This week, the city gave Greensboro College permission to tear down a character-defining feature of a historic building on campus without going through the Historic Preservation Commission. The college says the smokestack on its old power plant was hit by lighting in June 2019. Months later, the school suddenly says the smokestack is unsafe and the city’s historic-district regulations must be bypassed so it can demolish the stack immediately. The city staff rushed to do the college’s bidding (compare that to the response residents and neighborhoods typically receive when they try to get the city to do anything).
The college did nothing about any damage to the smokestack for more than six months, and now they claim to have such a public-safety emergency that action must be taken immediately, conveniently bypassing established procedures for such action. The city’s historic preservation staff and a building inspector didn’t bother to consider whether the stack should be repaired immediately, rather than demolished. They also didn’t bother to consider concerns raised by two HPC members and the college’s well-established history of flouting historic-district regulations.
Based on the college’s past actions — and its eight months of inaction on this supposed emergency — its claim regarding the smokestack cannot be taken at face value.
For example, last year, it cut down seven trees on campus without getting the required approval from the historic-preservation staff or HPC. When they were called on it, they came to the Historic Preservation Commission with no documentation or any evidence supporting their claim that the trees were dead and had to be taken down. Click here for the after-the-fact application filed by Greensboro College for a certificate of appropriateness to cut down the trees. It tells you all you need to know about how much respect the college has for the city (it also says something about the professionalism of Greensboro College officials). And the lack of any penalties for their actions tells you all you need to know about how seriously the city takes its historic district regulations.
Another relatively recent example: A couple years ago, the commission gave the college permission to put up a digital sign within the historic district on Market Street, subject to specific restrictions that the college agreed to. As soon as the sign went up, the college began operating it without regard to the restrictions. They stopped only when a member of the HPC asked the city staff to enforce the restrictions.
There’s no doubt that the smokestack is damaged and needs repair. Whether it constitutes an actual public-safety danger that warrants immediate demolition, as the college claims after eight months of inaction, isn’t as clear. All we have is the word of an institution with a history of acting in bad faith. But that’s enough for the city staff. Unsafe housing complaints may take months or years to resolve, but a city inspector will race right to the scene to bypass historic-preservation oversight and give Greensboro College what it wants, when it wants. That’s quite a contrast to the city’s response to College Hill residents’ complaints about the unsafe speed of traffic on South Mendenhall Street — years of obstruction and resistance.
The campus is in the historic district. The building is on McGee Street, directly across from Wafco Mill in the old industrial section of College Hill. The power plant is a historic building, and the smokestack, obviously, is a character-defining feature. The college has already informed the city it has no plans to rebuild it if it is torn down. Not for the first time and not for the last, the city shrugs its shoulders and says, “Sure, why not?”
This blog post reflects the opinions of its author and may not represent the views of the College Hill Neighborhood Association.