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THE GATEWAY

by Jeff Sykes

IS THERE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL FOR LEE STREET AND HIGH POINT ROAD?

Separate projects at various stages of progress could propel one of Greensboro’s central thoroughfares past its reputation for urban decline. The High Point Road/Lee Street corridor would be a model of urban renewal if the plans come together. There are many challenges to the success of a seamless renewal that could result in a patchwork of improvements that leave clusters of decay amidst millions of dollars of investment.

From Gateway University Research Park and a new YMCA off of East Lee Street to the proposed international restaurant row along a redesigned High Point Road between the Greensboro Coliseum and I-40, there are three nodes of redevelopment taking place.

The High Point Road streetscape project is set to launch in January now that the city has received bids that conform to its new Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise Program, which seeks to increase the number of disadvantaged firms that participate in city construction contracts.

The Union Square Campus project at the south end of Downtown Greensboro is inching closer to visible progress now that project managers have overcome a financial hiccup and decided to scale the first phase of the project back and move it to another corner of the development site.

In the middle sits UNC-Greensboro, with plans to move to its own second phase of development along a controversial stretch of Lee Street that gives the university a gateway into the Glenwood neighborhood. The mass of students seem content with the brand new student housing and a proposed $90 million recreation center, though a very vocal group opposed to the development continues to make itself heard.

The city enacted a new zoning scheme along the corridor earlier this year, which seeks to entice business development and reverse the decline of commercial activity that set in as major retailers moved to the Wendover Avenue area in the last two decades.

But money for the second streetscape phase is nonexistent. The Union Square project made an odd change of direction just weeks after unveiling the design for its now scuttled first building. Students at UNCG, and some Glenwood residents, continue to oppose the expansion across Lee Street, even as the university itself is mired in a public relations nightmare involving its own communications department.

The only thing that seems certain is that the High Point Road/Lee Street corridor will be renamed Gate City Boulevard in July 2015.

High Point Road

The decline of High Point Road in the last 20 years is well-documented, as grocery stores and big box outlets have abandoned the strip in droves in favor of West Wendover Avenue, Friendly Center and other areas within reach of prosperous consumers driving in from exurbia.

Four Seasons Town Center holds on, despite being abandoned by Belk this past May. A mix of tightly clustered small businesses dot both sides of the road between the Coliseum and the city limits at Groometown Road, interspersed with acres of empty or half-used shopping center strips. The road itself between the Coliseum and I-40 is a tough drive, pockmarked with dips and patches that wear down both a driver’s nerves and the struts on their car.

The Koury Corporation and a few restaurants near the interstate anchor the bright spots, including the Darryl’s owned by Marty Kotis. In addition, a wealth of small, international cuisine restaurants can be found along High Point Road.

This is what caused City Councilmember Tony Wilkins, who represents District 5, to seize on the idea of creating an International Restaurant Row designation with which to market a three-mile stretch of the corridor. There are 70 eateries along that stretch of road, Wilkins said, 40 that are authentic American or ethnic cuisines.

“We have the inventory in place. What the idea is is to market this and one of the ways we plan to do that is with signs on I-40 and I-73 to reach the 158,000 vehicles that come through there everyday,” Wilkins said.

Some critics have made fun of the idea, but others see it as a prototype for a program that could expand to other areas of Greensboro. The city is home to about 300 ethnic restaurants.

Council gave the nod to bring the idea up for a vote at its Nov. 18 meeting. The plan calls for $25,000 to be designated from what’s left in the city’s economic development fund for the current fiscal year. The money would be spent on highway signage, banners and other marketing materials, including brochures and a website. Wilkins says hoteliers along the corridor have already begun asking him for brochures.

“This could be something that we could use to market Greensboro as an ethnically diverse city,” Wilkins said. “I would welcome us finding other ways to market the city. I do want to start with this prototype in the three-mile corridor that we’ve announced.”

The International Restaurant Row would extend from the Coliseum to the city limits, and include areas of city council districts 1, 4 and 5. High Point Road splits districts 1 and 4 from the Coliseum to I-40, with Wilkins representing the area from the interstate to the city limits.

“This is an area of town that needs help, and this is a minimum investment with a tremendous potential,” Wilkins said.

The designation, if passed, would coincide with the renaming of the High Point Road/Lee Street corridor as Gate City Boulevard. The name is scheduled to change in July 2015. The city council approved the name change this past year, which gave business and property owners along the 15 miles of road 18 months to adapt to the new name.

The rationale has been to erase the stigma of crime and decay attached to High Point Road as the new streetscape is built. In essence, giving the area a facelift and a new identity at the same time.

“To me it was a good fit and a good change. I’ve heard mostly positive comments about it,” Wilkins said, acknowledging the opposition of some business owners, including one with the words West Lee Street in their business name.

Gate City has been Greensboro’s nickname for more than 100 years, referencing the city’s once dominant position as a rail and transport gateway to larger markets and urban areas in the Deep South and beyond.

Charlotte has taken much of that from Greensboro in the past 50 years, but Gate City somehow still feels right. Perhaps when the streetscape is complete in 2017, Gate City Boulevard will be more welcoming to pedestrians and visitors alike. The Koury Convention Center, which recently completed a $30 million renovation, and the Greensboro Coliseum anchor the High Point Road stretch. Additions to the Coliseum of the Greensboro Aquatic Center and the ACC Hall of Champions, and a new Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, make the complex busier than ever.

But pedestrians struggle to use High Point Road in its current manifestation. The High Point Road streetscape project will look to improve that between the Coliseum and I-40. The city’s voters approved a $7.5 million bond package for Phase I of the streetscape project in 2008. After several delays, the two-year project is set to begin in January.

That left members of the Central Gateway Corridor Partnership wondering how to make Phase II of the streetscape a reality. There are about $100 million in unfunded bond projects remaining from the package passed in 2008. The NC Department of Transportation recently agreed to fund several major road improvements around the city, freeing up bond money for other projects. City transportation planners cautioned partnership members not to get their hopes up.

UNCG’s Mike Byers asked at a meeting last month if it was possible to get Phase II on the list for possible bond funding. City transportation planner Chris Spencer told the partnership it was possible, but not a decision Greensboro Department of Transportation staff would make.

“Over time there are going to be calls for other projects,” Spencer said. “You’re not the only ones out there in the pecking order to try and ask for funds.”

UNCG

When leaders at UNCG decided in 2009 to double the amount of university-owned student housing there was only one direction to go. That was south, across Lee Street and into the perimeter of the Glenwood neighborhood.

The biggest problem, though, wasn’t how to get students safely across Lee Street everyday. Instead, the major pedestrian concern was the three lines of active railroad track running between the campus and Lee Street. Planners initially leaned toward building a pedestrian bridge over the tracks, but that later changed to an underpass that was unveiled earlier this year.

The UNCG Railroad Pedestrian Underpass has gotten a lot of attention since winning a design award in August for best project under $10 million.

The 166-foot-long underpass cost $5.8 million and features a pyramid texture on its curved roof, covered with paint reflecting school colors.

The underpass opens with a large plaza onto Lee Street, next to the new headquarters university police will move into later this month. Byers, UNCG’s associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises, manages much of the expansion effort, surrounded by large maps stationed all around his office at the corner of the Walker Avenue Parking Deck.

Byers serves on the Central Gateway Corridor Partnership. He said at a meeting this past month that the High Point Road/Lee Street Corridor plan adopted by the city in 2008 was a factor in the university’s decision to move in the direction of Lee Street.

The university completed Phase I of Spartan Village at a cost if $67 million. The result was 800 new beds in two mixed-use facilities. There is very little retail in Phase I, Byers said, because the location wasn’t the most promising for stores and restaurants.

The hot location for retail is part of Phase II, just across from the underpass at the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Lee Street. Phase II includes three more student housing projects, but on a smaller scale. Byers said the next project would include 300 to 600 beds.

Retail activity will be emphasized in Phase II, Byers said.

“We didn’t build [Phase I] to call attention to the mixed use space, to drive commercial activity, because it’s just

not the right location,” Byers said. “I would expect these to be designed in a way that draws attention to the mixed use.”

Phase II could be broken into two sections, with a pair of buildings (labeled 6 and 7 on the Spartan Village master plan) going in first, and building 5 coming later. The two units on each side of Glenwood Avenue would attract restaurants and shops, with four stories facing Lee Street before the building scales back to two stories along Glenwood Avenue.

“We really want to frame up the intersection and get the retail in,” Byers said. “This is right across from the underpass, near the stoplight and the recreation center. This is where things want to be bustling.”

Union Square Campus

Although the High Point Road streetscape and the continued redevelopment of Lee Street near UNCG are bringing new life to established areas, it’s the new kid on the block that’s created the most buzz along what’s to become Gate City Boulevard.

Union Square Campus is the first announced project happening in the South Elm redevelopment area. The campus is a collaboration among the city’s seven colleges and universities and Cone Health System and will feature a state of the art healthcare education facility.

The Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro owns a seven-acre site near the intersection of Elm and Lee streets. After a multiyear planning process, the business and higher education consortium known as Opportunity Greensboro fueled a drive for a downtown campus. The South Elm site was selected this past year and the South Elm Development Group chosen to take the lead on the entire project.

Developers anticipate spending more than $100 million on the project with the Union Square Campus taking up two acres. Gateway University Research Park was chosen to manage the Union Square Campus construction.

Managers said this past week that they had switched to another corner of the site on which to build the first facility. In September, the group announced with much fanfare its plans to build at the corner of Elm and Lee streets.

John Merrill, a representative of the non-profit Union Square Campus Inc., told members of the Redevelopment Commission of Greensboro that the group had experienced a “financial hiccup,” but had worked through the issue. The end result is a scaled back first phase of the project, with plans now to build a three-story building at the corner of Lee and Arlington streets, as opposed to the four-story plan presented to the public last month. That building would have had street level retail and space for the combined nursing programs of UNCG, NC A&T State University and GTCC with Cone Health also having space in the facility.

Sources indicate that GTCC scaled back its financial commitment in recent weeks, forcing a move to the smaller facility.

USCI is also asking the City of Greensboro to transfer two acres of land at no cost in order to reduce their overall construction costs. The city council will consider a resolution at its Dec. 2 meeting that would make the transfer a reality.

The change in direction hasn’t shaken the confidence of local health care leaders. Cone Health signed a 10-year lease in early October, agreeing to occupy 22,500 square feet at $23.50 per square foot. Their total first year cost is projected at $529,000.

Tim Clontz, executive vice-president for health services at Cone Health, said the training facility will “far exceed what can be done now.” The simulator will be a highly technical laboratory with sophisticated mannequins that give specific feedback as to whether the procedure is being performed correctly or not.

“They truly emulate what is going on with the human body,” Clontz said.

Changes in health care services will lead to increased outpatient care, Clontz said, as one way to address an expected future shortfall of physicians. Cone recently estimated a need for 150 more nursing professionals “largely located in ambulatory settings, providing primary care and selected specialty services.”

The Union Square Campus gives Cone Health an opportunity to provide the type of training needed to meet that future.

“This is a real opportunity for us to work closely with the other nursing and clinical programs offered, in terms of creating our future medical workforce,” Clontz said. “This isn’t just about emulating the hospital. It’s about what does the outpatient look like and how do you train folks for that future.” !

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