Friday, February 3, 2012

The Proposed PAC, Pedestrians, and Parking

I'm glad the new city council is proposing a new performing arts center. Greensboro deserves better than it's got.

The initial debate has mostly been where to put it -- downtown or at the Coliseum complex? -- but so far the conversation hasn't delved deeply into the reasons for siting it at one of those places. The main issues mentioned so far are costs, efficiency, and the availability of downtown sites.

Actually, one blogger has raised another very important issue, namely the community benefits we must get out of the center beyond its value as a performance venue. But Billy's proposal is a non-starter. For good reasons and bad, there will be no PAC on Phillips Avenue.

I think these are the options:

  • If we put the PAC at the Coliseum, the best-case scenario is that we'll have a good performance venue that's easy to drive to, park at, and drive home from. Good, but not great. It won't put Greensboro on anybody's map of cool places to visit, and I think we need more added value than that.
  • If we just plunk the PAC in some vacant corner of downtown and surround it with a parking lot, we'll get basically the same thing as at the Coliseum, but probably at a much higher cost. If people can just drive to the PAC's lot, go in, go out, and go home, there isn't much net gain for downtown. In my view, that's not worth the extra expenditure.
  • But if we site the PAC carefully downtown, give it a distinctive architectural and pedestrian presence, and distribute the parking so that people must walk by shops and restaurants in order to get there, then we have something worth spending some money on.

Distributed parking was key to the renaissance of downtown Greenville, SC, as the Action Greensboro folks learned years ago on their field trip to that town. They were told to "build anchors" like our proposed PAC, and also heard this:
"Distribute parking" was the other main piece of advice from Greenville's leaders. The city deliberately did not place big parking decks right next to their anchors in order to generate pedestrian traffic -- and business -- for restaurants and downtown retail.
Greensboro residents seem to have a hard time getting their head around that principle, but it's absolutely essential to downtown vitality.

Downtown Chattanooga provides a great example of the principle at work. The Tennessee Aquarium downtown has been a driving generator of business and a bustling pedestrian culture. One reason for that success is that there's no dedicated parking on site, but an abundance of commercial lots nearby. As their website says, "there are several paid parking lots near the aquarium ... and a free shuttle runs daily in downtown Chattanooga."

At this point there seems to be no one on the committee studying the proposed PAC who will evaluate this essential piece of the puzzle.