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Rhinocerous Times Masthead
December 18, 2003

It’s All About Connections

by John Hammer

Tuesday night the Greensboro City Council did what it should have done months ago. It took back some of the power that it had foolishly ceded to city staff.

One can only hope that since this was the first real meeting of the newly elected City Council, it is a sign this council is going to take a more active role in running the city, but that is not likely. What is far more likely is that this was an isolated incident where the staff went so far overboard that even the can’t-we-all-just-get-along City Council couldn’t take it.

The issue is connectivity, and what that boils down to is whether to connect streets when developing undeveloped property. This is really a case of the City Council not reading the small print and accepting what the staff told them as the gospel truth. The city needed some guidelines to determine when streets should be connected. But what the council ended up doing was handing over that entire decision-making process to the Planning Department and the Greensboro Department of Transportation. Then when the question came up about Wireless Drive off Pisgah Church Road, the city staff told councilmembers that the council didn’t have the authority to do anything except complain.

After months of hearing complaints from everyone involved in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood situation, the City Council finally figured out a way that it could do something. The council connected the street just like the staff policy said it had to, and then the council closed part of the street and had a barricade put up to block the street that it had just required to be built. It was an incredibly convoluted solution, but it worked.

To prevent that from happening again, the City Council passed a new connectivity policy Tuesday, which requires the staff to make a recommendation but then gives the final decision to the City Council. This means that just like recommendations on rezoning, the council can completely ignore the staff and do what it believes to be right. What is a puzzle is why the council doesn’t insist that the city staff at least follow the council’s policies. It seems absurd to continue to have all of these city employees furiously manipulating facts when the council is going to ignore the outcome and do what is best for the community.

The first case after the new connectivity policy was passed proved just how important it is to have someone other than staff making decisions like this. Only one issue needed to be considered to prove that the staff needs to go back to remedial education because it has lost touch with reality.

This rezoning also had to do with property off Pisgah Church. The question was whether Pershing Court, which is two blocks long, would “have to be cut through” the proposed six-acre, 18-townhome community being planned for the site to connect to Pisgah Church Road.

One reason the staff gave for recommending requiring the connection was that emergency vehicles could get to the neighborhood quicker. Some of these homes back up to the fire station on Pisgah Church Road. As one speaker at the meeting pointed out, a fire truck or ambulance can now make a right turn out of the fire station and then a right turn into the neighborhood. If Pershing Court were connected, the emergency vehicle would have to make a left turn out of the station, go a hundred yards and make a left turn into the new Pershing Court. Why on earth would anyone consider doing that?

Another woman said that it took 90 seconds for an ambulance to get to her house and that she didn’t see how it could be much faster. But the city staff’s current position is that it is always better to have more entrances into a neighborhood so it is going to manipulate the facts to prove its predetermined opinion. It has taken the City Council too long to catch on to this, but at least it finally did.

After the new connectivity policy passed, the City Council rezoned the property on Pisgah Church Road for an 18-unit townhome community that will have an entrance on Pisgah Church but will not connect to the neighborhood behind it. Attorney Marc Isaacson, who represented the owners of the property, St. Francis Episcopal Church, as well as the prospective developers, Mid Atlantic Townhomes, had placed a condition on the rezoning that Pershing Court not be connected through the development. At the Zoning Commission meeting, city staff went nuts over this condition, saying that it was illegal and the rezoning had to be rejected because of the illegal conditions. Isaacson argued that it was legal and it turned out he was right because the council unanimously approved the rezoning with the condition in an 8-0-1 vote, with Councilmember Robbie Perkins abstaining because of a conflict of interest.

Greensboro is committed to concentrating more on infill development. The biggest impediment to infill development is the city staff. At some point the City Council has to direct the staff to change its attitude or take a hike. With the retirement of longtime Planning Director Tom Martin, the city has a great opportunity to bring about a huge change in attitude by hiring a planning director who is interested in finding ways to use property in the city that has been lying idle because it doesn’t meet the exact criteria that the current planning department wants it to meet. If the city simply continues its present policies, then the council is going to be fighting a constant battle with the planning department over infill development. What’s more, the planning department has the ability to discourage all but the most determined developers and property owners with the deepest pockets before they ever get to the City Council.

If the city wants to stop sprawl, then it has to start developing the land that is already in the city limits. Perkins noted that all the easy land in Greensboro has already been developed and now developers are going back and trying to make things work on more difficult land. If the city staff helps, this could be a great boon to the city. But if the staff continues with its present attitude, then Greensboro is going to continue to grow only by annexation and more sprawl.

The Eleven County Area News & Record has tried to make a big deal out of the Coliseum contracting out its food service to Centerplate, but the only problem with the deal appears to be that it looks too good to be true. According to Coliseum Director Matt Brown, the Coliseum will get $3 million from Centerplate for improvements to the Coliseum, which will include a new grill and some kind of state-of-the-art sign system. Centerplate will pay the Coliseum a percentage of profits, which Brown says is pretty close to the percentage the Coliseum is currently making. With good revenue, it could be more than. Centerplate, like all private companies, has a huge incentive to sell more and do a better job because if it does, it will make more money and that is what keeps businesses in business. Brown does a good job of running the Coliseum, but these people do nothing but concessions. Surely Centerplate is going to have some new ideas, try new things and be as up to date as possible on all the latest trends.

Centerplate says that it will keep most of the current concessions employees, and that the nonprofits that operate concession stands at the Coliseum will continue to do so.

It looks like a great deal, and TECAN&R is going to have to work hard to find something wrong with it. The truth is that right now, if Coliseum Director Matt Brown brought a deal to the city for the Coliseum to make a profit of $100 million a year so that the city could abolish property taxes, TECAN&R would write an editorial about how important it is for the city to have high property tax rates. In other words, Brown can’t win with TECAN&R, which is too bad because Brown is always trying different things at the Coliseum. Some of them work and some don’t, but if it labels everything a failure just because Brown is in favor of it, that puts a huge dent in the paper’s credibility.

TECAN&R expressed concern that the Coliseum Commission officially recognized the reality that Brown runs the Coliseum. If the editors at TECAN&R think that up until this month the Coliseum Commission ran the Coliseum, then they need to go back and check the notes of the reporters they have been sending to those commission meetings. We quit covering those meetings years ago because the Coliseum Commission didn’t do anything. It seems that TECAN&R was happy as long as the Coliseum Commission made some pretense of having some authority to run the Coliseum. But the moment the commission admitted that it really didn’t do much in the way of overseeing the operation of the Coliseum, TECAN&R went ballistic. Maybe the lesson for local government is that if you want to stay on the good side of TECAN&R, don’t admit to reality.

This was the first regular meeting for the only new member of the City Council, T. Dianne Bellamy-Small. She is the third person to represent District 1 in three years and is following in the footsteps of her predecessors by talking more than any other councilmember, and coming to the meeting unprepared by failing to read the agenda packet. Councilmember Earl Jones made a practice of not doing any preparation before the meeting, and he asked lots of questions and talked all the time because that was Jones. Former Councilmember Belvin Jessup never quite figured out how the council worked and asked a lot of questions because he needed explanations.

City government is complicated, and councilmembers can either spend some time studying and figuring out the system or they can ask a bunch of questions at every meeting. If this meeting is any indication, it appears that Bellamy-Small is going to fall into the later category. One might think that before her first meeting she would have sat down and actually read the agenda packet, which has a tremendous amount of information in it. But she did not and ended up asking questions that she would have known the answers to if she had done her homework.