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. 


Unknown said...
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Brian Higgins said...

The plan is troubling to say the least. The plan should embrace the interface with Lindsay and add commercial space that pedestrians can interact with. Why do we trust the transportation models that are used to predict little impact? Those same transportation models are what have lead to the overbuilding and oversizing of our streets. We have a very limited street grid downtown - one we should be expanding to create more frontage - and we should retain that frontage not for the benefit of Mr. Carroll but for everyone.
We need to move beyond being thankful that some brave soul is willing to invest downtown and begin demanding quality and smart design...less we repeat the mistakes of the new SECU branch, the Carolina Bank, and the ridiculous proposal for parking at the new PAC. It is time for people to begin the push back.

David Wharton said...

Brian -- I too would see Lindsay St. as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. I can imagine a lot of intimate street life on that little block -- sidewalk cafes and so on.

I read in the Business Journal that Mr. Carroll would like Bellemeade Village to be like a block of New York City. I think that says a lot about what his urban vision is. Obviously, I don't think it's appropriate for a midsized city in the Southeast.

There's now a large body of knowledge out there about how to make downtowns like ours succeed, but the culture of development and land-use politics in Greensboro is often hostile to it. The planners know this stuff, but planners' advice is always trumped by developers' dollars at the political level.

Brian Higgins said...

I wish I could disagree with your assessment of the situation, but we both can point to many examples where there were opportunities to rise above mediocre urban design. Until it changes, Greensboro will continue to be less competitive in the effort to attract and create the downtown they say they want. It also seems like a ripe opportunity for the revamped Downtown Greensboro, Inc. to engage with the entire City about what it thinks about the design. They don't need to have an opinion, but they could do a better job to share design sketches and plans in order to create a robust, albeit virtual, conversation about what people would like to see.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more, David. Thank you for being one of the few voices of reason I've come across in this town. I had no interest in urban planning until moving to Greensboro for work and trying to figure out just what it was about the town that bothered me so much. Your blog makes Greensboro a less foreign & hostile place for those of us who appreciate responsible planning, sensible design, and strong civic leadership.

Ed Cone said...

Blocks in NYC tend to have retail at street level, which is one of the things that makes the city great. So if Carroll really wants his block to be like New York, he should get with the Wharton plan.

Ginia Zenke said...

Excellent thoughts. And the design factor isn't just about the length of the block, but how many points of interest you can pack into that block for a pedestrian. In some cases its storefronts, but as Charlotte has demonstrated, it is benches, concentrations of "green/flowers" fountains, sculpture, vistas, or as Mizner proved in Florida, squirrelly courtyards without a straight-line view that invited discovery, which is what we want visitors and residents alike to do? Discover Greensboro?