So I decided to go to the USA-Canada game at the DBAP last night, and to just TiVo the City Council meeting. "Surely the meeting won't run past 11:45pm," thought I when setting the DVR.
Ah, was I ever wrong. The recorded program cuts off in the midst of an interesting developer tete-a-tete over the development of the old Witherspoon Rose parcel down by Patterson Place, so it'll be off to the Web version to bring details on that project and other late-meeting items tomorrow.
Yes, it was a long night for Council last night -- though an evening enjoyed in slightly upgraded digs, with a new A/V system, projection and capture cameras providing a better view within and outside the City Council chambers. A plus: the TV broadcast on DTV 8 is now much clearer and attractive than before, down to the ability to pan-and-scan the cameras.
Highlights of the night:
- Chief Lopez noted that crime is on a 3% year-over-year reduction track, a welcome sign given the macroeconomic upward pressure on crime levels. Violent crime is up 9% year to year, though much of that seems to be linked to the string of armed robberies coming from a few suspects earlier in the year.
- The Fairfield at Hillandale project was approved on an 5-2 vote, with only Bill Bell and vote-doppelganger Cora Cole-McFadden opposed. (Ray Gronberg points out, in the neutral-but-intriguing insider tone he pulls off well, that property owner George Beischer was a prominent backer of Thomas Stith's campaign last year.)
- Tom Bonfield's Aug. 11 start date is official by a vote of the Council. As of today, the Bonfields don't appear to be property owners in the Bull City, though we'd expect a house-hunt to be on the docket for the new manager's first few months.
In Council business, the street closing between Broad and Iredell was pulled from the agenda, as John Schelp announced here yesterday; a number of other street closures in support of the County's recombination of parcels and demolition of buildings for the ever-popular surface parking lot, on the other hand, passed the consent agenda and are on their way for a September 2 public hearing.
Crime Report: Chief Lopez presented the second-quarter crime report, though not missing an opportunity to lobby for improved facilities -- making the chief two-for-two in working such items into the crime reports. He noted that the deferred maintenance work on the central police HQ is halfway done, but that contractors "have faced repeated problems" with aging plumbing and ductwork in the one-time insurance company offices.
The District 1 substation is still seeking a new home due to mold and ADA issues in the Joyland shopping center, Lopez added, while hinting that District 3 might look for a new home as a lease extension has not been approved by the landlord.
The chief stressed that the city's reliance on leasing space from shopping centers and the like was a burden on "That's why we keep mentioning the need for the city to own its own police community facilities. I think the community deserves to have its own police facilities... and not dependent who has it there for profit and not for the good of the community."
Councilman Clement focused in on the District 4 substation at the UDI/Food Lion location on Fayetteville St. Lopez noted that a unified station owned by the City for District 3 and 4 combined as a southside operations center would be a solution, though Clement intoned that the location in the PAC4 area was a "godsend" to the local area, and that he'd hate to see the substation move far. (Look for this to be a point of some touchiness in general if the substation combination comes back up.)
Lopez stated there are currently only 25 vacant sworn positions on the D.P.D., though with 44 officers in some stage of the recruitment process (such as training), by my calculations the actual vacancy rate in terms of officers-on-the-ground is 13%, not the 5% noted. Lopez did note the presence of 18-20 recruits in the next Durham police academy group.
Comparing the murder rate for year-to-date, and balancing out cases where crimes were committed in '07 but victims died in '07, the murder rate is on track with the past two years', significantly below 2005's notably-high count. Three-quarters of the homicide cases from this year have been closed. Reported rapes are down significantly versus '06/'07 numbers.
Property crime reductions account for much of the reduction in overall crime, with violent crime up 9%, and with robberies up 43% since 2005. Lopez pinned the increase on sprees of armed robberies committed by a few groups of youth, including the North Durham teens arrested recently and accused of crimes throughout the Triangle (including a number of assaults and harassments in a conspicuous Toyota 4Runner around the Watts-Hillandale/Trinity Park area.)
Lopez also noted a significant impact on crime in the Operation Bulls Eye area in East Durham, with crime down there by 18% year-over-year, versus the 3% citywide rate. Robberies, aggravated assaults with firearms, and burglaries/larcenies all down over 20% year over year. According to Lopez, $220,000 in overtime spending on the effort has led to 1,816 warrants served and 89 drug buy busts.
Councilman Ali asked Lopez whether the new chief had any intent to reduce the focus on Operation Bulls Eye, an initiative of his predecessor. "As I see it, it's a very viable program. It's one that I think works," said Lopez. "It's not a one year program. We're hoping we can lock in a lot of the social services programs, and a lot of the other partners, get them to step up also to deal with the root cause of problems in that area."
The chief also highlighted efforts to crack down on copper and precious metals thefts, which have haunted everyone from developers and remodelers to auto owners who've had anything from catalytic converters to the entire vehicles flagged. The D.P.D. has assigned two full-time investigators to what Lopez described as a "regional" problem, and Lopez noted that repeat offenders were being turned away from the six local scrap recyclers -- though a number of the perpetrators were moving instead to other cities with their material.
Councilman Brown asked the chief whether the pay level for D.P.D. officers is now high enough after this year's budget increase. "I really would have to look down and see what the region's doing, now that the new budget is coming up for many [other cities], to see what the pay rate is now for regional police departments."
Fairfield at Hillandale: Up next, one of the more contentious zoning issues this year, a proposal to rezone a parcel just north of I-85 east of Hillandale to support a 240-unit apartment complex. The proposal had drawn a strong negative reaction from homeowners in the 1960s-era ranch-style homes just north of the site, many of whom have objected to the idea that what was once a solidly suburban neighborhood is now distinctly within the urban tier of Durham according to the Comprehensive Plan.
Early in the meeting, a protest petition on the Fairfield at Hillandale -- which would have required a supermajority of the Council's support for the rezoning -- was ruled to be invalid "due to the removal of signatures," according to City Clerk Ann Gray. (The H-S report on the rezoning notes that the development team had a lobbying effort underway in the neighborhood to convince residents of the project's benefits, and to remove their signatures from the protest petition.)
The development team also provided a traffic impact analysis -- an issue of some earlier controversy as the project fell one under the vehicular-traffic limit that would demand TIA. Changes from the May 2008 meeting where Council deferred a vote on the project included the creation of a bus shelter and an agreement to build a pool and clubhouse after the first of the buildings in the project get their certificate of occupancy.
City/County Planning recommended approval of the rezoning, while the Planning Commission recommended denial by a 10-1 vote in February.
The development team claimed that this project's improvements to Bertlan in concert with NCDOT's proposed Hillandale improvements would give improved, not degraded, traffic and connectivity for the neighborhood.
The team also noted local homeowner's fears of increased crime in the area; data from The Verge and Copper Mill apartments, which the team's attorney claimed was the most directly-comparable properties given the price plans for the apartments, showed zero crimes during the past eighteen months.
Thirteen neighbors rose to speak about the project, many focused on the nature of renters being added to a small home-owning suburban area. "Adding 240 units that are filled with renters, and not homeowners, is going to severely impact our quality of life," said one Alabama Ave. homeowner. "Our homes can't possibly be as quiet, our home values are going to most likely go down... our safety and security cannot be promised, and these people are renting, they're not as invested in the community as we are, and they're probably going to outnumber us in this small area."
Another Alabama resident added, "It's like an oasis in the midst of all the traffic, all the roads."
Laura Suski, an Omah St. resident and the key organizer of the opposition on the project, noted the Council's decision "affects every day of the rest of our lives, and the quality of every moment of every one of those days."
"It's difficult to comprehend that our city doesn't care, and that they don't care about our family environment and our neighborhoods within the city limits," Suski said.
The development team also noted that the Croasdaile development, one of the most expensive in Durham, has multiple apartment complexes (of different price levels) in adjacency. Its attorney also stressed that while the requested zoning was higher than the current zoning, it was at the midpoint for the level of density called for on the site in the Comprehensive Plan.
Councilwoman Catotti asked City staff if they agreed with the traffic analysis; a representative of the city noted no disagreement, and that Bertland would not warrant signalization without the traffic generated from the apartments. While agreeing that there wouldn't be "no" north-south traffic on Omah, the Bertland-Hillandale signal would add new access to and from the neighborhood.
After the full debate, the project got the support of five councilfolk. Bill Bell noted his concerns over supporting the plan, given the 10-1 vote of the Planning Commission against the project. Cora Cole-McFadden joined Bell in opposition, though having stated moments before Bell's statement that given the new committed elements, "even though I do have some ambivalence, I might just support it."
As the H-S report notes, the idea of a neighborhood sitting as an "oasis" on the edge of a dense urban area came under some scrutiny from some members of Council:
"This site is in the urban tier," Councilman Eugene Brown said, referencing the term officials use for tracts in the city or in areas the city is likely to annex. "This site, whatever goes here, will not contribute to urban sprawl [and] will not contribute to more and more environmental hazards from cars as if it was out five or 10 miles in the county."
Brown also decried rhetoric on the part of neighbors that stigmatized renters.
"In the urban tier, folks, we share the oasis," he said.
Brown took offense to the use of "us" vs. "them" in describing renters, a theme that often arrives in neighborhood-apartment conflicts. Brown also noted that the current zoning could allow a less-attractive project than what was proposed without necessarily improving Bertland in the process.
Councilman Farad Ali joined Brown, Catotti, Mike Woodard and Howard Clement in supporting the project.
Line of the night: "One of the other important changes... you'll notice something missing up there, and that's that old dinosaur of a voting machine. It's gone, it's gone, and that's a good thing, because it was old!" pointed out the City's Beverly Thompson. "I hope that's not the reason you got rid of it," Council long-timer and senior citizen Howard Clement rejoined. (As Jim Wise points out on the N&O's Bulls Eye blog, though, the new voting system didn't come off without a hitch.)