Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ignoring pedestrians? Drivers beware!

Drivers who ignore pedestrians, beware! At least, beware if you’re in Chicago.

My buddy Tom Low – architect and planner with Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Charlotte office and founding father of the Civic By Design forum – shares this link to a ChiTrib article about that city considering plainclothes “stings” to catch drivers who endanger people on foot.

The article says on average more than one pedestrian is killed in a traffic accident each week in Chicago – one reason the city takes the problem seriously.

Tom wonders: What are some other things and places that makes it hard for pedestrians here in Charlotte? (And just today, a student at Providence High School was hit by a motorist. Story here.)

He writes, “For example, excessively wide street-corner-turning radii allow for motorists to move faster around corners, while potentially doubling the crossing distance from curb to curb for pedestrians, compared to more traditional tight urban street corners.

“The combination of fast cars and longer crossing distances discourages pedestrians from at least getting an even chance to use the public realm. This will become more of an issue as suburban places like SouthPark rebuild the private property with more urban uses and density, while the public streetscape was originally designed as higher speed, suburban arterials. My office at Queens and Providence in the Myers Park commercial neighborhood suffers from this problem too.”

Charlotte DOT is a lot more sensitive on this than it used to be, but much of the city was built in the bad old insensitive ways.

My beef, as a pedestrian? I have dozens. Here's a big one: We need more pedestrian crossing lights, and longer crossing times for walkers. For example, in the SouthPark and Morrocroft areas (and lots of others, too) many of the lights don’t give a pedestrian crossing OK at all unless you press the button. Even then you get maybe 5 seconds, max, before that “Don’t Walk” hand starts flashing.

This absurdity is subtly training me to ignore the blinking hand – NOT behavior traffic specialists want to encourage, I presume.

Friday, December 15, 2006

East Charlotte's new, Belk-free future

I can’t say I was surprised Belk decided to pull the plug on its Eastland mall store. It’s been rumored for years. But what will it mean for east Charlotte and for Eastland mall? I’d love to hear from some Eastland-area neighbors.

Here’s my take. On one hand, the demographic changes in east Charlotte that have affected Eastland mall and its Belk store are another indicator of a national phenomenon of economic problems besetting so-called “first ring” suburbs – neighborhoods built from the 1950s to the 1970s, even 1980s. They lack the redevelopment cachet of uptown or older, streetcar suburbs such as Plaza-Midwood, Dilworth and Wesley Heights, etc., and their housing stock is aging, sometimes not gracefully.

The comparatively less expensive houses and apartments in east Charlotte have attracted a lot of immigrants. The area has also attracted more than its share of “affordable housing” development projects, especially if you consider the almost complete absence of that kind of project in the relatively affluent pie-slice of Charlotte that sits to the south of uptown. As we all know – well, you’d think city leaders would know this but some of them too often act as if they don't – clustering too much starter-level and “affordable” housing in any one chunk of the city drags down property values for everyone there.

On the other hand, no one in city government who’s been paying attention – and yes, they do often pay attention – will be any more surprised than I am. It's been rumored for years that Belk was going to close that store. Here's an Observer article from June about the situation. Harris Teeter closed its Eastland store earlier this year. All over the country, enclosed regional shopping malls are fading. The hot new ticket is the “lifestyle center.” I haven’t researched this, but from chats I’ve had with developers and national planners, I’ve begun to suspect Northlake might be the last enclosed regional mall ever to be built in America. Eastland was probably fated for trouble regardless of the area's demographic shift. And what’s in the cards for Carolina Place? Eastridge in Gastonia? Northlake?

What should happen next? And what can the city do about it? The city has an Eastland area redevelopment plan, which envisions all kinds of wonderful, walkable infill development, but I question how realistic it is. Unless Eastland’s owner finds a deep-pockets buyer willing to do a complete grayfields redevelopment – the kind where investors DON’T get a fast return on investment – I fear the Eastland area won’t have a bright near-term future. There isn't a whole heckuva lot the city can do about it. One thing it CAN do, though is to adopt a more sensible affordable housing policy – like, require a small percentage in ALL developments? Hello? Another thing is to come up with more creative policies to increase the kinds of housing that the non-rich can afford, such as allowing granny flats, or garage apartments, carriage houses and small dwellings at a single-family-home lot. And finally, it can change the design rules on the ancient B-1 zoning throughout that area, so anything new that gets built will be built to more walkable, attractive standards. Eventually the area could attract the kind of funky shops that you call walk to, like what you see in Plaza-Central, but only if the area moves away from its auto-worshipping design.

Long term, who knows? The Plaza-Midwood phenomenon is moving slowly out Central Avenue. In-town neighborhoods with affordable middle-income housing are likely to become attractive again, once their faded ’60s-’70s look comes to be seen as charming, not stale – the way some ’50s ranch houses are now prized for retro funkiness.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

School shopping? Read this

You may not know this if you don’t have a child in school or ready to start school in Charlotte, but late fall and early winter – i.e. now – is prime hunting season for schools.

For weeks parents of children who’ll start kindergarten August 2007 have been touring different Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to help them decide where to enroll their kids. Regularly assigned school? Magnet school?

Despite what some people say, CMS offers some excellent schools, including many highly regarded and wildly popular magnet schools. Some of its regular schools are so highly sought after they affect housing prices in their attendance zones.

But some CMS schools are clearly troubled. How do parents, especially people new to Charlotte, learn which is which? Just asking real estate agents or people you happen to run into doesn’t guarantee you’ll get anything close to accurate information. I keep hearing about real estate agents who wave people away from CMS altogether. That may not be doing their clients any favors, if you consider the costs of private school tuition, or of commuting in from outlying counties.

Any careful parent, even those not new to Charlotte, will have questions, such as:

– Which magnet programs are so popular your chances of winning a seat in the lottery are small?

– Are there some strong, but “undiscovered” magnet programs where your chances of getting a seat are good?

– Which schools have strong principals?

– How much weight should I put on a school’s test scores, alone? (Answer: Look beyond simple numbers. One example I’m familiar with: Language immersion students typically don’t do so hot in reading on third-grade tests, but by fifth grade their scores rise significantly.) Here's a link with a lot of test scores (though the latest are 2004-05).

I’ve recently had an e-mail exchange with someone who’s moving to Charlotte and is trying to figure out where to place her child for next year. He’ll be a third-grader. I’ve helped at open house tours at our daughter’s magnet program (where she attended K-8) and I know how eager parents are for first-hand information about a school or magnet program, even when they’ve done prodigious amounts of research.

So it occurred to me that my blog-readers might be a resource for parents looking at schools.

Put your questions/comments about specific schools below.

Here’s some of what I told my e-mail correspondent about choosing a school in CMS.

Whatever elementary school you choose – there are a bunch of really excellent ones – also look ahead to middle and high school. Even if you go with a magnet program, you want to make sure your house is in the attendance zone for good middle and high schools. Myers Park High is the premiere high (OK, so I’m biased), though parents at Providence would probably fight me on that. Other good high schools include South Meck, the northern high schools (North Meck, Hopewell, etc.) Ardrey Kell High in the south is brand new, but the attendance zone is affluent so it’ll probably have great test scores. Butler and East Meck also have good reputations, especially East Meck’s International Baccalaureate magnet program. And Northwest School of the Arts magnet – (grades 6-12) has a devoted following.

Middle schools: the Alexander Graham (a.k.a. “AG”) Middle School is fabulous. Lots of Observer folks send their kids to Piedmont Middle School and rave about it. Davidson IB Middle is great. Randolph IB program is also excellent.

On to elementary schools. There are some excellent and very popular magnet programs. Best bet if you’re looking at mid-year enrollment: Call the school and talk to the principal. Some schools have waiting lists, some don’t.

Reasons you might want magnets: Interesting and enriching programs. Also, stable assignment. The neighborhoods way out at the fringes (Lake Wylie, Steele Creek, Ballantyne, Huntersville, Davidson, etc.) are growing so fast and new schools opening so often they keep having to re-do attendance lines. Many people prefer those far suburban areas because the families are relatively affluent and well-educated and there’s less racial and ethnic diversity, which some people fear (although others relish it). The disadvantage of those areas: schools very crowded, changing assignment zones.

Now, back to the issue at hand, i.e. elementary magnet programs:

– Montessori is very popular.

– Elizabeth Traditional and Myers Park Traditional elementaries are very popular with strong parent support, including parents who could easily send their kids to private schools.

– Language immersion is growing in popularity. It’s a fabulous program, strong principal, good test scores (our daughter was in French immersion so I know more about this than some other magnet programs). Schools: Smith on Tyvola Road is K-8, a countywide magnet for German, Japanese and Chinese, meaning anywhere you live, you can go there, and all middle school immersion kids can go there. K-5 French and Spanish are divided into attendance zones between Smith and Oaklawn. Hard to get into beyond first grade level, though sometimes there’s “late immersion” for older grades.

– Spanish immersion elementary is at Collinswood. It gets great test scores. Principal Maria Petrea is fabulous, wins national recognition, etc. But the school population is about half Hispanic, and this scares off some white parents – go figure.

– Dilworth Elementary: performing arts magnet. Great neighborhood.

– Other, regular elementaries that are popular and well-regarded include (but aren’t limited to): Selwyn, Sharon, Eastover, Cotswold, Beverly Woods (the new super sends his daughter there), Davidson (all those professors’ kids), plus most any of them out in the fast-growing affluent suburban neighborhoods such as McKee Road, Providence Spring, etc.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Put up your goo

They’ve emerged, and they’re on the march. I saw one yesterday. Today I saw a half-dozen. Tomorrow it will be dozens.

I’m talking about the small, gray, wingless moths (see rather blurry photo, right, taken in our back yard with my cell phone) trying to hike to the tops of Charlotte’s trees and – since they’re female – lay thousands of eggs. Next spring, on a warm and sunny day, the eggs will hatch into small green worms, who will proceed to devour all the emerging leaves on the trees. After a few years of this, the trees get terribly weakened and become more susceptible to dying from disease, drought or other ills.

If you haven’t spread the goo on your tree bands, get cracking. Those tree bands you and hundreds of other Charlotteans put up aren’t worth diddly unless they’re smeared with the goo to trap the moths. The past couple of cold mornings have encouraged the little bugs to start their yearly tree climb.

After a horrific outbreak last spring of the worms – known as fall cankerworms or Alsophila pometaria – the city of Charlotte this fall is encouraging homeowners and neighborhood groups to put the moth-catching traps around as many trees as possible. It’s not difficult, just a bit time-consuming. The key ingredient is a sticky goo called Tanglefoot. Here’s a link to the instructions. It also lists local hardware stores where you can get the supplies. Call first. Blackhawk Hardware says they’re out of Tanglefoot today, but expect more tomorrow. University City Boulevard Home Depot reports it, too, is out of Tanglefoot and doesn’t know when or if it’s getting more.

(Here are a couple more tips. First one is from Robbie Robinson at Blackhawk Hardware: Tanglefoot gets stiff in the cold. Microwave it so it spreads more easily. Second – don't ask how I know this – if a small girl happens to rub her head in the sticky goo, don’t even try to get it out of her hair with shampoo. Use an orange-scented product called Goo Gone and be plenty patient.)

Usually, if you smear the Tanglefoot too soon, falling leaves stick in it, shrinking the sticky area that will trap the egg-bearing moths. Typically Charlotte’s willow oak trees don’t lose the last of their leaves until well into December.

This year is different. An early cold snap, combined with a storm in November, means most oaks have been bare for weeks. That’s why the city’s behind in its leaf collection. And that’s why NOW is the time, if you haven’t already, to put up your goo.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A call from Robo-Gorman

Just as I was getting out of the shower this morning, the phone rang. Expecting it was the Bellsouth technician responding to a service complaint I had lodged about 30 minutes previously, I sprang to answer, wearing what you usually wear when you just step out of the shower.

Instead, I heard a mechanical voice: “Hello, this is Doctor Peter Gorman ... (Pause) ... Hello ... (Longer pause) ... Hello ... (Pause.)” Was the darn record stuck? (That's for readers old enough to remember records and when they got stuck.)

Was it waiting for some voice-activated gizmo? “Hello!” I responded, a bit loudly. “Hello! Hello!”

If I weren’t a trained professional journalist with an interest in education, I’d have hung up. But since I’d spent 2 1/2 hours the day before listening to Gorman brief Observer reporters and editors on his plan, I wanted to hear what he was telling people. Finally, whatever gremlin had attacked Robo-Call relented and the CMS superintendent was able to launch into his mechanized spiel.

He told me that today – his 103rd on the job, he was careful to note – he was unveiling his plan to improve Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and invited me and all other CMS parents to watch the CMS channel tonight at 7 to learn more, or to visit the CMS web site. (Or you can read a PDF version of the plan here.)

I gathered that all CMS parents were getting a similar Robo-Call. But since this was 9:15 a.m. I wondered how many would be home to receive it. And coming just a few weeks after the end of election season, with its over-the-top glut of Robo-Calls, was this really the best way to share the information and make people feel all warm and fuzzy about Gorman's plan?

On the other hand a lot of people are truly clueless about what’s going on in their city. They may or may not watch TV news, or listen to radio news. If they’re not reading the paper – and a lot of people don’t, else they’d have seen Gorman’s article on today’s oped page – they may not know anything about Gorman and his promise of an After 100 Days plan. In short, was this an annoying interruption at home or a welcome attempt by CMS to try to communicate better with parents?

Notice, I didn’t get into what I think about the plan itself. In a nutshell: It’s a good one. No miracle bullets, but then, I don’t think any miracle bullets exist. Closest thing to a miracle bullet would be to double teacher pay so more of the best and the brightest choose teaching as a career. But politicians don’t want to raise taxes as much as they’d have to.

If you want to read more comments, check out the charlotte.com message board about Gorman’s plan. Or, as always, put thoughts below.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Growth – some ruminations

On to other topics, as I see not many of you were interested in the Modernism versus New Urbanism article. I do recommend, however, reading the 11/27/06 comment about Marianne Cusato’s experience with post-Katrina plans and the audience rising up to oppose a Modernist design being imposed upon them. (Even I concede that when Solomon’s talk was presented as a speech and slide show, my own attention span wore about after about an hour.)

Today, during a briefing from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman on his Strategic Plan 2010 (I’ll reserve comment until it’s unveiled tomorrow) I found, deep in my legal pad, notes I apparently scribbled to myself during some other meeting at some other time.

It appears to be observations about planning and growth in Charlotte and this region. Thoughts? Put ’em below.

1. Are city plans worthless?

– The incredible weakness of planning. Plans are timid – rarely push against development in the works.– Worse, city policy – adopted after developer pressure – guts them. The rezoning-changes-the-plan rule. [That refers to the nutso policy of City Council, whereby any vote for a rezoning that doesn’t conform to the adopted plan magically alters the adopted plan so that, voila, the new zoning now becomes part of the plan. It’s a travesty.]

– Council, even staff, frequently won’t support [plans]. (See above.), Plus lack of money for enough staff.

2. Developers– Not monolithic. [I meant there are many developers, and they’re not all alike and don’t all share the same views.]

– Change the rules. If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, etc.

– The lying. [I meant here, that some developers – not all – tell lies, either to neighbors or to elected officials.]

3. No hope for real regional planning without state involvement.

4. State legislature major hypocrite. “Land use is local” excuse. But won’t give localities authority for such land use tools as impact fees, etc.

5. Follow the money. Even if Mark Felt never said it. [Felt was Watergate’s Deep Throat.]

6. Traffic congestion is inevitable. “Congestion is the condition of the city.”

[That’s a quote from architect and planner Andres Duany, one of the founders of the New Urbanist movement. His point: It’s in the nature of cities to be crowded. You can’t cure congestion in a city.]

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Modernist architect skewers Modernism

Ever wondered why so much architecture nowadays – especially architecture that other architects rave about – looks as if it was designed by someone who’s got an inner ear balance disorder? Or what, really, is so bad about designing a building that pays homage to the past 2,000 years of architectural tradition?

Last June I had the opportunity to hear a devoted modernist architect, Dan Solomon, give a speech in which he skewered the modernist architectural movement in the United States and proposed a different way of looking at modern architecture, one that doesn’t jettison the past but builds on the best of the past.

Solomon is a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Yes, despite what some people may tell you, New Urbanism as an architectural and planning movement has plenty of room for modernist architects.

His talk was fascinating, and one I think many architects and others will enjoy reading, no matter what their position is on Modernism (though any architect who admits to not liking Modernism is usually subject to withering scorn, and Solomon explains why). And it explained to me why the Harvard School of Design (including its devotees on the New York Times’ architectural writing staff) holds such disproportionate sway over architectural thinking in America today.

Here's the LINK. Warning – it’s long. And I don’t have the slides he showed. But with a long holiday weekend looming, it should keep you busy.

Here’s a sample – he’s characterizing the attitudes of many of today’s Modernist architects:

“ ... Populist hostility to an abstract modernism is a philistine ignorance tobe ignored; references to vernacular building, the imperatives of place orclassicism are inadmissible, and dissonance, not harmony, is the order of the day.”

Happy reading.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hoofing it? Sound off

NOTE: The survey mentioned below will take comments until Dec. 8, not Nov. 24 as I said on Tuesday.

Gee, I hate to break off yet another pro-con tirade about transit (see comments on my previous post, many offered while I was on vacation last week). But here goes.

Even though today’s weather is making most of us vow not to be outdoors at all, today’s topic is walking: for pleasure, for exercise, for dogs and as transportation.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in Charlotte in the past 10 years is the number of people walking, for all the reasons listed above. Part of that’s due to the slow but steady improvement in the number of, and quality of, city sidewalks. Part of it’s due to newcomers who are used to living in places where walking is easier. If you’ve ever spent time in New York, for instance, you know walking five or six blocks is simply routine. You wouldn’t think of driving that distance. In Charlotte, most people wouldn’t think of walking that distance.

Why should the city try to encourage people to walk? Consider public health – most of us are getting fatter and we need the exercise. That drives up health costs for everyone, from our insurance rates to the cost of Medicare and Medicaid.

Consider transportation costs. It’s a heckuva lot cheaper to build sidewalks than to build – or even widen – streets. The more people can walk places, the less they’ll clog our streets with their cars.

Try recreation. Walking and hiking are immensely popular exercise.

Try household budgets. Walking is cheaper than driving.

And consider all the people who can’t drive. That would be kids, the disabled, and many elderly for whom loss of a driver’s license too often spells loss of independence.

Amazingly, the City of Charlotte’s Transportation Department now has a pedestrian program manager, Vivian Coleman (vcoleman@ci.charlotte.nc.us). She’s working on a pedestrian master plan to improve walking conditions throughout the city.

As part of that, she’s asking everyone who’s interested to take ">this online survey. It takes less than 10 minutes – more like 3 unless you read really, really slowly. It will be available until Friday, Dec. 8. Go to it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Controlling growth -- or not

Which party controls the Mecklenburg County board of commissioners – which was still unclear Wednesday afternoon – could have some potentially far-reaching effects on how the county grows and how it pays for the growth.

As I write this midafternoon Wednesday, it looks as if the Democrats will control the board. Two of the three at-large seats were won by Democrats: Jennifer Roberts was top vote-getter and Parks Helms came in third. Republican Dan Ramirez was second. But only 78 votes separated Helms from fourth-place finisher Kaye McGarry, with 1,340 provisional ballots due to be counted Nov. 17. So if McGarry were to overtake Helms and win a seat, the board majority would be Republican.

So what would that mean? Two big issues come to mind. One is transit – which plays a major role in shaping where development goes and what kind of development it is. The board’s current Republicans pushed unsuccessfully in October to study whether to hold a referendum to repeal the transit sales tax. District 1 rep Jim Puckett, who seems not to have been re-elected, was particularly outspoken: He thinks any such tax ought to go to roads, not mass transit.

The other issue is whether to find alternative revenue sources to help take the pressure off property taxes to pay for growth-related needs, such as schools, parks, etc.

I thumbed through notes from interviews with five of six at-large candidates before the election, and I hauled out the candidate questionnaire published in the Charlotte Business Journal by the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition’s political action committee.

First, the questionnaire: One key question was whether candidates would support real estate transfer taxes and/or impact fees – two methods some other N.C. counties use to raise revenue for growth-related costs. Another was whether local governments should be allowed to adopt adequate public facilities ordinances as a way to stop or slow growth. Those ordinances say new development can’t overload public facilities, such as schools and roads. Typically developers pay into a fund to bring public facilities up to par or else phase developments to give public facilities time to catch up. So the question’s phrasing was a bit disingenuous, or not well informed.

The answers? Roberts said she’d be “willing to explore all the options,” including impact fees and land transfer taxes. She gets multiple bonus points for being the only one to point out a gigantic flaw in the APFO question. “Local governments are already allowed to adopt APFOs. Davidson has one.” Nicely done, especially the part where she neglected to say whether she’d consider one here.

Ramirez didn’t respond to the questionnaire.

Helms wouldn’t support transfer taxes or impact fees. He said local governments should be able to adopt APFOs.

McGarry said no to transfer taxes and impact fees and said governments have the authority to keep up with infrastructure as they approve projects. That’s technically correct, though I think if Charlotte City Council suddenly started rejecting development plans due to road incapacity, they’d be hit with lawsuits.

Republican Jim Puckett, who finished fifth for an at-large seat and isn’t likely to win, said no to both. Democrat Wilhelmenia Rembert, who finished sixth, said yes to both.

Among district winners, Republican Karen Bentley said no to both. Democrat Norman Mitchell didn’t respond, but he’s said before he favors looking at those options. Democrat Dumont Clarke said he’d like to see both studied.

Dan Bishop and Bill James, both Republican, and Valerie Woodard, a Democrat, didn’t have opponents and so weren’t included in the questionnaire.

Now the issue about transit, from my notes:

Roberts: Voted against studying a transit tax repeal when it came before the board in October. Helms: Ditto. Rembert: Ditto.

Ramirez: Apparently we editorial board members who interviewed him didn’t ask about it. (Twenty lashes with a wet noodle!)

McGarry: Would put a transit tax repeal on the ballot.

Puckett: Proposed studying transit tax repeal. Voted against transit tax in 1998 and thinks roads are a better use of tax money than mass transit.

Bentley: “No hard answers” on a transit tax repeal measure but supports looking at it. Voted against transit tax in 1998.

Mitchell: Voted against studying transit tax repeal.

Bishop and James: Voted for studying transit tax repeal.

So what happens next? We'll have to keep watching.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A "Curious Charlotte" campaign

Christie Taylor thinks Charlotteans need to be more curious.

Taylor, an owner of downtown’s Hodges Taylor Gallery, is pitching a proposal to anyone who’ll listen. Her idea, which she freely concedes isn’t fully formed yet, is to embark on a campaign to encourage more people to be more willing to try new things, ask new questions, befriend new people – you know, the things you do if you’re curious.

Her idea is aimed in part – but only in part – at encouraging people to sample the city’s arts offerings: plays, concerts, art galleries, the opera, etc. Her question to me over lunch this week: Why are people afraid to try new things?

I had a few possible answers. First: Too many cultural offerings cost too much. Example: I went to the opera “Madama Butterfly” last weekend. The good news: I stayed awake, unlike my only previous opera adventure some years back, in which I napped through an embarrassing amount of “Don Giovanni.” The bad news: The seat – which was a very good one, granted – was $75.

That alone keeps people from trying new things. If you aren’t sure you’ll like a new type of cultural offering, you’re unlikely to want to risk that kind of money. Heck, even Children’s Theatre tickets can be as much as $18 each. Take an adult and two kids, and that’s $54. (Yes, they offer less expensive tickets. So does the opera.)

Second, people crave comfort. When you’re working all day, fighting traffic to get home, worried your job will move to India, afraid you may not have health insurance next year and your pension may evaporate before you retire, getting outside your comfort zone isn’t high on the list of things you crave. What you crave is the psychic equivalent of macaroni and cheese.

But I also think Taylor’s got a good idea: Get us to mix it up a bit more. Maybe have a “free night” at the opera, symphony, theaters and museums every month or two, to invite in newcomers. But beyond that, I don’t have much inspiration.

You might, though, have a cool idea for a Curious Charlotte campaign. Let’s hear them.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A mediocre-class city?

In a city with high aspirations, Charlotte’s architecture by and large hasn’t risen to meet those aspirations. Why not?

Why, for instance, isn’t the collection of facilities soon to be built uptown – the new Mint Museum of Art, the new Bechtler Museum, the new Afro-American Cultural Center and the new performing arts theater and the NASCAR Hall of Fame – being treated as the opportunity of the century? After all, they have the potential to mark a huge section of uptown, and to shape its design, activities and architecture for decades.

But do you even know what those buildings will look like beyond some rudimentary drawings that have been published in the newspaper? And did you like what you saw? The Hall of Fame sketch I saw looked like a bad parody of a 1950s Jetsons’ city. All it needs are jet-cars in the sky, women in tennis skirts and guys in unitards.

A group of architects, artists, designers and interested others have been meeting monthly to talk through the state of design and art in Charlotte. Their next meeting, Monday, Nov. 6, at the Mint Museum of Art on Randolph Road, will tackle “What’s Ailing Architecture?”

Panelists will be three architects: Rebecca Fant, current president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects; Peter Wong of UNC Charlotte's College of Architecture, and Murray Whisnant. Moderator will be Manoj P. Kesavan of Adams Group Architects, a founder of the Point 8 Forum.

Here’s Manoj’s outline for the panel’s discussion:

Architecture is quite high-profile these days. There is a never-before media attention, creating a roster of celeb architects (or “starchitects”), whose names alone are enough to sell out the commercial developments that they design. Also perhaps there has never been a time in history with so many professional architects designing so many buildings.

Yet most of what we see around is “junk architecture” – buildings of hollow elegance that are created for instant consumption, and are of no lasting value. Why is the higher number of professionals and the increased attention not leading to a increased level of public awareness and higher quality of built environment? Why are most affluent American cities like ours so impoverished when it comes to having structures that are capable of inspiring/touching deeply those who enter it or inhabit it?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Arts: Road to riches or silly distraction?

Interesting luncheon speech last week from writer Joel Kotkin. Sorry that I’m only now getting this blog post written. (My Observer colleague, Forum Editor Lew Powell, somehow thought he deserved a vacation, and the rest of us had to double up a bit to cover for him.)

Kotkin is Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation . His most recent book is “The City: A Global History.” He was a provocative choice to speak to a conference put on by the nonprofit group, Partners for Livable Communities, which drew a good number of people interested in public art programs, cultural amenities, creative economies, etc. I’ll confess right off I haven’t read his book. I’m only reporting what he said in his speech.

Part of Kotkin’s message was this: Forget “arts” as a way to economically reinvigorate cities. What successful cities throughout history have provided are public safety, functioning economies, upward mobility, and “sacred” spaces, which don’t necessarily have to be religious. If a city has commercial success, then arts and culture will flourish, as they have throughout history in cities such as Venice, Florence, Amsterdam, London and New York.

He quoted Herodotus, the 5th century-B.C.E. Greek historian: “Human prosperity does not abide long in one place.” His point: Cities rise and fall. Cities and regions compete. Get used to it.

“There is no case that I know of,” Kotkin said, where art has done anything by itself “except to create a tourist economy.” He obviously thinks cities that desperately chase the so-called “creative class” and don’t pay attention to basic needs such as public safety and infrastructure (streets, sewers, schools) are misguided.

I agree, up to a point. Cities have to have thriving economies or they stop being cities and dry up and blow away. Without the things he lists – safety, jobs, etc. – they fail. But the arts are a segment of an economy. They produce things other people want to buy. Artists buy supplies and many of them hire help. As such, they're small businesses. Cities wanting to diversify their economies – for example, old textile towns – need lots of different economic enterprises, and the arts should, or at least could, be among them.

And just one word: Asheville. Being known as an artsy town lures other artists.

But Kotkin’s cautions are well-taken. I’m not sure city boosters anywhere can just decide to become cool and artsy and have any promise of success.

One of Kotkin’s funniest quotes was from an unidentified talk radio host: “If you need a campaign to prove you’re hip and cool, you’re not.”

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cheap housing, expensive transportation

It’s conventional wisdom that families move to the suburbs to get cheaper housing.

But a new study looks at the combined weight of both housing and transportation for low- to moderate-income families in 28 metropolitan areas and finds that combined costs of the two expenses are surprisingly constant. In other words, your housing costs may go down, but your transportation costs go up. Or vice versa.

Here’s a link that will get you to the report, "A Heavy Load," as well as some fact sheets.

The report, released Oct. 11, is from the Center for Housing Policy, the research affiliate of the National Housing Conference, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that studies housing policy, specifically affordable housing. Among the sponsors of this report: The Bank of America Foundation, and the National Association of Realtors.

In a nutshell, the study found that working families in the cities studied spend about 57 percent of their incomes on housing and transportation, with roughly 28 percent for housing and 29 percent for transportation. The share of income devoted to one or the other varies, but the combined costs tend to stay about the same – 55 to 60 percent.

Why does this matter? A lot of folks, including policymakers, have the rather simplistic view that an affordable house in the suburbs is the single best solution to help family income. This study shows the picture is a lot more complex.

And it also shows that if you’re planning to buy (or even rent) a new place, prudent financial planning means you should look at the big picture, not just housing costs alone.

From the report:

The study also points to the importance of infill development that expands the supply of affordable housing in inner city and older suburban neighborhoods that have good access to traditional job centers; the development of more affordable housing near transportation hubs and suburban employment centers; providing good quality and reliable transit for suburb to suburb commuting, as well as for helping families in the outer suburbs get into the central city; and policies to encourage car sharing and to reduce the costs of car ownership for families who cannot easily get to work via public transit.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Don't Do This At Home!

This post is specifically for planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers, developers and government types who know the rules and standards that force development to look the way it does. And (obviously) for any other interested readers, too.

My architect pal Tom Low, of Duany Plater-Zyberk's Charlotte office, shares this lovely photo of a street in Paris and asks – Can you do this at home?

I’m no expert, but here are a just few things I spotted that I don’t think would be allowed in Charlotte or most other places nearby:

  • Cafe tables too close to (or possibly even in) the street.
  • Tables without any awning or umbrella to cover them. (I think that’s an overly zealous health regulation.)
  • Awnings encroaching over the public sidewalk.
  • A blackboard sitting in the street.
  • And I’m not sure, but I suspect those signs somehow run afoul of the city’s sign ordinances, which are, in my opinion, too strict on benign signs and too lenient on billboards.
So let’s hear it: Can you do this at home?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Uptown parks – developers’ pawns?

I got a morning rant the other day from a guy I know – a government worker who doesn’t want his name made public, who’s lived here several years. It’s about uptown’s parks-on-the-move. My very quick reply to him, and his comeback, are below:

“Do any of our leaders or other citizens have the courage to speak out about the ongoing madness of selling and trading our uptown parklands? I have been astonished at this since I have come here. One day there is a park, the next day there is a hole with condos going up (McDowell/Fifth). Now the news about Marshall Park being sold/traded. Not to mention the park that was approved by Mecklenburg County that was well under way in terms of design and process, but is now on hold until the profit-seekers can figure out something that suits them better. It appears to me that parks and open space truly owned by the public (which means they can be depended on to be there for generations to come) are absolutely the lowest priority.

“Parks should be stable features in our society that we can enjoy now and take comfort in the fact that they will be there for the people who come after us. They shouldn’t be traded around on a map like chess pieces, to suit the needs of the investor conglomerates who seem to be in a leadership role in designing the uptown area. We are already in a major deficit situation with parks and public gathering spots (read: “owned by the public”) in our uptown area. Sure, parks can and should be improved and enhanced, but not just “moved.” Existing parks should be incorporated into new development projects, expanded, enhanced – not sold or traded. This is madness.

“I am astonished that no one speaks about it. What does it say about who we are and who we want to be?”

My reply:

“I enjoyed the rant. Thanks for sharing.

“There are some sound reasons for all the park-moving. At least I sorta think so. The park planning consultants brought in for the Third Ward park suggested moving the site, for some very good reasons, and the baseball-land-swap would move the park to where they suggested – touching South Tryon.

“Marshall Park is a badly planned, badly situated park that, since I moved here in 1978, has never been well-used by uptowners. I’m not sorry to see it go, as long as a better designed park replaces it. Which is also in the planning.

“The First Ward Park at Sixth and McDowell similarly suffered from no one ever using it, except for the basketball court. There’s a First Ward Park planned for closer to Tryon Street, across from ImaginOn and abutting the new UNCC building. It should also be a better location and a better design.”

And his comeback: “With all the new housing going in around where the parks were sold they would have been used. Parks should be solid piecemovable landscape, not moveable ones! A building permit for the new condos at Sixth and McDowell should not have been issued until the replacement park was in place. How do we know it will ever come to pass? If a developer is willing to pay more for it, it will be sold. How do we know if any of the new replacement parks, which never seem to materialize, will be sold and traded in the future?

“How can we achieve some stability and lasting presence for the parks, old or new, if they can be sold and traded at any time?

“Yes, you can use my rant [I had asked his permission] but, I wish you could see some of the finer points about the future, about stability, and about who is actually doing the planning. Also: The incredible lack of park and open space in the uptown area in general, and the trend toward marketing corporate green space as “a park.”

“We need public gathering spots that the public owns!"

I thoroughly agree uptown needs more public gathering spots that the public owns. And he’s right, the trend of dealing away parks could set a horrible precedent. And “who is actually doing the planning,” well, it's obvious and has been for decades that developers are doing the planning. Neal Peirce said as much in his “Peirce Report” for the Charlotte region in 1995.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Subdivision names -- where are the quail?

We have a joke in our house that subdivisions are always named for whatever they destroyed – no oaks left in Oak Grove, no quail in Quail Hollow, no foxes left in Foxcroft, and so on.

Check out this fun (but – warning! – slow-loading) site from Denver.

I love the grid. Anyone want to try a grid for Charlotte?

If you do, here’s my short list of what to include:Sharon. Quail. Providence. Carmel. Pines. Oak/Oaks. Leas. Stone. Forest. Park. (Anything)-stead. Meadows. Hill. Haven. Croft. Park. Landing. Shores. Preserve.

Odd, we don't have a Possum Hollow. Or Toad Landing. Or Kudzu Croft.

If you were naming a subdivision, what would you call it?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why derailing transit would be stupid

I’m just back from almost two weeks in Italy (bless those Frequent Flyer miles). While I was gone, there’s been more fractiousness over mass transit in Charlotte, including a lot of talk by some antediluvian county commissioners about forcing a do-over vote on the half-cent sales tax for transit.

Like a lot of folks, they think the light rail (and bus and streetcar) mass transit system Charlotte is building will be a waste of money. They’re wrong. Obviously, the transit system should be built as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Like many people, I have some concerns about that.

Just as obviously, if there are major problems with a contractor – such as Parsons Transportation – that are costing millions, Charlotte Area Transit System leaders and the city manager should be more open about it, earlier on. Their behavior smacks of secretiveness.

But many of the transit critics seem oblivious to this: The system isn’t being built for 2010, or 2015 or even 2025. It’s being built for 2050 and 2100 and beyond – for the future, when Charlotte traffic will be as horrendous as Milan’s and Rome’s.

We had one experience that shows clearly why rail is the better option for as many transit corridors as we can afford it on:

We flew into Milan and had train reservations from Milan to Florence. Unlike Rome, in Milan there’s no rail service from the international airport at Malpensa, about 30 miles out, to the central train station. There is, however, a bus for just 5 Euros.

Problem is, we made the trip at rush hour – 7:30 a.m. As the autostrada traffic ground to a halt over and over, I began to fear we’d miss our 10 a.m. train. The trip took almost 2 hours. In light traffic (our return journey last Saturday afternoon) the trip took only half as long.

Unlike bus transit, rail isn’t slowed by heavy traffic. The journey is reliable and predictable.

Fast forward to Rome, last Friday. As happens in Italy, a strike had been called – this time for the city’s bus and Metro system. All day, until buses began to run again about 6 p.m., the streets were at a standstill. As tourists just walking around, we weren’t inconvenienced. It was even easier to cross the street: Just tread your your way between stopped cars. But for people trying to work or run businesses, it was a nightmare.

To resort to a cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will Charlotte be. If growth continues, even more slowly than today, this place will be huge someday. Without reliable, workable options to private auto travel, it will grind to a stop, as Rome did on Friday. The most cost-effective way to build a rail transit system is to do it before the place grows as dense and expensive as, say, Rome. The later you wait, the harder and more costly it is.

That final lesson is proved by the problems Rome has had for decades trying to build and expand its subway system, which is far less extensive than in cities such as Paris, London, New York and Boston. The trouble is that in a 2,500-year-old city, they can’t dig tunnels without bumping into archaeological treasures and ancient ruins.

In Charlotte we don’t have that excuse. Yet.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A conservative’s idea for uptown

Got an e-mail from John Kemp of Matthews, who usually disagrees with much of what I write. For instance, he liked the Urbies in Saturday’s Observer, but only if all the icons were reversed! Anyway, he poses this proposal for uptown Charlotte. What do you think? My thoughts are below:

Somebody around here just “doesn’t get it,” and it may be me. We need to quit “spreading ourselves around” and concentrate our efforts on a huge center-city park. Central Park is an unbelievable attraction for NYC, Boston Common is for Boston, as is Golden Gate Park in San Francisco where we lived.

We could put all of our “stuff” in the park: Discovery Place, the African American Museum [Afro-American Cultural Center], the main library, the Mint Museum, the Aquatic Center, bike paths, walking & jogging trails, $10 million dollar soccer complexes (and not in Matthews), baseball & softball fields, a zoo & aquarium, an amphitheatre, a large (shallow) lake with a big spraying fountain for wading & splashing and paddling around, horse stables, pertinent monuments and sculptures, etc.

Locals could then visit three or four “attractions” daily, and visitors could see most of them in one weekend. You would only park one time and be shuttled around by free buses. Attendance at these “attractions” would dramatically increase. Security would be much simpler.

Of course this would probably take a minimum of 500 acres which may be impossible to get very close to Trade/Tryon. (I am uncertain as to what you mean when you refer to the part of downtown “best suited” for a baseball stadium), but I think the concept should be explored. A “snaking” tract is just as good, if not better. You do not have to have a square or rectangle.

“Too expensive and not worth it?” Believe me, fiscally I make Reagan look liberal. A center city park is not an “expense,” it is a magnet.

My thoughts: I agree with Kemp that putting a lot of interesting attractions in one park would make a much more alluring park. For instance, the Tuilleries park in Paris contains a small amusement park with rides, as well as pay-by-the-minute trampolines and pony rides for kids, in addition to its well-known formal walking paths and outdoor cafes.

The Luxembourg gardens have not only trees and flowering shrubs and grass, but a fruit-tree orchard, puppet shows and the famous pond where kids can rent toy sailboats they push with sticks.

Having a lot of attractions close by helps all the attractions – just ask the stores that locate in shopping malls.

BUT uptown needs more than one park. That’s to give people who live and work there access to non-pavement areas relatively near where they live and work. They don’t have to be fancy, but if you’re choosing to live in a condo or apartment uptown, you’re giving up your lawn and garden – usually willingly. That doesn’t mean you should have to give up kiddie playgrounds, flower gardens and places to picnic, fly kites, throw Frisbees, play catch, sit in the sun, read a book in a quiet outdoors spot, and so on.

Also, uptown needs lots of zones that hold something of interest. Every neighborhood needs a variety of things going on: Residences, stores, workplaces, and so on. Too much clustering of similar uses turns into single-use zoning, which doesn’t work in urban neighborhoods. So I wouldn’t put everything into that great park.

The other problem that Kemp recognizes is finding space in what we think of as “uptown.” Remember, Central Park was anything but central when it was planned. It was at the fringe of the city.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Sidewalk sign wars

I guess the city of Charlotte has conquered the problem of illegal real estate signs in rights of way all over town, because it’s now free to try to clamp down on sandwich board signs on uptown sidewalks.

A memo to the mayor and City Council, sent Wednesday, says the Charlotte Department of Transportation next week will send a letter to uptown businesses warning them about putting A-frame signs in the public right-of-way – that is, the sidewalk.

“The number of these [illegal] signs has risen dramatically in the past 12-24 months, especially A-frames (sic) type signs,” the memo says.

Why is CDOT bothering? Because, the memo says, the signs “have become obstructions to safe pedestrian movement within the Central Business District. ... Efforts to gain voluntary compliance in the past have shown limited and temporary results.”

Here’s the problem: The city says it wants to encourage more retail uptown. That’s a good goal. Folks who live and work uptown clamor for more.

But did you realize there’s already 1 million square feet of retail uptown? That’s the size of a regional shopping mall. The reason you didn’t know it is that uptown retail is mostly hidden. It’s in Founders Hall, or up in Overstreet Mall, or deep inside the Ivey’s building. The only way those retailers can attract the attention of people on the sidewalk to their very existence is to put out signs. For many of them, those signs are survival.

(Here, I’ll spare you the lengthy rant about the incredible cluelessness for 20 years in which city zoning laws, architects, developers and banking CEOs allowed and promoted the idea of locating uptown’s shops far, far from the city sidewalks, and not putting any good retail display space on the sidewalks.)

If the city wants to help encourage more retail business uptown, it should be doing its best to help existing retailers survive. Because retail begets retail. And that means they need those signs.

No, they shouldn’t block the sidewalks. Yes, there does appear to be something of a sign war going on, which needs to be reined in. And yes, the signs are legal if they’re not on the public sidewalks.

But a more useful city response would be to work with the restaurateurs and retailers to figure out how they can flag customers, without so much sidewalk clutter.

One last note: In the photo sent with the memo, posted above, the signs aren’t crowding pedestrians off the sidewalk at all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Calling all nominations

Every September I award "Urbies" in a column about the winners/losers in the growth and urban life scene in this region. This year’s column is planned for Saturday.

Know of some places, events, news developments or people who need praise? Or a (symbolic) piece of possum roadkill? Put your thoughts below. By Wednesday. And sorry, the only prize is public honor and glory. We have no budget for statuettes.

A note of caution: This ain’t a democracy. I get to exercise autocratic authority on what my opinion is. But other people’s ideas and opinions are always a help, and lots of people know lots of things I don’t. If you have something you’d like to suggest and you think I might – seriously – want to follow up with you, shoot me an e-mail at mnewsom@charlotteobserver.com so I can contact you. Thanks in advance to all.

Here’s a link to my 2004 Urbies column, so you can see what I'm talking about. Another note of caution: It’s MUCH better when you read it in the newspaper-on-paper, because, you see, I have this great little dead possum illustration that runs with it. It’s a visual thing ...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Strategically planning for “grittiness”

Want to know what Charlotte is like? Charlotte is the kind of place where city bureaucrats are talking about how to come up with a strategic plan to add “grittiness” to part of uptown. Imagine Beale Street, they say.

Interestingly, in July I visited Beale Street – the downtown Memphis street filled with blues bars, many in ragged old buildings. I’m pretty sure Beale Street didn’t arise because of a strategic plan for “placemaking.” It came about because it was a part of Memphis nobody else wanted, real estate was cheap and being the Northern End of the Mississippi, as Memphis likes to say of itself, some blues musicians happened to be handy.

At 6 p.m. Thursday Sept. 21 in the Government Center, (probably room 267), there’s to be a public meeting to talk about “placemaking” along Brevard Street between the to-be-built NASCAR Hall of Fame and the already built Bobcats Arena.

The idea is that the street could blossom with bars, cafes, restaurants and other attractions.

As the Jetsons’ dog used to say: Rotsa ruck.

For one thing, Brevard is a one-way street and so wide it looks to have the engineered standards of a freeway. More important, it’s hard to do “gritty” in new buildings, and not just for ambience reasons. New buildings are more expensive. So if you’re a bar, leasing space in a new building is more expensive. Thus you have to charge more for your drinks – hard to do in a competitive environment – or go for the high-end, luxury clientele who can afford to pay for pricey food with higher mark ups. In other words, the glamour gang, not the gritty gang.

The part of uptown that’s already “gritty” – sort of – are the bars along College Street, where – duh! – some old buildings were upfitted into bars a decade or more ago.

Another difficulty is that Brevard Street holds several Large Monoculture Buildings: The windowless hindquarters of the convention center. A bland Southern Bell office building. The modernist-suburban-style United Way Building. The side of the Transportation Center (a.k.a. bus depot).

A lot of the street just goes past surface parking lots – where new buildings presumably would go.

A few buildings have promise, though: Part of the United Way complex includes the building once home to the McCrorey YMCA, which served the black neighborhood that was blasted to oblivion by urban renewal. A couple of old buildings on the south side of East Trade Street survived the arena-led destruction. The Grace AME Zion Church building, whose congregation moved to the ’burbs, has been sold to the Historic Landmarks Commission which will protect it, then renovate and resell it. The historic storefronts at Third and Brevard are almost all that remains of the black, Brooklyn neighborhood.

Here’s my contribution to the goal of “grittiness” on Brevard Street: Move the Coffee Cup restaurant – yep, the historic little soul food restaurant that’s to be demolished by Beazer Homes – to one of those Brevard Street parking lots. Now that would add grittiness.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Charlotte, the next "chain" city?

After my Saturday column about the probable demise of the Coffee Cup restaurant (“It’s just an old building sitting on pricey dirt”), I got this semi-rant from reader Ed Stone. I’m posting it with his permission.

What do you think? Is Stone on target? Is Charlotte’s destiny to become a characterless Atlanta wannabe?

(I have to disagree with his smear of vanilla, in the fourth paragraph, as though it is soulless and lacking in character. But that’s a topic for another day.)

It is the mission of our City Council and the Charlotte Center City Partners to turn Charlotte into Atlanta. As rapidly as possible, with minimal, insincere lip service to what is viewed as the commerce-blocking detritus of the past. Once you accept that perspective, you will have far fewer surprises and be better prepared to navigate the changes.

Just as council put a few million bucks into restoring a trolley so as to pretend some little link to history, just hang on and you’ll see them spend a few million to get some of today’s buses running routes and reconstructing a micro-dairy farm near Selwyn. With dollars, we can build some simulated-genuine-fake-old new stuff to look substantial.

Charlotte’s motto, in action, is “to seem, rather than to be.” We’ve torn down what we were, now we are bulldozing what we are. The goal is to be just another installation of a “chain” city, as cookie-cut as the next McDonald’s burger joint.

Cities are following the model of airports, and we’ll not see much difference among them, as our airports and cities are being rebuilt to function as standardized, vanilla, soulless, high-density conduits for passers-through and cash.

The Coffee Cup’s land tax value issue is just an egregious example of what every Mecklenburg homeowner is facing. Time to cash in, and let Chi Chi’s, Sak’s, Wal-Mart, Johnson and Wales, light rail, Bobcats, Panthers, baseball, a “stroll district.” NASCAR, NoDa, “South End” and the “no cul-de sac” ordinance, et al, have it. Tear-downs and high-density condos. Maximize the tax value per square foot. Oppose the “growth agenda” of council and you’re a pro-unemployment Luddite.

Quite a shame, as we are throwing away the single claim to competitive advantage and distinctiveness we could have as a city, in favor of being an Atlanta Jr. lookalike-wanna-be.

The world is not clamoring for another Atlanta, as far as I know.

Friday, September 01, 2006

No, Bo, say it ain't so

The e-mail asked me:

“Is there any way you can find out why the city allowed the new Bojangles at 3rd and Independence to be placed in a typical suburban form? Here is a prominent corner between two high-profile projects, Elizabeth Avenue/CPCC and Pappas’ [Pappas Properties] Metropolitan and what do our planners allow? Suburban schlock. The store is pushed as far back from the corner as possible, meanwhile, the new store at Highland Creek will be urban (pulled to the corner with parking in the back). What do you think about this? Can you find out why what happened has happened?”

Full disclosure: I’ve been a Bojangles fan since they were founded in Charlotte in the 1970s. One night fellow copy editor Hank Durkin (who bailed out years ago, for Microsoft) took me to this fast-food joint at South Tryon and West Boulevard, and I’ve loved it ever since. (That original Bo’s, btw, was demolished and is now a parking lot for the newer Bo’s next door.)

But say it ain’t so, Bo. Your new spot at Third and Independence is essentially a huge parking lot, with a building distantly visible far away, behind the asphalt. It’s about as “urban” as the Costco on Tyvola. The rest of the area is shaping up so much more nicely, with the new CPCC buildings, the offices farther down Third with ground-floor retail, and the aforementioned Pappas project at the old Midtown Square. Too bad Bojangles dumped such inappropriate development at the corner.

My correspondent also sent a link to a discussion forum at urbanplanet.org, devoted to the ugly new Bojangles. Someone in there reports that Bojangles wanted to do a more urban design and “planning” wouldn’t let them. That didn’t ring true. I checked with Keith MacVean, land development program manager at the city-county planning staff.

The villain is the old B-2 zoning at the site. It allows suburban schlock – or as MacVean called it “highway commercial.” It does NOT, require it. Bojangles could have pulled the building up to within 20 feet of the Independence right of way, he said. The company didn’t. Because no rezoning was requested, the company didn’t even need to talk to the city planners, who would likely have tried to negotiate a more appropriate design.

There’s an upside, though, MacVean said. “I think they took down a billboard.”

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

They park, you pay

With schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and around the region open, seems like a good time to toss out some information about school traffic and school parking.

Why does morning traffic get so much worse when schools open? It isn’t just the buses. CMS’ 1,200 buses are only a drop in the bucket, traffic-wise, even if they do stop on the streets. For example, the city’s Transportation Department list of 2006 traffic counts shows that on Monday May 15, the average daily traffic, midblock on Fairview Road, west of Barclay Downs Drive, was 38,800.

What makes traffic get so much worse are the thousands of parents driving their kids to school.

I know this is a complicated issue. I’m not saying no parents should drive kids to school. Sometimes bus schedules are just too early/inconvenient/weird. Most of the CMS buses serve several schools – to use buses and drivers cost-efficiently – which means they have to start early. If you want one bus per school, be prepared to cough up more tax money. And yes, teens will whine relentlessly about how they need – need! – a car to drive to school instead of taking the bus which is for geeky freshmen, and so on.

But consider the following factoids I extracted from the folks at CMS who design new schools. When CMS buys land for schools, and has to design them, here’s what they’re required to supply:

High schools: Student parking for 350 cars. Staff parking for 170-200 cars. Visitor parking, 35 cars. The bus lot has to hold 40 buses.

It costs $4,000 to build one automobile (non-bus) parking space, in labor, asphalt, etc. That figure doesn’t include the land costs. So let’s see, figuring space for 200 staff cars, auto parking at a new CMS high school costs $2.34 million to build. That doesn’t include the cost of school bus parking, or land. Student parking alone is $1.4 million.

Let’s talk land. Figure a 9-by-18-foot student parking space, and you get 56,700 square feet for student parking. Figuring roughly $60,000-an-acre land costs (CMS director of architecture Tony Ansaldo cautions that’s a blunt estimate, and that each site is different, etc., etc.), and 43,560 square feet per acre, that’s $46,080 in land cost alone, for a 350-car student parking lot.

Here are stats for middle and elementary schools:

Middle: Staff parking, 138 cars. Visitor parking, 50 cars. Bus lot, 25 buses. Cost of parking (again, not including bus parking or land): $752,000.

Elementary: Staff/visitor parking, 125 cars. Cost of parking (not including bus space or land), $500,000.

Here’s something else driving up school-building costs. Schools have to build plenty of on-site “stacking” – a technical term that means driveway space to allow cars to line up one behind the other, as in car pool lines. The city of Charlotte doesn’t want any of those cars out on city streets, even small neighborhood streets. And in many cases CMS would want the stacking space regardless of CDOT requirements, for safety reasons.

High school stacking: 1,170 lineal feet, typically 12-foot-wide lanes, for 14,040 square feet of “stacking” – a hair shy of a third of an acre, and roughly $20,000 in land costs. (This doesn’t count paving cost.)

Middle schools: 2,003 lineal feet, totalling 24,036 square feet, or .55 of an acre, with estimated land cost of $33,100.

Elementary schools: 1,323 lineal feet, totalling 15,876 square feet, or .36 acre, land cost $21,600.

High schools have less, because more kids drive themselves. And park.

Obviously it’s not a good idea to let schools’ dropoff and pickup traffic clog busy streets, such as thoroughfares. But this IS a city, after all. We have a large and growing city bus system. Plus CMS runs its own public transit system, the school buses. It’s time to look closely at how much we’re spending to let students park and let parents sit in long carpool lines, at schools that are already paying to provide transportation.

Finally, consider this: If it’s a question of building a neighborhood school close enough to a neighborhood so kids can easily walk, and letting some cars back up on a neighborhood street for 15 minutes twice a day, or else building on a site big enough to accommodate more than a third of a mile of driveway on site (2,003 feet is .38 mile -- and remember, it takes up to half an acre more land), that’s a no-brainer.

Eastover Elementary was built in 1935 on a tight site smack in the middle of a neighborhood. I hear cars do stack up on Cherokee Road when school opens and lets out. Guess what? Neighborhood drivers may be annoyed now and again, but Eastover doesn’t seem to be hurting from it. It’s one of the city’s most desirable places to live.

Schools and transportation folks need to rethink how much parking and driveway space they’re having to build.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Free" parking? A myth

Amid the back-and-forth about uptown parking (see comments at my previous post) I’m surprised no one pointed out the truth about free parking. It’s not free.

“Anyone who owns an office building knows parking is never free,” is how David Feehan put it. Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association, was the moderator at Monday’s parking workshop, sponsored by Charlotte Center City Partners and the City of Charlotte.

The cost of “free” parking is hidden in what you buy, in your rent, even your paycheck. Think about it. Let’s say I want to build a store. I buy 10 acres in a place where the going rate is $10,000 an acre, paying $100,000 for land. (I’m using easy numbers, not realistic ones.) I put the store building on five acres, and set aside the rest for “free” parking. I’ll be making income from store sales with half my land, but not the other half.

So when I figure out how much to charge, part of what I have to figure in – in addition to my competitors’ prices – is the $50,000 I paid for the land under the parking lot, as well as the cost to pave it and resurface it now and again, and taxes and insurance, etc. etc. Yet that land isn’t producing any income for me.

Of course, other store owners have to do the same thing. So everyone’s absorbing the cost of their parking lots. (Ditto office developers or condo tower developers. What they paid for the land they’re using for parking gets built into the price at which they sell the project, or else the lease rates if they lease it.)

But if I could build my store and not need that parking lot (say, if I could offer my customers beam-me-in-Scottie transportation, for free), I could offer my goods for less. Or pay my workers more. Or both.

Obviously, with most people driving most places, you have to offer parking if you’re a store, office building, apartments and so on. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. Just pointing out it isn’t really “free.” The main reason you pay more uptown is that uptown land costs more, because it’s in high demand. If restaurants offer “free” parking, they just raise the prices for the fettucine alfredo. If governments offer free parking at government buildings, it’s paid for through taxes.

A UCLA professor of urban planning, Donald Shoup, has studied parking and written a book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” in which he estimates Americans in 2002 paid $127 billion to $374 billion a year in subsidized parking. Here’s a link to an NPR interview with him from 2005.

He thinks too many cities and towns require developers to build excessive parking, and that many stores choose to build too much, trying to accommodate all the shoppers on the Saturday before Christmas, so the lot is half-filled most days of the year.

I think he's right. But of course, most people would rather not have to see (and openly pay) the cost of their not-so-free parking.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Uptown parking: Sound off

A study group from the International Downtown Association and a national consulting company, Carl Walker Inc., are looking this week at parking in uptown Charlotte. They’re holding stakeholder meetings today and tomorrow, and then Wednesday will present some recommendations.

Turns out some cities have a parking services manager, or a parking management division in their transportation departments. Other cities have private, nonprofits groups that oversee parking management. Charlotte doesn’t.

Here’s some of what they were asking a workshop group this morning about parking uptown. Feel free to offer your own thoughts in the comments section (below):

– Is finding parking uptown a real problem, or a perception problem, or some of both?

– Do people have a hard time finding where the parking lots and parking decks are?

– Does fear of not finding a parking spot keep people from going uptown?

– How much difference does the lack of uniform signage make, or the lack of uniform pricing and ticket validation rules?

– How much of a problem, if any, is the so-called “Cinderella parking” – spots that magically appear or vanish, based on whatever day of the week it is, or whether there’s an event at the Bobcats Arena?

– What’s the going rate for monthly parking? When the moderator, David Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association, asked the crowd that, hardly anyone piped up with numbers. I began to suspect people who own parking lots/decks may not like their rates revealed.

– Do you have any uptown parking secrets you’d like to share?

I’ll share my “secrets.” I figure word will get out anyway so what the heck.

One: Park free for 90 minutes underneath ImaginOn, if you validate your ticket upstairs. Enter off Sixth Street. I’m honest, though. I’ve used it only when I had business at ImaginOn.

Two: Park up to 90 minutes at Seventh Street Station (enter off Sixth or Seventh streets), even during those expensive Event Parking Nights, if you buy something at Reid’s and get your ticket validated. It so happens that Reid’s is one of the few places here selling Blue Bonnet brand ice cream, about which Johnny Apple raved in the New York Times’ food section recently. So ...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Activists? Here? You must be kidding

Reading last Sunday about Ron and Nancy Bryant’s move to Stanly County got a bunch of us in the newsroom talking about whether Charlotte is “activist-challenged,” as in, not as many citizen activists kicking up a grass roots fuss about things as many other cities seem to have.

I’m among those who think Charlotte has less of that sort of activity than you’d expect for a city this big and this lively. Over the years I’ve opined on my own theories about this. For instance, are we a City of Squelchers? (My column by that name, and a follow-up column, ran in April and May 2003.)

Then, at one of the cultural stakeholder meetings run by the Artspace Project folks, someone – I don’t remember who it was – asked why Charlotte seemed so different from, say, Minneapolis in terms of getting its cultural act together. The Artspace guys, one of whom is a Republican ex-state legislator from North Dakota, made some quips about there not being a lot to do in Minnesota in the winter so they had to offer more diversions.

My theory on this has several components:

First, bankers aren’t as likely to be activists as many other professions.

Second, colleges and universities breed activists. UNCC until recent years was young, small and didn’t attract the kind of students interested in activism. I think that’s changing, though. Queens and JCSU are too small to have a huge, lasting effect on the local civic culture. And Davidson students live in the “Davidson cocoon.”

Third, if you’re trying to make money and climb the social ladder, political or environmental activism is not the way to do it. You might tick off someone you want to do a business deal with. Or his or her spouse. Or their relatives. Instead, you write thank you notes and never criticize anyone in public about anything.

Fourth, Charlotte had plenty of activists a century ago. They were labor organizers, mill workers and streetcar motormen. The activists were scorned by the business establishment, fired from their jobs and in some instances killed.

Business won that battle – Charlotte remains one of the least-unionized places in the country, for better or worse. But the violence and repercussions from those days set a tone here for working people: Don’t raise your head. Don’t draw anyone’s attention. Just keep quiet and do your job. This used to be a very big milltown. The textile mills are gone. But maybe the sense of obeying the mill owner (a.k.a. B of A or Wachovia) lives on?

More people now are open environmentalists than a decade ago, which is good. But I wonder, how much of that is simply that environmentalism today is so mainstream. I mean, isn’t everyone an environmentalist by now?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Local 'good guys'

OK, here’s my list of good guys and bad guys. I’m not as grouchy on Mondays as I’ll be by Friday, so it’s heavier on the good guys than bad guys. And please don’t complain that I’ve left off person X who is a wonderful asset to the community. Of course I have. I can’t remember everyone, or know everyone. Want to disagree? Add your thoughts below.

Some caveats, in addition to the concept of my last post, that people are complex. Sometimes politicians do things I agree with, but I keep wondering if they’re just sticking a finger in the political wind. There are other people who I’d put on the list, but I haven’t met them or don’t know enough about them, or I just didn’t happen to think of them.

Enough throat-clearing. Here are a few elected officials who don’t get a lot of on-camera time, so you may not be as familiar with them as with the same old faces, but are among the “good guys in government from this area: Michael Barnes, Dan Clodfelter, Anthony Foxx, Molly Griffin, Randy Kincaid, Don Lochman, Patrick Mumford, Wilhelmenia Rembert, Jennifer Roberts. (They’re in alphabetical order)

Do I agree with everything they do? Course not. But they’re trying to make the place better and doing it with thought, integrity and – far as I can tell – keeping the greater good in mind, as opposed to self-aggrandizement.

More names, on my local “good guys” list: Phil Dubois, Shirley Fulton, David Furman, Harvey Gantt, Mary Hopper, Francis Haithcock, Michael Marsicano, Bill McCoy, Dale Mullinax, Tony Pressley, Dennis Rash and Betty Chafin Rash.

The bad guys? Bill James. Larry Gauvreau. Each, in my opinion, is more interested in perpetuating racial discord than in solving anything.

There are others I’m not high on, including not a few politicians who I think are just wrong about issues, but who try in their own, misguided ways to do what they think is right. And there are some who I think are right about issues but who are just too annoying to put up with, or clueless about how to be effective. That last category is, sadly, rather large.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Yikes! I agree with HIM?

I know, it was cowardly to put up the question – who are the local good guys and bad guys? – without my own opinion. So I’ll offer up some names. Later.

First I have to add context. Amazingly, I found myself agreeing with much of what local libertarian/Republican/political activist Lewis Guignard e-mailed me about the question.

“Too simplistic.

“Certainly I don’t agree with the actions and politics of various people. Does that make them bad, or bad only relative to my point of view?

“I believe it takes all kinds of us to make this city what it is and has been.”

He goes on to give his thoughts about what makes a good guy: trying to make a difference, making decisions based on facts, not on preconceived notions or preconceived political, religious, etc. beliefs.

“I suggest we all fit both molds, at sometimes more than others,” he said.

I know, you can count on one hand the times Guignard and I have agreed. But he’s right in saying that, in truth, people are too complex. Good people do things out of the highest motives, but they turn out badly. Bad people – I mean people motivated by greed, hatred, selfish disregard for others or even just stupid people – every now and then come up with something good. As the saying goes, even a blind pig will snuffle up an acorn now and again.

Here’s a great example of the difficulty of pegging people as “good guys” or “bad guys.”

Remember Tom Bush, the conservative Republican county commissioner in the 1990s who helped lead Charlotte’s homophobic spasm over the play “Angels in America”? The same Tom Bush is the politician responsible for initiating one of the most far-reaching local efforts to clean up polluted streams and creeks, the county SWIM (Surface Water Improvement and Management) buffers and program.

He did real harm to local arts, but he also kicked into gear one of the county’s most highly praised water quality improvement efforts. So how do you balance the scales on Tom Bush?

Oops, have to go work on my other job – writing columns and editorials. I’ll get back to you with my own good guys-bad guys list.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Heroes and villains – Charlotte style

Twice, in less than 24 hours, I’ve run into people who’ve made me think about who have been the good guys and the not-so-good guys in Charlotte. So I’m interested in how you bloggers would answer this one. Comments welcomed below.

This morning in the Observer’s lobby I ran into longtime Observer editor and historian Jack Claiborne, now retired from the UNC Charlotte press office. He’s been researching a history of the Charlotte City Club, the old-line uptown club founded in the late 1940s. The history, reports Jack, who loves history, is fascinating. “It has heroes and villains,” he said.

“As does everything,” I replied. I began wondering who might be the heroes and villains of that particular tale.

Then I realized I’d been thinking through a similar idea already, though from a completely different set of circumstances.

Claiborne grew up here and spent most of his adult life here. Yesterday I lunched with a brand new Charlottean, a guy who moved here with his wife for new jobs, knowing not a soul. He comes from a job in a major urban area in Ohio where he had a significant role in local government and politics. (I’ll use his name if he lets me – I’ve asked.) He’s trying to learn Charlotte now, so one of his many questions was to ask who were the good guys and bad guys here.

I tossed out a few names of local politicians – Republicans and Democrats – who in my experience are thoughtful and intelligent and appear to operate with personal integrity. But politicians are only a small slice of the pie. Business executives, citizen activists, philanthropists, educators and plenty more types of people really shape the place. They’re the good guys and the bad guys he was asking about.

I’m still pondering who’d be on my list. Who’d be on yours?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Student activists-in-training

Quick: Name the county manager? Know what he or she does?

Have you ever cared enough about your local government to get off your duff and attend a City Council, county commissioners’ meeting or a school board meeting?

Ever watched a real a local courtroom in session?

Most people don’t bother.

And don’t get most adults started on “What’s wrong with kids today?”

But there’s a lot right with kids today. I saw some of if Tuesday night, spending a great couple of hours with a group of almost 40 youths, mostly high school students, who had spent time this summer learning more about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and voters (and voters-to-be).

Class members and their parents were at the graduation dinner for the first Civics 101 class offered for high schoolers and graduates under 21. The local League of Women Voters has offered Civics 101 classes for years, to teach budding citizen activists who’s who and what’s what in local government, and how voters and residents can get involved.

This summer, with help from Kids Voting, Partners in Out of School Time, Right Moves for Youth, the United Agenda for Children, and Youth Homes Inc., the league put together Youth Civics 101: A Venture Into Local Politics.

The young people seem to have emerged unscarred, even from the county commissioners’ recent battle – which they chanced to watch – over adopting the Martin Committee’s recommendations on school building and renovations.

As with Civics 101, the last session was at the Observer building, and included a tour of the newspaper.

Here’s a Naked City High Five to the three dozen young people who took part, and to all the sponsoring groups, and especially to the League for its ongoing efforts to get more of us more interested in becoming local activists.

Friday, July 28, 2006

State to Charlotte: Tough beans

Pick up any North Carolina state road map. Look at the close-up map of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. It’s liberally splashed with green: William B. Umstead State Park, Eno River State Park, Falls Lake State Recreation Area around Falls Lake, Jordan Lake State Recreation Area surrounding Jordan Lake.

Look at the close-up map of the Charlotte area. No state parks. The closest are Crowders Mountain State Park, west of Gastonia, and way at the tippy top of Lake Norman you’ll find modest Lake Norman State Park.

This lack of state largesse for parks around here has bugged me for years, just on general equitability grounds. I note the Triad – Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point – has a similar lack of state parks. What ticked me off afresh was a three-article package July 16 in the Neighbors of Lake Norman section of the Observer: “520 miles of shoreline. 125 yards of beach.” (Click here and here to see the rest of the package.)

Yep, that’s the only public swimming area on all of Lake Norman. Compare: B. Everett Jordan Lake in the Triangle serves the state’s second-largest metro area. It’s less than half the size of Lake Norman – 14,000 acres of water to Norman’s 32,500 – but has six public swimming areas. Who runs them? You guessed it: the state

Yeah, yeah, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison: Jordan Lake was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norman by private Duke Power Co., now Duke Energy. Duke acquired all its lakefront land decades ago after being granted the power of eminent domain, because building electric power plants was in the public interest. But in terms of lakefront access, the general public hasn’t benefited much, from what I see, at least not compared with the general public that’s getting the use of those state recreation areas in the Triangle.

Sure, Duke was willing to SELL the land. Mecklenburg County taxpayers have paid millions over the years to preserve land along the Duke Power lakes at McDowell Nature Preserve, Latta Nature Preserve and around Mountain Island Lake. And yes, the state helped a bit with some of those purchases, primarily through Clean Water Trust Fund grants.

But as far as major money for major state parks? From what I see, the state’s response has been: “Tough beans, Charlotte.”

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

An insider's view of new CMS leader

Here’s a short behind-the-scenes report from a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools insider:

Seems CMS’ new chief operating officer, Maurice “Mo” Green, was a big hit at a recent principals’ meeting. He gave a speech, says my source, that had the room in the palm of his hand. “A real Barak Obama moment” was the description.

My source was impressed not only with his intelligence, but with what was described as “humility,” in addition to that indefinable “leadership” quality.

The source is NOT a starry-eyed newcomer or a flak trying to spin to the press, but a seasoned educator who has worked with all kinds of bosses and is not, in my experience, prone to handing out over-the-top compliments just for the heck of it.

Green had been the school board’s lawyer until new Superintendent Peter Gorman tapped him to run the day-to-day operations of the school system.

Bus station blues -- redux

Sorry to be gone so long. Just spent more than a week in Memphis, Tenn., helping produce a planning "charrette" for the Knight Program in Community Building, based at the University of Miami. If you're curious about that, see this link.

You’ll recall that on June 23 I described my experience trying to take Bus 14 home from uptown. And you’ll recall that July 11 I reported that Charlotte Area Transit System CEO Ron Tober told me things would get fixed.

Herewith a report from my newsroom colleague Joe Sovacool, who rides the bus to work daily:

"The good news is that 14 is now correctly listed on the displays at the bus barn as bay A. The bad news is that the times for all routes on the displays have been wrong all week.Well, they’re likely right twice in a 24-hour period – they either read about 12:50p or 11:30p for all routes.

"This is not only not unheard-of, but common. Too bad, because when they’re functional they’re one of the better and more useful features over there.

"And I can predict what their response will be. To a bum like me, anyway. ..."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Artists Need Housing

If I had a dollar for every time someone in Charlotte in the past 25 years had talked about “artists and lofts” as a way to bring life to various parts of town, I wouldn’t be driving a 16-year-old car.

Artists are often the leading pioneers into neighborhoods that are ultimately reborn. Then, because the neighborhoods get popular, artists find themselves priced out of the market. It happens all over, not just in Charlotte. Our example currently is NoDa, or North Charlotte – the one-time mill neighborhood near 36th and North Davidson streets.

All those people thinking uptown will grow into an artsy district? Get real. It’s hard to make anything resembling a living wage as an artist, so artists are drawn to neighborhoods with affordable buildings -- usually old one that offer lots of space for not much cost. That doesn't describe anything uptown.

Why not build artists' housing uptown? The only way to build uptown housing you could rent out cheaply enough for artists would be if the land was donated. And what uptown land owner would do that?

Why build, you say? Just renovate older buildings, warehouses and such, as other cities have done. Well guess what. Charlotte government officials' lack of willingness to study any overall preservation strategies used in many other cities, such as height limits or limits on surface parking lots, caused most of the older buildings to be torn down. Those that remain and have been renovated (Charlotte Cotton Mills, for example -- bravo to the historic landmarks commission and developer Peter Pappas ) are now too expensive for artist housing.

So in Charlotte, artists are sprinkled throughout the city – in Stonehaven, Dilworth, Plaza-Midwood and County Club Acres, to list a few examples. That’s fine, except that when artists as an interest group are invisible because they're so dispersed, then the city feels as if it's missing some important vitality.

“That’s one of the challenges in Charlotte,” says Suzanne Fetscher, president of the McColl Center for Visual Art. “The lack of visibility of artists.”

If you’re interested in the issue of housing for artists, put this on your calendar:

7-8:30 p.m. Aug. 2, at the McColl Center for the Visual Art, 721 N. Tryon St. It’s a public forum to address the issue of affordable housing and/or live-work spaces for artists.

The event is a collaboration among the McColl Center, the Arts & Science Council, the N.C. Arts Council, Charlotte Center City Partners and the City of Charlotte. Facilitators will be representatives of ArtSpace Projects of Minneapolis. That’s a nonprofit group that has developed affordable live-work spaces for artists in some 20 U.S. cities.

What will they come up with? That depends on what they hear from people in Charlotte. If you're an artist or creative type -- or anyone with an interest in the issue -- make sure they hear from you.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

CATS: Better Signs Coming

When last I blogged, I recounted my travails trying to find Bus 14 at the uptown Transportation Center, so I could ride it home one recent hot afternoon. Read it below.

Or here’s a short version: The sign said Bus 14 was at Bay Q, which was under construction. A temporary sign at Bay Q directed me vaguely to “Trade Street.” A customer service attendant sent me to “Bay A.” I knew where Bay A was because Bus 14 used to leave from there. The spot that used to be Bay A had no sign identifying itself. But once I found Bus 14 the ride was just dandy: clean and efficient.

Why not post maps of the whole system to help would-be bus-riders, I also asked. And I whined about a bad pedestrian connection from Fourth Street, where a sidewalk is missing due to construction. I hoped CATS had beat up on the city about that.

I offered to seek a response from Ron Tober, Charlotte Area Transit System CEO. And then I went on vacation for two weeks.

Tober, whom I had alerted but who was busy that day, later read the blog and readers’ comments. He even tried to add his response, but had computer difficulties. (Some of you have had the same problem, you tell me. My apologies.) Here’s what he told me today:

He has talked to his staff about the sign errors. “The person who’s responsible admitted they had messed up and not changed the electronic signage.” He said he believes the sign has been corrected. He said he was sorry to hear of my difficulties and apologized on behalf of CATS.

And he said CATS is investing in a new signage system, due to the light rail line, planned to open in fall 2007, which will have a major stop at the Transportation Center.

The new signs will show “real time” information, he said. The buses now have automatic locators, so you’ll be able to look at the signs and see when your bus is expected and at what bay.

Also, the customer service area will move to what’s now the supervisors’ booth in the middle of the center, and its hours will expand. In addition, a lot more bus schedule racks will be available.

He said they’ve been hesitant to post permanent system maps because they’ve made so many bus route changes over the past four-five years. “The question is what kind of map we can put up that will have some durability,” he said.

As to the Fourth Street sidewalk, he said, CATS had talked to the city Department of Transportation about the problem but CDOT didn’t think it was enough of a problem to provide a temporary sidewalk on that side of the street.

“I’m trying,” Tober told me, “not to criticize my fellow city department. Too much.”