Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Save College Hill?

This is a post from John Sanford. If you like it you can check out some more of his work at

Who’s in charge of your own life and the future of your community? Some of the wealthy and well-connected in our city don't think you should be. Against a backdrop of school funding being slashed, crowding on campus and your tuition rising higher and higher every semester, as if the administration were trying to build a tower of Babylon out of student debt, in steps a dashing and attractive corporation from Ohio who will solve so many of your problems and do it so quickly. Just don’t ask too many questions. This corporation proposes to destroy the currently dying set of factories that lie between Spring Garden and Market Streets on the way to downtown. In their place, a series of towering and characterless ‘student housing’ apartments will be slapped together. Charging at least $500 per bedroom with some utilities is not exactly ‘affordable’ for those students who don’t have money pouring in from the folks. Many homeowners in College Hill, which fills the area between UNCG, Greensboro College and the edge of downtown, are worried that by suddenly housing over 700 students in the middle of a residential neighborhood you will drastically affect the quality of life for the entire patchwork of students and families that occupies the century-old houses nearby. They have successfully prevented the Zoning Board from approving the development and the issue now moves to City Hall.
Some of this concern is snooty and self-interested: the local homeowners want fewer students leaving beercans, vomit and broken dreams on sidewalks and lawns, fewer loud parties or anything else that resembles college life and also lowers property values, if not rent. The corporation deftly responded to the concerns of this segment of the community by suggesting that if they open this student-complex, then students will flock out of the old houses of College Hill like rats leaving a sinking ship. I’m not so sure that people who enjoy living in unique apartments carved from ancient houses will run to live in a cookie-cutter corporate environment with sturdy fences, even if they offer the advantage of not having mice in the attic. You can choose for yourself.
Choice. That’s really what this comes down to. The corporation must have been shocked and even offended when the College Hill residents began actively opposing the proposed development as soon as it was made public. I’m proud of us for that. The company expected to grease the wheels of a few local political types, throw up some buildings and soon rest on their heels, collecting over a quarter-million dollars per month in rent. Not so fast.
Dying factories do nothing for the community, I won’t argue that. I suppose nearly anything would be preferable and create more tax-revenue. But why isn’t the city, county and UNCG offering a vision for this place? I don’t see why we shouldn’t create a cultural complex, with outdoor theaters, parks and maybe a few wineshops and even some upscale apartments with a view of the downtown. Maybe you’d rather see an elementary school built for neighborhood kids or a monument to the veterans of the Iraq war or all of the above. This is our community. You or future-Spartans will have to live with the results for a long, long time. Our culture has a hard time turning down instant bucks for future rewards. These hastily built student towers will decay, and a less scrupulous company may take over management. They could become ‘ghetto’ and a bigger eyesore than the 1960’s era factories. Even the unimaginative may see the wisdom in placing dormitories there rather than profit-seeking and unaccountable builders. Dorms create revenue which goes back to the university and by extension the citizens of North Carolina. The university’s drug and alcohol policies would be quieter for the neighborhood. Women would be protected by campus regulations against sexual violence, which are in many ways superior to what is offered by city police.
Why should you have to passively accept whatever scheme a well-financed builder or corporation thrusts at you? We are Americans, and we should be free to determine the future of our own neighborhoods.