When the new Downtown East mixed-use development breaks ground on 14 acres on East Market Street — sooner we hope, rather than later — it would be nice if it were, you know, actually downtown.
Strictly speaking, it won’t be. With only a few jagged exceptions, the official boundaries of the Central Business District come to a screeching halt at the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks on the eastern edge of downtown.
In many respects those tracks, which follow a gentle curve through the city en route to Bryan Park and on to southern Virginia, have been a border wall of sorts in Greensboro. Between east and west. And more significantly, white and black.
In recent years, that dividing line has begun to blur with the neotraditional Southside development finding success on the proverbial “other side of the tracks.” Then there are the two phases of City View Apartments. And two abandoned buildings on East Washington Street reimagined by local developer Any Zimmerman as Studio 503, a workspace for artists, photographers and musicians.
More recently, one of the most impressive legs of the Downtown Greenway is under construction along Murrow Boulevard.
But even most of that stretch of the Downtown Greenway isn’t technically downtown. It generally runs along the outer edge of the border.
The center city’s boundary seems almost gerrymandered in the east, jutting out to include Southside but then dipping sharply back to the west as it crosses East Washington Street. Then it juts out again to the east to include the U.S. Post Office, Thomas Tire & Automotive and a State Employees Credit Union branch.
As those current lines stand, Downtown East, which could be transformational for East Market Street and nearby N.C. A&T, if and when it materializes, may as well be in Burlington.
Why does any of this matter?
It would include that part of the city in efforts to market and promote downtown development. It could extend downtown events to the east. It could support one of the Downtown Greenway’s core missions: connecting neighborhoods in Greensboro (if that happens, the idea of a downtown trolley sounds a lot more practical).
What better time to grow downtown than as the greenway nears completion?
Foremost, it makes a statement. A downtown footprint that crosses the railroad tracks would obliterate a physical and psychological barrier.
There are some potential downsides to downtown expansion in the east: the threat of gentrification and some stricter rules for design and parking. But the pluses far outweigh those manageable consequences.
Others have pondered the same problem and come up with more, uh, exotic solutions. One planner suggested a building that straddles the railroad tracks. Another suggested replacing the berm that supports the railroad tracks with an elaborate, see-through trestle. Either is as a likely to happen as an appearance by the Great Pumpkin at Hamburger Square.
A more practical idea is simply to change the lines (state lawmakers do it all the time — not that we’re suggesting involving those guys).
We’ve said it before but perhaps we should say it more loudly: Tear down that wall, Greensboro.