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A&T hears overwhelming opposition to Florida Street extension project

by Eric Ginsburg

eric@yesweekly.com

It’s been more than 40 years in the making, but the future of Greensboro’s Florida Street extension project is tenuous at best. The half-mile road would run through the edge of NC A&T University’s farm from Lee Street to McConnell road “” if, that is, the school’s board of trustees decides the project should move forward. If last week’s special board committee meeting is any indication, it doesn’t look promising.

The board held an open meeting April 5 to hear from university officials, the city and the public about the project, which is designed to increase economic development in east Greensboro but that many say would jeopardize the mission and goals of the university’s farm. Board members nodded sympathetically as a dozen people expressed their opposition to the road extension and questioned what the school and city would gain from the extension.

The Florida Street extension project near Interstate 40 was originally put forward by the city in 1967 but dropped off the map until around 2000, he said. The city didn’t really discuss the issue with university administrators until 2005 with serious discussions beginning in 2012, A&T Chancellor Harold Martin said.

The school didn’t consider the road in the A&T Preeminence 2020 long-term plan, but Martin said administrators realized in retrospect that the city required A&T to build a four-lane service road to the new adjacent nanoscience center, which he described as an “interesting imposition” that lacked transparency because the school wasn’t aware that it was designed to lay the groundwork for the road extension.

The farm, which Martin called “the university’s largest classroom and laboratory,” is the cornerstone of the school’s agriculture program that the school hopes to increase from 900 students to 1,200 in the next several years. Agriculture Dean William Randle said three departments and 26 courses use the farm’s 33 buildings and 492 acres, adding that the school’s community programming and agricultural extension office in more than 50 North Carolina counties are major assets. While the proposed road wouldn’t directly impact some of the farm’s research and strengths, Randle doesn’t support the project cutting into the farm’s grazing area.

“It’s our position in the school [of agriculture] that the farm needs to remain where it is,” Randle told the board. “We have to make sure we keep the farm relevant.”

Randle said it was common for schools’ farms to be under “constant development pressure,” explaining how other university’s he had worked at had failed and succeeded to maintain their farms, and cautioned the board to consider the value of the land’s current use and the need to expand the department’s operations.

The four-lane road with bike lanes would affect 2.7 acres of the farm, Martin said, adding that this is the least intrusive plan the city has put forward after discussing the development with the school over the last few years. Other proposals connected Florida Street to Franklin Boulevard at the intersection with McConnell Road but were scrapped after school officials expressed objections that it was too invasive. Some ran through land now occupied by the joint nano-science school.

“Obviously even this connecting road causes us concern too,” Martin said.

The primary benefits of the extension would be greater connectivity of roadways and increased opportunity for economic development, City Manager Denise Turner Roth and Jim Westmoreland, the assistant city manager, said at the meeting last week. The project effectively ceased in 2005 because the proposals weren’t agreeable to A&T, Westmoreland said, but increased funding made available in a 2008 bond referendum helped put the extension back on the city’s agenda.

Connecting Florida Street to McConnell Road would increase access to Barber Park, the Gateway University Research Park and Gateway Gardens while creating opportunities for growth in the vicinity, Westmoreland said. Infrastructure like roads is a primary way the city can encourage development, he said. The project is part of a larger plan to extend roads in east Greensboro, which historically been underdeveloped. Numerous city council members have argued over the years that the city needs to do more to increase economic development opportunities in that portion of the city.

In her 2012 annual report, Dianne Bellamy-Small, the councilwoman representing the southeastern part of the city where the A&T farm is located, called for the Florida Street extension project to be completed and elaborated on the need for increase transportation accessibility in her district.

“While the area has good local road access”¦ its connectivity through interstates and major roads is perhaps the worst in the city and effectively cuts off access to the entire eastern and northern part of Greensboro,” the report reads. “E. Cone Boulevard’s ability to connect to E. Florida Street (through Nealtown and Ward Roads) and I-840’s ability to connect from the southeast are both needed to improve access from and to the east and make the east an attractive retail environment.”

Bellamy-Small could not be reached for this article and no council members were present at the trustee’s meeting.

Connectivity of roads has directly contributed to development in other parts of the city, Westmoreland said in an interview, citing mixed-use development near South Elm/Eugene and the Urban Loop as an example. A 2012 economic feasibility study recommended that additional transportation access for increased connectivity was necessary in east Greensboro, Westmoreland said, but a specific economic impact study on the Florida Street extension project hasn’t been conducted and isn’t typical for a road construction project.

“From a traffic perspective today, there isn’t a specific need for this road,” she said.

In the meeting, Westmoreland said he thinks the city would be willing to work with A&T on costs for relocation of any aspects of the farm such as fencing or need for increased cow grazing areas.

Roth acknowledged that nearby residents are strongly opposed to the plan, and some spoke at the meeting saying the school would “get no return” and saying it would “inundate” McConnell Road with traffic and “destroy” the area. Many said they were concerned the road would act as a gateway to future incursions on the farm and said they felt the city was trying to move forward in spite of opposition on A&T’s campus and in the nearby community. Chancellor Martin repeatedly stated that the final decision rests with the university’s trustees, and Westmoreland said the city would respect the board’s decision.

“There is not an intention to force this road on A&T State University,” Westmoreland said.

Residents, students, staff and alumni argued that the road extension would not only compromise the farm but was an unnecessary and wasteful project. Without the $3.2 million extension, the current route from the end of Florida Street to the desired spot on McConnell Road takes approximately 2.5 minutes About 70 community members attended the meeting, and none spoke in favor of the road. A&T alumni Lewis Brandon called it a “road to nowhere” and said that the farm is an important resource to maintain, partly because agriculture is the state’s largest industry.

Sharon Hightower, president of the adjoining College Forest neighborhood association, asked what the ulterior motive for the project is and what A&T stands to gain. Attendees complained that students hadn’t been notified about the meeting, with one student saying she was frustrated the project seemed like it could move forward even though students are organizing against it.

The board’s special committee will continue deliberating the issue at an April 10 meeting that will be public but will not include an opportunity for comments. The committee is scheduled to make a recommendation to the full trustees’ board at its April 19 meeting. The city council doesn’t have a timeline yet for when it will take up the issue again, but Westmoreland said the city is waiting for A&T’s board to decide first. If the city and university elect to move forward, attendees said they will be left with one primary question: What’s next?

Roth, the city manager, said the whole point of the project is access and encouraging future development.

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