Raleigh councilmen push revitalization effort near St. Aug’s University

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJanuary 7, 2014 

— Raleigh City Councilman John Odom cast the lone vote last August against funding a new 10-year plan for downtown, saying the area’s success means it no longer needs taxpayer support.

Now Odom wants his fellow leaders to focus on struggling districts elsewhere in the city – starting with a blighted business strip at the doorstep of St. Augustine’s University. Only a mile from downtown, the area couldn’t be more different from its neighbor to the west: Where downtown has boutique shops and upscale restaurants, North Tarboro Street is dominated by a cluster of small convenience stores advertising malt liquor, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

“We’ve spent a lot of money in a lot of different places, and this is a weaker link at this point,” Odom said. “I’d just like to see the gateway (to St. Augustine’s) look a little better.”

Odom, backed by Southeast Raleigh Councilman Eugene Weeks, wants to consider having a city-funded revitalization project in next year’s budget. Talks on the new spending plan get underway in the coming months.

Neighborhood leader Octavia Rainey said a city investment in Tarboro Street is long overdue. “That 300 block has been a problem for over 15 years,” she said. “We have two outlets that sell nothing but beer and wine, next to a day care.”

Rainey said the business area is a drag on St. Augustine’s success. The city’s other historically black institution, Shaw University, offers its students easy access to downtown, while N.C. State University and Meredith College have Hillsborough Street.

“St. Augustine’s is the only university in Raleigh that has a lot of stuff around it that is not conducive to a university,” she said. “When parents come in and they see all of that (on Tarboro Street), they move to their other choice.”

St. Augustine’s spokeswoman Shelley Willingham-Hinton said the school’s leadership is eager to work with the city. “Any type of revitalization and improvement will help the university as a whole, making it a more attractive place to come and study,” she said.

In addition to the business district, Odom and Weeks want the city involved in the restoration of the long-abandoned St. Agnes Hospital around the corner. In 2012, a commercial real-estate firm announced a partnership with Rex Healthcare to open a primary and urgent care center in the historic building.

While the plans are still in the works, construction hasn’t begun on the property, which remains a roofless, windowless ruin largely untouched since the last patients left in 1961.

Debating the downtown plan

While any improvements around St. Augustine’s will have to wait for the next budget cycle, the $300,000 downtown planning process will kick off this month. Overseen by a 22-member committee of business leaders and downtown residents, the document will guide the city center’s growth for the next decade.

Much of the bill is being footed by $250,000 in private donations through the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, but Odom opposed the effort, questioning the need to spend $50,000 of public funds in a thriving area.

“This is a lot of money going to one particular area, and I’m not sure we do this same deal in other areas,” Odom said at the time.

But downtown alliance head David Diaz said recently that a failure to plan “is the easiest way in which a city can deteriorate.”

“We can’t rest on our laurels with downtown’s success – we can’t take it for granted,” he said.

Weeks, who voted in support of the downtown plan, said the economic rebound and growing tax revenues should allow the city to aid both downtown and other areas such as Tarboro Street. But he’s pushing the downtown boosters to expand their planning focus beyond Fayetteville Street to include the blocks around Shaw University.

“From Wilmington Street over to Shaw is not a Berlin Wall,” he said. “We need to put money in that.”

Rainey, however, thinks Odom made the right call in opposing the downtown plan. “I personally think the city should not put another dime in the downtown area,” she said.

‘Let’s make it appealing’

While the look of Tarboro Street hasn’t changed in years, the city has already made big strides in cleaning up the neighborhood. Back in 2008, the 300 block was reeling from three homicides in just three years, and the violence prompted then-police Chief Harry Dolan to start a major community policing effort.

The Police Department beefed up its presence in the area, working closely with residents and other city departments to address blight and bring down the crime rate. The St. Monica Teen Center opened a block away to give the neighborhood’s young people a positive place to hang out.

The efforts paid off, and violent crime is now a rarity there. “This area has really changed,” Weeks said. “I am proud of what the Police Department has done to change this area, and the neighborhoods have stepped forward.”

Now the district just needs a facelift, and backers of a city revitalization plan have plenty of models nearby to emulate. Five blocks away on Cooke Street, the city replaced a strip of rundown houses with new homes that have attracted young families and further development. And at the corner of Edenton Street and Idlewild Avenue last year, the city bought and razed a convenience store that had been a magnet for crime.

On Tarboro Street, Weeks said he’d like to see a partnership with property owners to spruce up the storefronts and attract more diverse businesses. He also wants the entrance to the St. Augustine’s campus moved west down Oakwood Avenue to line up with Tarboro Street.

“Let’s make it appealing,” he said. “Let’s make it where it will look like Hillsborough Street at the entrance to the Bell Tower.”

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

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