Greensboro downtown design guidelines receive unenthusiastic reception on both sides

by Jordan Green

Downtown Greensboro property owners called for a time-out on implementation of a set of building design guidelines that have been in the works for three years during a recent meeting at the Greensboro Cultural Center.

Thanks to the intervention of a group of developers and property owners led by Roy Carroll last summer, enforceable standards were stripped out of the framework known as the Downtown Design Manual. In their place were substituted a set of guidelines to which the sole incentive for adherence is fast-tracked approval through city staff and a paper trail available to city council. Even this modest reform ran into opposition, with some property owners worrying aloud that if approved the guidelines will turn into enforceable standards in a couple years.

Facilitated by Greensboro Planning Department staff, the meeting ended with an agreement to hold open a comment and review period for another 30 days and hold another community meeting before the plan goes before the planning board and zoning commission for review, and finally before city council for final approval. Planning Director Dick Hails said the city might send out postcards to downtown property owners despite expressed concerns during the meeting about low response rates.

“I was struggling to find an example of one building built in the past five years that could be built with these standards,” Carroll said, explaining how he came to be a member of a task force that made significant changes to the original Downtown Design Manual. “We could not accept standards. As property owners, we could not agree to that.”

The developer-led task force supplanted a 19-member steering committee that included preservationists, property owners, architects and civic boosters.

“What we ended up is different than what I remember,” said Julie Curry, a preservation consultant who was a member of the original steering committee. “Something is better than nothing. I hate to call it selling out.”

Curry said she regrets that architects and preservationists will participate in the proposed governance structure, a Property Owners Review Team, only as non-voting members.

“If you look at how the projects are scored, enforcement is going to be left up to a committee and they’re going to be made up of property owners,” she said. “What does that tell you? You don’t put a muzzle on landscaping and design, so they’re only advisory. We were there at the table to craft [the guidelines], so why shouldn’t we have a say?” Among the property rights proponents who expressed reservations about the plan was property owner Sidney Gray, who asked for an “opt-out” clause to be added stipulating that if any changes are made to the Downtown Design Manual, property owners, their heirs and assigns will have the right to opt out.

In sharp counterpoint to a group of property owners who said the guidelines should be scrapped altogether, John Foy, who runs a piano restoration business in the 600 block of South Elm Street, said he was “appalled” that Greensboro is taking an exceptionalist attitude towards efforts in other North Carolina cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham that are adopting higher standards for downtown development.

“How in the world can you look at cities like Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, and conclude that they’ve failed and you can do a better job,” Foy asked. “They haven’t failed…. You just want to be the laissez-faire, free-market center of North Carolina. No one’s willing to come out and say it. Property rights trumps professionals.”

Foy argued that downtown buildings such as Carroll’s home atop the CenterPointe high-rise are “public space,” as well as private property and therefore downtown developers and property owners hold an obligation to meet defined standards of pedestrian access and aesthetic quality.

“It’s not public property; it’s private property,” Carroll responded. “You can make your property as restrictive as you want with covenants.”