By Simmons B. Buntin and Tom Low
Greensboro, North Carolina’s Southside neighborhood, a 10-acre revitalization project, is one of the city's first significant mixed-use infill projects. Greensboro’s Department of Housing and Community Development developed a traditional neighborhood district ordinance—based on the Southside Area Development Plan adopted by the Greensboro city council in 1995—to assist Southside’s redevelopment.
In citing its 2003 award for Outstanding Planning: Implementation, the American Planning Association noted that in creating the Area Development Plan, "the importance of Southside could hardly be ignored. This blighted downtown community connected five neighborhoods, served as the gateway to the downtown business district, and was vital to enhancing residential development in the downtown generally."
The site is located immediately south of downtown Greensboro, one and a half blocks from South Elm Street—Greensboro’s historic main street. This area has direct views of the downtown Greensboro skyline. Victorian homes dominated the landscape a century ago until highway construction and urban flight caused the neighborhood to go into decline. As part of the city’s contribution, a pedestrian-friendly streetscape design was implemented with unique streetscape elements identifying the Southside neighborhood.
A five-minute walk from the central business district, the development includes 30 single-family homes, 10 two-family homes, 50 townhouses, 10 restored historic homes, and 20 live-work units where business owners live upstairs from their shop or office. Some residences include studio apartments above rear-detached garages, providing another housing or office choice.
Southside incorporates a square as the civic center of the neighborhood and features a rotating schedule of public art. The neighborhood common, used as a community park, retains a canopy of mature trees. Greensboro contributed to the revitalization effort by installing new sidewalks, historic streetlights, decorative brickwork, and landscaping such as street trees.
The master plan design includes a new public square created from a portion of an existing block, a new internal block neighborhood common created from aggregating the back yards of extra deep existing lots, and a pocket park located on a close as a replacement for an existing cul-de-sac that was built when a 1960s highway clipped the street. Southside is bisected by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—the historic main spine radiating from downtown to the southeastern side of the city.
The initial idea for the Southside Area Development Plan began in 1990, when the area was identified as a "unique development opportunity" for Greensboro's city center as part of the Center City Master Plan. One of the goals of the Master Plan was to "establish and maintain the center city as the center of business life, government, and cultural opportunity for the Greensboro region."
In 1990, citizens approved a $5 million bond to finance Southside's redevelopment. Three years later, a citizen-led steering committee was the impetus behind a series of collaborative community forums, design workshops, and working meetings resulting in adoption of the Southside Area Development Plan in 1995. The plan envisioned reestablishing Southside as a turn-of-the-19th-century neighborhood, no small feat considering that a 1994 survey found that only 30 percent of Southside's "principal" structures were in good condition—the others were deteriorated or dilapidated.
By 1999, the Traditional Neighborhood District Handbook helped guide implementation of the TND ordinance passed earlier by the city. Additionally, a development prospectus—which provided criteria for the city's evaluation of proposals—and request for submissions was issued. That year, Tom Low of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company partnered with North Carolina-based Bowman Development Group, and the Bowman Development Group was awarded the $22 million project.
As the first TND development project to be considered, reviewed, and ultimately approved by the City of Greensboro, considerable effort was necessary to coordinate and build consensus, both during the collaborative planning process, and during design itself. Specific development issues included:
In the early 1900s, the Southside neighborhood was one of Greensboro's premier communities, with large homes along the primary streets. Though many fell into disrepair in the decades that followed, ten historic houses were renovated as part of the project. Southside's new homes, which ranged from $129,000 for attached to $261,000 for single-family detached homes in 2003, are designed to support the neighborhood's original vernacular architecture. They are closely spaced and oriented toward the street with alleys behind and feature wide front porches. Brick sidewalks, period streetlights, and other amenities add to the "turn-of-the-century ambiance."
In total, there are 120 residential units, including 10 restored historic homes:
Streetscapes, Traffic, and Transit
Throughout the neighborhood existing mature trees are retained along with the addition of new brick sidewalks and new street trees.
One of the major hurdles to making Southside a vibrant, walkable community was Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, which runs through the center of the neighborhood. The road’s high-speed, suburban geometries were effectively cutting the neighborhood in half, creating an undesirable “dead zone” at the center. Using traffic-calming measures—such as shortening the building setbacks along the road and including on-street parking—the plan reclaims this main street as a grand urban boulevard, with a distinctive, pedestrian-friendly streetscape design that sets Southside apart from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Additional traffic calming design includes tighter corner curb radii, on-street parking, shallow building setbacks, street trees, rear alleys, and detached garages accessed off the rear alleys. These techniques transform the urban character of this corridor from a high-speed arterial into an urban avenue that creates a seam rather than an edge to the neighborhood.
Southside Square has a public transit stop serving the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the greater southeast Greensboro. The site is 1/4 mile away from the central multimodal transit station including AMTRAK service.
Civic Uses, Public Space, and Amenities
Southside Square, located along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, shares frontage along public streets with a historic church that benefits from the new diagonal parking, in addition to parallel parking, on the square. Schools and two universities, North Carolina A&T University and Bennett College, are also located nearby.
Southside Square is the civic center of the neighborhood, featuring a public art sculpture designed by local artist Jim Galluci, and a fountain and landscaping jointly donated by the Weaver Parks Fund, the Old Greensboro Preservation Society, and the Parks and Recreation Society.
The neighborhood common—an open park nestled between single family and dual-family homes—is located in the center of the largest block. The common retains the canopy of mature trees and is used primarily by the residents as a community park. Rear lanes with garage apartments and rear yards surround the edge. The pocket park located at the close—the square "loop" drive that replaces a large paved cul-de-sac with an open space amenity—is intended to be a place for small gatherings. It hosts a tot lot playground, as well.
Commercial and Mixed-Use
Southside includes 25,000 square feet of commercial space. Each of the 20 live-work units features 800 square feet of retail, office, studio, or other ground-floor space. The Press, a wine cafe featuring live music on weekends, holds a sharp corner along MLK, Jr. Boulevard and is 5,000 square feet. And a 4,000-square-foot office has been created in a renovated mansion.
The neighborhood is a market success. Not only did all the rehabilitated and new homes sell out, but the neighborhood generates significantly more tax revenue for the city. Before redevelopment in 1995, Southside produced $400,000 in tax revenues. Now that redevelopment is complete, the total tax revenue generated from the neighborhood is estimated at over $10 million.
Though the planning process was collaborative, the design itself had some initial detractors. During the course of design and implementation, when Tom Low and Bowman Development Group first proposed different approaches that went against convention, the project was greeted with skepticism and, according to DPZ director of town planning Tom Low, "in some cases laughed at, ignored, or considered counterproductive."
"We knew Southside was going to be a successful project," he continues, "and due to those who kept moving the implementation forward—the city staff, builders, and local officials—Southside has greatly exceeded its potential. Southside sold out in 2004. Now with a growing number of additional redevelopment initiatives expanding into adjacent neighborhoods and downtown housing and mixed-use projects underway, the design ideals pioneered in Southside can be heard and seen echoing across Greensboro."
“Southside was the type of neighborhood we had been searching for," said one resident. "It provides us with the sense of community we crave within walking distance of all the services and amenities downtown has to offer. When we built our house two years ago we felt like urban pioneers, but now, with the neighborhood nearly complete, we know we made the right choice.”
Success is not limited to Southside’s neighborhood. Redevelopment initiatives, including housing and mixed-use projects, are expanding into adjacent neighborhoods and downtown. For example, the city received a Brownfields Economic Development Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to redevelop an area near Southside. These successes contribute to Greensboro’s downtown revival.
Lessons of Success
According to Tom Low of DPZ, the project’s lessons of success include:
The central spine of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard was rebuilt as a community seam rather than a separator.
The new neighborhood square is located to be highly visible and an integral part of the public realm for the greater community, and has ultimately become a catalyst for additional redevelopment.
The project’s mixed-use program appeals to potential buyers due to the creation of a walkable, pedestrian-friendly, 24-hour community that has a soul.
The plan provides common and individual private outdoor space, replacing semi-public/private space. As a result, the overall neighborhood design is perceived to be safe.
Additional successful design elements include:
Building new townhouses and live-work units at the sidewalk to front directly on each side of MLK, Jr. Boulevard. The narrowing effect of these buildings, along with the addition of crosswalk striping and continuous on-street parking, has successfully calmed traffic.
Removing a large cul-de-sac and replacing it with a rectangular close that includes a small public green. This green preserves an existing tree as the centerpiece of a shaded tot lot and has become the focus for the housing that surrounds the close on all sides.
Preserving a large grove of mature trees in the center of one of the blocks to create a community common amenity. This private common open space is very appealing to residents who traded a large yard for a home in the project.
Revising already installed conventional suburban subdivision entry features and streetscape elements not appropriate for the urban direction taken by the design. In addition, thorny shrubs from the planting median between the sidewalk and curb that blocked people from opening their car doors in the newly included parallel parking spaces were removed.
Implementation of the redevelopment
plan to ensure a pedestrian-friendly design
character required the design team
to push very hard. However, these struggles
were rewarded as the project’s construction
reached “critical mass” and the
burgeoning of a strong community became
evident—the project’s appeal skyrocketed,
and it sold out completely.
For more information, visit Southside at www.SouthsideNeighborhood.com.
This UnSprawl case study was significantly contributed to by Tom Low.