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Burlington council postpones vote on rezoning request amid row over fate of historically-black business area

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A seemingly innocuous rezoning request set off a passionate debate in Burlington this week, as boosters of one historically black neighborhood seized on this still-pending proposal to harangue the city’s leaders about their deferred dreams for the area’s revitalization.

These simmering recriminations came to a boil on Tuesday when Burlington’s city council held a mandatory public hearing about a rezoning request that Manuel Diaz Marquez has submitted for a tract that the Huffman Oil Company owns at 1038 Rauhut Street.

Formerly home to a gas station, this 1.3-acre parcel has apparently struck Diaz Marquez as a suitable site for a carwash and auto detailing business that his family currently operates along Webb Avenue. Yet, in order to set up shop in this location, he needed to have the property rezoned from its current “neighborhood business” designation, which doesn’t include carwashes among its many permitted uses.

Diaz Marquez went on to request a “limited-use” form of general business zoning that initially specified a carwash or auto detailing operation as the property’s only proposed use. At the behest of the city’s planning department, Diaz Marquez broadened his request to include nine other uses, ranging from childcare to a flea market, a restaurant, a convenience store, and wholesale sales.

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Jamie Lawson, Burlington’s planning director, informed the council that, of these 10 proposed uses, seven are already allowed under the property’s current zoning. Lawson added that the status quo designation leaves a flea market, a wholesale outfit, and a carwash as the only requested activities not presently permitted by right.

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The city’s planning director went on to imply that the proposed zoning change would be a reasonable departure from the property’s traditional use as a gas station.

“In total, there’s 114 uses in the general business zoning district, so this represents about nine percent of the total uses,” she added shortly before Tuesday’s public hearing. “The planning and zoning commission heard this item at their meeting in March and they recommended this item 7-to-0.”

Reasonable though it may be, Diaz Marquez’s request seems to have touched off a firestorm among neighboring residents as well as others with business interests or historical connections to the area along Rauhut Street. In light of this controversy, Burlington’s city council resolved to put off its decision until May 21 in order to give Dias Marquez an opportunity to hold a neighborhood meeting and explain his intentions to the proposal’s detractors.

But before the council voted to table the matter, its members agreed to hear from the near-capacity crowd that was on hand for Tuesday’s proceedings. This invitation was ultimately taken up by 14 audience members – who, by and large, boasted strong connections to Rauhut Street and generally opposed the rezoning request as a presumed obstacle to the area’s revitalization.

Although many of the hearing’s speakers admitted they don’t presently live along Rauhut Street, a large number identified themselves as former residents of this historically black, working class area, which lies to the north of Burlington’s downtown business district.

Jackie Vanhook of Graham urged the council to hold out in favor of a business that would be more of an asset to the community.

Jackie Vanhook

“Rauhut Street is historical. It is a neighborhood site, and anything other than a neighborhood business would take away from the community. . . Just think if you put a computer lab there or a training center – even a restaurant. . . Two little stores can make a big difference in the community. . . Beautify Rauhut Street. A carwash isn’t going to beautify Rauhut Street.”

– Jackie Vanhook

“Rauhut Street is historical,” she added. “It is a neighborhood site, and anything other than a neighborhood business would take away from the community…Just think if you put a computer lab there or a training center – even a restaurant…Two little stores can make a big difference in the community…Beautify Rauhut Street. A carwash isn’t going to beautify Rauhut Street.”

Jeanmychal “John” Thorpe, another Graham resident who said he hailed from Burlington’s “Morningside” area, also argued that a carwash wouldn’t add much to the surrounding community.

Jeanmychal “John” Thorpe

“There is already a carwash in this area,” he said, “and I’m not going to refer to this area as ‘Rauhut,’ I’m going to refer to its by its historical name of ‘Black Bottom’…It would be an extreme disappointment to the residents of that neighborhood if it was going to be another carwash.”

The significance of Thorpe’s reference to ‘Black Bottom’ was later clarified by Shineece Sellars, the director of the African-American Cultural Arts and History Center, who counted herself as “indifferent” to the rezoning request.

Shineece Sellars

“The Black Bottom was an area of thriving black businesses. When the city decided to redevelop downtown Burlington, those businesses were pushed out. . . and they moved to Rauhut Street.

“I’m fairly indifferent to this idea. I want to see businesses in that community again. I want to see traffic, and I want to see money coming in…I want to see how that business will give back to the community because it is very historical.”

– Shineece Sellars

“The Black Bottom was an area of thriving black businesses,” Sellars explained. “When the city decided to redevelop downtown Burlington, those businesses were pushed out…and they moved to Rauhut Street.

“I’m fairly indifferent to this idea,” she added. “I want to see businesses in that community again. I want to see traffic, and I want to see money coming in…I want to see how that business will give back to the community because it is very historical.”

Tameka Harvey, a Burlington resident who is currently for the Alamance-Burlington school board, was more explicit about her suspicion that the rezoning request would depart from the neighborhood’s “historic” character.

“Rauhut Street is historic to us; it is an area where black businesses once thrived,” she added. “Instead of finding ways to erase history, why don’t we find ways to embrace history, and make Rauhut Street part of a national historic district…I have nothing against carwashes, but I don’t want to see a carwash there.”

Meanwhile, Chadea Pulliam, a resident of nearby Richmond Avenue, complained of the numerous black-owned businesses that she said have been “turned away” by the city when they tried to operate in the same part of town.

Chadea Pulliam

“I’m really passionate about seeing Rauhut revitalized. I remember when it thrived, and I think it can thrive again, and I want to see it thrive with black businesses. The decision lies in your hands. They can have a chance. But remember all the other people you turned down.”

– Chadea Pulliam

“I’m really passionate about seeing Rauhut revitalized. I remember when it thrived, and I think it can thrive again, and I want to see it thrive with black businesses,” Pulliam told the council. “The decision lies in your hands. They can have a chance. But remember all the other people you turned down.”

These ruminations about the neighborhood’s storied history, and the largely skeptical response to a Hispanic businessman’s proposed entry into the area, were ultimately broken by an unusually frank admission from area resident Derika Fowler.

Derika Fowler

“I have been raised off of Rauhut. But – unpopular idea – I am not opposed to this carwash.

“I understand that this is a majority black community.  But we have to be accepting. We cannot battle against negativity by being negative. . . Change is hard, and I feel that this is what’s causing the turmoil.”

– Derika Fowler

“I have been raised off of Rauhut,” Fowler informed the council. “But – unpopular idea – I am not opposed to this carwash.”

Fowler went on to suggest that much of the opposition to Diaz Marquez’s plans stems not from any objective concerns about the proposed carwash, but from the ethnicity of the applicant.

“I understand that this is a majority black community,” she added. “But we have to be accepting. We cannot battle against negativity by being negative…Change is hard, and I feel that this is what’s causing the turmoil.”

Fowler’s appeal for the neighborhood to give Diaz Marquez a chance was later reinforced by some remarks from the applicant’s daughter, Fatima Rivera.

 

Fatima Rivera

“I am new. But I want to expand the business and help grow the community.

“I went there and, with my own hands, cleaned up everything, and if you see the area now, it is not what it was a couple of months before.”

– Fatima Rivera

“I am new,” Rivera admitted. “But I want to expand the business and help grow the community.”

Rivera added that her family’s interest in this property has already been a boon for the area, which was previously marred by the presence of the defunct gas station on this rather conspicuous tract.

“I went there and, with my own hands, cleaned up everything,” she recalled, “and if you see the area now, it is not what it was a couple of months before.”

Rivera went on to contend that the proposed carwash wouldn’t necessarily be the extent of her family’s operations along Rauhut Street. She insisted that the various uses which appear in her father’s rezoning request are genuine possibilities rather than mere empty categories added to placate the city’s planning department.

Her assertion on this point ultimately drew some remarks from councilmember Dejuana Bigelow, who is herself a native of this part of the city.

“I respect the hard work you put in…it’s not easy…and I respect that,” Bigelow told the applicant’s daughter. “I just wanted to hear from the community and to hear from you if there are other potential uses aside from a carwash.”

In the meantime, a genial back-and-forth arose between the applicant’s daughter and Chadea Pulliam after Rivera assured the city council that she merely wants an opportunity to make good on her promises.

“We’ve been fighting for opportunities for a long time,” Pulliam said.

“And I want to get started working with you,” Rivera replied before her interlocutor bade her not to forget the other entrepreneurs who she said were previously denied this same chance.

“The backlash is not for you,” Pulliam declared. “It’s because other people have been shut down.”

This detour into questions of equity and its intersection with the complex area of community development eventually prompted Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler to pull the conversation back to the matter at hand.

“I want to remind everybody that this is a zoning matter for the 10 items that are shown [in the request],” the mayor said, “and I don’t want it to morph into a secondary hearing or a neighborhood meeting.”

This reference to a neighborhood meeting echoed an earlier suggestion from councilman Bob Ward, who proceeded to encourage his colleagues to postpone their vote on the rezoning request to facilitate this sort of informal gathering.

“My sense of it now,” Ward added, “is that [a neighborhood meeting] may be beneficial…I think a lot has been accomplished tonight. That being said, I would make a motion that this be tabled to the second meeting of the month.”

The council went on to vote 5-to-0 in favor of Ward’s recommendation to resume the hearing on May 21.

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