This is going to be a longer post. But I think it’s worth reading as I’m going to cover a whole bunch of issues that the proposed CVS at the corner of North Greensboro and West Weaver streets raises.
The Project Proposal
Before the Carrboro Board of Aldermen for their consideration on Tuesday night is a proposal to build a free-standing CVS drugstore at the corner of N Greensboro and Weaver Streets (public Hearing B1 on the Agenda). The project’s principal flaw is not its corporate ownership, nor its architectural features or design- but its site plan that takes a corner lot facing two of our most important streets in a limited urban street grid, and places most of that land into a suburban parking format, thereby significantly destroying the value-creation properties of that land in the long term.
The rest of this post explores this flaw in detail.
UPDATE 11:45 pm on 2/25/2013: Per a request via Twitter, I have marked up the site plan for the proposed CVS to help illustrate points discussed in the rest of this post. Click to embiggen.
Notes on the site plan markup:
- Red indicates where Carrboro “A Streets” are fronted with parking rather than urban buildings that embrace the pedestrian and the sidewalk.
- Orange indicates where Carrboro “B Streets” are fronted with parking rather than urban buildings
- Purple indicates where a Carrboro B Street, in this case, Center St, is fronted by a “pocket park” that may or may not be supportive of defensible space principles for urban public spaces
Original post continues below.
Carrboro Has Only Five Critical “A” Streets
When you look at a map of Carrboro, and focus on downtown, one of the things you’ll notice is that we have a pretty limited street network to work with. Other communities like Asheville and Durham have large downtown street grids, many blocks deep in multiple directions, but Carrboro does not.
In urban retail districts, some retail analysts talk about “A” streets and “B” streets, with the “A” streets being home to most of the retail and key walkable urban facilities, while the “B” streets have fewer consumer-oriented businesses, more business-to-business workplaces, more residential development, and less activity overall. This is not to say that “B” streets are lesser places than “A” streets, but to clarify the different roles that streets play in an urban neighborhood.
Carrboro’s “A” Streets are:
- Main St
- Weaver St
- Greensboro St
- Jones Ferry Rd
- Rosemary St
There are some other streets that have the potential to one day fulfill “A” street functions that are clearly not such streets today, but I think it’s hard to argue with this list.
Building a thriving local economy in Carrboro for the long term will require careful stewardship of a high-quality ***URBAN*** public realm along these streets, and of how they relate and connect to other streets and public spaces around them.
The CVS project greets several street frontages with parking rather than buildings. This is a suburban practice, and this site is not a suburban location. The animated GIF below by David Sucher gets it right. Please watch it change a few times. We should not be fronting West Weaver Street with parking spaces, nor North Greensboro Street.
CVS knows how to do this. I’ve seen them do it in other cities, in old buildings and new buildings. The examples below I believe are in
Boston Brookline, MA and the DC area, respectively.
This Corner is Too Important to Get Wrong, and this Project is Too Small
In 2010, the town of Chapel Hill asked former Raleigh Urban Design Center guru Dan Douglas and his firm, Kling Stubbins- to take a look at their downtown and help them identify strategic redevelopment opportunities going forward. Like Carrboro, Chapel Hill’s downtown is mostly an East-West affair that is only two streets deep.
One of the most interesting findings of the Kling Stubbins report is that corner properties on Franklin Street command the highest property values per square foot. This is the local real estate market telling the community these corners were the most important locations in downtown Chapel Hill, or at least the best ones on which to locate a business.
If we look at corners in Carrboro, it stands to reason that corners where two or more “A” Streets meet will be rather important. Those corners are:
- E. Main / Rosemary
- E. Main / N Greensboro,
- E Weaver / E Main / Roberson
- W Main / Jones Ferry Rd
- W. Weaver / N Greensboro
And that’s all. If these intersections are likely to produce our highest-value corners in our urban core, we should build a significant amount of stuff on them. We should not leave them mostly as parking. As a community, we should be aiming to create more public and private value on these corners. Any project on the properties proposed for development here should be much, much bigger in terms of total gross square footage built.
I will add that I expect there to be some other voices in the discussion saying this project should not be approved because it is “too big.” I preemptively reject the notion that it is possible to take the average of my “too small” comments next to those and suggest that the amount of square footage is somehow “just right.”
It is quite possible to conceive of a mix of uses for this corner dominated by office and housing, with a modest amount of retail – that would add significant square footage to downtown (beyond what CVS is proposing) while not adding as many trips to this corner as a 24-hour drugstore. Any residents living in this location will have a tremendous ability to substitute car trips with walking, bicycle and transit trips, and office-generated trips would be very susceptible to being diverted to the same three environmentally friendly modes.
The sketch plans created for these parcels from the 2001 “Crossroads Conversation” conducted by The Village Project show some concepts that are more representative of the types of buildings that belong on such an important corner in our town. The CVS proposal is not in the character of the type of project intensity that belongs on one of our biggest redevelopment opportunities on one of our top 5 intersections.
This Corner is Right In the Middle of Our Urban Grid and Walkable Core
Over the course of the past week on this blog, I’ve discussed what it means to be “urban” and my #InformalUrbanIndicators series of blog posts focused on several phenomena present in Carrboro’s downtown that indicate that our town, unlike so many others of its size, has a living, breathing, vibrant urban heart.
In documenting several of those #InformalUrbanIndicators, I made maps showing the parts of town covered by individual indicators if you created polygons from the most outlying instances of each indicator. Below, in one map, you will find a combined overlay of my maps for Graffiti, Holiday Lighting Displays, Food Trucks, Outdoor Dining, and Yarn Bombing.
View Combined Coverages in a larger map
If any of these indicators alone is a signal to where people are most likely to walk, then any place where they overlap is surely an even more likely place people will walk. As you can see, the proposed CVS project (using the blue marker) is in one of the most walking-friendly places in downtown. This is inherently a bad place for a auto-oriented development project, with lots of parking fronting A Street sidewalks, not to mention other streets as well.
Why Too Much Parking Is a Really Big Deal
As David Sucher’s graphic above shows that urbanism begins with the placement of the parking lot, such a large amount of parking on this site has actively negative effects that go beyond the lost development opportunity that locking this land up as parking represents.
While I’ll elaborate more on this in another post, there is a finite limit to the amount of economic development that downtown Carrboro can support as long as it is predicated on being served by FREE parking. Eventually, the town will reach a point where bringing people in to park for free will over-congest the streets during key shopping times and the hassle of getting downtown in your car to park for free will become a deterrent to economic growth. We are not quite bumping into that limit yet, but we will reach it sooner rather than later.
I personally question the necessity or wisdom of adding this much parking to any key site in downtown, when the town already has a significant amount of parking that could be managed more effectively, and a significant set of assets in transit, bicycle, and walking infrastructure that also provide access to downtown.
That said, if we are going to add this much parking, it should be in a deck, and it should be tied to a much larger building program that allows for shared parking across several uses.
So What Now?
Surely we as a community could have done more over the past ten years to plan for this site so that we would not get proposals like this. Alas, we did not, and we now have a proposal for a use and a site plan that attempts to suburbanize one of our critical urban crossroads in Carrboro. That being the case, I encourage the Board of Aldermen to vote against approving this project on Tuesday evening.
But voting to deny the construction of this project is only the first step that needs to be taken. If you visit the county website and use the ARIES real estate search tool, you will find that the land value for the corner in question is over $520,000 and the building value is only $130,334, on 0.33 acres. This land valuation greatly exceeding the building value suggests that if CVS is turned down, it is only a matter of time before another proposal for this corner appears.
It’s important for the community to start planning for what we DO want to happen in locations like this one.