A kingdom was once lost for want of a nail, and now a big move planned by the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department may be lost – well, at least delayed – for want of a black architect.
In fact, if you’re a black architect who always wanted to do some county government work, now would be the time to apply.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said the major planned project to level the dilapidated Otto Zenke building at 400 W. Washington St., his current headquarters, build a parking lot there and move the Sheriff’s Department’s administrative offices into the old county jail at 401 W. Sycamore St. in downtown Greensboro, is now on hold due to a spat over the county’s use – or, rather, non-use – of minority architects.
“Basically, it’s been put off due to the whole rigmarole,” Barnes said this week. “The architect they had was fine – they’d used him a hundred times before – but the whole thing is that they are trying to find a black architect.”
There’s money in the new 2017-2018 county budget for the large project, however, Democratic Guilford County Commissioners Carolyn Coleman and Skip Alston have been on a major quest lately to bring more diversity to major county construction contracts and they want to make absolutely sure facilities officials haven’t – as they say they suspect – overlooked black architects for the sheriff’s project, as well as for other county projects in Guilford County’s construction pipeline.
Barnes said the project is now in limbo and added that he’s not sure when it will get underway because of the Minority and Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) debate taking place among the county commissioners and other county officials.
“Nobody knows when it will start,” the sheriff said.
The Otto Zenke building was experiencing structural and age issues even before a massive flood severely damaged the sheriff’s headquarters in 2009. There was talk of building a new Sheriff’s Department headquarters but last year the county commissioners voted to move Barnes into the old jail, an idea Barnes approves of.
The Sheriff’s Department is really caught up in a larger, longstanding and ongoing battle between Coleman and the county’s facilities department. The contentious situation first ignited at a county commissioners meeting nearly three years ago when Coleman publicly berated Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece because a list of architects he had brought to the board for various construction projects didn’t include any black architects.
Coleman said the issue has never been resolved and this latest battle over the Sheriff’s Department project is a result of continued inattention to the matter by county staff. In a meeting last month, Coleman and Alston called McNiece to the carpet over the black architect issue again. McNiece told Coleman and the rest of the board that county staff had combed the area for minority architects who wanted to submit bids. The lack of applications for the job, he said, was not due to any lack in effort by the county.
Coleman said this week that she is woefully disappointed with what she maintains is the county’s failure to adequately search for black architects.
The county is not allowed to award contracts on the basis of race, but Coleman and others want to at least see some blacks competing for these major projects.
“Three years ago I tried to get them to wait, but McNiece said it would hold up his work,” Coleman said of the projects back then. “He promised he would come back with some names but he hasn’t. This time I am asking the questions about it. I said this is unacceptable and I don’t know why you can’t find any black architects. I know two or three. Nobody has come back to us and made a report.”
Coleman said she knew that buildings on the North Carolina A&T State University campus and others around town were designed by black architects and she mentioned that Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor, ran an architectural firm in that city. She said there were others in the state as well.
Coleman added that recent MWBE reports from county staff were dismal. She said one report last year listed black participation at 2.7 percent and said that, more recently, that went up to 16 percent when Guilford County administrators started adding in categories the county hadn’t traditionally counted – such as contracts with foster care families. Now, whenever a minority family takes a foster care child, it ups the county’s minority contract percentages. Coleman said using numerical sleight of hand to increase the numbers doesn’t address the core problem. She said, instead, more large construction and supplier contracts should go to minority-based firms.
One county official involved with MWBE efforts, when asked about the current dispute, pointed out a Wikipedia page for “African-American architects,” which begins: “The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards estimates as of the end of 2013 that there are 105,847 licensed architects in the United States. Of these, 2,006, or about 2%, are self-identified as African American, and listed in the Directory of African American Architects; only 343 of these are African American women. ‘If there is any kind of profession that’s gotten away with a kind of benign neglect of diversifying itself over the course of last 30 years, it’s architecture,’ says Ted Landsmark,” president of Boston Architectural College from 1997 to 2014.
The battle over black architects gained new momentum in May when former 20-year veteran commissioner Alston joined the board. He has stated emphatically several times at meetings since his return that county staff clearly isn’t looking hard enough for black architects. He said purchasing and facilities officials, along with MWBE recruitment staff, must be more diligent in seeking out black and other minority architects.
The current battle is reminiscent of a similar one the board had years ago over a lack of minorities being hired by Emergency Services. Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue served as Guilford County Emergency Services director before he retired from that job and was elected to the Board of Commissioners. At one point, about eight years ago, Perdue came before the board for approval of a new class of about a dozen EMS responders who had been selected for the job and had successfully completed the coursework – and none of them were black. At that time, Alston and Coleman raked Perdue over the coals for his department selecting a new group of employees with no minorities when, finally, one commissioner asked Perdue how many African-Americans had applied for the job and Perdue responded that none had.
Despite the long history of this type of dispute, Barnes said he wants the current spat to be resolved so the old jail renovation can move forward.
“Right now, we’re in a holding pattern,” he said.
Barnes said his department is doing the only thing it can: Moving staff out of the old jail so the renovation can begin whenever the county works out its architect issues. He said that, when and if an architect is approved, everything on his end will be ready.
Barnes said that sheriff’s staff now in the old jail is moving into the old Register of Deeds office space on the bottom floor of the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro, and they will remain there until the renovation of the old jail is complete. Those workers include staff that handles foreclosures, lawsuits, concealed carry permits and many other legal services the department provides. Barnes said the sooner the renovation project is complete the better because citizens won’t like having those services in the courthouse one bit.
“That’s going to be a pain for customers because there’s no parking and they have to go through metal detectors,” Barnes said.
Not to mention that cell phones aren’t allowed in the courthouse.
In 2012, there was talk of demolishing the old jail after a giant new 1,032-bed jail opened right next to it; however, demolition and debris removal costs could have been $1 million or higher.
Eventually, the old jail will be the central hub for nearly all Sheriff’s Department services.
Barnes said the Zenke building will be bulldozed “if the ghosts let them.”
For years, the Zenke building has been known to be haunted. There are no known ghosts in the old jail.
That site of the Zenke building will become a much-needed county parking lot.
“The last time I heard anything, there was a need for 225 spaces – that’s the county’s need and mine combined,” Barnes said. “The parking lot there will have 175. My math says that’s 50 short.”
Barnes also said he’s heard that state probation and parole services that are now “scattered all around” may be moved into the old jail and take up several floors. If that’s the case, he said, parking in the area will be an even bigger problem.
Five years ago, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted for the county to sell a giant parking lot to the Kathleen Price Bryan Family YMCA. That valuable real estate is right across South Edgeworth Street from the old jail and the Zenke building.
Barnes said that was one of the biggest blunders in county history, one the county is still paying for.
“It was the stupidest thing in the world,” Barnes said of the sale of the property to the YMCA.
At the time, nearly all of the county commissioners who approved the move knew that it was ill-advised but several commissioners stated privately to the Rhino Times that they were under a great deal of political pressure to sell the lot to the YMCA.
Barnes said he doesn’t know what will happen if the county moves all the people into the old jail with insufficient parking. He added that it’s not his call.
“You’ve heard me say,” Barnes said, “I don’t run the train, I don’t ring the bell – but let it run off the track, and see who catches hell.”