Greensboro at-large race: Three who would challenge developers

by Amy Kingsley

The seating arrangements for the Greensboro at-large city council candidates’ forum at Peeler Community Center had been worked out well in advance of the Sept. 6 event. The lone incumbent, Sandra Anderson-Groat, anchored one end, and on the other sat challenger Greg Woodard. The 10 remaining candidates filled the vast middle space.

Like poles on a magnet, Woodard and Anderson-Groat seemed to attract like-minded neighbors: Woodard’s end was peopled with political outsiders while Anderson-Groat’s included former members of the city council and Guilford County Commission.

In addition to its imbalance of political experience, the table was also divided along vocational lines. Anderson-Groat, a homebuilder, was surrounded by realtors Kevin Green, Mary Rakestraw – a former county commissioner – and Robbie Perkins, a real estate broker who served on the city council until 2005. The Woodard end was a mixed bag of small business owners, retirees and a clergyman.

Ideologically, candidates from the outsider end were all over the map. But at least among a subgroup of challengers, a strain of anti-development sentiment has coalesced into something of an electoral trend. Sidney Gray, for instance, has made opposition to urban sprawl a key plank of his platform. Joel Landau advocates land use plans that preserve open space, and the Rev. Joe Venable warns about the dangers of gentrification.

Ex-mayor Carolyn Allen said there have been anti-development candidates in the past, but that increased attention to environmental problems has made this year’s crop particularly outspoken – and potentially appealing to disgruntled voters.

“There are probably a number of issues in the world that have motivated people to speak out,” she said. “[The at-large race] may bring folks forward who would rather take care of environmental problems now.”

In District 3, challenger Berkley Blanks has made the most of his opposition to special interests, particularly to developers and their representatives who donate money to council candidates. In the at-large race, voters have the opportunity to stock the council either with developers or their skeptics.

The real estate industry always participates in local elections, Allen said. Their opponents don’t. For their edification, the following is a non-comprehensive look at the crop of candidates who have made controlled growth a central issue of their respective campaigns.

Preserving neighborhood character

Greg Woodard, a retired military man, keeps a single-story house on the south side of town. You can find him there between his various civic engagements, which run the gamut from historic preservation to disabled advocacy. It was at his house that we met on a warm weekday morning.

“When I retired from the military, I knew that Greensboro was as far south as I wanted to go,” said Woodard, a native of Lake George, NY ,”because you still have the seasons here but the winters aren’t as cold.”

Woodard commands Greensboro’s oldest VFW post, and has recently been involved in a task force charged with saving the dilapidated War Memorial Stadium. He’s served on Greensboro’s Neighborhood Congress and the Guilford County Parks and Recreation Committee. As a candidate, Woodard is a self-described parks and recreation guy, someone who sees economic salvation in livable neighborhoods.

“I’m coming from the enjoyment side of the community,” Woodard said. “That means wanting to preserve land and keep neighborhoods enjoyable.”

One of the issues Woodard has with developers is the recent proliferation of high-density development in neighborhoods populated with single-family residences.

“I don’t like high-density in our neighborhoods,” Woodard said. “As we get downtown, we need that density, but out in the neighborhoods, we don’t.”

Mixed-use and high-density development can be good for the city and the environment, he said, when projects are executed thoughtfully. It comes down to preserving the character of Greensboro’s neighborhoods.

“When you have an established neighborhood, sometimes high-density development just doesn’t work,” he said. “You’ve got to be selective where you do your density.”

Like several other at-large candidates, Woodard is concerned with what he perceives to be special treatment for developers.

“My biggest problem is that [real estate lawyer Henry] Isaacson seems to get a rubber stamp,” he said.

The current city council has approved nearly every rezoning request presented by Isaacson, who represents several local developers. Local politicians are too beholden to Isaacson and his ilk, Woodard said.

“They are not protecting the constituents who come to them asking for protection,” he said.

And what about urban sprawl? Woodard opposes it on environmental and economic grounds.

“When you talk about urban sprawl, you are talking about strip malls,” he said. “The more of those you build on the outside of the city, the more money you take away from the malls and downtown that the city has already invested in.”

Conserving natural resources

When Joel Landau took his first crack at city council in 2005, he finished dead last in the run-off balloting. Since then, he’s been racking up victories at city hall, including a recent campaign to cut Greensboro’s greenhouse gas emissions that culminated with Mayor Keith Holliday adding his name to the US Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement.

Landau manages Deep Roots Market, a natural foods cooperative, and met me on a steamy afternoon inside one of the trailers that houses the grocery’s offices.

“I wonder who we have to blame for all this heat,” Landau quipped.

Landau’s development philosophy is closely tied to his environmental activism.

“The nature of development impacts the amount of conservation we are able to achieve,” Landau said. “The more sprawl, the less we conserve open space. And because people are driving more, there is a bigger impact on our air and water.”

Cities are ground zero in battle for a clean environment, a fact acknowledged by the authors of the Mayors’ Agreement.

“Part of the appeal of the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement to our group is that it helps manage finite resources like land, water and air,” Landau said. “And the way it does that is through land-use policy.”

The goal of the agreement is to preserve green spaces and limit sprawl. By promoting more compact development, the city can save water that might otherwise be used to maintain larger lawns.

“I favor infill and compact development to reduce sprawl,” Landau said. “But we have to hold developers to a high standard on these projects. They need to bring neighbors in early and work with them to create a project that everyone is happy with.”

Landau said he would evaluate high-density and mixed-use projects on a case-by-case basis to determine if they conform to neighborhood character. As a member of the planning board, he has approved annexations to fill in the doughnut holes left by previous expansions.

“But I disagree with the philosophy that the city needs to keep expanding outward to be prosperous,” he said. “I think that’s an inherently flawed assumption.”

When the city annexes more territory, it must provide services, which includes building firehouses and police stations that must be staffed and maintained, Landau said. Planners don’t always calculate the long-term cost when they propose an annexation, he said.

“My overriding philosophy is to look out for what’s best for the city as a whole,” Landau said. “Growth for the sake of growth does not appeal to me.”

Preventing gentrification

The Rev. Joseph Venable’s congregation meets in a low-slung house with a clapboard addition on East Cone Boulevard. Even when he’s away from his spiritual home, the stocky resident of northeast Greensboro frames his views on development in the familiar cadences of the neighborhood preacher.

“God made a perfect world,” Venable said. “Think about it. We breathe out carbon dioxide and the trees take it in and release oxygen.”

Venable’s got a problem with a lot of the recent development in Greensboro.

“My major concern is the trees that we’re losing,” he said. “As you know, we have bad air days that make it hard for the elderly, children and people with asthma to breathe. Usually people blame the bad air on cars and industry, but part of it is all the trees we’re losing.”

Too much construction destroys the balance of nature, Venable said. It flushes wild animals into neighborhoods, where they attack pets and infect them with rabies. Fragile species with nowhere to turn simply die out.

All the construction disrupts the urban environment, too. Builders put up new developments despite the fact that old ones lack tenants, Venable said. On Yanceyville Road, not far from Venable’s neighborhood, several new developments have sprung up.

“Those developments will increase traffic,” he said. “And they put them at a price where no low-income people can afford them. Only middle-class people and drug dealers will be able to afford them, so it keeps the rest of the neighborhood down.”

Like Landau and Woodard, he’s got some concerns about Greensboro’s outward expansion.

“It puts a strain on our infrastructure,” Venable said. “We can’t even take care of what we’ve got, and now we’re going to add more?”

Venable worries that new construction is outpacing the demand for housing and retail. The reverend even has a catch phrase that sums up his regulatory philosophy.

“Development should be based on need, not greed,” he said. “Developers will take any stretch of land and put something on it. We don’t need to let that happen.”

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