City Beautiful 21 » Architecture, Art, Auto Traffic, Biking, Economic Development, Music, Parking, Pricing, Street Design » ArtsCenter-Kidzu Building: A Compelling Idea That Needs Some Work Before Going Forward
The Short Take: The Town of Carrboro has been approached by two cherished local non-profits (Kidzu and The ArtsCenter) with a proposal to build a new “Carrboro Arts and Innovation Center” (CAIC) involving town funds from a not-presently-existent revenue stream. The proposal has several issues that should discourage the Town from moving forward until these challenges can be resolved or greatly improved upon. These issues are exacerbated by a lack of public policy guidance documents, most notably a Town Comprehensive Plan, that would guide such proposals to be more in sync with community priorities from the outset.
I urge the Carrboro Board of Aldermen to NOT move forward with this proposal at this time, and to step back and ask themselves:
- Broadly: What can the Town do to better prepare itself for major proposals such as The CAIC and the Lloyd Farm project? Why is the Town so unprepared to deal with ideas like this?
- More Narrowly: What pieces of the ArtsCenter proposal are at an inappropriate level of detail (too much? too little?) to effectively evaluate whether the Town should:
- Support such a project?
- Support such a project AND participate in it financially?
The Long Take: There are multiple issues to consider with this proposal and I will try to take them on one at a time.
Background on my Point of View
For those who don’t know me who are reading this, I’ve lived in Carrboro for about 15 years, and my interest in the arts is one of the reasons I live here. I’ve been a performing musician since high school, and have played locally at the Festival for the Eno, Blue Horn Lounge, Cafe Driade, the Carrboro Music Festival, Open Eye Cafe, Johnny’s, The Station, and yes, The ArtsCenter. Our family has patronized concerts, theater events, public meetings and art shows there. With a small child in our family, we have also recently been members of Kidzu. I am a supporter of both of these organizations and what they do in the community, both in spirit and as a patron of their activities. I hope that those who have spent time assembling the CAIC proposal will read the remainder of this post while keeping in mind that I am someone who wants to see both The ArtsCenter and Kidzu succeed.
What’s Good – Carrboro, The Arts, and Institutions for Young Families
The exciting part of the proposal is the promise of an expanded ArtsCenter in a town where the populace loves the arts from a participant point of view as much as a concertgoer/theatergoer/galleryhopper point of view. A great space for the arts is in keeping with Carrboro’s strengths and brand as a community. There’s no doubt that the idea is compelling. Additionally, Carrboro’s percentage of population under age 10 is almost 16%, so a place like Kidzu also makes sense to be in the community.
However, as we move from the general to the specific, these positives get overwhelmed by details (and in some cases, the lack thereof) that detract from other things residents cherish about Carrboro, most notably its nature as one of the truly walkable communities in North Carolina and the Southeast.
The Architectural Style
To start with the challenges of the proposal, I’m going to focus on what I’ve learned from the media coverage as I have not been able to attend any public forums. Below are some images that I believe came from the Chapel Hill News. They show a modernist/postmodernist building that is heavy on glass and steel. The building has uneven projections from multiple sides, which certainly probably raise the cost of the building over continuous walls in the same space. I assume that the building would not actually have all the text labels on the outside and that those labels are to help explain interior functions.
First, if the town wants to take on debt to build a building for non-profit organizations, we should have a plan for how the building could be used if those nonprofits fail and cannot use the space as proposed. I flag this because the track record of re-using modernist buildings is not that good.
Carrboro’s Town Hall, a former school, has found adaptive re-use, as has Carr Mill. Meanwhile, the BCBSNC property sits empty because it ignored many timeless building practices for trendy abstract art statement-making.
If the Town is going to build a building, it should build in a style that has a record of attracting new uses when the original ones fail or leave, and we should try to build it without expensive, hard-to-maintain materials and profiles.
The Building’s Orientation to Its Surroundings
I’ve been to DPAC for a show and I walk by there all the time. It’s a beautiful facility on the inside, and it sounds great. That said, I don’t know that its interaction with the rest of the city is all that great in Durham. To be fair, I’m not sure the site of DPAC presented many opportunities for synergy when it was built, but this site has the opportunity to embrace one of Carrboro’s most busy intersections for pedestrian activity. Unfortunately, the design seems to “hide” the CAIC behind two trees and there is no relationship with Main Street, the most important or “A” street on which the property fronts. Instead, the primary orientation for people walking to and from the entrance is towards the “B” street of lower importance, Roberson Street. Additionally, nearly the full length of the ArtsCenter’s interface with the block is for drop-off/pick-up for cars.
The present design honors the car first and the pedestrian second. This needs to change, and any project at this location needs to do more to honor Main St and contribute to it as a place.
The Multiple Roles of the Architect
Mr. Szostak is on the board of the ArtsCenter. What happens when the ArtsCenter is pushing for a design element that raises the cost to the Town, and the Town wants to reduce it? Wouldn’t it be awkward for an architect to fulfill the Town’s (his client’s) wish while upsetting his Board colleagues? It doesn’t seem fair to ask the architect of a Town building to negotiate that tension. Also, shouldn’t the Town, if it’s undertaking a signature building project, seek proposals that would include competitive bids for the design work? There’s no doubt Mr. Szostak is a talented architect. I suspect he’s done many good things for the ArtsCenter board as well. If this proposal goes forward, the Town should consider how to prevent conflict between the non-profits and itself via the roles of the architect.
Architecture, Decorum, and Placemaking
Former Mayor Mark Chilton once said that Carrboro’s architecture has “a certain humility” to it. I think he was onto something, but I would say it a little differently, perhaps that our architecture has a “common dignity” to it. I think that any new ArtsCenter building would best serve its purpose by contributing to the common dignity of the street scape rather than making a big statement unrelated to the rest of downtown.
Calls for New Revenue Streams
To the extent that any of this proposal relies on new revenue streams, it is hard to ignore that the NCGA has recently taken away the privilege license tax from municipalities and is looking to redistribute some of their sales tax revenue to rural areas. This is a legislature that also put new limits on sales tax for counties last year. A realist proposal would not include a component of asking the NCGA for new revenue sources for a municipality.
Collateral from Non-Profits
The proposal suggests that the Town would only move forward if the ArtsCenter or Kidzu could offer some collateral. Realistically, what assets do these organizations have, and what is the value of these assets?
Continued Failure on Parking Policy From the Town
It is extremely painful to see that one of the four key points this agreement suggests that the Town would not move forward without the appropriate parking infrastructure. Forgetting all the other points I have made, this is more than enough to oppose the entire proposal until we get off of the idea that because we have a new use of any type in our walkable, transit-served downtown we need more (implied: free) PARKING. During the Carrboro music festival this year, theoretically our biggest visitor event which will DWARF the busiest night at any new ArtsCenter, the deck was not full. Why on earth would we put public money toward any structured parking (which eats up truly finite economically productive land in the downtown) without pricing the parking we already have? (which would also bring revenue). Or without stepping up enforcement? (which would bring revenue and reduce predatory towing)
I’ve already hashed out most of the reasons for being smarter about parking in this post. Please take a look.
How We’re Getting Input On This
I’m also disappointed that what we’re doing to decide how to proceed with this project is to hold a public hearing. First, let me say that holding a hearing is vastly better than not holding one. Still, what’s happening is that everyone is debating the merits of this proposal against itself, and not as part of a broader vision for downtown and the community. It’s the same type of short-term, single-faceted thinking that led the Town to recently consider turning the bike lanes on Fidelty Street into car parking. It’s almost as if because one idea emerges, we forget everything else we’ve agreed to as goals for the community.
The recent Lloyd Farm meetings with the community highlight some of the same problems. In frustration, one neighbor said to the developer “we’re not supposed to be designing the project for you!” This line brought lots of laughs, but it held a lot of truth. But I also had sympathy for the developers. Our zones and our code don’t tell them what we want; many of the ideas in our zoning and codes are decades old and are not made for this moment in our community’s life, but we keep governing off of them.
Of course, with both the CAIC and Lloyd Farm, the missing document that is supposed to manage all these tensions is a comprehensive plan. Carrboro needs one.
As I finish this piece, there are a lot of pieces of the CAIC proposal that need work. I hope The ArtsCenter and Kidzu will step up to the challenge and address those issues in a refined proposal to be considered somewhere down the road. I also hope the Town will take a hard look at whether our current policy tools are adequate to deal with Carrboro’s growth in the next twenty years.