College Hill moves forward on neighborhood plan

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James Keith in front of his house on Mendenhall Street

by Eric Ginsburg

The College Hill Neighborhood Association has regrouped to roll out a new neighborhood plan to focused on safety, streetscaping and preserving the historic character of the neighborhood.

To James Keith, College Hill was a neighborhood teetering on the edge. After moving from Arizona in 2008, Keith watched relationships between the neighborhood association and the city council devolve during heated opposition to the construction of the Province student-housing complex.

Residents, who mounted a failed campaign against the development on Spring Garden Street that would replace the former Newman Machine Co. facility, remained sore after the loss and struggled to look ahead, he said. Plans to create an updated neighborhood master plan dissolved.

“The neighborhood association was certainly far from functional,” he said. “I always got the sense that it was an antagonistic relationship [with the city].”

That ebb and flow of involvement and levels of organization is natural, past College Hill Neighborhood Association President and current Vice President David Arneke said. But things have turned around. As part of the transformation, Keith was elected association president and has focused on improving communication and collaboration.

“The neighborhood association now is much more of an activist group,” Arneke said. “We’re working more proactively and more closely with the city, particularly the planning department.”

The functionality of the neighborhood association in a community like College Hill may be more important than others in the city, given its special status as a historic neighborhood with an extra set of taxes. Residents pay into the municipal service district, allowing the neighborhood to pay for things above and beyond what the city would normally cover.

And in College Hill, that means about $750,000, which is burning a hole in their pocket.

Keith, who is 32, said the goal is to spend that money on “large-ticket items” to improve property values for everyone in the neighborhood and will range from addressing petty theft to traffic.

“We have a high rate of small crime,” Keith said, referencing car break-ins in particular. “We’re looking to see what technology options are available and what works elsewhere with Greensboro police and the UNCG [police department] to address owner, renter and student safety.”

Keith said they want to focus on “noticeable infrastructure improvements” and improve safety and security through things like increased lighting so that people can “be proud of and enjoy this little, weird-ass neighborhood.”

Much of what the neighborhood association wants to accomplish is laid out in a new master plan that it developed alongside city planner Jeff Sovich. The association approved the plan and is waiting for the green light from the planning board, but some changes are already underway.

The neighborhood worked with the city to improve lighting, a tricky goal given limits in place because of College Hill’s historic status. But after a meeting with Duke Energy and a supplier, a plan for traditional, low historic lighting accompanied by higher LED lights emerged, Keith said. Funds from the municipal service district will cover the cost, and a pole with a strip of lights has already been put up as a test run, Keith said.

In the past, the neighborhood often didn’t take initiative on how the additional tax funds were spent, Arneke said.

“It’s a substantial amount of money that we have and we think it can do several significant, positive things in the neighborhood,” he said. “If there’s one thing that we could name as a top priority it would be maintaining the historic character of the neighborhood. That is the most valuable asset the neighborhood has and it’s the most fragile.”

Because of the high demand for student housing given the neighborhood’s proximity to campus, there is always a pull towards more rental properties and little incentive for landlords to maintain properties, Arneke said.

That puts College Hill in a precarious situation, and one of the primary goals of the new neighborhood plan is to increase owner-occupied dwellings, with a target of 50 percent, Keith said. The numbers are currently down below 25 percent, he added.

That goal raised some eyebrows when the plan appeared before the planning board recently, as a few people spoke specifically against the idea, and the board pushed its vote on the neighborhood master plan to its September meeting, Arneke said.

Keith, who converted a multi-unit house on Mendenhall Street into a single-family home, said part of the reason it’s important to maintain an equilibrium is to preserve the neighborhood’s historic character.

The addition of 700 residents, living in the Province complex near the intersection of Spring Garden and Mendenhall streets, has aggravated traffic frustrations along Mendenhall in particular, but rather than simply bemoaning the issue, the association worked with Sovich to put a plan together, Keith said.

“Now Mendenhall has become mini-Wendover,” he said, adding that people frequently blow through a poorly visible stop sign at the intersection with McGee Street.

When Arneke talked about streetscaping and traffic in the neighborhood, the first thing he mentioned was Mendenhall Street and the same intersection in particular. There are several ideas for improving safety at that intersection and calming traffic, he said, including making the crosswalk more visible or installing a small traffic circle.

“It’s a very problematic street because of the volume of traffic and the speed of traffic,” Arneke said. “There’s a four-way stop that some drivers seem to consider sort of optional.”

Arneke and Keith agreed that Sovich, a city planner, has been instrumental in generating creative ideas to address issues in the neighborhood. Keith said Sovich has applied himself to working with residents, approaching the neighborhood master plan with a hands-on approach that included numerous walk-throughs and a high level of neighborhood collaboration. Keith was particularly impressed that Sovich attended every neighborhood meeting over the last year, even though they are held at night.

“What he did for the neighborhood plan to be resurrected was actually get to know the neighborhood,” Keith said.

That shift has permeated other elements of city-neighborhood relations, Arneke said.

“Historically we’ve had trouble reaching the right people,” he said. “Now I think in addition to the neighborhood being more engaged, the city staff has been more engaged and that’s a very positive development for us.”

As an example, Arneke said that a nagging issue with the poor quality of a sidewalk at the intersection of McGee and Mendenhall streets was “repaved last week and tremendously improved.”

That “positive, functional relationship” extends to Councilman Zack Matheny as well, a bridge that needed repairing after residents took out frustration about the Province on their representative, Keith said. Like Sovich, Matheny attends association meetings and is responsive to the neighborhood’s ideas, he added.

There are other changes too — including plans for a new marketing campaign to promote the neighborhood and pamphlets and a welcome basket for new residents — but the most significant thing Keith focused on is the renewed, positive vibe.

“I would honestly say we’re having a good time,” he said.