City planning a new face for New Bern

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The city is looking for public input on how to improve New Bern Avenue, the eastern gateway to Raleigh.

Thursday night more than 100 residents and multiple Raleigh planning officials gathered for a public workshop at the Milner Memorial Presbyterian Church to share ideas about how to improve one of the highest traveled routes into the city.

The corridor leading into Raleigh’s east side has the city’s second-highest bus traffic rates, (Capital Boulevard has the highest) with 1,942 passengers daily.

Visitors from Highway 64 and Interstate 440 are greeted by the impressive WakeMed campus, but might be swiftly disappointed at the path from there to the Capitol, which offers views of vacant lots, shuttered businesses and the perception of an unsafe and economically depressed area.

As one participant said, New Bern “doesn’t have the vitality that other areas have.”

Still, residents and business owners, old and young, black and white, gathered to plan for the future.

For Octavia Rainey, it was a dream come true. The longtime Raleigh resident and community actvist has been asking city officials to improve New Bern Avenue for 15 years.

“What brought tears to my eyes is that everyone was positive and everyone saw what can be better. They focused on better,” she said.

The city is in Phase I of the plan, which calls for improvements from Swain Street to WakeMed, including Edenton Street. The preliminary goals are: (1) to identify ways to improve the appearance of the corridor, (2) to support pedestrian, bicycle and transit uses along the corridor, and (3) to stimulate economic development initiatives and revitalization in the area.

The city is restricted to right-of-way improvements, the streets and the landscape, explained City Planning Director Mitchell Silver.

“Our job is to create an environment where the public wants to invest,” he said.

But he encouraged participants to “dream big” and that they did. Some dreams, such as a light rail line, might take decades to accomplish. Others, such as signs marking historic areas and items such as St. Augustine’s college, are more present-day possibilities.

Officials divided the corridor into three sections. Residents sat at tables, pointing at maps and discussing the good, the bad and the ugly. Most alluded to the area’s need for economic growth and an overhaul of perception.
“Who wouldn’t love to have a grocery store right there?”

“Things can be undone that were done … that were a mistake from the get go.”

“We all want to raise it up … raise it to the level of Hillsborough [Street].”

“We need something exciting happening here, a bookmark.”

“We limit our [business’ operating] hours because of personal safety. People need to feel comfortable.”

“No. 1 has to be safety. If people don’t feel safe here, bike lanes and sidewalks are useless.”

Safety and transportation were the two largest areas of interest. There are no sidewalks on most of the road, making it unsafe for pedestrians, especially those trying to cross the street or those walking around WakeMed. The road is a candidate, Silver said, for bus rapid transit or eventually, a light rail line.

At the end of the sessions, each table appointed a member to stand up and report their suggestions. Most touched on the possibilities:

-Slowing down traffic to bring in more customers for the businesses
-Possibility installing a roundabout to slow traffic and improve aesthetics
-A traffic lane dedicated to public transportation
-Adding sidewalks and signage
-Improvements to plant life and other ways to make it more aesthetically pleasing
-Drainage improvements
-Connecting two sections of the greenway through that area
-Entranceways to neighborhoods

Mark Glass, owner of the Oasis car wash on New Bern, said he was pleased with the suggestions.

“All I used to see are the buildings. Now I see the people that have been there a long time and are focused on the possibilities,” he said.

City officials have already met with the Citizens Advisory Councils of the north, south and east and more public input sessions will follow.  They hope to have a report of recommendations ready by next June or July, said Dhanya Sandeep, project manager for the revitalization.

Long-term improvements will take years. For now, it’s great just to kick off the project, she said.

“It’s an important gateway. That’s the reason it’s a priority,” she said. “The key thing it to get the community involved.”

For Rainey, getting the community involved took some time. But the opinions and suggestions offered Thursday were right in line with her vision and dreams for New Bern Avenue’s future.

“It proved to me that people care,” she said. “If you start out positive you can end positive.”

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