Spring 2008

Planner Spotlight

The World on Time

Planning for Greensboro's Regional Success in the Worldwide Marketplace

By Sue Schwartz, FAICP

Greensboro has long been a center for economic opportunity. Its central location in North Carolina along several interstate highways, coupled with its international airport, has made it a destination for numerous businesses and worldwide companies. This is reflected by the arrival of Honda Aircraft Company's multi-million dollar jet airplane facility in 2007 and the decision of FedEx to open a new hub in the Greensboro area, a $300 million mid-Atlantic air-cargo and sorting facility at Piedmont Triad International Airport, scheduled to begin operating in 2009.  As a recognizable worldwide company, the presence of FedEx in Greensboro furthers the region's importance in the worldwide economy.

In order to support the growing jobs and economic base that worldwide companies such as FedEx bring to the region, Greensboro is looking to its roots — its central neighborhoods — as places to provide housing for the employment base while enhancing the quality of life of those living and working in the Greensboro area. The Southside neighborhood is an example of this effort to revitalize these areas that provide the walkable urban neighborhoods that people are looking for today. Yet the success of Southside could not have happened without several years of hard work and partnerships.

The Southside Story   

Southside Gateway with Greensboro skylineStrolling through downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, is a favorite pastime of many residents and visitors. In fact, one of the most popular attractions in the city is the Southside neighborhood. Once a declining inner-city area, Southside is a true testament of successful economic development. As neighborhood planning manager for the City of Greensboro, I learned the strengths and challenges of developing infill properties, a major economic development strategy in my town. This case study examines the process and provides a best practices forum for economic development practitioners.

Public-private partnerships are a fundamental local economic development strategy. As I've learned, community sustainability and productivity are essentially linked in the revitalization process. Understanding the role of cooperative allies and forging and maintaining networks, and recognizing how these translate to the worldwide arena, are overarching themes of economic development planning. The story of Southside's revitalization is no different.

Southside is situated in the southeast corner of downtown Greensboro. Historically its location, south of the railroad tracks and slightly elevated from the rest of the downtown, made it a forgotten area. Further, major transportation projects in the 1950s and '60s virtually cut this area off from other inner-city neighborhoods. Several large turn-of-the-century homes had become boarding houses, which isolated the neighborhood and made it a haven for criminal activity. The 2008 snapshot of Southside is a reflection of many years of redevelopment work by the City of Greensboro, private investment, and a major shift in desirability for commercial and residential real estate downtown.

The redevelopment plan for Southside was the result of a two-year intensive public process. Our goal was to reestablish the neighborhood with a mixture of high quality retail, business, and housing types while preserving the character of structures from the early 20th century.

Through a public-private collaboration between the city, Bowman Development Group, and O'Henry Builders, Southside became a mini planning laboratory to work through many difficult urban issues, including environmental reclamation, infill development, affordable historic preservation, and social equity issues, all while reconnecting adjacent neighborhoods.

Testing New Partnerships

New residential developmentsThe City of Greensboro has been a successful redevelopment agency since the 1950s, but Southside was still a new approach. Whereas in the past, the City sold land to individual builders, the Southside plan required a master developer. Nate Bowman of Bowman Development Group in Huntersville, North Carolina, submitted the successful proposal for Southside. His previous experience with traditional neighborhood development (TND) in Huntersville made him the ideal candidate. He teamed up with a local builder, Bob Isner of O'Henry Builders, forming the three-tiered partnership with the City of Greensboro.

It was critical to assess the nature of public-private partnerships and how this relationship would develop. We knew the process would entail several critical steps and details; however, cooperative partnerships and networks were essential to addressing the Southside community needs. Learning from the best practices of other likeminded communities was a promising step toward successful residential development. For example, local financial institutions were unfamiliar with this type of development that included mixed use, different housing types, and higher densities. This required city staff to conduct research on developments in other places and their financing to get local institutions to be comfortable financing Southside.

Unexpected Challenges

Sue's Blues AlleyPromoting infill development has been a major element of comprehensive plans for many years and is a noble pursuit. As implementation began for Southside, the city realized firsthand the unexpected challenges developers encounter. Even though we conducted phase 1 and phase 2 environmental site assessments, we still found underground storage tanks on sites that were supposedly clear. This discovery was the unfortunate result of a backhoe's teeth piercing the storage tank while clearing the site. In these cases the city as a partner was able to absorb the cleanup costs, but if these unexpected occurrences were left to a private developer it could have priced the project out of the market.

Reflecting on the partnership with our developer and builder, we can pinpoint several valuable lessons learned. From the outset, it was important to address the potential conflict areas and understand how to resolve these issues while still working cooperatively. Building and bridging networks and alliances is one strategy to ensure relationships in a broader context. We all brought important contributions to the table. Recognizing your abilities and strategies for a sustainable working relationship is invaluable. Urban and regional planners and economic development specialists are involved with projects ranging in scope and depth, from the smallest neighborhood initiative to the most paramount project involving dozens of interested parties. However, the common link is our ongoing task to understand the value and relationship to the bigger picture. How our projects translate in the regional and worldwide realm is a foremost value of economic development planning.

The Larger Scope

The redevelopment of Southside reflected an ongoing and engaged economic development process. We set our sights on a goal aimed at community revitalization while undertaking a successful public-private partnership. Our ability to maintain networks, learn from best practices, and relate our outcomes to a larger context solidified the nature and goals of this project. The recognizable results of this revitalization effort  support greater Greensboro's attractiveness to worldwide corporations, such as Honda Aircraft and FedEx. This creates a lasting impact that furthers the region's desirability and presence as an economic center in the worldwide marketplace.

Sue Schwartz, FAICP, AICP immediate past president, has spent 20 years in planning. Currently, she is neighborhood planning manager for the City of Greensboro, North Carolina. She was a community planner for the city from 1987 to 2002. She has served two terms on the AICP Commission, and also served a term as secretary-treasurer and as vice chair of APA's Chapter President's Council. In addition, Schwartz has served as both vice president and president of APA's North Carolina chapter, winning the Karen B. Smith Award for excellence in chapter programs in 1995. She has a B.S. in Geography and Urban Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.


Images (from top): Southside Gateway with Greensboro skyline; New residential developments in Southside; "Sue's Blues Alley" named after Neighborhood Planning Manager, Sue Schwartz. Photos courtesy of Sue Schwartz.