Monday, March 26, 2007

Let's Not Put A Park There

The city of Greensboro is negotiating with Southern Railway to acquire or lease some prime property that borders the downtown business district and GSO's prize-winning neo-traditional neighborhood, Southside, and put a park on it.

At the moment, the property in question is a disused expanse of gravel, weeds, and railroad sidings. It certainly ought to be used for something, and in situations like this, people are apt to look at an empty lot and think "hey, that would be a great park!"

Because Parks are Good, right?

Well, no, not always. When it comes to thinking about parks, one ought to ask oneself, WWJJD? ("What Would Jane Jacobs Do?")

(Jacobs is the woman who, in the early 60's, had the courage to stand athwart city planning conventional wisdom shouting "Stop!" Nearly 50 years later, many of her ideas have been adopted by planners. It's fair to say that Southside -- a medium-density, mixed-use, urban neighborhood -- in some degree owes its existence to Ms. Jacobs.)

Here are some choice Jacobs-isms regarding parks (all emphasis added by me)

The main problem of neighborhood park planning boils down to the problem of nurturing diversified neighborhoods capable of using and supporting parks . . . . Neighborhood parks fail to substitute in any way for plentiful city diversity . . . . American cities today, under the illusions that open land is an automatic good and that quantity is equivalent to quality are ... frittering away money on parks, playgrounds and project land-oozes too large, too frequent, too perfunctory, too ill-located, and hence too dull or too inconvenient to be used. City parks are not abstractions, or automatic repositories of virtue or uplift . . . . They mean nothing divorced from their practical tangible uses . . . . The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to the neighborhoods instead of vacuity. (From The Death and Life of Great American Cities, chapter 5, "The Uses of Neighborhood Parks.")

It seems doubtful to me that the south end of downtown and the Southside neighborhood have enough population or diversity of activities to make a large park successful at that location, especially since there's a beautiful, brand-new downtown park only four blocks away.

Downtown Greensboro has plenty of park, but not enough people. Even during business hours (except at lunch) the sidewalks there do not really bustle, and in the mornings and evenings (except for night-life hours) it just doesn't have much real street life ... yet. And it never will if we keep using its small amount of available real estate for parks.

A park at that location will be a disincentive for Southside and other southern-downtown residents to make the 5-minute stroll to the Center City Park, and if those people aren't walking back and forth down Elm Street, they won't be stopping at any businesses for casual purchases.

A park at that location will suck users away from the Center City Park, probably causing both parks to be under-used.

A park at that location will be expensive to buy, build, and maintain, and the city is already contributing significantly to the maintenance of the Center City Park.

A general-use park at that location is as likely to be a magnet for crime as it is to enhance the neighborhood, and this could mar the success of the Southside neighborhood and of downtown development. Even if it just becomes a favored resting place for the harmless homeless (as seems likely to me), it will scare the suburbanites who visit the area and make the residents uncomfortable.

However, a mid-rise, mixed-use apartment/retail development at that spot would help to boost downtown Greensboro's currently meager population. It could easily pick up the architectural theme of Southside's 3-story live-work units (pictured here), with small retail or office units fronting the sidewalk, but with three or more stories of residential above.

Downtown Greensboro currently doesn't have much housing for middle-class people, and if the city bought this property, they could arrange to have it developed to fill this gap in the downtown housing market, as Raleigh has recently done.

So far I haven't heard anything about this proposal from any of GSO's planning or parks and recreation staff; it seems to be coming from the transportation department and the mayor. But shouldn't the Planning, Housing and Community Development, and Parks and Rec staff be driving this project?


sean coon said...

hey david. i live in southside, on mlk. did you know that there's already another southside'ish development under way between gorrell and king, just to the right of the abandoned lot and across the street from the press?

bob isner & crew are touting spring '07 as the arrival date, so pretty soon we'll have a couple more blocks worth of live/work spaces.

as for your comment about middle-class people, the price of these units are not out of reach for middle-class wallets. well, let me clarify that with "urban" middle class wallets. most folks in greensboro can't seem to square the costs of urban living with acreage available outside of downtown.

i'm actually a proponent of the park space, as long as it's not constructed as a manicured space like center city park.

don't get me wrong, CCP is a nice addition, but i'd rather play frisbee or touch football in the spot across the street from me. if the city really thought about needs, they'd partition off a much needed, nyc sized, dog park so me and my neighbors don't have to truck up to the bark park in county park. (there are a lot of dog owners down here)

David Wharton said...

Yes, I'd heard about that one, and I hope there's more to come. But in my view, downtown G'boro needs thousands more residents with a wide variety of incomes and occupations in order to become a real urban neighborhood.

I understand your desire for a different kind of park, but don't you think that you kind of make my point for me by saying you'd rather use a park across the street from you? It's important to place amenities strategically to increase foot traffic throughout downtown.

Bark park ... that's a whole nuther thing. I don't use the one at Country Park (for a lot of reasons), but I do use your neighborhood sidewalks as a running trail for me and my dog. And yes, I bring a doggy bag with me.

sean coon said...

center city park is clean and pretty and so on, but it's not the kind of park i want to hang out in. no matter the grand strategy of planners, it doesn't work for all people.

regarding new housing: the abandoned lot ain't quite the best place to increase foot traffic to downtown either. unless an elaborate walk-over bridge is constructed at the intersection of davie and mcgee that can somehow draw folk from the corner at natty green's, the next spot for a crossover of the track is at the railroad station itself.

the new development at southside is going to have similar issues. the neighborhood supports its own, but that can only get us so far. additional parking and some tie to downtown will be necessary for further growth.

this abandoned area also lies next to the busiest train station i've ever lived near (i've lived under subway platforms and a block from northern nj commuter lines). the noise is pleasantly quaint where i currently reside, but living in an apartment by the tracks would be just too much for my tastes.

but that's me.

also, there's not too much space in that abandoned track area. i guess one could squeeze a few apartment buildings in there, but take a long look at downtown real estate. all these new condo's being built -- rumor is than none of them are sold out.

until greensboro becomes a destination for urban dwellers (it's so not there yet) and a waiting list for downtown leases and purchases begins to grow at local realtor's offices, i'm not too hip with building housing for the sake of housing.

and you *know* that developers aren't going to build inexpensive housing down here. i mean, let's keep the discussion real.

Anonymous said...

There's more than one definition of "park." My favorite is this one: "a large area of land preserved in its natural state as public property." And by that definition, Center City Park is not a park.

I'd love to see a real park, with grass and trees and open space, on the land by the train station. And what better spot for watching trains? (For the train freaks among us, of which I am one.)

And I'm with Sean. I doubt that developers are going to build affordable housing downtown. Especially with so many high-end properties currently for sale or in the pipeline.

P.S. It would also be nice to have a downtown park that the "harmless homeless" (who are also residents of Greensboro) could enjoy along with the rest of us. The CCP obviously isn't ever going to welcome them.

Greensboro Teach-In said...

I tend to agree, David. Center City Park is a kind of park and your ideas about people strolling to and from it are spot-on. What I'm not sure about is if the railways will allow development of that land for any sort of housing or retail, but if they will, then I vote yes. It'd be great to see more housing and more retail (and a little parking) and perhaps a grocery?

David Wharton said...

Sean, good points all, but I'm not persuaded. Did you follow the link to Raleigh's low-cost downtown housing? G'boro could, if there were the will, form a similar non-profit to develop the property.

CM, I like the kind of parks you describe, too. Greensboro is full of them, and I use them all the time. But such a park would do nothing to densify that end of downtown, which is -- south of MLK -- nearly deserted. JJ's chapter on parks is pretty convincing that they can't make a an empty neighborhood full.

I think the homeless should use parks too, as long as they use them the same way everybody else does.

Sue, the railroad right-of-way issue could be a killer -- then a park might be an option of last resort.

There are some creative ways to "wrap" parking that lots of cities are using (like in Greenville and Charlotte) that a creative, public-private enterprise could explore.

But a real grocery won't come until thousands more people live downtown.

sean coon said...

yes, i did read the article, david.

i wouldn't oppose such a development project, but some people over here were freaking out over a gotriad dig at southside. it'd be an interesting conversation to be sure.

as for a "real grocery," we don't a hairy peter.

Anonymous said...

"I think the homeless should use parks too, as long as they use them the same way everybody else does."

Agreed. I'd like to see all our homeless friends sleeping in real homes, not parks. ;)

Anonymous said...

Yet there is a 4 acre park _one_ block from south side. People just act too white to use it. Hello Douglas park?

David Wharton said...

Wow. Thanks, anon. It shows how white I am that I didn't even know it was there.

Kind of proves Jacobs' contention that a park isn't a good-in-itself considered separately from its context, doesn't it?

I'm going to have to head over there and look around.

sean coon said...

i'm only intimately familiar with two parks in greensboro -- country park and ccp.

now, i know there are more out there -- i played ball at a few about 10 years ago, before moving down here -- but it's not because i'm too white that i don't know where they are and use them, it's because i'm tied to my damn computer all of the daylight hours.

maybe that's another way of saying i'm too white -- literally and figuratively.

in any event, it's good to know there are park options just a few blocks away. thanks, anon. i've got a new walk for lucy, now.

so whatever that area becomes across the street from me, i'm just hoping that a dumb move isn't made.