Sunday, August 3, 2014
Posted by David Wharton at Sunday, August 03, 2014
Sunday, February 3, 2013
February 3, 2013
Robert D. Marcus
President & Chief Operating Officer
Time Warner Cable, Inc.
60 Columbus Circle
New York, NY, 10023
Dear Mr. Marcus:
I write to express my frustration and disappointment with the service provided to me by your company.
Time Warner Cable, Inc. provides internet and cable TV service to our home. Both my wife and I depend on internet service for business use, and its reliability and speed are very important to us.
In late November of 2012, our internet service began to fail frequently. Our connection would be dropped unpredictably, sometimes for hours at a time, on a daily basis. Our modem was rebooting itself about 65 times a week. Even now, more than two months later, our service is not completely reliable, as internet service disappears for short intervals every day. Thus we cannot depend on it for Skype or Vonage communications with colleagues, etc.
But unfortunately (for us), the protocols Time Warner uses for customer service are so arduous to navigate that we have resigned ourselves to living with a low-quality connection. Let me describe that process in brief.
Whenever we placed a call for service, we were put on hold for a minimum of 20 minutes, often longer. Then we provided account and address information to a low-level service tech, who did not have access to information about previous service problems. This person apparently had to follow a rigid protocol of asking us fixed questions and directing us to try various procedures (tighten the cable connection, reboot the modem, etc.) -- even though we had done these things repeatedly to no avail -- before scheduling a service truck.
After each service visit failed to resolve the problem, we still had to go through this protocol before being kicked up to a "higher level" of service. Two times while I was on the phone with "higher level" service techs, my call was dropped, and the service person did not call me back, even though I provided my cell number. Those two times, I was not provided with a call-back number to anyone who knew the history of our problems or even with a case number, so my only recourse was to call the low-level service number, wait on hold, and go through the whole rigmarole once again. This process consumed many hours.
It took 5 truck visits in all to bring our service up to its current quasi-reliable level. The first three truck techs said they couldn't find anything wrong, though they replaced some minor parts. One suggested that the problem was with our home's electrical service (it wasn't). The fourth tech to visit our house finally brought some equipment that allowed him to determine that our signal was indeed spotty. After this fourth truck visit, a concerned higher-level service tech finally scheduled a visit to our house by a supervisor. The supervisor found a problem at the pole on the street -- some kind of plate was rusted. It was replaced and service improved, but is still somewhat unreliable.
Then the coup de grâce. We got a followup robocall asking if our service was now acceptable. When my wife pressed the button for "no," she was put on hold ... then after a while the call was dropped. No callback.
From our end, your customer service protocols look like they are designed to impede access to that service and to wear down customers who have only minor problems until they give up. If that is the case, all I can say regarding our case -- mission accomplished. I can't bring myself to call again, even to ask that our bill be pro-rated for our months of bad service. Instead of waiting two hours on the phone again, I decided to write you.
One last thing. All of this would be a lot less galling if I could simply cancel my service and sign on with a competitor. But the lobbying arm of Time Warner has been so effective in North Carolina that you have no competitors, and your industry even managed to persuade my state legislature to make it illegal for cities like mine to provide their own broadband service.
Well played, Time Warner, well played indeed.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
The Church holds that marriage is a sacramental, lifelong union between one man and one woman, founded in the love between the partners and for the procreation of children; however, it blesses sacramental marriages between infertile and post-fertile opposite sex couples. Thus its position is prima facie contradictory, but let that lie for now.
Even granting the Church's definition of marriage, I believe Bishop Jugis's endorsement of Amendment One violates the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae. Here are some excerpts from that document, with the most relevant language highlighted by me. Pardon the length.
A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man, and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society.
Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.
Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.
The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of government. Therefore government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means.
Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens.
The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility.
In brief, the Declaration says very clearly that the state should neither coerce nor prevent people from pursuing religious activity either in public or private. Catholic married life is certainly such an activity: married Catholics are specifically called to witness to the Gospel in our vocation to marriage both in private and in public. And the state recognizes our marriages and grants us certain legal and civil rights accruing to it.
It's also the case that many churches bless same-sex marriage. Yet the Bishop argues that the state should deny them the same civil rights granted to traditional married couples, in direct contradiction to the Declaration's decree that "government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens."
Bishop Jugis also says that voting for Amendment One will "promote traditional marriage in our state." His presumption seems to be that allowing same-sex unions will erode traditional marriage. But it's hard to see how prohibiting same-sex unions will encourage more people to get married, or persuade married people to stay married. It hardly needs to be said that our divorce rates are a great scandal to Christian witness, and in this regard, I was curious whether permitting or prohibiting same-sex unions has any effect on divorce rates.
I looked at the U.S. Census figures on divorce rates in the states that recognize same-sex unions (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont) as compared to those states whose constitutions prohibit them (Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Virginia).
The good news is that divorce rates have been declining in all those states. The more interesting news is that, since 2000, the rate of decline of divorce rates in the states that recognize same-sex unions has been almost twice as steep as in those that prohibit them in their constitutions. (The pro-same-sex states showed an average decline of .7 divorces per 1000 people from 2000-2009, the anti-same-sex states showed an average decline of .4.)
Does same sex-marriage therefore actually promote more stable marriages? Doubtful. Correlation does not prove causation. But for whatever reason, the states that recognize same-sex unions seem to have more respect for the institution of marriage (not to mention religious freedom) than do those that constitutionally prohibit it.
Thus, with all due respect to my bishop, I dissent. I will vote against Amendment One.
Posted by David Wharton at Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Friday, April 6, 2012
The council is in a quandary about what to do, so while they're waiting for another engineering report, I thought I'd try to organize my scattered thoughts.
The Preservationist Perspective
A good place to start is with the Secretary of the Interior's Standard's for the Treatment of Historic Properties. They guide all federally-funded preservation projects, and they apply to WWMS because it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but they are enforceable only if federal money is involved in the renovation.
Here are the standards for preservation:
The city-proposed plan, euphemistically called "renovation," weakly meets only the first of these criteria: the stadium will still be a war memorial, will still be used for amateur sports as it was intended, and the proposed plaza in front of its impressive triple-arched entry will give it a possible new use, since the area, if carefully and amply designed, may accommodate any number of public, civic, or patriotic activities. But it meets the standard only in an attenuated way, bringing in 30 spectators for college baseball games when once it attracted thousands.
- A property will be used as it was historically, or be given a new use that maximizes the retention of distinctive materials, features, spaces, and spatial relationships. Where a treatment and use have not been identified, a property will be protected and, if necessary, stabilized until additional work may be undertaken.
- The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The replacement of intact or repairable historic materials or alteration of features, spaces, and spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided.
- Each property will be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Work needed to stabilize, consolidate, and conserve existing historic materials and features will be physically and visually compatible, identifiable upon close inspection, and properly documented for future research.
- Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.
- Distinctive materials, features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a property will be preserved.
- The existing condition of historic features will be evaluated to determine the appropriate level of intervention needed. Where the severity of deterioration requires repair or limited replacement of a distinctive feature, the new material will match the old in composition, design, color, and texture.
- Chemical or physical treatments, if appropriate, will be undertaken using the gentlest means possible. Treatments that cause damage to historic materials will not be used.
- Archeological resources will be protected and preserved in place. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures will be undertaken.
The guidelines call for "identifying, retaining, and preserving character-defining features" of the building. The National Register nomination for the stadium identified not only as its entry arches, but also the inverted "J" shape of the seating, distinctive because it is unique to the stadium. The decorated exterior masonry walls flanking the pylons are also significant, as are the distinctive windows, which still exist but have been blocked up. (You can see them on this old postcard). Finally, the canopy over the seating, though not original, has gained its own significance over time, and certainly makes watching afternoon games more pleasant.
In short, the city's proposal is a preservationist's disaster. Less will be left of the 85-year old stadium than remains of the Roman Colosseum.
At the council meeting, Bill Burckley asserted that most, if not all the significant features can be preserved for the $1.4 million the city has to spend on it, and that is why the council voted to get a second opinion on the state of the stadium's concrete. It would be great if he's right, but I have no idea whether he is.
The Neighborhood Perspective
The Aycock Neighborhood has spent a decade advocating for the preservation of the stadium, and even commissioned its own renovation plans (with a lot of help from friends like Preservation Greensboro). Its concern has been not only with the structure and its use, but its neighborhood setting. Neighborhood representatives served for years on a city-appointed task force that came up with not one, but three different plans for a "park within a park" to include not only the stadium but also the nearby tennis courts, Greensboro Farmers' Market, and the old VFW building across the street. The idea was to increase the public use of the stadium area and to use the stadium for occasional musical entertainment.
Although none of these facilities is in the Aycock Neighborhood per se, they adjoin it, and are identified as vital elements of our neighborhood life in our city-council-adopted Strategic Plan and Summit Avenue Corridor plan. While the neighborhood has been self-funding and carrying out many of the elements of those plans on its own (including streetscape improvements and signage), the city has yet to follow through on any of the promised capital improvements.
My sense is that, while the neighborhood cares very much about the preservation of the stadium, it sees it as only one element of a neighborhood improvement plan, and not the most important one. The Strategic Plan, based on a very open and careful public process, identified the improvement of Summit Avenue as our number one priority. Number 5 on that list was "prepare a plan for War Memorial Stadium and Veterans' Plaza". Veterans' Plaza is the area of public use proposed for the zone between the stadium and the Farmers' Market, and the neighborhood's current interest as a neighborhood in the stadium is mainly in that public space now that minor league baseball is gone.
Make no mistake, though: the stadium was a huge neighborhood asset when neighbors could walk on summer evenings to see the Greensboro Bats play. The city council, the Guilford County commissioners, and various city boosters at that time promised the neighborhood that the old stadium would continue to be a well-maintained and well-used neighborhood asset.
The Parks and Recreation / Greensboro Sports Commission Perspective
The Greensboro Parks and Recreation Department, which operates the stadium, has consistently been adamant (since minor league baseball left) that it wants to use it for one purpose only: amateur baseball. The primary tenants of the stadium have been NCA&T University and Greensboro College, along with some youth leagues (the infield is too big for little league). But Greensboro College has since moved on to greener infields, and the number of youth league games has declined as interest in baseball has waned.
Parks and Rec representatives on the stadium task force opposed using the stadium for other entertainments, citing wear and tear on the playing surface. And any hopes that the old stadium might attract such acts were crushed by Greensboro Coliseum manager Matt Brown, who stole a march on the WWMS renovation proponents by building the White Oak Amphitheatre, much of which he completed even before the city council knew about it.
Members of the Greensboro Sports Commission have said that there is no chance of bringing regional or national tournaments to the stadium, at least as long as Greensboro's new downtown stadium is standing. The old stadium simply cannot provide the amenities that modern athletes and fans expect (although downtown stadium boosters claimed in 2003 that "War Memorial Stadium would be an ideal location to host regional, state, and national baseball tournaments.")
Parks and Recreation and the Greensboro Sports Commission representatives have maintained that there is no need for more than a few hundred seats at WWMS, and their statements have turned out to be true for the stadium's use over the last seven years.
The Political Perspective
The current city council is facing a dilemma left to it by previous councils when they decided to build the downtown stadium and later the White Oak Amphitheatre. Those two votes assured that there wasn't and isn't going to be enough baseball or outdoor musical entertainment to make full use of the old stadium. The newer facilities have sucked the life out of the old one, and there is nothing the present council can do about that.
Even if WWMS received a full-scale preservation and rehabilitation, with all its architectural features returned to their former glory, it would still be a melancholy place -- its empty seats a silent testament to its own diminishment, and to our diminished feelings for the soldiers who died in a war almost 100 years ago that few recall or understand.
So the council will have to decide how to allocate resources to a large and expensive structure for which there is now very little use -- unless they can think of some new use for it, and make sure that it gets used.
Friday, March 16, 2012
Friday, February 3, 2012
The initial debate has mostly been where to put it -- downtown or at the Coliseum complex? -- but so far the conversation hasn't delved deeply into the reasons for siting it at one of those places. The main issues mentioned so far are costs, efficiency, and the availability of downtown sites.
Actually, one blogger has raised another very important issue, namely the community benefits we must get out of the center beyond its value as a performance venue. But Billy's proposal is a non-starter. For good reasons and bad, there will be no PAC on Phillips Avenue.
I think these are the options:
- If we put the PAC at the Coliseum, the best-case scenario is that we'll have a good performance venue that's easy to drive to, park at, and drive home from. Good, but not great. It won't put Greensboro on anybody's map of cool places to visit, and I think we need more added value than that.
- If we just plunk the PAC in some vacant corner of downtown and surround it with a parking lot, we'll get basically the same thing as at the Coliseum, but probably at a much higher cost. If people can just drive to the PAC's lot, go in, go out, and go home, there isn't much net gain for downtown. In my view, that's not worth the extra expenditure.
- But if we site the PAC carefully downtown, give it a distinctive architectural and pedestrian presence, and distribute the parking so that people must walk by shops and restaurants in order to get there, then we have something worth spending some money on.
Distributed parking was key to the renaissance of downtown Greenville, SC, as the Action Greensboro folks learned years ago on their field trip to that town. They were told to "build anchors" like our proposed PAC, and also heard this:
"Distribute parking" was the other main piece of advice from Greenville's leaders. The city deliberately did not place big parking decks right next to their anchors in order to generate pedestrian traffic -- and business -- for restaurants and downtown retail.Greensboro residents seem to have a hard time getting their head around that principle, but it's absolutely essential to downtown vitality.
Downtown Chattanooga provides a great example of the principle at work. The Tennessee Aquarium downtown has been a driving generator of business and a bustling pedestrian culture. One reason for that success is that there's no dedicated parking on site, but an abundance of commercial lots nearby. As their website says, "there are several paid parking lots near the aquarium ... and a free shuttle runs daily in downtown Chattanooga."
At this point there seems to be no one on the committee studying the proposed PAC who will evaluate this essential piece of the puzzle.
Posted by David Wharton at Friday, February 03, 2012
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Greensboro's RUCO (Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy) ordinance was adopted by the city council in 2002. Its purpose was to reduce the number of substandard apartments in the city by requiring all rental units to be inspected in order to receive a certificate of occupancy. The ordinance also requires that a 2% sampling of apartments in the city be inspected annually. Thus RUCO is a proactive rather than a complaint-based system, although tenant or neighbor complaints can still trigger inspections.
The Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (TREBIC) and the Triad Apartment Association and the Greensboro Landlords Association opposed the ordinance, claim that it doesn't work, and are now lobbying the city council to return to a complaint-based system.
But RUCO does work, and it works very well.
In the first year of RUCO inspections, the number of substandard housing units reported in Greensboro increased dramatically, but this was not because housing was getting worse. It was because RUCO was uncovering hundreds of substandard apartments that lay hidden in the complaint-based system. The figures support the contention of the Greensboro Housing Coalition that many tenants are afraid to report problems because they fear reprisal by their landlords. But as RUCO inspections progressed throughout the city, landlords stepped up maintenance, and the number of substandard units was more than cut in half from its peak:
Even more dramatically, RUCO inspections have reduced the number of housing-related complaints by 80%:
Not surprisingly, when landlords know that the RUCO inspector might show up, they get their properties up to code without waiting for someone to complain.
Landlords also respond to complaints far more quickly under RUCO than they did under the previous ordinance. More than half of violations were not fixed even after a month under the old system. But now almost 60 percent get fixed on the same day they're reported, and nine out of ten are fixed within 30 days. That is because of the ordinance's one-two punch of fines for non-compliance and the threat of lost rental income if one's CO is revoked.
of Rental Properties in North Carolina Cities" by Carol Cooley Hickey).
If proactive inspections are repealed in Greensboro, experience in Asheville, NC shows that the number of housing complaints will probably rise again to previous levels. Asheville enacted an ordinance similar to Greensboro's RUCO program, and under it the number of housing complaints declined steeply. But under pressure from Asheville's landlords, the ordinance was repealed, and housing complaints quickly jumped back up:
Proactive inspections also improve safety. In Asheville, after the repeal of the proactive inspection program, residential fires doubled.
But Marlene was not telling the truth when she said that. The total cost of RUCO over its first eight years is $2,865,682, and in that time it has uncovered thousands of substandard housing units. I doubt that those were luxury apartments, and even if they were, they obviously needed to be inspected.
So far this year, 13 percent of apartments visited during random sampling failed inspection, according to Dan Reynolds of Greensboro's inspections department. Violations occurred in all kinds of apartments in all parts of town. Eighty-one percent of the violations were related to electrical problems or smoke alarms. These problems are not visible from the outside, and even the tenants may not know about them. They would never be discovered if the apartment industry gets its way. The fact that about one in ten apartments in Greensboro have problems that jeopardize the life and safety of the tenants is apparently not a concern to TREBIC.
Landlords also complain that up to a third of violations are "caused by the tenant." But this figure includes dead smoke alarm batteries, which the apartment industry considers to be the tenant's responsibility (though for the life of me I can't figure out why). However, I doubt that saying "it was the tenant's fault" will console anyone for the loss of life or property in the case of a fire.
The hostility toward tenants that I've heard expressed at many RUCO meetings seems odd to me. You would think that tenant damage is something that professionals would have built into their business model, and at any rate it has no bearing on the landlords' responsibility to maintain their rental property. You never hear anyone in the auto rental industry claim that they shouldn't have to submit their cars to safety inspections because those darn renters just keep wrecking them.
Though I haven't gone into detail about the history of the ordinance, it's important to note that the apartment industry has steadily chipped away at it over the years. One way they have done this is to capture its regulatory body, the RUCO board. Here is the language from the ordinance:
The board shall be composed of fifteen (15) members serving three-year terms and representative of the following: One (1) member from each of the five council districts; one (1) council member, one (1) inspections staff member from the city's engineering and inspections department; one (1) staff member from the city's housing and community development department; one (1) member from each of the following organizations or representative successor organizations having similar interests: Triad Apartment Association; Triad Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition; Greensboro Landlords Association; Greensboro Housing Coalition; Greensboro Neighborhood Congress; and two (2) citizens at large. In making appointments to the board, the city council shall make due effort to assure a fair balance between the number of members representative of landlord/owner interests and those representative of tenant/occupant interests. All members shall have one (1) vote except for city staff appointments who shall serve in an advisory capacity and be appointed by the city manager to serve at his discretion.What that boils down to is that of the RUCO board's 13 voting members, none of them must be actual tenants, and only one of them (from the Greensboro Housing Coalition) necessarily represents tenant interests, since the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress is mostly made up of homeowners. In fact, the Congress's current representative is himself a landlord who was fined under the RUCO ordinance. But three of the members must represent the rental housing industry. According to Jordan Green of YES! Weekly, six of 11 current voting members either own rental properties or work for companies that do so. There are no tenants on the board at all.
The foxes, having taken up comfortable residence in the regulatory hen house, have finished their hors d'oeuvres, and are now hungry for the main course.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Greensboro's proposed Downtown Design Manual is open for public comment until June 24th (if you have comments you can send them to email@example.com). I've been involved with the manual on and off over the course of its development, and I have a few thoughts. Actually, a lot of thoughts.
Posted by David Wharton at Sunday, June 20, 2010
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Posted by David Wharton at Sunday, April 04, 2010
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
We packed two cars full of teenagers yesterday to see Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Bob Dylan perform at the Durham Athletic Park. Even making allowances for the downsides that go with ballpark concerts (bad seating and poor acoustics), I wouldn't recommend paying $70 per ticket for this tour unless you're a big Mellencamp fan.
Posted by David Wharton at Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Friday, June 5, 2009
Greensboro is trying to figure out whether it wants to regulate the design of buildings and sidewalks in its downtown business district. After a couple of years of hard work, city staff and volunteers have put a set of design guidelines up for review and approval by the Zoning Board and the City Council. (Disclosure: I was a volunteer for a while, but had to resign because of time constraints.)
Of course the regulations are controversial. John Hammer of the Rhino Times predictably and incoherently railed against them. Developer Roy Carroll reportedly said in the Triad Business Journal that they will cost the downtown $100 million in lost investments. At-large councilmember Mike Barber is quoted as saying, "we cannot let this happen."
I've been checking around with some other cities that have design guidelines to find out whether they actually do discourage investment, but that's a post for another day (I've go some more checking to do).
This post is a photo essay looking into the current state of our downtown pedestrian environment. A lot of people are probably inclined to think our downtown is doing great: we don't need any intervention; let the market continue to work its magic. But I don't think the market is working very well at expanding our downtown.
Actually, I think that the market killed downtown at the end of the last century, along with transportation policies that favored cars over pedestrians in the central business district. Government and philanthropic groups, working along with entrepreneurs, have been key to bringing it back. Modern downtowns are not at all what old-fashioned ones were. They are a public-private partnership -- if you will, an amenity that has to be planned and nourished. Of course there's no necessity for a city to have a vibrant downtown any more; most cities don't have one. But if we want one, we'll have to work at it.
When people say that Greensboro's downtown is doing well, they're really talking about only a section of Elm Street. And Elm is doing great. Anchored at one end by the Southside neighborhood, which was a public-private partnership conceived, planned and implemented by our city government, and by the Center City Park at the other, which was planned and built by Action Greensboro, that stretch of downtown really bustles. Between those poles, restaurants, shops, and clubs thrive.
The Center City Park brings office workers out to buy lunch and enjoy the public spaces.
The City of Greensboro contributes funds to make the sidewalk along the park a pleasant place to walk. The landscaping and interesting paving materials naturally attract people.
People also like walking, shopping, sitting, eating, drinking, and socializing along Elm. Thanks to the city, the sidewalk is wide enough to accommodate both pedestrians and diners, and the human-scaled storefronts allow for a lot of small businesses. Spaces like these make downtowns successful.
Further down South Elm, the low wall separating a parking area from the sidewalk preserves the sense of pedestrian space, as do the sidewalk trees and varied paving materials.
The richness of architectural details on the different storefronts-- most only about 20 feet wide -- provide a lot of visual interest. The man on the right seems to be looking at the architecture across the street. Architecture matters, and Elm Street has an incredibly rich variety of it.
I took these pictures in the early afternoon on a weekday. I took the following ones at the same time on the same day as I wandered back and forth from Elm to some of the surrounding streets.
Here's a photo I took on Davie Street, just a block away. The rotten pedestrian environment here was a team effort: poorly placed streetlights, open private parking lot, no visual border between the sidewalk and a lightly-traveled street that has enough traffic lanes for a superhighway. It's not surprising that no one walks here.
Here's another sidewalk view on Davie. The oddly-placed crosswalk signal is ironically symbolic, don't you think? Nobody likes walking on a narrow sidewalk next to a high wall.
Here's a view of Market Street, next to a Brutalist style office building. Walking here makes you feel like you're skirting the walls of Mordor on the left and the Daytona 500 on the right.
Here's a view on Church Street with a Lincoln Financial warehouse on the right. Cozy!
Along the sidewalk next to the News & Record property, they've put a chain-link fence around the parking lot.
It's pretty obvious that some kinds of buildings, fences, and sidewalks encourage pedestrians, and some don't. People don't like walking along monumental blank walls on barren sidewalks with no visual border between the sidewalk and the street. And if there aren't open storefronts, there usually isn't any reason for them to walk there anyway.
BUT (you might say), we've seen a lot of new buildings downtown like the new YMCA, the Arbor House condominiums, the Carolina Bank building, and Governor's Court -- isn't that a sign that we don't need any design guidelines?
I think just the opposite. All those buildings are downtown, but none of them is actually a downtown building. They are suburban buildings that happen to have been built in the central business district. And to the extent that they're suburban buildings, they have shrunk rather than expanded the footprint of our true downtown.
Here's the main "entrance" to the YMCA on Market Street.
I put scare quotes around "entrance" because if you try to enter the Y that way, you'll find that it's actually "not an entrance."
The Y's facades on either side of Market are blank walls of concrete block. The YMCA folks have tried to help the situation with these large banners, but they don't really help much.
Here's the Y's real entrance: from the parking lot. That's the essence of a suburban building, isn't it? -- no usable openings to the street, and you can access the building only from a large parking lot.
Right across the street from the Y are the newly-built Arbor House condominiums. I was frankly puzzled by the material choices on this building. Its clapboard siding and vinyl windows and balustrades on the balconies seem better suited to the apartment complexes you see along Bridford Parkway or Bryan Boulevard.
But aesthetics aside, you can see that this building has only one visible pedestrian entrance to the sidewalk. It's a little hard to make out, but you can see it recessed beneath a small awning, flanked by two bizarrely tall streetlamps.
Here's a head-on view: not exactly a grand entrance.
I've spent a lot of time staring at this side of the Arbor House, because the treadmills in the YMCA look out directly at it. In all those sweaty hours, I've only seen two pedestrians using the sidewalk (one of them was a jogger), and I've never seen anyone go in or out of the door. The main entry for the residents is the parking garage that is the bottom floor of the building.
Again, it's the essence of a suburban building to be accessible primarily by car. But it's hard to blame the builder. The nearby streetscape is so bleak and blank, who would want to walk there? This is a great example of how one bad design decision (the YMCA) begets others.
The same idea drives the design of the new Carolina Bank building, which is just across the street from the Arbor House and the Y. It's a pretty building: its form and details playfully allude to the domestic architecture of nearby neighborhoods like Fisher Park. It looks like a big colonial-revival foursquare house with a front-facing gable end on the front porch.
But again, Fisher Park is known as "Greensboro's First Suburb," and other design elements confirm the building's suburban essence.
Instead of a porch, it has a drive-though -- a quintessentially suburban use -- supported by doubled Tuscan columns. And to the rear, the bank built up the ground to make a large, flat parking lot rather than working with the natural grade.
The result is this very high retaining wall. You usually see walls built with this kind of low-cost stackable concrete block at suburban shopping centers. The Super Walmart at South Elm-Eugene has a lot of them.
The parking lot could have been built on the natural slope, but the builders decided to favor the the users of the parking lot over the pedestrians on Cedar Street. I spoke to the architect about the wall, and he told me that Carolina Bank would install plantings that would cover it. So far they haven't.
Much of what I said of the Arbor House is also true of Governor's Court condominiums on Church Street. It doesn't have any pedestrian entrance to the sidewalk except for a tiny steel door. Its ground floor is devoted to parking rather than to storefronts that attract pedestrian activity. I heard through the grapevine that the builders were encouraged to put storefronts on the ground level, but the local banking community couldn't figure out how to finance a mixed-use building like that.
Many of the anti-pedestrian features of these buildings would have been prohibited or modified by the proposed downtown design manual.
The overall picture I get from walking around downtown is that its anti-pedestrian character comes from two sources. One of them is the government. The unduly wide streets that encourage fast car traffic in most of the central business district, and the pedestrian-unfriendly sidewalks are a result of poor transportation planning over the past half-century. This can be fixed only by long-term, concerted attention and money from the City Council.
The other source of the problem is the private sector. Much of the new building downtown -- and by new I mean since 1950 or so -- simply doesn't contribute to a pedestrian downtown environment. It's pretty clear that many builders don't know how to -- or don't want to -- build in a way that promotes an active pedestrian environment. Elm Street is very successful in this respect largely because it was built before the age of the automobile.
If we want our downtown to continue to expand successfully beyond Elm Street, we're going to need downtown design guidelines. Lots of cities have them -- Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Chattanooga TN, Greenville SC -- so it's not like they're something exotic. The Southside neighborhood also has them, and and that development has been extremely successful.
But many builders have said, and are saying, that such guidelines are unworkable, and that projects like the ones I've just mentioned "couldn't be built" if they had to adhere to stricter guidelines.
Maybe. But somehow, buildings are being built in all those other places that do have design guidelines. Why is it that Greensboro builders and bankers should stand out in this respect -- that is, in their supposed inability to build attractive, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use buildings downtown?
Posted by David Wharton at Friday, June 05, 2009
Sunday, May 3, 2009
David Craft and Ann Stringfield of the Friends of Green Hill Cemetery gave a tour of that beautiful and fascinating place this afternoon. I took a few photos (click images to enlarge).
Please think about donating to help maintain Greensboro's oldest cemetery. Many of its monuments and its landscaping are falling into disrepair.
Posted by David Wharton at Sunday, May 03, 2009