Staffers for the city of Raleigh considered several factors when evaluating where to put six massive underground trash bins as part of a $30,000 pilot program to reduce waste downtown. None, however, involved the owners and customers of the downtown branch of the erstwhile Mechanics and Farmers Bank, now M&F Bank, the only black-owned bank in North Carolina.
Its parking lot sits adjacent to where the city decided to locate the so-called Moloks, at the corner of Wilmington and Hargett Streets, with only a sidewalk between them. But the city never reached out to the bank.
When the Moloks started filling up this summer, two of the bank’s customers and supporters complained, according to emails the city provided to the INDY Wednesday morning.
“Did you ever think that for your minority residents there is nothing innovative about this?” Daniel Coleman, who chairs the South Central Citizens Advisory Council, wrote to council members and city officials on August 8. “We always get the trash dumps, the short end of the stick, history teaches us all a whole lot, and if you let history teach you a thing or two and not be so fixated on the future without the pulse of the past to guide, things would be so much easier and equitable.”
Community activist Bruce Lightner pointed out that it’s area restaurants, not the bank, most likely to fill the bins: “What the Council needs to do, at its next meeting, is to propose and pass a resolution that states, in essence, ‘No Downtown Raleigh Trash Bins shall be placed or located further than 20 feet from the business establishment who uses the Bins to dump their garbage.’ This will take care of the problem at Mechanics & Farmers Bank. For almost certain the bank’s business routine does not require it to dump food and restaurant byproducts. In other words, let the dumpsters be near the restaurants that use them.”
The city quickly halted the program.
“This is a regrettable error, and the city has apologized,” Michael Moore, the city’s transportation director, told the INDY in an email. “The city strives to engage all affected stakeholders on all of our projects, big or small. Unfortunately, that engagement fell short on this project.”
But critics see something more at play.
“We weren’t invited to the table,” says Kimberly Muktarian, an activist and president of Save Our Sons of Raleigh, which advocates for racial justice in the court system. “It’s the only black bank that we have, so while we are losing so much of our property and our dignity and respect, Mechanics and Farmers is one of the last places in the city in the downtown district, and for us to be singling them out like that, it’s insensitive—and, to me, it’s deliberate as well.”
The pilot program was birthed from a 2018 survey that identified the rows of ninety-five-gallon trash bins as downtown residents’ top cleanliness concern. The city formed a task force to create a better pedestrian and outdoor dining experience and “make downtown Raleigh smell better,” then partnered with Molok, a company from Finland that specializes in waste storage alternatives.
Each of the company’s eight-foot-deep bins can hold the equivalent of twenty standard trash bins of garbage. They’re partially buried and emptied three times a week with a crane. Staffers hoped the project would make downtown trash collection more efficient—which it did. While the program was running, the city saw a nearly 90 percent decrease in idling time and fuel usage for its dump trucks, according to an August 12 memo.
The city chose Hargett and Wilmington, according to the memo, because the site was close to bars and restaurants, it wouldn’t disrupt underground utilities or affect emergency vehicle turning requirements, didn’t abut the entry to any building, and it was accessible to the crane the city needed to empty the Moloks.
The city began installation in May, and the pilot program launched this summer. While the city and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance did some outreach beforehand, those discussions never included M&F.
The city received several complaints about the project on August 8. Four days later, it abruptly canceled the program, citing “unanticipated negative impacts,” wrote Moore and Stan Joseph, the director of the Solid Waste Department, in the memo.
“Unfortunately, the team did not recognize the potential for negative impacts and perceptions of other businesses in the area, most significantly a bank branch on Hargett, whose parking lot directly abuts the pilot project site,” they wrote. “Given the error in the city’s process and the nature of the concerns, we do not believe that the city can adequately address the concerns through the pilot project.”
The city ceased using the Moloks Sunday and is now looking for alternative locations. Moore says there’s no timeline for relaunching the program.
“Given all the factors, the city made the right decision,” M&F Bank CEO Jim Sills told the INDY. “I really appreciate city officials and the city manager listening to our customers’ concerns.”
But this apparent knee-jerk decision upset other business owners who were excited about the project, especially House of Swank’s John Pugh, who showed up at the city council meeting last week with “Save the Moloks” written on a cardboard sign.
“The total lack of transparency is just appalling,” Pugh says.
His business, which printed a “Keep Raleigh Trashy” T-shirt, sits about a half block away from where the city located the Moloks. Pugh has circulated a petition to bring them back. It’s garnered about twenty-three hundred signatures.
“The smell was cut down to basically nothing, the flies were cut down,” he says. “I thought the location, being close to where the trash is generated, is a win.”
While Pugh acknowledged the city “dropped the ball” by not communicating with the bank earlier, he hoped the city could find a way to make the program work in that location.
The city’s intentions may have been good, but this episode is emblematic of a larger problem, Coleman says. Too often, projects are greenlit without input from those affected.
“This was an equity issue for the bank, whether they should have been brought in for the process,” Coleman says. “The bank had not been a party to the decision-making process, which really goes to a lot of other issues that are going on with the city, and the staff is making decisions and they are doing it thinking they know all the points of interest in the matter.”
In much of the planning happening downtown, says Diana Powell, the executive director of Justice Served NC, the city’s African American community is left behind.
“They say they are community-engaged, but that’s not a reality to us,” Powell says. “You look at downtown and how so much development is going in, it’s not at all inclusive.”
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at email@example.com. This story has been updated to include information provided by the city Wednesday morning, after the INDY went to print.
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