Wednesday, July 29, 2009

DDG and the Futue of Downtown Greensboro

I have been thinking about the Downtown Design Guidelines now being considered by the city of Greensboro. Until recently I have had little basis for an opinion. I rarely came downtown except for special events like Fun Fourth. I spent little to no money downtown. I really didn't think much of downtown Greensboro.

But now I am downtown almost every day. I have an office at South Elm and Washington. I walk around a lot. I work and socialize and spend my money downtown. I like downtown, well, the part in which I spend my time, which is mostly Elm Street between Center City Park and the railroad tracks.

There are many factors that make a downtown space attractive and appealing to me personally, and one factor more important than all the rest.

Downtown has to be pedestrian-friendly. This is the key factor. There must be ample and safe room for strolling, and little fear of being run down. This invites foot traffic to the shops and restaurants and art venues. To make this strolling pleasant and safe there must be wide sidewalks and narrow streets with slower traffic. Who would ever stroll on purpose along or across Davie or North Green Street? Shade also contributes to a positive pedestrian experience as does having a place to sit down.

There is aesthetic/emotional aspect to a space being inviting or friendly. Parks and green spaces, even small ones, mitigate against claustrophobia and urban fatigue. Many very large cities in which I have lived (or visited for some time) have managed to preserve these green spaces at appropriate “intervals," intervals in the sense of distance (providing physical rest for the pedestrian), intervals in a spatial sense (opening of the feel of the city and reducing claustrophobia), and intervals in an aesthetic sense (providing change in color and texture, particularly in the sense of softer colors and softer textures).

The aesthetic/emotional aspect is impacted by many other factors too – green spaces, hanging flowers, interesting architecture, and what I might call “composition,” that is, the visual balance of sky, street, tree, and building, a balance which contributes to a pleasing and relaxing experience for the pedestrian.

When I think of pedestrian traffic I am not thinking so much those folks who commute to downtown, hurry from car to office, rush out from their office buildings to have a quick lunch only to rush back to office, hurry later from office to car, and leave downtown. Certainly these folks enhance the economic vitality of downtown in many ways.

But it is the non-commuting pedestrians who make a downtown pedestrian-friendly. This kind of pedestrian is not in a hurry. He or she "strolls" more than rushes. I commute downtown, but I "hang out" downtown too. I have the flexibility to do that.

Downtown needs residents. Residents create demand for services and then the availability of services attracts residents. The more people who actually live in a downtown the better the pedestrian experience will become.

There is another kind of "commuter." This is the person who drives downtown in order to enjoy downtown - go to a play, eat dinner, have a drink, shop around, etc. This kind of commuter leaves car behind in a parking space to become a non hurried pedestrian. As far as developing the kind of pedestrian traffic that is most desirable, this sort of commuter is very important - crucially important.

Downtown can no longer compete with suburban shopping centers for car-based shopping and business. Any attempt to try will fail. For downtown to be vital it must offer an alternative - a much needed alternative - to the suburban car centered shopping center. It must be pedestrian friendly.

Having read about the founding of Greensboro and a little bit about its history I would have to conclude that it has been extremely poorly planned from the beginning. It seems that short term expediency has guided planning measures more than anything else along the way. The city has woefully lacked vision – vision that extends into the future to children and grandchildren.

I say that because I see almost no recourse for parts of downtown other than ripping up some of the main streets and rebuilding the traffic-pedestrian-store interface. We need to get rid of the multi lane one-way racetracks. These streets act as barriers to the growth of a pedestrian friendly downtown.

Obviously downtown needs investment dollars from the private sector. But a “downtown” as a physical/cultural/economic entity almost inherently requires collaboration from many sectors – the private sector of course, the local and state governments, and various advocacy and interest groups.

I know that there is much debate at present about architecture – about maintaining the “ambiance” of the more architecturally interesting and coherent older buildings. I myself like this ambiance.

As I weigh the primary need – that is, of making downtown pedestrian-friendly – against the interests of historical preservation and architectural conservation, I think I am less concerned about the architecture of many of the old buildings (on Elm for example) as I am in attracting capital for new residences and businesses. Many of the older buildings in the 300 block of South Elm, while having interesting and diverse facades, do not strike me as being particularly noteworthy structures. All things being equal I would much prefer to see them preserved, but if I had to choose I'd rather see newer structures designed and built as part of a strategic plan to attract residents and businesses into a pedestrian-friendly downtown.

If extensive renovation or reconstruction would impede the development of more residences and pedestrian-friendly businesses, then I’d rather see new construction which “mimics” a generally desired look or feel. I certainly would not wish to see any more buildings like First Citizens, which is to me the most horrid building in downtown Greensboro (next to the News and Record and the various Stalin-esque government buildings). I would want to see enough of an actual planning framework in place to assure visual and aesthetic coherence, yet with wiggle room to allow for diversity, which is itself interesting and pleasing. But the bottom line is that if there is no investment there will be no people and no impetus to convert the rest of the downtown core into something vital and pleasing.

There has to be a bold vision that is embodied in clear and accessible planning guidelines. The city has a key role in establishing and articulating) this vision – seeing ahead ten or twenty or even fifty years and putting in place the framework for getting there. Everyone needs to “give” – the city which may want to control everything, the developers who may wish to build anything, and the preservationists who may wish to preserve at all costs.

I hope as the process runs its course various interests can coalesce as one mind and find ways to balance varying interests. That’s asking a lot, and perhaps praying people have their own role in this process too.

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