If you rebuild it, will they come? The Hillsborough Street Partnership says yes: Shape up the street, spruce up the sidewalks, jazz up the lighting and rezone those parking lots for combo stores-apartments-decks, and before long investors will be turning this economically depressed thoroughfare into a classy urban boulevard, repaying the public investment many times over.

How to shape up the street? With roundabouts, of course. New to these parts, they’re common in Europe. Roundabouts take the place of left turns (you go around and turn right) and the back-ups that result from them. On Hillsborough Street, the idea is to replace four lanes of herky-jerky, accident-prone traffic with two free-flowing lanes, leaving more room for bicyclists, pedestrians and sidewalk sitting. The first of many planned roundabouts is nearing completion on Pullen Road, just off Hillsborough Street alongside the N.C. State campus. For a bit of fun, stop and watch as cautious citizens and, uh, eager students learn to apply the only roundabout rule you need–don’t cut in.

The partnership, a combination of university officials, city staff, local business owners and the residents of nearby University Park, is a forerunner of Mayor Meeker’s public-participation efforts. It started three years ago, when neighborhood leader Nina Szlosberg arranged for walkable-streets guru Dan Burden to visit from Florida. More than 500 people took part in the visioning sessions, a feasibility study followed (by Kimley-Horn and Associates, the engineering firm) and now the pretty pictures are being turned into reality. The estimated pricetag for everything in Phase 1–Gorman Street to Oberlin Road–is $26 million, which the city–as yet–doesn’t have. It should help that Szlosberg, a key Meeker supporter, was named by Gov. Easley to represent the conservation community on the state Board of Transportation. (She’s also chair of the Conservation Council of N.C.)

Kimley-Horn’s now looking at Phase 2, Oberlin to Morgan Street. (The dangerous Morgan-Hillsborough intersection is an obvious candidate for a roundabout, the firm’s Roger Henderson says.)

“Progress occurs when people cooperate,” is one of Szlosberg’s favorite sayings. Easier said than done, but her Partnership’s gone from imagining things to hammering out specific small-area plans that reconcile neighborhood and developers’ interests. The first of them, the Stanhope Village plan, had a public hearing in September. “There has been some push-pull” between the two big landowners involved and the residents of the Stanhope neighborhood,” Szlosberg says, “but overall, I think everyone feels very good about where we are.” The two sides listened to each, responded, and listened some more, she continues. “It feels so much better to be part of a plan that is born of real and positive exchange, rather than the contention and distrust we have seen in the past.”