Featured photo: The building that houses a nutrition shop will be torn down as part of the rezoning decision. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Following a Winston-Salem city council decision on Monday, 2.77 acres sweeping the corner of University Parkway and Laura Avenue have been rezoned from a mixture of residential, limited business and highway business designations to strictly highway business, which is primarily intended to accommodate retail service and distributive uses. Council voted 6-2 with Councilmembers John Larson and Robert C. Clark dissenting.

The land, located in the Northeast Ward, is being sold by mother-and-son duo Linda and Scott Needham, who are also partners at Needham Holdings LLC. Scott Needham currently serves as a town commissioner in Pilot Mountain, a town around 20 miles from the property. Linda Needham formerly served as town commissioner and first took office in 2007, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Northeast Ward Councilmember Barbara Hanes Burke said during the meeting that the Needhams have had a plan to sell the property for years and they were going to sell their property “no matter what.”

The rezoning was recommended by the planning board in a 6-3 vote following a public hearing on June 8. 

In an interview with TCB on Wednesday, Scott Needham said that the reason his family bought the property decades ago was because University Parkway is “a very busy street.”

“It’s our belief that all that property on that street should be commercial,” Needham said. “It’s just the best use for that property…. It was our intent this whole time to sell that to a developer like we’re doing right now. It was a business investment.”

Scott and Linda Needham at the city council meeting on Oct. 2. (photo by Gale Melcher)

In the wake of the rezoning, the two homes at 106 and 110 Laura Ave. along with Pelican’s SnoBalls and a building that serves as a nutrition shop will be torn down to make way for a bank and a sit-down restaurant.

On Monday around 5:30 p.m., the area was quiet and peaceful, save for the noise from the steady stream of cars heading along University Parkway. Families ordered snow cones from Pelican’s SnoBalls, and the building holding the nutrition shop was closed.

During Monday’s meeting, the city’s Planning and Development Director Chris Murphy said that the proposal “does not meet the recommendations for low-intensity office and single-family residential uses on several of the parcels as shown in the North Suburban Area Plan update.”

Murphy added that while planning staff had recommended denial, the planning board said that the “plan does not comply with recommendations of the area plan.” However, the board “recommended approval anyway,” Murphy noted.

‘The pure definition of commercial encroachment’

Several neighbors spoke out against the rezoning during Monday’s meeting. They voiced concerns that the changes would impact the “safety” and “integrity” of their neighborhood. The residents at 106 and 110 Laura Ave. who will have to move out are long-term residents, one of whom is 88 years old, several neighbors said.

“We’re diverse racially, culturally, generationally,” resident Martha Jones said. The neighborhood “includes original homeowners in their 80s and 90s and homeowners with small children.”

Some homeowners have lived there for several decades, Jones said.

“We have a lot of residents who walk their dogs on those streets, they walk to grocery stores, walk to the bus stop, we have one wheelchair-bound resident who uses Laura Avenue,” Jones added.

A petition resisting the rezoning circulated throughout the neighborhood.

A rezoning notice sign is attached to the intersection of University Parkway and Laura Avenue in Winston-Salem (photo by Gale Melcher)

Judi Griffin, who has lived in the neighborhood her whole life, 61 years, said that there were a total of 41 households in the area and they got one signature per household.

Communication regarding the rezoning wasn’t great, Griffin said. The initial meeting with the developer was held virtually and the flyers notifying the neighborhood were sent out in English only, she said. This wasn’t helpful for the neighborhood’s population, which includes many elderly and Hispanic residents, she said.

One of the considerations the city must make when considering zoning requests is whether or not the requests align with future plans for the city.

The North Suburban Plan states that area plans convey a community vision and general goals to the Planning Board, elected officials, and other community leaders.

As a general recommendation, the plan asserts that “neighborhoods should be protected from inappropriate residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional encroachment.”

“The development, in my opinion, is the pure definition of commercial encroachment,” Griffin said. “Already some neighbors have spoken about moving if the development occurs, as they’re concerned with their safety and privacy.”

The city has area plans like the North Suburban Plan that are designed to provide assurances to people, Councilmember Larson said. “Neighborhoods need protecting, and this is a perfect example of where we’re changing the rules on them,” he noted.

The developers have plans to minimize traffic by making the entrance and exit points on University Parkway, and using trees as a landscape buffer to reduce sound pollution and increase privacy, but residents still have concerns.

“The best-laid plans will not be able to control the noise and light pollution, the overflow parking issues that might develop, vagrancy [and] nuisance traffic that would be created by a bar restaurant combination this close to a residential neighborhood,” Griffin said.

Resident Yvette Spears said that drivers are already using Laura Avenue as a cut-through, and worried that the situation may get worse. 

“My concern with the possibility of turning this into a commercial area is that people will presume that there is less residential facility back there so there is no need to regard the safety needs of pedestrians or the individuals that live there,” Spears worried.

“This has been one of the most difficult decisions that I have had to make,” Councilmember Burke said, adding that she has talked with the neighbors on Laura Avenue and driven through the community. 

“This is a well-established nice community, Laura Avenue is. It is a street where I would live, without question,” she said.

In an interview with TCB after the meeting, Spears quipped, “I wonder if she would live there after [the restaurant] was built.”

Councilmember Larson stood firmly against the rezoning. 

“In a time where we are trying to protect housing, I’m having a difficult time understanding why we’re destroying two perfectly good houses and allowing commercial development into a neighborhood that needs protecting and fostering,” Larson said.

TCB asked Scott Needham why they had decided to demolish the existing homes, to which he replied, “I don’t have any comment on that.”

Resident Sherry Cochrane called residents’ homes their “sanctuary.” Soon, they’ll have new businesses as neighbors when they move in next door.

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