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Sexton: New road, same bad drivers greet Salem Parkway commute

The orange barrels and cone-zone slalom course were mostly rolled and stacked Monday morning on the sparse grassy patches of median along the new Salem Parkway.

A blinking electronic sign that for nigh on 14½ months had warned that the road ahead was closed for reconstruction had been switched off and moved, too.

Fresh pavement, wider, straighter and safer lanes were literally just over the horizon as commuters could once again zip to (and through) downtown.

Smooth sailing ahead. We were home free; and then we weren’t.

A different set of blinking lights, rear-facing with a familiar arrow pointing right, indicated the inside lane headed into town from the west might be blocked.

A pair of police cars and a couple of tow trucks piggy-backing crumpled vehicles confirmed the cause of an old-school delay on the new road.

And in a weird way, it all served as a timely reminder.

Engineers can overhaul, improve and beautify the former Business 40 as many times as taxpayers will allow, but all the money in the world can’t make people drive any better.

Complicated history

All the rejoicing and dashboard cam footage posted over the weekend of the early re-opening of U.S. 421/Salem Parkway/old Business 40, while exciting, can do little to erase the complicated and unsafe history of a bad road.

To those natives and transplants of a certain age, the East-West Expressway has been a traveling headache almost since the day it opened in 1960.

To wit: the Hawthorne Curve — a godawful, 10-degree S curve — that some locals swear was put in at the behest of former Mayor Marshall Kurfees to protect investments made by political allies and cronies.

“It was the engineers,” Kurfees famously said in 1990. “I had about as much to do with it as you did.”

Whatever or whoever was to blame, the East-West Expressway had its problems. Narrow lanes, nearly non-existent safety features were the key features of highway hastily added in 1957 to the interstate system.

(Then again, in an age when doctors endorsed cigarettes and seat belts were disparaged as sissy confinement devices, safety wasn’t exactly an American priority.)

Anyhow, when the thing was being planned in the early ’50s, engineers and planners accounted for a maximum of 30,000 vehicles per day — a number surpassed in the few months after it opened to great fanfare and maximum hoopla.

By 1973, the number swelled to 56,800. Crashes soared, and tempers flared.

Engineers started in the ’70s with a series of quick fixes. Flashing warning lights, allegedly sturdier guardrails and more signs warning lead-feet to back off were installed.

By the late ’90s, the N.C. Department of Transportation had spent some $26 million — $20 million for construction, $6 million in property acquisition — to “calm” the Hawthorne Curve.

But the horribly short drag-strip on/off ramps downtown remained. More expensive, longer term solutions were postponed even as the realigned road opened in summer of 2000.

“The highway department ultimately decided it was too costly for the benefits that could be achieved,” Ed Shippmann, an urban planner who worked on that project, told me a few years back.

Money well spent

Meanwhile, traffic continued to mount. By 2015, the dreaded count had risen to 85,000 vehicles per day.

And that was with “new” Interstate 40 running an arc south of town.

So here were are, in 2020, giddy and rejoicing at early arrival of the latest, greatest rebuild of a 60-year-old mistake.

To be sure, DOT has done a bang-up job of getting this $99.2 million project done in record time, and (presumably) more-or-less on budget. Engineers planned for a two-year complete closure of the road, and contractors delivered in 14½ months.

Performance incentives worth up to $10,000 a day for every day under the allotted schedule surely helped.

But with the added stressors on city streets that bulged with additional, rerouted traffic as thousands of downtown workers headed into town, that’s probably a wash.

Money well spent; and how many times in the history of government road construction can anyone say that?

Work remains, in particular for beautification aspects associated with a pair of pedestrian bridges and a multi-use path that will someday connect downtown to the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, but that’s to be expected.

But here’s the thing.

Salem Parkway, while straighter, wider and having eliminated the worst white-knuckle merge lanes, will still carry more than 85,000 vehicles per day on two lanes in either direction. The speed-limit, for now at least, is pegged at 45 mph.

All that brick, those soaring, artful arches and decorative fencing won’t change that. And as the first Monday morning fender bender on the new Salem Parkway proved, motorist inattention and bad driving will mean occasional delays.

Time-tested, the formula is as true today as it was in 1957. Same as it ever was.

Reynolds High teachers attend impeachment trial

Three Reynolds High School teachers say they got the chance of a lifetime Friday when they attended the impeachment trial in Washington, D.C.

Photos: Reynolds High School teachers attend impeachment trial

Civic teachers Cristofer Wiley, Troy Colvard and Josh Campbell received gallery passes from U.S. Sen. Richard Burr’s office.

Wiley said that Burr, who is a Reynolds graduate, has always been quick to respond and thorough about requests from the school, including sending them flags that once flew over the U.S. Capitol.

The idea to possibly go to the impeachment trial came up one day while the three teachers were in conversation, so they sent Burr a letter.

“We’re pretty enamoured with the whole civic process,” Wiley said.

He said they got a “wait-and-see form-letter response.”

Then he called Burr’s office just after the House transmitted the impeachment articles to the Senate in mid-January.

About two weeks ago, the teachers got another letter, informing them that they would get the passes.

Wiley said they knew there were probably a lot of important people who might get first dibs because there are only so many passes to go around, but Burr’s office staff was gracious and helped them out.

He also said that Leslie Alexander, Reynolds High’s principal, gave them the OK to go on the trip and they were able to quickly arrange substitutes for their classes.

“It was kind of a thrill just thinking, ‘Here’s probably the defining political event of our time, as much as Watergate, and we’re going to be in the room where it happens,’” Wiley said.

Campbell said he couldn’t believe it at first.

When Wiley called to give him the good news, he was about to start his workout in a gym.

“I ran an extra mile,” Campbell said laughing. “I had a smile on my face. I called my mom as soon as I got out of there.”

The trip and back

The teachers drove together to Washington, leaving after school on Thursday and arriving there late that evening. Before going to the Senate, they did some sightseeing, including tours of the House of Representatives and the Library of Congress.

Wiley, who has been on U.S. Capitol tours in the past, said people typically rotate out of the Senate Gallery every 10 minutes, depending on the day and number of people.

“But with the Senate Gallery pass, you are essentially a guest of the senator for that particular day. ... We weren’t kept to a certain time limit,” he said.

He said although they had to go through security twice, they were near the front of the line up to the elevator, while visitors who didn’t have gallery passes had about a five-hour wait.

Campbell used the word surreal to describe being at the trial.

“Just realizing that you’re one of the few people that get to front-row witness a moment in history, no matter the outcome and no matter how you feel about the outcome,” he said. “For the three of us, it’s safe to say that we are all political and news junkies. Most of us can name senators just by sight and face, and even by voice recognition because they do so many interviews. To be actually in a room — 10 or 20 feet from these people — it was very surreal.

Although his fellow teachers were in the room for the vote on impeachment witnesses, Campbell said he missed it because the group of three had only two passes.

“We did kind of a rotation every 30 or 35 minutes, and I just happened to be the odd man out when they actually took the vote,” he said.

Wiley spoke of the somber mood for a few minutes in the room when the question on the floor was whether or not witnesses and evidence were to be introduced.

“It wasn’t much suspense,” Wiley said. “But it was very dramatic to hear the roll call vote, when they call the senators by name.”

He said some of the votes spoken were emphatic while some were the routine “Nay” or “Aye.”

Wiley said it was also interesting to see senators who looked bored because they had been listening to people speak for days.

“You get to see the very human quality of how this debate was happening and how this process was happening,” he said.

Alexander said it was great for the civic teachers to have the opportunity to bring their first-hand experience back “with the excitement that they felt from having been part of that process.”

She also said it is important for her to find ways to support teachers, develop their skills, as well as have them be excited about their careers.

“Looking for opportunities like this is just one more way of keeping excellent teachers excited about being in the profession,” Alexander said.

Wiley didn’t tell his students that he was going to the impeachment trial until he returned to school on Monday.

Campbell said his students knew about his trip and were excited for him.

On Monday, he brought to class a display that showcased trip souvenirs for “show and tell.”

Colvard said he had been to Washington four times before Friday’s trip.

“But I’d never actually been in the House or the Senate chamber,” Colvard said. “I’d only been in the congressional visitor’s center, like the Rotunda.”

He said he and his fellow teachers draw on current events in Washington to teach students about the U.S. political system.

“We talk about impeachment,” Colvard said. “We talk about lawmaking. We talk about checks and balances. To actually be in the room when this is happening, was, like, huge and really exciting for me as a teacher.”

He told his students on Monday about his trip.

“We’re not even on the unit yet that deals with impeachment or checks and balances, but it will be even more special when we get to that unit,” Colvard said. “I can say, ‘I’ve watched the senators debate. I’ve watched them consider whether or not Trump should be removed. I’ve watched them consider if there should be more witnesses or documents, and they voted “no,” 51 to 49.”

He spoke of seeing people such as Bernie Sanders, Mitt Romney, Elizabeth Warren and Marco Rubio.

“The way to sum it up is it brought what I teach to life,” Colvard said.

Photos: Reynolds High School teachers attend impeachment trial

Settlement reached in lawsuit over fatal shooting at Wake Forest. A claim against the university is still pending.

A settlement has been reached with one of the defendants in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed over the fatal shooting two years ago of a Winston-Salem State University student on Wake Forest University’s campus.

Najee Ali Baker, a WSSU football player from Brooklyn, N.Y., was attending a party at The Barn, an event venue at Wake Forest University, when he was shot at 1:01 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2018. Baker died about an hour later at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center from a gunshot wound to the abdomen.

Jakier Shanique Austin, 23, has been charged with murder, possession of a firearm on educational property and carrying a concealed weapon in Baker’s death. Also charged in Baker’s death is Malik Patience Smith, 17. Smith is charged with possession of a handgun by a minor, assault by pointing a gun and possession of a firearm on educational property.

According to court documents filed in U.S. District Court, a settlement has been reached between the university’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a defendant in the lawsuit, and Baker’s mother, Jemel Dixon, who filed the wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of her son’s estate. Claims against other defendants in the lawsuit, including Wake Forest, are still pending.

The sorority hosted the party that was held at The Barn, and the lawsuit alleges that the sorority was negligent in allowing Austin and Smith, who did not attend any colleges in the area, to attend the event. According to police and the lawsuit, Baker fought with Austin and Smith inside The Barn.

After the fight was broken up and the party ended, Austin and Smith went to their car and got guns before confronting Baker and another WSSU student on a one-way roadway on campus.

The lawsuit and police allege that Austin shot Baker while Smith held the other student at gunpoint.

According to a search warrant, two people — the WSSU student Smith is alleged to have held at gunpoint and a man who went to the party with Austin and Smith — have identified Austin as the shooter in interviews with police. Austin is being held at the Forsyth County Jail with no bond. Smith had been released on bond but is now in Forsyth County Jail, with no bond. He has since been charged in a separate incident in 2019 with assault with a deadly weapon. He is accused of throwing chairs at a man and hitting that man with a broom stick, according to an arrest warrant.

Jeffrey D. Keister, an attorney for the sorority, could not immediately be reached for comment. Jonathan Fazzola, one of the attorneys for Dixon, did not immediately return a message seeking comment on Monday.

The lawsuit alleges that The Barn had been the site of numerous problems on campus that required the intervention of university and Winston-Salem police. A combined force of nine university and Winston-Salem police officers monitored events held at The Barn.

In 2014, Wake Forest police shut down a party hosted by Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity. That incident prompted an outcry from black and other minority students who said that university police were racist in how they handled events hosted by minority students.

The university police chief commissioned an independent study by Developmental Associates. The company completed its report in August 2014 and recommended a number of changes, including ensuring that school law-enforcement and administrators — not students — handle event management. The report also recommended that university police provide equal security at all student events as a way to eliminate allegations of racial bias.

According to the lawsuit, Wake Forest officials ignored the report’s recommendations, reducing the amount of security at large events and leaving students in charge of event management.

Attorneys for Dixon and the sorority have until Feb. 28 to file a joint stipulation of dismissal. No date for a trial has officially been set.

Council OK's Redeemer rezoning, but some Ardmore residents are still opposed

The Winston-Salem City Council approved a rezoning request Monday night that will give an Ardmore church additional parking spaces, but with beefed-up restrictions meant to better protect the residential character of the area around the church.

The rezoning for properties owned by Redeemer Presbyterian Church passed unanimously, although it met with continued opposition by the Ardmore Neighborhood Association.

The church occupies the landmark former Ardmore School building on Miller Street south of Hawthorne Road. The church also owns a pair of houses nearby that it uses for classroom space. The rezoning converts the houses from residential to institutional zoning.

The site plan passed as part of the rezoning also allows Redeemer to extend the parking lot on the north side of the church, which is reached from Miller Street. The church would gain 16 additional spaces and a better way for elderly people to get access to the church.

The west end of the parking lot extension would have a short drive connecting it to the existing parking lot on the west side of the church. The driveway to the parking lot from Miller Street would become one-way, making traffic flow safer, church officials argue.

Dan Besse, whose Southwest Ward includes the church and its neighbors, proposed the motion to approve the rezoning after saying that new conditions in the site plan would protect the neighborhood. Besse said the new conditions were developed in meetings between church officials and neighborhood residents.

Those conditions specify that the connecting drive from the parking lot would be one-way from Miller Street toward Melrose Street, and that the drive would not be used to drop off students going to Redeemer School.

A reversion clause would return the two houses to residential zoning should the church ever sell them. Another clause would cause the houses to revert to residential use if they were allowed to fall into disrepair and not fixed up in a timely manner. The church will also try to save the existing trees on the lots.

The new conditions won over one resident, Darren Rhodes, who lives across from the church-owned houses and who had previously spoken against the rezoning.

“I feel confident they have addressed these concerns and that the historical character will be protected,” Rhodes said.

Robert Newman, the president of the Ardmore Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood has a positive relationship with the church, but nonetheless opposes any rezoning request that it sees as a threat to the community.

Last month, Newman told the council that the neighborhood group fights for “every inch of Ardmore to keep all aspects of its remaining zoned area residential.”

Another speaker, Julie Magness, said the church has “outgrown their space,” and that the new parking and drive would attract criminal behavior. She said the church doesn’t have a system for camera surveillance as well.

Magness said the church’s concessions amounted to an attempt to apologize for the “damage they have already caused.” She said a growing institutional presence could hurt property values.

Church elder Robert Alexander said the church’s plan should help traffic by drawing cars off Miller Street in front of the church.

Alexander took issue with the Ardmore Neighborhood Association’s stance, calling the new conditions “a tremendous compromise that should be acceptable to all parties” because it maintains the residential character of the neighborhood and gives the neighborhood more control.

“We disagree with their commitment to publicly oppose every rezoning request,” he said.

The Winston-Salem City Council heard pros and cons on the rezoning last month, but postponed action until Monday for more talk between the sides.

Besse said Monday that because the church occupies a former school, it’s not a new institutional presence. The school was built in 1929.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church bought the former Ardmore School building on Miller Street in 1987 and began renovations to turn it into a house of worship. Many people in Ardmore welcomed the church because the former school was a neighborhood focal point.

The houses at the center of the rezoning controversy are at 1030 and 1036 Miller St. to the north of the church, plus the rear (south side) of a property at 925 S. Hawthorne Road that the church owns.

The church bought the Miller Street properties in 2000 and the Hawthorne Street one in 2015. The house at 1036 Miller St. is considered a contributing structure to the Ardmore Historic District, as is the house at 925 S. Hawthorne, which is not included in the rezoning request.