Kick out the jambs!

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An urban planner reimagines downtown Greensboro

by Brian Clarey/ photos by Caleb Smallwood

The railroad trestle running below Elm Street, connecting Davie and McGee, is either the best piece of urban engineering in the city or the worst.

Urban planner Patrick McDonnell, who’s been in Greensboro for six months now under the auspices of Elsewhere living museum, thinks it’s both.

“Of course it’s bad,” he says, standing underneath the trestle as a soft rain begins to fall on downtown. “It cuts off connectivity between the north and south. The tracks are a physical barrier that separates the two sides of downtown. But this trestle is the literal and metaphoric gate to the Gate City.”

Besides presenting a not-so-elegant solution to the frequent freights and passenger trains that block car and pedestrian travel on the city’s central thoroughfare, this railroad trestle is the first piece of reactive urban planning in the city, an accommodation to the car culture that would come to define the layout of the whole place.

The streets came first: Elm, Davie and Greene, planned in 1808 around the Guilford Courthouse, which was to be the central spot in the new city. The North Carolina Railroad began construction of its statewide track in Greensboro in 1851, with the first stretch — 130 miles between Greensboro and Goldsboro — up and running by the end of in 1855. Cars didn’t start using city streets until after the turn of the 20th Century.

Patrick McDonnell, urban planner and strategist, made sure that Elsewhere’s hopscotch grid passed underneath the South Elm Street trestle, which he considers to be the actual gate of the Gate City. (Caleb Smallwood)
Patrick McDonnell, urban planner and strategist, made sure that Elsewhere’s hopscotch grid passed underneath the South Elm Street trestle, which he considers to be the actual gate of the Gate City. (Caleb Smallwood)

By then the city was spreading out; automobiles further enabled the sprawl. All street design that came afterward did so with the car in mind.

Like the downtown streets and the outer loops that feed into them: “Their function is to calm traffic,” McDonnell says. “The closer you get to downtown, the less and less arteries you have, so it squeezes [out] traffic, and that’s why it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of traffic downtown. It was designed that way.

“We call them ‘road diets.’”

McDonnell, a native Texan, cuts a small figure on Greensboro streets, where he walks three to five miles a day with a backpack and water bottle, reading the currents of the city. He’s an urban planner along the lines of Andrés Duany, the discipline’s most noteworthy adherent who critiqued the hell out of High Point in 2013, but at 34 he’s much younger.

Elsewhere brought him here to shepherd the South Elm Projects — a dozen or so urbanization efforts designed to fill sprawl, beautify and add an element of artfulness to that once forgotten end of Greensboro’s main strip.

“There is an urban-planning question at the core of the South Elm Project art experiment, which is how do we support more creative and connected communities through civic and social infrastructures,” says Elsewhere Executive Director George Scheer. “It is nice to have someone on the team saying, ‘I get the art concept, but how is that actually going to improve walkability, public participation, small business need, livability, or social equity in downtown?’”

McDonnell dove in by buying a car — “I never think of public transportation in Greensboro,” he says — and making friends in city hall to provide him with maps and stats. In six months he’s built a working model of the city in his brain, cradles [cradled?] by shoulder-length curls just starting to show strands of gray.

“I like Greensboro because it’s legible,” McDonnell says. “I can walk around and figure it out.”

It was important that the hopscotch pattern make a pass through this spot.

The sidewalk hopscotch was the first of the South Elm Projects that McDonnell undertook with Elsewhere and a team of a dozen artists in from around the world for this specific purpose.

The backyard at Elsewhere, another of the South Elm Projects, was completed last week. Built in conjunction with property owner Andy Zimmerman, the living museum and its visiting squadron of artists, the nondescript alleyway has become a showplace.
The backyard at Elsewhere, another of the South Elm Projects, was completed last week. Built in conjunction with property owner Andy Zimmerman, the living museum and its visiting squadron of artists, the nondescript alleyway has become a showplace. (Caleb Smallwood)

It begins with No. 1,693, continuing a long chain that left off in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and ends at 3,082. Tile 3,083 is in Denver, where artist Augustina Woodgate has been commission by the city to continue the run.

The Greensboro segment winds through all of the South Elm area, beginning over by the old Daily Bread Flour Mill on the corner of Gate City Boulevard and meandering along the slim sidewalks of South Elm. It ducks under a sewer grate and pops up again here underneath the train tracks.

  • This is more of what we need in this city. It really takes outside muscle (via a big blanket grant like this one) and people in the arts outside of the insulation of city government to begin asking bigger questions of development. I like the way this guy thinks, especially in terms of getting downtown bigger in a sustainable way (my idea? Big affordable housing developments, a few more bus lines to where jobs are, and an Aldi, for starters).

    We’ve seen Cool Fancy Urban Ideas *try* to take root in Greensboro to copy bigger cities and their models, much like a little sibling trying to copy its cooler, more successful older brother, but it usually ends up failing. Why? When the point of any new initiative is a Fancy Idea and not solving an Actual Issue that was researched and a solution had actual demand here in GSO from people of various backgrounds and social classes, those Ideas tend to flop. Not that I’m talking about the pointless ghost town that is co//ab or anything. Not that I’m talking about the plans in the works for a hip coworking space a la HQ Raleigh. (I’m not sure any of us know what businesses are actually asking for a coworking space to begin with. This is the problem.)

    I’d love to see more of this ethnographic, walking the streets type research coming from not only government, but also the large crop of brand-new (and sometimes redundant) nonprofit initiatives popping up left and right, and much less of the “if we build it, they will come” mentality with zero demand for such things. I hope Patrick sticks around for a few more years and really gets to know people in this quirky city. I’ll be cheering him on.

  • Christian Yorkshire

    I agree and disagree with jorutter’s comments. Downtown needs people like Patrick and forward progress needs to continue even against the typical push back of Greensboro. I agree attention must be directed to the current needs of the current community. However, some concepts like co-op spaces and other contemporary ideas (borrowed from our bigger metro areas) need to occur to bring new residents/businesses into our city as well as help keep young professionals. The city cannot stay in a box.