Monday, July 11, 2005

An Unsettling Pattern

In an earlier post, I mentioned that planners from the Project for Public Spaces had advised Action Greensboro that there's plenty of parking in downtown Greensboro.

What's needed, they said, is traffic calming to make downtown more welcoming to pedestrians. In their words, "We need to make Friendly Avenue more Friendly." They also suggested that park planners construct a painted skein to hang on one of the Center City Park's neighboring parking decks, specifically to hide the fact that the park is surrounded by parking decks.

But now Downtown Greensboro Inc., which has traditionally had close ties with Action Greensboro, has addded three new parking decks to its downtown development wish list.

This isn't the first time that downtown boosters have ignored the advice of nationally-known experts that they themselves have hired.

Action Greensboro brought "creative class" guru Richard Florida to Greensboro in October, 2003. Florida strongly promotes the revitalization of center cities as a way to rev up economic development.

And, as Fisher Park resident Ann Stringfield has documented thoroughly, Florida doesn't believe that baseball stadiums play any significant role in such efforts. She wrote:
Richard Florida, brought to visit Greensboro by Action Greensboro to promote his "Creative Class" concept, repeatedly and clearly articulates in print and in conversation that a new downtown stadium is not a good idea. Florida writes ... "Stadiums are NOT part of any package aimed at attracting the creative class. And none of our focus groups or interviews turned up stadiums as on the list of what creative class people want." (Florida's emphasis, not mine.)
So what did Action Greensboro do after bringing Florida in? They built First Horizon Park in the downtown business district. This has been their signature project. Hmmm.

And before Florida, Action Greensboro helped pay for a visit by Donovan Rypkema, an expert on historic preservation and the creative re-use of historic buildings, who has a decidedly pro-free-market orientation. Rypkema said when he was here that preservation and re-use make a lot of economic sense, and have been important components of nearly every successful center-city revitalization that he knows about.

What happened to Rypkema's advice?

The art moderne-style Burlington Industries building was torn down to build First Horizon Park. To date -- and as far as I know -- Action Greensboro hasn't preserved or renovated a single historic structure. Hmmm. Hmmm.

Now, in principle, there's nothing wrong with disagreeing with experts. Experts are often wrong -- sometimes they're spectacularly wrong. If Action Greensboro and DGI had ever said anything like, "We disagree with Rypkema, Florida, and the Project for Public Spaces. It was a mistake to bring them in. We have a different idea, and here it is . . ." that would have been great. Let's do have an open discussion about the best way to promote downtown development.

But that has never happened. Rather, a series of experts has been brought in, and their advice has been quietly ignored. More than ignored -- contradicted.

What gives? Action Greensboro folks (and I know that at least one reads this blog) -- please tell me why I shouldn't intepret this pattern as a very cynical way to build public support for an agenda that has little to do with expert advice.

Because I'd love to believe that things in this city don't work the way that the cynical me thinks they do.

So cynics (you know who you are), please refrain from commenting. I want to hear from the other side: un-convince me.

10 comments:

Sue said...

You wrote: "Action Greensboro folks (and I know that at least one reads this blog) -- please tell me why I shouldn't intepret this pattern as a very cynical way to build public support for an agenda that has little to do with expert advice."

As the blog-in-question-linked-to-your-post, I won't take the bait and start a war of words in text about how you interpret urban development a la AG. As I've said a hundred or so times (well, maybe a few less than that), I don't speak for Action Greensboro; I'm a volunteer. I agree with a lot of what AG's mission is; I work for what I agree with.

How about trying this another way? Instead of accusing AG of cynicism, why not GET INVOLVED? Join AG, state your case, give the benefit of your wisdom, and work with others for what you want? Or is it easier to stay in your neighborhood and complain about others being more powerful, more influential, or more (insert negative word of choice) than you and yours?

You've got a lot to give, David. Greensboro would be better for your taking it up a notch. Join an AG group that fits what you want to see done and help get it done. See things from another lens, if only for a while, and then challenge. See a project all the way through; lend your time and expertise. We'd all be the better for it.

David Wharton said...

I don't want a war of words, either Sue. Thanks for repsonding.

Get involved? I've spent thousands of hours on the following: helping to organize a neighborhood planning charrette in 2002; helping to organize fundraising efforts to pay for the charrette; writing grants for neighborhood improvement projects; helping to organize the neighborhood efforts to toward developing the Strategic Plan for the Aycock Neighborhood; helping to organize political support to get City Council to adopt the plan; helping to organize an effort to prod city council to fund the Summit Avenue corridor study; serving on the committee to interview and choose the consulting firm that will do the study; serving on the War Memorial Stadium Task Force, which defined the future use of the stadium and has recently picked an architectural firm to plan the renovation; serving as a representative in the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress; preparing and delivering a multimedia presentation to City Council in favor of passage of the Rental Unit Certification ordinace; serving as a commissioner appointed by City Council on the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission; serving as secretary, vice-president, and president of my neighborhood association; maintaining my neighborhood's website, as well as the website of the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, the Community Swim Association and the North Carolina Classical Association.

Why don't I do any of this stuff for AG? When AG first came into existence, I contacted them via the e-mail link on their website and asked them to come to our neighborhood and tell us their plans. I was very excited about the possibilities. They didn't respond.

When our neighborhood held its planning charrette in 2002, we publicly invited them to come. They declined to attend, and some AG leaders badmouthed us to members of City Council, and tried to discourage Council members from attending the charrette.

And then there's the problem of the vision thing. I agree with Rypkema and PPS (I'm skeptical of Florida). AG obviously doesn't. If I were to join AG, do you think that AG's leaders would change their minds about that stuff?

Mark said...

David:

For the past week or so, I've been reading several Triad blogs to get an idea of what's going on in Greensboro. Why? My wife, two kids, and I might be relocating (for work reasons) from Chattanooga, TN to Greensboro in the late summer.

While I know very little about your city, I get a sense that Chattanooga and Greensboro have a lot in common. Chattanooga has undergone a tremendous amount of downtown development and revitalization in the past decade. A new aquarium, greenways, parks, hotels, museums, restaurants, and, yes, a minor league baseball stadium have been built downtown. The change has been dramatic. Chattanooga -- even on a weeknight -- is buzzing with activity. While I supported the overall development efforts, I was a bit skeptical of the need for the stadium at first. In hindsight, I was wrong. The stadium was not the centerpiece of the downtown plan, but it plays an important role in providing a family activity in the downtown area.

If we do indeed move to Greensboro, I will miss Chattanooga's scenery, outdoor activities, my parents, and (believe it or not) the in-laws. I won't miss, however, the cynics on local talk radio or the moronic county commissioners who refuse to adequately fund our public schools. (We have no state income tax, so the overwhelming financial burden is placed on local governments.)

But you don't have any of those problems in Greensboro, right? ;-)

--Mark

Joel Gillespie said...

I have lived in Greensboro for 15 years. I read the paper. I read the other paper. I read blogs. I have no idea where Action Greensboro gets its ideas or how it makes its decisions or who really makes its decisions. So, though I am a fairly involved resident, I am an outsider to this process. It has all the appearances of some backroom good old boy group to me, that just decides what it decides, for reasons of its own. If it's not that, and if common ordinary folk have a place at the table, a place that matters (and not just so as to say that the table is filled) then that needs to be explained further to the population I think. My beef with many of these things is that the processes leading up to the "announcement" are obscure and hidden, and we're asked to vote or come to opinions in a vacuum of understanding about that. I may not be the sharpest tool in he shed but I am not the dullest either, nor a cynic for cynicism's sake, but I am cynical about the process that leads to such decisions as this recent parking garage deal. So, someone, lay it out there for us slow common folk. Shine light on the process. Explain how the process is really open and clear and maybe even ever so slightly democratic. Help me, help us, udnerstand that this is not some "inner ring" exclusive club that imposes its will on the rest of us. I want to understand that.

Jeri Rowe said...

David:
Just a point of clarification. I asked Richard Florida about that very thing -- baseball stadiums being used as economic lynchpins of downtowns -- and he told me he was talking about major-league stadiums. You know, those cutter-cookie stadiums that once existed in Pittsburgh as well as those cozy new ballyards that now exist in S.F., Baltimore and somewhere in Texas.

He said he believed minor-league stadiums are different because they're smaller and encompass a smaller footprint of downtown.

But he emphasized that minor-league stadiums in cities like Greensboro need to think of themselves as multi-purpose venues, places for concerts, civic events and the like and not just baseball parks.

Still, Action Greensboro didn't give that comment much credence from what I remember from my interviews 18 months ago, even though they trumpeted Florida's book, "Rise of the Creative Class'' as a blueprint toward a thriving downtown.

For what it's worth....

Mark said...

All of this sounds very familiar. Two trite sayings come to mind:

- The world is controlled by those who show up.

- If you build it, they will come.

I remember the cynics here in Chattanooga who bitched and complained about “those people” building the “fish tank” downtown. Funny how you don’t hear from those people anymore. They all have family memberships to the aquarium now and their children are playing in the fountain at the park. They’re having a late night mocha down at the coffee shop after the game or show.

I have a lot to learn about Greensboro, but it won't be about human nature.

David Wharton said...

Just to clarify . . .

I think the new downtown stadium is doing a good job of bringing people -- particularly families -- downtown. It's also a really nice baseball venue. But it has little or nothing to do with Richard Florida or the "creative class."

What I object to is AG using people with national profiles like PPS, Florida, or Rypkema to promote their projects, when what those famous people preach has little to do with AG's actual plans.

It makes me feel like I'm being snookered.

D. Hoggard said...

Not to put a Disney spin on this this but my response is, "...what Wharton said."

Anonymous said...

Oligarchy. Not that there is anything wrong with that if you are in one.

Charlotte had a group calling all the shots but over time the voters revoluted - this was when the new coliseum got voted down years ago. Also on that referendum were needed projects for the arts and such. The backlash against the stadium killed them all. A $25,000,000 bond issue on the ballot could do the same to the fire stations and schools.

GK

Sue said...

"What I object to is AG using people with national profiles like PPS, Florida, or Rypkema to promote their projects, when what those famous people preach has little to do with AG's actual plans."

As for Richard Flordia, what I saw (and helped organize) was a series of meetings based on Florida's ideas but not limited to them as any blueprint. Florida commented with surprise that "we" had done more than any other community prior to his visit. That "more" was a series of committees that completely researched all the "Ts" that he mentioned, plus one we added. That information showed us what the area was strong in and what it needed (I sorta dealt with health care and education within the technology T). The important part of all of it was NOT Richard's address at the Empire Room. It was what happened afterward.

The next day, there were small groups (everyone was invited) to sit and meet over all the priorities we had worked on for months to whittle them down into do-able actions. People of all sorts of backgrounds participated and good ideas were garnered. From that, the recent and future AG projects developed.

While I agree that AG might have "used" Richard Florida to spur us into activity and building and planning, we always agreed that what he wrote -- SOME of it pertained to our area (a lot of it), but not everything. We always have the right to pick and choose from the best of the menu. We certainly don't have the money, human resources, or time to do everything.

Another thread talked about DGI not prioritizing its list. I agree with that crit: but in the case of Florida and AG, we certainly did exactly that. It took months. And we have some pretty good things happening as a result. (Some are very expensive; others are debatable; but all came from vox populi.)