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Hamburger Square railroad bridge getting a new look; square improvements planned, too

GREENSBORO — Sheets of plastic block the railroad underpass downtown at Hamburger Square.

The bridge over McGee Street, near South Elm and Davie streets, is getting a cleaning and fresh coat of paint. The “Greensboro Green” color will match the city’s logo. The bridge’s architectural elements will be accented in gold and tan.

This week, that section of McGee Street is closed to traffic. The detour takes drivers and pedestrians over railroad tracks that cross South Elm Street.

Weather permitting, the contractor should complete enough work to allow McGee Street’s northbound lane to reopen after Friday evening. The entire road should be reopen on June 17, said David Ortega, a senior civil engineer with the city of Greensboro Transportation Department.

The city has painted several railroad bridges around town. For this bridge, the organization Greensboro Beautiful requested the accents and paid $6,000 to add them.

The bridge will be painted on both sides.

This painting project dovetails with a separate $344,000 beautification project that the city and Greensboro Beautiful plan to start soon in Hamburger Square.

“We spent some time thinking about what we could add to the bridge to bring it to life,” said April Harris, who leads Greensboro Beautiful’s project steering committee with David Craft and Randall Romie.

They considered the bridge’s unique architectural details.

“The timing gave Greensboro Beautiful the perfect opportunity to add to the bridge painting contract and accent the architectural elements, as part of our overall effort to beautify and renovate the area,” Harris said.

The beautification project celebrates the 50th anniversary in 2018 of Greensboro Beautiful, a nonprofit volunteer group that partners with city government and residents to maintain public gardens, coordinate litter cleanups and hold free community events.

The organization liked the idea of Hamburger Square for the project because of its central location, Harris said.

Hamburger Square got its name from the many sandwich shops once located there.

The intersection hosted hundreds of thousands of travelers in the 20th century, especially when the city was home to the Overseas Replacement Depot during World War II.

Hotels and dozens of eateries sprang up. At one time, the intersection held four sandwich shops.

The rejuvenation will focus on land owned by North Carolina Railroad Co. that surrounds its tracks.

According to organizers, the project will add green space and trees, bridge the physical gap between two parts of downtown, calm traffic and increase overall safety.

They say it will promote pedestrian crossing under the trestle, rather than across the tracks on Elm Street, and will encourage additional development and support the city’s ongoing efforts to improve downtown’s public spaces.

The project coincides with the burgeoning of the south end of Elm Street, which now includes arts and entrepreneur spaces, retailers and restaurants.

The latest budget puts Greensboro Beautiful’s share of the project at $234,586, Harris said. It needs to raise $125,000 more.

Money will go toward site development, landscaping and hardscape, such as paths and walls, paving and lighting.

The city will provide ongoing maintenance.

Greensboro Beautiful has completed design work and is now obtaining the required permits, Harris said.

It plans to start construction this summer and aims to plant in the fall.

Can an N.C. resident trespass in a building owned by the people of N.C.? Judge says yes.

RALEIGH — In a hearing ahead of his trial on second-degree trespassing charges, an attorney for the Rev. William Barber said Monday that a jury should be able to decide whether a North Carolina resident can be found guilty of trespassing in a building the people own and maintain for the purpose of speaking to their political leaders.

The judge disagreed.

Superior Court Judge Stephan Futrell said the government can and should restrict access to government property, WRAL reported. He said government exists separately as an entity from the people it serves, the TV station reported.

The question arose in a pretrial hearing for a motion by Wake County Assistant District Attorney Nishma Patel, who had asked the court to keep Barber’s attorney from “misleading” or “confusing” a jury by talking about First Amendment rights or about whether trespassing laws apply in the case.

Barber and 31 other people were charged with trespassing at the N.C. Legislative Building in May 2017 when they went there during business hours to push for better health care for the poor and refused to leave the hallways outside elected officials’ offices.

A magistrate at the time banned them from returning to the building as a condition of their release. As the cases made their way through Wake County courts, the bans were lifted.

A judge lifted the ban on Barber going to the Legislative Building in April of this year, despite Patel’s request that it be kept in place at least until after the teacher rally in May. She said state officials were concerned that Barber’s presence at the rally, which culminated at the parklike civic space behind the Legislative Building, would draw excessive crowds.

Barber, the pastor of a Goldsboro church, former leader of the NAACP’s North Carolina and an organizer of the national Poor People’s Campaign, has said that protesting the actions of the General Assembly in the building where it works is a right under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and a duty under the North Carolina Constitution. His arrest at the protest, he has said, violated both constitutions.

Further, his attorney, John McWilliam of Raleigh, said during Monday’s hearing that North Carolina lawmakers have never differentiated legally between the state and its residents, meaning that when the state owns a building, it could be inferred that the residents of the state own the building. If they own it, can they be charged with trespassing in it when they are there to conduct a form of business during normal business hours?

According to the state constitution, “The people have a right to assemble together to consult for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to the General Assembly for redress of grievances,” McWilliam noted.

When Barber and more than 30 others were arrested, McWilliam said, “they were trying to do that in the only place where they can.”

But the government does own property, the judge said.

“Simply because property, real or personal, is owned by the state does not mean that any member of the public has an absolute, unfettered right to use, possess or access that property,” Futrell said Tuesday in a video posted by WRAL.

Sometimes, Patel told the judge, the government has to restrict First Amendment rights, such as when a protest in a building becomes so disruptive that workers can’t do their jobs.

“You don’t get unfettered rights under the First Amendment,” Patel told the judge.

“We aren’t arguing unfetteredness, your honor,” McWilliam countered. “Of course there can be restrictions.”

“The court,” Furtrell said in Tuesday’s ruling, “will allow limited evidence as to the defendant’s exercise of his free-speech rights in order to explain his actions on the day in question.”

An interesting article in today's paper

D-Day diary: While a teen, man discovered his father’s 16-page journal of war experiences, but he didn’t read it until decades later. Page B2

Greensboro nixes bus fare increase, continues budget discussion

GREENSBORO — Bus riders won’t see higher fares in the coming year after all.

After Greensboro City Council members objected last week to a proposal to raise bus fares as part of the budget, City Manager David Parrish offered a new plan Tuesday at a council work session that will find other ways to cover transit expenses.

As part of that plan, $250,000 that was designated for a possible Cure Violence program to target gun violence in the city would be used to cover growing transit expenses.

Parrish has proposed a $566 million budget that includes a 3-cent increase in the property tax rate that will, in part, pay for a larger contribution to the city employees’ retirement fund and a reduction in the amount of savings the city uses every year to cover its expenses.

Changes in the transit system were suggested to bring in $850,000 through lower expenses and fare increases.

Under the alternative proposal revealed Tuesday, the city will stop running its SCAT "premium" paratransit service for disabled riders after 8 p.m. and on weekends. That will save nearly $121,000 in the coming year. (Information has been corrected to fix an error. See correction at end of story. 2:22 p.m., June 5.)

Premium SCAT service is a ride service that goes more than 3/4 mile outside GTA’s established route system.

In addition to the money moved from the proposed Cure Violence program, the city would have to add $472,000 from the general fund obtained from sales tax revenue to cover transit expenses.

The city has discussed implementing a Cure Violence program for more than a year and held a meeting in May with the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to talk about splitting the $500,000 annual cost.

The commissioners are scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to spend $250,000 for Cure Violence.

If they do not approve the program, Greensboro would not act to fund it and use the money for transit. If the commissioners should vote in favor of Cure Violence, Mayor Nancy Vaughan said at the work session, the city would likely reconsider finding a way to pay for it.

Another item questioned last week by Council Member Justin Outling has remained in the budget.

The proposed budget includes $500,000 for “the availability of mental health professionals for crisis intervention.”

Such a program has been suggested by several council members in recent months, especially in light of the death of Marcus Smith. Smith, who died Sept. 8, was undergoing some kind of mental health crisis at the intersection of Market and Church streets downtown when police bound his hands to his feet behind him. A medical examiner said the RIPP Hobble hogtie contributed to his death.

Some council members believe making mental health professionals available who could respond quickly to such a situation might have helped police handle it differently.

Parrish has suggested a much broader program that would hire a contractor to provide mental health professionals who could respond to any city department dealing with a difficult or mentally unstable person.

Outling questioned last week why such a program is needed and what kind of research Parrish could offer to back up the program.

Parrish said in an interview that he has answered council members’ questions and that the item currently remains in the budget. He did not have further details Tuesday afternoon.

Only a handful of people spoke on the budget later Tuesday during a public comment period. Council is expected to vote on the budget at its June 18 meeting.

CORRECTION: The Greensboro Transit Authority will stop running its SCAT "premium" paratransit service for disabled riders after 8 p.m. and on weekends. Incorrect information was given in an earlier version of this story posted June 4.