GREENSBORO — On Jan. 10, a guy with a GoPro hunted parking spaces in two downtown decks.
It was late morning, long after people had started their Wednesday workday.
And as he drove around the decks — one behind Elm Street Center and the other at Davie and East Market streets — the guy noticed a pattern.
There were plenty of open spaces. On some levels, 1 out of every 4 were empty. On other levels, 3 of 4. On a workday. In the middle of the week.
He went back Thursday, and again Friday. Same results.
His footage is part of a lawsuit Cone Denim Entertainment Center filed Friday in Guilford County Superior Court.
The suit, along with a motion for a temporary restraining order, seeks to stop the city from seizing an easement — a fancy name for what, in this case, is an alleyway — behind the venue along South Davie Street so the city can build a new parking deck there.
The deck goes hand-in-hand with a Westin Hotel that will sit on the corner of South Davie and February One Place.
Club owners Rocky Scarfone and Jeff Furr say losing the alleyway means losing backstage access for entertainers’ trucks and tour buses. Without that access, they say, their business is destroyed.
The suit, with help from the GoPro footage and other bits of evidence, proffers the same theory that members of Democracy Greensboro have made at recent City Council meetings:
The city doesn’t need a new parking deck on South Davie Street. Though it calls for $30 million in public money, they say the project has no public value.
Its benefit, they say, is to a handful of powerful people who stand to make millions.
Their argument is bolstered by an affidavit by former Greensboro City Councilman Mike Barber, who spent the last five months of his term trying to work out a compromise between the city and Cone Denim’s owners.
Barber, an attorney, said he never saw a parking study “indicating that the city and its citizens would benefit from the construction of a parking deck” on South Davie.
But he says he “received a substantial amount of evidence” that the Westin developers would benefit financially from the new parking deck.
Barber says the process “has taken place in a manner that is out of the ordinary for city business during my tenure on the City Council and inconsistent with best policies for public projects.”
City Attorney Tom Carruthers didn’t respond to a query from the News & Record late Friday afternoon about the suit.
The situation has made for some unlikely bedfellows.
There’s Scarfone, a long-time empresario of Greensboro’s nightlife.
There’s Democracy Greensboro, a left-leaning watchdog group that advocates for the poor and minorities, which as of late has expended considerable time and energy labeling the deck projects as “crony capitalism.”
And there’s Barber, a fiscal conservative successfully targeted by Democracy Greensboro for defeat in the November City Council election.
Barber was already off the council on Dec. 19 when it voted to spend up to $30 million for the 850-space parking structure.
As conceived, it’s really two decks on either side of February One, joined by a walkway above the street. The 10-story Westin will sit atop the south deck, just behind Elm Street Center.
The hotel project involves several developers, but is being led by local attorney George House and by Randall Kaplan, a local businessman and philanthropist. Kaplan’s wife, Kathy Manning, recently announced her candidacy for the 13th Congressional District in Greensboro.
The north deck is the one Cone Denim’s owners are trying to stop, since the city plans to seize their alleyway to build it.
In the current setup, tour buses enter through a driveway on Davie Street, pull up to the back of Cone Denim to unload equipment, then exit onto East Market. Cone Denim has access to the Davie Street driveway through a month-to-month rental agreement with the city — access it will lose Tuesday.
Once the deck is built, tour buses would have only one way in — via a driveway on East Market. And they will have only one way out — by backing out onto East Market.
The city says it will create a 10-foot wide alley during construction, and look at widening it another 8 feet after.
But even an 18-foot-wide alley won’t give buses enough room to turn around, according to the owners.
Entertainers demand convenient backstage access, they say. Without it, they’ll take their acts somewhere else.
Scarfone and Furr say they first learned they would lose access to the alleyway in July, three months after the council voted to let the hotel developers design and build the deck. The club owners say they were shocked by this turn of events, since it would derail the easy access to the backstage area entertainers demanded.
They turned to Barber for help.
Barber, considered one of the most reliable pro-business voices on the council, says in his affidavit that he was eager to support the hotel and deck project. He says he understood its impact on the tax base, along with what he calls the “current business challenges” and “debt associated with and being carried by” owners of the Elm Street Center.
“At no time have I ever expressed opposition to the deck project,” he says. “But I strongly oppose the city’s apparent disregard for the extreme adverse impact on surrounding businesses.”
In his affidavit, Barber says he believed the city had already told business owners with rights to the alleyway that they would soon lose their access. Barber says he later learned that Cone Denim’s owners weren’t notified because Carruthers’ office “committed errors and omissions during the title search.”
Barber met with Scarfone, attorney Amiel Rossabi and city officials multiple times from August to December to hash out a compromise. He even met with them Dec. 6, one day after his term ended, at the request of Carruthers and Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who also attended.
Scarfone and Rossabi were reasonable, Barber says, suggesting ways to redesign the deck to keep the alleyway intact.
“However, the city offered no material movement and refused to consider any adequate redesign,” Barber says.
“Whether the city failed to inform (Cone Denim) about the deck as a result of an error or omission, or whether the city failed to inform (Cone Denim) intentionally so as to avoid delay to (the developers’) plans, I am concerned either way,” he says in the affidavit.
Cone Denim’s suit offers other evidence that the city structured the deck project to benefit private developers, not taxpayers:
No parking study: The city hasn’t performed a formal study to determine whether there’s a public use for building a deck on South Davie, something Democracy Greensboro members have pointed out and something Barber mentions in his affidavit. The suit points out that the city hasn’t conducted an overall parking-need study for downtown since 2008.
No hotel study: The city also hasn’t conducted a study to see if downtown needs another full-service hotel. The only other one, a Marriott, has an occupancy rate of 59.3 percent, which is below the national average of about 65 percent, one of its managers told council members last month.
Inflated property prices: The suit alleges that the city overpaid for property it bought to build the north deck, the building that houses Showfety’s uniform store on East Market Street. An appraisal done Oct. 24, 2016, puts the value at $655,000. On March 1, just 18 weeks later, a second appraisal valued the land at $1.07 million. The city paid $1.025 million. The suit claims the city “falsified” a resolution passed by the City Council by listing the second appraised value, not the first.
Payments, fees to developers: The city is paying the hotel developers $2 million in “pre-development costs” to build the deck, including an administrative fee of $162,130.
No written agreement on deck use: Both the suit itself and Barber’s affidavit note that the city has no written agreement on a minimum number of parking spaces the Westin will lease. The agreement calls for up to 180 spaces.
“The alleged ‘need’ for the construction of the (Davie Street) deck was predicated on many contingencies,” Barber says, including demand from the Westin and other downtown businesses.
Unlike another deck the city is building downtown at Bellemeade and Eugene streets, the Davie Street deck has “no contractual commitments” for use.