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Spring Garden attracts pedestrians

by Jordan Green

Michael Roberts will be the first to say that Lindley Park is a pretty good neighborhood for someone whose primary mode of transportation is two feet. Most of what he needs is within walking distance.

The 54-year-old Roberts, who describes himself as visually handicapped, spends about half his waking hours at AMF Bowling Centers. He makes the journey there from his house on Spring Garden Street on his own. Only when he reaches the Holden Road does he require assistance to cross the busy thoroughfare.

Notwithstanding that hurdle, the trek is still not without challenges for a person lacking sight, he said as he visited with two friends in his front yard on a recent Wednesday afternoon. The sidewalk disappears for a stretch across from an old amusement park that once received throngs of people deposited at the terminus of a long-defunct trolley line.

“The only problem I have is that the sidewalk runs out,” Roberts said with a smile and a shrug. “It’s dangerous to step out on the street.”

Neighborhood leaders have been working with city planners for more than three years to improve the walkability of Spring Garden Street, and their efforts recently received the official blessing of the Greensboro City Council. With little fanfare and virtually no opposition from residents or developers, council members unanimously approved a resolution on May 1 to establish the Spring Garden Street Pedestrian Scale Overlay District. Although it remains to be seen how much regulatory force the plan will bear in shaping development on Spring Garden Street, language in the resolution specifies that “in the event of conflict with the underlying zoning district, the standards of the overlay district govern.”

The goal of the overlay district, a wide swath along the vertebrae of Spring Garden Street from Elam Avenue to Holden Road, is to enhance foot traffic and minimize the role of cars. The plan encourages dense development, keeping neighborhood businesses within walking distance of residences, building close to the sidewalk, and tucking parking lots behind or to the side of businesses.

“I think it’s going to become more and more village-like,” said Matt Russ, a past president of the Lindley Park Neighborhood Association and owner of Tate Street Coffee, who helped set the plan in motion. “It will be like those great cities we like to visit where there’s businesses at street level and apartments above. I see that area as becoming more and more pedestrian friendly as the price of gas goes up.”

Zoning in the district is a hodgepodge of residential, heavy industrial and light industrial designations, with three nodes of commercial business areas sprinkled into the mix. In addition to jewelry and bicycle stores, a consignment clothing shop and a Mexican bakery, the overlay district also includes a Sherwin-Williams paint factory and the shuttered Rolane Mill, once a hosiery producer.

Ben Woody, a planning specialist with the city, said industrial and business owners were at first reluctant to embrace the plan, fearing that the overlay district would hinder future redevelopment. Concerns that the overlay district would impose onerous restrictions were gradually overcome during a series of community meetings.

“I wasn’t going to be surprised if there was any opposition at the city council meeting,” Russ said. As it turned out, no one showed up to speak against the plan – a possible sign of trust between established between developers and residents.

“Our neighborhood is constantly bombarded with zoning requests,” Russ said. “Development usually happens in a vacuum. If you own property you can build on it as you wish. Here you’ve got an infusion of the local market, i.e. the residents. So you’re not going in blind. That infusion makes for viability and sustainability.”

Spring Garden Street’s existing character makes it particularly amenable to such a truce, Woody suggested.

“This is an opportunity to reinforce and reintroduce a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere,” Woody told the city council. “Spring Garden Street is one of the few multimodal traffic corridors outside of downtown. It has a lot of small businesses people want to walk to. It has bike lanes. It has high public transit ridership with the HEAT bus.”

Part of the reason for the street’s comparatively large number of pedestrians is the expansion of UNCG’s student population, and the university’s inability to provide housing for all the new students. The westward migration of UNCG students also poses a challenge for existing residents and industrial owners, who worry that their new neighbors might complain about noise during a night shift, said the city’s urban designer, Mary Sertell.

Inspired by Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (“She started out anti-planner,” Woody says), Sertell and her colleague comprise a kind of subversive cell within the Greensboro Planning Department, whose efforts are often consumed by zoning requests by developers planning large-scale retail and residential developments on the city’s fringe. Sertell was hired as the city’s first urban designer last May. With his full beard and thick glasses, Woody – who keeps a stack of Napoleon Dynamite Post-It notes on his desk – more resembles a college radio DJ than a mid-size city bureaucrat.

“It’s a model for the future of Greensboro,” Woody says of the overlay plan. “With the rising cost of gas, more people are going to want to walk. It also increases public health.”

The new Spring Garden Street Pedestrian Scale Overlay design manual includes guidelines in a dozen distinct areas, including parking, landscaping, facades and signage. It encourages sidewalk cafes, calls for positioning entryways towards public sidewalks, steers developers away from large-scale, unarticulated buildings with blank exterior walls and lavishes special attention on detail in landscaping and building facades.

While asserting that the plan contains enforceable standards, Sertell acknowledged that developers will be afforded some flexibility.

“We’re really trying to have staff sit down with developers so everything is fully explained,” she said. “If you can’t meet Standard 3, we might say, ‘Why don’t you try to meet Standard 4?'”

Speaking to the vision of the city and the neighborhood association for Spring Garden Street, Sertell said, “The corridor is a mish-mash. Urban design tries to make things cohesive. Commercial nodes are important. What we’re going to avoid is strip commercial lots. The idea is to intensify commercial nodes.”

Woody jabbed a finger in the direction of the manual lying on his desk in the warren of cubicles at the Melvin Municipal Building.

“This is the anti-sprawl,” he said.

For more information on the Spring Garden Street Pedestrian Scale Overlay District, visit greensboro-nc.gov/Departments/Planning/pressreleases/pedoverlay.htm

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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