgrounds and N.C. State's sleek new biomedical campus.

One reason it's a mishmash, real estate lawyer Tom Erwin maintains, is that only the first few blocks of Hillsborough, from the Capitol to West Street, actually developed as a city street within a street grid. He points me to an 1872 map of Raleigh: Sure enough, 80 years after the city was founded, the streets were still contained within its original boundaries—North, East, South and West streets.

Beyond West Street, Hillsborough was a country road that eventually led to the colonial town of Hillsborough. When Hillsborough Street finally did develop, the "street" became a modern road speeding out to N.C. State and beyond.

Erwin is a strong preservationist with an encyclopedic knowledge of Raleigh history. In Hillsborough Street lore, he's the guy who, in 1977, bought a 4,000-square-foot brick manse for $1 and relocated it—ahead of the wrecking ball that was clearing space for an ugly credit union building—to a vacant lot in Cameron Park. Moving it cost $80,000, he says.

Erwin takes me for a drive up Hillsborough Street, and for a primer. The Cameron Court apartments are where Duncan Cameron's plantation home once stood. At one time, Cameron's land covered most of West Raleigh. He helped to establish St. Mary's College on Hillsborough Street. Now it's St. Mary's School, a girls' prep school.

Richard Stanhope Pullen, for whom Pullen Park and the Stanhope neighborhood were named, belonged to the Watauga Club, the Raleigh "go-getters" who helped jumpstart the new state college in the late 1800s. In contrast to the Latin-spouting university in Chapel Hill, Raleigh's college would emphasize the practical, agricultural and mechanical arts.

N.C. State was built on Pullen's donated farmland a mile beyond the town limits. A village grew up across the road, and the old state fairgrounds were there—the contours of its racecourse give the Raleigh Little Theater and its Rose Garden their oval shape.

College and village were connected to Raleigh via a streetcar down the middle of Hillsborough Street. In between college and town, black freedmen settled a village on a connecting country road. They called the village Shacktown, but they named the road for Oberlin College in Ohio, an icon of 19th-century liberation movements: Thus, Oberlin Road.

By the mid-20th century, the village by the campus was the hub of Raleigh's nightlife, the place for good restaurants (Darryl's, Delmonico's), shops (the Stag Shop) and music, both on Hillsborough Street and underground at the new Cameron Village shopping center, the region's first. The Velvet Cloak Inn on Hillsborough Street, built in 1963 by Cameron Village developer Willie York, was considered Raleigh's best hotel. It isn't any more, and a new owner is slowly converting it into inexpensive condos.

The culprit in the village's demise was sprawl. By the '80s, Raleigh had moved on, and Hillsborough Street's bohemian veneer was so scarred by grubby bars and strip joints, Erwin says, that Cameron Park's leaders appealed to the Raleigh police department to crack down on the worst of them.

Their complaints were ignored, he recalls, until the night of the Wolfpack's miraculous '83 NCAA basketball championship, which touched off a riotous celebration on the street and in the bars. From the balcony of one notorious bar, Erwin says, some drunk lobbed a beer bottle toward the street and it struck a Raleigh cop, knocking him out cold.

After that, Erwin says, the late Police Chief Robert E. Goodwin began attending the local ABC board's meetings to fight the bad bars' license renewals. Many bars closed, and whole buildings were torn down, including the infamous Hillsborough Square, a place behind Darryl's (now Red, Hot & Blue) that at one time was home to seven bars and an illegal rooftop swimming pool that the owner maintained was merely a "water feature." (The din at Hillsborough Square is said to have kept the late John Caldwell, N.C. State's chancellor, awake nights, which hastened its demise.)

Soon N.C. State turned away, shutting the street entrance into its main library, D.H. Hill, and hiding other buildings, including the chancellor's residence, behind tall shrubs.

In town, meanwhile, most of the fine homes that lined the original Hillsborough Street had given way to, or were blocked from view by, a motley group of office buildings and parking lots; some of the buildings are empty today.

"There's all this embedded history here," Erwin laments, "but the visual incoherence has just gotten beyond belief. I've never been against replacing an old building with a better one. But around here we have a history of doing the opposite."

click to enlarge Bowling, pizza and strippers: Hillsborough Street in the 1980s. - PHOTO BY ART HOWARD; COURTESY NINA SZLOSBERG
  • Photo by Art Howard; courtesy Nina Szlosberg
  • Bowling, pizza and strippers: Hillsborough Street in the 1980s.

In 1999, when Nina Szlosberg was president of the University Park Neighborhood Association, she organized a community-wide charette to consider the future of Hillsborough Street in front of campus.

Over three days, some 500 people sketched how the street's decaying carcass could be transformed into a modern boulevard. The plan that emerged contained a dozen roundabouts, most of which have since been reconsidered or delayed, but otherwise it remains the basis for what's currently under construction, with wide sidewalks, two travel lanes instead of four, a 7-foot-wide center median, fewer stop lights and on-street parking on both sides of the street 24-7.

The plan called for a nonprofit Hillsborough Street Partnership composed of the city, neighborhoods, businesses and N.C. State. Szlosberg was its first president.

A media producer with a budding interest in urban policy, Szlosberg knew about Hillsborough Street from her days as a reporter with WRAL-TV. She remembers in particular the old Breakfast House, which served alligator until 2 a.m. There she met the folks who ran the nearby tattoo parlor. They introduced her to the strippers who worked at My Apartment Lounge.

Recruiting businesses for the Partnership, Szlosberg met Kevin Jennings and his wife, Stacey, when they were on their knees—literally—laboring to open what would become Frazier's restaurant in an empty storefront next to the empty McDonald's.

Jennings and his wife were just about broke. He was trying to figure out what to do about the homeless man who was living in the space between the McDonald's boarded-up storefront and what had been its front door. Their original plan was to open a Mellow Mushroom, but that hadn't worked out. Scrambling to get the upscale Frazier's open instead, they subsisted with the help of unsold bagels that regularly arrived, gratis, from a sympathetic worker at the Manhattan Bagel shop. (Here's to you, Becton James.)

But they joined the Partnership, and Frazier's hosted its kickoff luncheon.

Ten years later, Frazier's is considered one of the Triangle's best restaurants, and the Jennings' business has expanded to include Porter's, a casual bar-restaurant next door, and two other upscale restaurants (Vivace and Coquette) at North Hills. (The homeless man? His name was John Miller. He continued to be their neighbor for another year.)

Szlosberg has since become president of the N.C. Conservation Council, a member of the state Board of Transportation and the Triangle Transit Authority, and a leading voice on urban issues in the region.

"There have been, for the last 10 years, plenty of naysayers to Hillsborough Street," Kevin Jennings says. "Plenty. And they say, You can't do this, you can't do that, that doesn't work there, and on and on. And the fact is, it does work. And this street wants to be so much more, or I guess I should say, it wants to be what it used to be, one of the epicenters of Raleigh."

It took 10 years to get the project going because, Jennings and Szlosberg say, downtown redevelopment, including the reopening of Fayetteville Street, needed to come first.

"If downtown is the heart of Raleigh," Szlosberg says, "then Hillsborough Street is the spine. The city needed a healthy heart. Now, it needs a healthy spine, Hillsborough Street, to support it, and Hillsborough Street hasn't been healthy."

Even in its infirmity, though, the street is home to a surprising number and variety of "cool places," Szlosberg points out. There's good Moroccan food (Marrakesh Cafe), Indian food (India Mahal; Lazize Biryani Corner); Jasmin, an inexpensive Mediterranean restaurant near Frazier's, is excellent, she says. And don't forget Sadlack's Heroes, where the diverse crowd constitutes an American culture.

But driving by, it's easy to miss these places because of the traffic maze the four-lane road presents, says David Lisowe, whose mother, Rose, owns Sadlack's. The roundabouts plan, albeit sans most of the roundabouts, is fundamentally about slowing traffic so everybody—drivers, walkers, neighbors and students—can see and enjoy what's there.

"I look forward to the reaction of the community," Jennings says, "and I mean all of Raleigh, when they see this [project] being done. I believe it will be a huge success, and people will be excited then about continuing the work on the rest of Hillsborough Street."

Click for larger image • Construction began this month on Hillsborough Street; roundabouts are central to the city's plan for its renewal. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Ningyo Pearl Bubble-T is a funky little shop on Hillsborough Street that sells bubble tea, a concoction of tea, fruit, ice and boba, a tapioca-like substance that forms the gummy bubbles. The store is located on the ground floor of a building called The Electric Company at the corner of Gardner Street—just below the Western Lanes bowling alley—which should be a great location but never has been.

When Ningyo Pearl owner Nathan Phillips talks about his business problem, he neatly encapsulates what the Hillsborough Street project is designed to address. The problem, Phillips says, is "a lot of animosity" between State's students, on the one side of the road, and the neighborhoods—including University Park—on his side.

"If you appeal to students," he says, "the neighbors don't come." And vice versa.

Phillips says bubble tea shops, ubiquitous in Asia and on the West Coast, should be popular here too. He hopes that will be the case when the street's done and the new median makes it easier to cross.

But he's very worried that the street construction, which will take a year, will put him out of business first. And if that doesn't, the persistent panhandlers and occasional serious crimes that occur on his corner could. He, like several other business owners, mentioned a rape last October, for which a man who had been released from prison two days earlier was arrested; the 18-year-old victim was swiped off Hillsborough Street at about 3 a.m.

What the street needs more than an expensive remake, Phillips thinks, is intensive policing and more readily available parking. "I feel like a kid who needs to be sure about his security and three meals a day," he says, "and instead Dad comes home with a big-screen TV."

He's not the only doubter. Mitch Hazouri, of Mitch's Tavern fame (ironically, his place was used for the "Durham" bar scenes in the movie Bull Durham), has succeeded for 30 years by catering to N.C. State customers. He doesn't think, however, that Hillsborough Street can regain its status as a destination place for people who don't live right on its doorstep.

Roger Henderson, the private planner who is most responsible for the street design, says he's aware that the panhandlers and other "characters" on the street pose problems. But Henderson is optimistic that the street improvements will begin to solve them. On a healthy city boulevard, he says, "there's safety in the numbers" of people who are walking, shopping and riding (slowly) by—enough so that the better "characters" can be entertaining.

Henderson's vision is for Hillsborough Street to gradually add "a few more buildings, a little more density, some new businesses that will appeal to the faculty and staff [at State] as well as the students, and to neighbors," without subtracting the funky places like Sadlack's and the bubble tea shop that give Hillsborough Street personality.

When finished, Henderson points out, the new street will have about 100 more parking spaces. And N.C. State is posting signs to notify drivers that most of its lots are open to the public after 5 p.m. and on weekends. Yet, during construction, on-street parking is nearly gone.

Click for larger image • Get a haircut and a bag of chips at The Bell Tower Mart, a scrappy strip mall on Hillsborough Street. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Up and down Hillsborough Street, there's no shortage of places for new businesses and higher density, says N.C. State's Director of Real Estate Ralph Recchie. He says the school is intent on filling the parking lot next to North Hall (the old Lemon Tree Inn) with a combination of new housing and street-level stores. Another of its parking lots, where an A&P used to be, is a candidate for development by the expanding College of Management, next to D.H. Hill Library.

State, Recchie says, realizes that Hillsborough Street is an important recruiting tool for students and staff. "If we can act like it's our front door," he says, "and not be ashamed of—but actually proud of—it, that's a good thing."

The university recently allocated $3 million to a fund to purchase troubled properties on the street and package them for resale to developers. Its first acquisition was a small strip mall near Sadlack's that contained, among other sound businesses, a plasma center where addicts sold their blood and drug dealers gathered to meet them as they left.

Recchie's office is across the street from the Bell Tower, and he's a Sadlack's regular. "The plasma center didn't, uh, build customer traffic for its neighbors," he says, smiling. "Sadlacks, Schoolkids Records, yes. That's a funky little island that's uniquely N.C. State."

The key to success on Hillsborough Street, in the N.C. State zone and in the downtown and fairgrounds areas, is building at a scale, and with enough diversity of uses, to maximize the street's potential without overwhelming the neighbors.

That's what Recchie says. It's what Henderson says. It's what the neighborhood leaders say, but it's not always obvious what the right scale is.

Ideally, the street would attract businesses like Lulu, a self-publishing company invented by former Red Hat CEO Bob Young, which spent $10 million rehabilitating the old N.C. Equipment Building (the one crowned by a tractor on top) as a gorgeous new headquarters for his staff.

Lulu started life in an office park in Morrisville. It moved to Hillsborough Street, Young says, after he surveyed his employees and found—to his surprise, since many don't live in Raleigh—that virtually all of them wanted to work in a "real" city location.

Closer to town, Raleigh will start construction this summer on another roundabout—not officially a part of the Hillsborough Street project—at the Hillsborough-Morgan Street intersection. A Charlotte developer, Jim Zanoni, has assembled 6.5 acres of choice property at the intersection, including the now defunct Bolton Corporation tract. He's in the early stages, according to his Raleigh attorney Mack Paul, of considering how much to include in his rezoning application.

The right mix of new housing and business there could help spark a transit revival on Hillsborough Street, since the location is near a potential streetcar route that could be linked to the planned light-rail commuter line in downtown Raleigh.

But too much housing could overwhelm the small houses that surround it in the Pullen neighborhood near the YMCA, a subject the Raleigh Planning Commission recently debated as it considered whether the Bolton property should be considered—in the new comprehensive plan—part of Raleigh's Central Business District.

Architect Ted Van Dyk, whose New City Design firm's offices are in an old Hillsborough Street house near the Morgan Street intersection, is following the issue with avid interest both as a neighbor and candidate for City Council in District D, which encompasses this part of Hillsborough Street.

Van Dyk is challenging Thomas Crowder, the council's strongest advocate of fitting development into the neighborhood context. On that subject, Van Dyk says, he agrees with Crowder.

"I wonder if one of the silver linings of our current economic unpleasantness," Van Dyk says, "might be a re-scaling of our ambitions." Numerous "big towers" proposed by developers and approved by Raleigh, he notes, "never came out of the ground and were probably based on land values that were irrationally exuberant."

Van Dyk designed the new faculty housing on the St. Mary's campus facing the Hillsborough-Morgan intersection. It could serve as a template for the new main street—additional density, well designed and not so gigantic that it overwhelms its surroundings.

"Hillsborough Street is already one of the most mixed-use streets in Raleigh and probably in the state," Van Dyk says. "It's got churches, law offices, restaurants, tattoo parlors, two hotels, the YMCA, and that's just in my block." What's needed, he says, is judicious infill in the form of five-to-seven-story buildings, at 40-60 units per acre of density, with parking below ground.

When it happens, Van Dyk says, "I think Hillsborough Street could be the beautiful, sinewy connection between the most important parts of the city."

Correction (June 2, 2009): The first state fairs in Raleigh—before and after the Civil War up to 1873—were conducted on land east of the Capitol. The Rose Garden is, therefore, the old state fairgrounds, but not the original state fairgrounds.

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