By Amanda Lehmert
East Market Street in Greensboro, North Carolina, should have been an ideal spot. It had a historically black college and a university, large churches, easy access to downtown, and affordable housing. But when a seven-member American Planning Association community planning assistance team arrived in October 1995, there wasn't much to recommend this neighborhood just outside of Greensboro's urban core.
The easy access to downtown by way of a six-lane road — part of a 1960s-era urban renewal project — meant drivers zoomed through without stopping. Commercial buildings were vacant or boarded up. There was little left to remind people of what had been just one generation earlier a thriving African-American neighborhood.
Sue Schwartz, FAICP, a Greensboro planner who was the North Carolina APA Chapter president at the time, had advocated to the national organization for East Market Street to be the first area studied by what has since become APA's Community Planning Assistance Teams program.
At first, says Schwartz, who is now the city's planning director, "We thought the whole issue was about university-related retail. You had 10,000 students and a really sad Burger King."
It was about more than just a plan for economic development. Through the CPAT process, the city discovered that the area really needed a plan to address social inequity and rebuild a sense of community that urban renewal had all but wiped away.
More About CPATs
The resulting First Major Progress Report, East Market Street District, now 23 years old, has proven to be a recipe for revitalization that brought East Market Street back to life with a new look, new businesses, and new community partnerships.
Community Planning Assistance Teams are an American Institute of Certified Planners program that brings volunteer planning professionals into communities that need additional resources and expertise. (See sidebar below.)
The concept was first conceived in the wake of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles by a group of planners who were in the city working on a community project. APA leaders saw that social inequity was the "underlying behavioral problem that nobody wanted to talk about or address," says Lee M. Brown, FAICP, a Greensboro CPAT member and president of Teska Associates.
"Planners in general understand their commitment to building community and to be brokers of change," says Brown.
It begged for a planning approach. APA's answer was to introduce the first CPAT.
East Market Street was a good place to start. A century ago, it had been a bustling African-American business district surrounded by dense neighborhoods. There was the Busy Bee Cafe, Hagan's Fish Market, Meares Tailor Shop, and the Palace Theatre — all businesses that served the daily needs of residents as well as students from Bennett College for Women and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
In the years following World War II, the area began to show its age. In 1951, the Greensboro Redevelopment Commission declared the area a blight and launched a 90-acre residential redevelopment project on the north side of East Market Street. When it was completed in 1963, it was the first urban renewal project in North Carolina.
Other urban renewal projects followed, including efforts to widen the roadway, expand the university's campus, and clear property for a new post office. Over the course of the 1960s, 1,000 African American families moved and 80 businesses were uprooted — many never to reopen. The social fabric of the neighborhood was forever changed.
When APA's first CPAT arrived in Greensboro in 1995 for a whirlwind five days of intensive study and meetings with stakeholders, East Market Street wasn't terribly appealing.
The huge post office had been built but then abandoned. The Cumberland Shopping Center, built to replace some of the commercial buildings cleared through urban renewal, had died within about a decade. It lost its grocery store anchor tenant in the mid-1970s and was mostly boarded up. College and university students couldn't even buy notebook paper in the neighborhood.
Some of the land acquired by the city during urban renewal had been sold to churches, but the religious communities didn't play much of a role in making the neighborhood vibrant.
"These churches — some of them were very large at the time, very outstanding members and all of that — had played a very modest role in the economic development of the area," says Bill Harris, FAICP, CPAT team leader and then a University of Virginia professor who founded APA's Planning and the Black Community Division.
Tensions between the residential neighbors and the university did not help matters, Brown says. The university was growing, but officials weren't keeping the neighbors in the loop about their plans. It wasn't clear whether growth plans would take the needs of the community into account.
Then there was the dangerous six-lane street. Some residents say it was built soon after 1969 to give National Guard tanks easy access to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (prompted by an incident of unrest on the campus in which the National Guard was called to disband students protesting the treatment of African-American youth at a local high school.)
Wariness among residents
"I came [into the process] with my eyes open, trying not to get hoodwinked," says Bob Davis, a former N.C. A&T professor and long-time Greensboro resident who participated in the stakeholder meetings. "I wanted to make sure the community input came into this."
The team was prepared for this largely African-American community to be apprehensive about a redevelopment process. There were still plenty of residents who remembered that thriving African- American business district that disappeared during urban renewal. The seven CPAT members, who worked pro bono, included planners from across the country who were skilled in urban development and had experience working with underserved and minority communities with similar histories.
"We did not use the word 'redevelopment,'" says CPAT member Emil Malizia, FAICP, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "There was still that stigma."
The planning process
Amid a packed schedule of meetings with business owners, church leaders, university officials, and residents, the CPAT got a windshield tour of the community.
Brown, who had worked in Chicago, recalled thinking that the area didn't look so bad — until they compared it to the area around another state university about a mile and a half away. Off West Market Street, the neighborhood around the University of North Carolina at Greensboro didn't show the same signs of private and public neglect. Even the crape myrtles were nicer, Schwartz recalls a resident saying.
"I was shocked," Harris says. "Aesthetically, economically, there was no favorable comparison at all."
Brown says, "It was night and day. Unfortunately, I have to say, it was black and white."
The CPAT spent five days in Greensboro, including a day-long workshop with residents at N.C. A&T. By the time the team sat down to craft their presentation to the community, they'd spoken with more than 300 people.
The CPAT's three-page list of recommendations covered a wide range of topics, with some clear areas of emphasis: improving the built environment, revitalizing the business sector, and empowering the community.
A road diet, much to the chagrin of local transportation engineers, was in order, as was a revamped streetscape that visually connected the university and college and neighborhoods. CPAT member Ellen Crain, then the planning director of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, sketched a streetscape design with parallel parking, decorative lighting, and lots of trees. It was meant to slow down the traffic, open up the areas to pedestrians, and lure retail business traffic.
The CPAT thought it was worth trying to restore the only block that survived the bulldozers during urban renewal, which they dubbed the Lyndon Street Historic Area.
They also saw places ripe for redevelopment throughout the community. But funding was a key question. There was discussion about raising capital through loan pools, grants, or institutional investments, perhaps by the churches.
"The challenge was to identify ways to develop property that served the community but also met the market realities," Malizia says.
One recommendation of the CPAT proved key to getting many initiatives accomplished.
The area possessed "a wealth of untapped resources," the team said. But it needed a lead agent to orchestrate development, lobby the lending institutions and political machines, market the area, and deal with prospective businesses. Unfortunately, there wasn't an obvious person or group that fit the role.
"When the primary energy is in distrust and factionalism, the normal roles don't quite work," Lee Brown says.
So in 1997, the East Market Street Development Corporation was born. The nonprofit was started with $3,500 from the city. Mac Sims, who worked for a local construction firm and had been on the CPAT planning committee, took the helm as director, working part time. He rented the first office with $600 of his own money.
By 1998, the city council adopted the East Market Street Corridor Development Plan, which was written with the help of five of the CPAT members.
"This time, a community that [once] merely witnessed the destruction of a vibrant business district is playing a major role in building the district anew," Sims wrote to the Greensboro News & Record in 1999. "This plan was the people's plan."
He meant it. During those first few years, Sims used the CPAT's report and list of recommendations like a playbook, Schwartz says. He went door to door up and down the corridor, talking to people about the plans.
One afternoon he popped into Ellen Moore's beauty salon, La Facials, unannounced. She wanted him to spruce up the dark, overgrown train underpass right on her doorstep. "I let him have it about that ugly bridge out there," Moore says.
In the ensuing years, the corridor exploded with energy and interest, and projects big and small. With enthusiastic support from city council members, in the late 1990s and early 2000s city voters approved about $9.5 million for redevelopment and streetscape improvements. Soon after its founding, EMSDC created loan programs for commercial business facades and landscape improvements and gap financing for redevelopment projects. The large shopping plaza across from N.C. A&T got a facelift and the Cumberland Shopping Center was demolished, in part with city grants and loans. In 1999, EMSDC launched an annual heritage festival. The city brought the crape myrtles up to West Market Street standards.
"It was these subtle things [that showed local stakeholders] we were committed to this," Schwartz says.
East Market Street today
Head down the corridor today and you'll see the fingerprints of APA's inaugural community planning assistance team everywhere.
The Lyndon Street Historic Area boasts an events center and an office building, restored from the remnants of an old former laundry facility and car dealership. That foreboding railroad bridge Moore didn't like now boasts new lighting and a blue-and-gold paint job — an homage to N.C. A&T's colors. Broad, shady sidewalks grace each side of East Market Street. Landscaped medians, metered parking, and decorative street lamps complete a much friendlier look. Workers and shoppers pop in and out of the Dudley-Lee Professional Center, a brick building with green awnings on the former site of the all-but-forgotten Cumberland Shopping Center.
The people are different, too.
EMSDC helped launch an area merchants association in 1998 and reinvigorated neighborhood groups. It still works with neighborhood groups today — that's one of its lasting legacies, says Bob Davis, who has served on EMSDC's board.
After all, says Mac Sims, "It doesn't all come down to dollars and cents. You want people to have neighborhoods they are proud to live in."
The colleges have come to the table, too. "One of the greatest things that happened was the collaboration that was formed. A&T has become a major driver in developing the east side of Greensboro," says Gladys Robinson, a state senator and former executive director of Piedmont Health Services and Sickle Cell Agency, located on East Market Street. "The partnerships, they haven't been easy. They have been deliberate, and that has made a difference."
Success has been building. Last year N.C. A&T broke ground on a 130,000-square-foot, $90 million Engineering Research and Innovation Complex. The four-story, glass-paneled building will be the first one people see when they approach campus from the east.
Also last year, the United House of Prayer announced it will build a large mixed use development at the long-vacant post office site, which will reinvigorate one of the area's busiest intersections with the first new housing project in years.
EMSDC has changed, too. Since its founding, it has gradually expanded with projects and programs across the largely African-American east side of Greensboro. In 2016, it rebranded itself to East Greensboro Now to pay homage to its expanded mission. They have partnered with the city on a new #InvestEast marketing campaign to get businesses and investors excited about East Greensboro and celebrate the growth that has happened there in recent years.
"We've done a lot," says Moore, who sits on the East Greensboro Now board. "There's still more to do."
Amanda Lehmert is an award-winning journalist who spent 12 years working for daily newspapers. She lives in Greensboro.
East Greensboro Now video.
Invest East video.
By Ryan Scherzinger, AICP
After 15 years and eight successful community planning team projects, including Greensboro, APA formalized the longstanding initiative in 2011. The newly named Community Planning Assistance Teams program relaunched with its first open call to communities seeking assistance — and to planning professionals willing to offer their time and expertise to communities in need.
Volunteer CPAT teams visit new places each year and help communities address some of their most pressing planning challenges. Since 2011, the CPAT program has completed 32 additional projects and counting. Work continues long after CPAT volunteers leave; residents and leaders of those communities continue working toward the visions they established during their experience. The changes take time, but some happen faster than others. Here is an update on a few of CPAT's projects:
Spanish Fork, Utah
In central Utah, rapid population growth and the resulting development pattern had led to the decline of Spanish Fork's historical downtown when CPAT made its recommendations in 2015. Informed by an intensive community engagement process and analysis, the report included 12 implementation strategies with specific steps to address key challenges and opportunities. The people of Spanish Fork wasted no time acting on many of them. The report still serves as the framework for community reinvestment.
In a short time, Main Street underwent significant change. New businesses opened. The community organized more events and transformed Memorial Square, a small but important public space, into a more inviting and attractive area with seating and improved parking.
By forming a downtown merchants alliance (called Downtown on Main), Spanish Fork followed through on another CPAT recommendation. The organized structure maintains momentum by keeping ownership of the area's success among key stakeholders. The alliance played an active role in recent land-use decisions. They promote the area and create and coordinate many more events.
Progress continues. Leaders now plan to tackle another CPAT recommendation — to redesign and construct a safer, more business-friendly Main Street right-of-way. They credit CPAT with helping them bring the Utah Department of Transportation, which manages the state roadway, to the table for that visioning process.
In 2016, a CPAT team created a community action plan with the underserved Brooklyn neighborhood of South Baltimore, Maryland, that was centered around green infrastructure and included a design plan for Garrett Park (see rendering above), which was rundown and no longer served the community. The Conservation Fund, a member of the Greater Baltimore Wilderness Coalition, committed the first $250,000 to the park redevelopment project. The plan sparked the attention of decision makers, resulting in an opportunity to present the project at a White House Roundtable. The plan continues to help drive collaborative concepts around local workforce development, public health initiatives, and interconnectivity with larger area green infrastructure plans in Baltimore.
Story County, Iowa
In 2011, amid increased development pressure in a primarily agricultural county, Story County, Iowa, requested assistance from CPAT to create an economic development strategy that included quality-of-life considerations. The county has implemented many of its CPAT recommendations: County officials created a new strategic plan to formalize the vision CPAT helped develop; completed a five-year county capital improvements plan for the first time in 2013, and again in 2018; and conducted a comprehensive plan audit. They stepped up economic development planning efforts, including a new facade improvement grant program to help small downtowns across the county.
The county also adopted a communications plan to increase transparency, share the vision with the public, and improve emergency response communications. With more than 300 employees working in various locations, the county also started a monthly internal newsletter to ensure their vision is presented to the public and coordinated among departments consistently.
Ryan Scherzinger is programs manager of professional practice for APA and manages the CPAT program.