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Reported Essays: Downtown Greensboro

by Eric Ginsburg

It isn’t difficult to generate a long list of ways to improve downtown Greensboro, and with a renewed interest from city council and several new businesses and projects, the center city appears poised for rebirth. The question, really, is one of priorities.

As the city moves forward on three major downtown projects — a performing arts center, a downtown greenway and a university district — it’s critical to lay all of the needs and ideas on the table.

Otherwise, big ideas may eclipse other needs and we run the risk of losing inclusivity and dynamism.

Coming up with ideas for downtown feels kind of like filling in the blanks of a coloring book. As one local city planner put it, “We have the bones, we just need to continue to build on them.”

In some ways, though, the bones reference is all too true. Whole swaths of downtown evoke a cemetery feel. Eerily quiet, empty shells, a bygone era. It’s difficult to dispute the progress underway, but seeing five empty storefronts on the 300-block of South Elm Street is dispiriting. And then there’s the divisive noise ordinance and a briefly reinstated teen curfew.

Fortunately, there are plenty of positive developments to focus on, too: The Crown at the Carolina Theatre, the Pop Up Promenade, Studioboro, food trucks, a zombie run last weekend, Sip-n-Stroll, City Market and the Railyard, Scuppernong Books, the planned LeBauer Park, renovations at the Southeastern building, Crafted and Dame’s.

Work is underway on the northwest cornerstone of the greenway and two hotels — do we really need two more? — are slated for construction. There’s a new head of Downtown Greensboro Inc. We may even get a bike share program.

In some ways, the bones are in the way. Unwise or unplanned development in the past stands in the way of some smart growth downtown, but any plans can’t operate from a blank canvas approach. If it were a tabula rasa, some churches, law offices and strangely designed streets wouldn’t have made the cut, but even as downtown stands, there is still more than enough to work with. Like elsewhere, a prime place for growth is a parking lot.

WALKING VS. PARKING

Though walkability is crucial to the success of a downtown, cars dominate Greensboro’s core. Just take a look at Davie Street, where the defining feature is parking. Yes, it’s convenient to park in such close proximity to a destination, but are we willing to lose core areas to surface lots, leaving certain areas permanently banished from commercial, cultural, or residential development?

It’s been years since the Cooper Cary downtown study warned of the wastefulness of yielding so much area to parking, and one byproduct of the overabundance is the isolation of portions of downtown. There are smaller examples of this issue throughout the core, ones that may be easier to remedy than Elm Street’s back side on Davie.

Stand at the corner of South Elm and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, looking down MLK. Directly ahead is the new Dame’s Chicken & Waffles and the City View apartments, separated from the main drag by a short, inhospitable stretch. By eliminating the parking lot at MLK and Arlington and turning it into storefronts, finding better usage for the underutilized storefront next door and adding some street-scaping, the street could become a walkable spoke.

At the very least, some foliage blocking the rear of the depot — a pretty depressing eyesore — and turning a triangular slab in the road into grass would be a start. When the downtown greenway is completed, MLK will be a wellplaced route for cyclists and pedestrians to and from Elm Street. Some additional focus — a bike lane, for instance — could make all the difference.

Another way to greater utilize surface parking is already in effect — transforming lots into temporary gathering spaces.

Look at the First Friday market on Elm and Martin Luther King, or the new lot that hosts City Market. Commerce Place suddenly registered on more people’s radars when the city tested food trucks there (and that strip still has great potential, especially with Elon Law School’s mini park there).

Keeping with the new trend of pop up events downtown, more parking lots should be utilized for cultural events. The best example: The lot sandwiched between M’Couls, Hams, the Carolina Theatre and the Green Bean. It’s happened before, but not regularly enough.

Parking isn’t the only foe to connecting pockets and walkability. There’s much that can be done including improved sidewalks or more distinguished crosswalks, and while most of downtown could use a facelift, there are several key areas that need a push — the walk along Washington Street between the Depot and downtown and along Bellemeade Street from the Grasshoppers stadium to the new performing arts center site in particular.

For years, people have talked about the need to draw pedestrians south across the train tracks on Elm Street, and now there’s enough activity to help merit the push. At the very least, a giant arrow needs to be painted or projected on the side of the Cascade Saloon building where the tracks meet the road, encouraging southward movement.

UNIVERSITY DISTRICT

The southern edge of downtown may be tethered by Lee Street, but it lacks an anchor. It’s the reason we’ve talked about a massive project at the intersection for longer than many may care to admit, and it’s why people like Mayor-elect Nancy Vaughan want to see a proposed university district on part of the site.

A downtown university campus, bringing the city’s colleges and Moses Cone Hospital together, must be built on this site. There are two other locations being considered, but neither makes as much sense. Rumor has it that a certain, infamous wealthy investor is insisting that the campus is erected next to the baseball stadium, a move that would be a major mistake.

The Lee Street site is easily accessible to UNCG, Bennett College and NC A&T University. Yes, it’s further from Greensboro College, but the third potential site next to the small school on Market and Cedar Streets is also being considered by High Point University for a pharmacy school. Let’s hope the pharmacy school winds up there instead.

Students could still easily hop on the completed downtown greenway and wind up at the Elm/Lee Street site, or come directly from new student housing apartments by Warnersville. They could walk from the new campus up South Elm, closer to the part of the strip geared towards their generation (and a great place for an entertainment district). The site meets all of the task force’s requirements, and could encourage future growth rather than tearing down a county mental health building that would need replacing.

The area around the baseball stadium doesn’t need as much help. New apartments are going in, a hotel is planned and Deep Roots Market moved in. The biggest change at Elm/Lee is a pop up dog park. The site should be a doormat to downtown, pulling in people coming from Interstate 40 down Lee Street or up South Elm/Eugene or from the Coliseum and High Point Road area. The university district would be a leap towards accomplishing that, slowing down and drawing in people at a pivotal intersection.

Downtown will not thrive unless we focus on what is unique. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from other cities — city council needs to consider an entertainment district like Winston- Salem, especially because many council members said they support the idea. It does mean being in tune with the city’s vibe, demographics and assets.

The corner of South Elm and Lee Streets is an incredible confluence of those factors. Eric Robert’s mill is a masterpiece even though it isn’t quite complete. Walk through it and then name a cooler place downtown (with the possible exception of the forthcoming Scuppernong Books). Plus, it restores a historic building, a move that helps

Greensboro maintain its character. The greenway will be right there, and if the university district is put on the site, it will capitalize on the city’s large student population.

SMALL PROJECTS

There are plenty of other parts of downtown that need attention and some smaller-budget solutions too. How hard can it be to install some bulletin boards that cities like Chapel Hill have so people can promote upcoming cultural events? Put two at the edge of the parking lot by Cheesecakes by Alex along Elm Street, one protected by glass with information posted by Downtown Greensboro, Inc. and a stack of maps of downtown.

Downtown feels dead. Murals and other bright public art can help change that, as walls by the Edible Schoolyard and the Interactive Resource Center demonstrate. What if the performing arts center had a mural on an exterior wall? How about the short brick wall on Elm Street next to the Civil Rights Museum highlighting local movement participants like former Bennett College President Willa Player?

What if local artists painted electrical boxes, like the ugly one next to M’Couls on McGee Street? Or the side of the iComputer in the adjacent parking lot? Local businesses could commission more art on their walls, like PhotoBiz did along a parking lot edge. Greensboro College could encourage a mural along its massive, white theater building next to the future greenway. Pathways could even be coated with glow-in-the-dark paint to increase vibrancy and safety.

There are several major entry points to downtown, and along the east side people are met by the cold stare of uninviting, dark underpasses. Imagine if they were painted similarly to the ones by the greenway and Spring Garden Street. Much more is needed on the eastern edge, especially by Summit and East Friendly Avenues, but this could be a small step to get things rolling.

THE NORTHEAST CORNER

Entering downtown by way of either of these streets reveals the massive underutilization of two areas on the northeast corner of downtown. Despite the abundance of cultural venues in the Church Street area — the children’s museum, library, historical museum and Cultural Arts Center — there is a huge tract of land from the children’s museum to East Friendly that should eventually host a similar venue.

The site directly north of the museum and the Edible Schoolyard presents a similar missed opportunity where Gate City Lincoln Mercury rests. Drive around the area, keeping in mind that the performing arts center will be right there, bound by Lindsay Street, Elm and Summit. Between the corner of the future performing arts building and the old car dealership site is a triangular forgotten mini-park. How ironic that it’s named the Youth Park Plaza.

Mixed use development on the Lincoln Mercury site — maybe a variety of housing options in the back and storefronts along Church Street — would radically alter the vicinity and could lend towards movement stretching off of Elm Street with the performing art center’s help.

There is very little space for development immediately around the center’s footprint, but the pocket near the former Flatiron and the forgotten car lot should pull on the nighttime activity that is supposed to bloom thanks to the center. Eventually, it would help to redevelop part of Wrangler’s parking lot along the edge of Lindsay Street, bounding the side of the center.

LeBauer Park is supposed to include a playground, something downtown parents wish was completed yesterday, but the city still needs to facilitate opportunities for older youth. A scaled-down version of Celebration Station has been suggested. At the very least a bowling alley, or maybe the Lost Arc Arcade can be enticed downtown with incentives. Providing options for youth of different ages, especially with the children’s museum and LeBauer Park nearby, would go a long way.

An arcade isn’t the only small, local business that should be considered for incentives to relocate downtown. Lots of the city’s culture and destinations are spread thinly across Greensboro’s canvas. It may be a challenge to determine what would meet the criteria, but goals aimed at generating new opportunities or options could be created.

LOOSE ENDS

Some major, welcome changes are already underway. Several local musicians told me they let out a large sigh of relief after seeing the Crown, a new flexible venue upstairs at the Carolina Theatre. After a recent soft launch, the space has hosted a slew of different events in the beautiful, restored space. Here’s to praying it becomes the music venue the whole city needs and downtown should desperately want. And let’s cross our fingers for a bar or two directly across Greene Street where the Rhinoceros Club used to be while we’re at it.

Other changes will require deliberate and careful planning. A considerable number of 20-somethings I know, most of them employed college graduates, say they live on the outskirts of downtown because they want to be centrally located but can’t handle higher rent. Two people told me this week that they are leaving downtown because apartments cost too much.

Plenty of people level the criticism that the city is fostering a downtown that caters to rich people, a safe haven for capital but not for youth or working class people. A variety of housing stock, including affordable places to live, isn’t just about accessibility — it’s pragmatic for growth. New units could be built in the northeast corner, and less expensive housing in and around downtown like the Cedar Street area and the Aycock neighborhood must be protected.

The list of wants and needs goes on — a more affordable grocery store, a pharmacy, some city assistance in relocating Boston’s House of Jazz when the performing arts center displaces it, making progress on the Cascade Saloon, a burrito joint and more vertical growth. If more people were asked, other great ideas would emerge. There should be more voices at the table.

There’s more impact when things are concentrated, be it the mall or the corner of Walker and Elam. Mayor Robbie Perkins wasn’t reelected, but he was right to say that efforts to remake downtown need to be very focused. He was referring to the empty storefronts on the blighted 300-block of South Elm, where the hope lies with Cheesecakes by Alex and Scuppernong Books.

There are other pieces that must be priorities too — South Elm/Lee, the lots on either side of the Greensboro Children’s Museum and MLK Drive. The focus doesn’t need to be geographic, but issue-oriented, such as public art or walkability.

We’ve said that we’re reluctant supporters of the performing arts center. We are also hopeful for the university district and adamant that it’s built at the Lee Street site. We’re salivating for the downtown greenway. But for downtown to succeed, all energy and resources can’t be on mammoth projects. Looking at the Crown, the Railyard, several new restaurants, an incoming bookstore and food trucks — and soaking in other potential — we’re hopeful. After all, we have the bones.

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