“Welcome to Greensboro, Smart Growth Capital of the South.”
GREENSBORO — That sign could easily be placed along interstate highways entering the municipality known as the Gate City. Though Greensboro has no official “smart growth” initiative in place, the city is quickly establishing itself as a leader in socialist-style planning, as evidenced by recent grants and national recognition.
Such recognition will enhance that reputation and city officials’ desire for more smart growth projects, with the help of taxpayers’ money to help fund them. That’s been the trend in past projects.
Recently, Greensboro became one of six cities to receive a Smart Growth Implementation Assistance grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The grant involves no money, but comes in the form of technical assistance through a team of national experts contracted with the EPA.
After a visit over the course of several days, the team provides information to help the city “achieve its goal of encouraging growth that fosters economic progress and environmental protection.”
“The big thing is the EPA wants us to be successful,” Sue Schwartz, the city’s neighborhood development director, said in a phone interview. “They want to give us a product we can use.” But, she said, she “wasn’t sure what the product piece will be.”
When announcing the grant winners, the EPA wrote that Greensboro’s civic leaders “recognize that growth is coming to Greensboro, and they want that growth to go in their downtown and inner neighborhoods. Putting more development in the center of the city will preserve land on the edge of town, as well as make it easier for people to walk, bike, or take transit.”
Greensboro’s reputation with the EPA obviously helped secure the grant. In 2004 the city’s Southside mixed-use development won a National Award for Smart Growth Achievement. EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt praised the winners for their achievements and challenged others to “follow their example in protecting the environment and improving the quality of life of our great nation.”
Southside is widely regarded as a successful development. The neighborhood, just a few blocks from Greensboro’s flourishing downtown, had become an area of crime, drug-use and prostitution. Now, the majority of residential and commercial units are occupied, and a large private project financed by Milton Kern, a high-profile Greensboro developer and mayoral candidate, is springing up down the street.
But Southside got its start with the help of taxpayers’ money. The city developed a Center City Plan identifying the Southside area as a unique development opportunity because of its potential as a gateway to the city’s central business district, and in 1990 citizens approved a $5 million bond to finance the development. Three years later, the Southside Area Development Plan was adopted.
Other plans to redevelop neighborhoods started springing up. In 1999, the city announced plans for the Morningside Homes Redevelopment Project, which City Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson described as a “major real estate development exemplifying smart growth in an inner-city neighborhood.” The $76 million in funding consisted of a $23 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $12.7 million from the city, and $3.7 million from the Greensboro Housing Authority.
Most recently, Greensboro has received grants from the EPA and HUD for environmental assessment and redevelopment activities in the city’s South Elm Street area. Together with city funds, a total of $6.25 million will be used for planning and development.
But the plan drew controversy when business owners on South Elm Street complained that the city’s low-ball offers to buy property wouldn’t cover relocation expenses. Despite those concerns, the city passed the plan in February.
Schwartz said there would be several areas in which the city would continue to be involved in smart growth development.
“We’re learning and getting better all the time,” Schwartz said. “I’m sure if the market could do it, it would do it. But in Greensboro, in any community, there will need to be some intervention from the city to help move the market along, or the market will produce what isn’t going to be good for the neighborhood.”
Political pressure to promote smart growth initiatives is strong, too. In addition to Johnson, who is running against Kern for the mayor’s seat in the November election, Greensboro’s city council has two other members, Florence Gatten and Sandy Carmany, who consistently issue warnings about the city’s supposed poor air quality and the need to increase subsidies for public transportation, a key element in smart growth initiatives.
Carmany is also on the board of directors for the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, which oversees the Heart of the Triad project. Major components of the project include high-density developments that will help preserve air quality and open space, not to mention passenger rail service that would serve those high-density developments.
But the political pressure could possibly ease with the coming city elections in November. Gatten, an at-large member, said she will not seek re-election. Carmany will face opposition for her District 5 seat from former Guilford County Commissioner Trudy Wade, who was a strong conservative voice on that body.
But the election won’t come in time to prevent the council from possibly voting to pass the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which endorses smart growth principles. By passing the agreement, the city will pledge to reduce its carbon emissions to pre-1990 levels.
Sam Hieb is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.