From left to right Harold Martin Sr., chancellor of N.C. A&T State University; Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan; and Frank Gilliam Jr., chancellor of UNC Greensboro. Photo by Mark Wagoner
By Mark Tosczak
The story of Greensboro has parallels to the story of its main thoroughfare, Gate City Boulevard, which runs 6.5 miles from west of Four Seasons Town Centre mall through neighborhoods just south of downtown then out to Interstate 85. The mall’s opening in 1975 and the nearby Greensboro Convention Center made that chunk of road one of the state’s hottest real-estate zones, creating a magnet for shoppers, diners and visitors from across North Carolina.
By the mid-1990s, the bloom was off the rose. Investment started shifting to Friendly Center and other parts of town, leaving the once-bustling road lined with run-down retail shops and aging industrial facilities. Razor wire and chain-link fencing was a common sight. In July 2000, the local newspaper noted that around Four Seasons “entire blocks look seedy and timeworn. Several well-publicized killings and assaults shattered the peace in recent years. Drug deals go down in parking lots.”
Local university, political and business leaders decided to act, realizing that the city can’t thrive with such an essential area looking so bleak. With its textile industry shriveling from overseas competition and financial institutions consolidating elsewhere, the city’s population has increased at about half the rate of Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham since 2010.
Attracting major corporate expansions and relocations has proven difficult, prompting years of chatter over how to revitalize the city.
A key catalyst involved a rebranding in 2015: The historic names of High Point Road and Lee Street were dumped in favor of Gate City Boulevard. Meanwhile, the stretch has attracted more than a half-billion dollars of mostly public investment, including improved streetscapes, new academic buildings and dorms, retail space, and more.
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“We have one of our biggest moneymakers on that street, which is the Greensboro Coliseum [Complex] and the Aquatic Center, where we have people, literally from all over the world, coming to those facilities,” Mayor Nancy Vaughan says. “We don’t want them to be afraid to venture away from the coliseum.”
It remains more of a facelift than a total transformation. “I guess you could call it transformed [compared] to what it was, but it still has a long way to go,” says Andy Zimmerman, a Greensboro developer who is renovating a century-old Blue Bell jeans factory that sits at the corner of Gate City Boulevard and South Elm Street in downtown. Making it easier to walk, bike and drive between downtown and UNC Greensboro would be a huge boon for the center city, he says.
So far, the key player in the Gate City shuffle is UNC Greensboro, the 127-year-old institution that is home to about 20,000 students and a workforce of 2,800. The university has bought older properties and redeveloped both sides of Gate City Boulevard on the southern edge of its main campus. The biggest project is the $230 million Spartan Village complex that includes housing for 1,200 students, a 216,000-square-foot health and wellness center, and other buildings.
Downtown, UNCG’s nursing program is one of four main tenants in the boulevard’s $34 million Union Square Campus building, along with N.C. A&T State University, Guilford Technical Community College and Cone Health. Financed with local, state and foundation support, the building hosts classes for training nurses and other medical workers. A second phase is in the early planning stages.
Four miles farther east near the intersection of Interstates 40 and 85, UNCG and A&T constructed a $68 million campus for their Joint School of Nanoscience & Nanoengineering.
The first building opened in 2011 at what is now called Gateway University Research Park, bringing together graduate programs, faculty and private enterprise. While apparel giant VF Corp. bases its main denim innovation center there, no major commercial success has yet emerged from research there. Vaughan envisions development of a hotel and restaurants near the nanoscience campus.
A&T is in discussions with potential development partners to construct a condo complex with retail space on some of the Gateway land, Chancellor Harold Martin Sr. says. That development would provide much-needed housing and retail for grad students, post-docs and young faculty. “We’ve got to continue to focus on making Gateway University Research Park and the area around it a destination,” adds Martin, who was named chancellor in 2009. A&T is also setting enrollment records with about 12,000 students this year, a 15% increase over the last five years. It is the nation’s largest historically black university.
The boulevard improvements are necessary for UNCG to attract more students and to connect more effectively with the city, says Chancellor Frank Gilliam Jr., who came to the university in 2015 from UCLA. “I saw the potential for more growth, and for growth in a way that would benefit the university but also benefit the community,” he says.
Spartan Village includes a locally owned, 8,500-square-foot Bestway Marketplace that opened in November. The grocery sells hot food and offers a coffee bar in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a supermarket within walking distance.
Greensboro’s city-owned coliseum complex, perhaps best known for hosting 26 Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournaments, has beefed up its offerings with more than $35 million of investments in the last eight years. The $21 million Greensboro Aquatic Center, which opened in 2012 with three pools and seating for 2,500 spectators, attracted two major national swimming competitions late last year. An $8.2 million expansion will add a fourth pool this year.
The coliseum, which opened in 1959, will host the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 2020. And a new performing-arts venue at the complex will open in the spring.
“I think it’s been a very smart move by UNCG to make that area a great gateway to the school,” says Greensboro developer Marty Kotis, a member of the UNC System Board of Governors. Kotis owns several acres near UNCG and the boulevard that he hopes to make an arts and events district. Dram & Draught, a high-end cocktail bar that started in Raleigh, opened last year at his nascent “Tracks” project.
A clear measure of success for Gate City Boulevard rests on how much private investment occurs over the next several years, joining the hefty government infusion, Kotis says. Initial moves at his development included removing razor wire used to protect property. Greensboro hopes others will bring their shears and start cutting away.