Reflections on Downtown Greensboro, As The Community Addresses Its Future

On Tuesday April 30, I spent a good bit of time thinking about downtown with a bunch of dignitaries and fellow young leaders. Our civic foundations brought back Richard Flierl of Cooper Carry, The Center for Connective Architecture, who helped the city conduct a downtown plan in 2002. At lunchtime, 100 of my fellow young professionals met to learn about the plan, talk about ideas to improve on it, and be encouraged to do more pop-up(tactical) urbanism.

To say that I love downtown Greensboro is a major understatement. When I was six years old and stuck inside with the chicken pox, all I missed was “seeing the tall buildings downtown.” My dad went and got me a postcard of downtown just so I could see my beloved buildings while under quarantine . What I was marveling at the most were  the  three year old Jefferson-Pilot (Lincoln Financial) and  First Union (now Wells Fargo) towers. The towers gave us a distinctive skyline and showed that we were serious about remaining a gateway city and also a prosperous city.

Yet, there was not much in the way of activity under those buildings. In 1993, when this chicken pox story happened, Elm Street laid mostly vacant, save the Miller Furniture Company and the Greensboro Record Center, which my parents went to often for the latest albums. Woolworths was still operating as a store, but it was not long before it, and the entire chain, shut down in Greensboro. The Junior League had started operating their new Bargain Box on the first floor of the original First Union building (Currently the Self-Help building, where my office is located). However, my current apartment, my favorite watering holes and restaurants, and even the room where we held this seminar did not exist. Downtown would lay fallow for at least three to six more years before major urban plans such as Flierl’s were created.

So where are we now?

Richard Flierl addresses a Who's Who of creative forces in Greensboro on April 30, 2013.

Richard Flierl addresses a Who’s Who of creative forces in Greensboro on April 30, 2013.

In a decent place according to Flierl. Many of the things he suggest we build are in place, namely Center City Park and the downtown ballpark (albiet not in the place he put them). He noted that good progress had been made on the Downtown Greenway , adding residential properties and increasing cultural events. His primary challenges were for the young professionals to continue doing pop-up activities and to the elders to finish what they started, namely the performing arts center.

(An aside: It was great to see where some of the energy and the nucleus of the performing arts center and other ideas came from. It now gives me more context as to why we are pushing so hard for certain things).

At the end of the day, he just wanted us to “get it done.”

So do I.

On the local news, I got a chance to tell a reporter that I feel like we need to work our hardest at becoming a 24 hour city. I want to be able to walk out my door, come down into that beautiful skyline and be able to pick something to do without having to dig into the Facebook invites and event calendars, or stumble on something awesome that I didn’t know was happening and don’t know when it will happen again.

Also, what about our displaced and left out residents?  Community organizer and  friend Wesley Morris challenged the young professional crowd to be  be mindful of who has been displaced by movements that have already happened. An elderly woman at the evening session reminded us that not all seniors are near death and they’d like to have a senior center in the heart of the city. Several adults who appeared to be parents of teenagers called for a downtown skate park.  We need to up the mix of people downtown. Make it accessible to children, teens, seniors and the disabled along with young professionals and wealthy people.

I am reminded of the fish market on the corner of Lee and Friendly, that happened to be surrounded by a dilapidated old bakery, but was bringing business to that corner. Yet, in the redevelopment plan, the market was moved, initially for the ballpark, but later for our yet to be conceived South Elm redevelopment. Why not develop around this market? No this isn’t a sexy businesses, but it’s business none the less. Kaid Benfield said it best in his recent list of smarter smarter growth that we really need to start growing around who’s already here and make sure they get a say and get to stay.

At the end of the day, as I’ve said in other media, downtown is really where I want to be in Greensboro. I walk to work down here, I wake up and can look out upon my beloved skyline (and the trains), and I get to meet regularly with many strong minds willing to do something to make this place a bit better.

I want everybody to be in love with downtown. If we can keep up this energy, I know everyone will be.