Progressive measures in GSO land ordinance at risk of being stripped out

by Jordan Green

Proposed changes to the city of Greensboro’s Land Development Ordinance include several measures to make the city more environmentally sustainable and pedestrian friendly. They include fee rebates for green building projects, new zoning designations to encourage mixed-use infill projects, set-asides for future transit stops, a requirement that each single-family lot include a tree and an effort to increase the number of roadway connectors in and out of new developments.

At least two of the measures appear to be prompting pushback from developers, some council members and even some residents.

Council members mainly object to the tree ordinance on the grounds that it would be difficult to enforce. In the past, debates have pivoted on the tension between the argument that having trees in every neighborhood is a matter of equity and the concern that the added cost would put houses out of the price range of low-income buyers.

So contentious was the provision that the Citizen Advisory Team, whose membership is weighted towards the real estate and development industry, remained deadlocked on it.

“We’ve got so much more important things to police than a tree that can die in your yard,” said District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade during a recent briefing by Planning Director Dick Hails on the draft Land Development Ordinance. “To me, it seems not that significant…. We’re going to go after developers because a tree died in your yard.”

The city council will hold a special meeting at the Melvin Municipal Building on Feb. 9 to hear comments from the public about the proposed changes. On a later date, council will vote on whether to approve the changes after likely revisions to the draft.

In the midst of the discussion about the tree ordinance, Hails said, “I’m flagging this.”

No less controversial are the city’s proposed standards on the number of connector streets in new subdivisions.

“We’ve still got to meet with TREBIC on this,” said Hails, referencing the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, an industry group whose members donate generously to political campaigns and serve on advisory boards.

“They’ve raised some concerns. We’re trying to strike a balance. We’re not trying to be the most restrictive and we’re not trying to be the least restrictive.”

The new requirements would mandate connectivity levels similar to those currently being pursued by the city of Charlotte. The ordinance calls for a street connectivity ratio of 1.4, which translates to 14 segments for every 10 intersections. In an illustration provided in the draft ordinance, two external connections are added to a subdivision that previously only had one way in and out, to make it past muster.

“Connectivity has been shown to increase pedestrian activity, which has been correlated with higher levels of health,” said David Wharton, a champion of new urbanism planning who is a member of the Citizen Advisory Team. “It’s interesting: People have this idea about people in New York City, which is almost entirely on a grid system, being less healthy. But in fact, people in New York have higher levels of health, including less obesity. I’m just speculating, but my guess is that’s related to higher levels of pedestrian activity.”

Wharton and other proponents of connectivity argue that isolated subdivisions with high numbers of cul-de-sacs create a spillover effect that strains the city’s overall transportation infrastructure.

“Lots of cul-de-sacs eventually forces street widenings in major arteries,” he said. “Since the only way to get out to see your neighbor is to get out on Battleground, it forces the widening of our major corridors and eats up property. It puts a burden on taxpayers. People living in cul-de-sacs, there’s a lot of roadway under use for only a few people.”

Although the real estate and development industry is typically averse to added regulation, the loudest protests may end up coming from residents.

Kathy Hartsell bought her home in the Meadowood neighborhood area in 2007, shortly after the city opened a connector on Glen Hollow Road, a collector street flanked by two busy shopping centers that funnels traffic down from High Point Road. Hartsell said if she knew the implications of the street opening at the time she probably would not have bought her house.

“I’ve heard that it is supposed to help with emergency vehicles, and it’s supposed to alleviate traffic,” said Hartsell, who is an active member of her neighborhood’s community watch. “The only thing it has done was increase speeders, traffic and crime.”

Glen Hollow Road and intersecting Frazier Road have become “racetracks,” Hartsell said, endangering students at nearby Sedgefield Elementary and discouraging residents of an assisted living center from walking along the streets. At rush-hour, motorists cutting through the two streets sometimes drive through stops, honk at others abiding by 25 mph speed limits and pass on solid center lines.

“It used to be a well established, sleepy little neighborhood where the children could play,” Hartsell said. “Now, it has been forever changed.”

To slow traffic the city has reduced speed limits, painted center lines and installed three-way stops. Transportation Director Adam Fischer said he thought it would be highly unlikely that the city would agree to disconnect Glen Hollow Road to help cocoon the neighborhoods to the south.

“Everybody would like to live on a private street with no traffic, but that’s not going to happen” he said. “You’ve got to provide multiple points of access. If you go cutting off streets, you’re going to increase traffic in other areas.”

Donna Newton, advisor to the

Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, said she recalled two instances in which residents have asked that connector streets be closed — for reasons having to do with vehicular and pedestrian traffic, trash being dumped and concerns about safety — but never the other way around.

“I live on a cul-de-sac, and I love my cul-de-sac,” she said. “It’s a psychological feeling of comfort. When my grandkids were smaller and I could feel comfortable about sending them out to play, I could send them to ride their bikes and not have to worry about cars.”

The neighborhood congress has the ear of the council, and rivals TREBIC in its ability to wield influence in municipal politics.

“When residents begin to understand that it’s an issue in the Land Development Ordinance, then they will become engaged,” Newton said. “There are going to be some people that have a particular experience that will become impassioned, but I don’t think it’s an issue where people are going to march on city hall.”

In a set of Urban Street Design Guidelines adopted in October 2007, the city of Charlotte came down squarely on the side of a “complete streets” philosophy, articulated in part as “creating a better-connected network (route choices) and building streets for a variety of users (mode choices).”

Proponents of new urbanism point to a study by Charlotte’s transportation department that found that emergency response time rose from 4.5 minutes to 5.5 minutes from the mid-1970s to 2002, a period that corresponds with the rise of conventional subdivisions with limited connectivity.

When it comes to public safety, health and quality of life in relation to street connectivity, experts on the subject are fiercely at odds.

“If you have a connected network, overall it means you don’t force all your traffic onto a few arterials,” said Norman Gerrick, director of the Center for Transportation and Urban Planning in Connecticut. “In suburbia, you have very quiet residential streets, but as soon as you hit those arterials it’s a nightmare. That’s where everybody is dying.”

On the matter of public safety, Gerrick cited “eyes on the street,” a concept popularized by Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has wielded significant influence over the thinking of urban planners.

“I have never seen any evidence that in connected places, it’s more dangerous from a criminal point of view,” Gerrick said. “There is a strong argument in planning that the more people you have walking, the more eyes on the street you have. It has a deterrent effect yes.

“When they were building commuter rail in Baltimore, one of the arguments of the opponents was that people are going to ride the train and rob us,” Gerrick added. “I think that overall, people find out that’s misguided. Similarly, in Vermont, people were opposed to a bike trail north of Burlington because they thought it was going to bring more crime. It’s never been proven to be true.”

On the other side of the debate, Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute, said he could think of few benefits to opening up streets. Particularly, he argues, increased connectivity undermines public safety.

Citing the scholarship of the late architect Oscar Newman, O’Toole said the concept of “defensible space” has been proven to be decisively more effective than new urbanism in maintaining public safety. Newman’s ideas have been tested in Dayton, Ohio, where City Manager Rashad Young worked before coming to work in Greensboro.

“The city of Dayton, Ohio hired him and said we’ve got some neighborhoods with a lot of crime,” O’Toole said. “He said, ‘Close as many of the streets as you can so that you have fewer access points.’ They closed the streets and crime rates went way down. Interestingly, crime rates in the rest of the city did not go way up.”

In a 1996 book published by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Newman explained his concept: “Defensible space operates by subdividing large portions of public spaces and assigning them to individuals and small groups to use and to control as their own private areas. The criminal is isolated because his turf is removed. Even those criminals who live within a community or housing development, will find their movements severely restricted. Defensible space does not automatically ousts the criminal; it just renders him ineffective.”

Young, who describes himself as a “lifelong Daytonian,” said over the past five years some of the gates have been selectively removed at the request of residents.

“When it began, there were some staunch supporters and staunch haters,” he said. “When it was first put in and designed, the theory being that if you limit the entrance and exits to a neighborhood you promote a safer neighborhood, initially there was some success; you saw some crime reduction. For some folks that lived in the neighborhood, there was a feeling that ‘you gated me in.’ The other thing is that over time this created a real maintenance issue. You put these iron gates in, but the streets were already built. Over time the gates start to wear. There would be an accident where someone drove into the gate. You had access [issues] for police and fire. They’re used to coming in a certain way. Then, they have to get a different route because now the gate is there.”

Gary Wolf, Robbie Perkins & David Wharton (photo by Jordan Green