City explores design overlay to guide commercial development along network of greenways
Thomas McAdams was taking a smoke break on the stoop behind Shane’s Rib Shack when fellow cook Jon Rivera stepped outside to join him. The restaurant where they earn their wages lies in the Westover Gallery of Shops, an upscale strip of ethnic restaurants, casual eateries and outdoor-active lifestyle retailers that backs up to a Norfolk-Southern Rail Road spur line.
The spur line’s sole remaining client, Chandler Concrete, runs trains roughly once every two weeks, and when that ends, the railroad will be ready for retirement. The city of Greensboro has been in discussion with Norfolk-Southern for about a decade, and has made no secret of its desire to obtain the corridor for its Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway.
McAdams and Rivera hadn’t heard about the city’s long-term plans, but had no trouble embracing the vision.
“I think it would be a good idea, especially for commuting,” McAdams said. “People I know with DUIs, unfortunately, they could get to work and back home safely.”
Rivera added, “It would be great to have lots of meeting places. It would encourage a green Greensboro.”
Rivera noted that the current aesthetic of the backside of the shopping center is not the most appealing; it’s a vision of faceless brick lined with grease traps, metal waste receptacles and an apron of asphalt sweeping down to the tracks. McAdams suggested that the cramped hallway and plain doorway doesn’t exactly shout patio seating. They also noted that converting the rail line to trail would entail a significant capital investment.
Then, too, a conversion to public space would carry a familiar headache.
“As long as it was safe and illuminated,” Rivera said. “Considering what’s been happening downtown, it would get hit with panhandlers as soon as people started using it.”
No one, it seems, is more eager to have the greenway completed than Marty Kotis, president of Kotis Properties, which owns the Westover Gallery of Shops and a number of other properties along the corridor and whose tenants include restaurants, cafes and bicycle stores. The future greenway also abuts Carousel Luxury Cinemas and a quiet residential section in the Lake Daniel neighborhood.
Kotis recently submitted a draft proposal to amend the city’s land development ordinance to create a greenway design overlay to the city, and met with staff from the planning, transportation and housing and community development departments.
The city has established two design overlays. A Spring Garden Street Scale Pedestrian Overlay that was initiated by residents and is oriented along a street was approved by the city council in 2007. A downtown design overlay initiated by staff was approved by council this year after a contentious process that saw enforceable standards replaced by voluntary guidelines. Kotis’ primary interest is the segment along Battleground Avenue from Green Valley Road to Benjamin Parkway. Staff is currently revising his proposal to create a generic greenway design overlay that could be applied to the city’s entire network of greenways.
“Greenways can very easily be up against commercial property,” said Peggy Holland, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. “Just because there’s not a commercial development now doesn’t mean it’s not going to be there in the future. A lot of businesses would like to be on a greenway.”
The hub of the network will be the downtown greenway, which remains under construction. Its major northwest spoke will be the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway, running out to Summerfield. The Atlantic & Yadkin will intersect with the Lake Daniel and Latham Park greenways, which already connect the Friendly Shopping Center with Moses Cone hospital. The city plans to eventually extend that east-west corridor eastward to the new Keeley Park, Holland said.
Greenways accommodate cyclists, runners and walkers. Conceived as both recreational and transportation facilities, their purpose is to give people an alternative to cars. City planners have noted a demand for infrastructure to tie in the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway with downtown and its immediate environs.
“We already have commuters coming from Summerfield,” Holland said.
“They are just desperate to get that completed. Some of them are going to UNCG.”
Critical to his company’s financial bottom line, Kotis also envisions the greenway as an economic development driver.
“We see Westover having a lot of restaurant patios,” he said. “We see a farmers market set up on a parallel track. Patios would be the first option. Bicycle shops having bike displays for sale. We see some amenities such as a fountain-type feature. There would be drinking fountains. There could be smaller kiosks. Picture the Ben & Jerry’s kiosk at Friendly. Imagine a rooftop terrace, so you can watch the kids ride this half-mile section without worrying about them.”
Kotis noted that Battleground Avenue is one of the city’s most heavily traveled thoroughfares. In that sense, the greenway is expected to reduce the traffic burden by getting people out of their cars. At the same time, the street helps ensure the commercial viability of the greenway.
“If it’s a rainy day, people are coming in their cars,” Kotis said. “When it’s sunny, people are coming on their bicycles.”
A greenway design overlay would conceivably impose new regulations on properties adjacent to the greenway.
“You would have Dumpsters inside an enclosure,” Kotis said. “You would be required to dress up the back of the building. You would be required to have some kind of pedestrian connection. You would be encouraged to have pedestrian amenities. There might be a blue sign program in which the city would charge a nominal fee to list your business.”
Mike Kirkman, planning manager for the city, said Kotis has volunteered to handle outreach to other property owners.
“I think they’ll trust that I have a pretty good track record of adding value to properties,” Kotis said.
Kirkman acknowledged that, notwithstanding the potential enhancement of value, some owners might balk at the short-term costs of bringing their properties up to the new standards. Even though the standards were stripped out of the downtown design overlay, some people with properties along the future northern leg of the downtown greenway pleaded for exemption on the basis that the overlay would deter redevelopment by making it more expensive.
So far, the greenway has been greeted positively by those who work and own properties along the unfinished segment from Green Valley Road to Benjamin Parkway.
“I think we’d all rather have a greenway than a railroad,” said Dominic Thompson, a sales associate at Guilford Builders Supply. “It doesn’t really get used that much — probably every couple weeks. A sidewalk, bushes and grass would be better than naked railroad.”
Helen Wood, a partner with Wood Properties, which owns an apartment complex at 1206 Whilden Place and 1304 Whilden Place, concurred.
“I’m excited about it coming,” she said. “I think it will be a big asset. We just don’t know when.”
The major business stakeholder is Chandler Concrete, based in Burlington. The company’s owner, Tom Chandler, could not be reached for comment for this story.
Residents’ initial reactions to the city’s efforts to develop greenways have been decidedly mixed. Holland mentioned Francisco Place, a condominium complex adjacent to an existing section of the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway, as an example.
“There are avid ‘I want to be on the trail every minute’ people, and there are ‘Oh my God, every criminal in the state of North Carolina has a path to my doorway’ people who live there,” Holland said. “They don’t think about the fact that the person who wants their widescreen TV can drive a truck into the parking lot, and have something to move it with. They’re connected by a road, after all.”
Staff members say the process of creating a greenway design overlay would include a number of stakeholder meetings, along with hearings by the planning board, zoning commission and, finally, city council. Similar to the process of approving the downtown overlay district, Holland said she envisions a significant amount of deliberation over which provisions would be enforceable standards and which would be merely suggestions.
As the champion of the greenway design overlay and the president of a company that owns the majority of the adjacent private property between Green Valley Road and Benjamin Parkway, Kotis is in a unique position. In contrast, rival developer Roy Carroll, who owns the CenterPointe high-rise, worked to weaken the downtown design overlay.
Kotis is active in city politics. In 2009, Kotis Properties rated as the single largest donor to victorious city council candidates, a YES! Weekly analysis found.
“In the broadest sense, it’s a citizen requesting an amendment to the ordinance,” Kirkman said of the proposed greenway design overlay.
Kotis acknowledged the doubleedged sword of his advocacy.
“We’ve got a developer wanting the overlay; you don’t often see that,” he said. “The only thing is, because I want the overlay, people will be questioning: Why?”