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Hillsborough St. blues 

Unlike Ed, the TV lawyer who operates out of a bowling alley, architects Roger Spears and Rhonda Angerio don't own Western Lanes in Raleigh, they just rent the office space at the back, above the Hillsborough Street entrance. Ed jokes are inevitable, they sigh, and no, they can't bowl for free. What they do get, at no additional charge, is a front-row view of Hillsborough Street's continuing demise.

"We've been there two years," Spears says, "and in that time the question of where to have lunch has gotten much easier to answer." That's because one restaurant after another has gone out of business, leaving a string of empty spaces on an avenue that, prior to its latest troubles, was distinguished only by its general shabbiness. That and the fact that it's gotta be the only university main drag in the country that couldn't support a movie theater or a McDonald's.

Both were tried in the same sad-sack building that stands across from the main North Carolina State University campus. First it was a general cinema. Later, X-rated. Then, a McDonald's, with a jaunty, slanted floor and bistro lighting. For the last six years it's been empty, though McDonald's is still paying its owners--a local business partnership called SKS Properties--on a lease that goes until 2004.

The old McDonald's was just the first in a line of casualties (the latest: The Blue Moon restaurant and Jersey Mike's), but it has great symbolic importance, which is why Spears and Angerio and university officials are trying to figure out whether it can be reborn as a slicked-up lecture hall-slash-community stage. The university would use it by day, hoping to fit it out with 250 seats or more; by night, it could play host to music, theater, movies--everything from hip hop to 4-H.

The architects are donating their services to sketch out a plan and rough cost estimate. "We wanted to contribute something to the revival of the street, and other than starting a short-order restaurant of our own, this seemed like the best thing we could offer," Spears jokes.

As for N.C. State, "It's probably no slam dunk, if we go strictly by the numbers" says Mike Harwood, the university architect. "But in the whole spirit of the partnership, we want to explore it."

The Hillsborough Street Partnership was born in 1999 out of a mutual frustration: University leaders were tired of seeing a picture out their front door that said, "Hey, no Wolfpack pride here."; University Park neighborhood leaders thought it was time Raleigh treated itself to a decent-looking main street.

Led by former Mayor Smedes York, then-head of the university trustees, and the indefatigable Nina Szlosberg, a media producer and president of the neighborhood association, the Partnership pulled together an amazing "visioning" effort that put 500 residents and university folk around tables with maps and marking pens and their best ideas for transforming the avenue.

Two years later, the Partnership is finishing a $200,000 feasibility study, refining the best ideas that came out of the visioning sessions. The state Department of Transportation paid half (Hillsborough Street is also N.C. 54, remember); the Raleigh City Council and the university split most of the remainder, with University Park residents raising the last $10,000.

What's in store? Nothing less than a beautiful boulevard, Szlosberg says, with wide sidewalks, new lighting, trees, outdoor cafes, on-street parking and bike lanes.

True, it's been a bad year on Hillsborough Street, Szlosberg agrees. Businesses that were just hanging on got hit by the economic downturn and folded, leaving gaping holes. But better times could be ahead. When she e-mailed folks about refurbishing the McDonald's, a number of arts groups called to express interest, including the Burning Coal Theater Company, which could use a home of its own.

"The idea is for that building to have a full life," Szlosberg says, "which is the idea for Hillsborough Street too. This isn't going to be lightning fast, but we are all absolutely more committed than ever to making this happen."

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