Can Greensboro pull off an entertainment district?

by Eric Ginsburg

In our candidate interview with Greensboro City Councilman Jim Kee last week, Brian Clarey (you know, our editor) brought up Winston-Salem’s downtown entertainment district. Kee, to my surprise, said he’s supportive of the idea here and that Greensboro should look into it. Mayoral candidate Nancy Vaughan took a more cautious approach in her interview the next day, saying it would be challenging but could be examined moving forward. Now I can’t stop thinking about it.

As Clarey pointed out, most people my age aren’t driving to Durham to go to the DPAC — the events are too expensive and they aren’t aimed at our demographic anyway. If one of the city’s objectives is to retain young people, I gotta say we’re doing it totally wrong. The coolest new thing for people my age,everyone I talk to seems to agree, is the planned bookstore and wine bar across from Cheesecakes by Alex.

We go down to Geer Street and Rigsbee Avenue, hang out at Motorco, Fullsteam Brewery or Surf Club. We’ll drive to the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, but more likely we’re staying right here, hitting up bars on Spring Garden or drinking at College Hill, listening to shows (we don’t call them “concerts”) at underground venues or a changing cast of rooms.

We like rooftops (but really, who doesn’t?).

My friends move away constantly, and while the lack of jobs (no, not with the kind of businesses we usually incentivize to move here) is a central concern, the feeling that there isn’t enough happening here is a tremendous contributing factor. Before you object (which, if you’re under 30, I doubt you will), consider that the arts and culture of the city may exist, but it’s generally tone deaf to my generation.

An entertainment district, or a real effort to help young people follow through on their rad ideas, like my friend who wants to open a downtown music venue, would shift the tide. So I rolled slowly through downtown this week, cutting across parking lots, looping around for double-takes, scouring for real estate signs and underutilized spaces. It wasn’t hard to find them.

The new parking lot between the train tracks and the back of South Elm Street buildings where people congregate for the City Market is like a lake, with tributary streams running into it from adjacent alleyways and streets. The area immediately around it is well positioned for transformation — most storefronts on West Lewis Street are empty, as well as three on the corner of Lewis and Elm that are either empty or for sale.

There are already several arts-related spaces on the nearby two-block stretch of Elm, including a few art galleries, the Broach Theater, Civic Threads and an alleyway leading to the back of Elsewhere. Lotus Lounge is adjacent to the new parking lot and is on Lewis, Artistika is right there and Studio B is off another tributary alley.

To the south end of the parking lot, the old shell of the Flying Anvil is waiting for a savior. If we ever figure out something for the Cascade Saloon building and the land west of it, that area could potentially be incorporated.

With a ban on outdoor amplified noise — an absurd imposition that I still can’t believe exists — impact on residents would be minimal, though obviously any time a crowd spills out of a bar, you won’t hear a pin drop.

Food trucks could park in the lot, or bands could play outside as they already do.

There are few residential units in this area now, but moving forward the city could emphasize real estate in certain areas but not others.

We should really go a step further, borrowing from what other cities successfully pioneered, and incentivize living in certain areas for artists. I’m not making this up: Cities encourage artists to take over specific areas with residential and studio space. If we’re designing a more hip area to live, where people appreciate living in proximity to nightlife and care less about noise, it has to be engineered and nurtured instead of accidental. If the city’s stated goal is to encourage a significant amount of downtown residential growth, there must be a plan for what goes where and it only makes sense to diversify the types of housing.

In the long term, the “South End” area could be turned into an entertainment district. I’ve said before that the 600 block of South Elm Street could benefit from a bar, and there were even rumors a year or two ago about turning the area cattycorner to Table 16 into a beer garden. Imagine.

There are other parts of downtown that look bombed out — this is just a quick sketch of one area that could feasibly be dramatically transformed with relatively little negative impact. I don’t mean to pose as an expert — I lack any background in urban planning or other relevant disciplines. These suggestions are intended to generate discussion rather than to serve as a blueprint for development.

If we invite people to the table — not just by posting an announcement on the city’s website or sending out press releases, but reach out and grab people who are already taking initiative in other parts of the city and feel underappreciated or shut out — I’m confident we’ll come up with far better concepts than the ones I’ve posed.

You want to keep young people in town? We need life and culture, and not as prescribed by generations ahead of us with things like a performing arts center.