Sunday, June 20, 2010

Scoring the Proposed Downtown Design Manual

Greensboro's proposed Downtown Design Manual is open for public comment until June 24th (if you have comments you can send them to I've been involved with the manual on and off over the course of its development, and I have a few thoughts. Actually, a lot of thoughts.

Short History of the Manual

The manual has taken a circuitous path to get to its present state. The first draft was produced under the guidance of a citizen steering committee composed of design professionals, downtown property owners, downtown advocates, preservationists, and me. I was there as a representative of the neighborhoods bordering downtown, but had to drop out about halfway through the first draft. My input was minimal. City planning staff administered the meetings, and the prestigious design firm Cooper Cary was hired to turn the steering committee's ideas into coherent guidelines. Unfortunately, Cooper Cary couldn't produce a usable draft, so the steering committee wrote its own guidelines.

The initial draft contained both standards and guidelines. The standards were meant to be hard-and-fast rules; the guidelines were recommendations. City staff would review and approve proposals to make sure they met the standards.

When the first version came up for public review, it met strenuous opposition from some downtown property owners, led by Roy Carroll. Carroll is owner of the Carroll Companies, a large development firm with extensive experience in suburban single- and multi-family development. The Carroll Companies' vice-president was a member of the citizen steering committee, and he frequently voiced his opposition to any standards in the manual. Other prominent development firms (Weaver Cooke Construction, Lomax Construction, Milton Kern & Co.), which had extensive experience in downtown development, were represented on the steering committee as well, but they supported the the use of standards.

Mr. Carroll's only notable foray into downtown Greensboro development is the renovation of the former Wachovia Tower on Elm Street as a high-rise condominium complex, for which he received nearly $1 million in government incentives. Now called Center Pointe, most of its units remain unsold after several years on the market, although Mr. Carroll himself reportedly lives in the expansive penthouse suite on the top floor. Mr. Carroll is also active in local politics, contributing money to many local candidates, and recently offered the use of his private jet to elected city officials for a lobbying trip to Washington, DC (they eventually declined under public pressure).

Mr. Carroll's opposition group, claiming to champion free-market economics and individual property rights (despite Mr. Carroll's entanglement with government subsidies for a private project), essentially took over the manual writing, and after some months of intensive work with city staff, produced the current draft. It contains no standards, only guidelines.

The new draft has two important innovations. The first is a points system for scoring projects. A project is awarded one point for each guideline that it meets, and two points for meeting certain "bonus" guidelines that are considered more important. Projects that accumulate 75% of possible points in their category are considered acceptable and are automatically given a green light by city staff.

The second innovation is the addition of the Property Owners Review Team, or PORT. The PORT is composed of eight members. Five of them are required to be downtown property owners who have recently developed projects there; these are the only voting members of the PORT. The other three members-- one representative from Downtown Greensboro, Inc., and two design professionals -- serve in an advisory capacity only.

If a proposed project falls short of the 75% points score, it is referred to the PORT, whose function is to advise the proposers on how to score more points, although their recommendations are non-binding. That is, all proposals are automatically approved, regardless of their score. If the project has to go to City Council for any further approval or funding, PORT and staff comments are provided to Council. The Council, of course, is not bound by the points system and can approve any project it desires.

This part of the new manual is a textbook case of regulatory capture, in which interested parties not only took over the writing of the manual, but also installed themselves as the authoritative interpreters of it. What's more, they have made themselves the gatekeepers of future development: important projects that require City Council approval will have to seek the imprimatur of the established special interests on the PORT.

Using the Guidelines

At the last public meeting on the manual, I asked whether anyone had test-driven the new guidelines to see how well the points system worked. Planning staff said that maybe somebody had scored some downtown projects, but they didn't have the results available.

So I decided to try them out for myself and score some well-known downtown buildings. Many of the guidelines are written somewhat vaguely, so other people might score them differently. At any rate, I've assigned each project a grade using a standard 100-point percent system. According to the manual, a 75% percent grade is adequate for automatic approval, which in my scoring system would be a C. A 100% score would be an A+, 90% an A-, etc. Here are my scores and comments.

Carolina Bank (Pedestrian Mixed Use area). Grade: F (58%). As I've written before, this building falls short on a number of guidelines: it disrupts the pedestrian environment with many curb cuts for its parking and drive-through, and its needlessly high retaining wall is grimly blank, effectively destroying the entire streetscape on the Cedar Street side. Although the building itself is attractive, it is completely suburban in character. It would have been perfect at Friendly Center.

Arbor House (Pedestrian Mixed Use area). Grade: F (58%). This grade even includes two bonus points for "accentuating" its entrance which is nothing more than an industrial steel door. It gets poor marks for its materials choices, which include inexpensive vinyl windows and porch railings, and fiberboard clapboard siding. And it obviously gets no points for "celebrat[ing] nearby historic properties," since it is named for the beautiful and significant historic property that was destroyed in order to build it.

Bryan YMCA (Pedestrian Mixed Use area). Grade F (35%). This building got two bonus points for putting its parking in the rear, but that doesn't take into account the fact that its front entrance is permanently locked, and marked "not an entrance." It's wonderful to have a downtown YMCA, and I'm a member, but this structure is just a disaster as a downtown building. The YMCA, the Arbor House, and the Carolina Bank, all sited contiguously, have effectively suburbanized four important blocks of downtown Greensboro.

Center Pointe (Pedestrian Mixed Use area). Grade: B- (80%). Some of the points-scoring features of this tower were built into it before Mr. Carroll refurbished it, such as its wide sidewalks, street-fronting entrances, and side parking. But he should also get due credit for using high quality materials and tasteful signage and lighting. On the down side, no street trees were planted along its wide, Elm street sidewalks. This is the only gap in North Elm's street canopy for many blocks (and the artist's rendering of the Center Pointe website shows street trees at this location). Nor is the side parking lot screened except for a couple of forlorn crape myrtles.

324 South Elm (Historic Core area). Grade: D+ (68%). This new building (still under construction) reportedly underwent significant design modification under pressure from other downtown developers. However, it lost bonus points by ignoring the roof levels, window patterns, and design cues of nearby buildings. It could easily pick up the necessary points for a C grade, however, by including some landscape screening for a utility box at the sidewalk and by integrating appropriate signage (of which there is none at the moment).

Some Conclusions and Ideas

The actual guidelines in the manual seem workable, and the points system provides a rough measure of the overall appropriateness of projects, although I think it could use some tweaking. Not all guidelines are actually applicable to every project; for example, the guidelines about retaining walls are not relevant to projects without them. Thus it's not possible for most projects, even very good ones, to receive a 100% score. The scoring issue is one that the manual writers seem not to have thought through very carefully.

Perhaps that's because in the actual administration of the manual, the score is nearly meaningless, because it has no real consequences beyond requiring an applicant to have a conversation with the PORT. This feature of the ordinance gives it the power to irritate applicants and slow down development, but not the power to effect real improvements to bad projects. Lose-lose.

But a worse problem with the manual is the makeup of the PORT and its role in the administration of the guidelines. Imagine how it will make Greensboro look to some experienced outside developers. In what other town must they justify their projects to a board whose voting members must be chosen on the basis of a property qualification, but who need not have any professional expertise or demonstrated success? They will think they have arrived in a jerkwater town where everything is run by the local good ole boy network.

However, there is a kernel of a good idea in the PORT. Property owners deserve a significant voice in the process, and they often have knowledge and experience that professional planners lack. But an individual-property-rights-only approach to downtown design is not sufficient for making downtown successful, not only because downtown depends on and uses public infrastructure and services, but also because downtown as a whole is composed of interdependent elements -- buildings, sidewalks, streets -- any one of which can damage or enhance the value of the others. Imagine a South Elm street with drive-through curb cuts every 40 feet, or where every third lot was a parking lot. Downtown Greensboro, and its established businesses, would be effectively gone.

The PORT could be strengthened by including, in addition to the five property owners, a certified preservationist, a certified architect with demonstrated success in downtown design projects, either in Greensboro or elsewhere, and the president of Preservation Greensboro, Inc., all as voting members. A preservationist is absolutely necessary because downtown Greensboro includes a National Register historic district (The Old Greensborough district) and a number of National Register and Landmark structures.

City Staff and the PORT could score projects independently, and their scores could be averaged. Both would submit recommendations, no matter a project's score. If a project did not receive an average of 75% points from the PORT and staff, it would not receive a building permit, but could be resubmitted with modifications suggested by staff and the PORT.

Alternatively, the City Council could appoint a singe design review committee composed of city staff, property owners, design professionals, and preservationists, and that body could score projects and make recommendations for improvement without the need for separate reports.

In either case, the points system would provide flexibility to developers, but the power to actually stop and modify projects would ensure that the whole process amounts to more than pointless kvetching.