Developers surgically remove enforceable standards from downtown design regs

by Jordan Green

Developer Roy Carroll discusses proposed design guidelines for downtown Greensboro during a recent press conference with Cemala Foundation Executive Director Sue Schwartz and Downtown Greensboro Inc. (photo by Jordan Green)

Greensboro downtown advocacy group and a group of developers led by Roy Carroll unveiled the new Downtown Design Manual yesterday. The purpose of the effort is to create a regulatory framework to encourage developers to design new buildings that enhance downtown’s pedestrian appeal, improve public space and retain historical character.

The final draft scuttles a former proposal to create enforceable standards and to give city staff and council the power to turn down noncompatible projects. Larger North Carolina cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh enforce downtown design standards, but after the dust settled in its public process, Greensboro is on track to opt for non-enforceable guidelines.

The citizen steering committee that proposed a standards-oriented regulatory structure included developers, preservationists, architects, property and business owners, along with representatives of nonprofits such as Action Greensboro and Grassroots Productions. Property owners cried foul when the initial manual was presented last summer, and a group of opponents was brought into a new stakeholders group that included developers Carroll, Seth Coker and Michael Schiftan, along with real estate lawyer Henry Isaacson, to revamp the manual.

The original steering committee included Al Leonard, who is a vice president of Carroll’s company. Carroll has received economic development incentives from the city of Greensboro for the CenterPoint high-rise that looms over Center City Park, and has been a generous contributor to the political campaigns of several city council members. The new stakeholders group, with Carroll as the most prominent presence, did not include any preservationists.

“We thought initially from the get-go that — there were standards and there were guidelines — everything needed to be switched from standards to guidelines,” Carroll said at a press conference yesterday. “Of course, the proponents thought everything should be standards…. At the end of the day, we were able to get a compromise that everything should be switched to guidelines.”

The new plan, which will require city council approval, calls for council to appoint members of the property owners stakeholders group to a Property Owners Review Team, or PORT. Under the plan, a developer would submit a new project to city staff. The project would be scored using a point system and if it met or exceeded 75 percent of the guidelines, it would be placed on a fast track for approval. If the project fell short, it would be put on a detour through a scheduled meeting with the PORT, which might recommend ways to meet the guidelines, or alternately conclude that the project merited completion even if it didn’t meet the guidelines.

PORT would then make a nonbinding recommendation for or against approval. In no case would any action by PORT or a developers’ failure to meet guidelines prevent a project from being completed. Proponents of the current plan, including Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Ed Wolverton, say the fact that PORT’s recommendation would accompany a project, should it go before council for other approvals such as street closings, would provide incentive to the developer to meet the guidelines.

In contrast, Charlotte and Raleigh’s downtown designs are governed by a set of enforceable standards.

“I think the group really honed in on Charlotte and Raleigh,” Wolverton said. “Charlotte is actually integrated into their zoning code. While there’s fewer guidelines that they have, it is a standard-oriented approach. You have to do this stuff in order to do any development downtown. Raleigh is much broader…. If you’re developing a building over 10,000 square feet, you have to go to city council to get permission. And that seemed a little much, too.”

The Greensboro developers and downtown property owners who wrote the design manual chafed at such regulations to which their peers in Charlotte and Raleigh are subjected. Carroll said yesterday that he didn’t wish to reopen an argument about whether enforceable design standards would enhance the value of downtown properties and provide a greater long-term return on investments, in addition to improving the downtown area for those who dine at its restaurants, shop its stores and work in its offices.

“If parking had to be in front in order to get a grocery store downtown, in my eyes at least that would merit looking at parking downtown, whereas the guidelines say that we encourage parking to be in the rear of buildings,” Carroll said. “So the PORT committee will have the leeway to look at the various benefits to the community. Then they’ll make a recommendation.”

Among the guidelines, which are posted on the city’s website, are suggestions about orienting building entrances towards the street; tucking parking lots behind buildings; designing buildings that complement the height, scale and massing of surrounding structures; adding landscaping; screening loading areas, HVAC equipment and other unsightly components; and articulating outside walls with interesting details such as murals.

The city will hold a public meeting to allow residents to review the changes to the design manual at the Greensboro Cultural Center’s Board Room on May 25 at 6 p.m. Mike Kirkman, the city’s comprehensive planning director, said the plan will then come before the planning board. The earliest that it’s likely to be considered by city council, he said, would be in August.

“The question I had to ask myself and others was, ‘Why do we need anything at all?’” Carroll said. “I like a plan. And I think we have a plan here that’s better than nothing, much better than nothing. It gives guidance to good, pedestrian development, and it encourages good development in our downtown. But at the end of the day it is the property owner’s decision on what to do, which way to go with their plans.”