Friday, December 31, 2010

Greensboro, NC Downtown Design Manual: Rhino Times May 14, 2010

City Bends On Downtown Rules


by John Hammer
Editorwrite the author May 14, 2010

Don't tell downtown property owner Sidney Gray that you can't fight city hall because he did and he won. When everybody else seemed willing to go along with the proposed Downtown Greensboro Design and Compatibility Manual, Gray stood up and said, this is wrong.

Actually, Gray didn't stand up, he sat down and read a statement on April 28, 2009, and the fruition of that stand he took sitting down was reached this week when the two sides, which had drawn battle lines over the Downtown Design Manual, announced that an agreement had been reached.

Back in April 2009, the city held one of its ubiquitous meetings designed to give the illusion of public input without actually giving people the chance to change anything. The meetings are cleverly designed to divide and conquer, and the city staff keeps opponents of proposed plans apart so they can be dealt with separately. It is diabolical, brilliant and effective

Gray was told repeatedly that although it was a public meeting, a meeting ostensibly to solicit input from downtown property owners who were about to face 107 pages of new regulations on their property, that no downtown property owner would be allowed to speak.

Gray was polite but insistent and finally got permission to speak about how the proposed Design Manual would make it nearly impossible for him to develop his property the way he had been planning to for years.

Gray planted a seed, but it wasn't until Roy Carroll of The Carroll Companies read the manual that things really started moving. Carroll convened a group of downtown property owners to discuss whether an attempt should be made to amend the plan or simply to oppose it. The consensus was overwhelmingly to oppose it.

The informal opposition group hired attorney Henry Isaacson to represent it, and eight months of negotiations started with Carroll, Rob Johnston of Johnston Properties and Seth Coker of Signature Properties representing the dissenting property owners. The consensus of the group had been that the Design Manual should not be standards or regulations but voluntary guidelines. The downtown guide, in the minds of the group of property owners, should offer help and guidance to downtown property owners and developers, but in the end allow the people paying the property taxes and construction costs to decide what they wanted to build as long as it met all other city regulations and requirements.

The announcement this week was that the new proposed Downtown Design Manual – Process/Guidelines is all guidelines and contains no regulations.

It is a huge win for property rights in Greensboro. Carroll, Johnston and Coker met weekly for eight months to negotiate the deal. That is a whale of a lot of meetings and a tremendous amount of negotiating.

Although some property owners supported the original Design Manual, some of its biggest proponents were the City of Greensboro, Downtown Greensboro Inc., Action Greensboro and the Cemala Foundation.

The big fear expressed repeatedly by property owners in discussing the new proposed guidelines was that the city would at some time in the future decide to make the guidelines regulations. No doubt that attempt will be made, but for now the downtown is looking at a bunch of guidelines that deal mainly with the first floor to ensure that the downtown is pedestrian friendly.

Carroll noted that the group spent months going over the design manual paragraph by paragraph with the opponents, pointing out buildings that were already downtown that didn't comply and reasons why compliance should not be mandatory. The purpose of the manual seemed to be to bring uniformity to downtown buildings and to have city staff regulate every aspect of downtown buildings from the height of the windows to the slope of the roofline.

At some point after the last City Council election there was a breakthrough. Some might say that was a coincidence, but it seems much more likely that with a far more conservative City Council the proponents of the original plan realized that there was very little chance of getting this vast power grab by the city through the new council.

The new proposed Downtown Design Manual, which has to go back through the process of being approved by the Planning Board, the Zoning Commission and the City Council, not only has no regulations, but adds a committee that will be made up of downtown property owners to give those who fall under the guidelines an alternate path toward compliance. To fall under the guidelines, the project has to be in the Downtown Design Overlay District, which is basically the Central Business District plus Southside and a couple of other properties that are adjacent to the Central Business District but have different zoning. The project has to affect at least 375 square feet of the first floor fa├žade, and must require a building permit. So any alterations not large enough to require a building permit or that do not affect the first floor facade would not be covered.

But the point was made over and over that a property owner or developer did not have to comply with the guidelines because they are guidelines, not regulations.

However, a project that does meet the three requirements will go to the city where it will be graded based on the guidelines. In the old Design Manual, a design review team made up entirely of city employees would determine whether or not the proposal complied with the regulations. As an early concession to downtown property owners, a member who could be but was not necessarily a city employee was added to the design review team. That gives you an idea of the kind of concessions the city was making early in this process.

Under the new proposal, if the city decides that the project does not score a 75 on the applicable guidelines, then the applicant can go to the Property Owners Review Team (PORT), made up of five downtown property owners, who will review the project and determine whether or not it should receive a favorable recommendation. The PORT is not held to the guidelines but can decide that the overall benefit of the project outweighs the guidelines.

One example Carroll gave was a downtown grocery store. The guidelines call for buildings to be built close to the street with no parking in front of the building. However, grocery stores traditionally have parking in front. Carroll said that he could see the PORT deciding that a grocery store was so needed downtown that it would be approved with parking in front.

Another example Carroll gave was the VF Corporation building on North Elm Street. According to the guidelines, that building is way too far back from the street, but he said the PORT would have likely decided that the benefit of having the corporate headquarters of a Fortune 500 company downtown far outweighed the guidelines. But another way to look at that is that VF is a good neighbor and if the city had asked it to build its new headquarters closer to the street, it may have been glad to comply. It's that kind of flexibility and cooperation that the new proposed manual hopes to engender.

So just in the committee that is going to be overseeing this manual you have a huge change. In the original it was all or nearly all city employees, and in the revised manual the voting members of the committee are all downtown property owners appointed by the City Council.

When speaking of the new proposed manual, Carroll said, "I think this accomplishes all of our goals." He noted that it gave downtown developers a road map so they would know what type of development the community wanted downtown, but in the end the developers had the freedom to build what they thought would work.

According to Carroll, almost all major projects downtown require some kind of concession or cooperation from the city. And this is where the guidelines and the recommendation come into play. He gave the example of a developer who needed to buy a small strip of city land to make a project work, and in that case the City Council would be well within its rights to tell the developer that they had to get a letter of approval from PORT before the city would sell them the land.

Since downtown is so tight, Carroll said it was unusual for any sizeable project to not need some cooperation from the city. So even though the downtown development guide is no longer made up of regulations, the guidelines will have some clout.

According to Carroll, ideally the PORT will be used as a resource by developers. He said he was told that a similar committee has worked well in Raleigh to promote and encourage downtown development. He said that it would have been extremely helpful to him to be able to talk to someone who had done a project similar to Center Pointe in downtown Greensboro before he started construction, and he hoped in the future that developers would look at PORT as a place to go for advice and guidance on building downtown, not just a place to be graded on guidelines.

It all started with one man sitting down and saying this isn't right, and a year later, after eight months of negotiations, the new proposed Downtown Design Manual appears to be something that both sides agree will benefit the downtown, which was the whole idea in the first place.