Talk of the Town—Sidewalks, Safety, and Stormwater: Residents of neighborhoods from all around the Southwest Ward got together Tuesday night for a conversation with Mayor Allen Joines, myself, the city manager, and senior staff from every city department. Over 40 residents (plus over 20 city staff) took part in the 2003 Mayor’s "Talk of the Town" meeting for the Southwest Ward, this year at Miller Park Recreation Center. Discussion was far-ranging, but I heard certain common topics dominating the comments and questions: a need for more sidewalks, issues relating to public safety (especially traffic), and concerns over increased stormwater runoff. (Other issues related to use of city parks, unsightly conditions along Stratford Road, public transit, housing, and jobs.)
Residents want more sidewalks on streets from Arlington to Westview (with stops on Jonestown, Magnolia, and other points in between). It’s a public safety issue as well as an important neighborhood quality of life amenity. We recognized and discussed the present dearth of funding available for new sidewalk projects. Support is building for a new bond issue with funds for more sidewalks.
Traffic safety is a closely related concern. Speeding through neighborhood streets is a target of new "traffic calming" initiatives which are underway with cooperative efforts between neighbors, the city Transportation Department, and Police Department enforcement.
Another citywide concern of special interest at the neighborhood level is the increasing level of stormwater runoff and resulting flooding and erosion problems. In the long run, better management of runoff from impervious surfaces will be needed. In the shorter term, the City Council recently approved changes to the city ordinances, permitting the City to help pay for drainage improvements necessary to protect driveway access to homes. (Policy already allowed city participation in drainage improvements to prevent damage to the homes themselves.) The bottom line with stormwater is that runoff will continue to increase in an area so long as paving and roof surface increase, in the absence of engineered controls on runoff from those sites. That increased runoff must be dealt with in one way or another.
Transportation needs additions: At the City Council meeting on October 27, we approved suggested additions to the "Transportation Needs List" for the Winston-Salem urban area. This is a list of projects which are not yet in state or local budgets, but are being tagged as high priorities for additions to those budgets as funds can be made available. For example, the Stratford/Knollwood intersection improvements and the Hanes Mall Boulevard bridge widening are already on the funded list of road projects in another document, the "Transportation Improvement Plan" or TIP. The "Transportation Needs List" is a compilation of the highest priority items waiting for possible later inclusion among the funded TIP projects. These lists include road/street projects, bicycle/pedestrian projects, and public transit projects. (You may recall my notes in the August SW Ward Update, encouraging your submission of suggestions for this list.)
Proposed additional needs projects which could affect the Southwest Ward include widening of Stratford Road, creation of the Little Creek Greenway trail, and westward extension of the Salem Creek Greenway trail.
More budget woes: The City Council received a special mid-year budget update this week, to get the bad news. The continued weakness of the national and state economy has city revenue (both property and sales taxes) falling behind even conservative predictions. In total, there is now a projected $1.7 million budget gap for the current fiscal year. To close it, the city manager has recommended cost-cutting steps including freezing city hiring, eliminating the 2% good performance bonus for city employees, and reducing or delaying other spending and capital equipment purchases. Unless other savings can be generated, we can expect to see adverse impacts on city services delivery—such as pool closings or bulky pickup cancellation—as early as next spring. I and other members of the Council encouraged the city manager to delete proposals for cutting back on maintenance of streets and pavement markings as a cost-saving item. Those are too important to public safety to be included even temporarily.
Jobs update: The weak economy and its fallout make economic development and jobs recruitment efforts even more immediately important. Two quick notes here: First, the just-announced merger of R.J. Reynolds with Brown & Williamson is expected to generate about 800 additional manufacturing jobs here locally—a very substantial offset of the RJR job cuts previously announced this year. Second, the Council agreed this week to release up to $247 thousand from the bonds approved in 2000 for economic development purposes, for infrastructure improvements at the city-owned Winston-Salem Business Park. The improvements will help in the marketing of an open 26 acres at the park for additional industrial tenants.
Clean air update: A quick update on regional clean air efforts: The Triad Early Action Compact will meet again on Monday, November 3, to discuss comments received on our draft clean air strategies. Comments at the October 22 public meeting and other forums have been mostly favorable. We will return to local governments (including Winston-Salem) with a final proposed cleanup plan, by the end of November. The Environmental Protection Agency has made 1/31/04 the deadline for submission of a draft plan which has local governmental approval.
Zoning cases: Policy points from three Southwest Ward zoning requests decided this month deserve a brief review.
Clemmonsville Road / Hope Church Road: In this case, a non-resident property owner requested rezoning of a parcel of land in a primarily low-density residential area to permit the location of a car sales lot there. Planning staff recommended denial of the request. The Planning Board, on a split vote, recommended approval. The City Council, on my motion, unanimously denied the request. Two factors affected my reasoning. First, a low-density residential area is no place for a car sales lot—that’s just not a use that blends well with a rolling landscape of ranch homes. Approval of that request would have guaranteed a chain reaction of similar rezoning requests down the long residential stretch of Hope Church Road. Second, the intersection of Hope Church and Clemmonsville Roads continues to be a poorly designed, dangerous junction, complicated by the adjacent rail line and Stratford Road just yards away. Public safety concerns would be ill-served by the increasing traffic from that inevitable chain of rezoning dominoes on Hope Church and the south side of Clemmonsville. The petitioner later commented in a subsequent newspaper article that denial of the car lot represented a missed economic development opportunity. With all due respect, that’s a short-sighted argument—poor planning decisions and more strip development will only degrade our community’s appeal in the recruitment of high-quality industries and long-term jobs.
Flow Motors on Stratford: In this case, an existing car dealership on Stratford Road will get to expand with the rezoning of adjacent property, after a negotiated settlement with the adjoining neighborhood association. The conditions of the rezoning include an improved buffer between the business and residential neighbors, to block intrusion into the neighborhood, as well as construction of additional sidewalk on adjoining streets. Congratulations to the newly-formed Burke Park Neighborhood Association and Flow Motors for working out terms which help both parties.
Westbrook / Hannaford: In this case, a lot on a commercial street, which backs up against a residential neighborhood, was rezoned to allow construction of a small office building. I worked with the neighborhood association (Stratford Manor) and the business petitioner to finalize terms that addressed the neighborhood’s concerns. The terms included satisfactory buffer arrangements and a guarantee against future street opening and cut-through onto the residential Hannaford Road.
Goler lien: In this matter, I inadvertently generated some publicity a few weeks back when I asked that a proposed deal affecting a city lien against property owned by Goler Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church be sent back to the Finance Committee for further work. The city lien in question is for the costs of demolishing a dilapidated building on property now owned by Goler. The demolition took place before Goler acquired the property, and since buying it, Goler has been making payments on the lien. This year, Goler asked for the debt to be forgiven.
The City Council’s Finance Committee had originally recommended that the debt amount be adjusted by retroactively eliminating all interest on the debt, and applying all Goler’s past and future payments entirely to the original principal. The proposed resolution made reference to Goler’s community development efforts, but did not require any specific actions in return for the interest elimination.
I was concerned about the original recommendation, because it did not specify any consideration from Goler in return for that debt reduction. In addition to looking like an uncompensated reduction in a city asset, it would have seemed inequitable to the many owners of about 85 other properties subject to similar demolition-related liens by the city.
I was pleased that my colleagues on the City Council were very receptive to these concerns, and the matter was returned to the Finance Committee for additional review. City staff worked with Goler and presented an amended proposal. The amended proposal eliminates the interest on the debt (about $25 thousand), in return for a commitment by Goler to build $1.8 million of new construction on their property and create at least seven permanent new jobs there.
These terms provide an enforceable public benefit, and make a good example of how we could use adjustments in city property liens to leverage additional economic investment in the community. Like this property, many of the parcels subject to demolition liens are in economically stagnant or depressed areas. Generating new economic development in those areas is good for the neighborhoods and good for the city as a whole. The City Council this week approved the amended agreement.
Constituent service notes: Over the past month or so: The WSPD has operated their radar speed trailer on Harper Street, in an effort to reduce speeding problems there. The city Dept. of Transportation, meanwhile, has re-striped the travel lanes and added raised pavement reflectors on Lockland Avenue, in order to help persuade drivers they need to slow down on that street. The WSPD will increase the frequency of patrols in the Westbrook neighborhood in response to several recent break-ins in homes in the area, and discussions about creating an active neighborhood watch have begun.