The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen is now very nearly in the books, after we dispense with the binge eating and football watching and familial squabbling and borderline alcoholism that the holiday season brings with it. And, if we’re being honest, that thought doesn’t make us sad. Much of the news this year sucked: mass shooting after mass shooting, including one in Chapel Hill; cringe-worthy debates over the merits of Confederate monuments; the inexplicable replacement of esteemed UNC president Tom Ross with Dubya lackey Margaret Spellings; the passing of Dean Smith and UNC’s cheating scandal; basically everything the Legislature did.
Oh sure, some good stuff happened, too: Coach K bagged win No. 1,000 and a national championship; the Carolina Panthers are kicking all kinds of ass; Durham finally kicked Police Chief Jose Lopez to the curb; Raleigh got Dix Park squared away; we got a new Star Wars movie. But trying to find a silver lining to a year that saw Donald Trump become a legitimate presidential frontrunner (!) is like trying to find a diamond at the bottom of a Porta-Potty: You have to first wade through a whole bunch of shit.
Still, like Monty Python, we always look on the bright side of life. And so the turning of the calendar gives us hope for a brighter tomorrow, hope that will probably be crushed the day Ted Cruz wins Iowa.
But for now, let’s take one mercifully final look in the rearview at the year’s most importantor at least most talked aboutstate and local stories. And then let’s never speak of 2015 again.
In the end, it was a lot of sound and fury signifying almost nothing. But for a couple of months this summer, the debate over Raleigh’s sidewalk-drinking restrictions seemed poised to consume the fall’s Council elections, even though there were clearly further-reaching issues at play (e.g., the Unified Development Ordinance). It didn’taggrieved bar owners, who rallied under the banner Keep Raleigh Vibrant, largely failed to alter the election’s trajectory. But what came to be known as #drunktown, a name owing to an asinine late-game ad campaign financed by Raleigh businessman Dean Debnam, nonetheless generated considerable heat.
City staffers first proposed the new sidewalk-drinking rulesmodeled after Austin’s, as all things in Raleigh must apparently bein June, but the debate started months before that, when Empire Properties proprietor Greg Hatem and some downtown condo-dwellers began complaining that the bars’ noise had rendered downtown “unlivable.” And even after Council, in November, conceded that it had gone too far, walked back the weekend sidewalk curfew it had passed three months earlier and promised to look anew at occupancy limits, it seems unlikely that the central point of contention undergirding this messthat is, what kind of downtown does Raleigh really want to havewill pass from the main stage anytime soon.
The governor’s prison scandal
Earlier this month, Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign website began hawking $5 bumper stickers that read, “I don’t believe the Raleigh News & Observer.”
Indeed, McCrory’s longstanding beef with the N&O is by this point pretty well established.
Actually, he has beef with much of the state’s media: Earlier this year, for example, the INDY joined a coalition of news organizations suing the governor and his administration over their handling of public-records requests. But McCrory has fumed at the N&O in particular over that paper’s reporting on a meeting the governor brokered for his pal and political backer, Charlotte developer Graeme Keith, who was seeking to renew a $3 million prison-maintenance contract.
Long story short: McCrory, we learned, intervened over the objections of state prison officials, including Secretary of Public Safety Frank Perry, who said his staffers thought having outsiders handle maintenance posed a security risk. At the meeting McCrory facilitated, the N&O reported, Keith informed state officials that he “had given a lot of money to candidates running for public office and it was now time for him to get something in return.” Perry eventually bent to what he called his “marching orders” and extended the contract. The FBI is investigating.
And how did the governor react to the newspaper’s reporting? By lashing out at the big, bad, liberal media, of course.
Legislature kills light rail, screws the environment
There’s nothing like a stretch of sunny, 70-degree days in mid-December to remind us of the realities of global climate change. Could there be a more fitting backdrop to revisit the Legislature’s disastrous track record on environmental policy in 2015? Our lawmakers let the Renewable Energy Tax Credits expire. Our governor signed into law a bill that lets polluters off the hook, scales back protections for wetlands and streams and shuts down half of the state’s air-quality monitors. The state negotiated the sweetest of sweetheart deals with Duke Energy on coal ash, and North Carolina won’t be complying with the federal clean power plan, thank you very much.
Added bonus: Expect the assault on Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards to resume as soon as lawmakers return to Raleigh this spring.
To add insult to injury, the Legislature passed a bill slashing the state’s support of the long-awaited Durham-Orange light rail plan to $500,000, because we can’t have nice things. (This provision may be revisited in next year’s legislative session, so hope springs eternal.)
Not only is this bad PRwhy would clean-energy companies want to come here if this is the way our lawmakers behave?but dirty air and polluted water threatens public health and the natural habitats of animals. Nice work, guys.
Legislature goes full culture warrior
If you’re gay, or a woman or an immigrant, state lawmakers gave you the legislative equivalent of a fat lump of coal this yearyou’re welcome! It began with Sen. Phil Berger’s “religious freedom” bill for magistrates who don’t want to officiate same-sex weddings. That bill, passed over the governor’s veto, came as a response to a 2014 federal court ruling that struck down Amendment One. But then, the U.S. Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land in June, and, unsurprisingly, the state is now being sued over Berger’s Senate Bill 2.
Also in June, North Carolina women got the gift of a 72-hour waiting period before they can access an abortion, apparently so they can have a nice, long think about their life choices or whatever. That’s insulting to women’s intelligence, medically unnecessary, and, in signing the bill, McCrory broke a promise not to impose more restrictions on abortion.
Finally, the guv also signed a bill that limits the kinds of IDs immigrants can use to identify themselves to government officials and prohibits cities and counties from limiting enforcement of federal immigration laws. Civil liberties experts say that legislation jeopardizes individual rights and deepens the wedge between immigrants and law enforcement; advocates for children say the ID provision could block kids from receiving basic human services like education and medical care.
But hey, at least the Legislature intervened to protect monuments to the Confederacy, because nothing says inclusiveness quite like the state honoring a treasonous rebellion whose founding principle was the enslavement of other human beings.
Legislature gerrymanders Wake County
That the General Assembly hasn’t exactly been a friend to the state’s major metros isn’t quite news. From proposals to reallocate sales taxes and economic incentives to less urban counties to the repeal of business privilege taxes, rural lawmakers have been almost gleeful in their animus.
Here’s a particularly jarring example: Last November, a progressive Democratic coalition wrested control of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. A few months later, the Republican empire struck back. The General Assembly, in a shamelessly partisan measure pushed by Sen. Chad Barefoot, passed a law that rejiggered Wake elections in a manner that will make it easier for Republicans to win, no matter what the voters think.
Assuming a federal lawsuit filed in April by a group of Wake voters doesn’t succeed, instead of seven countywide elections, Wake will now elect two at-large commissioners and seven more from single-member districts, the same gerrymandered districts the Legislature previously drew to help elect Republicans to the school board.
The Chapel Hill shootings
It’s telling that we close 2015 with a wellspring of anti-immigrant rhetoric, propped inexorably by the perpetually foundering Republican Party and its brain-melting frontrunner, Donald Trump. Syrians and Muslimsall of themwill threaten our freedom. Never mind that, in a grueling year chockablock with mass-casualty eventsseveral of them the work of white dudes with a racial or political agendaNorth Carolina’s most notorious shooting (allegedly) involves a white man, Craig Stephens Hicks, murdering three Triangle college students of Syrian descent in February over something maybe as trivial as a parking dispute, though it’s also possible the killings were racially motivated.
Point is: The red-meat chomping over killer immigrants neglects the very real danger of the United States’ unchecked “more guns!” mentality. And the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha are a sobering reminder of how no town, not even idyllic Chapel Hill, is immune.
If there’s one lesson the Triangle has learned over the last few years, it’s that success begets its own challenges. Sure, it’s better to have a thriving entertainment district than a ghost town. But as more and more people want to live in and around those districts, rents become unmanageable. And nowhere around here is this phenomenon more pronounced than in the formerly low- and middle-income neighborhoods near downtowns in Raleigh and Durham that are being swallowed by gentrification.
Across the region, few issues this year seemed quite as beguiling and intractable as affordable housing. In Durham, the City Council wrestled with whether to turn over land near the transit station to Self-Help, which had proposed building 80–100 affordable units. The council ultimately punted, foreclosing Self-Help from receiving the federal tax credits it needs to finance the project this year.
In Chapel Hill, UNC loaned $3 million to a local nonprofit to purchase and preserve increasingly rare affordable units. Beyond that, however, town leaders are still waiting for an inclusionary-zoning policy passed in 2010 to show results.
And in Raleigh, Larry Jarvis, the city’s director of housing and neighborhoods, put forward a $20 million plan to encourage developers to include affordable units in their projects, although Council has been cool to Russ Stephenson’s proposal to use density limits to force developers’ hands.
There’s no easy answer, which means this issue will likely stay on our radar for years, if not decades, to come.
The Chapel Hill insurgents take all
David Schwartz insisted this was coming. Schwartz, the co-founder of Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Towna local PAC that chafed loudly at the prospect of being pigeonholed as anti-incumbent busybodiesliked to predict that CHALT-backed candidates would win in a landslide over longtime Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and the incumbents on the Town Council. His reasoning? The yard signs, of course. No one had any Kleinschmidt signs. But politics is more complicated than that, right? Right? Maybe not.
While Schwartz didn’t win, three of CHALT’s favored hopefulsmayoral candidate Pam Hemminger and council candidates Nancy Oates and Jessica Andersonrode a wave of discontent into office. While it’s hard to gauge the long-term impacts of CHALT’s big yearafter all, they’re still just a vocal minority on the Town Councilthe message would seem to be clear. Many Chapel Hill voters are mad as hell at the town’s tilt toward high-density condo development, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
Chief Jose Lopez forced out
To many Durhamites, when word leaked this September that embattled Police Chief Jose Lopez would soon be out of a job, it probably seemed like a long-awaited exhale. No matter where you stand on his performance, Lopez has had a tumultuous eight years. And, in a year that was very, very bad for police public relations, Lopez seemed the archetype of the clueless, snarling old cop backed into a corner, dogged by poor relations with minorities and struggling to respond to increasing public pressure for reform.
During his stay in Durham, his office was embroiled in racial-profiling allegations, multiple controversial shootings, internal bickering and a perpetual sense that the city’s top cop was completely out of touch with the public he was serving. Beyond the fact that the violent-crime numbers were none too flattering, Lopez’s ability to communicate with the public and City Council seemed more than strained.
Durham officials began the search for his replacement this month, with at least one council member saying that the city needs, first and foremost, a chief more responsive than Lopez. Next year figures to be a year of great change for Durham law enforcement.
Wake County unveils its transit plan
Two years ago, when the then-Republican Wake County Commission declined to join Durham and Orange counties in their light-rail plans, it wasn’t clear when or whether the county would finally begin shedding its addiction to sprawling highways. One Democratic sweep later and mass transit was back. No light rail this timetoo expensivebut there was plenty of debate over whether a regional rail line or expanded bus service, or both, would best meet Wake’s burgeoning transportation needs.
Ultimately, county leaders decided to go with what’s known as bus rapid transit22 miles of dedicated bus lanes and buses that have priority over other trafficwith the promise of regional rail somewhere down the line. This, they hope, will be enough to entice voters to sign off on a half-cent sales tax increase in November.
The overhaul of Raleigh’s Warehouse District
Change is a-comin’ to the Warehouse. This May (somewhat prematurely) marked the groundbreaking for the $80 million Union Station transit hub, a service station for Amtrak trains and buses. In the fall, when construction bids to build the station came in higher than expected, Raleigh’s City Council stepped up and committed another $7.2 million. Construction is expected to begin early next year and to be completedmaybein 2017.
The old Dillon Supply Co. warehouse will also undergo a major revamp, thanks to North Hills developer John Kane. After tussling with some Warehouse District residents over a design that initially seemed too vague, Kane won approval for a $150 million proposal to construct The Dillona 17-story commercial building and a nine-story, 260-unit residential complex on the 2.5-acre lot.
Kane is also in talks with the city to provide parking spaces for Union Station, and the developer has promised to offer ground-floor space for retail and restaurants as well. All of this will pretty dramatically alter the nature of the Warehouse District, luring more foot traffic and, inevitably, more car traffic, too.
The Dix Park deal is finalized
It took years of negotiations, but, in what could be considered Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s greatest achievement, the state of North Carolina finalized the sale of the 307-acre Dorothea Dix property to the city of Raleigh in July. The price tag: $52 million. The Dix site, located just south of downtown Raleigh, housed state-operated mental health facilities up until 2012, and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services will continue to use part of the land for 25 years. The state, meanwhile, is donating all proceeds from the sale to mental health services.
Acquiring the Dix property is a huge deal for Raleigh. City leaders and activists from the advocacy group Dix306 want to transform the property into a world-class destination park, along the lines of Central Park in New York City, both a tourist draw and an urban oasis for Raleigh residents.
Raleigh passed its hated UDO remapping
It came in with a bang and went out with barely a whimper. In July, hundreds of people crowded into Raleigh’s City Council chambersand later, into the larger Fletcher Hall at the Duke Energy Performing Arts Centerto complain about the city’s massive remapping under the new Unified Development Ordinance.
Their concerns ranged from more bars and nightclubs being allowed in a city that, in their view, is already too loud and drunk, to cutting down old trees and tearing down old houses, to property tax increases forcing people out of their homes in Southeast Raleigh. A group of North Raleigh residents was particularly enraged that the remapping would rezone an intersection at Falls of Neuse and Dunn roads to allow a shopping center 10 times the size of what’s currently allowed.
But then, in November, the City Council adopted the remapping with barely a peep from anyone except the North Raleigh folks.
Does this mean the council was able to mollify fears by tweaking the UDO? We’ll find out soon enough, when the new construction proposals begin to roll in.
Sylvia Hatchell takes the fall
And to think, all of this began with a football player’s ill-thought tweet in May 2010: “I live in Club LIV so I get the tenant rate … bottles comin like it’s a giveaway,” declared then-Tar Heel defensive tackle Marvin Austin. Austin may have been reaping gifts at a Miami nightclub or simply quoting Rick Ross. But his words brought attention to an unchecked, give-the-players-whatever-they-want sports culture at North Carolina’s flagship university.
Austin’s gone now, on to a middling career in the NFL, but the effects of UNC’s calamitous athletic scandal continue today. The football freebies spun out into evidence of fake classes, suspicious connections to sports agents, allegedly organized wrongdoing by academic advisers and, best-case scenario, more than a few negligent coaches.
Yet this year’s long-awaited Notice of Allegations from the NCAA yielded little in the way of consequences for UNC’s cash-cow sports. Men’s basketball coach Roy Williams signed a contract extension through 2020, and football coach Larry Fedora inked his own seven-year deal this month. Both programs were featured in the NCAA’s notice.
Yet Sylvia Hatchell, the school’s most successful women’s basketball coach ever, was left with no extension, ostensibly because her program was among the most targeted in the NCAA’s report. But you’d be forgiven for suspecting that the school wants the lower-profile Hatchell to take the fall in hopes of ending its five-year nightmare.
Tom Ross gets the boot
The 2015 ouster of Tom Ross as UNC’s system president could perhaps be traced to Oct. 14, 2010, when the conservative Civitas Review Online posted “Tom Ross Revealed: An Agent of Far-Left Change.”
Ross, who served as director of the Z. Smith Reynolds from 2001–07, had just been chosen for the UNC job. Civitas writer Andrew Henson warned that Ross “played a lead role in diverting the focus of Z. Smith Reynolds from a well-respected philanthropy foundation to a sweetheart of liberal activist groups of all flavors.”
That case against Ross continued in January 2015, when Civitas launched its McCarthyist website Mapping the Left to shed light on a “vast, shadowy network” of “the radical liberal left in North Carolina.”
Ross was “mapped,” along with other shadowy types, such as the late Dean Smith.
Progressives reacted with appropriate ridicule. But the laughs didn’t last long. That same week, Ross was ousted by the Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors.
Board Chairman John Fennebresque denied it was political, but the N&O The News & Observer later exposed emails in which conservative lawmakers expressed delight.
Next came the whirlwind. In October, Bush administration Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was named UNC’s new president. The Karl Rove protégé had overseen No Child Left Behind and supported the idea of workforce/commercial-based higher education. Her outrage over a kids’ show featuring a lesbian couple led to the resignation of a PBS CEO.
Fennebresque was forced out for mishandling the hiring process. UNC faculty and students have been staging protests against Spellings. Last month, The Washington Post ran a story with the headline “Naming of Margaret Spellings as UNC system president called ‘a disturbing new low.’”
Spellings starts in March. We’ll soon find out how low we can go.
In mid-March, a little more than a month after iconic UNC basketball coach Dean Smith died at home in Chapel Hill, envelopes from a Charlotte accounting firm began arriving in the mailboxes of his former players. Each contained a check for $200, with the directive to “enjoy a dinner out.” The move served as a welcome post-mortem reminder of a life well lived beyond the basketball court. Smith was a beneficent and brave human, as invested in the civil rights of and respect for his players (and all people, really) as he was in the game.
It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that Smith would have stayed silent about Indiana’s discrimination-legitimizing Religious Freedom Restoration Act when his team was playing in a Final Four in Indianapolis. But that’s what Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski did, rebuffing reporters attempting to solicit his opinion days before the game. At least later in the yearhaving already secured his 1,000th win, another national championship and a grade-A recruiting classhe did come out in support of Chris Burns, the first openly gay Division I coach. Good for you, Mike. Maybe next time, use the bigger platform to talk about more than Jahlil Okafor’s inside moves.