Opinion

Why You Must Fight City Hall

(Last Updated On: March 9, 2017)

collaborative project aimed at bringing a robust parklets program to Downtown Greensboro fell apart two years ago when the combined weight of the city’s refusal to yield on fees for unmetered parking spaces and a council member’s vendetta against the leadership of DGI scuttled the initiative at the last minute.

Now two years later, city staffers and downtown boosters are crowing about a handful of similar projects that, while possibly contributing to a healthier pedestrian and outdoor seating environment, lack the creative urgency of the initial parklets program while costing city tax payers hundreds of thousands of construction dollars that could otherwise be used to repair the countless miles of non-existent and substandard sidewalk facilities across the aging Gate City.

The parklets test project was to become reality with little to no actual cost to taxpayers, while uniting business owners and tactical urban designers in an effort to bring a semblance of uniqueness to South Elm Street.

Then president of Downtown Greensboro Inc., Jason Cannon, and a DGI staff member spent months in 2014/2015 cobbling together support for the idea of pop-up outdoor patios, commonly referred to as parklets, along Elm Street. Cannon identified the need for more pedestrian visibility and outdoor seating opportunities along the main corridor downtown and DGI staff worked with business owners to identify a pilot project outside of Scuppernong Books at 304 South Elm Street.

After hearing initial reports of the project’s demise, I filed a public records request for emails related to the search term “parklets.” This was back when even the biggest email search requests could be filled in 6-8 weeks and one could make great headway in explaining the mechanics of city hall to the residents of Greensboro.

The search results yielded a great narrative of the behind the scenes posturing that resulted in the project’s demise and the elimination of a project manager staff position at DGI.

One unique aspects of the parklets project was the participation of the UNCG Department of Interior Architecture, whose students submitted potential designs that could have brought a modern and more sophisticated aesthetic to the otherwise drab gray and red brick facades of the 300 block of South Elm Street.

I won’t recount the entire story here, but you can read the three-part series from 2015 online if you’d like a bit of recent urban history.

In a nutshell, the owners Scuppernong Books were willing to pay for construction and required insurance on the test site but were unwilling to pay some $3,000 in fees the Greensboro Department of Transportation demanded in order that the parklet structure might occupy two unmetered parking spaces on Elm Street, thus extending the available sidewalk space into a temporary structure built on a platform along the street’s edge.

With outdoor seating options limited along Elm Street’s narrow sidewalks, the potential for a parklet at Scuppernong Books was a significant grassroots initiative that could have resulted in a design oasis, attracting more attention to the middle of one of downtown’s longest blocks that also happens to be both home to some of the newest developments in downtown and still riddled with empty storefronts.

But as GDOT proved unwilling to waive the daily fee required to occupy an unmetered parking space (GDOT staffers deemed the parklet similar to a construction site and thus required the same occupancy fee contractors pay when working on a project) then city council member Zack Matheny seized on the stalled project as another example of DGI’s inefficiency.

Matheny waged a months-long campaign to undermine Cannon’s leadership of DGI following Matheny’s loss in the GOP primary to replace Howard Coble in the Sixth Congressional District. Matheny vigorously pursued the DGI position, which he secured following Cannon’s abrupt resignation. Matheny can now been seen in countless media puff pieces about his hands on approach to putting Downtown Greensboro into a better position to compete with cities like Raleigh and Charlotte and Winston-Salem that have left the Gate City behind in the quest for development that attracts millennials and hi-tech companies well suited to compete in the 21st century economy.

While the parklets program could have been in place for the last two springs, we’ve instead had countless speculation about how many hotels “might” come to Greensboro by 2020.

I can’t really pursue email records requests in a timely fashion in Greensboro any more. GDOT officials initially declined to be interviewed in the fall when I asked about the coming patio project at Lewis and Elm streets, going so far as to refer me to the city manager’s office. A request to interview an assistant city manager that I know to be personally involved in most of these projects was never acknowledged.

With the passage of the city’s bond package in last fall’s election, money for government-led construction projects will flood Greensboro’s streets in coming years, especially downtown. Roy Carroll is moving quickly ahead with his hotel/apartment project across from the baseball stadium on Eugene Street. But beyond Carroll’s project, most significant development is taking place under the aegis of bureaucrats at city hall and developer-backed politicians that remain all too willing to sacrifice unique aspects of urban design to the whims of absolute control and hesitancy.

The coming outdoor patio streetscape at Lewis and Elm streets will cost taxpayers $171,000 and appears to be based on concrete slabs and red brick pavers. The city eliminated six parking spaces along Lewis Street in order to accommodate the patio, but there’s no word as to if they required a fee to occupy the unmetered spots. A second, larger streetscape along Market Street next to the recently redeveloped Southeastern Building will cost taxpayers $400,000. A pocket park along the short stretch of the $30 million Downtown Greenway between Fisher and Smith streets is part of a $3.5 million project alongside Joymongers Brewing and Deep Roots Market.

A friend of mine who lives in Fisher Park likes to joke about the Downtown Greenway project being something he first heard was coming back when he was in high school. He’s now 37. Similarly, parklets could have adorned Elm Street for the last two years, designed by actual urbanists to edify the street-level appeal along one of the city’s key blocks.

Instead, bureaucrats and boosters all too eager to please a narrow subset of the city’s populace are giving you more concrete and red brick pavers.

Those who pour concrete for a living, I’m sure, are happy for the work. But don’t blame the city’s creative class when a collective yawn goes up at first glance of the final product.

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