GREENSBORO —Who would think that building parking decks — those generic, innocuous concrete and steel structures where we leave our cars for a few hours while we pursue work and leisure — would have strong political implications? As a 30-year resident, I would say “only in Greensboro,” though most cities probably face complicated parking issues despite government’s best efforts to get us out of our cars and in public transit vehicles.
Here’s the background: As part of its ongoing downtown revitalization, the City Council approved so-called “public-private partnerships” to build not one, but two, parking decks to service new hotels and increase the number of public parking spaces.
Mind you, both projects drew criticism from citizens making allegations of crony capitalism. The city will borrow the funds for both decks to reimburse the developers for construction costs and then — if we’re lucky — recoup the money through increased tax revenues and parking fees.
One of the parking deck proposals was relatively unobjectionable. Plans call for a $28 million parking deck/hotel/mixed-use development on the corner of Eugene and Bellmeade streets, across from First National Bank Field, home of the Grasshoppers minor-league baseball team. High-powered developer Roy Carroll insists the project will be anything but generic and innocuous. The parking deck will be a glass structure, and development above it eventually will become the tallest building in Greensboro.
But the other $28 million parking deck project — on Elm and Davie streets, in the heart of downtown —is considerably more controversial. Plans call for both a parking deck and a Westin hotel to be incorporated into the Elm Street Center, an existing meeting and events facility.
The Elm Street parking deck has some extra twists. Next door is the Cone Denim Entertainment Center, where top acts such as the late Gregg Allman and comedian Dave Chappelle have performed. Behind the venue sits an alley — an easement, in government-speak — where performing acts load and unload their equipment trailers.
Club owner Rocco Scarfone claims construction of the parking deck would block one end of the alley, making it impossible for acts to get their trailers in and out. As a result, Cone Denim no longer would be able to draw quality acts, and the business might not survive. In a Facebook discussion, a former local DJ supported Scarfone’s claims, saying he’d “done a bunch of shows at clubs and outdoor parks. Load-in and artist accommodation is a big deal, especially the higher up you go with national and international touring artists.”
Months of negotiations between Cone Denim and the city produced no results, and in December the City Council voted to begin eminent domain proceedings. Cone Denim immediately filed suit, seeking an injunction to block construction.
The lawsuit did not hold back, identifying the principals in the hotel/parking deck project and certain city officials as the “Scheme Participants.” One of the “Scheme Participants” identified in the lawsuit is Kathy Manning, a Greensboro philanthropist who is married to Randall Kaplan, one of the principals in the hotel/parking deck project.
What’s interesting here is Manning — a Democrat — has announced a run for the 13th U.S. Congressional District seat now held by Republican Rep. Ted Budd.
A Budd-Manning race would be awesome. Manning has gone on the offensive with an op-ed in the News & Record attacking Budd’s vote on the tax-reform package. And since we already know what the Democrats’ midterm campaign strategy will be — running against President Trump as much as their actual opponents — it will be fascinating to see how one wealthy individual accused of crony capitalism campaigns by attacking another wealthy individual accused of crony capitalism.
But there are bigger questions. For starters, is parking a core government service? Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland made that case — and thus the case for using eminent domain — when he told the council that the city had been in the parking business for more than 50 years. And is this just another example of a tax-increment financing scheme, where government borrows against future revenues, as High Point is doing to build its $35 million downtown baseball stadium?
Opponents also have questioned the need for both the hotels and parking spaces, citing the occupancy rate of the existing downtown Marriott (59 percent, according to the hotel’s general manager) and the rising popularity of car-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, not to mention future predictions of driverless cars getting us to and fro.
Both the city and Cone Denim have made their case in court, and a judge will decide whether to grant the requested injunction to stop construction. Whatever the judge’s decision, I’m sure Greensboro residents will never look at a parking deck the same again.
Sam Hieb is a Greensboro-based writer and a contributor to the John Locke Foundation’s “Locker Room” blog.