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)

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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.

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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.

“The transportation department came out and looked at that,” McDonnell says, not unsympathetically. They needed to make sure no one would get hurt.

Before coming to Greensboro, he worked in the urban design department for the city of Dallas. He understands the bureaucratic mindset.

The muscle behind the movement is a $200,000 grant, procured by Elsewhere, from Art Place America — enough to support McDonnell, the artists and assistants, and to supply materials for all the pieces.

In all, a dozen or so projects are slated to be completed by the end of the year. Some, like the hopscotch and a couple downtown murals, have already gone up. Others are set to emerge from the pipeline this week: converted alleys and activated green spaces around the South End neighborhood. It’s a one-time deal, but McDonnell hopes he can get the city to see the benefit of the projects and allow the work to continue.

Says Scheer: “This question of civic and public infrastructure… bends the public art paradigm to be about how artwork can help express the kinds of social spaces that already do or could exist in our city.”

“We want to flood the market with these ideas,” McDonnell says. “This is a pilot year; we’re showing what can be done. You can only talk so much — at some point you have to do.

“I talk to my urban planner friends all the time, and they’re freaking out,” he continues. “They do maybe six to eight projects a year. But this six-month sprint down the mountain helps us figure out how to be more intentional.”

“In one sense I’m a big fish in a small pond,” McDonnell says. “In another sense, I’m the only fish.”

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It’s a movement that incorporates urban planning, design, culture and, at its heart, art.

“It’s a craft, right?” McDonnell asks. “A way to articulate your ideas without words in order to get those ideas across. And this is a key moment where art can be at the center of development.”

McDonnell trudges up the incline back to South Elm Street and heads towards Gate City Boulevard, ducking into the doorway at Area home-furnishings store as the soft rain swells. With his phone he snaps a photo of a passing bicyclist — he collects them and posts them to his Instagram, patrickm02L, as a means of chronicling bike use in the city.

“You don’t see a lot of bike racks downtown,” he says. “You don’t see them in front of bars. You don’t see a bike shop downtown. But I see a lot of people biking around the city.”

He suspects that cyclists are approaching critical mass in Greensboro, at which point more accommodations will be made for them: racks, shops, designated paths and the like.

It’s the same thing with downtown. About 2,000 people currently live downtown. He says we need 8,000 more to hit a critical mass of 10,000 residents, at which point things will be very different.

“It’s that simple,” he says. “It’s a matter of density. When you have enough people, transportation, stores, restaurants — then they become an issue you can’t ignore.

“These big-city ideas don’t ever get talked about at [city] council meetings — high-speed internet, connectivity, urbanization,” he adds. “These are big concepts that you have to plan for, but they don’t come up.”

He’s worked in an elementary school, taught graduate classes at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, where he earned masters degrees in urban planning and higher education. As an Army sergeant, he played saxophone in the 399th Army Band. He has other skills, too.

“Your run-of-the-mill urban planner doesn’t know how to draw,” he says.

He’s also a strategist and a designer. He worked for the city of Dallas as an urban designer in its city-owned studio, CityDesign, and has been on the board of the Association for Community Design since 2012.

“In one sense I’m a big fish in a small pond,” McDonnell says. “In another sense, I’m the only fish… I’m sitting on this mountain of knowledge I can’t use.”

McDonnell walks several miles a day in downtown Greensboro. He attends every city council meeting. He talks to city staffers, elected officials and business owners in the district.

“I knew coming in how to get involved and how to integrate into cities,” he says.

In six months he’s learned a lot, including the identification of a nasty strain of naysayism that permeates the culture, and a realistic assessment of the city’s assets.

“Greensboro doesn’t know how good they have it,” he says. “It’s not that big — bigger cities are more restricting. [There’s] a phenomenal history. People don’t realize that a lot of American culture — like denim and flannel — exist here. The railroads are a huge deal, this connectivity throughout North Carolina and regionally from Washington DC to New Orleans.”

Moving south on Elm, he turns on Lewis Street, where an abandoned gas station awaits activation. An old box truck slept in this space before it was targeted for the South Elm Projects a few months ago; now the stained and scarred concrete is exposed underneath a tin awning that once covered the pumps. It’s old, with flourishes of rust and dead wires poking out like unkempt hairs.

The space has been dormant for so long that most people stopped seeing it, another dead zone in Greensboro’s most important corridor. But South Elm artists keyed in on this early, activating the space with a mural of pointillist spirals by the Milagros Collective out of Miami. Other murals in a similar style adorn the sides of buildings on South Elm, on the ball sculpture at the corner of Gate City Boulevard and a few hidden downtown spaces. The tin awning will come into play soon.

“That’s an asset,” McDonnell says. “It’s very Greensboro, the way it thinks of itself — they don’t see an asset; they see an eyesore.”

The real tragedy, he says, is that the space was unused for so long. People could be gathering here, eating lunch, talking with their neighbors, connecting. It’s one of the only open spaces along South Elm Street, and reclaiming it for the neighborhood fits in with the mission.

“Who else is going to do that down here?” he asks. “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? People in the neighborhood do stuff, and then you champion it.”

Farther down East Lewis Street is a private green space, owned by the SR Max shoe company, whose squat and modern white building sits on the property. The Elsewhere folks call it Breakup Park — “A lot of Elsewherians have broken up here,” McDonnell says — but other than a nice patch of grass and a few shade trees, the park does not exist for public purposes. The owner, he says, wasn’t interested in opening it to the public.

“Naysaying is probably 90 percent of what I deal with,” he says. “You let them talk and then you just go and do.”

So around the corner and across the way, in another open lot in the Ole Asheboro neighborhood, five wooden platforms rise from the green grass, each a pentagon connecting with the next in a short spiral. The work should be finished by the end of this week.

“We’re calling them ‘Black Lunch Tables,’” McDonnell says of the piece by artist Heather Hart, “but they’re for everybody to use. Location is important — the greenway will be coming through in the next two years. But we got here first.”

It harkens back to one of the most notorious chapters in Greensboro history: the 1960 sit-ins. Unlike the Woolworth lunch-counter, these tables are for whoever wants to use them, and will be the site of community meetings and neighborhood events for years to come.

He notes the irony of new construction at the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church on the same block with a price tag of $5 million. The tables cost $16,000.

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On a first-floor wall at Elsewhere, McDonnell has hung a big map of the city’s neighborhoods: East White Oak, Lindley Park, the Cardinal, more than 100 of them laid out in dotted lines, like a butcher’s diagram of a cow. He requested it from city staff when he was having trouble figuring out where one neighborhood ended and the next began.

“This should be on its own website,” he says. “People need to know their own neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, in his own corner of the city, they are tending their own gardens.

The Elsewhere backyard was completed on July 24 — a meandering path between terraced beds and rustic rock walls running behind the museum and parallel to Lewis Street. It’s a joint project between Elsewhere and Andy Zimmerman, who owns the adjacent buildings where Gibb’s Hundred Brewing and the Forge do business. The urban oasis came with a price tag of $20,000.

And then, down the alley to the street, McDonnell has parked another last-minute contribution to the South Elm Projects from artist Chat Travieso: an 8-by-14 trailer that’s already been sanded and weather-protected. By First Friday, it will be a parklet: a mobile public space that fits in on-street parking spaces, a bit of tactical urbanism designed to reclaim the city.

There aren’t supposed to be any parklets in Greensboro — efforts by Downtown Greensboro Inc. to establish them were thwarted by a tangle of bureaucracy and politics. But McDonnell, who secured a blanket permit from the city for the South Elm Projects, just went ahead and did it anyway.

“A lot of what I do is teach people not to be pussies,” he says. “[They say], ‘You can’t do that! That’s not how it’s done!’ And then you go and show them how it’s done. You start to realize that ‘No’ is a paper tiger.”

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