Downtown Raleigh, a joke more than a location for the last 30 years, is rumbling back to life at last. With each new hole in the ground, the sound is building to a roar. The city counts nearly $1 billion in public and private investment either under way downtown or starting soon.

So what happened? Was it the decision to rip out the Fayetteville Street Mall, and reopen it to cars? Yes and no, says Dan Douglas, director of the city’s Urban Design Center. He thinks it was the fact that opening the street also required tearing down the old Raleigh Civic Center, which unaccountably was built right across the middle of it in 1979. “It was like taking out a dam and letting the river flow again,” Douglas exults.

Right. And the other thing it did was to create four new, premium building sites on the east and west sides of the soon-to-be-flowing street–two apiece on the old center’s footprint and on its parking lot.

These four sites, about two acres apiece, will breathe new life–and new housing–into the five-block area between the Capitol, at the north end of Fayetteville Street, and the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, which faces it at the south end.

That’s the very heart of downtown. Malled up, it was an obstacle between the up-and-coming neighborhoods to the west, including the very-hip Glenwood South district, and those to the east, which include City Market, Oakwood and Mordecai. It’s hard to prove cause and effect, but ever since Mayor Charles Meeker and the City Council committed to de-malling it, east and west have started growing together with that mysterious force called synergy.

So, very high marks–100s, even–for ripping out the Civic Center and restoring Fayetteville Street, and also for the prospective liberation of the Blount Street historic district.

But if you’re keeping score on how the downtown Raleigh renaissance is going, consider low marks–zeroes, even–on several of the required elements. The splashy Hillsborough Street plan’s gone essentially nowhere since it was hatched in 1999. On the east side, the Martin-Haywood district is a continuing embarrassment. And if you care about saving the remaining Dorothea Dix campus as a park, that’s not happening either. Not yet.

And time’s a-wasting, says Bill Padgett, one of the “Friends of Dorothea Dix Park” and chair of the Wade (Avenue) Citizens Advisory Committee, precisely because the pace of downtown development is building so quickly.

“In the next 20 or 30 years,” Padgett says, “we will revitalize downtown. We will have the tallest buildings downtown, regardless of Glen-Tree. We will have high-speed rail … mass transit is inevitable. Our capital city will blossom as a great southern city.”

Meaning, he warns, that Dix could get swept up too by the burgeoning development unless city leaders act now. “Dix Park is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our state capital. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

Our scorecard, then: A good start. Not a great one, because the boomlet at the center of downtown Raleigh needed to be matched by help for the adjoining areas that are under increasing pressure because of it. Here’s how we see it:

Fayetteville Street

The Good: The new 500,000-square-foot Raleigh Convention Center, under construction just west of the old one on the other side of Salisbury Street, is well-designed, with its vast trade-show space placed underground so that top of the huge building doesn’t dominate its neighbors. Whether it will bring in enough convention business to justify its $215 million price tag is an open question, but the city’s optimistic–it left expansion room on the other side of McDowell Street.

The Bad: The “headquarters” hotel, a 400-room Marriott, will face the Convention Center with its backside. It needed two front doors, one on Fayetteville Street and one on Salisbury. It didn’t get ’em. Overall, it still looks “Eastern Bloc” (N.C. State University Design College head Marvin Malecha’s slam) despite the $20 million public subsidy. And then there’s the EFIS–fake stucco. It’s still there, though there’s to be less of it.

Looking Up? On the east side of Fayetteville Street opposite the hotel, the first of the four newly created building lots could have a four-screen movie theater as well as several restaurants and other entertainments, plus a pair of tall (19- and 15-story) condo towers. That’s if the city gets everything it wants from the developer–unlike with the hotel.

Artsy/Fartsy: The design of the street itself is schizophrenic, as is the City Council’s indecisiveness about every detail. It’s a “modern” streetscape-and-plaza, with extra-wide sidewalks and a narrow, two-lane roadway that leaves just enough room for parallel parking on both sides. But some details, like the street trees and light fixtures, are supposed to “harken back” to the classical Capitol and Memorial Auditorium. No sooner were the first trees planted, though, than the council voted to remove two of them in front of the Hudson–the old Hudson Belk building, now condo’d, with WTVD’s Raleigh studio on the ground floor–lest the trees block the view of the streaming TV news ticker. What about the controversial dichroic chandeliers? They were in, now they appear to be on their way out. And then there’s Spanish-born artist Jaume Plensa’s vision for the street, a veil of water and an LED-lit message board for a 21st century high-tech city. Capitol Broadcasting’s Jim Goodmon likes it to the tune of the $2.5 million he’s pledged. Some others hate it. But it is perfectly consonant with the basic, modern design.

Predictions: According to Douglas, within two years there will be at least 15 restaurants open on Fayetteville Street, which is why the city buried huge grease traps below the pavement. Some 1,000 people will live there. It’s a start.

Wilmington Street

Bright Spot: What else but the new Progress Energy headquarters, 19 floors of power that’s lit-up 24/7. (Is that in the rate base?) There’s lots of ground-floor restaurant space (a Fin’s is coming!), along with a spa. With condos on the backside, facing Blount Street. A block up, and on the other side of the street (extending back to Fayetteville Street), RBC Centura will build its new North American headquarters, a 29-story tower with 140 condominiums on the top floors.

Blight Spot: What else but the block immediately north of Progress Energy’s place, almost all of which PE also owns and plans to redevelop somehow, someday. It could be very cool indeed–with back alleys used for funky storefronts and walkups–but right now it features big empty spaces and a dirty parking lot. A few, mainly minority-owned businesses persist here and elsewhere on the street. But Shalom Rokach, who owns one of them–Isaac’s, a clothing store–doesn’t think the future includes him. “They may build retail over here, but it’s going to be all high-end,” he thinks. “There won’t be room for the mom-and-pop businesses.” He’s got a few years more to go, however. Wilmington Street’s “renaissance” is today only dimly in view.

Did U Know? Just below the PE headquarters, the city’s parking deck has 9,000 square feet available on the ground floor for–well, make an offer. (This is where the city tried unsuccessfully to get Charlie Goodnight’s comedy club to go.) Wilmington Street, former stepchild, could emerge as Raleigh’s newest retail scene, Douglas thinks.

Hillsborough Street

Sad News: The Hillsborough Street charrette, during which 500 people hunkered down over their drawing papers and re-imagined the main drag in front of NCSU, was held in 1999! That’s right, it’s been seven years, and of the many roundabouts and street improvements sought, only the little circle on Pullen Road–not even on Hillsborough Street itself–got built. Meanwhile, one business after another failed and went away, or else reinvented itself as a fast-food joint.

Glad News: There’s new hope. NCSU, owner of several redevelopment opportunities disguised as parking lots, is hot to get going under new Chancellor Jim Oblinger. And Mayor Meeker is finally ready, too. Thus a rejuvenated Hillsborough Street Partnership, now led by recently retired city planning chief George Chapman, held a community meeting last month and will pitch a step-by-step approach to the City Council in April. Step one, according to Chapman: Redesign the infamous Hillsborough-Oberlin Road-Pullen Road intersection (aka “Disfunction Junction”) with a roundabout and an extension of Pullen behind the old Darryl’s restaurant (now empty); also, design a pair of roundabouts along Hillsborough Street at Horne Street and at Logan Court. There’s $3 million for Hillsborough Street improvements in last year’s bond issue. That’s enough to design both projects and build one, Chapman says. Building both: $5.2 million. Building the whole H’boro Street scheme, including conversion to one-lane each way with better sidewalks, lighting, etc.: about $17 million.

Ouch: State DOT (H’boro Street is a state road) reports 11 pedestrians hit by cars at the Pullen-Oberlin mess, 2000-05. That’s bad, but the Dixie Trail-Brooks Avenue stretch was worse, with 13 pedestrian accidents reported.

History lesson: City Councilor Thomas Crowder, who’s pushing to get work started here, notes that Hillsborough Street is the only one of Raleigh’s original main streets that wasn’t cut off. Fayetteville Street doesn’t go south to Fayetteville any more, nor Halifax Street north to Halifax, nor New Bern Avenue east to New Bern. But Hillsborough Street remains a corridor to the west, connecting Raleigh’s downtown to the Fairgrounds and to Cary, and has a lot of “unrealized potential and charm.”

Dorothea Dix Hospital Campus

Money, Money: Proponents of turning the campus into a city park have watched with amazement as the city and county ponied up an extra $35 million for the new convention center because of cost overruns, while pledging nothing, nada, to their cause. Worse, most people in Raleigh think the park’s already been saved, but in fact the state’s got a pair of hybrid plans–part park, part development–under review, while a third plan put together by the city and county planning departments envisions new 12-story buildings on at least part of the site.

How much? Jay Spain, president of Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, argues that 85 percent of the original Dix tract has already been developed, either by NCSU (Centennial Campus) or the State Farmer’s Market. The 306 acres that remain should be kept as “a scenic gateway” to downtown Raleigh, becoming a world-class park within easy walking or trolley distance of downtown for the hordes who’ll live or visit there soon. “We hope everyone will think of Raleigh as it will be in 20, 50 and even 100 years from now,” Spain says. “What will our grandchildren say about the decisions we made? I want mine to say I was a visionary.” Nobody knows how much the state would charge to sell the land, he adds, but city officials have guessed $30 million would do it.

By when? The mental hospital was scheduled to close in 2007, a date that may slip because of the state’s problems with mental-health “reform.” Other state offices will remain for the foreseeable future. But the fear is that the state will sell some of the property to developers, who’d pay top dollar for the view of downtown Raleigh.

West Side/Depot District

Where’s the beef? Anticipating the arrival of the Triangle Transit Authority’s commuter-rail system and its downtown station in the old Dillon Supply warehouse on West Street, the city put out flags and tried to brand the area as the “Depot District.” What can we say? The TTA’s prospects look worse every day that Raleigh leaders fail to mount a political campaign to save it in Washington. No depot, no district? (There’s still an Amtrak station.) How much the feds’ rejecton would dampen development prospects on this side of the downtown isn’t clear, but the city’s hoped-for housing density near the TTA line is linked more in the short-term to folks working out of town–in RTP, for example–than working downtown. They were supposed to be lured there by the train.

But-for? One thing that could save the rail line is if TTA’s “master developer,” Cherokee Investments’ Tom Darden, can help make the agency’s case that big transit-oriented development projects will go away without it. Nina Szlosberg, a Raleigh member of the TTA board and the state Board of Transportation, says the FTA hasn’t closed the door yet. On the other hand, she says, they have a habit of “moving the ball,” like Lucy did to Charlie Brown, every time the TTA closes in on the target.

Blount Street

Carriage Trade: We waited a year for the state’s negotiator and a big Florida development firm called LNR to come out of the back room and tell us what they had in mind for the historic Blount Street district, where Raleigh’s “leading citizens” once lived. (And where the governor still does.) The state was selling–21 acres, 30 old houses misused as offices, and several big parking lots–and LNR was going to build what? We feared the worst: tasteless design, massive buildings, or cookie-cutter apartments suitable for Anytown, USA. It’s not exactly clear yet what LNR is proposing–all they’ve released is a two-dimensional site plan sketch–but the first impression is positive: The scale seems right, with new houses that mimic the remaining ones on both sides of Blount Street, and cleverly placed “carriage houses” and service alleys between them and the rows of new townhouses that are the biggest question mark for nearby Oakwood residents. The only “height” would be six-story mixed-use buildings on the east side of Wilmington Street, across from the existing state office buildings.

People, people: Downtown Raleigh lacks residents. The LNR plan would create 495 residential units, most in townhouses or “live/work” buildings with ground-floor retail spaces facing Peace Street.

Issues? City Planning Director Mitch Silver says he’s got a lot of questions too, but the plan strikes him as “interesting and exciting” at first blush. It goes before the city’s Historic Districts Commission in April, and may be ready for a City Council hearing in May.

Martin-Haywood District

What a shame: The intersection of East Martin Street and Haywood Street is just a stone’s throw from the glittering Progress Energy tower, which makes the contrast all the more distasteful. There: Wealth. Here: Poverty. There: City spending big money to subsidize big development. Here: 40 boarded-up houses and vacant lots facing crumbling sidewalks and jumpy streets, the picture of urban neglect.

Gentrification due: New to Raleigh, Planning Director Silver found many in East Raleigh afraid that they’re going to be pushed out of their frail neighborhoods to make way for a more affluent class of folk. So he called a forum on gentrification, and 200 people showed up to vent. “Nobody cares, it’s all about progress,” said Sylvia Wiggins, who runs the Helping Hand Mission. “They have run us out here.” Residents want the city to help them buy the houses they rent and fix up the ones they own, and not let it all go to the highest bidder.

Visioning: Silver is leading an East Raleigh Visioning process, but while that goes on, last week news circulated that the city was marketing some of the vacant lots in the Martin-Haywood area. Danny Coleman, co-chair of the South Central Citizens Advisory Council, was disgusted when he read that whatever is built on them will need to conform to the city’s “Martin-Haywood Development Strategy.” He thought the strategy was still in a draft stage. “I know I haven’t seen the final draft,” he said in an e-mail. “Have you?”

Empowerment time: State Rep. Bernard Allen, D-Wake, says East Raleigh’s been short-changed for years, and all you have do is look at it–and at the rest of Raleigh. “There’s no comparison,” he says. City officials acknowledge the issue, and promise that as downtown development heads east, they’ll work to empower citizens, not let them be shoved aside. But Coleman, who was recently elected president of the Raleigh-Wake Citzens Association, the major black political organization in town, says in response: “I think if I hear another reference to ‘citizen empowerment,’ or ‘leadership efforts’ geared to citizen politics, I’m going to puke.”