Coalition doesn’t feel friendly towards development

by Eric Ginsburg

The irony wasn’t lost on the residents of Northeast Greensboro attending the Citizens for Economic & Environmental Justice last month: While people in east Greensboro have been courting grocery chains to build a store in their vicinity, a developer intends to open a third grocery store in the Friendly Shopping Center area, and the residents nearby don’t want it.

Under the banner of the Friendly Coalition, hundreds of residents are mobilizing against a rezoning request for a site at the intersection of Friendly Avenue and Holden Road because they don’t want expanded commercial development in their neighborhood, which some fear could transform the area to look more like Battleground Avenue in the future. Meanwhile, northeast residents easily rattle off a list of empty storefronts that could house a grocery store in a more accessible location.

The Friendly Coalition held its second community meeting on Sunday with around 125 people in attendance. Organizers estimated the first meeting at 300 and said 250 people attended a rally in dismal weather. Five hundred yard signs against the development have been sold, but organizers say countless signs have been stolen at night. The meeting focused on the possible traffic problems from a new development, possible legal action, and updating people on the process.

Residents like coalition co-chair Mark O’Connor say Regency Centers, a Florida-based firm that specializes in development anchored by grocery stores, started a rumor that Trader Joe’s could be the anchor. That rumor has muddied the water, obfuscating the real issue, O’Connor said.

The developer had until March 3 to file a rezoning request with the city’s planning department in order to go before the zoning commission next month. No request was filed, and consequently the process will be pushed back at least another month.

A spokesperson for Regency Centers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Led by former councilwoman Goldie Wells, Citizens for Economic & Environmental Justice members decided to send a letter to the Friendly Coalition expressing support for the neighborhood’s right to have a voice in development happening around them.

The exact wording of the letter wasn’t determined, but District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small recommended that it explicitly say residents would welcome a Trader Joe’s in east Greensboro in addition to supporting the residents on the west side. O’Connor hadn’t received the letter or heard from the group by March 3, but still echoed a similar chord.

“We have areas in Greensboro that don’t have any grocery stores.

It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Our point has always been its location. We have plenty of immediate occupancy locations that would be perfect for Trader Joe’s. The real issue is commercial encroachment.”

O’Connor, whose backyard abuts the proposed development site on the corner of Hobbs and Friendly, said the neighborhood has no need for commercial development because all their needs are met at the existing shopping center, and that the developer just wants to “piggyback” on the success of the shopping center.

“Do you think my wife and I would have bought this house if we thought this would happen?” O’Connor said. “It’s one of the biggest investments a person could make. They’re going to ruin the neighborhoods if they were to do that.”

Former mayor Keith Holliday, who lives near the site and attended both public meetings, said the residents of Hobbs Landing Court, where O’Connor lives, invested around $10 million in their homes since the area was built three years ago.

Holliday actively opposed reopening the landfill and said he saw some similarity between the two issues, as did at large at-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, who also attended both meetings. Abuzuaiter and District 4 Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann both said the issue was about neighborhoods for them.

“If they really want to be a good partner to Greensboro, there are other very good locations,” Hoffmann said at the CEEJ meeting. Councilwomen Yvonne Johnson, Abuzuaiter and Hoffmann, who were at the meeting, all said they spoke with the developer for the proposed site.

After 14 years of begging for a grocery store to locate in east Greensboro at different sites like Phillips Avenue, Wells said it might be time to consider a one-day boycott of grocery chains. Wells’ suggestion was met with resounding support from the 50 people in attendance.

“If we shut down with our dollars, there would be some action,” Wells said.

Residents in the Friendly Coalition are ready for a fight as well, vowing not to compromise on any commercial development because it could open up the opportunity of other sites, including at Friendly and Holden where residents recently defeated a commercial rezoning request.

Like their counterparts across town who fought the landfill, the Friendly Coalition is using a two-pronged approach, mobilizing community support to lean on the zoning commission and city council and threatening legal action.

In a letter sent Feb. 29 to the developer’s lawyer, Henry Isaacson, residents expressed their intent to try and enforce covenants on the six parcels of land in question, which they say permanently bars any development that isn’t single-family residential use. Isaacson had not responded by the Sunday meeting, but an opposition lawyer said they expect one soon.

If the proposed rezoning goes before the zoning commission and is approved, O’Connor said they would file a protest petition and bring the issue before city council. There, the developer would need a supermajority, seven out of nine votes, to move forward, O’Connor said.

Even if opponents win this fight against commercial rezoning near his house, O’Connor said the Friendly Coalition isn’t going anywhere, because they anticipate fending off future commercial rezoning requests for years to come.