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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 09, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Who Killed Downtown?

What does a living downtown look like?

All day there are pedestrians along the streets, and even more in the evening.

Commerce thrives, from department stores to quirky little one-of-a-kind shops, from thrift stores to boutiques, and plenty of restaurants open from morning to night.

There are places to rest, lovely things to look at, public art and music, and occasional events that bring even larger numbers of people downtown.

When a downtown is alive, the people of the city think of it as their own, the place to be, the heart of their community.

What does a dead downtown look like?

The sidewalks are virtually empty. There are few shops, and the restaurants are only open for lunch. There is no pleasure in walking around because there's nothing to see, nothing to do, nothing to buy.

When I first moved here twenty years ago, Greensboro's downtown still had a bit of charm, and though it was dying, there was still some life there.

A few merchants were daring to open new stores -- I remember, for instance, a lovely new bookshop on Greene Street back in the mid-80s. And there were quite a few quirky little stores still managing to eke out an existence.

But our short-sighted local government put a stop to that.

Here's the recipe for killing a downtown:

1. Bring big office buildings downtown so you can have a "skyline." But don't insist that these big buildings have plenty of store frontage. Instead, allow each one to chew up an entire city block, so that on all four sides of the block there is absolutely nothing to look at and no place to shop and no place to even sit and rest. The message will be clear: Pedestrians go home!

2. Make sure that government buildings devour two whole blocks with ugly architecture and pedestrian-hostile "open spaces" where no one can find a place to sit down and eat lunch. Banks, office buildings, hotels -- they look impressive in the architects' drawings, but turn downtown into a place where you have to walk blocks and blocks and blocks just to get past those lifeless structures.

3. Add plenty of parking -- but don't even think of putting store frontage along the ground floor of the parking garages, so that even as you give people a place to park, you give them less reason to come downtown.

4. And while those big office buildings are going up, make sure you let the construction block all the surrounding streets so that the few remaining shops -- like that hopeful new bookstore -- are strangled to death.

That's why Greensboro doesn't actually have a downtown. We have an office park where our downtown used to be.

On the fringes, a few shops still survive. They might be the kernel of something new, especially if the new downtown condos and townhouses bring some inhabitants to the ghost town our city government has created there.

But even these are unlikely to revive downtown because our urban planners seem to have lost track of what a downtown actually is.

A downtown is a place where you don't need a car.

People live there. Not just rich people in fancy new condos -- people with little money should also be able to find apartments over the shops.

And because people live there, it will make economic sense for businesses to locate within walking distance. Grocery stores where you can amble over and pick up whatever you need for supper that evening. Hardware, clothing, books, magazines -- all for sale just by walking along the street. During the day, workers migrate in; at night, residents take their place, and the street stays alive.

The street is interesting. Shopping malls were designed to imitate living downtowns -- our city planners had only to go to Four Seasons or Friendly Center to see what a downtown is supposed to look like. The big anchor stores are not allowed to take up huge swaths of frontage -- instead, lots and lots of little shops with ten, twenty, thirty feet of store frontage vie for our attention with lots and lots of display windows.

The urban equivalent is to make the department stores and banks and office buildings occupy the interior and upper stories of the block, while you require them to line the street with store frontage.

When the big office buildings went up in downtown Greensboro, it would have been a simple thing to require them to take up no more than forty feet with banks or office entrances, and create plenty of store space along the street. And they would be required to keep those store fronts occupied -- which means they would have to charge relatively low rents.

The result would actually be a huge benefit to the businesses in those big tall buildings. The employees would be able to do their shopping on foot during their lunch hours or after work. Instead, in our dead downtown, the people who work there have to drive somewhere else to do most of their shopping.

But it's more than store fronts. You need lots of public art -- visually pleasing, emotionally meaningful, whimsical, but not pretentious and elitist. Examples of the kind of art I mean are the teddy bears in Kansas City, the giant rising out of the earth at Haynes Point in DC, the cow statues that have been appearing in major cities. Art that people can touch. Murals that speak to human experience.

And music -- it's so easy. Just have room for street musicians to set up and play; for dancers and magicians and, yes, mimes. Regulate them so they're far enough apart that they don't interfere with each other. If music students at UNC-G learn that they can pick up a few bucks as soloists or small ensembles on the downtown streets, passersby will soon have concerts at noon and in the evenings.

The street is a place to linger. You need to have plenty of places to sit. Long low walls, open spaces with wide steps, benches and deep window ledges -- places to sit down and talk for a few minutes, or eat lunch, or lean back and look at the life passing by.

"But if we have places to sit, homeless people will come there." Of course. So what? They're around anyway. What you need is so much space for sitting that there's plenty of room for the homeless people and the lunch-eaters and the conversationalists and the people-watchers.

It's too late. Nobody's going to remodel those big ugly buildings to put store frontage there. Greensboro's downtown is already a boring office park.

But that doesn't mean we can't have a downtown. We just can't have it where it used to be.

What we desperately need is a zoning commission and a planning department that are committed to recreating urban life -- pedestrian life -- in Greensboro. There should be no street in Guilford County that doesn't have a sidewalk on both sides. Death to the huge car-centered stores with their vast parking lots, far from any housing! Instead any future Targets or WalMarts or Home Depots -- or Harris-Teeters or Food Lions or Borders or Office Depots -- should be planned as part of mixed commercial and residential neighborhoods.

Those big stores can fill the middle of a block, with parking garages -- but with lots of exterior store frontage along the sidewalks, and residential space above. Small parks and playgrounds, libraries and museums can be interspersed in such developments. But imagine how much better our city would look if those huge stretches of asphalt were instead urban villages, with just as much floor space and parking -- but with residences and many other shops as well.

Imagine Friendly Center, if all those buildings were three or four stories tall and the upper stories were apartments.

Any one of these places could have been Greensboro's new downtown.

The great downtowns of the world all follow this recipe. They don't separate where people live from where they work and shop. It's all jumbled up together, except for the few businesses that generate too much noise or stink for people to live nearby.

And yes, I know that the drive to have a suburban house and a yard is as strong as ever. But urban villages can be surrounded by lovely house-and-yard neighborhoods that are still within walking distance of everything. That's what Fisher Park used to be, and the other neighborhoods surrounding the old downtown.

Instead, we have gated communities (where none of the gates are actually attended, so what's the point?) whose residents can't get anywhere in foot, because everything is too far away. The poor are also shunted off into neighborhoods where most of them have to spend what precious money they have on maintaining a car so they can get to work.

So much time and money wasted on driving, when thoughtful urban planning could allow more and more of us to live in the kind of walking neighborhood, the living communities that used to be the rule instead of the exception in America.

Will it change? In many places in America, yes, it is changing, and more and more communities are realizing that the vibrancy and vigor of Manhattan and Paris and Florence and London are easily replicated without having to put up with the negatives of the big city.

But will it change here? Not a chance.

Because Greensboro is led by people who think the way to "revive downtown" is to build a big new stadium there.

A stadium! Oh, that'll bring people downtown, won't it -- why, you could walk for ten or fifteen city blocks around that new stadium and never find a single thing to look at or a single thing to do.

A new stadium will be just another dead space, a monument to folly, like our ugly coliseum and convention center. Another proof that you don't actually have to know what a city is in order to be elected to govern one, or hired to plan it.


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