Saturday's Partners Against Crime-District 1 meeting doubled as a Coffee with Council feedback session, part of City Council's annual outreach to citizens during the budget-setting period.
And Council members certainly walked away with an earful of feedback from PAC1 -- particularly from a number of well-connected or activist PAC1 members, including the Rev. Mel Whitley, Vivian McCoy, and others who've been long-time advocates for improvements in East Durham's built environment, crime levels and safety, and economic opportunity.
Reserved for specific criticism were two focal points for complaints. One, the paving of Harvard Ave., stirs up a controversy that's been in the papers frequently in recent weeks; the other, the presence of an inexplicable storage area for road paving materials, seems likely to draw sympathetic frustration at the City's apparent utter failure to solve a fairly simple issue.
The PAC1 forum dedicated the first portion of the meeting for concerns within the district; a series of speakers that included Whitley, McCoy and others brought formal presentations that at times roused vocal support from the 75-plus audience members for investment in the neglected corners of the district.
City-wide issues were reserved for the second half of the session, which ended up squeezing into the last twenty minutes or so of the session at Eastway Elementary.
Whitley opened the meeting by praising the members of Council, six of whom were able to make the session, and by noting that crime rates have been on the decline in East Durham. "We have clean corners, we have less drug dealing. We still have a long way to go, but less prostitution on our streets. And that is wonderful. Thank you so much," Whitley said.
Harvard Ave. Paving: The first criticism of Council, in turn, came from second speaker Vivian McCoy, who had a PowerPoint presentation showing the state of unpaved Harvard Ave. on the projector for the Council and residents to see.
Harvard Ave. has been a flashpoint for controversy in the past year; City Council voted shortly after the 2007 election to use City funds to pave the road, whose improvement is complicated by its narrow width and the presence of a stream underneath it. (A petition effort to pave the road has been stymied in part by a church on the street that doesn't want to pay the assessment to do so.)
Last year, however, the Herald-Sun reported that the funds allocated towards a number of specific street projects (not including Harvard Ave.) in the run-up to an '07 streets and sidewalk bond were going to be diverted to the Harvard Ave. project; the H-S reported recently that that project will likely exhaust most if not all of that funding, with no new funding to be requested in the tight FY10 budget year.
McCoy praised elected officials for their help in securing the funding, claiming at one point that "the mayor finally moved this up to the high priority to get paved" after twenty years of waiting. (Bell noted in the Herald-Sun last summer that the Council voted at a meeting he missed to have Harvard Ave. paved, while adding that it was up to the administration to find the funding.)
The PAC1 presentation noted the presence of a rough gravel covering along Harvard Ave., with large tree roots sticking up into the travel path. McCoy noted residents were also concerned that a heavy rain could lead to flooding on the street.
"These residents should not have to deal with this on a consistent basis after twenty-plus years," McCoy said. The activist raised a number of ideas for ways the City could save money, ranging from cutting salaries for employees making over $100k/year to eliminating financial incentives for businesses to ending the city's use of outside consultants.
Whitley -- himself a resident of Harvard Ave., according to Durham tax records -- noted that there were a number of homes sold back in 1984 off the street, with a promise at the time that the road would be paved. "It's a promise that's been unkept, and we think the city ought to keep it."
City staff present proceeded to the microphone to respond to the issues on Harvard Ave. Public Works director Katie Kalb noted that flooding was actually a concern arising in the engineering work on the street's paving. "In fact, we’ve gotten to a point in the design where we’ve discovered there may be a flooding issue," Kalb said, noting that the agency was dealing with FEMA and its regulations on the matter, as a traditional curb-and-gutter paving on the street could actually worsen the risk of flooding for homes along the street.
Instead, Kalb said, Public Works would likely be coming back to Council with a suggestion of strip-paving the street, a method used in numerous other streets in Durham. "We’re thinking that if we’re going to have a problem with the stormwater and the flooding with using a curb-and-gutter style street, we may not have that some problem" with strip-paving, she said.
Kalb noted that the item would be back before Council soon, and promised an update at the next PAC1 meeting.
City Asphalt Dump in East Durham?: The second complaint on PAC1 leaders' mind at Saturday's meeting had to do with a problem many Bull City residents may not be aware of -- the presence of a dumping/storage area for old refuse from City street-paving activities, stored on some empty lots owned by the municipality near the E.D. Mickle neighborhood center.
"Whenever it rains, whatever's in all that stuff runs down to the creek that's right beside it," one resident complained, noting as well that the gravel and sand pile right next to the E.D. Mickle playground blows dust towards kids playing at the facility. "That's not an official city dump. That's not supposed to be there."
Kalb noted that the Juniper St. site is has been used at the past for this storage, but shouldn't be anymore for new refuse -- though the Public Works director admitted materials were still being stored on the site.
"What you’re seeing there is the result of street pavement work; there is dirt, sand, some old pavement, some railroad ties," Kalb said. "We’re going to eventually be trying to move all of this material, but it’s not an active site."
The answer didn't sit well with several of the City Council members present, who excoriated Kalb in front of clapping residents.
"Oveer five years ago, the community raised the same concern, and I raised it with them. We were promised at that time that we would be moving that mess out of the community," a visibly angry Cora Cole-McFadden complained.
"I’m concerned that action has not been taken, staff was made aware of this a long time ago. People want some specificity," Cole-McFadden added.
Kalb didn't help herself with her answer, which essentially boiled down to the fact that her department hadn't found the $80-100,000 necessary to cover the tipping fees to dispose of the matter at Durham's transfer station. "It’s just a matter of finding the money to pay the staff as well as the tipping fees to move the debris," Kalb said.
I'm appalled when I hear this issue was brought to the attention of city officials five years ago, and it looks – looks – like we’ve done nothing," Howard Clement boomed. "I hope next year at this time we'll be talking about something else," he said.
"Most of us would not tolerate a situation like that in our neighborhood. I'm asking the Council we make this a priority to bring this on the staff," he continued.
City manager Tom Bonfield, noting that Cole-McFadden had brought the item to his attention a month ago, concurred. "I completely agree that this doesn’t belong in anybody's neighborhood," Bonfield said.
Resident Lester Gibson raised a concern about the state of the old Bell Building in the district -- a name he laughingly clarified had nothing to do with the city's mayor. Gibson noted that Neighborhood Improvement Services had worked to find a better solution for the eyesore, but hadn't found any developers interested in rehabbing the structure, or any firms interested in the economic value of the rubble. NIS' Constance Stancil and Bert Crouch concurred, noting it would cost the City $100,000 in tipping fees to demolish and haul away the structure if contractors didn't want to re-use the raw materials. Crouch noted that the structure has passed to heirs, and that NIS is working with them on the building's future.
A point by a resident on lead paint and energy issues led Mayor Bell -- freshly returned from a visit to D.C. where he and fellow mayors met with President Obama -- to mention he had buttonholed Energy Secretary Steven Chu during the trip, and had learned that Durham stood to gain between $1.8 and $2 million in energy efficiency community development block grants from the stimulus package, and that those funds could be used to improve Durham's use of energy resources.
Victoria Peterson shared again her concerns that too few African-Americans were working on Horton School renovations in NECD -- a point she raised in recent Council meetings in a complaint about the nationality of the individuals working on the project.
Kevin Dick from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development noted that the brownfield assessment and remediation training program offered at Durham Tech with the help of an EPA grant was going well, with twenty-three participants (including a number from NECD) looking to graduate, and able to earn jobs paying $11-13/hour with minimal education beyond the program.
Vivian McCoy spoke again to ask about problems with the road barriers installed on Boone St.; kept in place to discourage illicit activities, the barriers have recently been routed around by drivers using the sidewalk and private property/yards to bypass the structures.
Whitley invited Eastway Elementary alum and soon-to-be UNC-Greensboro graduate Donald Hughes to recap the meeting; Hughes closed with a reminder that "this type of meeting truly embodies the spirit of our new president," and recapped the key issues made by PAC1 during the discussion.
Asked by BCR after the meeting about his reported interest in running for City Council this cycle, Hughes did not confirm but clearly did not deny the speculation, adding that while he has a great deal of respect for Durham's leaders, he believed that it might be time for voices from a new generation to work for change.