For the second time, Raleigh’s Smokey Hollow neighborhood gets a major makeover

The northern end of downtown Raleigh is changing fast, with the new Capital Boulevard bridge over Peace Street and the rising steel beams of a tower that will house a Publix grocery store and hundreds of apartments.

It’s the start of a new era for the neighborhood known as Smokey Hollow. (Nothing says progress like sidewalk dining and bike lanes, right?)

But this isn’t the first major transformation for Smokey Hollow, the area between the Glenwood South and Oakwood neighborhoods and so called because of its proximity to the railroad. Smokey Hollow was the site of a major urban renewal project in the 1960s, when the city bulldozed run-down clapboard homes and sold land to developers who created a commercial hub on Peace Street.

This latest makeover is bigger and taller, as Raleigh has grown from a quiet state-government town to a thriving urban center. But many of the issues from 50 years ago are still present today: How do we balance progress with the need for affordable housing? How can a neighborhood preserve its character when developers usher in so much change?

Smedes York, a former Raleigh mayor whose father developed the Cameron Village shopping center, said the first redo of Smokey Hollow was “not a happy history for me.”

“That’s not the way to do it — to clear out a neighborhood and build something different,” York said.

Aerial view looking west of the area of Raleigh, NC known as “Smokey Hollow” in 1960. Peace Street runs from top to bottom at the right side of the photo and downtown Raleigh is at far left. News & Observer file photo

During a three-year span in the early 1960s, 165 families, 21 “single occupants” and 21 businesses were displaced by the redevelopment of Smokey Hollow, The News & Observer reported at the time.

Raleigh’s Smokey Hollow neighborhood in 1960. News & Observer file photo

There was clearly a sense of pride about the project, which received federal funding. An article in The N&O on Sept. 13, 1966, praised the changes in the neighborhood, which the newspaper spelled “Smoky Hollow.”

“Six years ago Smoky Hollow was a ramshackle assortment of old, slum-like houses and business places in mid-Raleigh, not very far from the Capitol,” a reporter wrote. “Today all that is gone and is being replaced with new commercial development. Soon Smoky Hollow will be a valued and welcome part of a Capital City whose residents once considered it just an oversized eyesore.”

The redevelopment happening now in Smokey Hollow won’t displace residents, but some businesses are gone. I live in the neighborhood, and I have written before about the loss of my beloved Finch’s Restaurant, which left Peace Street in January 2017. It was forced out by the Capital Boulevard bridge project.

ComedyWorx has moved from the corner of Peace and West streets, making way for the Publix project developed by Kane Realty and Williams Realty and Building Co. The tower, expected to be finished in 2020, will feature a nearly 50,000-square-foot grocery store and more than 400 apartments.

The 400 block of West Peace Street still serves as a reminder to the first urban renewal. Buildings remain that once housed Watkins shoe shop, Williams Upholstery and Rollins’ Economy Cleaners.

But those buildings will likely make way for a towering mixed-use project at the interchange of Capital Boulevard and Peace Street, Mike Smith, president of Kane Realty, recently told the Glenwood South Neighborhood Collaborative.

Developers also hope to replace squat office buildings and parking lots with a five-story apartment complex and a nine-story office building in the block bounded by Peace, Harrington, West and North streets, Smith said.

Meanwhile, Raleigh has plans to turn Devereux Meadow, which once featured a baseball field, into a park with a greenway.

It’s exciting to be in the midst of so much growth. Downtown Raleigh needs grocery stores, and apparently there are enough people to fill all these new apartments. The complaints I’ve heard from my neighbors aren’t about the changing character of Smokey Hollow. They’re about increased traffic and changing skyline views to the north.

Trains still rumble through the neighborhood, their horns competing with the sounds of throbbing music that spills out of the bars and nightclubs. Smoke no longer hovers in the low-lying area, and long gone are the railroad workers who used to live in Smokey Hollow. They’ve been replaced in the past decade or so with young people who work at technology companies downtown and others who enjoy the convenience of urban living.

In its coverage during the 1960s, The N&O wrote stories about how residents were better off after they left Smokey Hollow. The city helped people find housing, and homeowners were paid for their property. But not everyone was happy with the change.

One woman had lived in Smokey Hollow for 23 years and had planned to live in her home rent-free when she paid off the mortgage, according to The N&O. She told a reporter she wouldn’t have sold her house for $5,500 if she hadn’t been forced to move.

Sound familiar?

Gentrification is still happening now, as Southeast Raleigh residents are being pushed out of their homes by redevelopment and rising rents.

“Raleigh is notorious for getting rid of blight,” said Ernest Dollar, who runs the city museum.

Dollar said the city should preserve neighborhoods with historical significance, and create more affordable housing in fast-changing neighborhoods.

The latest redo of Smokey Hollow is a good thing, he said, but neighborhoods should be accessible to everyone, from industrial workers to CEOs.

“People are going to look back and think, ‘Why didn’t they curb this development to make it more equal ... and try to be smarter about it?’” Dollar said.

York wishes the city would have been smarter about it half a century ago. But he said the neighborhood’s transformation was an overall success.

“The end result of what came there generally worked well,” York said.

Time will tell about the latest transformation.

Sarah Nagem: 919-829-4635; @sarah_nagem
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