North Person Street business district fills up fast

ccampbell@newsobserver.comNovember 4, 2013 

— Craig Heffley first visited the North Person Street business district about a decade ago, around the time he was opening Wine Authorities in Durham. He spotted a series of vacant storefronts amid two thriving historic neighborhoods, and he made a mental note.

“This would be a great space if I ever opened in Raleigh,” he recalled thinking. “It’s got spunk to it. It’s a good mix of neighborhood people and people who are driving through on their way to downtown.”

Since then, Heffley’s wine store has boomed, and he’s ready to expand. Person Street has grown up too, with once-boarded-up storefronts now refurbished, and it’s adding new businesses at a rate that rivals downtown Raleigh.

Later this month, Heffley plans to open the second Wine Authorities in the refurbished Person Street Plaza – a 50-year-old strip center that’s been an abandoned concrete shell for much of the past decade.

Heffley might have some competition when he holds his grand opening: Hibernian pub owner Niall Hanley is opening a restaurant, The Station at Person Street, a few doors down. Person Street Neighborhood Bar is also under construction.

Person Street Plaza’s owner, John Holmes of Hobby Properties, said he’s had no trouble filling up the renovated center, which he’d originally planned to raze to make way for a mixed-use development.

Holmes said the shopping center hasn’t thrived in decades. So he decided to avoid creating another “typical neighborhood strip center” in order to help create a destination.

“We’ve been very selective about who we want to go in there,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to find some really creative tenants that shared our views for that area.”

It also helps that the neighborhood has been on board with the revitalization efforts from the beginning. Philip Bernard, a landscape designer, joined Mordecai and Oakwood residents in forming the Person Street Partnership in 2011. The organization brings together neighbors, businesses and city officials seeking to create a thriving business district.

Fast growth

The success in attracting new businesses has come faster than Bernard could have hoped.

“It’s been amazing how quickly it’s taken off,” he said. “It’s kind of one of these snowball effects.”

The partnership started by tackling a blighted former barber shop next to where Piebird restaurant is now. The group worked with city officials to get an absentee landlord to address issues, while neighbors pitched in to spruce up the exterior and install an art exhibit.

Around the same time, Sheila Duncan opened up Piebird where an Italian market had struggled a few years before. Bernard says she was the pioneer who showed others – like veteran restaurateur Hanley – that a full-service restaurant could succeed in the neighborhood.

Duncan said she picked the spot for personal reasons: She lives in Oakwood and wanted to make her pies within walking distance from home. The space wasn’t in great shape and required more renovations than other potential locations, but that didn’t deter Duncan.

The restaurant’s buzz draws diners from all over, but many of Duncan’s regulars live in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“People just really want something here,” she said. “Downtown is a little bit too far to go every night.”

Mike James, the longtime owner of Person Street Pharmacy, said demographic shifts in Oakwood and Mordecai have helped pave the way for new dining and drinking spots.

“We’ve also seen a lot of young people move into those areas,” he said. “It’s taken a while for this to develop, but I think people have finally discovered this area.”

And more neighbors are on the way to fill prescriptions with James, sip wines in Heffley’s store lounge and dine at Piebird. Peace Street Townes, an 18-unit townhouse development, is under construction near Krispy Kreme. Even Oakwood is expanding with a new subdivision called Oakwood North.

Still plenty to do

The major players in the district aren’t done yet, however. The partnership will continue to work with city leaders as plans move ahead to convert a section of Person Street to two-way traffic, a change that’s expected to slow traffic and make the area better for walking and biking.

Holmes’ development plan was dealt a setback last month when chef Chad McIntyre dropped plans for his Market restaurant to reopen with a small grocery in Person Street Plaza. Holmes is holding the anchor space open for a similar concept; he said he’s eager to “create a really unique neighborhood grocer.”

Limited parking also will be a concern as the area attracts more visitors. Bernard said he sees potential to partner with William Peace University to build a parking deck serving the college and its neighboring commercial areas.

But given how far the district has come in a few short years, Bernard says he’s pleased to add a new item to the agenda for Person Street Partnership’s meeting this week: “growing pains.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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