Thursday, November 20, 2008

Small Neighborhood, Big Ideas

One of the country's leading design firms is working in Greensboro this week to help solve a knotty planning problem that has resisted solution for a quarter of a century.

The firm is Duany Plater-Zyberk, whose principals have driven the rise of New Urbanism in America, one of the most important and influential architectural and design movements in the past half-century. The problem is what to do with a 5-acre empty plot near downtown on Chestnut Street known as Dunleith.

A century ago, Dunleith was one of Greensboro's most prestigious properties, an ornate Italiante mansion nestled in magnificently landscaped grounds. Seventy years later, it was an unloved wreck that received the kiss of death from the wrecking ball. About 25 years ago Greensboro's Dascalakis family bought the empty acreage and razed its overgrown gardens, sparing only two huge Magnolia trees.

The Dascalakises proposed to build 140 apartments on the plot, but the neighbors objected very strenuosly, even to the point of lying down in front of bulldozers. It was that event that galvanized them to form a neighborhood association and eventually to have it declared a historic district.

But the 5 acres have lain dormant. The Dascalakises proposed two different development plans in the intervening years, and with much effort got them approved by all the nit-picky city departments, including the prickly Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission. But they declined to build them.

However, everyone knows that someday, somehow the site will be developed. It's just too much acreage, too close to downtown, and in too nice a neighborhood to sit vacant forever. The problem is how to do it and make everybody happy.

A row of single-family bungalows faces Dunleith; farther down Chestnut lies a mix of historic houses divided into apartments, newer two-story apartments, and a few more single-family bungalows. The larger Aycock neighborhood is a similar eclectic mix, populated (as one of my neighbors put it) by "a bunch of neighborhood activists." The activists have tended to favor low-density development of Dunleith, while the Dascalakises have understandably wanted higher density. It's been a stalemate for 25 years.

Enter Andy Scott and Mike Cowhig from the city's department of Housing and Community Development. They got a grant to host a design charrette where all the interested parties get together to share their visions -- and their bottom lines -- and then ask the planners to sketch out solutions. (Pictured below: DPZ planner Tom Lowe talks over options with neighbors.)

The charrette has been going on this week, and so far has taken input from the property owners, the neighborhood, a number of developers, and the city. The planners have produced a few preliminary sketches, and will present their final proposals tomorrow afternoon. Here's the city's website for the charrette.

I'm planning on attending, and will report on the outcome.