Why the Florida Street Extension makes sense for east Greensboro

by Jordan Green

There are hot, strong feelings about the proposed Florida Street Extension near the nanotech campus in east Greensboro. The decision ultimately rests with the board of trustees of NC A&T University, which is being asked give up some land on its research farm to accommodate the new roadway.

There are those who say the project must go forward, those who say the city should scrap the project

and those who advocate that the city reassess and go back to the drawing board. After talking with several people whose opinions I respect, I eventually came down on the side of building the road.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Greensboro voters approved a transportation bond in 2008 that allocates $3.2 million to extend Florida Street past its current terminus at East Lee Street to McConnell Road. The proposed extension would create an intersection near the nanotech campus and the new Gateway Gardens. It would extend Florida Street, which begins at Holden Road in the west, to McConnell Road. An initial plan to align the extension to Franklin Boulevard has been rejected by A&T. But notwithstanding a short dogleg, the extension would still provide a connection between the communities of Glenwood and Smith Homes that flank Florida Street, and East Wendover Avenue.

Based on my sense of urban planning and addressing the historic underdevelopment of east Greensboro through racism and segregation, I would say that the Florida Street Extension is a no-brainer. But I also believe you have to respect the will of the community, and a large segment of the community has vocally opposed the project. It’s not that I have no stake in this “” my mother in law lives on Franklin Boulevard, but Bessemer Avenue more than adequately meets our needs when we go to visit “” but I defer somewhat to those who live east of Church Street.

I think that everyone’s individual histories inform their assumptions and ultimately where they land on major policy decisions such as this. Mine is relatively short. When I covered the successful fight to keep the White Street Landfill closed from 2008 to 2011, I came to appreciate the vicious cycle of how undesirable facilities are dumped on communities that are historically underdeveloped. Landfills, sewage treatment plants and the like undermine the desirability of the area and discourage people from buying homes. Low residential growth, in turn, deters retail investment, negatively impacting quality of life. And so it goes.

I take a stance contrary to YES! Weekly’s editorial position in continuing to oppose the Greensboro Performing Arts Center, which I believe is the wrong priority. For at least a decade, city leaders have emphasized that investment in east Greensboro is key to the city’s overall growth, but residents have been told, in effect, to be patient while marquee projects like the aquatic center and the expansion of the Natural Science Center get fast-track treatment.

Roadway connectivity is, at least theoretically, a key public policy instrument for addressing the longstanding inequity in east Greensboro.

Increasing convenience for people who want to live, work, play and shop in east Greensboro provides new opportunities for residential development and, one hopes, additional consumer demand to attract retail stores that will enhance the appeal of the area.

The university has remained publicly silent about the project. My questions to the administration about the university’s position on the Florida Street Extension and how it would impact its traditional ag program versus enhance the development of its reputation as a center of tech research were met with a curt “We have no updates regarding the Florida Street Extension” from the media relations office. (The insularity, arrogance and lack of communication on the part of taxpayer-funded universities is a subject for another day, I’m afraid.)

While university administration has remained silent, homeowners, not to mention A&T alumni, have not.

Among the most vocal opponents is Sharon Hightower, a longtime community leader who lives on Belles Court in a neighborhood adjacent to the research farm. She said she doesn’t want the noise and pollution, which she fears will undermine the value of her neighborhood.

“You’re gonna build another wasted street that dead-ends into McConnell Road,” Hightower told me. “We already have enough connectivity as far as north-south goes: English Street. I am not for this road. There’s no economic development for the road because A&T is not going to let you build anything on the farm. You’re not going to a nearby grocery store. You’re not going to urgent care. You’re not even going to a library. You’re going nowhere but Innisbrook Village, Roy Carroll’s development.”

The presumed benefits of the road to Carroll, a personal friend of Mayor Robbie Perkins, frequent rezoning applicant and prolific campaign donor, are another wrinkle to this story “” a sideshow, I contend. But for the record, the extension would give highly compensated and transient employees of the nanotech campus a direct route to McConnell Road, the location of a complex of apartments marketed to those who seek “a convenient, luxurious lifestyle.”

Hightower conceded that the Hayes- Taylor YMCA, which is expected to relocate from East Market Street to Barber Park, will create some additional traffic demand, but argued the volume will be minimal and would be adequately met by English Street. It would be tempting to conclude that the benefits of the road are so miniscule in the short term and the project is too disruptive that it’s not worth it, but I can’t quite leave it there.

What Goldie Wells, a former councilwoman and community leader who led the fight against the landfill, told me resonated most deeply.

“The emotional attachment to A&T and the perception that A&T is going to be negatively affected is what’s driving the opposition,” Wells told me. “The plans were developed in 1962, and now the funds are available. I’m very frustrated that we don’t look at the long range. If that road were not going through A&T and if it were not behind Sharon Hightower’s house, then it wouldn’t be a big problem and the alumni at A&T wouldn’t be opposed to it. If they can look futuristically and see where it’s not detrimental to them, it really is in their interest.”

The Florida Street Extension is only “a small step,” Wells argued, yet still an important part of a larger effort to bring more connectivity and vitality to east Greensboro.

“This is just the beginning,” she said.

“There should be a sensibility with the Y being over on Lee Street. That would be a way to get there from Wendover Avenue. With the Franklin Boulevard fire station, if they could get to a fire seconds sooner, it would make a difference.”