by Eric Ginsburg
If someone left Greensboro today and returned three years later, they practically wouldn’t recognize downtown. By then several massive projects will be completed, but in the last year a tidal wave of infill projects and new businesses has already started to radically reshape the district.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen as much growth as we have in the last year,” Mayor Nancy Vaughan said, “and a lot of it is happening organically.”
That growth hasn’t been contained to one area or industry, but instead broad swaths of people have recognized the iron is hot and started moving with quickness. As one restaurateur who is planning a new location downtown said, the center city is taking off and it makes sense to get in now before it’s too expensive.
Things are happening so quickly that even Downtown Greensboro Inc.’s map of development, presented at its annual meeting two short months ago, appears wildly out of date. It’s enough that the general public has taken note, but with what feels like a rapid-fire barrage of announcements, it is almost impossible to keep up, especially with more than $350 million in investment pouring in.
A year ago this week, I took a detailed look at downtown Greensboro, measuring recent changes and offering suggestions for a number of things I felt needed work. Several of those ideas have come to fruition, while other advice went unheeded. Now I’m doing it again in an attempt to illustrate what has unfolded since then and to nudge forward downtown’s rebirth.
A slate of people and projects have propelled downtown over the course of the last year, but perhaps none more significantly than Andy Zimmerman. The man who a year ago was most known for being the force behind Get Outdoors doesn’t like much fanfare — he’s the unassuming, casually dressed man at the back of the room, quietly laying the groundwork for several considerable new projects.
With three significant purchases downtown, Zimmerman quickly established a reputation as someone with an uncanny ability to renovate historic buildings into beautiful vessels for unique tenants. In the last year, the Forge makerspace and Gibb’s Hundred Brewing opened next door to each other in Zimmerman properties on West Lewis Street, an otherwise forgotten strip. He is currently upfitting the building next door, which he bought from Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann in the last year.
At the opposite end of downtown, Zimmerman bought the former Steele & Vaughn building across from Deep Roots Market, and a second Crafted restaurant with a new — but secret — concept and the new Preyer Brewing Co. will be moving in. Construction is well underway and the building already looks dramatically different from the outside.
And three weeks ago, he announced that he has the sprawling Gate City Motors property by the Children’s Museum under contract. There’s a good chance this development will include another new brewery and a restaurant as well, and maybe even the city’s only distillery.
Here’s a quick look at what else is new since I took downtown’s pulse this time last year:
• The northwest cornerstone for the Downtown Greenway, a beautiful gazebo, is now complete, and a deal has finally been reached to move Chandler Concrete out of the way so its rail line can be transformed into the greenway’s western leg.
• Several new restaurants have opened, most recently Spice Cantina by the Railyard. The Koshary, a popular north African and Mediterranean restaurant, also opened its doors on South Elm Street. Beer Co., a bottle shop and small bar specializing in craft beer, opened on McGee Street, and Longshanks expanded across the street adding a street-level bar.
• Collab, a co-working space aimed at entry-level entrepreneurs and area colleges, opens its doors next week. It’s located on North Greene Street amidst a block of buildings owned by Elon Law School.
• Greensboro’s only independent, new bookstore opened just under a year ago. Scuppernong Books, which is also a wine bar and café, is located inside a building renovated by Councilwoman Hoffmann that also includes new residential apartments upstairs.
• Prospect Brands, including Gerbing and Duckhead, relocated its headquarters to Greensboro and opened in Eric Robert’s renovated mill near the intersection of Lee and South Elm streets.
• Allure, a downtown club owned by Rocco Scarfone, got a makeover, becoming the Cone Denim Entertainment Center. The space, which is affiliated with House of Blues Entertainment booking, booked comedian Dave Chappelle as its inaugural act.
• Elsewhere Artist Collaborative received a $200,000 ArtPlace America Grant to transform four alleyways and green spaces nearby, including the alley that runs behind its building and opens up into a green space behind the Forge makerspace.
• Union Square campus, a collaboration between area schools and Cone Health, chose to locate at the corner of South Elm and Lee streets, a space I lobbied for heavily in our look at downtown a year ago when several sites were announced as potential locations. Union Square received $2 million from the state legislature, a particularly impressive feat considering the body’s strong conservative bent. Similarly, the right-leaning county commissioners unanimously approved the lease agreement recently, another important step in the process.
• Several businesses have opened, expanded or relocated downtown, including Indian Motorcycles. Construction is underway for Area, a modern furniture store, to move into a renovated space on the same block. Ink Photography Production relocated to a large space behind Lotus Lounge at the beginning of 2014, as did owner Kelly Swanson’s complementary business Property Rental & Retail that carries an array of photo shoot props and supplies. Nosilla Vintage also opened up a retail store downtown in the last year, on South Elm Street.
• Downtown Greensboro Inc. went through a strategic retreat earlier this year, and came out of it with a renewed focus on economic development. It is in the process of handing off several other responsibilities it had previously shouldered, a shift that has led to the relocation of the downtown ice rink to the Railyard and several other changes. The organization’s board also saw some significant shifts in the last year, with new members rotating off and several new and younger ones joining.
• A veterans’ memorial, relocated from the War Memorial Auditorium at the Greensboro Coliseum complex, opened with a ceremony on Monday on a traffic island that used to be a mini-park dedicated to youth.
• The memorial is across the street from the planned downtown performing arts center. In the last year, the city tore down the Greensboro Inn to make way for the massive project and finalized a memorandum of understanding with the Greensboro Community Foundation about the project, but completion is still years away.
• Greensboro City Council approved the closure of a block of Lindsay Street directly east of the Greensboro Grasshoppers stadium to make way for a huge multi-use development project that will include hundreds of higher-end residential units, a hotel and commercial space. To make way for the structure, developer and Rhino Times publisher Roy Carroll leveled the Dixie building and several others on the property including the former Time Out lesbian bar within the last year.
• The Greenway at Stadium Park apartmentsacross the street from Carroll’s development is shooting up. The development is akin to the Greenway at Fisher Park apartments across Smith Street, which are full and relatively new.
• There’s finally action on the former Cascade Saloon, a long abandoned building adjacent to the train tracks on South Elm and Barnhardt streets. The city handed it over to Preservation Greensboro, and news is expected soon about what outfit will be renovating the building.
• As mentioned, Crafted and Preyer Brewing plan to open next to each other in a building at the corner of Battleground Avenue and Eugene Street in early 2015.
• A mixed-use development is planned diagonally across Eugene Street from the restaurant and brewery, which will include office and ground level retail space up to 40,000 square feet. The lot is currently vacant and construction was slated for this fall though there is no visible movement.
• Announcements for a number of restaurants came this year as well, such as a mammoth development by Iron Hen owner Lee Comer including several food-related businesses on Spring Garden Street. The venerated local restaurateurs behind 1618 and Josephine’s Bistro both announced they would open new places downtown, next door to each other on South Elm Street. Crawford’s Creations, a made-to-order bakery and cake-supplies distributor, is relocating from Spring Street on the western side of downtown to South Elm Street near Table 16, not far from where PB&Java is planned.
• There is a sign of for a new store, a vintage and repurposed store called Re Aligned on East Lewis Street with a beautiful patio that looks more suited for a bar. Speaking of booze, developer Marty Kotis plans to build a beer garden, and he’s said it might be downtown.
• Senior Resources of Guilford plans to relocate at a new building directly south of the Greensboro Children’s Museum. Though plans for the site, which include an enclosed carousel, were announced more than a year ago, there is no visible progress.
• City View apartments will add more residential units on the southeastern side of downtown, not far from the depot and Dame’s Chicken & Waffles
• Jan Van Dyke has pledged $1 million for a new, medium-sized performance and rehearsal space at the Greensboro Cultural Center next to Center City Park.
• Downtown Greensboro Inc. intends to unveil a new marketing campaign for the city core soon, with “Let’s play” as the slogan. Shooting already took place at M’Couls, the Carolina Theatre, Center City Park, Robert’s mill and more. The campaign is like nothing DGI has put out before, director Jason Cannon said, adding that it will help people feel the sophistication and elegance of downtown and help locals see it in a new light.
• The groundbreaking ceremony for LeBauer Park, where Festival Park currently exists by the cultural center, is next week. The park will include a magnificent sculpture by Janet Echelman, whose art is internationally renowned.
• ArtsGreensboro is working on the SmART Initiative with funding from the NC Arts Council to encourage economic development downtown that is arts-driven. As part of the planning, the group helped host idea man Jason Roberts this year, but it still remains to be seen what will come out of the initiative.
• Greensboro was chosen as the site for the National Folk Festival, an event that will be held downtown annually for three years beginning in September 2015 and will bring huge crowds to the city.
• Downtown Greensboro Inc. is working on a pilot parklet program and is currently soliciting input on a survey about the idea. Parklets temporarily transform parking spaces into active areas for public use ranging from seating to art, and the idea is to begin on South Elm Street. Downtown business and property owner Milton Kern hates the idea, but I love it.
• A Wyndham Hotel on Davie Street is among three planned for downtown, though there is no visible evidence on progress on any of them yet with the exception of demolition on Roy Carroll’s Eugene Street site.
• We can expect additional progress on the Downtown Greenway, particularly construction slated along the westernmost stretch of the greenway loop’s north side. Planning continues for the eastern leg along Murrow Boulevard.
• 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.
Several of the suggestions I put forward a year ago were heeded, though I can’t say with any certainty that I played role in any decisions to take action. I pushed for more connectivity between the area by the Grasshoppers stadium and downtown on Elm Street, and though I never could’ve imagined Roy Carroll’s multi-million dollar development, it does fulfill that proposal to an extent though it takes away a road to do so.
I called for the renovation and activation of the Gate City Motors property on Church Street, and though I suggested a mixed-use development with residential space, I eagerly anticipate what Andy Zimmerman could do with the existing structures and commercial spaces he’ll attract. And I’m thrilled that Union Square campus will go in at the corner of Lee and Elm streets as I advocated.
But the two biggest things I harped on — the need for downtown to grow beyond Elm Street and infill of numerous vacant storefronts on the South Elm Street’s 300 block — is happening. Kickstarted by Hoffmann and Scuppernong Books, the core block will experience major revitalization with help from developer Dawn Chaney and others particularly the folks behind Josephine’s as well as 1618. It’s hard to think of something more promising than the eventual addition of those two restaurants for the block, though a few vacant storefronts remain.
And the infill growth near the baseball stadium begins to establish a new zone of downtown away from Elm Street. A year ago I suggested the creation of an entertainment district as a way to create a distinct area of downtown, but pockets of downtown off Elm are developing naturally on the north side in large part thanks to Zimmerman at the Preyer/Crafted location and the Railyard on the south side, which pull activity off the main drag. That’s way better.
But plenty of our suggestions remain, ideas that I stand by and know would benefit downtown:
• A renovated Cascade Saloon will help draw people south across the train tracks on Elm Street, but there must be a short-term solution, too. I suggested an arrow projected on the side of the building — George Scheer of Elsewhere has a great idea for an interactive art piece that someone should take him up on.
• Say what you will, but there is way too much parking downtown, particularly surface parking lots. Real cities — including Winston-Salem — don’t have as much parking on their main streets, and there is a glut of lots on Davie Street in particular. There’s no reason new businesses shouldn’t fill in those lots instead, particularly between the Depot and Elm along Washington Street and the lot on Martin Luther King Drive used for parking by Gate City Transportation. Multi-level parking is key to growth.
• Speaking of MLK, there has been no action to make the stretch from Elm to City View and the businesses right there more attractive, which is possible via streetscaping and landscaping.
• Though briefly transformed in the fall of 2012 for food trucks, Commerce Place remains relatively desolate. When Carroll’s development and Collab are complete, the strip should be revisited as a site even if only on an event basis.
• Murals, murals, murals. Let’s put one celebrating local Civil Rights leaders like Bennett College’s Willa Player on the blank brick wall next to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, paint electrical boxes — I called the city and it’s possible on municipal ones — and give life to dead space with colorful art. A year ago I suggested a mural on the white wall of Greensboro College’s theater building along the greenway near Westerwood Tavern. Since then, I helped bring together some key players to work towards the possibility of a mural there. We’ll let you know when there’s more to report.
• How about some bulletin boards with maps of downtown and visitor information as well as a space for upcoming downtown events?
• There’s not enough to do downtown, particularly for youth who are a little too old for the Children’s Museum. I’d still like to see things like a bowling alley or a video game spot like Lost Ark downtown.
• Downtown needs more housing, particularly affordable options. The stock has actually decreased since last year with the demolition of the Dixie building and no new affordable units created. The center city cannot just be a place for the rich to live and play. At the very least, the more reasonably priced residential options in areas such as North Cedar Street (where I live) must be protected.
• Speaking of affordability, I’ve said it before and so have plenty of other people: Downtown needs a grocery store with reasonable prices. I usually grab lunch from Deep Roots once or twice a week, but it doesn’t qualify.
• I’m never going to stop beating this drum until it happens — there needs to be a burrito joint downtown. I’m talking about an assembly-line style fast place like Carburritos or Cosmic Cantina, a need that isn’t fulfilled by new downtown Mexican restaurants Blu Margarita or Spice Cantina.
Plenty of new concepts have come forward or been brought back up in the last year as well, by us and others alike. Here are some of the best:
• Downtown Greensboro Inc. is working on the possibility of bringing a culinary school downtown. I think that’s a fantastic idea and hope it plays out, though there are very few details at this stage.
• Bring back the Pop-Up Promenade. Though it’s expensive to close down February One and hold events along the now-painted street, I’d like to see a revival of the otherwise dreary cut-through road.
• Building on the idea for an arcade downtown, how about a barcade somewhere, especially the vacant storefronts across from the Carolina Theatre or where Rumba Latina used to be near Center City Park and the Greensboro Cultural Center?
• The city is trying to sort out where to put a skatepark, a plan with some fire behind it thanks to Councilman Mike Barber. There have been discussions about putting it somewhere along the Downtown Greenway, a move I support assuming that the city also modifies restrictions on skateboarding as a means of transportation in the center city and specifically to allow skateboarding on the greenway.
• It’s time to learn from, or better yet lure, Winston-Salem to Greensboro. The Greensboro Partnership is helping to coordinate a trip of about 70 business and civic leaders to visit the Innovation Quarter in downtown Winston-Salem in early December, which is a positive first step. We want to introduce Winston and Greensboro folks who are doing similar things, such as Eric Robert and Andy Zimmerman with developer John Bryan. Even if Bryan doesn’t wind up redeveloping the Cascade Saloon — a possibility, from what we’ve heard — maybe the city can still convince him to get involved in its blossoming downtown. Several Winston-Salem businesses could make the jump to downtown Greensboro as well, just like Design Archives did in the opposite direction last week. Imagine a second location for Camino Bakery, maybe in the mixed-use development planned on Battleground by Deep Roots, and another Foothills brewpub, maybe inside Robert’s mill.
•Speaking of Robert, he showed Mayor Nancy Vaughan how some French cities light up buildings at night with bright colors. She’s into the idea, especially after seeing the colorful projection art of Tagtool during 17 Days, and is interested in potentially illuminating parking decks and other downtown surfaces.
•More could be done with lighting downtown in general, something that has certainly been discussed before but has returned with renewed vigor in downtown circles in the last year. Brighter LED lights and standardized poles would improve safety and improve appearances, Vaughan said.
•Action Greensboro brought Jason Roberts to town to talk about his Better Blocks revitalization initiative in Dallas. He suggested ways to remake Hamburger Square by Natty Greene’s, including lighting up the underpass below the train tracks. That could go a long way.
•There are a limited number of places where food trucks can set up downtown, including a rotating stable at Center City Park during lunch some weeks. There are some discussions about expanding the footprint of where food trucks could roam. The parking lot next to Cheesecakes by Alex or an empty Davie Street lot could work, as could the one by Carolina Theatre and the Pour House. And there are plans for trucks to park by Gibb’s Hundred Brewing, which doesn’t serve food.
•It seems almost too ironic to suggest after the noise ordinance a while back put the kibosh on outdoor amplified noise and rooftop venues, but downtown could make much better use of its rooftops. Be it a bar like the District in Winston-Salem or more rooftop patios like M’Couls, there is a significant amount of underutilized real estate.
Despite all of these new ideas, existing projects and recent developments, there is still much more to be done and a bastion of possibility. For some a top priority is tackling the false perception that downtown is unsafe.
For others, reconfiguring traffic patterns, parking and beautification — streetscaping — is an expensive but fundamental component of creating an environment enticing to developers and residents alike. That includes eliminating some street parking on South Elm Street to allow for sidewalk dining, something Winston-Salem figured out long ago that resulted in tremendous success on Fourth Street.
Streetscaping could also turn Greene Street into a two-way thoroughfare the whole way through downtown, something that has been discussed seemingly forever with no tangible results. As far as DGI leader Jason Cannon is concerned, we “desperately need to move forward” on a master streetscaping plan, something his board is spearheading but that needs city buy-in. A bond package may be necessary to make it a reality.
In many ways, despite all the progress in downtown Greensboro, there is still a feeling that “Winston has snuck up on us,” as another downtown leader remarked.
Both cities are experiencing a rebirth, and have plenty to learn from each other both on larger, legislative issues such as what to do about busking or noise as well as more individually between people.
The best thing about all the changes in downtown Greensboro is that a multiplicity of people — and not just one or two big developers or projects — is behind it all.
As we eagerly await what is ahead, both known and unknown, we offer ourselves as a connective tissue to tie people together, as a clearinghouse of new ideas, as a spotlight on what’s to come and as a microscope of analysis about what it all means and where there is room for improvement.