The new Greensboro City Council plowed ahead on Tuesday with a $54 million appropriation to build two downtown parking decks over the fierce objections of members of the progressive group Democracy Greensboro, who argued that the public expenditure amounts to a transfer of wealth to developers while poverty and violent crime remain unaddressed.
The two conjoined deals, which were developed by the previous council back in April, presented a test for new members Michelle Kennedy and Tammi Thurm, who were elected as part of a progressive wave. It also put Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Councilwoman Sharon Hightower — two progressives who have acquired new clout with the council’s leftward shift — on the spot.
Hightower, Kennedy and Johnson voted against a resolution to close a portion of February One Place to accommodate a planned Westin Hotel, in which one Democracy Greensboro member implored council to “save” the roadway “from becoming a hotel driveway.” The change is both weighted with historical symbolism — the name commemorates the date when four NC A&T College students launched the Woolworth’s sit-ins — and practical considerations. A portion of the narrow street will be converted to two-way to allow traffic to access the planned parking deck from Davie Street, and Hightower questioned the safety of the arrangement.
That turned out to be the only vote in which the three stuck together. Meanwhile, Thurm, a moderate Democrat who replaced Republican Tony Wilkins on the council, reliably voted with the pro-development majority during the marathon seven-hour session.
During the first of two votes to spend public funds on a parking deck project, Hightower surprised many of her progressive supporters by announcing she was going to vote for one of the projects. In separate votes, the council appropriated $28 million for the Eugene Street Parking Deck — to be located about three blocks west of the February One Parking Deck — and also authorized a “cost-sharing agreement” with developer Roy Carroll that would allow the city to spend up to $30 million. The deck will provide parking for a cluster of new development in the area near NewBridge Bank Park, including a hotel Carroll plans to build. Another developer, Robin Team, told council that without the parking, he wouldn’t be able to go forward with a plan to build an office building.
“It’s agonizing for me tonight, ladies and gentlemen, because I really wanted to vote no, but I’m going to vote yes in the face of progress and commitment to [minority- and women-owned business enterprises] in my community, for things we must have in the community,” Hightower said.
Kennedy said she consulted with Hightower, and came to the opposite conclusion.
“This for me has been a really difficult decision to come to, as well,” she said. “If you walk down the hallway in my house, there’s a sign on my wall that says, ‘Nothing about us without us is for us.’ And that is one of the central things that I ran on…. There comes a time where I think you have to take a stand on issues of transparency and accountability. And I think we’ve done an abysmal job of communicating with the public related to these projects and these issues. And for that reason, I will not be able to support either of these projects tonight.”
Speakers from the floor leaned heavily against the two projects, with 12 people speaking in opposition and five in support. Andy Zimmerman and Nick Piornack, two developers who are not involved in the deals spoke in support, as did Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Zack Matheny and Greensboro Partnership CEO Brent Christensen.
Casey Thomas spoke for many opponents when she argued that the parking decks reflect misplaced priorities by city leaders.
“This parking deck proposal offers no mechanism to guarantee that this will help Greensboro’s most vulnerable with living-wage jobs,” Thomas said. “One of the rationales offered by supporters is that if we build the parking deck near Bellemeade Street it is possible that some developers may get financing they need to build an office building, which might entice companies that bring new jobs, which might pay people living wages, which they can use to support their families. Or they may not. This is a debt-laden exercise in trickle-down economics, and Greensboro deserves better.”
Mayor Nancy Vaughan argued in response that the city can promote economic development and address poverty at the same time.
“We are in direct competition with Durham and Winston, and we have to make sure that we are getting the best we can for our city so that we can offer those living wages and better housing,” she said.
The vote over the second parking deck connected to a Westin Hotel development on South Elm Street stalled over objections of the owners of Cone Denim Entertainment Center, who argued the parking deck will put them out of business by denying touring entertainers the ability to load in behind the venue. The city is still attempting to reach an accommodation with the venue owners, even as City Attorney Tom Carruthers recommended the city institute condemnation proceedings against an easement held by the owners of the music venue. Rocco Scarfone and Jeff Furr, who own the venue, indicated they would sue the city to seek an injunction to halt the hotel project. Greg Dillon, part of the group behind the hotel development said he signed an agreement with Westin to open the hotel by late 2019, and he can’t afford any more delays.
Hightower moved to continue the vote on the instituting condemnation proceedings against Cone Denim Entertainment Center, but her motion died for lack of a second. After the condemnation proceeding won approval from the majority, Hightower joined Kennedy in voting against a $25.9 million appropriation to build the February One Parking Deck. Councilman Justin Outling was recused from the votes on the February One Parking Deck because his law firm, Brooks Pierce, provided legal advice on the parking deck to the nearby Elm Street Center and to the Scarfone and Furr about the easement.