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Two views of ever-changing Hillsborough Street 

Long time Hillsborough Street shops, such as Cup A Joe could be threatened by large development along the street like the continuation of the Stanhope dorm project.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Long time Hillsborough Street shops, such as Cup A Joe could be threatened by large development along the street like the continuation of the Stanhope dorm project.

There are two prevailing, yet contradictory views of Hillsborough Street.

One relishes the Hillsborough Street that is grimy, independent and outdated—the Brewery, the now-gone comic book shop, an early morning cigarette and coffee inside Cup A Joe, followed by a stroll to browse the used 10-cent book stacks at Reader's Corner. The disused storefronts, low-lying buildings and lazy alleys all give a sense of place, of a semi-industrial brick city oppressed by the semi-rural outskirts.

The other view—the one being realized by the developers, boosters, the university, sleek architects and others with access to serious capital and political power—is that its time for Hillsborough Street to "grow up," acquire chain stores and lofts, and become an economically productive and homogenous street.

At least nine new mixed-use developments are under construction or in permitting stages, and slated to be rented by 2016. All of the buildings were built to provide luxury, condo-style student housing with ground-floor retail space for chain coffee shops and pharmacies.

The most controversial of the projects—the Stanhope, which dwarfs Cup A Joe, and another condo building to be built where Two Guys Pizza currently exists—are glossy, seven-story monoliths that backers hope will kick start the "density" era of Hillsborough Street. The idea is a kind of shock therapy, abruptly terraforming the lazy, heterogeneous street into a dense, modern urban extension of downtown nearly overnight.

"It's a bright new shining tomorrow," said Ted Van Dyke, architect behind three of the projects, with a knowing laugh.

Immediately on the heels of this high-rise invasion, in 2016, the city of Raleigh will break ground on Phase Two of its Hillsborough Street Revitalization Project. Phase One brought you the death-defying Pullen Road roundabout, wider sidewalks and futuristic fluorescent streetlamps; Phase Two will finish the job on the west side of the street.

Three new roundabouts will be installed at Rosemary Street, Dixie Trail and Brooks Avenue, and sidewalks and bike lanes will be extended. The entire project will cost $12.2 million, according to Ken Dunn, senior project engineer for the city of Raleigh.

The reality of this scheme will mean four years of dust, grinding traffic and construction. Longtime property and business owners are concerned about their ability to walk through the fire. Leon Capetanos, a Raleigh native who had a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter, owns the block of buildings that house Nice Price Books, Cup A Joe, Oak City Tattoo,and Pantana's Pool Hall. While his property value could double with the redevelopment, he's very concerned about the impact of four years of turmoil on small businesses with low profit margins. Traffic turmoil and construction have already forced him to put up signs and advertise in local papers that Cup A Joe and Nice Price are open.

"How are my tenants going to survive?" Capetanos said. "I understand wanting to revitalize the street. But some businesses have been thriving here for a long time. You're favoring businesses that are not here yet over businesses that are here. I don't think they really understand the effect that squeezing the street is going to have on the neighborhood."

Capetanos said that he also thinks the city's dream of turning Hillsborough Street into an uncongested, urban bike and pedestrian-filled wonderland is romantic and overly optimistic. "People don't want to be stuck in a dorm on Hillsborough Street. A good portion of them will have a car stashed somewhere."

The behind-the-scenes booster of the revitalization has been the Hillsborough Street Community Services Corporation—a business improvement district set up by the city in 2010. Also known as "Live It Up on Hillsborough Street," the nonprofit has a massive second-floor office near Chipotle, but only one full-time paid employee, executive director Jeff Murrison.

Murrison, who comes from Pennsylvania and owns a Trolley Pub franchise in downtown Raleigh, acts as revitalization's middleman, alerting developers to potential investment opportunities. Asked about the impact of all the revitalization and construction on existing, successful independent businesses, Murrison dismissed the concerns. "Businesses come and go all the time," he said. "It's part of a natural life cycle. That helps keep a place fresh and interesting. So there are new places to explore and try."

Murrison's salary is paid by Hillsborough Street property owners, who are required to pay a business improvement district assessment on their county taxes. The rest of the Hillsborough Street Community Service Corporation's budget comes from the city of Raleigh and N.C. State University. "People recognize Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., as a highly valuable and exciting and distinctive destination for work and pleasure. We're helping create that same sense of identity for Hillsborough Street here in Raleigh," Murrison told me.

With the revitalization and Phase Two under way, Hillsborough Street's fate is sealed. Maybe it will actually be the dense, student paradise, filled with bicycles and tall glossy buildings like those portrayed in architect and developer illustrations. But it comes at the expense of the grimy, authentic, truly Southern street beneath the new sidewalk bricks. "A small business is going to have a hard time with the two-year disruption of their business. Maybe the city doesn't really care. Maybe the city has a view of survival of the fittest, those who can survive will survive, those who can't will fall away," Capetanos said.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Gloss or grit?."

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