Rejected rezoning at Elm and Cornwallis may come up for vote again

by Jordan Green

The protest petition got its first test run since its restoration in Greensboro by the NC General Assembly in a vote taken during the final working session of the current city council.

The council voted 4-3 in favor of a rezoning request by developer John Stratton III that will allow him to tear down the 1958 Commencement House at the intersection of North Elm Street and Cornwallis Drive and build townhouses in its place. The tally fell short of the six votes needed to reach the 75 percent supermajority required as a result of two adjacent residents signing a protest petition.

At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins, a commercial real estate broker, abstained from the vote because he holds a 12.5-percent stake in the partnership that owns the property. At-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw was absent. City Attorney Terry Wood said she would be counted for the purposes of setting a denominator to establish the threshold for approval.

District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, who lives near the site, lobbied his fellow council members to pass the rezoning. His lame-duck adversary, District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells, staked out the other side, arguing that the modern structure, designed and built by female students from what was then Woman’s College and by architect Edward Lowenstein, should be preserved as a unique and historical structure.

Mayor Yvonne Johnson, who will also retire on Dec. 1, and District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small joined Wells to defeat the rezoning. After a break, Matheny switched his vote to the prevailing side. The maneuver allows him to make a motion for reconsideration during the next two meetings to salvage the development proposal. That is unlikely to happen at the Dec. 1 meeting, which will be a largely ceremonial exercise to swear in the new council. When the council meets again on Dec. 15, it will have four new members.

Matheny has not said whether he plans to make a motion for reconsideration. All the same, his move has prompted speculation and, among some people, anger.

“After a ten-minute break to simply say, ‘I’m going to vote on the other side, so I can bring it up,’ it’s appalling,” said Julie Lapham, an unsuccessful candidate for city council and chair of the Committee on the Status of Women, which passed a resolution in support of preserving the 1958 Commencement House. “It shortchanges everyone, including all the neighbors who are divided on this. I’ve even heard that there are zoning commissioners who wish they had voted differently. This is ram-rodding something to get your way.”

Lapham added, “If this is a sign of how Mr. Matheny and others are going to do business in the future, then I think Greensboro residents need to be on guard.”

Half a dozen preservation proponents, led by Richard Levy, who is Lowenstein’s son-in-law, presented letters of support. Four were written by Woman’s College alumni from the Class of ’58, and one came from State Historic Preservation Officer Jeffrey J. Crow.

Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro championed the house.

“It tells the history of empowerment of women during a time when young women were not often encouraged to seek jobs in traditionally male-dominated professions,” he said. “It tells the history of collaboration, in which a well respected local architect, Ed Lowenstein, teamed with students and contractors to accomplish an extraordinary project that achieved a national profile. It tells the history of modern architecture, in which a house of the 1950s later became a model for a home we playfully recognize today as a ‘Brady Bunch house.’” Crow wrote in his letter to council that “the role of women students likely is unprecedented anywhere in the country.” Vanessa Morehead, a UNCG interior architecture alum, said repair of the house, which has become dilapidated, could cost anywhere from $175,000 to $250,000.

Stratton said if the rezoning is approved he would allow a group interested in preserving the house to haul it off the property. He also said he doesn’t think it’s feasible to keep the house intact if it were to be relocated.

“Regardless of whether we’re successful with rezoning this property, the economics of the property and the current cost associated with development will not allow us to keep this house,” he said. “We will not keep it nor be able to renovate it. The best chance of using any of the house is approving our rezoning and to give those people who are in favor of it 150 days to move, relocate or salvage any part of that house as it stands.”

Stratton placated many of the neighbors by agreeing to reduce the height of the townhouses from three to two stories above ground. The developer said the townhouses will increase the tax value of the property from about $925,000 to about $10 million.

“I hope you will see that you, our city leaders, have given us as developers a charge as we move forward in the city of Greensboro,” Stratton told council. “You ask us to develop quality projects that will well serve our citizens. I think we are doing that…. You ask us to consider infill project and infill property potential. If there ever was an infill project that works, this is it.”