The first regular meeting of the new City Council was a whale of a night.
For the City Council, the meeting began at 4 p.m. with the official photograph, followed by a closed session, and ended at 12:25 a.m. By the end, nobody was at their best, even City Councilmember Yvonne Johnson – who is usually the height of decorum on the council – was peevish.
Tuesday, Dec. 19, the City Council approved the construction contract for the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, a project that began in 2011, and approved the funding for the two new downtown parking decks.
The council also officially changed the format for meetings next year, limiting speakers from the floor on non-agenda items to one meeting a month. After the number of speakers at the Tuesday meeting, that seemed to be more than generous. The newly formed Democracy Greensboro, which appears to be made up entirely of senior citizens, revealed its apparent strategy to attempt to talk the City Council to death. Several speakers spoke over and over, saying much the same things about different agenda items.
The two downtown parking decks attracted the most opposition, which ranged from people who don’t believe the city should be in the parking business at all, to those who don’t think the city should build parking decks to help business, to those who opposed the parking decks because the bids for the decks haven’t been accepted so the city doesn’t know exactly what they will cost, to those who like to hear themselves speak.
The parking deck planned for East Market and Davie streets and is slated to have a Westin Hotel built on top of it had a real issue – an easement owned by the Cone Denim Entertainment Center from Davie Street all the way across the lot where the parking deck is slated to be built to the back door of Cone Denim.
City Attorney Tom Carruthers asked the City Council to use eminent domain to take the easement and, after a lengthy discussion, the City Council – on a 6-to-2 vote – agreed to start the proceedings to condemn the property that the city values at $55,000. Councilmembers Sharon Hightower and Michelle Kennedy voted no. Councilmember Justin Outling was recused from all the votes involving the parking deck and proposed hotel because of a conflict of interest involving one of his law partners at the Brooks Pierce law firm.
Amiel Rossabi of Rossabi Law Partners, representing the owners of Cone Denim, Rocky Scarfone and Jeff Furr, told the council, “What you do know is, if you condemn it, we will sue; we have no choice. Our venue will close if we don’t have the access that we have now.”
He said that in the case where taking an easement is taking the entire business, the city would have to pay the cost, not of the easement but of the business itself. According to previous correspondence, Scarfone is valuing the business at upwards of $5 million.
Rossabi said, “We will seek a preliminary injunction and we will seek a permanent injunction.”
Rossabi began by asking for a 30-day postponement to continue negotiating with the city and asked, “What’s the rush?”
In the course of the lengthy discussion, the rush was revealed. According to the City Council, the rush really has nothing to do with building the parking deck. The rush is to get started on building the hotel. Greg Dillon – who said he was representing Elm Street LLC – which will build the hotel, said that he had a contract to have the hotel built by 2019, and that seemed to be the tipping point for the City Council.
Nobody mentioned any timeline that had to be met to build the public parking deck except the fact that the hotel construction was under a deadline, which seems to support Rossabi’s argument that the city couldn’t condemn the property to build a hotel, but could only condemn the property for a public purpose.
Comments from councilmembers made it clear that the reason the City Council was going ahead with the condemnation was to facilitate building the hotel, not to provide the public with parking.
It is expected that the lawsuit will be filed in early January, which could cause even more problems for the hotel construction than postponing the decision for a month. If Rossabi can get a injunction holding up construction until the matter can be settled, even if the city eventually wins the case, it could hold up construction for months or even years. Lawsuits, particularly it seems lawsuits involving the city, tend to drag on.
Furr, who is an attorney, warned the City Council that it would be a long, complicated, expensive lawsuit, and they would ask for legal fees from the city when they won. He said that they would argue in court that the primary purpose of the parking deck was to benefit a private developer and the public parking was incidental. He said, “This unfortunately will be expensive, protracted litigation with extensive discovery on who will benefit.”
City Attorney Tom Carruthers gave a presentation on how the city staff got to the point where they were recommending condemnation. He said the city had been negotiating with Scarfone and Rossabi since July and had offered a number of remedies to replace the eight-and-a-half-foot-wide easement that Scafone owns.
One accommodation offered by the city is an 18-foot alley between the parking deck and the back of the building that fronts on South Elm Street beginning on Market Street, which narrows to 14 feet about 100 feet from the back door of Cone Denim. But Carruthers said there would be room to park one bus and trailer in the alley. During construction the alley would be narrowed to 16 feet and at times be closed. If the alley were closed, the city was offering on-street parking for the buses and tractor-trailers that would be bringing equipment for performances at Cone Denim.
Scarfone said that he has been in the entertainment business for 20 years and he had people from the city who had never run a single show telling him what would work. He said, “What they are saying is realistic is not realistic.”
He said without access to the back door of Cone Denim, he would be put out of business.
Judging from the timeline, the city’s plan has always been to buy or condemn the easement because the city started designing the parking deck before it started negotiating with Scarfone and Rossabi. Scarfone said one of the things he kept being told in the negotiations was that the city couldn’t change the design of the parking deck.
When asked what it would take to reach resolution, Scarfone said that more people from the City Council would have to be involved, “not Mr. Westmoreland; he doesn’t want to budge.”
Former City Councilmember Mike Barber had been involved in the negotiations even after he lost his reelection bid in November. Barber said that when he first got involved in the summer, the city wanted to condemn the property and Scarfone wanted to sue, but they had made some progress.
The big question councilmembers should be asking is why the city went ahead with the design before the easement issue was settled. Scarfone wants to have access to his back door for the buses and trucks that provide the equipment for shows, as well as for the performers. With a parking deck built within a few feet of his back door, that is not going to be possible and parking on the street half a block away during construction doesn’t seem like much of an accommodation.
The parking deck planned for the corner of North Eugene and Bellemeade streets was not nearly as controversial. That deck will be built by the Carroll Companies, which also own this newspaper, on $2.5 million worth of land donated to the city by the Carroll Companies. The Carroll Companies retained air rights, which will allow it to build on top of the eight-story parking deck.
Carroll said that he wasn’t planning on developing the lot on the corner of Eugene and Bellemeade for a while, but that Project Slugger came along and he decided to go ahead because Project Slugger, a 75,000-square-foot office building that will be built next to First National Bank Field across the Bellemeade Street from the proposed parking deck couldn’t move forward without parking.
When talking about what he planned to build over the parking deck, Carroll said, “It’s going to be something really special. I’ve reached the point in my career where I can do what we call ‘legacy projects.’” He said in January or February, he hoped to be able to announce what the plans were for the building on top of the parking deck.
It has been widely reported that an Aloft Hotel would be built over the parking deck, with office and possibly some residential space over that.
Carroll said that when he is considering building in a city, he drives to the downtown to look around, and that is how he judges a community. He said that Greensboro needs more activity in its downtown.
Robin Team, the developer who is proposing to build Project Slugger, noted that it was a unique opportunity because the development in downtown Greensboro had, until recently, all been north and south and this was expanding the downtown to the west. He said, “We are going to build that office building as soon as you approve the deck.”
Most of the people opposing the decks said they were from Democracy Greensboro and opposed them because they didn’t think the city should build parking decks. Some said the city shouldn’t build parking decks for future development or for current employers. Lincoln Financial reportedly needs about 300 additional parking spaces for its employees. But the city has been in the parking business for over 50 years. As Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Zack Matheny explained, property downtown is too expensive for developers to build their own parking decks. It prices them out of the market and they can’t compete with businesses that are built in outlying areas where land is much less expensive.
If the people of Greensboro want a more vibrant downtown, and it appears that most people do, then the city has to provide the parking for future development.
The fact that the two parking decks at a total cost of $60 million have already brought over $100 million in new investment downtown is a pretty good indication that its working.
The votes on the Bellemeade parking deck were all 8 to 1, with Kennedy voting no.
The City Council also approved the final construction contract for the Tanger Center for the Performing Arts with Barnhill Contracting Company for $57.9 million. Most of the votes on approving the contract were 8 to 1 with Hightower voting no because she said the Minority and Women Business Enterprise percentage was not high enough.
Up until last Friday, the City Council thought the contract was going to be awarded to T.A. Loving Construction Company at a cost of $56.6 million. Neither Loving nor Barnhill met the MWBE goals but it was ruled that Loving had not met the “good faith effort” requirements to hire minority contractors and Barnhill had. So the low bid from Loving was not accepted and the bid from Barnhill, which was $1.3 million more, was.
Some of the speakers who opposed awarding the contract said that the City Council wasn’t committed to the MWBE program.
Councilmember Outling strongly disagreed with that characterization. He noted that on this one project the city was spending an additional $1.3 million because the good faith efforts to comply with the city’s MWBE program were not met. He said, “We are putting our money where our mouth is on this single project to the tune of $1.3 million.”
He noted that the city cannot require contractors to meet “goals” but can require them to make a “good faith effort,” which the city had done.
There was a lot of discussion about the financing for The Tanger, which is being built without using taxpayer dollars. Nearly half the funds to pay for The Tanger are coming from private donations that now total $41.8 million. The city is paying $42.8 million in non-city taxpayer dollars and Coliseum Manager Matt Brown, who is in charge of the project, said that there was a $1.5 million contingency built into the final numbers. He said cities around the country were calling to find out how Greensboro was building a new state of the art performing arts center without using tax dollars. The city’s portion of the cost will be paid with a ticket fee, parking fees and hotel-motel tax funds.
One of the stranger complaints of the night was from Michael Roberto, who objected to the city using The Tanger as collateral for the loan to build it. Most loans, even loans to the city, require collateral, but Roberto didn’t suggest what he would like to see used as collateral for this loan if not The Tanger.
Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter noted that she had been the most vocal opponent of The Tanger on the City Council but she was voting for it Tuesday night. She said, “This city is in an economic boom state creating more and more economic development,” and to keep the economy growing she would support it.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan as she has said many times that the city was getting an $83 million performing arts center for half price because the private sector had raised over $40 million. She said, “I’ll take that deal any day.”
For the third time the City Council discussed closing February One Place to traffic because the Market and Davie streets parking deck is being built over the street. It doesn’t seem that complicated but it’s taken three tries for the City Council to be comfortable enough to vote on it. The street will be closed for construction of the parking deck and hotel, and when it reopens, because it is under a parking deck, it will not be an official city street; but the city will own it and it will operate like a street – meaning that anyone can drive on it.
The third time turned out to be the charm on this one and the City Council passed the street closing on a 5-to-3 vote with Johnson, Hightower and Kennedy voting no. Outling was recused.