Friday, July 28, 2006

State to Charlotte: Tough beans

Pick up any North Carolina state road map. Look at the close-up map of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. It’s liberally splashed with green: William B. Umstead State Park, Eno River State Park, Falls Lake State Recreation Area around Falls Lake, Jordan Lake State Recreation Area surrounding Jordan Lake.

Look at the close-up map of the Charlotte area. No state parks. The closest are Crowders Mountain State Park, west of Gastonia, and way at the tippy top of Lake Norman you’ll find modest Lake Norman State Park.

This lack of state largesse for parks around here has bugged me for years, just on general equitability grounds. I note the Triad – Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point – has a similar lack of state parks. What ticked me off afresh was a three-article package July 16 in the Neighbors of Lake Norman section of the Observer: “520 miles of shoreline. 125 yards of beach.” (Click here and here to see the rest of the package.)

Yep, that’s the only public swimming area on all of Lake Norman. Compare: B. Everett Jordan Lake in the Triangle serves the state’s second-largest metro area. It’s less than half the size of Lake Norman – 14,000 acres of water to Norman’s 32,500 – but has six public swimming areas. Who runs them? You guessed it: the state

Yeah, yeah, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison: Jordan Lake was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norman by private Duke Power Co., now Duke Energy. Duke acquired all its lakefront land decades ago after being granted the power of eminent domain, because building electric power plants was in the public interest. But in terms of lakefront access, the general public hasn’t benefited much, from what I see, at least not compared with the general public that’s getting the use of those state recreation areas in the Triangle.

Sure, Duke was willing to SELL the land. Mecklenburg County taxpayers have paid millions over the years to preserve land along the Duke Power lakes at McDowell Nature Preserve, Latta Nature Preserve and around Mountain Island Lake. And yes, the state helped a bit with some of those purchases, primarily through Clean Water Trust Fund grants.

But as far as major money for major state parks? From what I see, the state’s response has been: “Tough beans, Charlotte.”

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

An insider's view of new CMS leader

Here’s a short behind-the-scenes report from a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools insider:

Seems CMS’ new chief operating officer, Maurice “Mo” Green, was a big hit at a recent principals’ meeting. He gave a speech, says my source, that had the room in the palm of his hand. “A real Barak Obama moment” was the description.

My source was impressed not only with his intelligence, but with what was described as “humility,” in addition to that indefinable “leadership” quality.

The source is NOT a starry-eyed newcomer or a flak trying to spin to the press, but a seasoned educator who has worked with all kinds of bosses and is not, in my experience, prone to handing out over-the-top compliments just for the heck of it.

Green had been the school board’s lawyer until new Superintendent Peter Gorman tapped him to run the day-to-day operations of the school system.

Bus station blues -- redux

Sorry to be gone so long. Just spent more than a week in Memphis, Tenn., helping produce a planning "charrette" for the Knight Program in Community Building, based at the University of Miami. If you're curious about that, see this link.

You’ll recall that on June 23 I described my experience trying to take Bus 14 home from uptown. And you’ll recall that July 11 I reported that Charlotte Area Transit System CEO Ron Tober told me things would get fixed.

Herewith a report from my newsroom colleague Joe Sovacool, who rides the bus to work daily:

"The good news is that 14 is now correctly listed on the displays at the bus barn as bay A. The bad news is that the times for all routes on the displays have been wrong all week.Well, they’re likely right twice in a 24-hour period – they either read about 12:50p or 11:30p for all routes.

"This is not only not unheard-of, but common. Too bad, because when they’re functional they’re one of the better and more useful features over there.

"And I can predict what their response will be. To a bum like me, anyway. ..."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Artists Need Housing

If I had a dollar for every time someone in Charlotte in the past 25 years had talked about “artists and lofts” as a way to bring life to various parts of town, I wouldn’t be driving a 16-year-old car.

Artists are often the leading pioneers into neighborhoods that are ultimately reborn. Then, because the neighborhoods get popular, artists find themselves priced out of the market. It happens all over, not just in Charlotte. Our example currently is NoDa, or North Charlotte – the one-time mill neighborhood near 36th and North Davidson streets.

All those people thinking uptown will grow into an artsy district? Get real. It’s hard to make anything resembling a living wage as an artist, so artists are drawn to neighborhoods with affordable buildings -- usually old one that offer lots of space for not much cost. That doesn't describe anything uptown.

Why not build artists' housing uptown? The only way to build uptown housing you could rent out cheaply enough for artists would be if the land was donated. And what uptown land owner would do that?

Why build, you say? Just renovate older buildings, warehouses and such, as other cities have done. Well guess what. Charlotte government officials' lack of willingness to study any overall preservation strategies used in many other cities, such as height limits or limits on surface parking lots, caused most of the older buildings to be torn down. Those that remain and have been renovated (Charlotte Cotton Mills, for example -- bravo to the historic landmarks commission and developer Peter Pappas ) are now too expensive for artist housing.

So in Charlotte, artists are sprinkled throughout the city – in Stonehaven, Dilworth, Plaza-Midwood and County Club Acres, to list a few examples. That’s fine, except that when artists as an interest group are invisible because they're so dispersed, then the city feels as if it's missing some important vitality.

“That’s one of the challenges in Charlotte,” says Suzanne Fetscher, president of the McColl Center for Visual Art. “The lack of visibility of artists.”

If you’re interested in the issue of housing for artists, put this on your calendar:

7-8:30 p.m. Aug. 2, at the McColl Center for the Visual Art, 721 N. Tryon St. It’s a public forum to address the issue of affordable housing and/or live-work spaces for artists.

The event is a collaboration among the McColl Center, the Arts & Science Council, the N.C. Arts Council, Charlotte Center City Partners and the City of Charlotte. Facilitators will be representatives of ArtSpace Projects of Minneapolis. That’s a nonprofit group that has developed affordable live-work spaces for artists in some 20 U.S. cities.

What will they come up with? That depends on what they hear from people in Charlotte. If you're an artist or creative type -- or anyone with an interest in the issue -- make sure they hear from you.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

CATS: Better Signs Coming

When last I blogged, I recounted my travails trying to find Bus 14 at the uptown Transportation Center, so I could ride it home one recent hot afternoon. Read it below.

Or here’s a short version: The sign said Bus 14 was at Bay Q, which was under construction. A temporary sign at Bay Q directed me vaguely to “Trade Street.” A customer service attendant sent me to “Bay A.” I knew where Bay A was because Bus 14 used to leave from there. The spot that used to be Bay A had no sign identifying itself. But once I found Bus 14 the ride was just dandy: clean and efficient.

Why not post maps of the whole system to help would-be bus-riders, I also asked. And I whined about a bad pedestrian connection from Fourth Street, where a sidewalk is missing due to construction. I hoped CATS had beat up on the city about that.

I offered to seek a response from Ron Tober, Charlotte Area Transit System CEO. And then I went on vacation for two weeks.

Tober, whom I had alerted but who was busy that day, later read the blog and readers’ comments. He even tried to add his response, but had computer difficulties. (Some of you have had the same problem, you tell me. My apologies.) Here’s what he told me today:

He has talked to his staff about the sign errors. “The person who’s responsible admitted they had messed up and not changed the electronic signage.” He said he believes the sign has been corrected. He said he was sorry to hear of my difficulties and apologized on behalf of CATS.

And he said CATS is investing in a new signage system, due to the light rail line, planned to open in fall 2007, which will have a major stop at the Transportation Center.

The new signs will show “real time” information, he said. The buses now have automatic locators, so you’ll be able to look at the signs and see when your bus is expected and at what bay.

Also, the customer service area will move to what’s now the supervisors’ booth in the middle of the center, and its hours will expand. In addition, a lot more bus schedule racks will be available.

He said they’ve been hesitant to post permanent system maps because they’ve made so many bus route changes over the past four-five years. “The question is what kind of map we can put up that will have some durability,” he said.

As to the Fourth Street sidewalk, he said, CATS had talked to the city Department of Transportation about the problem but CDOT didn’t think it was enough of a problem to provide a temporary sidewalk on that side of the street.

“I’m trying,” Tober told me, “not to criticize my fellow city department. Too much.”