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?