Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center, with the help of newly elected Councilmember Michelle Kennedy, briefly took over the parking deck open house held by the City of Greensboro on the two proposed downtown decks Tuesday, Dec. 12, but Mayor Nancy Vaughan wrested back control.

The open house on the parking decks was held from 4 to 7 p.m. at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. It was not a public hearing and never purported to be a public hearing, but Johnson and his followers wanted it to be a public hearing.

The way these city-sponsored open houses work is that the city places renderings, maps and text on tripods around the room and a large number of city staff members are available to answer questions from the public about the projects. It is designed to keep the opposition of any city-sponsored plan from being able to coalesce into a group, and it usually works.

Johnson and company didn’t like the format because they wanted to be able to confront the city officials as a group, not as individuals. At first Johnson and his contingent confronted City Attorney Tom Carruthers, demanding that the city hold a public hearing so they could question City Manager Jim Westmoreland, who had not yet arrived. Carruthers explained the format, but agreed to call Westmoreland.

The group then took their complaint to a more sympathetic audience and talked to Kennedy, who then called Vaughan aside for a private word. Councilmember Goldie Wells also participated in this discussion. Seven of nine city councilmembers were present for the open house.

Parking Deck - Rhino Times of Greensboro

Nelson Johnson (far right foreground) and some of the people demanding a public hearing at the open house held at the civil rights museum on Tuesday.

Vaughan said that she and Kennedy agreed that Vaughan would welcome everyone to the event and explain the format.

At this point, Johnson shouted to the crowd of about 50 that was milling around the lobby of the civil rights museum, explaining that they demanded a public hearing.

Vaughan moved to the center of the crowd and began explaining to Johnson that that was not the format of this particular meeting – that the format was to allow people to get information about the project and have their questions answered by staff.

Vaughan said, “We’ve had three public meetings on this already.”

In response to a shouted remark from the crowd, she said, “We are not hiding. We encourage you to ask questions of the proper staffers.”

People continued to complain about not being able to confront city officials as a group, and at this point Kennedy said, “Clearly a lot of people have a lot of questions,” and suggested that everyone go in the museum auditorium for a public meeting.

Vaughan turned to Kennedy and said, “We just had a conversation and that is not what you and I discussed.”

Vaughan said later, “Evidently Michelle must have gotten intimidated by the crowd.”

Wells agreed with Kennedy that a public meeting should be held in the auditorium to answer questions.

The situation at that point was controlled bedlam. Mayor Vaughan and Councilmembers Kennedy, Wells, Marikay Abuzuaiter and Tammi Thurm were all standing together surrounded by the crowd, which included Johnson’s followers, as well as a number of people who had come for the open house and weren’t shouting at the City Council. Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann arrived later.

At one point, Carruthers and City Clerk Betsey Richardson were explaining to councilmembers that they could not have a full blown public hearing in the auditorium because of a lack of notification and lack of any means to keep minutes of the meeting, which are both required by law. Carruthers suggested that no more than four councilmembers attend the meeting in the auditorium so that a quorum would not be present and it would not be a meeting, and that’s what they did.

Vaughan and Westmoreland, who arrived shortly after the decision was made to hold the meeting, sat on the edge of the stage at the front of the auditorium and answered questions for over an hour. Vaughan did a good job of controlling the meeting and, for the most part, kept people from making long speeches about “crony capitalism” and putting every penny the city has into affordable housing.

Vaughan explained that the parking decks would be funded with bonds, but it had nothing to do with the bonds passed in 2016. She said that the city would borrow the money and the debt would be paid back mainly with the fees received from renting parking spaces, not just in the two new decks but from all the parking facilities owned by the city, as well as from the increased revenue the city would receive from the hotels built on top of the decks, the new office building that is planned to be built next to the baseball stadium and other development that would result from the increased availability of parking downtown. Vaughan also explained that three of the city’s parking decks were at capacity and one was nearing capacity.

Several people complained about the plan to rent a large number of spaces in the new deck to Lincoln Financial. Vaughan said that Lincoln Financial was a good employer that paid good salaries and it was a benefit to the city to have Lincoln hire more people to work in Greensboro.

It’s hard to understand how renting parking spaces to employees who work downtown is a bad thing, but several speakers said the spaces should not be rented on a monthly basis.

Carruthers came forward to explain that while February One Place would be technically closed, it would only be closed to traffic during construction and would then reopen to traffic.

Many of the “questions” were by people who were simply opposed to the city building parking decks downtown, period.

Vaughan said, “I had someone talk to me earlier today who said if we don’t move forward with the parking decks and the performing arts center we are going to be the fifth largest city in North Carolina, and that is not a good thing. We can’t guarantee every single penny. At some point you have to make a decision and lead. We need to put people to work. I am not going to be mayor of the fifth largest city in North Carolina.”

There are major questions about the parking deck planned for East Market and South Davie streets, but they have to do with easements owned by Rocky Scarfone across the current parking lot to the back of Cone Denim Entertainment Center.

Scarfone and his attorney Amiel Rossabi have been in discussions with the city since July about making accommodations so that Cone Denim will have access to the back of its building, which fronts on South Elm Street.

Carruthers says that in his opinion the city has made reasonable accommodations for Cone Denim during the construction when they will have access to an 18-foot alley that will run between the parking deck and the buildings that face Elm.

According to Rossabi, most of the acts arrive in buses with trailers behind them and they would have to back into the 18-foot alley from East Market Street. Although in a letter to City Council, Rossabi agreed it was possible, he said it was extremely difficult, and that, while possible, they didn’t believe that all the bus drivers would have the skill necessary to complete the maneuver. Even backing into the alley would only bring the buses within about 90 feet of the back door.

Also, Rossabi raises the question of the fire exit at the back of the building, which would be impeded by having a bus taking up most of the space in the alley.

Once the deck is built, the city’s plan is to allow Scarfone access to parking spaces designed for buses on the first floor of the deck. But once again that would place the buses about 90 feet from the back door.

Rossabi’s letter to the City Council indicates that the proposal by the city does not provide the access that is necessary for Cone Denim to continue to have its relationship with Live Nation to book the big name acts that it currently has, and if the city moves forward under the current plan his client plans to sue.

Carruthers said that if an agreement with Scarfone wasn’t reached that the city planned to condemn the alley to Davie Street. He said the value of that alley had been estimated at $55,000. Carruthers also said that the city knew about the easements owned by Scarfone when it bought the land. The city staff may have known but the City Council was not aware of the easements and the potential problem the parking deck would cause for a business on Elm Street.

Carruthers said that easements are not uncommon in the Central Business District and that the city deals with easement issues all the time, so the fact that this property had two easements was not something that he thought would affect the purchase of the property.

If the staff did know, it raises a number of questions. One is, why wasn’t the City Council informed before it voted to purchase the property? And perhaps, even more importantly, why weren’t the businesses on South Elm that would be affected by having a parking deck built behind their buildings notified?

And why weren’t attempts made to accommodate Scarfone before the design of the deck was underway? When this all started, one of the city’s complaints was that the parking deck would have to be redesigned to make accommodations for Scarfone. The 18-foot alley was not part of the original plan, and back in August it was going to be a 14-foot alley.

One plan that was considered was to have the alley continue all the way across the block to February One Place so the buses could pull in from Market and exit on February One. But the proposed alley narrows to under five feet wide on the February One side, making it only useful to pedestrians.

Back in August, when former City Councilmember Mike Barber became involved in the discussions, he said that it appeared the city was ready to condemn the easement and Scarfone was ready to sue. He said his job was to calm everyone down and keep them at the negotiating table.

Now that Barber is no longer involved, it appears that the city will condemn the easement and Scarfone will sue. Vaughan and several councilmembers said they planned to vote to go ahead with the project next week whether an agreement with Scarfone was reached or not.

Vaughan said she thought the city had made reasonable accommodations for Scarfone, even if it wasn’t exactly what he wanted.

Someone familiar with the situation said that if the council votes to approve the project on Dec. 19, then Scarfone will file suit on Dec. 20, and also that it seemed likely Scarfone would be able to get an injunction to hold up construction because once the parking deck is constructed it would be impractical for the city to tear down a portion of the deck to give Scarfone access to the back of his building.

The city has also discussed buying the Cone Denim building. In Rossabi’s letter to the City Council, he places the value of the building at $5 million, but that the price would be $5 million plus consideration for lost income.

There do not appear to be any issues with the parking deck planned for the corner of Bellemeade and North Eugene streets that will be built by the Carroll Companies, which also owns this newspaper. The current estimated cost of building that deck is $35 million.