Sunday, August 3, 2014

Will Bellemeade Village Be An Urban Village Or A Suburban Development That Happens To Be Downtown?

The relationship between a building and its environment is a little like a Catholic marriage. If the partners are well suited, fruitful harmony ensues. If not, decades of misery, with no prospect of divorce.

Developer Roy Carroll is proposing to wed his new project, Bellemeade Village,  to the north end of downtown, right across the street from NewBridge Bank Park. He offers  the customary enticements: high-dollar investment, upscale apartments, swimming pools, and mixed use. To an aspiring little downtown like ours, this seems like an advantageous match.

But the suitor is demanding a dowry, namely,  the closing of a block of Lindsay Street.  That will change two short blocks on Eugene Street into  one 1000-foot block, and will hamper connectivity near  the stadium and the proposed Performing Arts Center.  Nonetheless, Mr. Carroll has intimated that the wedding will not happen without it.

The closing of a short street seems like a small matter, but it isn’t.  Think: what are our goals for downtown? Why have philanthropists and the City invested in the ballpark, Center City Park, the Greenway, and the Performing Arts Center, which Mr. Carroll credits with attracting him to this location?
It is to make downtown busy with people who walk and bike – not just drive – to nearby business and entertainment.

Both everyday experience and academic studies confirm that small blocks are essential for vibrant pedestrian life.  Jeff Speck, the urbanist who  led the Mayor's Institute on City Design, writes, "People are small, and the most walkable cities acknowledge this fact with small blocks ... most cities that have closed streets in the past now wish they hadn't.” Jane Jacobs, the most celebrated urbanist of our time, devotes a whole chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to the importance of small blocks.

Other cities with successful urban ballparks – Akron, Wichita, Montgomery – have kept their surrounding developable blocks under 500 feet on average. In fact, a new mixed-use complex with condos, street-level retail, and office space recently sprung up on the 500-foot block that includes Greenville, South Carolina’s Fluor Field.

Building design also matters for pedestrian life.  To quote our Downtown Master Plan:  “The scale, streetscape, and architecture [of South Elm] combine to form a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly environment. Beyond South Elm Street, however, Center City loses its charm .... blank street-level architecture and a lack of basic streetscape make much of the Center City a hostile environment."

The Bellemeade Village sketch plans provided to the Planning Board do show some sidewalk-level apartment entrances – that’s good – but they do not show any sidewalk-level businesses like those on South Elm Street and in Southside.  Not good. And the building aesthetics on the plans unfortunately reflect the specialties of the architect chosen for the project, whose portfolio is mostly composed of generic suburban motels and fast-food restaurants.

Mr. Carroll is quoted in the Rhino Times saying that true mixed-use projects are rare, but that is perhaps true only in Greensboro.  Towns like Chattanooga and Greenville are decades ahead of us in innovative and sophisticated mixed-use design. Greensboro is playing catch up, and Bellemeade Village, as currently proposed, will not move us forward much.

However, the proposal to close Lindsay Street offers City Council an opportunity. Council could make the street closing contingent on ample and public pedestrian access between Eugene and Battleground. It could also require that  the development include a significant amount of sidewalk-level retail  and substantial pedestrian amenities.

A happy marriage between Bellemeade Village and downtown is possible, but only if City Council crafts a hard-nosed prenup.