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An interesting article in today's paper

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Proposal would create apartments, offer needed services, to help those experiencing homelessness in Greensboro

GREENSBORO — People who are homeless often have many obstacles that keep them from finding a permanent place to live.

Mental illness, substance abuse and unemployment can perpetuate homelessness.

And affordable housing is also in short supply.

So Greensboro city and community officials are working on a plan that will help particularly vulnerable people get the services they need to solve their problems and, most importantly, a place to live.

City Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy said Tuesday at a work session of the Greensboro City Council that she is working with community agencies to create a “permanent supportive housing” apartment development. The project would be built in conjunction with such service providers as the county Department of Social Services and the Salvation Army.

The group has come up with a plan that would use an existing 25,000-square-foot city office building at Fourth and Maple streets as the shell for scores of new apartments that would be located close to a variety of social services for residents. The idea is to enable people who would be homeless to overcome their personal problems with continuing support from those service agencies.

The city Parks and Recreation Department currently has offices in the building.

Under the plan, for example, the Salvation Army may have an office in the building where it could act as a case manager for residents. The building might also house a health clinic.

“A lot of folks in ‘permanent supportive housing’ are employed, they’re going to school,” Kennedy said. “They may just need support in order to be successful at it.”

Kennedy said the city would donate the building, appraised at about $2 million, to the Community Foundation, which would act as the anchor agency for the project.

Kennedy, who is executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, which provides similar services to the homeless but not housing, said she and the other agencies have been in discussion for months about the housing project.

“This core group came together,” she said.

This would be the first project of its kind in Greensboro and one of only three in the state, with similar projects in Charlotte and Asheville, she said.

The building the group hopes to renovate into apartments has several advantages, Kennedy said. It’s near bus routes, it’s near the Summit Avenue corridor and, most importantly, it’s not in a heavily residential area where neighbors could object to a different type of resident.

City Manager David Parrish told council that he could have a proposal for their consideration as early as December or in early 2020.

Kennedy said, “this is a really good example of what integrative services and public-private partnership can look like.”

Greensboro council changes meeting format again

GREENSBORO — For nearly two years, the Greensboro City Council has held two markedly-different types of meetings every month.

On the first Tuesday of the month they’ve been conducting a town-hall-style meeting with an open forum for public speakers, choosing to conduct no regular business or handle items that require votes.

As a result, the council has squeezed all of its business items into its second meeting on the third Tuesday of the month.

And sometimes that has had a lopsided result, with some business meetings being unwieldy affairs with up to 80 agenda items and some town-hall meetings going on for hours as scores of speakers queue up to talk about contentious city issues.

Tuesday night, the council voted to shake up that system after Councilwoman Tammi Thurm proposed a change.

Beginning in January, the council will distribute its business items across both meetings. It will continue to have public speakers at its first meeting of every month, but they will be divided into two periods.

At the beginning of the meeting, speakers will have a total of 30 minutes to speak. Then City Council will consider short business items such as consent agendas, where several items are grouped together for a single-vote approval. After the meeting’s business portion, public speakers can return to the podium until all who signed up by 6:15 to speak are heard.

Generally, council members said Tuesday, no public hearing items such as zoning cases will be heard until the second meeting of every month.

The board voted 8-1 to approve the change with Councilwoman Sharon Hightower voting against the measure.

Most members supported the change, saying it allows for people with business before council to have their items voted on in a more speedy way, not having to wait an entire month between meetings.

Hightower said she felt that the change in the town-hall meeting structure could discourage some speakers who have grown accustomed to the more free-form meetings.

“We represent the people that come here. We don’t need to get off track from that,” she said.

In a related matter, the council also voted to stop its practice of holding those town meetings at various locations throughout the city’s five council districts.

Beginning in the summer, the board has rotated its town meetings to recreation centers and other public locations in an effort to make it more convenient for people in different neighborhoods to attend.

But some of the meetings have been plagued with technical issues, including one meeting in which none of the City Council members had microphones or amplification and couldn’t be heard over speakers who were pointedly berating them over various issues.

Also, the city has been unable to broadcast the meetings live over its public channel.

Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter proposed that all meetings be held at the Melvin Municipal Office Building, where cameras and microphones are permanently installed. She said the rotating meeting schedule sowed more confusion for people unaccustomed to attending meetings at different locations.

The City Council voted 7-2 in favor of the measure with Councilman Justin Outling and Mayor Nancy Vaughan voting no.

Rebuilding East Greensboro's gateway

GREENSBORO — Big changes are on the way for the road and rail network that serves eastern Greensboro with one major project imminent and a second in its early stages.

Together, the proposals would eliminate six dangerous street-level rail crossings and replace them with two bridges and an underpass for motorists, bike riders and pedestrians.

Residents will have a chance to critique both projects Thursday during a public meeting at Genesis Baptist Church on East Bessemer Avenue, not far from the proposed improvements.

The project closest to becoming a concrete reality is a complete reworking of Franklin Boulevard’s “at grade” crossing of the North Carolina Railroad, near the National Guard Armory and Hairston Middle School.

“That one is funded,” said Mike Mills, N.C. Department of Transportation division engineer for the Greensboro area.

That means money has been earmarked for the $13.3 million Franklin Boulevard project, which is scheduled for construction in four years.

The project, recently revamped after a meeting between state DOT and local officials, would replace Franklin Boulevard’s street-level crossing with an underpass beneath the tracks.

In addition, as part of that project state highway officials would close nearby O’Ferrell Street’s grade-level rail crossing by building cul de sacs on both sides of the tracks.

Mills said that Franklin Boulevard’s sister project is at an earlier stage of development where target dates have not been set for buying what additional land is needed or for starting construction.

“We’re still in the public comment gathering process,” he said of the second project.

That proposal would extend existing Naco Road 1.9 miles east of its current ending at O’Ferrell Street and include a bridge over the tracks just before the extension meets East Wendover Avenue.

That project also includes a second bridge over the railroad along a rerouted section of Ward Road.

In exchange for the bridges, the second project would close four more street-level rail crossings — on Buchanan Church, Maxfield and Wagoner Bend roads, and on Ward Road’s current route.

Mills said the projects are part of a statewide initiative to reduce the number of street-level rail crossings that put motorists and others in danger.

Coupled with the Ward Road improvements, the Naco Road extension also should give East Greensboro a much-needed economic boost by opening about 600 acres for development by light industrial, warehousing and logistics companies, Greensboro transportation planners say.

City Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter said both projects are welcome safety improvements. But local officials spotted some shortcomings that they urged state highway officials to fix at a recent meeting for local leaders, she said.

“I want to give credit to NC DOT” for its willingness to address those issues, said Abuzuaiter, who chairs the local Metropolitan Planning Organization advisory board that supervises transportation projects in the Greensboro area.

Abuzuaiter said local school and government officials pressed for two improvements in particular:

  • Building an underpass on Franklin Boulevard instead of a bridge over the tracks as highway engineers originally had planned.
  • Revising plans that call for a section of Burlington Road to end in a cul de sac just shy of East Wendover Avenue.

State highway planners have agreed to local officials’ first recommendation, but are not sure they can fix the second, Abuzuaiter said.

Her concern with the original plan to bridge Franklin Boulevard over the railroad stemmed from its steep pitch and the uphill challenge that would pose for bike riders and pedestrians, especially people with any type of disability, she said.

Mills said that changing the design to an underpass helps with that problem because such a structure can go beneath the tracks at a “flatter” angle, so bicyclists and people on foot face less of a climb emerging from the tunnel than they would ascending a bridge.

But there’s a trade off in the greater complexity involved in building a tunnel, which could mean Franklin Boulevard would be closed at the construction site for at least two years, Mills said.

He estimated that building a bridge there would require about a year’s closure.

But local school and other officials who attended the recent, governmental review seemed OK waiting longer to get Franklin Boulevard back in service with a tunnel, Mills said.

Abuzuaiter agreed, saying the wait was worth it when considering the number of pedestrians, bike riders and people with disabilities who will use the structure in years to come.

But she said the Burlington Road cul de sac presented a stiffer challenge for transportation planners and they weren’t sure they could work around it.

Mills said the difficulty is rooted in rules that require the new Ward Road bridge to pass at least 25 feet over the railroad tracks, placing an embankment in Burlington Road’s current path.

As planned now, the cul de sac would be built near the intersection where motorists headed west toward downtown make a left turn from East Wendover Avenue onto a section of Burlington Road that soon merges into East Market Street.

The plans that will be on display Thursday envision eliminating that intersection and using Huffine Mill Road as East Market Street’s most direct link to westbound traffic on Wendover.

Abuzuaiter said she is concerned about diminishing East Market’s useful role as a gateway to the center city, N.C. A&T and the future Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts.

She recalled that she and fellow Councilwoman Sharon Hightower attended the recent “elected officials’ meeting” on the projects and did a double take when they saw the Burlington Road cul de sac.

“We were sitting there looking at each other and saying, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not going to be beneficial to downtown,’” Abuzuaiter recalled.

Mills stressed that what people see of the Naco-Ward roads project on Thursday “is not the final map” and it’s subject to change based on comments state officials receive.

City transportation planners also are aware of the concerns about Burlington Road’s fate.

“City officials will work with NC DOT following the public meeting to explore options for maintaining adequate connectivity” for motorists and businesses in the area, according to Tyler Meyer, Greensboro transportation planning manager.

If the technical problems can’t be solved in preserving the current Wendover-Burlington Road crossroads, Abuzuaiter said she will push for prominent signage along the way directing motorists bound for downtown onto East Market.