Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Carolina Bank: Downtown Design Disaster

A commenter on an earlier post intimated that the proposed siting of the new Carolina Bank building in downtown Greensboro had problems, but I hadn't anticipated anything quite like this:

This plan is an insult and an open affront to all those who have worked mightily to make downtown Greensboro an attractive, walkable, and vital urban center.

What's wrong with it?

  • It fronts ALL -- not just some, but ALL four streets surrounding the site -- with parking. The standard in urban design is to build to the the sidewalk.
  • It has a huge number of parking spaces, although the central business district has NO minimum parking requirements. Even Carolina Bank's suburban parking lot on Lawndale is almost always mostly empty. Why?
  • Because its parking lot is entirely configured to accommodate drive-through banking, even though good downtown design should not promote cars to the detriment of pedestrians.
  • The site thus has has NO good pedestrian access.
  • The plan proposes a 5 foot chain link fence along Cedar Street, in full view of drivers coming downtown on West Market. (Nothing says "welcome!" like a 5 foot chain link fence!).

This site plan is unabashedly suburban, which may be fine for a suburban location. But none of this is appropriate for a downtown site.

And compared to the architectural efforts of bankers past (noted in my previous post), this proposal is simply pathetic. One would hope that the capitalists of today would try to emulate the cultural achievements of their forebears. Apparently not.

Architects, designers, and planners: I invite you to weigh in, anonymously or otherwise, in the comments. And to contact Carolina Bank and members of City Council to register your opinions.

Update: An emailer reminds me that Carolina Bank is a good corporate citizen, and I know that's true. I'm a customer of Carolina Bank because of their good service. But none of that means that we should give them a pass when they are proposing a very inappropriate project that will be harmful to downtown.

Here is an exerpt from a draft of Greensboro's downtown design guidelines, which have been worked up by downtown boosters, developers, ordinary Joes and Janes, and city staff for "main street" downtown locations like this one:

Orientation to the street - [buildings should have] street presence (corner locations especially) to maintain or establish an urban street wall.

Entrance location [should be] easily identifiable, human scaled and oriented to the street.

Rhythm -- maintain or create a building rhythm- articulation every 25-30’.

Vehicular & pedestrian access - [use] pedestrian friendly parking ideas.

I think the Carolina Bank site plan fails on every one of these guidelines.

Apologies to friends of mine at Carolina Bank if you think this post is intemperate; please remember that the objection is to the plan, not the people.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. The design is completely ridiculous and dreadful!

Anonymous said...

everything about this is horrible, from the site layout to the design. It looks like a larger duplicate of their suburban style banks. I was hoping for a design thats more corporate and urban and something a few stories taller with other office space (between 6 and 8 stories). The building shouldnt even have a drive though in it in my opinion. This is a horrible plan.

Anonymous said...

also the layout reminds me of the nearby Hardees which is such an eye sore because of its suburban style.

David Wharton said...

Yes, it is very like the Hardees!

Diane Grey Davis said...

I cried several years ago when the old houses at the corner of Washington and Eugene streets were razed to put up the ugly Wachovia drive thru.

I don't agree with the no setback rule in the CB zoning. I also think that there should be some parking. There is currently and looks like for a long time, no daytime retail in the CB. Most people who live in the area will not be able to shop for clothing, shoes, groceries, toys, medical care, etc within a reasonable walk. And most leave the CB to go to work.
Case in point: Greensboro Courts Parking lot is sparsely used during the day.

I think that the apartment building across the street where the old Arbor House was is much too close to the heavy traffic on Spring Street and it is not a very attractive building either.

Anonymous said...

David, your post isn't intemperate at all, you're merely pointing to the obvious flaws in the site design. Frankly, I'm surprised by it. And I hope they change it. Good post.

David Wharton said...

Diane, you make good points.

I should clarify that there's no rule or ordinance about setbacks in the CBD, it's just a guideline.

Nor was I suggesting that there should be NO parking -- of course they'll need parking.

I think it's very possible to build to the sidewalk at a corner, provide plenty of parking and a drive-through, accomodate pedestrians and add something interesting to the built environment. But they didn't try to do any of that.

Agree with you on the aesthetics of the Arbor House, though I have no problem with the setbacks. The problem I see is that there's only one small pedestrian entrance on the street level.

Anonymous said...

Really, what purpose does the fence serve, other than to collect litter? I understand wanting an element of security for employees entering their cars at night, but isn't there a more attractive alternative?

The building sitting like an island in a pool of asphalt is ridiculous for a downtown setting. Practical? Yes; but it goes against nearly every principle of urban design.

This intersection will have seen new development on 3 of it's 4 corners in the past few years, and each one has been off the mark in at least some regard. Arbor House is easily the best, but is still relatively limited in it's "people friendliness" at street level. The Y greets passer bys with a concrete block facade that would be better suited facing an alley than the intersection of a main street.

Each new development in downtown GSO is the rare chance to do something special. We need to start learning from our mistakes, and stop wasting opportunities.

Anonymous said...

Arbor House condos is kinda strange too because its so close to the edge of a multi-lane one way road thats not very pedestrian friendly (Spring Street). As far as Carolina Bank, I think they could have limited visible parking by building "secure" underground parking for employees. There is just TOO much surface asphalt in this project. I would have prefered this to be a multi-use office building that included Carolina Bank headquarters because at least there could have been a chance for having a restaurant here with an outdoor cafe for workers and nearby residents. BTW there is a great forum called www.urbanplanet.org. There is a Triad section where people discuss urban issues including architecture.

David Wharton said...

Yes, this area could definitely use some traffic calming.

But that won't happen without a lot of politicking.

Thanks for the Urban Planet link; I've put it on my blogroll.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting the site plan for the bank on your blog and for your well reasoned comments. One cannot help but wonder how such a proposal can endure scrutiny of our public officials. I know that we have very capable professionals work in city planning who fully understand the negative impact of the proposed site plan. However, their knowledge and skills are not tolerated in the current environment. One also must wonder about how much public money has been spent under the guise of downtown revitalization. What is the value of such expenditures if the most basic criteria for pedestrian use of the public domain are violated/ignored????? I also wonder what Action Greensboro and DGI think about this plan. They have invested heavily in educating the City and themselves about downtown by hiring guest speakers and shuttling people all over the southeast to witness successful downton projects. Does this project fit with their understanding of money well spent????? This project makes anyone involved with it look terribly ignorant to anyone who understands ANYTHING about what a downtown needs to be!!! Does Greensboro really want to be viewed as this far off the mark?

David Wharton said...

Jerry, thank you for your comments.

I hope to be able to answer some of your questions regarding the interactions of Carolina Bank, the architect, and various city departments soon. I had a very informative e-mail from the architect last week which helps explain how this plan got to be in the state it's in.

I should say as well, that the plan I've shown is now NOT the most up-to-date, and I will post a newer one when it becomes available. There's more to come.

At this point, though, I think it's important that the bank and the city hear what informed citizens think about this project, as that's the likeliest way to get it improved.

Veronica Grossi said...

Well, I do not think it was that much improved. It would have been great if you had continued to exert pressure on the architects to make a more decent architectural plan (without a drive-through) and not extoll them for some modifications that leave the project unacceptable. Conforming to ugliness and destruction of our environment is not acceptable.