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 (www.cornishlp.com). 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.


Asking Where Is Page 2, Mary? said...

$1.40 annual rent on retail is not low it's subsidized.That is 12% or less of market rates in Charlotte! Mary tell the whole story!

Anonymous said...

It would also help to let the readers know that Providence is an older city with many more older buildings than Chalotte has or ever had before. Providence is also surrounded by lots of water via rivers and other inlets, thus limited on spreading out, etc. She also fails to mention the giant mall with chain stores that was built in the middle of town. It's sort of popular with occasional outside visitors, but of minimal benefit to the locals.

I would support a cap over John Belk freeway for a park, or something to connect Uptown with South End. Messing with the rest of I-277 would be unwise economically or geographically.

I support big block mega projects when a company is willing to pay the money to do one. What Wahchovia has planned for S. Tryon and what Ghazi has planned for EpiCentre are awesome ideas that I can't wait to see completed. Requiring plots of land to be subdivided would be a beaureucratic nightmare and reflect nothing more than Newsom's desire to micromanage.

Let the artists decide where they are next going to colonize. Accept the fact that the yuppies will follow and run up the land prices shortly thereafter. The neighborhoods surrounding 277 still have many options for the "starving creative types". I can name many neighborhoods that could easily be the next NoDa.

Finally, please accept the fact that certain things that work in New England would not work down here. It's not just the culture, but also the lay of the land. Certain things just don't make sense here.

Also, Mary apparently only saw the 'rosy' neighborhoods of Providence that inspired her vision for the city. Go five miles outside of Providence, or any other New England city, and she would be disappointed to know that many New Englanders live just as suburban as the rest of us do, shopping at Wal Mart and eating at Ruby Tuesdays, all while driving their SUV from their spread out subdivion. I should know. I was there.

Anonymous said...

I am sure you got the tour of the dilapidated war zones in Providence as well, eh?

I love when people from one city always tour some other city and then come back with all these great ideas.

I am sure when Mayor McCrory is giving tours, he sticks to the 9 blocks of uptown and never wanders into gang land.

As usual, Newsom, you never have all the facts, are stuck on 'reviving' urban cores, and always want someone else to pay for it.

Hey, Mayr, why not start an LLC, get a bunch of investors together, and then buy all the vacant land in uptown. Then rent it all out for $1.40 a square foot for retail.

Then you can all take mass transit to bankruptcy court.


Mary Newsom said...

Mary here: It's $1.40 per square foot, and I don't know if that's monthly but I doubt it's annual. Of course it's subsidized -- by a private owner. That owner has chosen to make less money short-term, believing there will be a long-term financial benefit.

And to respond to comment #2 (2:35 p.m.) I wasn't intending to say that Providence is a better place than Charlotte, because of the differences you cite and other things. Just pointing out that you can learn from the experiences of others.

You're right about the big shopping center in downtown Providence. I was not impressed (although there WAS a Nordstrom). At least they forced the stores to have openings to the sidewalk. But it wasn't very full of people when I walked through a couple of times.

Anonymous said...

Forget Providence; Charlotte is too busy trying to become the next Atlanta. I wouldn't be surprised if the city razed Biddleville in order to build its own version of Atlantic Station. At least that would be a more fitting memorial to the razed neighborhood than the concrete river that separates Uptown from the rest of the city which memorializes Brooklyn.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice if Charlotte cared more about creatives. Not throwing money at us etc..but acknowledging that diversity and creativity add a great deal to a city. And so help to carve out areas where we could contribute visibly. The NC Music whatever does not count..its pseudo artainment and will be dominated by chains. The people that made North Davidson interesting and fun are being tossed right out the door and the local gvt could care less ( see Mecklenburg Mills). What is the point of calling the area an "arts district" when all the artists are gone? Its nothing but a massive sterile and lifeless condo development up there now which is going to spread into all the other adjoining neighborhoods before creatives even have a chance to find something affordable. I don't expect Charlotte to ever support art and creativity like Asheville does. Charlotte's a business town. We are the largest metro area in the Carolinas though and we could learn from Asheville's dedicated River Arts District in order to preserve a place for work to be done. The arts are just as important as NASCAR to city life. A fact the current mayor and the establishment refuse to acknowledge.

Anonymous said...

While we're learning from other areas, let's take some tips from York County and its New Ruralism.
One blog poster there has proposed a new county motto:
"Keep our fields green. Bury a developer."
It's under the posting, "Why York County is better than Charlotte."

Page 2 Clarity Stops the Spin said...

Ouch says Mary hand caught in the cookie jar. Mary, with her knowledge of development and growth, surely knows commercial rental rates are per sq ft per year.

So $1.40 X 12 Months is $16.80 which is a market rate for most areas, South Park etc... excluded.Suddenly the to be emulated enlightened nurturers of culture become just regular commercial " for profit" developers.