Friday, February 17, 2006

A cure for Charlotte streets

Sometimes I think I’ve plopped into an alternate universe. Can it be the Charlotte Department of Transportation giving PowerPoint presentations on the importance of making city streets welcoming to pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as cars?

Ten years ago, if I’d heard that it would have meant I’d fallen, cracked my head on a rock and was hallucinating. Back then CDOT acted as if “transportation” meant only “motor vehicles.” Sidewalks, if built at all – and they weren’t required on many subdivision streets – were a stingy 4 feet wide and hugged the curb, right next to 50 mph traffic. Bicycle lanes? Why bother? Nobody rides bicycles in Charlotte! To “improve” transportation efficiency you just made all intersections wider and – if possible – added lanes wherever you could afford to (which, thankfully, was too expensive to do everywhere).

In a few spots, like where rich and/or politically influential people lived, the city proved it was “neighborhood friendly” by forbidding turns onto those sacred streets or even flat-out closing off streets. (Example: East Kingston at Euclid in Dilworth.)

So Tuesday night, at the “Sweet Streets” presentation – part of an ongoing monthly lecture/program series called Civic by Design at the Levine Museum of the New South – it was almost other-worldly to hear CDOT planner Tracy Newsome and her boss, Norm Steinman, CDOT’s planning and design manager, list changes they’re proposing to the city’s street-design standards. No, this isn’t asphalt quality or storm drain engineering. It’s about how wide or narrow streets need to be, how wide and how far from the street sidewalks should be and the importance of short block lengths and having plenty of street connections. Would you believe me if I said I think Jane Jacobs would approve?

What Newsome (no, we’re not related) and Steinman and their boss, CDOT Deputy Director Danny Pleasant are pushing is pretty much the whole philosophical approach that I and plenty of other people in town have wanted the city to adopt for years. The project’s bureaucratic name is the Urban Street Design Guidelines. They’ve been in the works at least four years – my first notes on the subject say April 2002. One early draft came out in 2003. The city’s Web site has the current draft.

Why haven’t they been adopted yet? One possibility: There’s been plenty of pushback from developers, who don’t like it whenever city rules get tighter and who specifically have complained about shorter block lengths (i.e., more pavement required, and in some cases developers may not be able to get as many lots onto a subdivision site) and about wider, 8-foot planting strips – which Newsome and Steinman say are needed if you want street trees to survive and grow. In response, CDOT has already loosened the proposed block-length requirement.

Another possibility: The city manager’s staff – as always – frets that developers will whine, City Council members will listen to the developers and the staff will acquire even more scar tissue. Well, it has been known to happen.

The CDOT folks Tuesday night said the proposals aren’t being offered for adoption yet, in order to go through yet another mind-numbingly bureaucratic review process (my words, not theirs). I figure that will take months.

That’s stupid. Adopt the street design guidelines. Now. They’re good, they’re badly needed, and they will make our city better.

If you want to pushing this much-needed improvement onto City Council’s agenda, let your council members know. Tell them you support the Urban Street Design Guidelines and want them adopted now. And if you’d like to be notified of the monthly Civic By Design forums, please notify Tom Hanchett at the Levine Museum of the New South.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Does Charlotte have a soul to love?

I figure any column that brings similar responses from avant garde-ista Little Shiva AND civic stalwart Frank Bragg must have hit a nerve. (Feel free to add your own responses, below.)

Last Saturday’s Urban Outlook column was about learning to love Charlotte after living here 28 years. (Ouch, typing that “28” still hurts.) Compared with places like Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Asheville, or even Fayetteville, Charlotte’s personality is, well, elusive.

Years ago, I was at a job-recruiting fair trying to meet promising young journalists who might want to work for The Charlotte Observer. One photographer stopped by the booth, and we chatted. She asked, “Does Charlotte have a soul?”

Long pause. Remember, I was being paid to make people think they’d want to work here. Finally, I came up with a convoluted response that I hope didn’t sound too desperate. It went something like this: “Charlotte’s soul is subtle. You have to live there a while before you can figure out what it is. It’s hidden, sort of ... ” The photographer never, to my knowledge, applied for a job here.

I wrote, years ago, that Charlotte may have no “soul,” per se – although some people pointed out to me that the city probably does have a soul, just not one I approve of. Whatever.

Anyway, several people I’ve talked to about my Saturday column – one has lived here 30 years – have confessed to ongoing ambivalence about Charlotte, but that they’re starting to suspect that they, too, may be feeling more affection for the place.

Little Shiva, if you haven’t run into her, is a graphic designer and artist who publishes an underground magazine called QZ and who generally makes Charlotte a more interesting place to live in. She wrote:

“Just wanted to tell you that I like your Charlotte Valentine in today’s paper. I’m not quite ready to say the same for myself, but I feel like I might be someday. I’m not as far along as you, having just gotten here in late 1999. I’m still not in love with this place. ... In spite of my family roots here and in spite of the fact that I’ve been fairly well accepted, I’m still dreaming of Mr. Right (referring to some dream city).

"But I have to look at how far I’ve come since 1999, all the commitments I’ve made towards Charlotte, personally as well as creatively, and I have to realize that this dopey town has somehow become a part of me. Whether or not I ever leave, or just keep this as home base and travel a whole lot more, Charlotte will be a begrudgingly fond chapter in my life story."

Frank Bragg, by contrast, is a successful financial adviser and a well-known philanthropist and civic activist – very “establishment,” if you will, and a decidedly different style than Little Shiva. It was Frank and Kathy Bragg, for instance, who recently donated $100,000 to start an endowment fund for the Chamber Music at St. Peter’s concert series.

“Loved your article about your gradual coming to love Charlotte. I feel the same way. Kathy grew up here and we have lived here 43 years ... except we have always lived outside the city. First south, at Elm Lane and Providence Road West on a small farm (now totally developed ...) and then on Lake Norman for the last 16 years. ... But now we live in Fourth Ward in a condo. We bought it in 1999 and lived here only part-time until last August when we sold our lake house. We love the city. It is exciting, stimulating, and beautiful.”

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Planners’ New Urbanist Utopias crash into reality

Planners are always coming up with Utopian ideas. Then those ideas get heaved against the plaster walls of the real world and shatter like porcelain teacups. (Feel free to share your war stories on that front, below.)

“Live-work units” – they’re all the rage among planners, and some developers, all over the country, especially (but not exclusively) in New Urbanist-styled neighborhoods. They’re buildings with retail or business space on the first floor and homes on upper floors.

It’s easy to see why they’d be popular: They’re an unfilled niche in the development market, aimed at people who own small businesses and don’t want to have to pay to rent/own both a home and a business site, or who don’t want to have to commute. Planners like them because they’re “mixed use” and, among other praiseworthy attributes, cut down on how many auto trips people have to make.

Plus, they can increase a city’s stock of affordable housing if you figure that not having to shell out for a separate space for your business gives you more money for your home.

Here’s the wall that they hit: Building codes don’t recognize them. If you’re a developer trying to build live-work, you’ll probably have to build the whole building under the commercial building code, even residential floors. That pushes your building costs so high that – guess what! – it isn’t affordable any more, and the units may not be able to compete with other residential development on the market.

I wrote a column in the Observer a few weeks ago about the difficulty developers have when applying the state’s building codes to mixed-used buildings. It spurred a call from Jim Bartl, Mecklenburg County’s director of code enforcement. He knows all about the live-work problem. “We’re getting pummeled by it all across the country,” he said.

Bartl, an architect, is one of North Carolina’s unsung heroes for his successful push to revise North Carolina’s state building code to make renovating older buildings dramatically easier. (That change, first enacted as a pilot project, was made permanent last year. Builders, planners, historic preservationists and downtown revitalizers all over the state should applaud Bartl and state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, among others.)

Turns out Bartl is working with a national committee to change the International Residential Code and the International Commercial Code – the documents that underpin North Carolina’s state building code – so they recognize live-work units and make it easier to build them without compromising safety and fire standards. The committee will submit its proposal to the International Code Council in March. It could be adopted by spring 2007, and North Carolina’s building code would likely adopt the changes after that.

It wouldn't get us anywhere near Utopia, of course, but it should make mixed-use and New Urbanist development a bit easier in the state of North Carolina.

Friday, February 03, 2006

A big win for neighbors

Big news – and good news – out Central Avenue.

The developers who wanted to build an Aldi grocery store at a key intersection – Briar Creek Road – are withdrawing their request for rezoning.

Chris Ogunrinde of Neighboring Concepts, one of the developers, told me Friday they decided to cancel the plans for the Aldi after a meeting with neighbors Jan. 26. “We had a lot of resistance from the residents,” he said. “I told Grey (Poole, the other developer) we should just fold and come back again.”

The property is owned by longtime East Charlotte resident and activist Nancy Plummer, whose husband, Ray, died last year. It’s 4.5 acres, zoned for 22-units-per-acre multifamily.

It was an unfortunate proposal for a key site, just beyond the funkily reviving Plaza-Central business district. The neighborhoods nearby, Merry Oaks, Briar Creek/Woodland, and the fringes of Plaza-Midwood, have in the past 10 years attracted a lot of younger, “creative class”-type residents.

But Aldi is a low-cost chain store that caters to, well, people looking for low-cost groceries. In and of itself, that’s fine. But one way retailers keep costs low is to build fast, cheap, unattractive stores. That’s why they’re called “big boxes.” Look at Costco. Look at Wal-Mart, and Target. Aldi is no exception. Unlike Harris Teeter and the locally owned Reid’s – which built stores uptown in mixed-use buildings – Aldi has no “urban” prototypes, at least, none in Charlotte.

So that key spot was going to get a one-story, suburban-style store catering to low-income customers. And what it needs is a well-designed, urban-style project with mixed-use buildings, good sidewalks and one-of-a-kind shops.

Ogunrinde says he was upset that some of the opposition focused on Aldi’s perceived clientele. That’s a fair point. City planners, as well, aren’t supposed to take such things into account in assessing whether to recommend for or against rezonings. And Aldi customers come from all income groups, surely.

But come on. In the real world developers set “price points” for their developments, and retailers do, too. That’s why Nordstrom didn’t plop itself down next to Target on South Boulevard. An Aldi would signal to every potential Central Avenue retailer and home-buyer, “downscale neighborhood here.”

Given that Aldi would build only a one-story building and needed a big parking lot, from what I saw of the site plan even a good urban designer like Ogunrinde couldn’t do much with the site.

The city plan for the area calls for something different – “neighborhood-oriented businesses” along that stretch of Central. It specifically recommends a coordinated development of the Plummer property and the property across Central, owned by the Renfrow family. It envisions two- or three-story buildings, with retail below and office or residential above.

That's one reason a lot of neighbors felt betrayed by the development proposal. You can feel the heat, just reading the transcript of the Jan. 26 meeting.

The good news: Ogunrinde said he and Poole plan to simply buy the property outright from Plummer, and come back with a different proposal. There’s a lot happening in the area, and property values are rising. The proposed Morningside development, less than a mile away, is expected to set a much higher standard for design. I suspect Poole and Ogunrinde can sit on the property for a year or two and still make a pretty penny.

One other thing: At one point in the neighborhood meeting, Poole referred to the proposed development as “New Urbanism.”

It wasn’t. Not close. I hope people who heard him know the difference.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Your protection against government secrets

Want to know who’s trying to get the corner lot rezoned to build a Wal-Mart SuperCenter?

Want to know which City Council members voted for a stronger tree ordinance? Want to know who donated money to candidates in last fall’s City Council election? (Answer: Probably developers.)

Want to know how much the top staff in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ superintendent’s office are being paid?

You can find out all those things and plenty of other stuff, because government records in North Carolina are open to the public. They have to give you the information, even if they don’t approve of how you might use it.

Government meetings are open, too. They have to let you in, unless the meeting’s about a few very carefully defined topics, such as hiring/firing, or legal advice.

That’s why the Observer’s reporters have been able to write about the lengthy list of violations found over the years at Liberty Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where resident Mary Cole went missing for four days, and died shortly after she was found in a storage closet. (Today’s coverage )

That’s why Observer reporters could find out that the Synthron Inc. chemical plant in Morganton – which exploded Tuesday – had been assessed $87,600 in state fines in the past five years for serious hazardous waste violations.

That’s why an Eastover couple fighting a developer’s plans to build houses in the floodplain could inspect every floodplain development permit issued in the county.

In other words, if you care to learn what your elected officials and governments are doing with your tax dollars, open records and open meetings laws ensure that you can.

Of course, governments now and again try to get around the law, because sometimes they don’t want people to know what they are up to, either because they’re up to no good, or – as is more often the case – they suspec what they’re doing could get them in political hot water. Most reporters have war stories about county boards holding illegally closed meetings, or bureaucrats who refuse to give you public records.

That’s why neighborhood activists should think strongly of joining the other folks who’ll be among the crowd – historians, librarians, lawyers, elected officials, etc. – at a March 13 conference in Raleigh, “Are We Safer In The Dark?”

Sessions include forums with top lawyers who deal with open government issues, as well as the broadcast of a panel discussion from Washington, D.C., of experts from around the country discussing government secrecy and other open government issues.

The March 13 conference is sponsored by the N.C. Open Government Coalition, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring and enhancing the public’s access to government activity, records and meetings.

The conference is at Exploris, 201 E. Hargett St., in Raleigh. Cost is $30, including lunch. A registration form is on the coalition’s web site.