By Wesley Brown
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Conceptual drawings unveiled last weekend during the City Council’s annual planning session call for significant development on the Town Common, most notably a multi-story housing complex at the corner of First and Greene streets.
An abstract design of the proposal — made available to the public on Monday — is being referred to by city staff as a “systematic approach” to breathing new life into First Street, a major downtown thoroughfare that many officials see as under-used and rich in potential.
While none of the measures are funded in next year’s budget, the idea is part of a long-term vision to build inward and upward in Greenville, similar to other Southeastern cities that have found success in urban growth in recent years, Community Development Director Merrill Flood said.
“One of the things that we cannot be afraid to talk about, when we discuss redevelopment opportunities in the downtown area, is the idea of density,” Flood said. “We really have to increase density because that increases bodies — warm bodies — beyond the 8-to-5 workday.
“The First Street corridor is where our density can be,” Flood said. “The park is an amenity.”
Early sketches show a mixed-use housing development at the corner of First and Greene streets. The facility would include retail and a memorial to honor the former Sycamore Hill Baptist Church, the site where the building would be erected.
At the Town Common main entrance, near where an arbor now stands, a gateway would be built and lead into open green space. At the center of the 12-acre park, a mobile amphitheater would stand. East of the stage, would be a gift shop, museum and children’s discovery zone. Along the riverfront, where the flood plain boundaries extend, small ponds would wade.
Across the way, along the south side of First Street, would be four blocks of office and cultural space, with a hotel and performance arts center straddling Reade Street, as planned by East Carolina University.
“Again, this is a concept,” Flood cautioned the council and the public. “It is bold. It is visionary. It is trying to take what we have and build it to the next level.”
Flood said his department wanted to start the conversation, see what the council’s goals are and if directed to proceed, gain input from the community through public forums and online surveys.
Since The Daily Reflector reported in early January that talks of Town Common development had begun, District 3 Councilwoman Marion Blackburn, members of the Parks and Recreation Commission and city residents have spoken out against the idea.
Blackburn continued her strong opposition at the council’s yearly retreat.
“There is a lot more being proposed that has nothing or very little in common with the master plan approved by this council — with buy-in from the public — for the Town Common,” she said.
Blackburn said the proposal represents a “considerable deviation” from the Town Common Master Plan, passed in 2010 after more than a year of research and input from city staff, recreation and parks commissioners, the community and various citizen groups.
While the blueprint stated the Town Common should remain publicly owned, it encourages redevelopment “through carefully constructed agreements,” specifically “public-private partnerships.”
The $13 million to $15 million plan allows for light concessions near the common’s boat ramp and a multi-purpose civic building that includes flexible meeting space, kitchen and dining capabilities, an outdoor patio and a commemorative bell tower at the site of the former Sycamore Hill Baptist Church.
City Manager Barbara Lipscomb said developers who appear to be “well-financed” recently have approached her and her staff interested in doing a project. Originally referred to talk to East Carolina University, the contractors said they have been told repeatedly, even by the board of trustees, that if the school sells or leases land, the money goes back to the state, with no guarantee of any funds returning to local coffers. The setback has stalled ECU development plans, Lipscomb said.
“The big issue for developers is that in this economy they are not going to waste time trying to figure out how to assemble parcels,” Lipscomb said. “There are other cities that have a similar plan, are ready to go and are willing to take a chance.”
With that in mind, Lipscomb said she and her staff began to look for ways to creatively develop the park “around the edges” in a way that was a win-win for the community.
“But this is not a park,” Blackburn objected. “This is making way for more of a shopping-mall-like atmosphere. It is a lot of concrete.”
Upon initial inspection, the council had conflicting views about the idea.
District 5 Councilman Max Joyner dismissed the proposal as an unfunded “pipe dream.” District 4 Councilman Calvin Mercer did not go on record with a position, but said the city should start with building south of First Street. Mayor Pro-tem Rose Glover asked the council to remain open-minded.
“I think everybody needs to calm down,” Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas said. “We are just looking at some ideas. Coming out guns blazing is a little bit premature.”
Thomas said he appreciated staff’s creativity on trying to improve the First Street footprint.
“It all fits together — the south side of First Street to everything going up Reade Circle,” the mayor said. “It’s all conceptual, and everyone will have a chance to have their say. Some things we will do. Some things we will change. Some things will be augmented.”
Contact Wesley Brown at 252-329-9579 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CityWatchdog.
via The Daily Reflector.