Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Your Chance To Sound Off

OK, residents of Plaza-Midwood, Dilworth, Cotswold, Myers Park. Here’s your chance to sound off.

A couple of Plaza-Midwood residents gave me a short tour the other day, of Ashland Avenue, where a hugely out-of-scale house is going up next to the rest of the street’s modest bungalows. They were outraged at what they considered the lack of taste. Can’t anyone do anything, they asked?

And a resident of Carmel Acres Drive copied the newspaper with her e-mail to the mayor, in which she complains about “a 7,000-square-foot house (or rather hotel)” that is “totally out of proportion for the neighborhood.”

“It seems,” she wrote, “that builders can do whatever they want, and they are compromising the integrity of our beautiful older neighborhoods.”

What can you do? Here’s what’s happening in another booming Southern city:

Earlier in May, the DeKalb County (Ga.) commissioners voted to allow two neighborhoods to prevent houses taller than 28 feet to be built within their subdivisions. The article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called them “Hummer houses.”

The two neighborhoods, Meadowcliff and Diamond Head, will be covered by a special zoning overlay district.

As you’d expect, it’s a controversial issue, and one developer who has built some of the big houses plans to sue over the zoning for Meadowcliff, the AJC reports. The mayor of Atlanta earlier this year issued a temporary moratorium on construction in five neighborhoods hit by teardowns, to provide a cooling-off period. But the city council didn’t extend the moratorium. City planners are reviewing residential zoning codes to see what could be done.

What's the city's best course of action? Some people say, “Nothing, it’s the market at work.” Others say, “That ugly monstrosity has affected my property – it ruins my view, and it’s so out of place it ruins the look of the whole street. They shouldn’t be allowed to ruin other people's property that way.”

What do you think?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The next growth hot spot

Union County was the Charlotte region’s hot spot for growth from 1970 to 2000, with a 126 percent growth rate.

Mecklenburg was No. 2, at 96 percent, then Lincoln, 95 percent, and York at 93 percent. Cabarrus was at 76 percent growth, Iredell at 70.

But among the under-70-percent growth counties, will one of them leap to that hot-spot list in the coming decade? If so, which one?

Bill McCoy, retired director of the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte and a savvy growth watcher from way back, has his prediction. What’s yours? Add your comments below.

Here are the under-70-percent growth counties (remember it’s for 1970-2000):
Catawba, 56 percent
Rowan 45 percent
Lancaster 42 percent
Stanly 36 percent
Cleveland 33 percent
Gaston 28 percent
Chester 14 percent
Anson 8 percent

McCoy’s pick: Lancaster County, because of the huge Sun City development. And, he says, “They are putting it to the developers more than you would expect a place like Lancaster County to do.” He means the county is requiring developers to pay for some of the things the development will make necessary, such as new fire stations, etc.

He also thinks eastern Gaston County will soar. “Newcomers don’t have those old notions about Gaston County,” he says. If you’re from Pennsylvania or another distant state, he says, “Belmont looks about as good as any other place.”

Another interesting fact from McCoy: In the Charlotte region, 41 acres a day – more than 30 [not three, as I mistakenly wrote Tuesday] football fields a day – are being converted from undeveloped to developed. That's every day.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Growth: Who should pay?

My Saturday column about impact fees – playing off economists’ views against developers’ views – drew some provocative responses. Below are a couple, one from a developer, one from a county manager.

From Don Long of Lake Wylie, S.C.: Mary, there must be something strange in the air. I’ve agreed with two of your Viewpoint columns in a row ...

I’ve been involved with development as a planning board chairman, developer and interested citizen for 35 years. I’ve seen the development community successfully lobby their way out of impact fees several times in several locations over that period.

But the fact is that impact fees are a very effective and appropriate way to help fund the public services that new development adds to the public expense roster. And with respect to their generating higher housing prices, I don’t think the evidence bears that out. Somebody, somehow, is going to have to pay for what the public wants and needs in the way of public services and facilities including schools, infrastructure maintenance, etc. We can get some of that on the way in from impact fees, or sock it all to the community in general.

An example: Fort Mill, S.C. enacted impact fees on new development a few years ago before the S.C. legislature, in its well-lobbied infinite wisdom, made it virtually impossible for municipalities to adopt impact fees in S.C. It’s obvious, since Fort Mill is the fastest-growing area in York County – which, in turn, is one of the three fastest-growing counties in S.C. – that impact fees really slowed things down and put housing prices out of sight. Yeh, right.

Impact fees have provided much-needed funds for schools and other public services while not really having any substantive impact on development or developers.

From Gaston County Manager Jan Winters: Great article on impact fees. I would like to share a couple of thoughts.

I have worked in communities with impact fees in California, Colorado and south Florida. One observation is that generally the communities with impact fees had the highest growth rates, and the communities without impact fees had the lowest. Although somewhat counterintuitive, it makes sense when you consider that without growth, you don’t need a lot of new infrastructure. More important, it shows that the cost of impact fees rarely curtail development.

Michael Stegman at UNC Chapel Hill did a study a number of years ago that found the cost of impact fees initially was paid by land owners. Seems that developers/builders can’t control labor cost or material costs, but they can negotiate harder on land prices or move further out – as they know the market sets the price and they need to control their costs. Interestingly, where large subdivisions straddle a county line, one with impact fees and one without, the cost of homes is usually the same on both sides of the line. It is the market that sets the price.

What is fair? Clearly depends upon your point of view. If you think from the perspective of a widow on a fixed income who has lived in her modest home for 40-plus years – why should her taxes race higher so newcomers to the community can buy $300,000-plus houses without paying for the demands they are placing on the system? What about existing residents who move to a new home? If builders are right, and ultimately the impact fee is reflected in the new house price, since there is some ratio between the prices of new homes and existing homes, the community resident who moves to a new home trades in his unearned increment of equity due to impact fees.

Will impact fees ever be enough to cover new residents’ costs to the community? I don’t think that’s the point. The unfairness of existing homeowners in $100,000 homes having to subsidize new growth in more expensive homes is troubling. This perceived unfairness may give rise to anti-growth movements or a go-slow approach to infrastructure.

In the final analysis, infrastructure will have a decisive impact of growth. Without adequate schools, road capacity, water and sewer capacity, our quality of life suffers and our community becomes less desirable. So it is in all our interests to pragmatically solve this problem, rather than staking out positions.

I have seen builders and developers reluctantly accept impact fees when they were guaranteed that a) they would be charged only their prorated fair share, b) the funds collected could only be used for infrastructure within a geographic area to benefit the development, and c) the funds must be spent in timely fashion or refunded.

The benefits are enormous: 1) the development system becomes more transparent and fair – no more “Why was another developer charged only $X million for road improvements, utility extensions, school sites, etc when I am being charged $Y million?” 2) Local governments have a fairly steady new income source that they can program for infrastructure improvements rather than fight annual budget battles. 3) Developers come to appreciate the predictability of the new system – and especially those who have large projects with long build-out time frames appreciate the relationship between quality of life and the continued marketability of their product. 4) As the existing residents find their taxes aren’t continually increasing to support new growth and that there is a system in place to ensure that quality of life is maintained, they become less opposed to growth.

Last caution: Impact fees can’t possibly solve all the infrastructure needs, but are an important piece in the puzzle. We still need to look at lottery funds, possibly a half-cent sales tax with a referendum for new capital projects, bonds for ongoing unmet needs that benefit that entire community, and possibly even a transfer tax. I do think that it is very, very important to earmark all funds and tie a direct benefit to those who make the payment.

Since it is in everyone’s self-interest, I think this entire discussion about impact fees should eventually lead to a collaborative process between developers/builders and local government/community activists on how to solve our common problems.

Friday, May 19, 2006

'Special' special interests

If you’re a council watcher, or just someone who likes seeing the way the developers’ lobby jerks around elected officials, be sure to be watching the Monday night City Council meeting.

The council is scheduled to vote on a Transportation Action Plan, a document that’s been in the works 2 1/2 years. There have been four public hearings.

But April 24, when the council was supposed to vote, up popped the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, known by its froggy-sounding acronym REBIC. They had some concerns, they said. (Some history – REBIC has “concerns” about any city or county proposal that would cause developers to do things differently, such as build sidewalks or stop building in floodplains or save trees or even just build planting strips large enough for new street trees to grow in.)

Immediately Mayor Pat McCrory and council member John Lassiter – each of whom, like many local elected officials, gets substantial campaign donations from REBIC’s political action committee as well as from individual developers – moved to postpone the vote. And so the council postponed the vote. Because one special interest group wanted them to.

All special interests are equal, you see, but some are more equal than others. Michael Barnes, a newly elected council member from District 4 who’s lived in Charlotte only since 1998, was amazed. “I knew what the organization was, but I didn’t realize their political weight,” he told me Friday. “I had not dealt with them – meaning they hadn’t given me any money.”

He made his dismay clear at the meeting. The Observer’s Richard Rubin quoted him saying, “Other than wanting (to make) yourself seem politically popular with special-interest groups, there’s no good reason to delay this.”

REBIC had had plenty of time to make any objections known well in advance. So did you, assuming you’re a resident of Charlotte or own a business here.

But when you object to something, or want to propose something, you’re lucky if you can get a council member to take your phone call. REBIC doesn’t have that problem. The city department of transportation even holds a regular luncheon for REBIC and other developers, where REBIC leaders get not only a free lunch paid for by you, the taxpayers, but they are assured of the ear of the top CDOT leaders. I wrote about it two years ago.

Barnes is going to be fun to watch, as he learns even more about how things work around here. I hope he’ll continue to pipe up when he thinks special interests are being treated as if they’re a bit too special.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hope for East Charlotte?

Does East Charlotte have a future? That’s what reader and East Charlotte resident Diane Ruggiero asked me this week:

Hi Mary. I often read your column in the Observer and I was wondering what you think of what’s happening in East Charlotte.

I am a resident of Sheffield, a lovely little community surrounded by Independence, Albemarle, Sharon Amity, Central, and Eastway. The neighborhood is filled with lovely houses, mostly built in the 1950s (ours was built in 1954 and sits on a half acre of land).

We have lived in our current house for over eight years (and in an east side apartment before that) and we have seen the decline of the surrounding businesses. Fortunately, our neighborhood has held on.With the upcoming closing of a Harris Teeter [at Eastland mall], this leaves another empty big box on the east side. The old Upton’s building on Albemarle has been empty for close to 10 years. Hannafords is empty. Eastland Mall is on the decline and holding on as best it can. (Dillard’s is now only on one level and is an outlet store).

It is nice to see the multi-cultural aspect of Central Avenue, but with immigration such a hot topic, it makes me wonder about what will happen if people leave. I am concerned that the new transit station at the mall will only bring more crime to that area.

We now have a highway sign at the end of our street as people enter onto Independence. I have not seen a more useless sign in this city (and that is saying something).

Given what you have seen in this city and in others, what do you think the future holds for the East Side?

What do you think, readers? I know this blog has a good number of east-siders reading it regularly. Thoughts?

Here’s how I answered Diane:

Thanks very much for your note. I had heard from someone – though no one in a position of authority – that Eastland folks were negotiating with another grocery store to take over the Harris Teeter space. Which doesn’t get to your overall point, but does at least hold out the hope there won’t be another huge empty building there.

I just went through Sheffield for the first time the other day and was amazed at what an attractive neighborhood it is. It’s too bad it’s hidden by the commercial glop on Albemarle Road, etc. But with housing prices what they are in Charlotte, I expect Sheffield will be “discovered” any day now, so hang on.

Overall, though, I don’t know what the future holds for the east side. It’s a long-running story whose end, at least now, isn’t foretold.

To elaborate: The whole east side of Charlotte should be a long-term case study for some urban studies professor. East Charlotte got developed with a never-say-no-to-developers attitude on the part of city and county decision-makers. Now it isn’t urban enough to be “cool” to the growing market of people looking for city living, but isn’t new enough to attract people looking for suburban living.

The city has skimped on police coverage – everywhere, not just east Charlotte. But the more people feel unsafe, the less those east side neighborhoods maintain their property values.

The city hasn’t bitten the bullet and adopted affordable housing policies – such as inclusionary zoning – to effectively spread housing for the non-rich into all sectors of the city. So the east has a disproportionate share. (See above, re property values.)

The city (and the county, which for years had responsibility for this) skimps on nuts-and-bolts enforcement of housing codes and zoning rules. Even when enforcement happens, fines are laughable. Meanwhile, zoning inspection martinets spend their time shutting down a Newell farmer’s market that the community welcomed. Go figure.

The city and county, kneeling at developers’ feet, seriously overzoned for retail in east Charlotte. They passively OK's rezonings to let retailers build new stores farther out, and abandon old ones.

I could go on, but I won’t. Schools alone are a subject worthy of someone’s doctoral dissertation.

Will those attractive, relatively affordable neighborhoods such as Sheffield begin attracting urban pioneers the way Plaza-Midwood and NoDa have, and now Merry Oaks and Briar Creek-Woodland? I’m optimistic – especially if the Central Avenue streetcar really gets built. Hang in there, east-siders.

Monday, May 15, 2006

NoDa: A contrary view

Paul McBroom takes issue with an Observer editorial – the unsigned pieces that run on the Opinion Page – that I wrote last month.

The editorial said the historic North Davidson Street neighborhood known as NoDa (formerly North Charlotte) is at risk from intense, transit-oriented development. It said high-rise buildings, which are in general a welcome transit-oriented form of development, would create irresistible economic pressure through rising land values. Without some protections in place, it said, those rising values would doom the historic commercial area and its older, one- and two-story buildings that now house art galleries and restaurants. The rising values would also doom the surrounding small, historic mill village.

McBroom, who with wife Sharon Pate owns Neighborhood Properties and formerly ran Neighborhood Realty, took me on a quick NoDa tour last week to explain why he thinks high-rise development is the only thing that will save the area. I’m familiar with the neighborhood, having visited it off and on since it was a fading mill neighborhood knows as North Charlotte.

But I hadn’t driven through the residential streets in a few years. It’s booming with home renovations. Houses are being expanded, front and back. Some are losing their old mill-house look; others retain it, but with updates. There’s even an in-ground swimming pool going in next to an old mill house.

McBroom has been involved with NoDa properties for more than 15 years. “I came to NoDa early, but I wasn’t one of the first ones with the vision,” he says. He and Sharon own the Neighborhood Theatre building, a venue they launched in 1997 until leasing its management to others in 2003.

Here’s his view: He thinks high-rise buildings along the to-be-built light rail line – which will run along railroad tracks that cross 36th Street about a block from North Davidson – will help preserve the low-scale downtown area. In his view, high-intensity development at the tracks would provide an outlet for development pressure that otherwise would doom the historic commercial area.

Further, he thinks all the renovations, including the ones erasing the character of the old mill houses, are necessary in order to attract today’s homebuyers. Without those newcomers and their money, he says, the area still risks being perceived as a low-income, high-crime area. Right now it’s hot, but he says, “There are too many things that are fragile.”

He also says, “What’s happening on the other side of 485 is going to hurt NoDa more than anything that’s going to happen here.” He means NoDa’s competition for economic development dollars isn’t uptown, Elizabeth or Dilworth, but Ballantyne and farther out.

“What’s here now isn’t sustainable without drastic new growth,” he says. I hope he’s right, because I have real affection for the neighborhood. Do I think he’s right? Sadly, no. Since the 1970s I’ve watched rising land values in uptown Charlotte set off an economic domino game that swept away almost all the older, personality-filled buildings that many uptown boosters now longingly wish we had.

It would be nice if some reasonable blend of new and old can be crafted, with strategic forethought to protect the flavor of the area, but allowing enough new to provide the economic rebirth McBroom talks about. But I don’t see any of that planning happening, which is why I’m afraid for the neighborhood.

But this is one area where I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Ersatz English: Disney-on-Rea

The new development, its builders will say, will look like an English countryside village. It will be called Mayfair – a countryside village bearing the name of very pricey but decidedly urban London neighborhood.

Except, it’s nowhere near the countryside. It will be on Rea Road, deep in the heart of south Charlotte’s suburbia.

In England, of course, country villages are in the countryside – and the countryside is protected from development by powerful planning laws that set growth boundaries around each village. Unlike North Carolina, in England developers can’t fling subdivisions into the countryside. That’s why Americans think the English countryside is so beautiful they’re willing to buy into ersatz England in south Charlotte. They just don’t want to let our government try anything to protect our countryside. We want picturesque England without any of the hard political work required to create and maintain it.

And it’s not a village. It’s a cluster of 59 townhomes on 11 acres. It’s about a mile down Rea Road from a shopping center, which is decidedly not the same thing as the traditional English cluster of small shops. An English village has houses, stores, churches, pubs, schools – all within a close walk of one another. An English village is not a clump of townhouses, no matter how cutely designed with faux half-timbering, marketed to the relatively narrow slice of society, who can afford $300,000 to $500,000 dwellings.

Oh, and just in case you wanted that neighborly feel – you know, the kind of warm welcome you usually find if you visit an English village pub or tea shop, a sense of being invited to be part of their community, if only for a few hours? The “English countryside village” will be gated. You are not welcome there. Prince Charles and Camilla are not welcome there.

In England, a countryside village does not have a locked gate around it.

The motto of the state of North Carolina is Esse quam videre – to be rather than to seem. And in Charlotte, people wonder why the rest of the state thinks Charlotte isn't really part of North Carolina.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Those Evil Buses

The east and west sides of Charlotte have been afraid that the transit system the city is building will end up with classy light rail or commuter rail for all the other corridors but yucky buses for the East and West.

I’m just back from a two-day conference in Boston (Cambridge, to be precise) and one afternoon we ended up riding around the greater Boston area on the T – meaning using the heavy rail (that is, subway) system primarily but also taking a short hop on the new Silver Line. Bus. Bus Rapid Transit. In the argot of Transportation Jargon, it’s BRT.

If you travel much in Boston you probably already know the Red line goes to Harvard Square in Cambridge. The Green line goes to Fenway Park and to whatever they call Boston Garden these days. The Blue line goes to the aquarium and goes sort of near Logan Airport. Now, the new Silver Line goes to the airport, too, and depending on where you’re going it’s got a good chance of being a better choice, meaning fewer transfers, than Blue.

The Silver Line is – how to put this and still sound like a journalist? – gorgeous. The station is new and clean, which isn’t how you’d describe many of Boston’s aging subway stations.

These buses aren’t like the ones that ply the streets of Boston, Charlotte, or just about any other city of any size. They’re new, but just as important, they’re powered by overhead electrical lines, which makes them clean and quiet. They can also switch to diesel fuel. They’re designed so people hauling luggage don’t have to lift the suitcases to get from platform to bus. In the section of the Silver Line we went on, the bus had its own dedicated path, just like the subway does. In fact, part of the newly opened Silver Line runs through a tunnel that had to be carved underneath downtown Boston. Swedish boring equipment, I was told.

Some parts of the Silver Line that have to go into Boston traffic aren’t as rapid. And the Silver Line, at this point, is in two sections with no connection – a connection that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make.

One attraction of bus rapid transit is that it’s cheaper than laying rails. Seems to me, though, when you tunnel under a city and install electrical wires you’re making BRT kinda pricey. Even so, it was cheaper than just adding another subway link. And in 20 years or so – once the Big Dig is paid for, presumably – the Silver Line can be converted to rail if that seems important and there’s money available.

Of course, part of the reason to build the transit system in Charlotte is to attract growth to the transit corridors. Whether bus rapid transit will lure growth as well as rail is an open question and not one that should be dismissed. Plenty of other factors count, too, such as the affordability calculation, which takes into account based projected ridership and projected construction and operating costs. With fewer riders, you need less-expensive construction costs or you don’t get those all important federal dollars. The transit decision-makers can’t ignore those formulas.

But the headline is this: The bus transit wasn’t smelly or loud, like surface buses. Because it had its own path it was rapid. The transfer from rail to bus was seamless – just like switching to another subway line. If anything, the ride on the new bus transit was more attractive than the older rail.

Would it fly in Charlotte? I’m guessing it would.