Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Well, That's Comforting (Sort of ...)

Michele reports that the Greensboro Police Department will now respond to all reports of shots fired. Wonderful, I guess, but it's pretty disheartening to realize that they weren't already doing this.

Good to know that the GDP will be pulling officers away from those spots where crime wasn't happening.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Protest Petition Passed City Council

The Greensboro City Council unanimously endorsed reinstating the protest petition at last night's meeting -- not the vote count I expected! -- and also voted to tack an addendum to the recommendation before it goes to the state legislature.

As I understood the (somewhat confusing) discussion, Council wants TREBIC and the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress to work out a compromise proposal that will mellow some of the protest petition's harsher requirements. Discussion focused on the fact that owners of only 5% of property contiguous to the lot to be rezoned can trigger the process and force a 75% super majority in order to get the rezoning approved.

Donna Newton of the GNC and Marlene Sanford of TREBIC both pledged that their organizations will work together in good faith, and I expect that to happen. They are both extraordinary women.

I made some comments at the meeting, too,  in which I focused on the fact that the building and real estate industries hold majorities on key boards and commissions, specifically the Zoning Commission, the RUCO board, the Board of Adjustment, and the Land Development Ordinance Citizens Advisory Team (of which I was a member).

Marlene Sanford of TREBIC took issue with my figures, disputing in particular the LDO CAT numbers, which I said was weighted 11-4 in favor of real estate interests. Since this is a public board, I don't think I'll be violating anyone's privacy by posting their names and occupations here. So here they are:

Trip Brown
Brown Investment Properties (TREBIC member)

Mike Fox
Tuggle Duggins and Meshan PA (TREBIC member company)

Dick Franks
Koury Corporation (TREBIC member)

Gary Hill

Jessica Marlies
Environmental law attorney

Bob Powell
North Carolina A&T University

Keith Price
Samet Corporation (TREBIC member)

Todd Rangel
Commercial real estate manager
SunTrust Bank

Gary Rogers
Starmount Company (TREBIC member)

Todd Rotruck
Independent Contractor

Mary Skenes
Yost and Little (TREBIC member)

Gary Wolf

David Wharton
UNC Greensboro

Some might quibble with the way I counted. Mike Fox and Gary Wolf are both attorneys, but I counted them as being in the real estate industry because both of their firms are TREBIC members. And though Todd Rotruck was appointed as a representative of the GNC, he's also a contractor in the building industry.

I should add that these are all great people whom I like and respect. Although we had many vigorous discussions over the past 3 and a half years, they were always conducted civilly and professionally.  

Ed Cone's blog has more discussion here and here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Still More About Protest Petitions

Professor David Owens of the UNC School of Government came to Greensboro to talk about the origin and use of the protest petition, and he drew a crowd of influential Greensboro people.

In attendance at the luncheon sponsored by the League of Women Voters were State Senator Don Vaughan, State Representative Maggie Jeffus, Councilwoman Goldie Wells,  the N&R’s editorial page editor Allen Johnson, the Rhino Times’s editor John Hammer, and Zoning Commission members Mary Skenes and Cindy Hayworth, along with about 70 other interested citizens.

I’ve scanned Prof. Owens’ handouts (click the thumbnails below for larger versions), which give a pretty complete picture of the petition process. But his last paragraph tells the story:

A valid protest petition can ... affect the zoning process in an indirect but significant manner. The approval rate for projects subject to a protest petition was reported to be 52%, compared to a 76% approval rate for rezoning petitions overall. This lower approval rate indicates that the depth of opposition reflected by a protest petition frequently convinces a majority of the city council to oppose a rezoning. In addition, an actual or threatened protest petition may encourage the landowner, the neighbors, and the city to negotiate prior to a vote on the rezoning, which can in turn lead to project revisions. So the informal impacts of  a protest petition are typically more substantial than its formal impacts [emphasis mine].

I know that TREBIC is scared to death of the protest petition, but it needn’t be. Owens’ research shows that protest petitions are used quite infrequently, and they certainly haven’t hampered growth in Raleigh and Charlotte, where they are used most often. But they have encouraged developers, neighborhoods, and cities to cooperate more.

Isn’t that what everyone wants?

Rep. Jeffus indicated that she would introduce legislation to give the protest petition back to Greensboro whether or not the City Council endorsed it, and I believe Sen. Vaughan is also in favor. But a request from the City Council would help ease the petition through the state legislature.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More on Protest Petitions

Suddenly the Protest Petition is everywhere. The Greensboro Neighborhood Congress discussed it at its monthly meeting yesterday; N&R editor Allen Johnson (sort of) endorsed it in today's paper; and the League of Women Voters will hear about it on Tuesday (and you're invited, too).

On January 21st, the Greensboro City Council will decide whether to endorse the Protest Petition process, and ask the North Carolina legislature to reinstate it for Greensboro -- the only city in North Carolina that doesn't have it.

Over the past year I've changed my mind on this issue. I used to think -- as the real estate industry does -- that the petition puts too much power in the hands of too few people. How can it be fair for a mere 5% of surrounding property owners to mandate that a proposed rezoning must pass with a three-quarter majority vote?

In fact, it wouldn't be fair,
  • if the Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (TREBIC) didn't have a full-time lobbying staff whose job is to influence real estate law at every level, from the writing of the ordinance to the final appeal before the City Council,
  • if the real estate industry didn't have the cash to hire the smoothest real estate lawyers in town to argue their cases before boards and City Council,
  • if TREBIC hadn't placed so many of their representatives on the Planning board, Zoning Board, Board of Adjustment, and Citizens Advisory Team that worked to rewrite the city's development ordinance,
  • if TREBIC didn't hold an annual shindig to schmooze with elected officials, 
  • if the real estate industry wasn't one of the biggest contributors to City Council elections, and
  • if three members of the Greensobo City Council weren't in the real estate/development industry.
So let me turn that "fairness" question back on TREBIC: how can it be fair for one industry to have such lopsided influence over Greensboro public policy?

The Protest Petition would help restore the balance of power between neighborhoods and the real estate industry. I'm for it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Sneering Times

Does sneering in the NY Times actually need to be chronicled? Probably not, because the Times sneers so regularly and obviously. Still, I can't help myself after reading Maureen Dowd's column pumping Caroline Kennedy for Hillary's soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.

It starts like this:
Ask not, you know, what your country can, like, do for you. Ask what you, um, can, you know, do for your country.

After a lifetime of shying away from the public spotlight, Caroline Kennedy asked herself what she could do for her country.

Her soft-spoken answer — to follow her father and two uncles and serve in the Senate — got her ripped to shreds in the, you know, press.

I know about “you knows.” I use that verbal crutch myself, a bad habit that develops from shyness and reticence about public speaking.

I always thought that Caroline and her brother, John, had special magic capital in America because of their heartbreaking roles in the Kennedy House of Atreus.

Dowd goes on,

People complain that the 51-year-old Harvard and Columbia Law School grad and author is not a glib, professional pol who knows how to artfully market herself, and is someone who hasn’t spent her life glad-handing, backstabbing and logrolling. I say, thank God.

OK, you're probably saying, there's no sneering here. Dowd is being nice to Caroline! She's making excuses for Caroline's verbal tics, saying her family background gives her political capital. So what if she isn't part of the corrupt political establishment? That's a good thing. She's a Harvard and Columbia girl and an author. Why is the press being so mean to her?

Compare all this to an earlier column that Dowd wrote regarding a different candidate's verbal foibles and family background:

Talking at the debate about how she would “positively affect the impacts” of the climate change for which she’s loath to acknowledge human culpability, she did a dizzying verbal loop-de-loop: “With the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that, as governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change subcabinet to start dealing with the impacts.” That was, miraculously, richer with content than an answer she gave Katie Couric: “You know, there are man’s activities that can be contributed to the issues that we’re dealing with now, with these impacts.”

At another point, she channeled Alicia Silverstone debating in “Clueless,” asserting, “Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet.” (Mostly the end-all.)

A political jukebox, she drowned out Biden’s specifics, offering lifestyle as substance. “In the middle class of America, which is where Todd and I have been, you know, all our lives,” she said, making the middle class sound like it has its own ZIP code, superior to 90210 because “real” rules.

Sometimes, her sentences have a Yoda-like — “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not” — splendor. When she was asked by Couric if she’d ever negotiated with the Russians, the governor replied that when Putin “rears his head” he is headed for Alaska. Then she uttered yet another sentence that defies diagramming: “It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there.”

Reared heads reared themselves again at the debate, when she said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “were starting to really kind of rear the head of abuse.”

She dangles gerunds, mangles prepositions, randomly exiles nouns and verbs and also — “also” is her favorite vamping word — uses verbs better left as nouns, as in, “If Americans so bless us and privilege us with the opportunity of serving them,” or how she tried to “progress the agenda.”

That's Dowd on Sarah Palin. 

You get the idea: if you're a Harvard and Columbia grad and a member of America's royal family, your weakness in public speaking and your tragic-but-tawdry family background are positive qualifications for office. But if you're from the rural middle class and talk the way most middle-American people do, well, go back to the dirt-floor cabin from whence you came, you garbling ineloquent rube.

Should I point out that a columnist who mocks the grammatical errors of others probably shouldn't split her infinitives ("to artfully market herself")?

One more thing. Dowd's "House of Atreus" reference is inapt. The House of Atreus was riven with internecine hatred, cannibalism, child-killing, husband-killing, mother-killing, and madness. The Kennedys are more like the house of Priam, with all the noble sons cut down in their prime, survived only by their sisters and mother.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Building on South Elm?

Benjamin Briggs sent me these renderings of a proposed building in the 300 block of South Elm Street:

At first glance, it doesn't look bad. An earlier proposal was apparently all steel and glass, which wouldn't fit in with South Elm's distinctive architecture.

But I think five stories is too abrupt a transition from the next-door building's three, the window pattern and steel awnings are incongruous with the surrounding buildings, and the recessed and dark entrance on the corner is a wasted opportunity to put something interesting on the sidewalk.

It reminds me of a lot of newer buildings I've seen in downtown Charlotte and Chattanooga -- pretty generic. I think the architects could certainly relate the building more creatively to its context, since Elm Street has plenty of interesting architectural elements to play with. 

Or have I missed something here?

Update II: News & Record story. Downtown developer Milton Kern says, "[The developers] are good folks. They don’t understand that downtown is not another office park."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Protest Petition Presentation

Donna Newton sent the following message to the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress:

As most of you know, the Greeensboro Neighborhood Congress voted to support the reinstatement of the right of Protest Petition to the citizens of Greensboro. At this time, Greensboro is the only City in the state that does not have this right. The League of Women Voters also supports the Protest Petition and is sponsoring a presentation by an expert on the subject as described in the flier below.

Please register and join me on January 13 to hear this presentation.

The City Council will hear comments regarding the petition at their meeting on January 21 and then vote on whether to support the protest petition in their legislative agenda. The Congress will be represented at the January 21 meeting to present in favor of reinstituting the Protest Petition. Please join us then as well. We will need a strong showing at that meeting.
Lunch with the League

League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad
Tuesday, January 13, 2009, 12:00 noon
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Haywood Duke Meeting Room
605 N. Greene St. near downtown Greensboro

“The Protest Petition”

Dr. David Owens, Gladys H. Coates Professor,
Public Law and Government
School of Government, UNC-CH

Dr. David Owens, an expert on land use topics, the scope of local government authority, planning legislation and urban growth management, has been a member of the Institute of Government since 1989.  Prior to that, he was an attorney and senior planner for the Planning Office. He received a graduate planning degree and law degree from UNC-CH.

About the Protest Petition:

This is a North Carolina general statute (160A-385(a) that gives residents of a neighborhood an opportunity to protest rezoning and land use requests. All major NC cities except Greensboro have the protest petition.

References: Greensboro News & Record editorials, March 2 2008: “The right to protest,” and May 14 1008: “Get on board protest petitions.

Yes Weekly Jordan Green analysis, February 12 2008: “A rezoning chronicle: “How Greensboro lost the protest petition;” Editorial June 30 2008: “TREBIC vs. Protest Petition.”  

The January 13, 2009 program is free.  Everyone is invited.  Reservations are necessary if you’d like to have lunch at a cost of $8.00 per person. Make reservations by Friday, January 9 and please arrive at noon on the 13th if you plan to have lunch.  

Reservations: or call Trudy Whitacre at 336-643-2131.

Don’t miss this vital opportunity for greater understanding of the need for transparency and citizen participation in decision-making!