Monday, November 13, 2006

Roundabouts, the death of Brothers and why Raleigh's city council scares the hell out of me.

If you're my age (29 with a bullet), you're probably too young to remember the days when Hillsborough St. was not an eyesore. In fact, you could probably be a good 10-20 years older than me and still not have enough good memories of State's main drag to keep from bemoaning the current state of things when driving it.

Yes, it's been a long time since the days when the number of bars and nightlife spots on Hillsborough St. weren't outnumbered by the number of ink and toner cartridge stores or Hookah bars.

I wistfully read accounts of the days when folks would line up at Blimpie's for a sub at 4:00 in the morning following a night of awkward alcohol-fueled dancing and romancing at institutions long gone on Hillsborough St. and wonder what it must've been like to have been a student at State when the drinking age was 18 and good times were only a 1/4 mile away.

But times change, and so has Hillsborough St., for the worse. Freshmen living off campus is no longer an oddity. Folks hop in their car when any trip requires more than 10 paces--after all, that's where the AC, iPod and in-dash NAV system is. And today's students were BORN after they bumped the drinking age up to 21.

All of these things, along with too many factors to name, have transformed a once vibrant meeting place for students, alums and professors into a nasty three-lane commuter thoroughfare that is to be avoided at all costs--especially if you're a prospective business.

I've seen the poison of Hillsborough St. kill a Raleigh institution closer than I care for. I worked on and off at Brother's Pizza during and following my time at State, and from the time that I started in the late 90s to when Brother's finally closed its doors almost two years ago, I watched the weekend business fall from a respectable amount Friday and Saturday nights down to a mere trickle. And truth be told, while the landlord's ridiculous rent rate had a lot to do with its demise--choking out any profit to be had--the lack of off-peak business (due to a lack of parking) meant that cuts had to be made in areas where you just can't (staff, food quality) if you expect to survive. So the food and service on the weekends suffered. That would be all she wrote.

Is there a solution? A way out of this current mess?

I think the answer is a tentative, hopeful "yes," spelled R-O-U-N-D-A-B-O-U-T-S.

You can call me crazy, but I'm drinking the roundabout Koolaid, by the gallon, no less.

If you're not familiar, Raleigh city council and the DOT has been exploring the idea of replacing the myriad of stoplights along Hillsborough St. with roundabouts--mini traffic circles--that will decrease the speed and volume of traffic and (hopefully) increase the amount of pedestrian traffic of students, alums and professors to levels that State's strip once enjoyed.

I think they're a great idea for a couple of reasons. One, there's far too much thoroughfare traffic zooming along Hillsborough St., coming or going to either downtown or the fairgrounds. Roundabouts would discourage folks using Hillsborough St. as a traffic corridor since the speed limit would be reduced to 25 (though the number of cars mean it likely would move slower than that). Slower traffic means less risk to pedestrians. That's a good thing.

Two, the changes would mean increased parking during the day. We can't change Americans' obsessions with their cars, so it's best instead to accommodate that burning desire. Had there been adequate parking during the daytime hours, perhaps Brother's (and countless other businesses) would still be alive today. Increased parking = increased business = business viability. Big plus.

Three, it would change Hillsborough St. into a unique destination in Raleigh and into a talking point on the lips of those across the state and country. Whenever State plays a team in basketball or football, fans of the opposing team often make a beeline toward Hillsborough St. to see what State's college culture is all about. For decades these fans have been leaving with a very negative impression of N.C. State. Having a sparking new strip with landscaped roundabouts and (hopefully) bustling foot traffic would do wonders to impress those visiting State's campus.

Sounds great, right? [Jerry MaGuire]"Who's coming with me! C'mon! Who's coming with me!"[/JM]

Well, apparently not Philip Isley of Raleigh's city council. From Monday's N&O:

"I can't get over how reducing four lanes to two helps reduce congestion," council member Philip Isley said. "I may just be dense."

Well, Philip, I don't want to start putting words into your mouth, but since they're already there I'll just echo your own sentiments:

You are dense.

At least on this issue. You see, Philip, when you discourage the thoroughfare traffic and route it over to Western Blvd., the only ones driving down Hillsborough St. are the folks that intended to be driving it in the first place--patrons. Patrons with dollars to spend and time to kill. Those are the folks that Hillsborough St. and N.C. State have been sorely missing all these years. And if you can't see what a revitalized Glenwood South or Fayetteville St. can do for the businesses on those streets, then you've missed the forest for the trees altogether.

Convincing Philip, and other council members that are hung on the idea, will be key to getting this idea done. But if they need an example of how successful roundabouts can be, they need only look a few hundred yards away from Hillsborough St. for a shining example. For right in front of Holliday Hall on State's campus, on Pullen Rd., sits a roundabout that was built just a few years ago in a spot that was notorious for traffic backups in the afternoons as folks leaving campus battled it out with folks leaving Raleigh. It got so bad that State had to assign a parking officer to direct traffic there--otherwise the poor folks turning left onto Pullen likely would still be sitting there to this day. After installing the roundabout, traffic leaving and entering campus there is much, much smoother.

Is the traffic there on Pullen slower? Yes. But it's much safer, and it's much, much easier for those poor souls leaving campus who never thought they'd ever been able to make a left turn again at 5:00 in the evening on a weekday.

So let's give the roundabouts a spin. A new Hillsborough St. is something folks in this area are clamoring for.


M. Lail said...

Count me as someone who actually thinks Hillsborough has improved the last couple of years. There appears to be fewer and fewer empty storefronts; now, whether an ink cartridge store is better than no store at all is debatable, I guess.

What has been positive, in my mind, is the addition of Porter's and the improvements to Fraziers. I know they're owned by the same person (Kevin), but I feel like that those were vital to show that an investment was sensible. Porter's has quickly become perhaps my favorite all-around restaurant in Raleigh, and it draws in a very diverse (read: young, old, hip, square, etc.) crowd. You'll see students, professors, young couples, old fogies, etc.

The converse of that is that perhaps there's not enough there to draw alums back. Take me: other than El Rodeo, Western Lanes and Mitch's, I can't think of a place I used to frequent as a student that's still there. But in recent years, I've noticed more foot traffic along Hillsborough St. on weeknights and weekends. That's a very good thing.

I must say, I rarely have trouble finding parking either on or right off of Hillsborough, so I don't see that being a huge problem. I do agree, however, that the roundabouts idea is good if only to slow the speed of traffic and, as James said, the number of cars using it as a cut-through. If the only thing they do is make it safer for pedestrians then it's worth the money.

And finally, I think Hillsborough needs another destination, such as a great, small-to-medium-sized rock club on the eastern end of the strip.

Anonymous said...

I get tired of hearing folks bitch about the panhandlers. I can't tell you the last time I've actually seen a bum on Hillsborough Street. You're more likely to see them on an interstate exit than H'boro!

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding me?!! I get approached by panhandlers 2-3 times a week! I've seen students start to cross over H'boro only to turn around and go back into campus when then see the muchers. Clean up the panhandlers and get some parking and people will start coming and supporting the businesses there.

Ron said...

To paraphrase a line from before-my-time SNL, "Curle, you ignorant slut."

How do you look at the revitalized Glenwood South and Fayetville Street and then reach the conclusion that Hillsborough Street needs roundabouts?

The rise of Glenwood South came at the demise of Hillsborough Street. The Five-O's original owner saw the light and opened another "bar up some stairs" at the Rockford on Glenwood in the Mid 90s (Hawaii Five-O, Rockford Files). Fayetville Street is still a work in progress, but seems to be doing well. Neither of them have roundabouts.

If being pedestrian friendly is important, roundabouts are a terrible idea. Have you ever tried to cross Pullen at the circle there? Even with light traffic, cars and buses that don't have to stop won't.

My fiance would rather pay $1 for delivery than try to cross Hillsborough Street between her classes for lunch. If the pedestrian crosswalks were as wel defined as Fayetville Street, and some intersections (especailly Horne) had "pedestrian only/four way vehicle red" cycles, it would be safer and get some traffic to find other routes. The neighborhood to the north's roads are severely underutilized because there is bad interconnectivity around Brooks Ave, breaking up all east/west routes that don't start with an H and end with "illsborough"

Another "problem" with the Street is the perceived/real lack of parking. As Matt said, it isn't hard to find a space, if you know where to look. If NC State and the Hillsborough Street merchants got together and said "hey you can park on campus for free, except for a couple of lots" people wouldn't go up and down Hillsborough looking for a space.
If places like Wachovia would keep their parking lot open at night, a lot more spaces would be available.

The side roads around Glenwood South and Fayetville Street have on street parking than what Hillsborough Street offers as well. Thanks to the University Park home owners, no one can park north of Hillsborough after 9 or 10. This led to the closing of Studio I and II and the near closing of Mitch's. Taking away these spaces have put a cap on the number of restaurants that attract non-students to the area.

This (and the crazy rent) is what killed McDonalds, Starbucks, Brothers, the Ratskelter, and every bar from Dan Allen to Sadlacks.

If there were more people living closer to the street, there would be enough people to support businesses there. They could build a nice mulit-use building with a parking deck behind it from where Kinkos used to be through Bruggers. That would provide parking for residents and visitors to Hillsborough Street. Apartments could "hide" the deck similar to how Palladium Plaza is being built near City Market. If the houses on Logan, Chamberlain, and Enterprise could be cleaned up and marketed to students and not bums, it would add a lot of 24 hour life to the area, and reduce panhandling.

Eckerds had to close because they had too little walk-in traffic. Hiring incompetent people didn't help either.

Sadlacks looks like it will open soon, which should help or hurt that area, depending on what you think about Sadlacks's clientele. The old Darryl's place could *easily* be a good club, with bands or dancing four or five days a week. With the chancelor moving away (Chancellor Poulton got NCSU to buy Hillsborough Square and turn it into the parking lot) and the rejuvinated Players' Retreat, that area could be something.

They could go way back and resurrect the trolley that used to run from Hillsborough Street through downtown. If CAT buses were free for students (TTA buses already are) would students ride them into and out of the area? Do the run frequently enough to be a good car alternative?

There are many things that can be done to improve the area other than roundabouts. Without fixing the other underlying problems, roundabouts would be like a face lift for Strom Thurman or the equivalent of Darryl's "rennovations" -- shiny tables that ignored the problem of rats and roaches in the kitchen.

Kevin Brewer said...

It wasn't that long ago that Hillsbrough was a really cool strip. You don't have to go back to the 1970s, when there was a porn theater, like many people think.

When I was in school (1991-1996), I went to Cup-a-Joe, Nice Price Books, Mitch's, SchoolKids, the cool-looking McDonald's and Studio I & II all the time. They were beginning to crack down on the bars at that time and the big demise began in the mid-1990s.

Half of those places are still there. I still miss Studio I & II, and I live in D.C. now. I probably saw 50 movies there. It was great to have a theater I could walk to when I live on campus.

As for parking, I have never found it a problem, especially after 5 p.m. There is street parking, parking in the neighborhoods behind Hillsborough and after 5, you can park at Wachovia or any campus lot and you won't get ticketed or towed. The big campus lot on the business side of the street is a great place to park at night.

I don't think these Roundabount would help.

Opening great businesses there and and encouraging people to frequent them would help. Matt mentioned a couple new restaurants. Bowls -- the new cereal place -- is a great new business. If it doesn't succeed, then college kids and 20-somethings don't want anything cool on Hillsborough.

Plus, N.C. State or the city has run off every college bar on the street and put another stupid bookstore that sells a bunch of ugly State sweatshirts.

The strip needs a few bars, a college bars and a couple nicers ones. That's the easiest way to revive the strip.

The school has tried to hand-pick who can run a business there and who can't, and they done a good job of that and of killing a number of businesses. So I'm sure the are has a reputation of not being business friendly.

On the other hand, Glenwood has encouraged growth -- go figure -- and look at what has happended.

I see the same thing in the neighborhood I live in now. They push good businesses out and try to dictate what comes in. That's not American. That's not capitalism. It's bullthrow.

M. Lail said...

The good news -- based on the above posts -- is that people are passionate about H'boro Street. Do we have all the answers? Probably not. But at least there's concern. That alone may save it before it's too late.

C. Ragone said...

Well, I'm sorry to have to put an end to the love fest for roundabouts we have going on right now. In all seriousness, roundabouts are part of the answer to what I think everyone can agree is the central goal: the revitilization of Hillsborough St.

First, a couple of notes on roundabouts, and the associated changes to traffic patterns on Hillsborough. The whole idea of this project is to turn the street back to what it once was: a destination. Hillsborough St. has gone from what once was a place for students (and yes Curle, some Hippies) to go and have a good time. It has since evolved into a major commuter route for people from West Raleigh and Cary to and from downtown, handling far more traffic volume than was ever intended. The effects are obvious: more congestion, less commercial activity, more vehicle to vehicle accidents, and, worse, more vehicle to pedestrian acidents.

Slowing traffic, constricting lanes from four to two lanes, and, yes, roundabouts, will solve all of the above problems, and give Hillsborough St. a fighting chance to survive. The intended effect will be to push commuter traffic onto existing commuter routes (Western Blvd. and Wade Ave.), which are designed to handle higher traffic volumes. This will create a situation where traffic volumes will be lessened to the point where the only folks going down to Hillsborough are folks making it their destination. The decreased traffic flow will also make Hills. much safer, a key part of the project.

Roundabouts, as a part of the overall project, will aid traffic flow on the street and make the overall flow smoother. This has been modeled by Kimley-Horn Assoc., the design firm for this project, and has shown to be true. And a note on pedestrian crossings: not only will there be the crossings at the roundabouts themselves, but several dedicated crossings straight accross the street with signals to help those who are visually impaired and also who don't feel comfortable at the roundabouts. Also, there will be a wide, brick median in the design which will provide a pedestrian haven if some students continue to decide to do what they do now: cross wherever they want to. Simply put, just because the Glenwood South district does not have roundabouts does not mean that it is not the right thing to do for Hillsborough St. The street is a very unique entity, and has its own set of issues. Roundabouts will keep traffic flowing, while achieving the necessary traffic calming effects which will accomplish the goals set forth. All of this, along with the burying of all utilties, the City's facade grant program, and investment from the private sector, will make Hillsborough St. the destination we all want it to be.

I would encourage anyone with interest to view the Kimley Horn feasibility study and related plans at the Hillsborough St. Partnership website at . The page has had some issues lately, so the links may temporarily not work, but check back soon. Also, anyone wanting a look at the 25% plans for the two projects being considered by council (Oberlin/Pullen Rd. and Horne St.) are able to be viewed at the State College BB&T bank branch and at Porter's. I am glad to see that this generated much discussion, and thanks to Curle for a well written piece on the subject.

M. Lail said...

Thanks for the feedback -- I'm glad someone "in the know" like yourself felt like posting.

There need to be reasons for people to flock to Hillsborough. At this point, with the exception of a few good restaurants and nostalgia, that is missing. I really wish Urban Outfitters would have chosen Hillsborough for its first Triangle location. (KBrew may attest to how cool UO is.) They are historically located in urban settings, near locations where there are hipsters and young people. (Man, do I sound old!) Hillsborough and UO would've been a great marriage; instead, UO chose an empty warehouse at Southpoint. (What is so URBAN about an interstate mall?) In addition to places to eat and places to buy State stuff, Hillsborough needs nice retail spots. Not the GAP, but a few quirky chains wouldn't hurt. How cool would a Mast General Store be on H'boro?

Kevin Brewer said...

I agree with Matt. Urban Outfitters is cool, and it would be even cooler on Hillsborough. And Hillsborough needs to produce some traffic before it worries about how to control it.

People aren't going there because it stinks, not because the traffic is too much.

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Lauren said...

awww..hearing talk about brothers brings back memories. My dad owned that resturant for 15 years and before that, my grandparents owned it for 30. no one is as sad as us that it had to close and that hillsborough st. in general, is going in the same direction