By Nancy Hoffmann
Published in News & Record, Jan. 18, 2015
What does Greensboro want to be and what do we want to look like when we grow up?
Sister cities Charlotte and Raleigh and Greenville and Charleston, S.C., decided this question 30 years ago. Each has evolved into a first-class, 21st-century city heralded and recognized for its achievements.
Every endeavor has not been successful; there are always issues, but they keep moving forward with a vision and plan, building on each success. Sometimes it is the foresight of a single individual — Hugh McColl in Charlotte, Max Heller in Greenville, Joe Riley in Charleston, or perhaps a great city planner — who drives the process. Sometimes it is a collective effort, but the essential element is leaders who inspire others and create the map for successors to follow.
What happened in Greensboro? Why are we not in the company of these cities today? Somehow we missed the mark, were not inspired, and failed to articulate aspirations for our city that citizens would adopt and own. We had low expectations, apparently feeling unworthy of first-class, modern, state-of-the-art architecture, design and amenities.
Absent the strong design standards that Charlotte, Raleigh, Greenville and Charleston have, we have been at the mercy of developers who gave us merely ordinary projects, lackluster architectural design and pedestrian shopping options. Where are the Nordstrom’s and Saks promised on New Garden Road? In 1985, one of my projects at Allied Stores in New York City was to do the market research and analysis and identify the secondary cities for Brooks Brothers’ new stores. Greensboro was on that list, but it took more than 20 years for a suitable site to emerge.
There is not a single exceptional urban design retail center in this entire city and only a handful of exciting retail environments. We cannot continue to accept mediocrity. Developers should be challenged to be creative, show us more, engage our aesthetic sense, be a little edgy, push the boundary. We have shunned and denigrated outside developers and branded them as interlopers or foreigners, but the new, big ideas and concepts often come from somewhere else.
Our official city policy should be one of high standards for development and a comprehensive planning process that operates from being proactive, demanding quality, while acting as a partner with developers, enabling their projects to flow efficiently, on time, with minimum cost overruns.
We can do better, and we deserve better.
We are not starting from ground zero; we have a base to build on, which includes the new Steven Tanger Performing Arts Center and LeBauer City Park, whose private donors insisted on engaging the best architects and designers to give us public spaces that will be spectacular and soaring. They knew we had to go outside for the expertise to design and build on a grand, generational yet timeless scale.
We must not be afraid of change, the unknown or new ideas. Instead, as a city, we should fear being second, being ordinary or irrelevant, and falling out of date. We can keep faith with the past but embrace the future, guiding and directing change intelligently and creatively.
It is time we adopt a master plan for downtown that incorporates streetscape. It is 20 years overdue. Overlays for our major urban neighborhoods should be completed. There must be strong commercial design standards and requirements that apply to downtown, centers of activity and commercial corridors. Parallel with that is a Design Review Board comprised of professionals who work in the industry every day. Rezoning of a property should require a site plan approved by the Design Review Board. Rezoning should not happen in the abstract.
“Developer Plan A is better than Plan B” is not a design standard. Neither is “so much better than the first proposal.” “It’s going to be developed anyway; this is the best deal we can get” is a fallacy. “Look what the developer is offering” does not address need and highest or best use.
Rezoning is the other critical element in development. It is essential that all stakeholders participate throughout the process and exercise leadership. There can be no entrenched positions. Just saying “No” is not a solution and is unacceptable. Getting to the right place and best development option requires compromise and each party to forfeit something.
Neither can elected officials deny development in one area of the city because we simultaneously are unable to get equal development somewhere else. Enlarging the tax base generates revenue for projects throughout the city. New job creation from development meets citizen needs and addresses the basis of many of our social problems. Increasing public assets and amenities gives our city clout and a competitive advantage.
It is time to reframe the discussion. The City Council is responsible for how this city looks. We should set the standard high and hold people accountable. We must demand the best from ourselves and for our city. Leadership is about the next decade, the next generation, not just the next rezoning request or next election.
John F. Kennedy’s words still resonate: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”