Friday, December 30, 2005

Respond to racist e-mail? Here's more

Plenty of comments to yesterday's post on whether school board member George Dunlap should reply to a racist e-mail he received, and if so, what he should say. Feel free to add your own thoughts.
Today I received this from reader Jim Jordan in Laurinburg, about 100 miles east of Charlotte if you head toward Wilmington. Jordan wrote:
"Once I was sitting at the dinner table talking about the integration of the University of Mississippi. My father suddenly called me a 'n----- lover.' I told him that he might be correct and I also loved him.
"I've discovered over my years in teaching that there are people of all races who dislike to the point of hatred people of other races. Usually this has to do with something that happened up to five hundred years ago and had only a nominal effect of the people doing the hating. We recipients of the hatred have to consider the source and move on with our lives.
"I can understand the problems with the CMS system. It isn't simply that the voters continue to elect idiots - not especially their fault when good people refuse to run for the School Board and your only choice is the lesser of the two idiots. It also has to do with the history of integration in CMS.
"Court ordered busing and really long bus trips all over the county aren't going to please many people. More important than that, it puts kids who do not know each other and have never had any experience dealing with each other in the same school. One group will consider the school 'theirs' and the other group will be the interlopers. It's not going to be a pretty sight.
"Then in the late 1960's and early 1970's the CMS Board and administration sent out a message to teachers and administrators. 'We expect you to keep order but if you get into trouble you swing in the wind alone.' That in itself was enough to create a hemorrhage of teachers out of CMS that the system is dealing with today. More importantly it created the idea of an acceptable level of chaos.
"Kids, whether black, white, Asian, or whatever are going to act like kids. That means quite often irresponsibly and always on the edge of the boundaries. It only takes one kid going beyond the pale every day to destroy the learning environment in the classroom. If the classroom teacher gets no support and no help in managing a disorderly student and is also held accountable for all the testing - well, you have problems.
"Now having said that, I'll say this. I taught from 1966 until I retired in 2000. At no time, even during the darkest days of school riots, did I ever see black students as more of a discipline problem than white students. I realized early on that black students were more likely to be referred to discipline than white students. If they were referred they were more likely to be suspended or expelled. But the problem tended to be this zero-tolerance, one-size-fits-all policy that we developed to avoid being sued. Kids are individuals, we're told. Why not treat them as individuals and let the lawyers have at it?
"Should Mr. Dunlap reply? I think not. What difference would it make to the person who wrote him? What should Mr. Dunlap do? Deal with the CMS problems, that begin with a childishly acting board, and move on to everything else that troubles the system.
"There will always be people around who don't like you for some reason. Don't worry about it and do your job."

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Respond to racism? You be the judge

So, how would you respond?
Say you’re a black elected official, and you get racist e-mail, complete with racial slurs and references to body parts. Do you reply? If so, how?
Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member George Dunlap sent the following to a number of people he knows, including a member of the Observer’s editorial board. (No, I wasn’t one.)
Here’s the original, racist message to Dunlap. (I’ve edited some offensive language, and deleted the sender’s e-mail address.) It comes from “Online Feedback from CMS Website”:
“Comments: Sir, I remember fondly my elementary school days at Cotswold in the ’60’s. Most of us were generally good boys and girls. We had 2 negro children in the whole school, and nobody mistreated them. They were good boys, so far as I know. None of our parents would have allowed us to use disparaging language against negroes, or colored people. This was the way things were. Then came Randolph Jr. High, then forced busing. The negroes were n-----s, and they damn well acted every bit of it. Disruptive to the extreme, pulling out their p-----s and beating them on the desk in class. Beating white children, rioting, full of slavery-blaming. Just generally ALL a bunch of god-damn n-----s. All day, every day. Whatever white Liberal speaks their PC baloney in the public forum, is just that – a turncoat liberal. And “African Americans” are just a dreadful species of naughty children. I can't change that, no matter how much you Libs tax me.”
Here’s what Dunlap asks, in an e-mail this morning (Dec. 29):
“This is a test. Each time I respond to folks like --------, they seem to not like my response and run to the media to tell them what a nasty person I am and why I should not have responded the way I did. As the new year approaches, I plan to try something new. This is the plan. When I get email that I want to respond to, like this one. I plan to send it to a number of people. If you are receiving this, it's because I want to respond to this email. Your job is to tell me in 100 words or less why I should not respond or to suggest a response for me.”
One final thought: If you think this sort of racist talk has vanished, think again. It’s not uncommon for black people in prominent jobs – or even white newspaper columnists – to get similar letters and e-mails. Charlotte – like most places in America – hides plenty of racial tension under the surface. I generally ignore them. Most of the letters arrive without a name and return address, anyway -- as though the writers were ashamed. Fancy that!
What would you tell Dunlap? Or the e-mailer? I’ll try to reach Dunlap later today and ask if he’ll share some of the advice he gets.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Unnatural Act? Whether sprawl is inevitable

Nan Bauroth, a former community columnist for the Observer, e-mails to suggest I read “Sprawl: A Compact History,” [by Robert Bruegmann] recently reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. “This proves that far from unenlightened, sprawl has been with us since time immemorial for good reason,” she says. “Interested in your take!”
My reply:
I’ve seen the reviews, haven’t had a chance to read it, though it sounds interesting. Here’s my take, with the caveat that I haven’t read the book: The process of people moving out from cities is age old, due to the inevitable crowding, noise, and – in many cities until modern sewer systems – disease-ridden filth. People who could afford it built villas, country houses, etc., and kept a place in town. People who couldn’t afford it didn’t. I think that’s a natural economic process that really can’t be stopped.
But in the 20th century, the form that natural process took changed dramatically, as governments, influenced by planners and would-be social reformers as well as automakers, began mandating vast territories of nothing but single-family-home dwellings on mandated large lots, and other vast territories of nothing but stores, and yet more vast territories of office-only buildings (a.k.a. office parks). That’s not the way cities evolve naturally when left to their own devices. Plus, governments began catering to, and subsidizing, automobile travel in unprecedented ways. Traffic engineers came up with the theory that dead-end streets feeding onto large thoroughfares would make traffic move smoothly. They were right – up to a point. When there’s too much traffic, those thoroughfares get horribly clogged.
So while the process of suburbanization is natural, the form it began taking in the 20th century was decidedly unnatural, as well as more costly to governments (all those streets, longer sewer lines, more police cars covering more miles, ditto school buses, etc.)
In addition, in previous centuries, those suburban villages could easily be absorbed into the city as it grew out to meet them. Examples: Montmartre, Greenwich Village, etc. The zoning-law/traffic-engineer-designed suburbs of the 20th century aren’t so easily absorbed, with their highway-like thoroughfares and cul-de-sacs that distort traffic dispersal, their lack of pedestrian amenities, and legally enforced, unnaturally low densities.
I think suburbs in general are a natural phenomenon. What isn’t natural is the style in which Americans have been building them for the last 60 or so years. There’s also a lot of research pointing to some very harmful rules on the part of banks/insurance companies/mortgage firms, etc., that prevented city property owners (or anyone owning property anywhere near black people) from getting loans. The federal government, to its shame, supported and enforced that discrimination during the first half of the 20th century. The removal of official and unofficial red-lining is one reason, in my unresearched opinion, that city living has seen a renewal recently.

Friday, December 16, 2005

School Board Nastiness Spreading?

No one called Kaye McGarry "sweetheart."
But testy tempers over school bonds, growth, and – never spoken but usually present – racial tension erupted this morning (Friday, Dec. 16) at a usually staid intergovernmental committee called the Planning Liaison Committee.
This wasn’t posturing for the press. Local TV cameras don’t cover this process stuff. It was an audience on only four: two folks from REBIC (Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition), a guy who I think was a developer, and me.
I’ll spare you most of the play-by-play. It involves nonsexy things like cost-containment and the difference between general obligation bonds and Certificates of Participation.
But county commissioner Dumont Clarke looked like he was channeling Law and Order’s Jack McCoy, or maybe a Rottweiler. Commissioner Norman Mitchell, usually congenial, got steamed, at one point telling fellow commissioner Dan Bishop, "Your point of view is not correct."
"Welcome to a school board meeting," school board member Kit Cramer quipped at one point, trying to defuse the tension.
Kaye McGarry – the at-large school board member who wants extra security because George Dunlap yelled at her last spring and called her "Sweetheart" last month – must have gotten under Clarke’s skin. It’s easy to see why.
Her continual refrain – that all of CMS’s crowding problems could be solved if only they’d build schools more cheaply and efficiently, i.e., they’re wasting money left and right – typically lacks specifics. Thank goodness today she didn’t go on and on about all the "bells and whistles" they’re building into today’s schools. (Bells? Whistles? Teachers reading this who see bells and whistles, please let me know.)
Today she parroted something she’d heard somewhere, that COPs require schools to be built for less money. That was patently inaccurate, because they’re just another way to borrow money. Clarke kept interrupting her, saying "That’s not right."
Later, Clarke demanded specifics – what percentage of the school building plans could or should be eliminated through cost-containment? "I plead, I beg you, to get away from these generalities – ‘We can do this cheaper.’ "
McGarry would only say, "We can do better." Clarke burrowed in: "You didn’t answer my question." Eventually, Bishop said: "I didn’t know it was an inquisition."
There was more – too much more. And it was not at all collegial. Example from Clarke: "People who say you’re overspending are not in touch with reality. They have another agenda."
What to make of it all? Here’s my take:
Other elected officials don’t hesitate to publicly criticize school board decisions, although they’re far more courteous with other elected bodies’ occasionally knuckle-headed decisions. "We’re the weak man down, and everyone’s taking a turn kicking," is how school board member Kit Cramer put it after Friday’s meeting.
The school board has four members (McGarry, Dunlap, Larry Gauvreau and Vilma Leake) who can’t play well with others. They are crusading, not governing.
Their spats – especially the ones with an under-the-surface racial tinge – are making their political allies mad, too. The nastiness is spreading to other elected bodies, if Friday’s Planning Liaison Committee meeting was any indicator.
That’s not a cheerful thought.

Impact Fees, Chapter 2: Nothing Is Simple

If you’ve checked the comments on my Dec. 9 post "The Hottest Story Going," you’ll see a lot of pro-con about impact fees. Jonathan Marshall, commerce director for Cabarrus County, shares this:
"Statements like this one from your blog – 'Usually, though not always, the cost of the fee is included in the price of the house you buy or apartment you rent' – are too often made without challenge. There is considerable research on the subject and it is not that simple. Ironically, one of the best summaries of that research is a document prepared for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission in 1990 by Duncan & Associates. ... The section that addresses it most directly is Chapter VI."
What the report says is that researchers differ on whether impact fees and impact taxes end up being passed on to homebuyers or passed backward to whoever sells land to the developer, and that other factors come into play, too, such as whether neighboring jurisdictions have impact fees, and whether the market is booming or sluggish. In other words, financing is complex.
That 15-year-old report, "Infrastructure Financing Techniques" is one I wrote about a year ago: "A 14-year-late debate," Oct. 2, 2004."
I described how it was quietly decided by someone in city government in 1990 to instruct the consultants, Duncan & Associates, not to actually make any recommendations about how to finance infrastructure.
I guess city staff types (or politicians?) were worried they’d recommend impact fees or land transfer taxes, both of which the local developers’ lobby treat with the affection they’d show Karl Marx. (Publicly. Privately it’s not hard to find developers who think impact fees might be better than the current unpredictable system of what they dub "extractions.")
Impact fees obviously wouldn't be a silver bullet to kill all growth and funding problems. After all, Wake County has them and they're still looking at some painfully expensive school-building needs. But notice: Impact fees don't seem to have slowed Wake County development, or Chatham County's either, the way developers here – and their politician mouthpieces
– would have you believe.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Faking It? So is New Urbanism real?

There I was in Seaside, Fla., cradle of New Urbanism, mothership of a major architectural movement, a place that gets as much ink in architecture circles as Madonna gets in the real world.
Since Seaside got famous in the 1980s (it broke ground in 1981), critics have said it’s Disney-esque, unreal, nostalgic, elitist – a haunt for Stepford Spouses.
So, what was it really like? (Add your two cents' worth, below.) Until I went there for several days last week, I reserved judgment. You can’t really assess places until you see them. I’m a fan of New Urbanism, or at least of what New Urbanism really is, as opposed to what some critics or cheesy developers say it is.
What's New Urbanism? An architectural movement to revive the ways neighborhoods, towns and cities developed for centuries. But in the 20th century those patterns were scrapped by, among others, Modernist architects, grandiose urban planners, single-use zoning laws and traffic engineers. A New Urbanist neighborhood has narrower streets, pedestrian comforts (Seaside doesn’t really have many sidewalks, though it’s easy to walk through), connected streets, a blend of dwellings (houses, apartments, townhouses, etc.) and uses (residences, stores, workplaces). Houses sit close to each other and the street, to encourage neighborliness. Densities are higher than typical suburbia.
Seaside, designed by the Miami firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk, was the first place to get famous for honing those principles, although other architects and planners were also espousing them. Developer Robert Davis made a ton of money, and the place is hugely popular.
My verdict? Seaside is charming, especially if you like picket fences and Southern-style homes with big porches. (Most academic types and architecture writers don’t.)
Is Seaside real? Of course not. Yellow card! Is Wild Dunes real? Kiawah? Figure Eight Island? It’s a beach development.
Is it only for rich people? Again, yellow card! It’s a beach development. As designed, Seaside had more affordable places than most beach resorts. But it was wildly successful, so prices zoomed. The last undeveloped beach lot – 50 feet wide – just sold for $4 million.
Is it elitist? I see why the place sets some people’s teeth on edge. The marketing prose is excruciatingly high-concept – e.g. short gushing essays about how special it is that Southerners give names to their beach houses – with the faintest aroma of self-congratulation. It offers wine festivals, chamber music on the lawn, high-end decor shops and an artist-in-residence program. It did give me the urge to prop a rusty Corvair up on cinderblocks and serve Cheerwine and Slim Jims at my next soiree.
Conclusion: Seaside is lovely (the Ruskin Place courtyard/park is particularly beautiful) , but no longer unique – which is why it’s so significant. It proved customers crave places built to look less like Levitttown and more like Chapel Hill or Charleston. It was a demonstration project.
And it launched a huge movement in planning and architecture. Without Seaside, there’d probably be no Baxter in Fort Mill, no Afton Village in Concord, no First Ward Place housing project in Charlotte, no Southern Village in Chapel Hill. That’s its major significance. Whether it’s “real” or “elitist” is, in the end, flatly irrelevant.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The hottest story going

It’s the biggest story in Charlotte – and Union, Cabarrus, Iredell counties and most other places around here. Bigger than the Bobcats. Bigger than their new arena. Even bigger than Ric Flair’s divorce. (Disagree? See below.)
It’s growth. Development. It’s what people in the old days used to call "progress." That sounds so quaint now, like calling a sofa a davenport, or a fridge the icebox.
And most everyone has an opinion about it, from "It’s my property, don’t tell me what I can do," to "Stop the developers!" to "No more density!" to "No more sprawl!" – two opinions widely shared yet mutally exclusive. And that’s not even getting into the whol Wal-Mart melee: Agent of Satan or WWJ(W)Wal-Mart’s Where Jesus (Would) Shop.
That’s why I launched this blog. I’ve got a gazillion opinions, and judging from the e-mails and letters I see, you do, too. I write a regular column for the Charlotte Observer but there's more to discuss than there is newsprint available to hold the discussion. So …..
Let’s get a discussion going. How’s this for starters: Impact fees?
Those are per-unit or per-lot fees that developers pay to local governments to help pay for schools, or streets, or parks, etc. (Two important things to remember: Usually, though not always, the cost of the fee is included in the price of the house you buy or apartment you rent. And the income they bring in isn’t enough to fully pay for the schools, or the roads or other government services the residents of the new development require. I.e. they don’t replace property taxes.)
Do we need them in Charlotte, or in the places nearby? If so, what should they help pay for?
You can post your opinions below, or respond to others’ opinions.