Sunday, July 29, 2012

Photograph by S. David Gray

In March of 2006 Sidney and Ricki Gray while taking one of their repetitive and ongoing drives in downtown Greensboro noticed a “sphere” lying on the ground on property belonging to John H. Tasker, Jr. located at McAdoo and King Street in the Southside neighborhood. Ricki commented that this would make a great “Planet Earth” and thus was born the idea to recycle this sphere into a landmark work of art. John stated that this “sphere” was an air holding tank for an air compressor that came out of a Naval Ship and that he would donate and move it to a corner lot at South Elm and Lee Street owned by Sidney and Ricki Gray which is the Southern entrance to downtown Greensboro.

Brandon Gray next to
the future “Our Place in the World

Martha and Tony Forrest
Erik Beerbower with Greensboro sign.

In April of 2007 Martha Forrest spoke with Ricki and Sidney about how she could help implement their vision for the “Planet Earth”. She offered to “volunteer” her husband Tony Forrest as the artist who would draw the continents and the United States in particular. Martha also contacted Erik Beerbower who volunteered to design and make the crowning “Greensboro” that would sit on top of the Planet Earth.

Base and stonework by James Allred
Sidney Gray and Henry Cates sandblasting
Artist Tony Forrest sketching continents
Ricki Gray refines the continents
Ricki Gray painting Asia
Sidney Gray refines the continents

With the volunteers in place it was now time to begin the preparation of the base and the sphere. In June  2007 James Allred as a paid stone mason prepared the base for the sphere. In May of 2008 as one of the volunteers, Sidney Gray and friend Henry Cates sandblasted, cleaned and primed the sphere. Tony Forrest began the outline and painting of the continents in June of 2008. Ricki and Sidney finished the initial painting process.

Sidney Gray and Erik Beerbower
with Greensboro sign installed

We Made it Happen plaque installed on the base.

Sculptor/artist Erik Beerbower attached the “Greensboro” to the top of the Planet Earth in July, 2009. The refining and repainting of the Planet Earth continued through August of 2009 by Ricki and Sidney.  David Gray took the photograph of all the volunteers – Sidney C. Gray, Ricki G. Gray, Erik Beerbower, Tony Forrest, Martha Forrest and John Tasker, Jr. in front of the Planet Earth. On September 27, 2010 the “WE MADE IT HAPPEN” plaque was attached to the base of the Planet Earth.

The Planet Earth Volunteers want to make it known that this Landmark did not take any public funds and was completed by the above mentioned volunteers. The volunteers wish to acknowledge and thank the Old Greensborough Preservation Society for their generous financial contribution for supplies to the Planet Earth.

The Planet Earth is a continuous work of art. We welcome your thoughts, suggestions and help with the next phase.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Greensboro, NC Downtown Design Manual: Rhino Times May 14, 2010

City Bends On Downtown Rules

by John Hammer
Editorwrite the author May 14, 2010

Don't tell downtown property owner Sidney Gray that you can't fight city hall because he did and he won. When everybody else seemed willing to go along with the proposed Downtown Greensboro Design and Compatibility Manual, Gray stood up and said, this is wrong.

Actually, Gray didn't stand up, he sat down and read a statement on April 28, 2009, and the fruition of that stand he took sitting down was reached this week when the two sides, which had drawn battle lines over the Downtown Design Manual, announced that an agreement had been reached.

Back in April 2009, the city held one of its ubiquitous meetings designed to give the illusion of public input without actually giving people the chance to change anything. The meetings are cleverly designed to divide and conquer, and the city staff keeps opponents of proposed plans apart so they can be dealt with separately. It is diabolical, brilliant and effective

Gray was told repeatedly that although it was a public meeting, a meeting ostensibly to solicit input from downtown property owners who were about to face 107 pages of new regulations on their property, that no downtown property owner would be allowed to speak.

Gray was polite but insistent and finally got permission to speak about how the proposed Design Manual would make it nearly impossible for him to develop his property the way he had been planning to for years.

Gray planted a seed, but it wasn't until Roy Carroll of The Carroll Companies read the manual that things really started moving. Carroll convened a group of downtown property owners to discuss whether an attempt should be made to amend the plan or simply to oppose it. The consensus was overwhelmingly to oppose it.

The informal opposition group hired attorney Henry Isaacson to represent it, and eight months of negotiations started with Carroll, Rob Johnston of Johnston Properties and Seth Coker of Signature Properties representing the dissenting property owners. The consensus of the group had been that the Design Manual should not be standards or regulations but voluntary guidelines. The downtown guide, in the minds of the group of property owners, should offer help and guidance to downtown property owners and developers, but in the end allow the people paying the property taxes and construction costs to decide what they wanted to build as long as it met all other city regulations and requirements.

The announcement this week was that the new proposed Downtown Design Manual – Process/Guidelines is all guidelines and contains no regulations.

It is a huge win for property rights in Greensboro. Carroll, Johnston and Coker met weekly for eight months to negotiate the deal. That is a whale of a lot of meetings and a tremendous amount of negotiating.

Although some property owners supported the original Design Manual, some of its biggest proponents were the City of Greensboro, Downtown Greensboro Inc., Action Greensboro and the Cemala Foundation.

The big fear expressed repeatedly by property owners in discussing the new proposed guidelines was that the city would at some time in the future decide to make the guidelines regulations. No doubt that attempt will be made, but for now the downtown is looking at a bunch of guidelines that deal mainly with the first floor to ensure that the downtown is pedestrian friendly.

Carroll noted that the group spent months going over the design manual paragraph by paragraph with the opponents, pointing out buildings that were already downtown that didn't comply and reasons why compliance should not be mandatory. The purpose of the manual seemed to be to bring uniformity to downtown buildings and to have city staff regulate every aspect of downtown buildings from the height of the windows to the slope of the roofline.

At some point after the last City Council election there was a breakthrough. Some might say that was a coincidence, but it seems much more likely that with a far more conservative City Council the proponents of the original plan realized that there was very little chance of getting this vast power grab by the city through the new council.

The new proposed Downtown Design Manual, which has to go back through the process of being approved by the Planning Board, the Zoning Commission and the City Council, not only has no regulations, but adds a committee that will be made up of downtown property owners to give those who fall under the guidelines an alternate path toward compliance. To fall under the guidelines, the project has to be in the Downtown Design Overlay District, which is basically the Central Business District plus Southside and a couple of other properties that are adjacent to the Central Business District but have different zoning. The project has to affect at least 375 square feet of the first floor fa├žade, and must require a building permit. So any alterations not large enough to require a building permit or that do not affect the first floor facade would not be covered.

But the point was made over and over that a property owner or developer did not have to comply with the guidelines because they are guidelines, not regulations.

However, a project that does meet the three requirements will go to the city where it will be graded based on the guidelines. In the old Design Manual, a design review team made up entirely of city employees would determine whether or not the proposal complied with the regulations. As an early concession to downtown property owners, a member who could be but was not necessarily a city employee was added to the design review team. That gives you an idea of the kind of concessions the city was making early in this process.

Under the new proposal, if the city decides that the project does not score a 75 on the applicable guidelines, then the applicant can go to the Property Owners Review Team (PORT), made up of five downtown property owners, who will review the project and determine whether or not it should receive a favorable recommendation. The PORT is not held to the guidelines but can decide that the overall benefit of the project outweighs the guidelines.

One example Carroll gave was a downtown grocery store. The guidelines call for buildings to be built close to the street with no parking in front of the building. However, grocery stores traditionally have parking in front. Carroll said that he could see the PORT deciding that a grocery store was so needed downtown that it would be approved with parking in front.

Another example Carroll gave was the VF Corporation building on North Elm Street. According to the guidelines, that building is way too far back from the street, but he said the PORT would have likely decided that the benefit of having the corporate headquarters of a Fortune 500 company downtown far outweighed the guidelines. But another way to look at that is that VF is a good neighbor and if the city had asked it to build its new headquarters closer to the street, it may have been glad to comply. It's that kind of flexibility and cooperation that the new proposed manual hopes to engender.

So just in the committee that is going to be overseeing this manual you have a huge change. In the original it was all or nearly all city employees, and in the revised manual the voting members of the committee are all downtown property owners appointed by the City Council.

When speaking of the new proposed manual, Carroll said, "I think this accomplishes all of our goals." He noted that it gave downtown developers a road map so they would know what type of development the community wanted downtown, but in the end the developers had the freedom to build what they thought would work.

According to Carroll, almost all major projects downtown require some kind of concession or cooperation from the city. And this is where the guidelines and the recommendation come into play. He gave the example of a developer who needed to buy a small strip of city land to make a project work, and in that case the City Council would be well within its rights to tell the developer that they had to get a letter of approval from PORT before the city would sell them the land.

Since downtown is so tight, Carroll said it was unusual for any sizeable project to not need some cooperation from the city. So even though the downtown development guide is no longer made up of regulations, the guidelines will have some clout.

According to Carroll, ideally the PORT will be used as a resource by developers. He said he was told that a similar committee has worked well in Raleigh to promote and encourage downtown development. He said that it would have been extremely helpful to him to be able to talk to someone who had done a project similar to Center Pointe in downtown Greensboro before he started construction, and he hoped in the future that developers would look at PORT as a place to go for advice and guidance on building downtown, not just a place to be graded on guidelines.

It all started with one man sitting down and saying this isn't right, and a year later, after eight months of negotiations, the new proposed Downtown Design Manual appears to be something that both sides agree will benefit the downtown, which was the whole idea in the first place.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Planet Earth" Photo and Volunteers in November 2009 Hamburger Square Post

Planet Earth is a project of former

members of Old Greensborough Preservation

Society and hardcore downtowners! It's

Greensboro's newest piece of public art

downtown. Located next to the Sweet Shoppe,

it represents Sidney Gray's love of downtown

and Old Greensborough.

Pictured are artists, Sidney and Ricki

Gray, Erik Beerbower, Tony and Martha

Forrest, John H. Tasker, Jr. Erik Beerbower

did the lettering, John Tasker contributed the

ball, and Tony Forrest did the painting.

Carol Hunter took the picture.

Monday, November 30, 2009

"Planet Earth" article by Jeri Rowe in Greensboro News and Record Sunday October 4, 2009

Rowe: At a busy corner, the world is waiting
Sunday, October 4, 2009 (Updated 6:09 am)
By Jeri Rowe
Staff Writer
Photo Caption: Planet Earth at S. Elm and E. Lee streets.

GREENSBORO — Head north on South Elm, and from a half-block away, at the dip of East Bragg, you can make it out — the green of the United States and the Popsicle orange of Central America.

When you get closer, near the rush of traffic on West Lee, you can see the wrought-iron word “Greensboro,” painted white and bolted tiara-like above a 5,000-pound air compressor.

The compressor looks like a huge bowling ball. But it’s really a globe. Europe is yellow, Asia is red, South America is white and Antarctica is gun-metal grey. It sits on a stone base, parked there by a crane, discovered on a lot a half-mile north near the railroad tracks.

It’s Greensboro’s newest piece of public art. A few days back, Sidney and Ricki Gray, the husband and wife who spearheaded the project, held a picture-taking ceremony to commemorate their big iron ball.

They invited the handful of volunteers involved to signify the end of a five-year project some call “Sidney’s World.’’ But the real title works, too. Planet Earth.

It’s not necessarily pretty. Some down the block even call it “tacky.’’ Yet, Planet Earth is classic Greensboro, in a Beef Burger kind of way, because it gives our city another quirky wrinkle in a spot that could explode.

Greensboro is expecting to spend millions to redevelop the corner of South Elm and West Lee. There’s talk of condos, retail, a grocery store and even offices for Guilford County Schools on those 10 acres of emptiness.

In the middle of it all will be Planet Earth.

That’s what the Grays wanted. They wanted to put on their empty lot beside the Sweet Shoppe something that would represent their link to — and love of — Greensboro.

Ricki is 59 , a UNCG grad. She raised three children in Greensboro and spent nearly three decades teaching in local classrooms. Her last stop: Room 7 at Irving Park Elementary, where she helped first-graders learn their place in the world.

Sidney is 63 . He breathes Greensboro. Matter of fact, he can look down South Elm and recall stories about people and places that stretch back for more than a half century.

He should know. He grew up there. His mother, Sylvia, ran Carolina Sales Co. , the spot in the 600 block of South Elm that has now become the artist collective known as Elsewhere . Sidney, the youngest of three, hung out there.

After their first child was born, Sidney and Ricki knew exactly where to go after they got out of the hospital — down to South Elm, to show Sylvia her newest granddaughter. Dani , their first child, is now 30.

Today, Sidney is a grandfather, a property owner, a member of the Class of ’63, the last graduating class of Greensboro Senior High, and one of the founders of the Old Greensborough Preservation Society, a nonprofit that later evolved into Downtown Greensboro Inc.

He’s also the “Mayor of the Alley,” the narrow avenue behind Glitter’s, a business inside a building he owns at Washington and South Elm. He calls it the Silver’s Building , after its old business: Silver’s Five & Dime.

And now, he’s the maker of Planet Earth.

It’s Greensboro’s newest landmark. Sidney and Ricki hope it will become a place of significance, a place of romance, a place where people can say, “Let’s meet at the globe’’ and everyone will know where to go.

It’s at the corner of South Elm and West Lee.

Sidney and Ricki found Planet Earth during their weekly “foot cruising,’’ their description of their walks through downtown Greensboro, from Center City Park to West Lee.

Ricki spotted it on John Tasker’s property on King Street near the railroad tracks. It was an old piece of machinery, an air compressor from a Navy ship Tasker and his dad had found.

But Ricki, the schoolteacher, saw something else: a globe, a Planet Earth.

That’s how it got started. Tasker donated the compressor. Artist Tony Forrest and sculptor Erik Beerbower donated their services.

Meanwhile, Sidney and Ricki spent $2,200 of their own money to build a stone base, rent a sandblaster and buy enough paint to turn the rusty compressor into a big blue ball with countries of almost every color.

And now, it’s done. Almost. Ricki and Sidney plan to mark Greensboro’s location on Planet Earth. It’s expected to draw the attention of anyone walking, driving or biking by one of Greensboro’s busiest corners, an intersection used by 28,000 cars a day.

It’s something shiny, something reflective. And for the Grays, Ricki and Sidney, that’s all they want. They want people to remember.

This is their town, too.

SidneyGrayOctober 4, 2009 - 9:30 am EDT
Thank you and the Greensboro News and Record for the article and for publically acknowledging the volunteers - Martha Forrest, Tony Forrest, Erik Beerbower and John H. Tasker, Jr. who helped make "Planet Earth Happen." We look to the future as this work of art continues to evolve.
Ricki and Sidney Gray

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Planet Earth: Article by Greensboro News and Record - July 21, 2008

The world waits south of the railroad tracks

Monday, July 21
updated 7:35 am
Sidney Gray and Martha Forrest

Sidney Gray and Martha Forrest

Jim Schlosser

GREENSBORO - The first impulse was to call Homeland Security.

What resembled a large World War II-era mine had been planted at Lee and South Elm streets. The large, round explosive devices used to bob around in the ocean, blowing gaping holes in ships that hit them.

Recently, the round object has been transformed into a blue-and-white globe by Greensboro artists Tony Forrest and Emmett Williams. On many mornings, they arose at 6:30 and worked until the heat made painting oppressive.

They were urged on by Forrest's wife, Martha, and Sidney Gray. Gray and his wife, Ricki, own the parking lot that's the site of what they've dubbed "Planet Earth."

Several people in the neighborhood say they can't find Texas or Michigan on the globe. But Gray says Planet Earth remains a work in progress. It will resume when Tony Forrest returns from Mexico.

The object originally served as an air compressor on a U.S. Navy ship. Gray, who owns various downtown properties, saw the compressor on land owned by John Tasker Jr.

Decades ago, Tasker and Gray were among the founders of the Old Greensborough Preservation Society, which sought to promote preservation and progress on downtown's south side.

Gray had been searching for an object to turn into public art at the Lee-Elm property, which he and his wife bought in 1978. He wanted to create something eye-catching, a conversation piece that might cause people to cross the railroad tracks into the south end of downtown.

Tasker had bought the compressor in the 1970s when he owned a metals business off Holden Road. He intended to sell it to anyone needing a powerful air compressor. But no one came along. The compressor went with him when his metals business shifted to King Street next to the railroad downtown.

When he sold the King Street land to become part of what's now City View Apartments, the compressor was still there. Tasker was eager to help when Gray contacted him. With a forklift, the 3,000- to 5,000-pound compressor was hoisted onto a truck and moved a few blocks to Lee and Elm. Gray then spent several weeks sandblasting away rust from the compressor.

Another beauty of Planet Earth is it didn't cost the city a cent. Tasker donated the compressor and moved it at no cost. Tony Forrest and Emmett Williams gave their time and talent. Sherwin-Williams Co. provided free paint.

Gray asks, "What better place for Planet Earth?

"Lee and South Elm are the entrance to downtown from the coliseum area and from I-40 and I-85,'' he says. "We have 28,000 cars a day pass here. We thought it a great work of art that would go well because this is such a pivotal corner."

Gray believes he has lined up a sculptor who will donate his time to weld - using several hooks on the compressor - a sign that would say "Old Greensboro.'' Gray thought about using "Greensborough'' again, but the town abandoned that spelling before the Civil War. Gray decided Greensboro is Greensboro.

Martha Forrest owns the Tin Rooster interior design-gift-accessory shop and the Blue Diamond Gallery, both on South Elm not far from Lee. She lives around the block in the new South Side residential/retail complex.

Martha Forrest believes Planet Earth will make the intersection a destination and that it could become a rendezvous marker. She's convinced family and friends are bound to gather for photos around the globe.

"It is really a gift of love to brighten up the whole downtown experience," she says.

The lower end of South Elm seems to thrive with antique and art shops and other commerce. And the new South Side project has added people and activity and won design awards.

But Martha Forrest says the big downtown promotions, such as Fun Fourth and the Festival of Lights, attract thousands to the north side of the railroad. During those events, few people detour south of the tracks, she says.

"We are all just individual proprietors paying rent each month, and we don't get a whole lot of attention," she says. "The money is not trickling down to this end of the downtown fast enough."

Well, not yet. The city plans to redevelop two rundown blocks across Lee, including what was the art deco-style Holsum Bread Bakery. Within a day or two after Gray and Forrest gathered at the globe to be photographed, a demolition crew leveled the old bakery.

But Martha Forrest says the redevelopment project - to bring residential and retail to the two blocks - is years from completion. Until then, rents and mortgage payments will continue to come due to those already in an area where people "enjoy a wonderful camaraderie and attitude and are looking out for one another," Martha Forrest says.

Planet Earth brought together kindred spirits: Gray, Tasker and the Forrests, all Greensboro natives. Gray's mother, Sylvia Gray, ran an antique and furniture business at 606 S. Elm St. from 1945 until her death in April 1997.

"I think it's a very clever idea,'' John Tasker says of Planet Earth. "Sidney was very creative about this."

Tasker warns that Planet Earth shouldn't be viewed as a clever "sign."

"We think of it as sculpture, " he says.

Planet Earth may spawn satellites. Martha Forrest and Sidney Gray see possibilities for more public art near the railroad tracks. Their goal: to psychologically forge the railroad barrier between north and south downtown.

"The idea," Martha Forrest says, "is to encourage people to cross the tracks."

Planet Earth: Article by 99 blocks Magazine - July 24, 2008

300 South Elm Street by 99 blocks Magazine - September 18, 2008