Monday, March 27, 2006

Developers, 1 -- Everyone Else, 0

At bottom the problem with what happened Friday wasn’t even that the developers’ lobby – as usual – got to tell a group of elected officials why, in their opinion, adopting impact fees to help pay for Mecklenburg County schools would lead to economic collapse and quite possibly the end of life as we know it. (I’m exaggerating less than you might think.) The problem was that most of the rest of the citizenry, many of whom think the county is insane not to have impact fees, didn’t get equal time.

The song and dance from the developers was as inevitable as the azaleas popping into bloom in spring. The intergovernmental planning committee that’s been looking at growth and schools and trying to devise recommendations had, months back, included the words “impact fees” and “adequate public facility ordinance” on a long list of recommendations to consider.

I knew the developers’ lobby doesn’t even want those words to surface on the committee’s list of options to consider. Friday, it got to make its case.

The Planning Liaison Committee meets monthly at the inhospitable hour (at least for night-owl journalists) of 7:45 a.m. Its members are two or three representatives each from the city-county planning commission and all the elected bodies in Mecklenburg County.

I’m interested in how this community deals with – or doesn’t – rapid growth that has outstripped its ability to build schools, so I’ve been attending fairly regularly for two years. Usually I’m an audience of one. But when they started mentioning impact fees, Mary Thomsen and Tim Morgan of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition began showing up.

Friday the room was packed. The PLC had invited REBIC, the Charlotte Chamber’s land use committee and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects to offer thoughts. (Aside: The architects’ presentation was organized, thoughtful and deserves more publicity than I’m giving it in this posting.)

Key fact coming: The PLC has no authority to do anything. They just talk, and suggest that members take ideas or recommendations back to their respective governing bodies. So essentially, this was a way to give REBIC and the Chamber an audience that you and the rest of the public didn’t get and won’t.

Mark Cramer, REBIC’s executive director, showed a cheery video from the state homebuilders’ lobby. (“Does homebuilding actually pay for itself?” the video intones. “The answer is an emphatic yes,” and the screen shows a “YES!!” in large capital letters.)

REBIC contends impact fees raise the cost of housing so much they drive away affordable housing and send development to outlying counties, which is a legitimate issue that ought to be considered during any pros-and-cons discussion. (So, I might add, should the possibility of structuring impact fees so they apply differently to apartments and smaller houses, so low-income families aren’t as seriously affected.)

And so should the concept that having a crumbling, overcrowded school system will drive away just as much development – and be just as bad for lower-income families – as slightly higher home prices will.

Here’s the real problem: Building enough schools will take money and it must come out of somebody’s pocket. The questions for the community ought to be: Whose pocket, and how much, and what is the fairest and – important point here – most politically feasible way to find the money?

All the options have pros and cons, and they should all be discussed openly. The developers should not be allowed to pull off the table the one or two options they happen not to like.

I’m not even sure impact fees are the best way to go. A land transfer tax will raise more money and be more broadly based. But developers and real estate lobbyists hate that one, too.

The elected officials treat the developers’ lobby and the Chamber as if their opinions are more important than everyone else. But we all have skin in this game, not just REBIC.

Raise your hand if your kids or grandkids go to an overcrowded school. Raise your hand if your kids’ school is in terrible need of renovation and repair. Raise your hand if you moved here from a place where impact fees are routine and the place hasn’t suffered from total economic collapse. Raise your hand if you think Mecklenburg County should consider them as a way to raise a bit of money to build more schools.

Guess what? You are cordially NOT invited to make a presentation to the Planning Liaison Committee. They’re too busy hearing from the developers.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

He spoke for the trees

I popped in at the City Council’s zoning meeting last Monday night. When you do that, you almost always stumble over some great tidbit.

Monday’s came during a public hearing on a request to rezone about 5 acres off Tuckaseegee Road for an office and a self-storage facility. The planning staff was recommending against the rezoning, because it doesn’t match the plan for the area. One area of contention was that the planners want the developers to save 17 percent of the trees on the site. The developers say that isn’t feasible.

At that point council member Michael “The Lorax” Barnes spoke for the trees. He said he found it unacceptable to disregard the city’s tree-save requirements and suggested the developer consider options for mitigating the damage, such as planting trees elsewhere. It’s a novel idea – who knows if it’s workable? – and I loved hearing a politician offer such a thought.

Then the developers’ lobbyist, Bob Young, spoke up: “I like trees,” he avowed. “We all like trees.”

Well, yes.

It reminded me of when the city, in 1998, was proposing requiring developers to build sidewalks on both sides of subdivision streets, a proposal that drew sharp opposition from the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition. They just loved sidewalks, of course. But at one council meeting, after pleas for good sidewalks on behalf of children, the elderly and people in wheelchairs, REBIC executive Mark Cramer warned council: “You can have too much of a good thing.”

Like trees, I suppose.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

House Bloat

Today’s topic: Bloated houses.

It’s on my mind for a couple of reasons. First, the City Council on Monday night had a public hearing on whether to created a local historic district for the Hermitage Court area of Myers Park. The majority of the property owners on the street support the historic district, which would bring the possibility of up to a year’s wait if someone wanted to demolish a home. So it wouldn’t stop the teardown frenzy, but might slow it some. And Myers Park is being ravaged by teardowns. Consider the "starter castle" (above) on Queens Road West.

But here’s the other reason it’s on my mind. A friend sent me this link to something the alternative weekly Austin Chronicle has put online: Its Bloat-O-Meter. People send in photos and then online voters rate it 1 to 10, a 10 being “McMansion.”

What’s a McMansion? We all have different definitions, I suppose. To me it’s a pretentious new house built in a place where it’s too big for its neighbors, in many cases too big for the lot, and typically with a national-franchise predictability to its architecture (using the term loosely). Just being new and ugly doesn’t make something a McMansion. Being oversized and too show-offy are key ingredients.

I confess to having heightened sensitivity, because I live in a neighborhood where ’50s ranch houses are being torn apart, house by house, and replaced by houses with upwards of 6,000, or even 8,000 square feet. To my knowledge, only one of the families moving into the big new houses has enough kids to truly need that many bedrooms.

The construction has been unrelenting for five years. Builders rip out huge trees. They allow eroding dirt to pollute our creek. Construction trucks block the street, crack the pavement and gouge tracks in our lawns. While our property value has soared, that’s only worth something to us if we sell our house and move. Meanwhile, it means our property taxes have also soared. We used to think we could retire there. No more. The taxes will drive us out.

But enough about me. Take a look at the Austin Bloat-O-Meter. Don’t you think our McMansions can beat their McMansions any day of the week?

Friday, March 17, 2006

East, West Charlotte treated unfairly?

Not surprising, really, but the two most affluent City Council districts, 6 and 7, have only a tiny proportion of the city’s federally subsidized Section 8 voucher rentals. The vouchers help low-income households pay for rents they otherwise couldn't afford.

The breakdown of where the vouchers go has been eagerly sought by East Charlotte neighborhood activists, among others, who think their part of town holds a disproportionate share of government-funded affordable housing. The Observer’s Karen Cimino acquired the breakdown – which is public information – from a GIS analyst in the city’s Neighborhood Development department.

Her article Thursday in the Neighbors of University City section ought to generate some interesting talk.

(Cimino tells me her earlier requests to the Charlotte Housing Authority for Section 8 vouchers sorted by Zip code still haven’t produced the data. Guess it takes a City Council member – in this case District 4 rep Michael Barnes, who asked city staff for it – to spur some public agencies to make public information public.)

The breakdown is by City Council district, which makes it a bit tough to analyze in an East Charlotte v. West Charlotte v. South Charlotte kind of way. That’s because District 2, for instance, covers chunks of what would be considered West Charlotte as well as University City (northeast Charlotte); District 5 covers parts of East Charlotte and South Charlotte; and District 1 covers all the way from Dilworth to chunks of East Charlotte.

But the numbers are stark: The affluent, predominantly white District 7 (far south Charlotte) has 34 Section 8 vouchers. District 6 (closer-in south Charlotte) has 193. Even their combined total of 227 is dramatically less than any other single district.

District 3 (generally west and southwest Charlotte) leads with 921. District 2 (generally northwest, north and northeast, and with more than 5,000 more housing units) is next with 917. The predominantly east Charlotte District 5 has 757, with District 1 close behind at 754. (Note that District 5 holds 4,500 fewer housing units than District 1). District 4, which is most of University City, has 588.

Some caveats: Landlords have to voluntarily apply to receive Section 8 vouchers from renters, so those in high-demand, more affluent parts of town have little incentive to enroll in the program.

Federal policy supposedly is to try to spread Section 8 housing around, so as not to overburden one neighborhood. It doesn’t seem particularly effective, from what the numbers show. The city says it wants to do the same. But the marketplace, left to its devices, isn’t accomplishing that.

Why care? Because when too much low-income housing gets too concentrated, property values throughout that area drop, undercutting the the city tax base. And that means higher taxes for all of us.

Experience has shown that a small percentage of affordable housing units sprinkled lightly through affluent areas don’t affect property values. Why doesn’t the city require all housing developments to include a small percentage of affordable units? Other cities do this, and it works well.

It prevents the stark economic segregation we’re now seeing in Charlotte.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Charlotte tourism -- Oxymoron?

I’ve always thought the people who say there’s nothing to do in Charlotte aren’t looking very hard. We have art museums, history museums, frescos all over uptown, gallery crawls, all kinds of live performances, lectures and seminars, great restaurants and a ga-zillion bars. There’s enough stuff to do that if I found $10 million in untraceable drug money and could quit my job I could easily fill my time as a gadabout.

Then our family hosted a 13-year-old French kid for two weeks. She was part of a student exchange program at our daughter’s school, a public magnet school called Smith Language Academy. Our kids had visited Limoges (one of Charlotte’s Sister Cities) two weeks last fall. This month, the French kids came here. Now I understand the tourism problem.

When our kids were in France, they visited Versailles and the Eiffel Tower, several medieval villages, and the famous cave paintings of Lascaux, as well as the medieval center of Limoges. Turns out there are Roman ruins below the school the kids attended there, and they went down to see them one day.

The day after NASCAR awarded its Hall of Fame to Charlotte, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz wrote: “The NASCAR hall of fame instantly becomes Charlotte’s top tourist attraction. The elevator in the Wachovia building drops into second.”

I’m not a huge NASCAR fan, but I think we’d have taken those French kids to the Hall of Fame in a nanosecond. And the whitewater center, if it had been open.

You know, 13-year-olds are not, as a group, your best art museum aficionados. Carowinds isn’t open yet. The whitewater center isn’t built yet. Because the crowd of 19 had only six boys, the Charlotte parents who were organizing their activities opted against Lowe’s Motor Speedway as an attraction.

So what did they like? The girl who stayed with us liked shopping malls. All the kids seemed to enjoy a Bobcats game. I’m pretty sure the group did ride an elevator in a tall building uptown, but it wasn’t their No. 2 activity. It was more like No. 6.

I still think there’s a lot to do in Charlotte, but it does help to like birds of prey (they visited the raptor center), Charlotte history (not a topic taught extensively in Limoges) and art museums. So from now on, when those tourism experts tout Concord Mills and Carowinds as tourist attractions, I no longer will sniff at the concept.

Tourism wasn't really the point of the exchange, of course. The French kids learned a lot about Americans and American family life. Everything here is so big, they said. Americans eat more than they do, I was told. The huge trucks on the streets and roads interested the French kids.

And one day we were in a huge hurry, and we bought Wendy’s hamburgers and ate them while driving on the interstate. This, I thought, is the total American family experience!

Overall, the kids seemed to treat the trip as a grand adventure and to have a great time, regardless of tourist attractions.

But as tourists, what did they like best? I’m pretty sure it was the overnight trip to Charleston.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

NASCAR's UFO has landed

About that NASCAR Hall of Fame: You may be cheering. Or maybe you doubt it will bring in either the people or the money projected and think the city made a stupid deal.

Forget that for the moment. I’m more worried about the building itself. If you care about uptown design, you should be, too. Feel free to add your comments below.

What I see in the renderings released so far make it look like a flying saucer hunkered in a parking lot. (I'll try to add a link, below).

Yeah, yeah, it has a fancy architect – Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. That’s Pei as in I.M. Pei, ultra-famous architect who designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

But if you’re going to build in this city – in any city – you need to understand urban fabric. It’s what makes cities and city streets and sidewalks interesting places. Paris has it, and, I assume, Cleveland. In those places, you need a break here and there from the urban fabric. Charlotte has precious little of it. New projects should help create it, not obliterate any opportunity.

Urban fabric means a lot of very small threads, woven close together. Like any ecosystem, a city needs tiny organisms: coffee shops, apartment buildings, stores, doctor’s offices, rowhouses, Chinese take-out places, pizza delivery joints, bars, cleaners, day-care centers, condos, French bistros and Italian trattorias, banks, insurance offices, antique furniture restoration shops, boutiques, art galleries – all in close proximity. Huge, single-use buildings in huge-single use blocks pretty much obliterate any hope of urban fabric. That’s why you don’t want them clustered together.

Second Ward, where the hall is planned, is a veritable monument to Bad City Planning Circa 1960. It is scarred by too many leviathan-sized projects that destroyed the old street grid: the government center, the Convention Center and its hotel and the Education Center-Marshall Park-First Baptist megablock, among others. Big blocks make boring neighborhoods and worsen traffic congestion.

The city’s planners know this. That’s why, in the Metro School rebuilding, South Davidson Street is being extended to Stonewall Streets.

The area around the Hall of Fame is dead, dead and more dead. Dead as in butt-end of the convention center loading docks. The last thing it needs is another gigantic-footprint building. The city – which will pay to build the building – should demand better.Interestingly, the city uses your tax money and mine to pay the salaries of a staff of urban designers in its planning department. They haven’t been consulted about the NASCAR hall design.

The city engineering department has taken the lead so far. Now, I value engineers. Without them bridges would collapse and skyscrapers tumble. But most engineers don’t know diddly about urban design. Maybe that’s why the city has eagerly planned yet another overstreet sidewalk, to connect the Convention Center to the Hall of Fame-new Convention Center ballroom complex. This despite haranguing for decades from planners that overstreet passages are fatal to a lively street scene.

So, let’s see. If a developer wants to build one, the city nixes it unless it’s B of A or Wachovia in which case the city curls into the fetal position. But when the city wants to build one, it’s OK?

Stay tuned. Whatcha bet the city will want to exempt itself from its own sign ordinance, too?

To see the rendering: