Proposed charter school adds pressure against social services

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A proposed charter school would be located in Gate City Station (left), across the street from the Greensboro Depot. (photo by Jordan Green)

Discussions about a potential charter school at the old Bardolph building add to concerns about the displacement of social services on the east side of downtown Greensboro.

The city of Greensboro’s sale of the Dorothy Bardolph Building to developer Marty Kotis last year is already disrupting a social service corridor along a two-block stretch of East Washington Street, with the potential for more far-reaching impact.

Kotis said he anticipates that a methadone clinic operated by Alcohol and Drug Services in the building will close in December, although he said he’s willing to offer the tenant some flexibility as he redevelops the building into a mixed-use complex with sections named Gate City Station and Gate City Candy Factory that features restaurants and retail, along with other tenants.

A possible charter school in the new Gate City Station similarly holds the potential to disrupt the Interactive Resource Center — an agency one block away that provides an array of services to people experiencing homelessness — because of restrictions placed on registered sex offenders under state law. While the law is ambiguous, a restriction on registered sex offenders living within 1,000 feet of a school is one part of the concern. Another provision with potential repercussions is a rule prohibiting sex offenders from being within 300 feet of a facility that serves children within a larger complex — a definition that seems to fit the proposed charter school to a tee — although the application is ambiguous. Kotis’ new development is located directly across the street from the Greensboro Depot, the city’s public transportation hub and also a key transit resource for the Interactive Resource Center’s clients.

Michelle Kennedy, the center’s executive director, said it’s likely that registered sex offenders are among the people who stay at the facility when it functions as a winter emergency shelter. That’s in part because the restrictions placed on sex offenders put them at risk of becoming homeless by making it difficult to hold down jobs and find places to live.

“That’s because there is no other place for them to stay,” Kennedy said. “All of our other shelter options are too close to places [that are restricted because of children’s services].”

And unlike the more structured shelter program provided by Greensboro Urban Ministry, the winter emergency shelter program at the Interactive Resource Center by its very nature does not vet clients.

“It’s a system that’s built on the fact that there are life-threatening conditions if you have to stay outside,” said Kennedy, who is also an at-large candidate for Greensboro City Council. “There is no restriction when a person’s life is in danger.”

Kotis said he spoke to Planning Director Sue Smotherman about the matter, and that she assured him that there was no conflict because “the shelter was not part of a residency; it was an emergency shelter city thing.” (Although the Interactive Resource Center receives some funding from the city, it is organized as an independent nonprofit.) Smotherman could not be reached to confirm the conversation.

Mike Kirkman, the city’s zoning administrator, said he participated in a meeting with Smotherman and Kotis about the proposed charter school, adding that staff assured Kotis that the school would be compatible with the central business district zoning classification. He said he didn’t recall any discussion about whether the school might create impediments to registered sex offenders due to the state law.

“It doesn’t fall under planning; it comes from state law, so it’s hard to say,” Kirkman said. “There’s a question about what is a residency, and how do you measure? I’ve asked the legal department to look into it, and they’re researching it.”

The 300-foot restriction — which goes beyond residencies and might potentially affect access to the transit hub — was originally signed into law in 2008.

The statute reads: “It is unlawful for any such person required to register [as a sex offender] to knowingly be in any of the following locations:… within 300 feet of any place intended primarily for the use, care or supervision of minors if the place is located on the premises of a place which is not intended primarily for those purposes.”

Jamie Markham, an associate professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, analyzed the provision in a 2011 blog post, writing that it’s unclear “whether the 300-foot radius around the location within a place extends beyond the boundaries of the place itself. In the McDonald’s example, for instance, does the presence of a ‘play place’ on site just mean the offender cannot go on the premises of the McDonald’s itself, or does the 300-foot radius also sweep across adjoining parcels, rendering them (or portions of them) off limits too.”

Markham ended his post by acknowledging that his analysis raised more questions than answers.

Reached by phone last week, he said he wasn’t sure if his analysis had changed since 2011, adding that he wanted to review a recent federal court decision to see if it clarifies the legal meaning of the provision.

While characterizing discussions about the charter school as “preliminary,” Kotis said the location is one of the most compelling aspects of the concept.

“There’s only one downtown school currently — the Weaver School, which is 9-12 — this is a K-6,” he said. “The idea with this is that it would serve a population that normally doesn’t have access to a charter school, and transportation can be a difficult thing. What’s appealing about it is that it’s within walking distance from east Greensboro and, two, the bus station. That’s really compelling. We had the idea for a children’s district — if you know Church Street, it runs from this space to Kindermusik and then on to the [Greensboro] Children’s Museum.” (Kindermusik International previously occupied the entirety of the building at 203 S. Church St., but downsized to about a third of the space, according to a 2014 Business Journal article.)

Kotis added that he’s not particularly concerned about whether his projects affect sex offenders.

“If you’re ranking groups, on my list they rank last,” he said, “along with human traffickers and rapists.”

Kennedy said it’s important for people to consider that under the law, a wide range of offenses can put someone on the sex offender registry.

“Anything from public urination to instances of two kids in high school having consensual sex if he is of age and she is not can land someone on the registry,” she said. “It’s not necessarily so cut and dry as heinous offenses against children or rape or things like that.”

Kotis raised the issue of the likely redevelopment of the adjacent News & Record property, suggesting that protecting sex offender’s rights could discourage corporations and other potential clients from buying in to the potentially transformative project.

He also defended the displacement of the methadone clinic and other social services from the former Bardolph building.

“From our standpoint, if we purchase a property with a group of leases and look at a kind of group of opportunities, in working through that we tell you a methadone clinic or ADS is not on the top of the list for co-tenancy, that may not be a compelling thing for trying to attract a Cheesecake Factory. It’s a little awkward. We think a free-standing location [for addicts] makes more sense.”

Kennedy said the debate over development on the eastern flank of downtown shouldn’t be framed as a choice between children and sex offenders.

“There’s a way to build development in downtown Greensboro that allows good development to happen while protecting the service sector,” she said.

As an example, Kennedy cited developer Andy Zimmerman’s recent purchase of a warehouse next door to the Interactive Resource Center, where he plans to lease space to a bike company and to visual and musical artists, according to a recent report in the Business Journal.

“Andy’s been working really hard with us to find out how we can coexist,” Kennedy said. “It would have been nice to have had the same experience with the neighbor to the right.”