Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"We're young. We're educated. We want to live in a real neighborhood. We're gone."

I just got an anonymous comment in response to my last post that just blew me away. I'm putting it here as its own post, in the hope that someone in Greensboro's development community is listening:

What the people in Greensboro need to understand is that there's another decamping going on. And it's not those who don't care enough about their street as a public realm who then run for the economic segregation of contemporary subdivision living.

It's people like my wife and I- young, well-educated people with high earning potential who went to school in the Triad. We like living in moderately dense environments (3500-6000 people per sq mile) because we love to walk and spend our money locally rather than in big corporate boxes. We're decamping for cities and regions that have walkable, mixed-use communities.

Living in Carrboro, we walk to the grocery store, to dinner, and the movies on a regular basis, in all 4 seasons. We see people out and about on the streets, and stop to say hello. Combined, we drive less than 10,000 miles a year. There's an elementary school in our neighborhood that has sidewalks and bikepaths connecting it easily to our home, and we think it will be an excellent place to raise children.

When we came here 2 years ago, the plan was to move back to the Triad at the first opportunity. Now that we're here, and know what we'd be missing, it's doubtful we'd return. Strangely enough, it's not the schools, or housing prices, or the job market- it mostly has to do with enjoying the traditional town urban form here that affords us our current lifestyle.

Keith Holliday should repeat these words to himself everytime the City Council turns down a permit for denser infill development: "We're young. We're educated. We want to live in a real neighborhood. We're gone." Quietly, one young person at a time- that's what happens as Greensboro continues to sprawl.

I'm reminded of an anecdote I heard from an urban planner here in Greensboro. A Greensboro developer had been invited to tour the Vermillion development near Charlotte, which is a beautiful example of the kind of neighbhorood my anonymous commenter is attracted to. After the tour, the developer said, "It's beautiful. But you can't do it in Greensboro."

Actually, I think there's a huge pent-up market for this kind of thing in Greensboro. But apparently, no one in the development community here has either the will or the know-how to do it. That's why Nate Bowman (who built Vermillion) came here and built Southside for us.

It's not that no one in Greensboro is trying to attract and keep people like the commenter whom I've quoted -- Action Greensboro has been working very hard to do just that. But their effort, in order to be successful, must move beyond the realm of the philanthropic foundations and their volunteers (whose efforts I sincerely salute). Developers and bankers must learn how to finance and build (and in many cases, re-built) communities that are attractive to the next generation of workers. And I think it's safe to say that that generation is not looking to move into sidewalkless generic outlying developments of cul-de-sacs and snout-houses.

As a start, might I suggest attending today's public lecture about smart growth at the Greensboro Historical Museum (4-5 p.m.)?

10 comments:

Michael said...

I do not think that this is really a generational issue. I know plenty of young people in Greensboro who live in their sidewalk free snout-house neighborhoods and would not have it any other way. I don't understand them, but Adam's Farm and its ilk are full of them. On the other hand, many not so young people prefer an urban neighborhood, such as yourself. And if this couple wants a dense(r) neighborhood, Greensboro has its share with Aycock, Fisher Park, College Hill, and the growing downtown market. I am not saying that Greensboro doesn't need more such development, but the opportunity is out there for those who want it. I get the sense from your post that this family is looking for a newly constructed urban neighborhood, the so called new urbanism, which Greensboro doesn't have. While such a neighborhood will have population density, the cost of the new homes would probably mean little racial or economic diversity. I do not have sympathy for this. Why re-create downtown neighborhoods when a town like Greensboro has the genuine thing. Focus on fixing up downtown neighborhoods and allowing dense infill. Sort of like Southside. Many of the young people (myself included . . . at least in a generous interpretation of young) who leave Greensboro leave for large cities (New York, Chicago, DC) for cultural reasons, and no amount of new urban development will ever stop that.

Michael said...

Just their describing themselves as "well-educated . . . with high earning potential" strikes me as a particularly bothersome form of classism. It seems apparent they want a dense neighborhood filled with similar people.

Michael said...

Just their describing themselves as "well-educated . . . with high earning potential" strikes me as a particularly bothersome form of classism. It seems apparent they want a dense neighborhood filled with similar people.

David Wharton said...

Michael, I can't speak for the commenter, but my memories of Carrboro indicate that it's got a wide range of incomes.

Some New Urbanist communities are pretty pricey. But the New Urbanists who came and did a charrette in Aycock were very interested in keeping affordable housing in our neighborhood -- they thought we were a bit too upscale and dedicated to single-family houses.

Making sure that some condos, townhomes, and apartments are mixed in with the single-family houses is a part of New Urbanist philosophy, but not all developers adhere to it, probably because there's more money to be made in the more expensive housing types.

I quote from the smart growth flyer in my earlier post: "Housing opportunities and choices for a range of household types, family sizes, and incomes."

Sue Blogs said...

I'm on the other side of this generational thing. As a non-retired empty nester, I'd LOVE to live where I can walk to the store and see neighbors outside. We recently faced the "stay here or move" dilemma when the kids left and we opted for "stay" because my office is here and maybe they'll visit with potential grandkids one day. Prices for empty-next villages are skyrocket high. I grew up in a small town and would love to retire to that feeling right here in Greensboro.

D. Hoggard said...

It's a damn interesting thing, this density vs gentrification issue.

We in Aycock have always welcomed all comers of all income levels, but I fear that this welcome may become a moot point if people can't afford to live here or in other new or rehabilitated neighborhoods.

I hate to say it, but Charlotte has got it going on in the realm of density vs affordability. Why not Greensboro?

Without a decent stock of cool new $350 to $700 per month rentals and $85k to $150k purchase price condos in the inner city, 'smart growth' will be doomed to 'smart/rich growth'.

We have plenty of developers here who could do what what can be profitably done in these markets... But don't. Why?

D. Hoggard said...

It's a damn interesting thing, this density vs gentrification issue.

We in Aycock have always welcomed all comers of all income levels, but I fear that this welcome may become a moot point if people can't afford to live here or in other new or rehabilitated neighborhoods.

I hate to say it, but Charlotte has got it going on in the realm of density vs affordability. Why not Greensboro?

Without a decent stock of cool new $350 to $700 per month rentals and $85k to $150k purchase price condos in the inner city, 'smart growth' will be doomed to 'smart/rich growth'.

We have plenty of developers here who could do what what can be profitably done in these markets... But don't. Why?

Anonymous said...

It’s disappointing to be accused of “particularly bothersome forms of classism.”. A better approach for Michael would have been to ask some questions about my preferences and living situation, rather than making facile, negative assumptions about my personal motivations.

We’re not really interested in New Urbanism. We’re already enjoying REAL urbanism where we live. My neighborhood ideals aren’t Seaside, FL or Vermillion- they’re Adams Morgan in DC, the North End in Boston, and the medieval cores of many older European cities such as Siena, Prague, and Venice.

On neighborhood diversity, Mr. Wharton is close to the mark. Our neighborhood has a wide variety of incomes, which is not surprising due to the wide variety of housing stock. We have people of 3 different races in my building, and we're on a first-name basis with all of them. One block away, we have several apartments with people who are probably on fixed incomes. One block further there was a 3BR/2BA house that recently sold for $250-$300k.

So why did I mention socioeconomic status and educational attainment?

Winston-Salem, where I lived for years, is quite concerned that the number of 18-34 year-olds is either static or declining in the city. Greensboro also seems to be thinking about this:
http://www.ci.greensboro.nc.us/budget/Trends%20Report%20FY%2002-03/DemographicsEconomicClimate.pdf

It's a bad sign if your metro area produces a good deal of college graduates, but can't keep them around. Look at the PDF above and compare the 18-34 age bracket growth of Guilford to Wake and Mecklenburg counties. Then think about the economies of the three counties.

Charlotte is now the #2 banking center in America behind NYC. Wake County is still booming off of the creative energy of the high tech and biotech sector in RTP. And the Triad? The Triad is not doing nearly as well, to put it kindly. The brain drain may or may not be cause of economic decline, but it’s at least an indicator worth watching as a barometer of how a region retains the intellectual and entrepreneurial capital it cultivates.

I believe my spouse and I can be positively identified as brain drain losses from the Triad, and my post was an attempt to explain what Greensboro doesn’t have that could keep more folks like us around.

Living in a development is not the same as living in a PLACE. The difference is that DEVELOPMENTS are hard to tell apart and PLACES are unique and identifiable. The mass production housing springing up on either side of Bryan Blvd could be in Reston, VA, or Naperville, Ill, or Cary, NC. The dining, where it exists, is mostly chain restaurant, fast-casual Macaroni Grill/TGI Fridays/Applebee’s/Olive Garden/Golden Corral. Where are these places in America? Who knows? I don’t know if we’ll live where we are permanently. But I am certain we will live in authentic places, and if Greensboro does have authentic places I haven’t seen, it’s mostly building developments these days.

To close a long post, living in Carrboro, there’s a strong sense of place. You feel like a participant in the community- out and about, interacting with people, be they friends or strangers. We’re looking to be participants where we live, and we’re looking to participate in someplace unique, someplace special, and someplace built to foster conversation, not isolation.

David Wharton said...

Anonymous, Greensboro has a number of neighborhoods like the ones you're interested in. There's my own, the Aycock Historic District, which is a good example of the "old urbanism", which we're working hard to renew.

Another such neighborhood is Lindley Park, which has stores, restaurants, and coffee shops mixed in with housing.

Fisher Park and College Hill also offer "old urbanism" and a strong sense of place, as does the Westerwood neighborhood. The Old Asheboro neighborhood is also undergoing a renaissance; you should see what's happening along MLK Boulevard.

Southside is an interesting mix of old an new urbanism, right on the south edge of downtown where a lot of development is happening. A new building of condominiums is going up next to the old Southern Railroad depot on South Elm, and the city is getting ready to prepare a renovation plan for the brownfield nearby.

You might still want to consider coming back. I think in 10 years Greensboro will be a very different place from the one you left.

Erik said...

I'll just point out that New Urbanism in its most important aspects IS old urbanism, with a marketing tag. It's about restoring the design patterns that made the best American cities work and live in the first place (with minor updates). And one of the essential elements thereof is that real neighborhoods must contain a mix of housing types to house a mix of family types, and single persons. I'll also note that Greensboro, right now, is on my list of candidate towns where I am considering buying a house (probably a pre-WW2 house) in the next year. I'm going to be visiting each town and walking its streets extensively; places that aren't extensively walkable, or which don't feel like Real Places, will drop off my list pretty quick.