Friday, June 5, 2009

Do We Want Downtown Design Guidelines?

Greensboro is trying to figure out whether it wants to regulate the design of buildings and sidewalks in its downtown business district. After a couple of years of hard work, city staff and volunteers have put a set of design guidelines up for review and approval by the Zoning Board and the City Council. (Disclosure: I was a volunteer for a while, but had to resign because of time constraints.)

Of course the regulations are controversial. John Hammer of the Rhino Times predictably and incoherently railed against them. Developer Roy Carroll reportedly said in the Triad Business Journal that they will cost the downtown $100 million in lost investments. At-large councilmember Mike Barber is quoted as saying, "we cannot let this happen."

I've been checking around with some other cities that have design guidelines to find out whether they actually do discourage investment, but that's a post for another day (I've go some more checking to do).

This post is a photo essay looking into the current state of our downtown pedestrian environment. A lot of people are probably inclined to think our downtown is doing great: we don't need any intervention; let the market continue to work its magic. But I don't think the market is working very well at expanding our downtown.

Actually, I think that the market killed downtown at the end of the last century, along with transportation policies that favored cars over pedestrians in the central business district. Government and philanthropic groups, working along with entrepreneurs, have been key to bringing it back. Modern downtowns are not at all what old-fashioned ones were. They are a public-private partnership -- if you will, an amenity that has to be planned and nourished. Of course there's no necessity for a city to have a vibrant downtown any more; most cities don't have one. But if we want one, we'll have to work at it.

When people say that Greensboro's downtown is doing well, they're really talking about only a section of Elm Street. And Elm is doing great. Anchored at one end by the Southside neighborhood, which was a public-private partnership conceived, planned and implemented by our city government, and by the Center City Park at the other, which was planned and built by Action Greensboro, that stretch of downtown really bustles. Between those poles, restaurants, shops, and clubs thrive.

The Center City Park brings office workers out to buy lunch and enjoy the public spaces.

The City of Greensboro contributes funds to make the sidewalk along the park a pleasant place to walk. The landscaping and interesting paving materials naturally attract people.

People also like walking, shopping, sitting, eating, drinking, and socializing along Elm. Thanks to the city, the sidewalk is wide enough to accommodate both pedestrians and diners, and the human-scaled storefronts allow for a lot of small businesses. Spaces like these make downtowns successful.

Further down South Elm, the low wall separating a parking area from the sidewalk preserves the sense of pedestrian space, as do the sidewalk trees and varied paving materials.

The richness of architectural details on the different storefronts-- most only about 20 feet wide -- provide a lot of visual interest. The man on the right seems to be looking at the architecture across the street. Architecture matters, and Elm Street has an incredibly rich variety of it.

I took these pictures in the early afternoon on a weekday. I took the following ones at the same time on the same day as I wandered back and forth from Elm to some of the surrounding streets.

Here's a photo I took on Davie Street, just a block away. The rotten pedestrian environment here was a team effort: poorly placed streetlights, open private parking lot, no visual border between the sidewalk and a lightly-traveled street that has enough traffic lanes for a superhighway. It's not surprising that no one walks here.

Here's another sidewalk view on Davie. The oddly-placed crosswalk signal is ironically symbolic, don't you think? Nobody likes walking on a narrow sidewalk next to a high wall.

Here's a view of Market Street, next to a Brutalist style office building. Walking here makes you feel like you're skirting the walls of Mordor on the left and the Daytona 500 on the right.

Here's a view on Church Street with a Lincoln Financial warehouse on the right. Cozy!

Along the sidewalk next to the News & Record property, they've put a chain-link fence around the parking lot.

It's pretty obvious that some kinds of buildings, fences, and sidewalks encourage pedestrians, and some don't. People don't like walking along monumental blank walls on barren sidewalks with no visual border between the sidewalk and the street. And if there aren't open storefronts, there usually isn't any reason for them to walk there anyway.

BUT (you might say), we've seen a lot of new buildings downtown like the new YMCA, the Arbor House condominiums, the Carolina Bank building, and Governor's Court -- isn't that a sign that we don't need any design guidelines?

I think just the opposite. All those buildings are downtown, but none of them is actually a downtown building. They are suburban buildings that happen to have been built in the central business district. And to the extent that they're suburban buildings, they have shrunk rather than expanded the footprint of our true downtown.

Here's the main "entrance" to the YMCA on Market Street.

I put scare quotes around "entrance" because if you try to enter the Y that way, you'll find that it's actually "not an entrance."

The Y's facades on either side of Market are blank walls of concrete block. The YMCA folks have tried to help the situation with these large banners, but they don't really help much.

Here's the Y's real entrance: from the parking lot. That's the essence of a suburban building, isn't it? -- no usable openings to the street, and you can access the building only from a large parking lot.

Right across the street from the Y are the newly-built Arbor House condominiums. I was frankly puzzled by the material choices on this building. Its clapboard siding and vinyl windows and balustrades on the balconies seem better suited to the apartment complexes you see along Bridford Parkway or Bryan Boulevard.

But aesthetics aside, you can see that this building has only one visible pedestrian entrance to the sidewalk. It's a little hard to make out, but you can see it recessed beneath a small awning, flanked by two bizarrely tall streetlamps.

Here's a head-on view: not exactly a grand entrance.

I've spent a lot of time staring at this side of the Arbor House, because the treadmills in the YMCA look out directly at it. In all those sweaty hours, I've only seen two pedestrians using the sidewalk (one of them was a jogger), and I've never seen anyone go in or out of the door. The main entry for the residents is the parking garage that is the bottom floor of the building.

Again, it's the essence of a suburban building to be accessible primarily by car. But it's hard to blame the builder. The nearby streetscape is so bleak and blank, who would want to walk there? This is a great example of how one bad design decision (the YMCA) begets others.

The same idea drives the design of the new Carolina Bank building, which is just across the street from the Arbor House and the Y. It's a pretty building: its form and details playfully allude to the domestic architecture of nearby neighborhoods like Fisher Park. It looks like a big colonial-revival foursquare house with a front-facing gable end on the front porch.

But again, Fisher Park is known as "Greensboro's First Suburb," and other design elements confirm the building's suburban essence.

Instead of a porch, it has a drive-though -- a quintessentially suburban use -- supported by doubled Tuscan columns. And to the rear, the bank built up the ground to make a large, flat parking lot rather than working with the natural grade.

The result is this very high retaining wall. You usually see walls built with this kind of low-cost stackable concrete block at suburban shopping centers. The Super Walmart at South Elm-Eugene has a lot of them.

The parking lot could have been built on the natural slope, but the builders decided to favor the the users of the parking lot over the pedestrians on Cedar Street. I spoke to the architect about the wall, and he told me that Carolina Bank would install plantings that would cover it. So far they haven't.

Much of what I said of the Arbor House is also true of Governor's Court condominiums on Church Street. It doesn't have any pedestrian entrance to the sidewalk except for a tiny steel door. Its ground floor is devoted to parking rather than to storefronts that attract pedestrian activity. I heard through the grapevine that the builders were encouraged to put storefronts on the ground level, but the local banking community couldn't figure out how to finance a mixed-use building like that.

Many of the anti-pedestrian features of these buildings would have been prohibited or modified by the proposed downtown design manual.

The overall picture I get from walking around downtown is that its anti-pedestrian character comes from two sources. One of them is the government. The unduly wide streets that encourage fast car traffic in most of the central business district, and the pedestrian-unfriendly sidewalks are a result of poor transportation planning over the past half-century. This can be fixed only by long-term, concerted attention and money from the City Council.

The other source of the problem is the private sector. Much of the new building downtown -- and by new I mean since 1950 or so -- simply doesn't contribute to a pedestrian downtown environment. It's pretty clear that many builders don't know how to -- or don't want to -- build in a way that promotes an active pedestrian environment. Elm Street is very successful in this respect largely because it was built before the age of the automobile.

If we want our downtown to continue to expand successfully beyond Elm Street, we're going to need downtown design guidelines. Lots of cities have them -- Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Chattanooga TN, Greenville SC -- so it's not like they're something exotic. The Southside neighborhood also has them, and and that development has been extremely successful.

But many builders have said, and are saying, that such guidelines are unworkable, and that projects like the ones I've just mentioned "couldn't be built" if they had to adhere to stricter guidelines.

Maybe. But somehow, buildings are being built in all those other places that do have design guidelines. Why is it that Greensboro builders and bankers should stand out in this respect -- that is, in their supposed inability to build attractive, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use buildings downtown?