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City Council wants to focus on parks, housing, comp plan

City planner Alexandra Hunt describes the downtown façade grant program to Mayor Barbara Volk as City Manager John Connet looks on. City planner Alexandra Hunt describes the downtown façade grant program to Mayor Barbara Volk as City Manager John Connet looks on.

Introducing the city’s planning retreat last week, City Manager John Connet dusted off a list of the City Council’s priorities from four years ago: public rest rooms downtown, done; finish new police station, check; complete public works building at Patton Park, done; act on pay classification study, check; finish the Historic Seventh Avenue District makeover, pending.

“Because of a lack of bidders we’ve not done Seventh Avenue,” Connet said. “But four of the first five we clearly have been able to implement. … We always want to take a little time to celebrate our accomplishments. The social media folks love to use their platform to think about anything and everything” and slam the city over parking, for instance, or minigolf or traffic. “It’s important for us and our morale to think about the great things this organization does.”

In their retreat Friday at the community room of the new police station, council members rotated through five stations covering parks and greenways, development and housing, financing and staffing, public safety, and sustainability, then pitched words and phrases about the city’s assets. On large boards they pasted sticky notes containing problems or issues in the city that the council could focus on: transportation planning, new development’s impact on traffic, design guidelines, building height limits, protecting the tree canopy, appropriating more money for façade grants, combatting graffiti, adopting a new comprehensive land-use plan, affordable housing, a bond issue for parks, a quarter-cent sales tax, increase employee cost-of-living adjustment and merit pay “to keep up,” thank the volunteers who serve on advisory committees, create a parks and recreation department, add bike racks, and so on.

DebbieRoundtreeCouncil member Debbie Roundtree ranks topics during a City Council retreat on March 10.Once the many ideas were posted, council members used colored dots to rank them, based on 5, 3 or 1 point. The highest priority was parks, followed by affordable housing, the comp plan, transportation planning and a quarter-cent sales tax. Of the five highest ranked topics, the city is currently working on two and it can do little more than beg and cajole on the other three.

Currently in the works or in the planning and design stage are a redeveloped Edwards Park and minigolf course at Five Points, the proposed “Above the Mud” fix of the Oklawaha Greenway, the Clear Creek Greenway, a splash pad at the Patton Park pool and the city’s partnership on the Ecusta Trail. City planners, the Planning Board and City Council have already embarked on a major rewrite of the city’s comp plan.

Then there’s the batch the city does not directly control. When it comes to the clogged major thoroughfares, the city is at the mercy of the NCDOT and its glacial pace of improvements or forced to accept setbacks when public opposition sinks solutions like the Balfour Connector or Kanuga Road widening. With limited success, the council tries to persuade developers to include affordable units when they seek the city’s OK to build new multifamily complexes. And the city must seek permission for a quarter-cent local option sales tax from the N.C. General Assembly, which has been resistant in recent years to granting such requests from local governments.

Nonetheless, council's ranking is useful, Connet said, because it helps the staff make a structure to support the work session’s theme: “Building a strong foundation for our growing future.”

“If you had asked me at 7:30 this morning where we were going to end up, this is where I thought,” he said. “The priorities change based on how the community’s changed. The last time we did this, we needed to concentrate on our facilities and provide those facilities. The city’s growing, we’re growing up. As we get closer to 20,000, this is what cities of that size have to think about – transportation planning, parks, development, housing. I think we’re seeing the things that are moving up to the big leagues. I feel good about where we are.”