Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The WSM situation is resolved, but let’s keep the discussion going

As published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, October 28th:

A lot of the civic discourse in Carrboro recently has been about green space and public open space. The most prominent example of this is the Weaver Street Market dancing controversy, which was recently resolved happily, in large part due to extensive public input about the situation.

One positive impact of that dialogue was that it got more people thinking about the importance and meaning of putting beautiful spaces in the community to use for the public good. As with the WSM situation, public participation and input will be vital to the success of the ongoing Carrboro Greenspace initiative, and the Greenways Summit the town of Carrboro is holding today at the Century Center.

A quick look back at the resolution of the "Dancing Man" controversy shows the impact citizen activism has on public space. Early on many folks in Carrboro made it very clear that curtailing Bruce Thomas' dancing on the lawn was unacceptable to them and took action on their concerns. Their letters to the editor, organizational meetings and dance-ins showed the support behind their cause.

When Mayor Mark Chilton and Alderman Dan Coleman took up the issue of the WSM lawn as a place that should be used for the public good, it was clear that they were representing the community's values. When negotiations got dicey, Coleman, a former WSM board member, worked closely with Weaver Street's Ruffin Slater to work out creative solutions. That gave them a lot more leverage in negotiating with Carr Mill Mall's owners, who wanted to see the mall remain as the focal point of downtown Carrboro.

Because citizens had been so active early in the process, it put more pressure on the owners to approve a compromise that would be acceptable to Chilton and Coleman and by extension the folks they represent. That's how we ended up with a solution that allows Bruce to dance, while also making Weaver Street Market a hub for voter registration and other important community causes.

The elected officials did a great job standing up for their constituents, but more importantly citizens did a great job of advocating for themselves, giving their representatives a stronger leg to stand on in negotiations.

One can hope this level of citizen participation will continue in another important community cause dealing with public land use right now, the Carrboro Greenspace initiative. This deals with protecting a beautiful piece of land on Old Pittsboro Road in downtown Carrboro, which is currently facing the threat of development.

I walked the site one day earlier this week and came away impressed. There is a stream on the site, and the day after a significant rainfall it was running faster than any body of water I've ever seen in Orange County. It is also the site of Carrboro's historic "Sparrow Pool," which was in use for swimming by the public into the 1960s. It's been converted into a great space for outdoor theater, movies and gatherings.

There is also a house on the property, currently rented out, which would be converted to an environmentally friendly community meeting space.

In my role as political chair for the local Sierra Club, I frequently struggle with finding good places to hold various meetings. The plans for renovating this house sound like they would make it an ideal gathering place for community groups concerned about the environment.

It would be a tragedy to lose this beautiful space in downtown Carrboro, but it will take a great deal of community participation in order to save it for public use. If you're interested in getting involved, you can get more information by e-mailing carrborogreenways@riseup.net.

Another way citizens can get involved in discussing the future use of public spaces in Carrboro is today's Greenways Summit. This event was organized by Aldermen Randee Haven-O'Donnell and Jacquie Gist as a way to get public input on how the town should plan for and manage its greenways.

The meeting featured a keynote address by Sig Hutchinson, a Raleigh resident who has been a major force in promoting greenways in the Triangle over the years.

Communities around the country are increasingly seeing the importance of greenways both to preserve natural beautiful spaces for the public good and to promote alternative modes of transportation for both personal fitness and environmental reasons.

This summit is a great opportunity for citizens to help shape future initiatives in Carrboro. If you can't make it today, you can send feedback to greenwaysummit@townofcarrboro.org.

The Weaver Street Market dancing controversy was a high-profile example of how citizen activism can effect change.

It is up to you to ensure the dialogue it created about public spaces continues, and the Carrboro Greenspace initiative, as well as the town's Greenways summit, are two great ways for citizens to continue having an impact in these discussions.



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