Sunday, August 3, 2014

Will Bellemeade Village Be An Urban Village Or A Suburban Development That Happens To Be Downtown?

The relationship between a building and its environment is a little like a Catholic marriage. If the partners are well suited, fruitful harmony ensues. If not, decades of misery, with no prospect of divorce.

Developer Roy Carroll is proposing to wed his new project, Bellemeade Village,  to the north end of downtown, right across the street from NewBridge Bank Park. He offers  the customary enticements: high-dollar investment, upscale apartments, swimming pools, and mixed use. To an aspiring little downtown like ours, this seems like an advantageous match.

But the suitor is demanding a dowry, namely,  the closing of a block of Lindsay Street.  That will change two short blocks on Eugene Street into  one 1000-foot block, and will hamper connectivity near  the stadium and the proposed Performing Arts Center.  Nonetheless, Mr. Carroll has intimated that the wedding will not happen without it.

The closing of a short street seems like a small matter, but it isn’t.  Think: what are our goals for downtown? Why have philanthropists and the City invested in the ballpark, Center City Park, the Greenway, and the Performing Arts Center, which Mr. Carroll credits with attracting him to this location?
It is to make downtown busy with people who walk and bike – not just drive – to nearby business and entertainment.

Both everyday experience and academic studies confirm that small blocks are essential for vibrant pedestrian life.  Jeff Speck, the urbanist who  led the Mayor's Institute on City Design, writes, "People are small, and the most walkable cities acknowledge this fact with small blocks ... most cities that have closed streets in the past now wish they hadn't.” Jane Jacobs, the most celebrated urbanist of our time, devotes a whole chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to the importance of small blocks.

Other cities with successful urban ballparks – Akron, Wichita, Montgomery – have kept their surrounding developable blocks under 500 feet on average. In fact, a new mixed-use complex with condos, street-level retail, and office space recently sprung up on the 500-foot block that includes Greenville, South Carolina’s Fluor Field.

Building design also matters for pedestrian life.  To quote our Downtown Master Plan:  “The scale, streetscape, and architecture [of South Elm] combine to form a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly environment. Beyond South Elm Street, however, Center City loses its charm .... blank street-level architecture and a lack of basic streetscape make much of the Center City a hostile environment."

The Bellemeade Village sketch plans provided to the Planning Board do show some sidewalk-level apartment entrances – that’s good – but they do not show any sidewalk-level businesses like those on South Elm Street and in Southside.  Not good. And the building aesthetics on the plans unfortunately reflect the specialties of the architect chosen for the project, whose portfolio is mostly composed of generic suburban motels and fast-food restaurants.

Mr. Carroll is quoted in the Rhino Times saying that true mixed-use projects are rare, but that is perhaps true only in Greensboro.  Towns like Chattanooga and Greenville are decades ahead of us in innovative and sophisticated mixed-use design. Greensboro is playing catch up, and Bellemeade Village, as currently proposed, will not move us forward much.

However, the proposal to close Lindsay Street offers City Council an opportunity. Council could make the street closing contingent on ample and public pedestrian access between Eugene and Battleground. It could also require that  the development include a significant amount of sidewalk-level retail  and substantial pedestrian amenities.

A happy marriage between Bellemeade Village and downtown is possible, but only if City Council crafts a hard-nosed prenup. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

An Open Letter to Robert D. Marcus, President of Time Warner Cable, Inc.

Update 2/26/2013: Our internet connectivity issues have been resolved. We received a call this morning from Time Warner offering to refund our internet bill for the time affected by loss of service, which we gladly accepted.

February 3, 2013
David Wharton
Greensboro, NC

Robert D. Marcus
President & Chief Operating Officer
Time Warner Cable, Inc.
60 Columbus Circle
New YorkNY, 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 grĂ¢ce. 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.

David Wharton

Friday, April 6, 2012

Ghost Stadium

I was surprised that the city council voted to postpone the demolition of the major part of World War Memorial Stadium. If you're not familiar with what happened at this week's council meeting, Ed Cone has a brief summary with links. If you want the long history, just click the tag for "World War Memorial Stadium" below and you can read all my posts over the past years.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3.  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.
  4. Changes to a property that have acquired historic significance in their own right will be retained and preserved.
  5.  Distinctive materials, features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a property will be preserved.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Archeological resources will be protected and preserved in place. If such resources must be disturbed, mitigation measures will be undertaken.
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.

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, February 3, 2012

The Proposed PAC, Pedestrians, and Parking

I'm glad the new city council is proposing a new performing arts center. Greensboro deserves better than it's got.

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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

RUCO Facts and Figures

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.

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.

One feature of the RUCO ordinance that the apartment industry especially hates is its sample inspections. They argue that it is a waste of money, and inspections should be focused on the "real problem properties" that can be identified from a visual inspection or from tenant complaints. As Marlene Sanford, president of TREBIC put it in a News & Record article, "We've spent $3 million inspecting luxury apartments."

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.

Regulatory Capture

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

Scoring the Proposed Downtown Design Manual

Greensboro's proposed Downtown Design Manual is open for public comment until June 24th (if you have comments you can send them to 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.

Short History of the Manual

The manual has taken a circuitous path to get to its present state. The first draft was produced under the guidance of a citizen steering committee composed of design professionals, downtown property owners, downtown advocates, preservationists, and me. I was there as a representative of the neighborhoods bordering downtown, but had to drop out about halfway through the first draft. My input was minimal. City planning staff administered the meetings, and the prestigious design firm Cooper Cary was hired to turn the steering committee's ideas into coherent guidelines. Unfortunately, Cooper Cary couldn't produce a usable draft, so the steering committee wrote its own guidelines.

The initial draft contained both standards and guidelines. The standards were meant to be hard-and-fast rules; the guidelines were recommendations. City staff would review and approve proposals to make sure they met the standards.

When the first version came up for public review, it met strenuous opposition from some downtown property owners, led by Roy Carroll. Carroll is owner of the Carroll Companies, a large development firm with extensive experience in suburban single- and multi-family development. The Carroll Companies' vice-president was a member of the citizen steering committee, and he frequently voiced his opposition to any standards in the manual. Other prominent development firms (Weaver Cooke Construction, Lomax Construction, Milton Kern & Co.), which had extensive experience in downtown development, were represented on the steering committee as well, but they supported the the use of standards.

Mr. Carroll's only notable foray into downtown Greensboro development is the renovation of the former Wachovia Tower on Elm Street as a high-rise condominium complex, for which he received nearly $1 million in government incentives. Now called Center Pointe, most of its units remain unsold after several years on the market, although Mr. Carroll himself reportedly lives in the expansive penthouse suite on the top floor. Mr. Carroll is also active in local politics, contributing money to many local candidates, and recently offered the use of his private jet to elected city officials for a lobbying trip to Washington, DC (they eventually declined under public pressure).

Mr. Carroll's opposition group, claiming to champion free-market economics and individual property rights (despite Mr. Carroll's entanglement with government subsidies for a private project), essentially took over the manual writing, and after some months of intensive work with city staff, produced the current draft. It contains no standards, only guidelines.

The new draft has two important innovations. The first is a points system for scoring projects. A project is awarded one point for each guideline that it meets, and two points for meeting certain "bonus" guidelines that are considered more important. Projects that accumulate 75% of possible points in their category are considered acceptable and are automatically given a green light by city staff.

The second innovation is the addition of the Property Owners Review Team, or PORT. The PORT is composed of eight members. Five of them are required to be downtown property owners who have recently developed projects there; these are the only voting members of the PORT. The other three members-- one representative from Downtown Greensboro, Inc., and two design professionals -- serve in an advisory capacity only.

If a proposed project falls short of the 75% points score, it is referred to the PORT, whose function is to advise the proposers on how to score more points, although their recommendations are non-binding. That is, all proposals are automatically approved, regardless of their score. If the project has to go to City Council for any further approval or funding, PORT and staff comments are provided to Council. The Council, of course, is not bound by the points system and can approve any project it desires.

This part of the new manual is a textbook case of regulatory capture, in which interested parties not only took over the writing of the manual, but also installed themselves as the authoritative interpreters of it. What's more, they have made themselves the gatekeepers of future development: important projects that require City Council approval will have to seek the imprimatur of the established special interests on the PORT.

Using the Guidelines

At the last public meeting on the manual, I asked whether anyone had test-driven the new guidelines to see how well the points system worked. Planning staff said that maybe somebody had scored some downtown projects, but they didn't have the results available.

So I decided to try them out for myself and score some well-known downtown buildings. Many of the guidelines are written somewhat vaguely, so other people might score them differently. At any rate, I've assigned each project a grade using a standard 100-point percent system. According to the manual, a 75% percent grade is adequate for automatic approval, which in my scoring system would be a C. A 100% score would be an A+, 90% an A-, etc. Here are my scores and comments.

Carolina Bank (Pedestrian Mixed Use area). Grade: F (58%). As I've written before, this building falls short on a number of guidelines: it disrupts the pedestrian environment with many curb cuts for its parking and drive-through, and its needlessly high retaining wall is grimly blank, effectively destroying the entire streetscape on the Cedar Street side. Although the building itself is attractive, it is completely suburban in character. It would have been perfect at Friendly Center.

Arbor House (Pedestrian Mixed Use area). Grade: F (58%). This grade even includes two bonus points for "accentuating" its entrance which is nothing more than an industrial steel door. It gets poor marks for its materials choices, which include inexpensive vinyl windows and porch railings, and fiberboard clapboard siding. And it obviously gets no points for "celebrat[ing] nearby historic properties," since it is named for the beautiful and significant historic property that was destroyed in order to build it.

Bryan YMCA (Pedestrian Mixed Use area). Grade F (35%). This building got two bonus points for putting its parking in the rear, but that doesn't take into account the fact that its front entrance is permanently locked, and marked "not an entrance." It's wonderful to have a downtown YMCA, and I'm a member, but this structure is just a disaster as a downtown building. The YMCA, the Arbor House, and the Carolina Bank, all sited contiguously, have effectively suburbanized four important blocks of downtown Greensboro.

Center Pointe (Pedestrian Mixed Use area). Grade: B- (80%). Some of the points-scoring features of this tower were built into it before Mr. Carroll refurbished it, such as its wide sidewalks, street-fronting entrances, and side parking. But he should also get due credit for using high quality materials and tasteful signage and lighting. On the down side, no street trees were planted along its wide, Elm street sidewalks. This is the only gap in North Elm's street canopy for many blocks (and the artist's rendering of the Center Pointe website shows street trees at this location). Nor is the side parking lot screened except for a couple of forlorn crape myrtles.

324 South Elm (Historic Core area). Grade: D+ (68%). This new building (still under construction) reportedly underwent significant design modification under pressure from other downtown developers. However, it lost bonus points by ignoring the roof levels, window patterns, and design cues of nearby buildings. It could easily pick up the necessary points for a C grade, however, by including some landscape screening for a utility box at the sidewalk and by integrating appropriate signage (of which there is none at the moment).

Some Conclusions and Ideas

The actual guidelines in the manual seem workable, and the points system provides a rough measure of the overall appropriateness of projects, although I think it could use some tweaking. Not all guidelines are actually applicable to every project; for example, the guidelines about retaining walls are not relevant to projects without them. Thus it's not possible for most projects, even very good ones, to receive a 100% score. The scoring issue is one that the manual writers seem not to have thought through very carefully.

Perhaps that's because in the actual administration of the manual, the score is nearly meaningless, because it has no real consequences beyond requiring an applicant to have a conversation with the PORT. This feature of the ordinance gives it the power to irritate applicants and slow down development, but not the power to effect real improvements to bad projects. Lose-lose.

But a worse problem with the manual is the makeup of the PORT and its role in the administration of the guidelines. Imagine how it will make Greensboro look to some experienced outside developers. In what other town must they justify their projects to a board whose voting members must be chosen on the basis of a property qualification, but who need not have any professional expertise or demonstrated success? They will think they have arrived in a jerkwater town where everything is run by the local good ole boy network.

However, there is a kernel of a good idea in the PORT. Property owners deserve a significant voice in the process, and they often have knowledge and experience that professional planners lack. But an individual-property-rights-only approach to downtown design is not sufficient for making downtown successful, not only because downtown depends on and uses public infrastructure and services, but also because downtown as a whole is composed of interdependent elements -- buildings, sidewalks, streets -- any one of which can damage or enhance the value of the others. Imagine a South Elm street with drive-through curb cuts every 40 feet, or where every third lot was a parking lot. Downtown Greensboro, and its established businesses, would be effectively gone.

The PORT could be strengthened by including, in addition to the five property owners, a certified preservationist, a certified architect with demonstrated success in downtown design projects, either in Greensboro or elsewhere, and the president of Preservation Greensboro, Inc., all as voting members. A preservationist is absolutely necessary because downtown Greensboro includes a National Register historic district (The Old Greensborough district) and a number of National Register and Landmark structures.

City Staff and the PORT could score projects independently, and their scores could be averaged. Both would submit recommendations, no matter a project's score. If a project did not receive an average of 75% points from the PORT and staff, it would not receive a building permit, but could be resubmitted with modifications suggested by staff and the PORT.

Alternatively, the City Council could appoint a singe design review committee composed of city staff, property owners, design professionals, and preservationists, and that body could score projects and make recommendations for improvement without the need for separate reports.

In either case, the points system would provide flexibility to developers, but the power to actually stop and modify projects would ensure that the whole process amounts to more than pointless kvetching.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

What's Good About The LDO

Here's a column I wrote for today's News & Record:

The quickest way to make someone's eyes glaze over is to say, "Let's talk about land use." But you sure can wake them up by saying, "Hey, the city's rezoning your property!"

John Hammer in the Rhino Times has been using the latter approach in writing about Greensboro's proposed new Land Development Ordinance, which is now under public review. He's got people talking, which is good. But a lot of important information has been left out of the reporting so far.

The ordinance rewrite got rolling after the City Council unanimously adopted the Connections 2025 Comprehensive Plan for Greensboro in 2003. The plan's land-use section says, "New challenges are emerging which necessitate a comprehensive review of land use and development policy. ... Significant revisions to zoning regulations will be required to implement these land use policies."

Responding to this council mandate, then-City Manager Ed Kitchen and the council appointed a Citizens Advisory Team to work with consultants and staff on revising the existing ordinance. The CAT (of which I'm a member) was made up of neighborhood representatives, engineers, builders, real estate professionals and lawyers with expertise in land-use and environmental issues.

The city posted an explanation of the rewrite, along with the CAT's contact information, on the city's Web site throughout the process. Two City Council liaisons served on the CAT: first Tom Phillips, then Goldie Wells. Phillips gave explicit direction from the council at the beginning of our work, and Wells stepped in when Phillips left the council. City staff kept each successive council updated, and drafts were posted on the city's Web site.

After 31/2 years of painstaking work, we produced a draft ordinance that retained the best of the existing ordinance, but also included needed updates and neighborhood protections. City staff held public hearings on the rewrite, both at the very beginning, and after the first draft was released in October. Not many people showed up, and the City Council rightly directed staff to send letters to individual property owners alerting them to changes and to hold more public hearings. Many people came to them expressing disapproval of a few provisions in the proposed ordinance.

The most unpopular provision was the inclusion of twin homes at limited locations in some single-family residential districts. Other people were worried that the new ordinance would make their properties "non-conforming." Political consultant Bill Burckley also criticized the proposed LDO because it is not unified with other Guilford County municipalities the way its predecessor, the Unified Development Ordinance, was.

Since the last public hearing, members of the CAT and city staff have met with neighborhood and industry groups to incorporate this input into a revised draft. The latest proposal removes twin homes from single-family districts and specifies that owners of properties made non-conforming by the ordinance have the right to maintain and rebuild their properties just as they are.

As to the Unified Development Ordinance, the City Council charted Greensboro's path away from that in 2003 when it ratified the Comprehensive Plan. The city of High Point also officially abandoned the UDO concept in 2007.

While the local media have focused on some controversial aspects of the new ordinance, they have not emphasized its real advantages. Here are some that I believe in strongly:

-- The proposed ordinance is friendlier to neighborhoods. One provision requires developers who ask for conditional rezonings to report to the Zoning Commission the efforts they made to contact neighbors, and to describe any changes they incorporated into their plans as a result of neighborhood input. The aim is to improve communication between developers and neighbors before showdowns at the Zoning Commission.

-- Another provision allows infill development in older neighborhoods to conform to prevailing setbacks and lot sizes instead of taking the one-size-fits-all approach of the current law. This will help neighborhoods built before 1960 retain their traditional character.

-- The new ordinance includes new mixed-use zoning categories which encourage commercial development to be more pedestrian-friendly and oriented to neighborhoods than the strip-style development that currently prevails in Greensboro. The pioneering Southside development is an excellent example of a mixed-use development where residents can easily walk to services, stores and restaurants.

-- The new ordinance clarifies and improves many technical provisions that business owners had found difficult to understand and use.

-- The ordinance is simply easier for the average person to read, access and understand. Its final online version will include hyperlinked cross-references to definitions and diagrams that make it very user-friendly. That is a tremendous help to average property owners, who are now often at a disadvantage in zoning disputes because they don't know the law as well as they might.

Think of the proposed new ordinance as a much-needed infrastructure upgrade. Many competitor cities have already adopted up-to-date zoning practices that attract solid economic development. In these hard economic times, Greensboro cannot afford to fall behind them.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan in Durham

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.

The opening act was actually the musical highlight of the evening for me, an acoustic jug-band group called The Wiyos. Their playing and vocal harmonies were tight and upbeat, and the overall sound quality was the best of the evening.

Willie Nelson followed with a small, low-tech and low-key ensemble that focused attention on his singing and guitar playing. Unfortunately, he didn't sing much, half-talking his way through his long and venerable repetoire of country and pop classics. When Willie did bother to sing, his voice was rich and strong, but "perfunctory" would be a kind way to describe most of his vocal and instrumental work. The fans loved him, though, and he reciprocated by frequently pointing at and/or blowing kisses to the most enthusiastic of them. A very few were rewarded with one of his trademark red bandanas, which on this afternoon were soaked with sweat. I suppose it's remarkable that a 76-year-old man can still perform on a sun-drenched stage in 95-degree heat, but that didn't make the music any better.

John Mellencamp was up next, and he gave full value. Though I've never been a fan, he completely won me over. His voice sounds as good as it ever did, and he worked hard on stage, punctuating his lyrics with enthusiastic jumps, kicks, and fist-pumps. This from a man who is on the downslope toward 60. He even had me singing on "Hurts So Good," and I just don't do that. One of my teenagers remarked afterward, "I'd like to go to a Mellencamp concert some time."

The highlight of the show should have been the headliner, Bob Dylan. I will give him this: he and his band looked really cool. And as far as I could tell, his band played well. But the volume for the Dylan set was so loud and the sound consequently so muddy that it's hard to be sure.

What little is left of Dylan's ravaged voice and expressive power could occasionally be discerned if you had earplugs and patience. But his phrasing is hurried and apparently bored (especially on his older classics), to the extent that it was hard to make out even the lyrics I knew by heart.

So I did something I've never done: I walked out of the stadium and waited for the rest of my crew in the concourse. I couldn't help but notice that hundreds of others were doing the same, steadily streaming out, looking bored. I would guess that about a third of the audience was gone by the time the show was over.

I wasn't actually expecting a great performance from Dylan. We all know he's far past his prime; part of me just wanted to lay eyes on the great man since I'd never seen him perform live. But whatever was good in his performance was ruined by truly horrible sound engineering.

Update: Horbrastar concurs, and also left early.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Do We Want Downtown Design Guidelines?

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?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Memento Mori

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.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The UNCG Quad

I found out this week through Ed Cone's blog, Benjamin Brigg's blog, and the News & Record that my university is considering tearing down and replacing several historic dorms on its Quadrangle in order to accomodate its rapidly-growing student population.

The Chancellor held a forum at which two options were presented: either renovate the dorms and add a new dorm elsewhere on campus, or tear the dorms down and builder new, bigger ones on the site.  I attended the forum and spoke (see Joe Killian's article), but a number of points were made -- mostly by students -- that I think deserve a little more elaboration and documentation. And so here they are:

1) Renovating these buildings is in keeping with the University's Master Plan

(p. vii): "The Master Plan Update recognizes that the structure and form of the built environment will have a critical impact on the ability of UNCG to meet the mission laid out by the “Vision 2008” stated above. As such, it strives to prioritize the use of existing campus space, protect and restore the historic resources of the campus and identify building sites for future campus buildings, while recognizing that the campus will need to become more dense and “vertical” where appropriate." 

P. 17 "As it faces future growth, the UNCG campus has numerous strengths upon which to build. These include proximity to established residential neighborhoods, downtown Greensboro and   other colleges; its significant historic buildings and green space ..." 

P. 12 of the Master Plan identifies the Quad and its buildings as "significant character-defining buildings." 

P. 13: "Many of the older buildings have historic, architectural or “space-shaping” significance which creates a sense of place and enhances the character of the campus. These include Foust Building, the dormitories at the Quadrangle, the Steam Plant and the buildings along College Avenue. The University should strive to preserve these important buildings, consider them within the context of current building and program needs, and enhance them with future landscape or structural improvements." 

2) Renovating the buildings is in keeping with the University's values, especially sustainability, which is explicitly mentioned in the University's new Strategic Plan, and endorsed by the Chancellor. The buildings contain an enormous amount of "embodied energy" -- that is, the energy that went into the manufacture of its parts (bricks, beams, etc), and the making of the building itself. Tearing the building down will entail throwing that energy investment away, and using more energy to demolish and transport the debris to the landfill, and then to manufacture and build new dorms. "The greenest building is the one that already exists," as preservation economist Donovan Rypkema likes to say.

3) The existing buildings, if renovated, would probably perform better in terms of energy efficiency than new ones because of their heavy masonry walls. 

4) UNCG trails nearby schools in a national sustainability survey. UNCG gets a C; whereas UNC Chapel Hill gets a B+, as does Duke University. Demolition of the buildings will only put us farther behind, and make it clear that the University's commitment to sustainability is window dressing only. 

5) UNCG has the only Historic Preservation graduate program in the state. What message will it send if the University refuses to preserve its own buildings against the recommendation of its own master plan? How will that help attract new students to the Historic Preservation program, or affect the program's national reputation? 

6) Renovation is likely to help the local economy more than would demolition and rebuilding. Renovation is more labor-intensive and heavily employs local skilled contractors, workers, and craftsmen, so more of the money flows to local sources. Rebuilding typically draws manufactured materials (brick, concrete block, etc.) from father afield, and typically requires less skilled workers. 

7) New buildings seldom include the depth and density of architectural detail found on older ones. While the option to build new mentions that some of the architectural details would be imitated on the new buildings, these are the kinds of things that get cut when budgets get tight. It's doubtful that new buildings would have the architectural texture and value of the existing ones, which were reportedly designed by Harry Barton, one of Greensboro's most famous architects.

8) The proposed new buildings have an expected life of 50 years. The existing buildings already have lasted 80-90 years, and with proper maintenance should have an indefinite lifespan. A good masonry building can be maintained pretty much as long as one wants to keep it -- the old center cities of Europe are packed shoulder-to- shoulder with buildings that are hundreds of years old and are still well-used. Only in the United States is a 90-year-old institutional building considered "old." 

9) The old buildings can be adapted to suits the needs and wants of modern undergraduates, and if renovated, will probably become premium, desired housing at the center of campus, much the way the old dorms on "The Lawn" at UVA are.

Certainly the Chancellor and Board of Trustees have an obligation to look after the need of undergraduates and to be good stewards of the University's budget. Demolishing and building new might look like a cost-effective solution in the short term. But over the life of the University, which will be here for many generations, I think preservation and renovation make more sense.