Friday, April 28, 2006

Mourning Jane Jacobs

If you get a chance to read my Urban Outlook column in Saturday’s Observer (it’s in the Opinion section of, starting Saturday) you’ll see – no surprise – I’m a huge fan of Jane Jacobs’ writing.

At a dinner Wednesday I sat next to a smart, accomplished local architect who was quibbling about Jacobs a bit, saying she didn’t have what he called real world experience, hadn’t ever designed any buildings and even at one point said her writing was essentially “fiction.”

I didn’t stab him with my salad fork, but I was tempted.

Obviously, anyone in any line of work learns from doing, whether it’s designing buildings for clients, drawing up city plans, writing editorials or building stone walls. Reality – whether in the form of structural engineering, planning department budget shortfalls, or looming deadlines – makes almost anything that any of us produce less than perfect. It’s true, Jane Jacobs never drew up city plans or designed buildings. And it’s true the Greenwich Village neighborhood that she observed most intently for “Death and Life of Great American Cities” wasn’t – still isn’t – a typical New York City neighborhood. But that doesn’t make her work fiction any more than it makes Lewis Mumford’s work fiction.

Jacobs wanted us to trust our eyes and our ears. She scorned, for example, urban planners’ veneration of “open space” as an abstract good, regardless of whether the “open space” ever got used by real people for anything other than muggings.

She saved some of her choicest invective for traffic engineers. In her 2004 book, “Dark Age Ahead,” she wrote that traffic engineers “have abandoned and betrayed science as it is understood. ... It is popularly assumed that when universities give science degrees in traffic engineering, as they do, they are recognizing aboveboard expert knowledge. But they aren’t. They are perpetrating a fraud upon students and upon the public when they award credentials in this supposed expertise.”

She called it an “incurious profession” that “pulls its conclusions about the meaning of evidence out of thin air – sheer guesswork – even when it does deign to notice evidence.”

One example she gave: She didn’t drive and had to take taxis, which charge according to time and distance. To get to destinations in downtown Toronto using the elevated, limited access freeway invariably cost more than to get to destinations downtown avoiding the freeway. Her conclusion: Traffic engineers had planned roads without realizing that drivers have micro-destinations, not just the macro-destination of “downtown.” You could get to the outskirts of downtown quickly on the freeway, but you were slowed as soon as you hit the exit ramps and all the one-way streets, no-left-turns and other engineer tricks that were supposed to ensure a “speedy trip.” Instead, they’re impediments to getting where you want to go, she wrote, because someone apparently told traffic engineers the journey (speedy travel) matters more than the destination (getting somewhere efficiently).

She wrote: “In the background of this paradigm I see little boys with toy cars happily murmuring, ‘Zoom, Zooom, Zooooom!’ ”

Jacobs wanted people to see the world as it is, not just as they were taught in class. It's a useful lesson.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Let The ImaginOn Wars Begin

I made a short comment in my previous post about the design of the ImaginOn building, asking what people thought. (Architects, here's your chance.) One reply, from "Rebecca":

"IMAGINON is GHASTLY. The ugliest building I have ever seen. it makes me ashamed every time I pass it. It looks like something my kids built in the woods out of scraps of castoff crap they found laying around. ICKY.”

Several comments complained about what they thought was ineffective use of tax money on the buildings. Others defended the building’s use – as a children’s library and the new home of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Here’s my take: I love libraries. And the Children’s Theatre is a gem of a resource for the city. We’re lucky to have it, lucky enough theater folks are willing to work there for what I’m pretty sure aren’t great salaries. Our daughter has taken classes at the CT and loved it, so I’m happy that worthy organization has much better, larger and better-equipped space.

I mourn the loss of the old building on Morehead because its walls oozed memories and history. The stairwell wall from the dressing rooms up to the stage was layer upon layer of signatures of Children’s Theatre participants from over the decades. The history had seeped into the bones of the building and was palpable for even the youngest users, and I’m sad that all those memories were just turned into rubble in one day.

BUT – you knew a “but” was coming, right? – it’s dumb to segregate “children’s books” from the main library in a whole other building. That just further isolates young people from larger society. Kids need more places where they’re integrated with, and interacting with, people of all ages from the elderly on down.

In addition, it’s user-unfriendly for two rather large groups: 1. Adults who want to browse and check out books WHILE they take children to the library. Why make them trudge between two buildings several blocks apart? 2. Kids aged about 8-15 who are good readers and move back and forth between “children’s books” and “young adult books” and “adult books.” We should all be encouraging more kids to read more advanced literature if they’re interested, not putting obstacles in their way.

And I confess, I think the building is junky looking. I'm afraid that in 10 years it will look dated, and in 25 years will even be shabby. Our 14-year-old loves it, however. So who’s right? Let the debate begin.

Monday, April 24, 2006

What WAS That Thing Uptown?

Attention, uptown folks: What WAS that? Or downtown folks. Doesn’t matter what you call the place. What WAS that thing I saw on Sixth Street last Thursday?

It was the carcass of what can best be described as a critter.

It lay on the south side of East Sixth, in the block east of College Street, sort of across the street from Brixx. It was brown and furry, with a rodent-ish face, and a furry tail. It was the size of a beaver.

The size and the fuzzy tail ruled out rat, possum or beaver and, based on a quick Google search, muskrat. It wasn’t a rabbit or hare; its ears were small and round.

Is it possible we have groundhogs – a.k.a. woodchucks, as in "How much would would a woodchuck chuck," etc. – in uptown Charlotte?

"Fried, roasted or stewed woodchuck can be tasty," a Canadian Web site, Hinterland Who’s Who, tells me. No mention of woodchucks having become urbanized like raccoons and possums. Even so, it looked more like a groundhog than anything else, though I’ve only seen them dead on the highway, or standing sentry beside mountain roads or being fĂȘted at the Nature Museum on Groundhog Day.

Any theories, anyone?

Speaking of sights
And speaking of uptown sights, can there possibly be a less distinguished-looking county courthouse than the new Mecklenburg County Courthouse at Fourth and McDowell streets?

One last thought
One last uptown thought: ImaginOn? Love the building or hate it?
My quick take – it’s seriously suburban, with its odd scraps of useless lawn out front. And that grassy berm out back looks as if it was modeled on some suburban buffer in Weddington. It has no place in an urban setting.

Maybe someone with a competitive streak figured if Dallas has a grassy knoll, then Charlotte needs one, too.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Son of Big House

A reader shares this link to another article about the Big House phenomenon, and the backlash against it. Her comment, “pretty much same story/justification – if they can afford it and they run you off from your home/ruin your neighborhood then too bad for you. They are rich and you are not so get lost...” Here’s the link:

And if you’re interested in something a bit less public-policy-wonkish, try this site from Charlotte’s avant-gardista, Little Shiva:

Friday, April 14, 2006

World Class -- What Would It Take?

Reader N.T. poses an interesting question:

I enjoy reading your blogs. Here's a good topic. What will it take to make Charlotte a "World Class City"? Charlotte is a great city with potential to become world class. City Leaders need a broader vision. They also need to prepare the city for the next 30 years, not five. Here are a few of my suggestions.

An education system that provides quality education for all students, in a comfortable environment, and with educators who are professional and qualified to teach all students. An education system that focuses more preparing students for a career and life, not just passing EOG tests.

Better roads and parking; a law and/or medical School; become a 24-hour city; a diverse leadership team; international facilities (schools, parks, banks, businesses) in prime areas such as uptown and South Park. World Class Cities embrace the world.

Once some pieces are in place the city will attract more businesses and cultural attractions.

What's your answer? Here's mine:

Charlotte should stop trying to be a "world-class city" and just try to be a great place to live.
A world-class city has layers of history that reveal themselves to visitors and residents. Charlotte isn't old enough yet, and too much of what could have become its first layers of history has been torn down. That's got to change.

A world-class city has enough people concentrated in the center to create not only the sense of excitement that good cities offer, but to create a market for stores, museums, businesses and all the other things that over time help create those layers of history.

In time, 50 or 100 years maybe, Charlotte might become a world-class city – if its leaders think long-term as well as short-term, if more of its residents support the arts (name a world-class city that doesn't have great art) and will invest public money in great parks and museums (name a world class city that doesn't have them), if its schools stay strong (because bad schools mean a dying center city), if its luck hold up, if the creek don't rise ...

Right now Charlotte's civic persona is so desperate to be "world-class" that it comes off like a teenaged boy who want so desperately to be popular that he runs for class president every year and tries out for all the teams. To want something that nakedly just works against attaining it.

So I think Charlotte should worry less about "world-class" and relax more.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Some Facts About Growth

Figured I’d weigh in with some facts, to respond to recent comments, mostly about impact fees.

First, while I think impact fees are worth considering, I haven’t said they’re the greatest idea since sliced bread. There are other, probably better ways to find money to build schools and repair streets and fund parks and deal with growth’s costs to local government. Problem is, so far our elected officials aren’t looking at those other ways, either, or using tools they already have (primarily property tax increases) or reallocating existing money.

Second, yes, impact fees would require lengthy political effort. That's one reason they may not be worth fighting for. Another option is some places are using is to adopt adequate public facility ordinances, which need no blessing from Raleigh. Under an APFO, developers can develop in areas where infrastructure’s adequate, or wait to develop until infrastructure catches up, or pay a fee toward creating the infrastructure.

Third, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are not “in the toilet.” Test scores are rising, not sinking, for black, white and Hispanic students. Is that the only way to measure a good education? Of course not. But it’s the only way we have. CMS has some excellent schools, with excellent and hard-working teachers, delivering excellent educations. I’m tired of people acting as if those places don’t exist.

Fourth, there are no proposals before county commissioners or City Council to adopt impact fees. There’s a lot of talk about looking at new revenue options because of a belief that the property tax shouldn’t be the only mechanism with which to raise money. But so far there’s only vague talk.

Fifth, “almost all the new development uptown is because of tax policy and government subsidy.” Say what? Most development uptown is residential and gets no incentives. All over the U.S., urban living became “cool” again in the 1990s and a market arose that didn’t exist 25 years ago, or more likely, a market that existed all along was rediscovered, and with red-lining outlawed it was allowed to flower again.

Yes, the arena and the stadium got healthy boosts from public money. So did the Coliseum on Tyvola Road, by the way. So did the old Coliseum (now Cricket Arena) on Indy Boulevard back in the late 1950s. If you’re tracking subsidies, don’t overlook the outerbelt and its numerous, clogged-with-development interchanges – way more than are needed for transportation purposes. We all paid to build those interchanges, in order to enrich developers and landowners. Remember, too, that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities plans to put sewer service in every square inch of the county, paid for by all off us who pay water-sewer fees. Talk about incentives to develop! Without sewer and water, no development. You may not like government spending that lures development, but it’s been going on for years, all over the place.

Last, “It’s well documented that new urbanism gets legs not because people want to live in urban areas (in fact this year's realtor survey and recent census survey say the exact opposite) but because of financial and tax policy incentives.” Any of you new urbanist developers out there want to set the record straight?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Impact Fees: Public Loves 'Em

An anonymous poster (and sorry, poster-named-Rick, but it doesn’t bug me if they’re anonymous) had this to say about my March 27 post “Developers 1 – Everyone Else, O” (see below): “Impact fees get no traction with the public because we know we pay TOO much already and GovCo makes too many bad decisions.”

Hate to break it to you, but a recent survey just released found overwhelming support for impact fees. Now, the fees may or may not make sound public policy – that’s a whole other question. But they’re enormously popular with the public.

The poll results, released Friday, were plastered all over the Observer’s front page. If you missed Saturday’s Observer, here’s a link.

It was taken by MarketWise, for Mecklenburg County’s School Building Solutions Committee, a.k.a. the Martin Committee, chaired by Republican former Gov. Jim Martin, who, before he was governor was a county commissioner, then a U.S. House representative. The survey was Feb. 21-March 17, and involved 623 phone interviews.

Respondents were asked about four possible alternative revenue sources, worded exactly this way: increasing local sales tax, increasing cigarette tax, a tax on the sale of land, charging impact fees to developers.

On page 30 of the PowerPoint presentation, you’ll find an interesting graph showing their replies: 79 percent of respondents who voted in last fall’s school bond referendum, and 76 of those who hadn’t voted, said they’d support impact fees.

The way it’s worded makes it sound as if developers paid the fees and didn’t pass the costs on to homebuyers, which is what's more likely to happen, although not always. After all, to compete on price, developers sometimes will eat a percentage of the impact fee costs, or choose to lower costs in some other way.

Anyone who isn’t planning on buying a new house is going to think impact fees are a great idea, and a sales tax – which everyone would pay – is a crummy idea. The poll results show exactly that: 25 percent of voters and 23 percent of nonvoters liked the sales tax idea. The tax on the sale of land (also known as a real estate transfer tax) got support from 39 percent of voters, 36 percent of nonvoters, and the increase in cigarette taxes got 76 percent support among voters and 79 percent support among nonvoters.

Reality checks: The cigarette tax is a state tax, not locally adopted. All three other local option taxes require the N.C. General Assembly to give its blessing.

If you’re among the many who think impact fees are a good idea, don’t be beating up on your school board members. They have nothing to do with impact fees. They can’t levy any taxes at all.

Find your state representatives in the N.C. House and N.C. Senate (Here's a link to help you find your representatives. You'll need your Zip Code-plus-four) and beat up on them. THEN call Charlotte City Council members and Mecklenburg County commissioners . They’re the ones who’d have to adopt the fees if the state allowed it. And they'd surely have to lobby the state, too, just for permission.

And if you don’t like impact fees, tell them that, too. I’d rather they be listening to the whole realm of public opinion than just to the developers.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Trains to Planes? Not Here

The planning commissioners practically pounced on the CATS guy.

CATS Deputy Director John Muth had just finished briefing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission on Monday on the status of the transit system. (Headlines: South Corridor trains running by fall 2007, many decisions to be made summer and fall on which corridor goes next, whether the West corridor gets light rail, bus rapid transit or streetcars, etc.)

Then several commissioners began suggesting to Muth oh so nicely that CATS really, really, really needs to make sure the West transit line goes to the airport.
Because right now, with the still-tentative plans, it wouldn’t. The likely route would go down Wilkinson Boulevard, not to the airport terminal.

Planning commissioner George Sheild, a developer, probably summed up the sentiments of many others: “I think a really good rail connection from the airport to downtown would do more for Charlotte than the whole South Corridor.”

Anyone who’s ever traveled in or out of a city with good transit connections to its airport – Washington, London, even St. Louis – knows how easy it is to arrive, walk down the hall or down some stairs, and get into a train or bus or tram. Cheaper, too.

Muth was pleasant, but noncommittal.

There’s just one problem with everyone’s wishes on this: The federal money for transit comes with strings attached. One string – more like a rope – is that the project has to meet a cost-effectiveness test. The feds set the rules for how you calculate cost-effectiveness, involving projected ridership, time saved by riders, etc. Those federal rules got even stricter in the past year.

The early numbers on the West Corridor showed light rail to the airport wouldn’t pass the cost-effectiveness test. That’s because not enough people go to and from the airport. Most of the people using our airport – a longtime US Airways hub – are just switching planes.

Muth said some new pots of federal transit money are available for smaller-scale projects, and CATS is looking at whether it might be able to use those pots to fund streetcars in the West corridor as well as the “Streetcar” project it plans for Trade Street and out Central Avenue. Streetcars cost less to build, because they run in the street, but they’re slower – because they run in the street, with the other traffic. And the federal money in those newer pots don’t pay as big a percentage of costs.

Transit to the airport? I’m all for it. I hope CATS and the airport and the city can figure out how to make it happen.

But I don’t think it’s likely, at least not in the next 20 years.