by Eric Ginsburg
A city’s downtown is both its doormat and its heart. It’s the throbbing core that pumps life into the veins of culture throughout the surrounding neighborhoods as well as the welcoming committee for strangers, a sort of compass or table of contents for what the place is all about.
That’s why for the last two years around this time of year, I’ve attempted to compile a comprehensive list of what’s changing in downtown Greensboro, and what else is coming down the pipe. Part of that process demands thinking about the things we still need.
And so after a strong reception in November 2014, I’m doing it again, taking a close look at the shifts happening in the city’s core and what remains to be done.
What happens downtown reverberates in the rest of the city — political power, cultural currency, historical memory and economic vibrancy emanate from these blocks. So regardless of whether or not you live, work or play in downtown Greensboro, if you live in the city, what happens there affects you.
What’s new, and planned
- Outwardly, almost nothing has changed at the former Cascade Saloon building at the train tracks crossing South Elm Street by Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in two years. The city gave it to Preservation Greensboro to restore, and though the organization announced a construction company as the main tenant, progress is far behind initial projections.
- This time last year, we still didn’t know the theme for the second Crafted restaurant. In the spring of 2015, the street-food restaurant and adjacent Preyer Brewing opened and were welcomed like a first grandchild into the north end of downtown.
- Though a mixed-use development had been planned nearby across the Eugene Street intersection, it stalled out and never materialized. But then in October, Triad City Beat broke the news that the city’s latest brewery, Joymongers, would open on the empty lot. Construction began almost immediately.
- A short block of Battleground Avenue in front of the planned Joymongers brewery closed this fall as part of the planned Downtown Greenway and a pocket park.
- Construction of the greenway nearby, including the area between Prescott and Spring streets along Smith Street, is behind schedule. The construction had to be re-bid in October 2015 due to a high cost from an initial bidder.
- But design for the greenway “innovation cornerstone” at Lindsay Street and Murrow Boulevard was also approved in October, with work slated for the coming months.
- The Greenway at Stadium Park apartments, owned in part by Jim Jones who is opening Joymongers brewery with his son and former Natty Greene’s brewmaster Mike Rollinson, opened during the last year. Following the model Jones created with his brother with the Greenway at Fisher Park apartments across the street, the apartments add residential units that help create density downtown.
- Two downtown churches played a little musical chairs in 2015, as Center City Church took over the former Christ Church building next to Local House Bar on Smith Street. The newer tenant is renovating, emulating the style of Crafted and Preyer around the corner, and members say it will include a small coffeeshop and gallery. Christ Church relocated to North Church Street.
- During the last year, Triad City Beat Editor in Chief Brian Clarey dubbed the area transformed by apartments, breweries, Crafted and Deep Roots Market as LoFi. We’re using the nickname — which derives from Lower Fisher in reference to Fisher Avenue and the Fisher Park neighborhood — to describe the formerly blighted corner that suddenly is one of the most promising areas of downtown. The Elsewhere area is called the South End in some circles, and we argue LoFi’s unique identity should be reflected with a hip name.
- By this time last year, we knew about the planned complex run by Iron Hen owner Lee Comer on Spring Garden Street. Nothing’s happened outwardly since then, save for some recent suggestions that things are now starting to get underway.
- As planned, 1618 opened its third location downtown. The building owned by developer Dawn Chaney also contains residential units upstairs, similar to Scuppernong Books a couple doors down South Elm Street.
- That 300 block of South Elm saw other considerable change this year. Though the folks behind Josephine’s Bistro (the Lindley Park restaurant that has since closed and reopened as Scrambled) planned a restaurant and raw bar one door down from 1618 Downtown, things fell through. But Harlem Express restaurant opened in the space. Across the street, Cheesecakes by Alex expanded and underwent a redesign that makes it feel much more modern.
- Loaf Bakery closed in May. The bakery operated where Simple Kneads used to stand, and in November, Triad City Beat broke the news that the Table Farm Bakery in Asheboro plans to reopen the area in 2016. The folks at the Table are already using the building as a satellite baking location, but no retail as of yet.
- While we’re on the subject of restaurants, a few more opened in downtown within the last year, most notably LaRue, a French restaurant across from the Carolina Theatre, and PB & Java — a coffee shop with sandwiches, soups and a pay-it-forward option. The café’s owners have plans for a future community theater space in the back of the building.
- A couple restaurants shut their doors, including the longstanding Thai Pan. But in that case, former Fincastle’s proprietor Jody Morphis opened a new joint, Blue Denim, in the space a few weeks ago. Try the seafood beignets.
- Great Balls of Fire, a dueling piano bar, opened, upping the number of entertainment venues downtown. Cone Denim Entertainment Center just hit its one-year anniversary, but the total number of entertainment-oriented spaces dropped downtown in the last year thanks to the closing of Lotus Lounge and nearby Vybz Nation in the South End.
- Developer Andy Zimmerman closed on the former Lotus building this year after a shooting near the club, which was across the street from a line of buildings he already owns. HQ Greensboro, a co-working space, opened this summer in one of these West Lewis Street storefronts (and speaking of co-work spaces, Collab on the other end of downtown just marked one year in operation).
- Zimmerman plans to move the Forge, a maker space where people buy memberships primarily for access to expensive, advanced machinery, to the former Flying Anvil building, he said this year. The site had housed Vybz Nation, a nightclub that played hip hop and reggae music.
- Triad City Beat broke the news in late October that Greensboro Distilling signed a lease for the Forge’s current space on West Lewis Street. The distillery — which will be the only one in the city — plans to move into the building at the start of 2016.
- Zimmerman nixed plans to purchase the former Gate City Motors building across from the Greensboro Children’s Museum. Wise Man Brewing intended to move into part of the property, but after the deal fell apart, Wise Man announced it would be opening on the north side of downtown Winston-Salem instead. Zimmerman also owns the building where Crafted: the Art of Street Food and Preyer Brewing are located.
- Developer Marty Kotis had hinted at plans for a beer garden, possibly in town, at this time last year. Since then, Triad City Beat broke the news that Kotis intends to open one on the former Carolina Tours property off Federal Place, complete with a restaurant and maybe a speakeasy-type feature. Kotis said the venue might also welcome live music, and in February 2015, he said he’d like to open it that summer or next. Guess it’ll be 2016.
- Growth at CityView apartments in Southside near the Depot continues, most notably a change in ownership giving developer Roy Carroll a firmer hold on downtown residential properties.
- A planned medium-sized performance and rehearsal space at the Greensboro Cultural Center quickly came to fruition thanks to a generous gift from Jan Van Dyke. The choreographer passed away this summer, according to the News & Record.
- LeBauer Park broke ground, and the area is still under construction, though slightly behind schedule due to weather, according to Downtown Greensboro Inc. head Zack Matheny. He said it’s scheduled to open in May, but may be a little later.
- The National Folk Fest in Greensboro was just a glint in Tom Philion’s eye at this time last year, but in September, the ArtsGreensboro leader enjoyed the massive festival with tens of thousands of other residents and visitors. It’d be hard to see the folk festival as anything but a gigantic success, and it will return in late 2016 and 2017.
- Downtown Greensboro Inc. scuttled plans for a parklet program that would put little pop-ups in parking spots, activating more public space. But the organization’s new president, former city councilman Zack Matheny, said he’s bringing it back, though he prefers the name “streateries.”
- Remember all that talk about hotels downtown? Well the only one with visible progress is Roy Carroll’s over at the corner of Bellemeade and Eugene streets. And calling that progress is pretty generous — the property barely looks any different than it did a year ago at this time, save for the closure of a block of Lindsay Street. Better luck next year.
- Here’s a sentence lifted directly from last year’s article, because it still rings true: “Construction continues on the Southeastern building at the corner of Market and Elm streets, though it is not clear when the project will be completed and tenants will move in.”
- Construction is much more evident at the Union Square campus on the southern edge of downtown by Gate City Boulevard. The development will house joint programming between several area colleges and Cone Health.
- In the last year, two things happened across Elm Street from Union Square at the Mill run by Eric Robert — a controversy about a beloved mural being replaced by a Duck Head logo, representing the lone business occupying the renovated space, and further development of a lawsuit by Robert against the city relating to the investment there. That one’s still working its way through the courts.
- The former Showfety’s building on East Market Street sold to a new owner, and Downtown Greensboro Inc. head Zack Matheny said he’s trying to lure a breakfast place into the building. (Check out the new mural on the side of the building in the photo above.)
- DGI itself is moving to a storefront location, something the organization intended to do long ago, leaving its office space in the Self Help building downtown. No news yet on exactly where it will be located.
- Stir Creative Group, a small design firm currently located near Elon Law School, is buying a building around the corner from its existing office and will make some serious beautification upgrades to the spot on John Wesley Way.
- Anybody seen the new Charles Aris building? That thing looks incredible, and helps the area look more like a true city core.
- Jules Antiques, run by DGI board chair Gary Brame, announced it would be closing before too long. That area of South Elm Street used to brim with antique stores, but another on the corner of South Elm and Lewis streets is for sale and another across the street closed (and has been bought by Eric Robert, mentioned above).
- Around the corner on East Lewis Street, a new business called ReAligned tilts the scales the other way, suggesting that maybe antique and vintage items aren’t on the way out. But, Nosilla Vintage did close in July after a brief stand near the tracks. The business still operates an online store and booths at both Design Archives locations, including in downtown Greensboro.
- Area Modern Home & Lighting hopped to a different storefront, just a few doors closer to where Nosilla used to be.
- The folks behind Suite 300 and Kress Terrace announced their plans to open the W on Elm, another event space — and this time, a restaurant — where Ham’s used to be located not far from the Green Bean.
- More than a year ago, Elsewhere Artist Collaborative received a grant to transform several public places in downtown — check out the side of ReAligned, the corner of the unit above Table 16 restaurant a stone’s throw away and in particular the functional yet artistic picnic tables built on Bragg Street near the Mill.
- Thanks to a $6,000 grant from SunTrust, there are plans to add some sort of public art feature to Collab or the area immediately surrounding the co-working space — something bright, eye-catching and three dimensional, if Matheny has his way. On the same front, Wrangler plans to place iconic public sculptures throughout downtown, and the Janet Echelman piece planned for LeBauer Park is quite promising. And if Ryan Saunders’ outfit No Blank Walls makes some headway, murals will adorn a downtown wall or two before next year is over.
- Urban Grinders, a café and art gallery (in a truer sense than most coffeeshops in the area which more accurately display some art), welcomed its first customers this year in its storefront a little ways down from Center City Park.
The wish list
Maybe it’s because I’m approaching 30 and feeling a sense of urgency, or it could be the short amount of time since my last detailed accounting of development in downtown Greensboro, but even with the long list of changes above, progress feels slower in some regards this year.
The initial excitement, which seemed to burst from so many mouths 12-18 months ago, has waned. When news comes about a planned brewery, instead of celebrating like Carolina Panthers’ fans this season, people are more inclined to ask if the market is already oversaturated here. Several businesses closed in the last year, and some of the city’s bigger projects — most notably the downtown performing arts center — show minimal progress.
Some of that will change by next year; think of LeBauer Park and Union Square Campus, and with any luck, some genuine movement on the Downtown Greenway. But other big projects, like turning Greene Street into a two-way stretch, have been forgotten as far as the public is concerned (though Matheny swears that one is nearing the final approval stages and is imminent).
Maybe we’ll see Lee Comer’s Spring Garden Street plans, Roy Carroll’s Bellemeade Village and Marty Kotis’ beer garden come to fruition in 2016. And it may be wishful thinking, but there’s at least a chance we’ll see some action on the Cascade Saloon as well.
Yet downtown Greensboro is not without its victories. It would be hard to argue that the biggest coup d’état is the National Folk Festival, a thoroughly enjoyable experience that showcased dozens of artists as well as the city’s core.
One of the festival’s accomplishments was its ability to spread people out throughout downtown rather than clogging the main thoroughfare, something that the center city needs more of in general. For the same reason, I’m particularly stoked on LaRue and the LoFi sub-neighborhood for helping to expand the pockets of culture in downtown.
The same is true of the much-heralded changes on West Lewis Street. And though I’m partial to plans for a distillery there, if Andy Zimmerman can convince Bestway or another grocer to open in the former Lotus Lounge, or if a mid-sized music venue winds up in the building (something he’d like to see happen), either would be a true game-changer.
There are a few specific things I called for in previous years, including some that are happening besides the aforementioned growth off South Elm. More vacant storefronts on the crucial 300 block of South Elm Street are occupied, including increased residential upstairs, and that’s huge. Downtown boasts more public art, and more is on the way. And though I still want a burrito place like Cosmic Cantina, I realized that the Korean burrito at El Nuevo Mexican Grill near Urban Grinders is fantastic and cannot be overlooked.
Some ideas almost came to fruition, but stopped short — something at Gate City Motors, as I suggested in 2013, or a possible skatepark downtown (it’s going in the Latham Park area, so not too far away). DGI had talked about a possible culinary school downtown that didn’t pan out, and more significantly, the organization went through so many roster changes I doubt most readers can keep track.
Several specific suggestions pitched last go-round continue to be ignored; there’s too many surface parking lots, too many vacant storefronts with absentee landlords and nowhere near enough affordable housing. But the most glaring difference between downtown Greensboro today in the place it could be, needs to be, is something else I raised last year — nobody is learning from downtown Winston-Salem.
In the last few years, downtown Winston-Salem has only continued to raise the bar. It beat Greensboro in attracting a distillery, not to mention a chocolate factory, as well as Wise Man Brewing. And though we called for a barcade at least three times in the last year, the one that opened — Camel City BBQ Factory — is in Winston-Salem, too. There’s Bailey Park now, and restaurants like the Honey Pot and Side Bar, not to mention a bunch of awesome recurring festivals.
It’s not that Winston-Salem is better; don’t get me started down that road. It’s that Greensboro, much as I love this city that I’ve made my home, seems to be lagging behind.
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