Friday, June 23, 2006

User-friendly? Not CATS

The car was in the shop, so I tried to take the bus home the other day. I’ve done it before. Bus 14 quite handily runs very near our house. So why do the folks who run the bus system make it so hard to ride the bus? Maybe some more customer-friendliness would help them increase ridership.

I’ll see if I can get Ron Tober, Charlotte Area Transit System CEO, to respond to my little rant, which follows. If you have similar gripes, add them to the comments, and I’ll see if Tober will address them.

I walked from the Observer building at Tryon and Stonewall to the Transportation Center, between East Fourth and East Trade. It was late afternoon and it was hot enough to sweat just standing in the shade.

First, I notice that if you’re on Fourth Street, you can’t even get to the bus depot without jaywalking in rush hour traffic, because construction at the old convention center site has been allowed to close the sidewalk.

Memo to city officials: Put up a pedestrian passage on the bus station side of Fourth. It can’t be that hard, but if it is, paint in a pedestrian crosswalk across Fourth.

I arrived at the Transportation Center 20 minutes early. For years, Bus 14 left from Bay A on East Trade Street, but the last time I took it, it had moved to another bay. I couldn’t remember which, but happily, there are TV monitors to tell you where, in the vast and bus-filled depot, each bus arrives. It said Bus 14 was at Bay Q. I went to Bay Q. No Bus 14.

Because of construction, a small sign told me, Bus 14 stopped “along Trade Street.” Well, where along Trade Street? It’s a long street, with lots of traffic. I went to Trade Street but saw no signs mentioning Bus 14.

Luckily I was still about 15 minutes early. I sought out the information booth. A nice lady there said Bus 14 had moved to Bay A. I went to where I remembered Bay A had been, along Trade Street. By now I was sweating profusely in the heat. Luckily, I still had 5 minutes.

A clump of people loitered along Trade Street, but I saw no sign or any other indication that this was still Bay A, no benches, no list of what buses stopped there. But people waiting there confirmed it was Bus 14’s stop.

So, CATS folks, if some eager bus rider wants to take Bus 14, how in thunder is EBR supposed to find it? The TV display is wrong. The lone directional sign (at Bay Q) is so vague as to be useless. Bay A itself is going incognito. EBR is somehow expected to intuit that’s where it used to be.

Another hint: If I had missed Bus 14 by not happening to be 20 minutes early, I’d have been looking for alternative buses. Why not put up about 10 of those maps of the whole bus system in prominent places, so people like me could figure out options? It's S.O.P. in many big cities to have transit system maps all over the stations.

Not everything was negative, of course. Getting the schedule online was easy. The bus driver was friendly, the ride was (sort of) on time, and the trip itself comfortable and efficient.

I mentioned my adventures to a colleague who takes the bus to work daily and has for years. He just chuckled and said, in effect, it’s always like that.

It shouldn’t be.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Charlotte's "green" ranking

An online network for “healthy and sustainable living” this year looked at public and government data to rank the 50 largest U.S. cities on whether they’re “sustainable.” Charlotte’s in the fair-to-middling territory.

Here’s how SustainLane defines sustainability: “Hallmarks of sustainable cities include a commitment to public health, an emphasis on creating a strong local economy, and citizens and city officials working together to make positive, thoughtful choices for the long-term benefit of the city and its residents.”

The rankings looked at data for categories such as air quality, traffic congestion, tap water quality, how many local buildings were environmentally sensitive, or “green” buildings, use of transit, etc. Highlights: Portland, Ore., ranked No. 1. Columbus, Ohio, ranked last, at 50. Here's a link to a story on the rankings.

Charlotte was at 34. None of the six cities in the Southeast came off well. At 34, Charlotte was second in the region. Miami ranked 29, Jacksonville 36, Atlanta 38, Nashville 42 and Memphis 43.

In its assessment of the city, the report said: “In both air and water quality, Charlotte receives low scores. The tap water (#27) has 15 contaminants, 4 of which exceed the recommended limit, and the air quality (#37) is poor. Both of these concerns are at the forefront of smart growth impacts. The Environmental Leadership Policy for Mecklenburg County [Did you know this group existed? Kudos for its having been created, but a higher profile might be nice] highlights air quality as the most urgent environmental concern. They also recognize that air quality is part of a larger growth management issue.”

The report praises a relatively high degree of awareness in local government. In planning and land use, the city ranked No. 18, and Atlanta – ha! – was dead last at 50.

(For methodology geeks: For all the cities, city-only data was used except in four categories. Three – regional public transit, road congestion and metro area sprawl – used metro area data. One – air quality – used countywide data.)

So do you think Charlotte's been accurately characterized in the ranking? Comments welcome below.

One quibble: If you read deep into the report, you’ll see that among the “experts” the report talked with were Mecklenburg County’s Land Use and Environmental Services director Cary Saul, and Mayor Pat McCrory, who’s never been shy about trumpeting all the great and wonderful and wise things our city government is doing. A skeptical part of me wonders if Hizzoner’s enthusiasm might have helped win some points in categories such as "Knowledge base," in which Charlotte tied for No. 1 with 10 other cities. The Charlotte report says, for example: “Although it doesn’t look like Charlotte has a very strong sustainable economy, several exciting trends are emerging."

Monday, June 12, 2006

Defending Mike Easley

Two high-ranking state government officials beg to differ with my June 2 item, “Governor envy,” (several items below this one) in which I said I wished N.C. Gov. Mike Easley sounded more like the way Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri had sounded in speaking to the Congress for the New Urbanism in Providence, R.I., on June 2.

Carcieri talked about the importance of preserving his state’s historic communities from unwise development – he used CVS as an example of unattractive building – and criticized the way interstate highways has been allowed to destroy neighborhoods. “I just believe people are attracted to attractive places,” he said.

N.C. Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett and William Ross, secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, sent this response in praise of Easley’s actions in environmental and community preservation:

It is indeed troubling that Mary Newsom (“Governor Envy”) would write about an issue in which she has not done her homework. She said that while she does not know much about Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, she wishes the comments he made recently concerning environmental and community preservation were also espoused by Gov. Mike Easley.

A speech is one thing, but when it comes to action, Gov. Easley’s record speaks clearly of his work to preserve North Carolina’s natural resources and communities while recognizing the struggle to cope with explosive growth.

We would not want you to just take our word for it. Here is what others say about the Easley administration’s effective work. The Innovation in American Government Awards honored the state in 2003 for its Ecosystem Enhancement Program, one of the nation’s top 50 new governmental initiatives. Through this program, the state has committed its resources to restore, enhance and protect its wetlands and waterways. It combines an existing wetlands-restoration initiative by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources with
ongoing environmental efforts by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Since 2003, the two agencies have demonstrated national leadership in working together to provide for the state’s transportation needs while protecting and enhancing the environment.

Last year the Federal Highway Administration recognized the state with three of 11 awards it made for environmental excellence:

– Excellence in Environmental Research for the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Environmental Research Program’s work to improve knowledge of transportation’s effects on the natural environment and communities.

– Excellence in Scenic Byways for the state Department of Transportation’s efforts to create and expand the state Scenic Byways program.

– Excellence in Non-Motorized Transportation for the Reedy Creek Greenway and I-440 pedestrian bridge in Wake County.

Through One North Carolina Naturally, Gov. Easley’s statewide land and water initiative, more than 420,000 acres of land have been preserved, including the addition of nearly 40,000 acres to the park system. Just this year, Gov. Easley has been fighting to stop the federal government from selling National Forest lands in the state, protesting federal plans for oil and gas leasing off our coast, moving to protect 174,000 acres of National Forest lands from potential Bush administration rules changes to allow development and adding 77,000 acres of land to be protected from development.

Gov. Easley’s latest budget proposals call for more spending to make sure that there is greater compliance with habitat protection along our coast, expands efforts to control sediment and erosion and seeks greater efforts to protect the public in locating solid waste treatment and disposal facilities. In addition, he proposes spending $15 million to purchase land to expand the Chimney Rock tract in Hickory Nut Gorge State Park.

These and other ongoing efforts are just the way North Carolina goes about its business and would do any state and any governor proud. Whether facing billion-dollar budget shortfalls or facing exploding population growth, Gov. Easley keeps the protection of our state’s natural resources at the top of his priorities.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Ranting, Or A Real Threat?

James Howard Kunstler (“The Geography of Nowhere,” “Home From Nowhere,” and the newly published, “The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century”) and New Urbanists have a mutual admiration society, so he’s almost always a speaker at the annual Congress of the New Urbanism. Usually he’s the most entertaining one.

Here are a few excerpts from his talk, “The Post-Carbon Society: An Overview,” at the most recent CNU in Providence. It’s based on my notes, so it isn’t a complete transcript, and in most places I’ve paraphrased because I’m not confident of the precise accuracy of the quotes. If it’s in quote marks, it’s exactly as he said it:

People defend conventional suburbia by saying it’s OK because people like it. They choose it. “But it’s going to be taken off the menu.”

He loves to talk about American delusions. One, he said, is the belief that it’s possible to get something for nothing. The other he dubbed the phenomenon of “When you wish upon a star your dreams come true.”

“The leading religion in America is the worship of unearned riches,” he said.

In other words, he thinks Americans are clueless about what we will need to do if – he’d say when – the energy crisis really hits us.

He described going to Google headquarters in Silicon Valley, in a large big-box office building. It was decked out like a preschool, he said, with 27-year-old millionaires “dressed like skateboard rats,” exemplifying a pattern of “childishness at the very highest levels of technological enterprise.” He gave them his talk predicting the end of the petroleum age. He said their response was: “Dude. We’ve got technology.”

But they’re confusing “technology” with “energy,” he said. The long emergency – the economic breakdown from a loss of cheap, carbon-based energy sources – is going to create winners and losers and the lower middle class will be the losers, he said. Revolution, even fascism, might be the possible results of the chaos from the economic failure.

He predicted a “meltdown of hallucinated wealth.”

The intelligent response to the threat, he said, is the down-scaling of America: food production, commerce and trade, schooling and "the way we inhabit the terrain of America.”

His prediction: Big cities will contract and redensify at their centers. Waterfronts will once again become economic engines.

I don’t always agree with what Kunstler writes and says, but if you get a chance to hear him, take it. He’s an excellent, compelling lecturer. And his “Geography of Nowhere” and “Home from Nowhere” are accessible, finely written and excellently researched books about American planning, cities and suburbia.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Still Fighting For Neighborhoods

Before I return to the topic of Providence – author James Howard Kunstler gave a delightful rant I hope to share – I’m turning this space over to former neighborhood activist and ex-planning commissioner Pat Dayton.

You’ve probably not heard of Pat Dayton, unless you were in Charlotte in the 1990s and paying attention to the still-notorious-in-some-circles fight over the “power center” near UNC Charlotte. In that episode, UNCC partnered with influential developer John Crosland, who wanted to build a big-box strip shopping center, which undermined the city’s plan for the University City area. Dayton, who lived in the University Place area, lobbied strongly against the Crosland Center and acquired some powerful enemies. Later that year she was appointed to the planning commission to an unexpired term. When her term ended the next year, she was not – as is routine – reappointed.

She had seen a couple of references in the May 13 Observer to Mahlon Adams. Here’s what she wrote. She called it: “A Seat At The Table.”

Mahlon Adams was mentioned twice in the May 13 Observer. “On March 8, the Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted to name the Pavilion at Freedom Park after Mahlon Adams.” And, “ ... Mrs. Adams got mad about a rezoning in 1980 and never stopped.”Mary Newsom made the second reference in a column about the billboard ordinance. She noted that Mahlon Adams (age 81) is a member of a citizens’ committee to protect the city billboard ordinance from being weakened by changes requested by the billboard industry. [Mary here: The committee is to study proposed changes. Some members prefer to protect the ordinance.] She is still working for the good of “her city.”

Who is Mahlon Adams?During the ’80s I was busy earning a living and raising a family, but I enjoyed keeping up with local politics and development through the newspaper. Every week, it seemed, there was a letter to the editor from Mahlon Adams. It was always about a zoning issue that she felt would be detrimental to neighborhoods and individual citizens. Her letters were always factual – not rampages against the system.

The public began to take notice. Politicians and developers called her a “kook” and a nuisance. Mahlon Adams was the first “neighborhood activist,” and she stood alone.

In those days you could build a house next to a field. One day a bulldozer would appear. You watched a shopping center arise out of the ground. Developers were not obligated to consult you in their planning. Mahlon was determined to change that. She applied for a seat on the Planning Commission each year for 11 years. She was rejected each year. She started writing letters to the editor – lots of letters. She quietly attended meetings of the Planning Commission. She wasn’t allowed to speak, but she was there.

“Mahlon Adams is appointed to the Planning Commission,” the Observer announced. It took 11 years, but Mahlon was ready to move the back room of politics to the front room.

I got mad about a rezoning in 1992. Because of Mahlon, I was heard. I was appointed to the Planning Commission the next year and had the privilege of working with Mahlon on neighborhood issues.

The citizens of Charlotte owe a huge debt to Mahlon Adams. Take a walk around the lake in Freedom Park, glance at the [Mahlon Adams] Pavilion, and be aware that it is gratefully dedicated to a real freedom fighter.

When I asked Pat’s permission to post her tribute to Mahlon, her reply contained this:

Mahlon is responsible for builders having to share their plans with neighborhoods. That was a significant breakthrough in exposure. It seems like a tiny thing in the scope of things, but has had impact. I was struck by the two references which showed her still fighting. I’m 77 years old, and I’m through fighting. More power to her. Thanks, Pat.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Nurture artists, and other lessons

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Before I launch into What Charlotte Can Learn From Providence, here’s a quick reality check to some of the people making comments on my last post, “Governor envy.”
First, Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri, is a Republican, a millionaire and a retired CEO. He’s not a flaming liberal.

Second, I wasn’t proposing N.C. state government take over zoning. Good grief. They have enough gridlock as it is. I meant that the state should put “land use planning” on its radar screen as it makes state-level decisions, such as locating and designing state roads, or in its water/sewer regulations. I didn’t say it in the post, but the state should go ahead and give more power to local governments. But the state’s relentless insistence that it leaves land use planning to local governments is delusional.

Back to Providence. Downtown is reviving nicely. I was there for the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization of 3,000 or more architects, planners, developers and others, which held its national meeting here

Thursday morning some of us got a quick tour of downtown. Our guide: Local developer Douglas Storrs of Cornish Associates ( They’re famous in some circles for the Mashpee Commons development in Mashpee, Mass., where they bought a typical suburban-style shopping center and turned it into a New Urbanist neighborhood with a town center.
They’ve also bought and renovated a number of buildings in downtown Providence, putting stores at street level and offices or condos above.

Some of what Storrs and others are doing, while interesting, isn’t terribly relevant to Charlotte, where so many old buildings were demolished and replaced with sterile new ones having either terrible retail space, or nonexistent retail space.

But some is, especially since Charlotte Center City Partners says it wants to encourage more uptown retail:

When Cornish Associates buys and restores a building, Storrs said, it keeps ownership and offers inexpensive retail leases – $1.40 a square foot, for example. They know some retail is better than none, and low-cost leases pay off in the long run. He’s right. Even national retailers are starting to come in now, including Design Within Reach.

He also said large-footprint blocks and projects make retail leasing difficult, because the size keeps out all the but the biggest players.

When retail space isn’t leased, they let artists use it as display space.

I’m not saying Charlotte should try to become Providence, or vice versa, or that Providence is a better place. They’re different. But if we’re smart, we’ll learn from others. Here are some lessons for Charlotte:

No more megablock projects. Figure out how to carve out small properties.

Move what needs to move. Providence moved railroad tracks to uncover its riverfront. Charlotte should move its uptown loop, or better yet, put a top on it and make a park. If Providence can think big, so can we.

Nurture artists. Give them space, and let them attract other creative people. Artists will have a bunch of bizarre ideas and some of those bizarre ideas will catch fire. Maybe even literally, as in Providence, where an artist’s idea for bonfires in the downtown river in 1994 evolved into WaterFire, a major attraction for both locals and tourists.

Insist on good retail space in new buildings. One reason stores are returning to downtown Providence is that shop space still exists. Charlotte let developers tear down store space, and although it requires retail space in new buildings uptown, its flabby rules allow badly located, inward-focused stores. Latest offender: ImaginOn. It has a great little gift shop buried inside? Who knew?

The Mint Museum of Craft + Design finally gave its gift shop an exterior door, much to the benefit of uptown shoppers. Memo to library honchos: Get a clue.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Governor envy

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – My affection for, and pride, in North Carolina get hurt when the governor of another state gives speeches that make me wish Gov. Mike Easley would be as visionary.

Today, the governor who stung my Tar Heel pride was Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island.

I’m here attending the national conference of the Congress for the New Urbanism. CNU is an organization of 3,000-some members: developers, architects, planners, designers and assorted others, including traffic engineers and even a few storm water engineers.

Their conferences are usually full of people telling about interesting developments or ideas or plans. Several Charlotte-area people and other Carolinians are here, including Charlotte architect Terry Shook, Concord developer David Mayfield, plus Chapel Hill architect/engineer/planner Tony Sease.

Carcieri, the Rhode Island governor, gave a short talk this morning as the conference opened. He seemed like a regular, Rhode Island kind of guy – the sort who’d slap you on the back, buy you a beer and kiss any infant in the room. In other words, he doesn’t come off as a policy wonk or a professorial type, or as a blow-dried 5-by-7 glossy, either.

Then he started talking about the importance of history and how interstate highways had destroyed the fabric of beautiful communities. He clearly understands the importance of place and how it relates to an economy: "You don’t see people go to ugly places," he said.

He talked about the way that the look of buildings affects land use: "When I go down Broad Street here and see a CVS – one story, surrounded with parking – I think ‘What a waste.’ "

"It all sort of links together in my mind," he said.

It made me wonder: Has Gov. Mike Easley ever learned enough about cities and how they’re built and how it all "links together?"

I haven’t seen much evidence of him caring at way about the physical world we inhabit in North Carolina. Our state has places of great beauty and history and it has been, and is being corroded by ugly, poorly thought-out development and scarred by ill-considered highway plans and designs. But it’s losing much of its rural beauty by just drifting into sprawl – due to a vacuum of state leadership.

Many in state government will try to excuse their flabby inattention, saying "Land use is a local issue." That’s a load of baloney.

For one thing, the only powers local government in North Carolina has are what the state grants them. Zoning, land use planning, subdivision ordinances – all require state enabling laws.

For another thing, the state designs and builds roads and highways. That’s one of the most powerful land use tools around.

I don’t know enough about Rhode Island politics to know whether Carcieri is a good governor or a shoddy one. All I know is that I wish the words that were coming out of his mouth this morning would also come out of Mike Easley’s mouth one of these days.