When Mitch Silver came to Raleigh as the city’s new planning director 18 months ago, he naturally started looking around for the cool redevelopment opportunities in town. Which soon brought him to Hillsborough Street. Why was it so bedraggled, he wondered, when it should be “a special place in the city”?

Soon Silver was studying the plan to rebuild the part of the street in front of N.C. State University using roundaboutssmall traffic circles that eliminate the need for left turns and stoplights. His conclusion: “Roundabouts clearly could work, but alone they will not catalyze the redevelopment.” What Hillsborough Street needs, he says today, is a comprehensive economic development plan, with “streetscape” improvements, probably including roundabouts as an important element but not the only one.

What are the “key opportunity sites” for new development? Silver asks. What’s supposed to go on them, andequally importantwho’s going to build it? Is a new CDC neededa community development corporation? What’s NCSU’s role going to be, since it owns several of the key properties?

Proponents argue the roundabouts grew out of just such a development plan, hatched in 1999 in a series of community meetings that led to the creation of the Hillsborough Street Partnership. Those meetings, sponsored by the city, NCSU, neighborhood groups and business owners (the “partners”), focused on what it would take to turn the street around and make it a downtown showplace. Some 500 people took part. They identified many places where surface parking lots and rundown buildings could be replaced by new businesses, office space, housing and parking decks. But before such investments would be made, they concluded, the crummy look of Hillsborough Street itself needed an extreme makeover, beginning with the hurry-up-and-stop car traffic.

“The Hillsborough Street project,” says George Chapman, who retired as planning director in 2005 and is now the unpaid president of the HSP, “was not and is not about roundabouts. It’s about the revitalization … and the quality of the environment all along the street.”

Nonetheless, it’s been seven years since the first meetings, and judging from the City Council debate last week, the point of the project, if not the enthusiasm for it in the surrounding neighborhoods, has been lost. The council is slated to vote next Tuesday on whether to move ahead with the first pair of roundabouts, but with members now split 4-4 on the question, it’s likely the project will be postponed again, meaning another year gone.

A huge problem is the fact that, seven years on, NCSU is still unable to say, if the street is rebuilt, what it will do with the “key opportunity sites” it owns, starting with North Hallthe residence still known to old-timers as the Lemon Tree motel.

The central idea of the plan was to convert four lanes of herky-jerky car traffic to two free-flowing lanes that, according to the city’s traffic experts, could carry the same daily volume of 19,000 vehicles. That’s where the roundabouts came in. They would replace stoplights and left-turn lanes, allowing the street to have a 7-foot medianfor pedestrian safetyas well as parking and an extra 5 feet for bicycles on both sides. Some 63 on-street parking spaces, much desired by the business owners, would be added.

Right now, cars jockey for position depending on whether they think the drivers ahead of them are going to turn left orespecially in the case of buses and delivery trucksstop in the right lane. The result is a steady stream of fender-benders as cars race to beat traffic lights, then jam on the brakes.

Along with the better traffic flow, the plan also calls for burying the jumble of utility lines on the street and improving the battered sidewalks.

The point is to invite new investment, starting with three key areas: the Stanhope Village area, on the south side of Hillsborough Street just past the western edge of the NCSU campus; the NCSU parking lot, and surrounding properties, at the corner of Brooks Avenue; and the Pullen Village area, which includes North Hall and the NCSU parking lot next to it, which sits behind the complex that includes the old (and still-vacant) Darryl’s Restaurant on the corner of Oberlin Road.

All three offer the chance for street-level retail stores, with housing units above and perhaps some university offices as well. The NCSU College of Management, in particular, is said to be interested in space across from its main building at the Brooks Avenue location.

Vice Chancellor Charles Leffler last fall told the city council that the university is working on plans to redevelop North Hall, and expects to put out a request for bids from developers by June.

But with nothing specific on the table, council opponentsespecially the two Republicans, Tommy Craven and Phillip Isleyare questioning whether an investment in roundabouts and other streetscape improvements will be cost effective in terms of the new development they’ll produce.

The overall cost of the plan, including all the streetscape improvements and seven roundabouts between Oberlin Road on the east end and Gorman Street on the west, would be at least $20 million. The first installment, enough to build at least the first two roundabouts, would cost $3.7 millionincluding $3 million included in the city’s ’05 bond issue.

Meanwhile, the two council Democrats who oppose the plan, Joyce Kekas and Jessie Taliaferro, have questioned whether the roundabouts will really work and allow 19,000 cars to pass by every day.

In response, Councilor Russ Stephenson, who supports the plan, said roundabouts are the only way the state Department of Transportation will allow Raleigh to cut traffic lanes from four to two.

For purposes of increasing on-street parking, improving pedestrian safety, reducing accidents and creating a “sense of place” on Hillsborough Street that will attract new investment, Stephenson argues, the HSP plan is not just the best one availableseven years later, it’s still the only one on the table.

But on Thursday, two days after the council once again deadlocked on the issue, Chapman told an HSP meeting that while he remains confident about NCSU’s “strong commitment” to the partnership, as long as university leaders are “tentative” about their plans, and in particular their plans for North Hall, the council will continue to “hesitate” about the street improvements.

Answering him, NCSU’s chief architect Michael Harwood pleaded for patience, saying the university is deep in study about what to do not just with North Hall but the Brooks Avenue site as well. “But we need to get it right,” he said, adding, “These discussions are not well-conducted in the newspapers.”