The Greenleaf Coffee Co-Op, Guilford’s student run coffee shop, closed at the end of fall semester for winter break.
It never reopened.
“It’s really unfortunate that we can’t have our space now because of things completely out of our control,” said sophomore and Greenleaf member Colin Nollet.
Members of the Greenleaf learned that the College was not fully transparent about the renovation. Codes dictating how the space should be set up were not followed, procedures for approval did not occur, and now the Greenleaf has to bear the consequences. The question is, how did this happen?
“I think part of the reason the city found out about the new space location is that we started advertising on Yelp,” said Nollet.
Despite speculation amongst Greenleaf members, in actuality the college itself went to the city about the Greenleaf during fall semester.
Other staff members guessed that the door leading from the Greenleaf to the rest of Milner needed to swing in the opposite direction, or that the windows in the Greenleaf needed to be larger for ventilation purposes.
The necessary alterations were very different.
“It’s a fire safety thing,” said sophomore and Greenleaf member Nellie Vinograd. “So, as it is right now, it’s a dangerous place if there were to be a fire.”
It remains unclear how much of a danger the space posed before the city inspected it for safety standards. Although a fire department inspector did visit the new Greenleaf space eventually, controversy continues over the school’s earlier handling of permits and inspections from the City of Greensboro.
Now, Greenleaf members and members of the community are left wondering what really happened and when they can finally reopen the shop.
An experiment in alternative business
Founded over 10 years ago, the Greenleaf differs from your average college coffee shop.
“The Greenleaf is an experiment in an alternative business model as part of our vision for a better world,” says the Greenleaf’s mission statement. “We hold ourselves to be a non-hierarchical, member-run coffee cooperative.”
Originally housed in the space now occupied by the Grill in downstairs Founders Hall, the Greenleaf relocated once before to the basement of Mary Hobbs Hall. Due to major renovations this year in Hobbs, it now occupies the basement space on the north side of Milner Hall, which until this summer contained dorm rooms.
As a student organization, the Greenleaf receives funds from the school and enjoys the benefits of maintenance and construction work provided by Guilford.
“When I saw the space for the first time, I knew the school had done a good job,” said junior and Greenleaf member Addy Allred. “I think this was unexpected.”
Codes: building the legal way
The City of Greensboro’s Engineering and Inspections Department issues building permits for construction work on buildings such as Milner. Before construction starts, owners or contractors submit permit applications to Engineering and Inspections describing the nature of the work and cost. They also pay a building permit fee based on the construction type and cost.
Depending on the work, the Planning Department reviews the construction plans for compliance with building codes. Then, an inspector will review the construction in person. Finally, the city issues a certificate of occupancy certifying that everything is in order.
However, the process doesn’t always work out so neatly.
“Sometimes people start a project and somebody will call to their attention that they need a permit for that kind of work,” said Plan Review Supervisor Julius Register.
When a permit is not filed before construction starts, the city takes notice.
“It’s an automatic double fee for the permit,” said Building Inspections Section Chief Don Sheffield. “Then, we’ll come in and they’ll have to undo stuff, whatever we deem necessary for us to be satisfied it was built right.”
Guilford would have several tasks to complete with the city before starting the renovation of a dormitory to a coffee shop.
“Permits would be required for the electrical, mechanical and demolition work done,” said Development Services Manager Michael Lewis in an email interview. “There would be a building permit and plan review required for the change of use to (the) dormitory.”
Occupancy posting: required?
On multiple occasions, Public Safety requested that an official sign be posted in the Greenleaf giving the occupant load, the maximum people allowed in the shop. However, a permit was not always present in the space.
Public Safety Coordinator Rhonda Johnson noticed early on that no one had posted an occupant load and suggested posting one.
According to Vice President for Administration Jonathan Varnell, former project manager Tim Rouse went to the architect who had drafted the plans for the coffee shop and got a temporary occupant load posting once they received the request from Public Safety.
A sign was then posted near the exterior door inside the Greenleaf.
“There was an occupancy certificate, I looked at it, and it did not appear to be one that was issued by the city,” said Director of Public Safety Ronald Stowe. “I raised the issue that I did not think that was right, because we’re dealing with a public space in the basement of a residence hall. That could ultimately be a liability issue or a safety issue for our students.”
Afterwards, the sign was taken down.
“Our staff provided one, and then (Public Safety) turned around and tried to make it look like we were setting occupancy without the city, which was not at all the case,” said Varnell. “We were simply responding to their request to give them one.”
In early December, Duane Gilbert of the Greensboro Fire Department made an annual inspection of campus.
“The fire marshal comes out, checks all of our records, goes through all of our buildings and tells us what we need to correct as per fire code,” said Johnson. “He said we needed (an occupancy posting in the Greenleaf) so I turned in my work orders and sent them to facilities.”
Varnell disputes the importance of the occupant load posting.
“It sounds like somebody is trying to drive at that point that Public Safety made, which was not a very good point at all,” said Varnell. “Public Safety raised an issue with the occupancy number, and then tried to hang it back on my staff, which was not pleasant and not right.”
Stowe pointed out where Public Safety’s priorities lie.
“For (Varnell) to indicate that Public Safety is doing something, well yeah, I am doing something,” said Stowe. “I’m looking out for the safety of the students in the campus, because I think when you start monkeying with official documents, then that’s a concern.
“We’re serious about the job of keeping the campus safe. And sometimes, we might have to cross some people to do that.”
How things went wrong…
According to records obtained from the city, Guilford filed a building permit July 10, 2014, for interior demolition done in Milner. The permit covers $8,862 worth of work done by Abatemaster, Inc., a company that specializes in hazardous material removal and demolition.
“We were out there (to Milner) three times in July of last year,” said Sheffield. “That was just to consult for the demolition.”
Guilford did not apply for another permit for the Greenleaf, including required electrical or plumbing permits, until Jan. 13, long after it opened and subsequently closed.
“I think that the discussion was that (Guilford) had gotten ahead of themselves,” said Register. “They came in and told us what their plans were, so we told them how to go about the process.”
The application states that the school paid a permit fee, with a late penalty attached, of $226 for an estimated $100,000 worth of work. It also covers the change of use of the space to A-2, defined as a space dedicated to eating or drinking.
“They had the previous occupancy use as being dorm rooms and the description of the use they are going to is switching an area in the basement to a coffee shop,” said Register.
Because the application covers a change in use, Guilford submitted plans from architecture firm Spectrum Designs dated Jan. 9, 2015 along with the permit. The plans show the interior demolition done over the summer as well as other construction in the Greenleaf.
Because the space is now a type of assembly space, it must follow certain different rules. According to the 2012 North Carolina Fire Codes,the occupancy load must be posted near the main exit.
And how it slipped through the cracks
The long delay between the construction over the summer and the permit filed in January may have contributed to the debacle over the occupant load sign.
As part of the permitting process before the renovation, the city would have given Guilford a number to post. In the city’s review of the new Greenleaf plans, the fire prevention reviewer noted that an occupant load of 83 would need to be posted.
According to Varnell, the delay was partially due to the tight schedule — work did not begin until mid-July and the fall semester started in late August.
But more importantly, the scope of the project increased once work began. According to Varnell, the original plan would not have required additional permitting.
“The space was supposed to be left open (with) no new finishes going down,” said Varnell. “We got into a lot more work related to plumbing and having to put a new panel in to support the electrical needs that were given to us. It just started to grow, so we knew we were going to have to come back to it.”
The school did indeed come back to it and began taking steps to fix the problem during the fall semester.
“We went down and met with (the city) in the middle of the fall and said ‘Hey, this is what we did; this is what the project looks like,’ said Varnell. “They said ‘No problem.’ They said just submit it and we’ll look at it as soon as the break comes.”
According to Varnell, it is time to put this issue behind us and look forward to the Greenleaf’s reopening.
“That doesn’t change where we are, that we have a beautiful project that we’re finishing the permitting on that students get to enjoy as soon as that’s done,” said Varnell.
“We should have stopped the project and permitted it, right then and there. And we didn’t do that. We chose to finish the project up and deal with it afterwards.”
The Guilfordian contacted Rouse because he had supervised much of the construction and permitting. Rouse left his job as project manager in the middle of January to work as Construction Project Manager for UNCG. He declined to comment for the article.
The Guilfordian also reached out to Assistant Director of Facilities Brian Wenger, who took over many of Rouse’s responsibilities when Rouse left, and Director of Facilities Brett Hacker. Both declined to comment.
How it hurt the Greenleaf
Regardless of how it happened, the delay in reopening the Greenleaf has been an ordeal for the co-op.
“It’s pretty devastating to the Greenleaf, considering we’re in a new space, we’re trying to establish ourselves and we (may end up) out of business for two months,” said senior and clerk of the Greenleaf’s accounting committee Ben Strozier. “It’s making these new avenues we’re trying to open up tough. So we’re being super conscious about all of our business decisions, trying to ensure that the Greenleaf stays around.”
Senior and Greenleaf member Chelsea Yarborough recalls permits coming up in the early meetings with Varnell. Yarborough says that the Greenleaf considered getting the space up to restaurant code in order to expand the menu, but that the process was too long, so the idea was dismissed.
Yarborough was under the impression that because the Greenleaf only qualifies as a coffeeshop, permits were unnecessary.
Most involved with the Greenleaf were confused about the situation.
Miriam Biber, associate director of Alumni Relations and Greenleaf advisor, indicated that she had been told very little about what caused the situation in the first place.
With everything up in the air at the beginning of the semester, the Greenleaf members are doing what they can to continue to have a presence on campus while waiting for the chance to finally reopen.
At this moment, the plans for the Greenleaf are still awaiting approval from the zoning reviewer. Once the plans are approved, the city will inspect the space before granting final approval for the permit.
Guilford also has several projects it intends to complete in the coffee shop, including a new exterior door for ventilation and hardware upgrades.
“Sometimes the city is fast, sometimes they are slow,” said Varnell. “We’ll get it back up and running as quick as we can.”
The view from above
President Jane Fernandes visited the Greenleaf several times during the fall semester.
“I saw a wonderful environment, and a relaxing place for students to hang out,” Fernandes said.
However, the administration recognizes the importance of following city codes.
“I understand why we need to do it, absolutely,” said Fernandes. “I’m just sorry that it happened after we were already open.”
Fernandes sees a bright future for the Greenleaf.
“I really look forward to working with the Greenleaf in a lot of ways, to do different types of services for the community that promote fair trade and sustainable products … I’m proud to support that. I’m proud of the Greenleaf. I’m proud of the students. I hope we get through this very quickly and things will get back into business.”
Whatever means necessary
The complications with reopening the Greenleaf prevent the co-op’s central mission within the Guilford community.
“The Greenleaf is intended to be a radical third space,” Vinograd said. “Not having a physical area for us to have that really just takes away a very important part of what the Greenleaf is. We’re not just coffee and tea. You can have that anywhere.”
In spite of the difficult circumstances, Greenleaf members are working to carry on their presence on campus. They have been working on two alternatives.
“We are developing our Greenleaf Coffee Cart as a solution while we are closed, and our space in Hege Library is coming together really nicely, so I’m excited for those developments to come into fruition,” said Yarborough.
The Greenleaf Coffee Cart will travel between Founders and the Library, selling coffee, tea, and baked goods. The new café space in the library, The Greenleaf @ Hege, will also open soon and continue to operate even when the Greenleaf reopens.