Last evening, the City of Greensboro Planning Department held a public meeting for input on the proposed downtown design manual. The manual has been a multiple-year effort assembled by a citizen committee composed of developers, civic leaders, city-staff, downtown property owners, and nonprofit professionals.
In developing plans, the committee reviewed similar initiatives in cities as far-reaching as Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Durham, though participants quickly realized that Greensboro needed a plan that fit within the context of our own downtown and its unique challenges. In the end, the committee chose to develop a manual that illustrated the intent of guidelines along with the standards by which compliance would be measured using a check list. This process would require major new projects in the central business district to be reviewed by city staff using the objectivity of the check list, and approval would be issued when the standards were met. This was intended to provide predictability to the review process and clarity for architects and developers who submitted plans for new construction.
At last night’s meeting, a diverse group assembled to discuss the manual as it now stands. A large group strongly opposed any design review process for the downtown, citing “Disnification” of the center city, restriction of full-use of private property, and a confusing and bureaucratic process for approval.
An equal number of participants strongly supported the design review process, citing the importance of strengthening a pedestrian environment, safeguarding against poorly designed new projects, and the need to establish “game rules” for downtown design in a way that matches appearance requirements set in nearly every other sector of the city.
In the end, few minds were changed, but city staff vowed to reconsider the approval process, the issue of compliance of existing buildings, and complaints by several downtown property owners had been unaware of the initiative. Amid calls for a downtown property-owner referendum to gauge support for the guidelines, and perhaps the establishment of a citizen review committee based on the city’s established historic district commissions…no clear “next step” was presented other than further study and review.
In 2007, Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic came to the Gate City at the request of Preservation Greensboro to discuss the merits and necessity of good design. “Chicago,” he warned, “a big city, can take the occasional bad building; it fades into the woodwork. But here, every building counts; it has a disproportionate impact on the urban fabric. There is not a lot of room for error.”
Of course, he is absolutely correct. The challenge, however, is in defining which buildings are “bad” and which are “good”. Accomplishing this within an objective process – and removing subjectivity – is at the heart of those who oppose a downtown design review process. There is reservation in subjecting their projects to a perceived arbitrary review committee. However, the need still exists to raise Greensboro to the next level. The Gate City is in competition with other cities that review the design of new buildings, and it shows in the appearance of their downtown streets and growing inner-city neighborhoods. Southside is a great example of such review at work.
The path we forge today will create a legacy for Greensboro’s future. Will the Gate City rise to the highest common denominator, or will it remain at status quo?