Tuesday, August 29, 2006

They park, you pay

With schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and around the region open, seems like a good time to toss out some information about school traffic and school parking.

Why does morning traffic get so much worse when schools open? It isn’t just the buses. CMS’ 1,200 buses are only a drop in the bucket, traffic-wise, even if they do stop on the streets. For example, the city’s Transportation Department list of 2006 traffic counts shows that on Monday May 15, the average daily traffic, midblock on Fairview Road, west of Barclay Downs Drive, was 38,800.

What makes traffic get so much worse are the thousands of parents driving their kids to school.

I know this is a complicated issue. I’m not saying no parents should drive kids to school. Sometimes bus schedules are just too early/inconvenient/weird. Most of the CMS buses serve several schools – to use buses and drivers cost-efficiently – which means they have to start early. If you want one bus per school, be prepared to cough up more tax money. And yes, teens will whine relentlessly about how they need – need! – a car to drive to school instead of taking the bus which is for geeky freshmen, and so on.

But consider the following factoids I extracted from the folks at CMS who design new schools. When CMS buys land for schools, and has to design them, here’s what they’re required to supply:

High schools: Student parking for 350 cars. Staff parking for 170-200 cars. Visitor parking, 35 cars. The bus lot has to hold 40 buses.

It costs $4,000 to build one automobile (non-bus) parking space, in labor, asphalt, etc. That figure doesn’t include the land costs. So let’s see, figuring space for 200 staff cars, auto parking at a new CMS high school costs $2.34 million to build. That doesn’t include the cost of school bus parking, or land. Student parking alone is $1.4 million.

Let’s talk land. Figure a 9-by-18-foot student parking space, and you get 56,700 square feet for student parking. Figuring roughly $60,000-an-acre land costs (CMS director of architecture Tony Ansaldo cautions that’s a blunt estimate, and that each site is different, etc., etc.), and 43,560 square feet per acre, that’s $46,080 in land cost alone, for a 350-car student parking lot.

Here are stats for middle and elementary schools:

Middle: Staff parking, 138 cars. Visitor parking, 50 cars. Bus lot, 25 buses. Cost of parking (again, not including bus parking or land): $752,000.

Elementary: Staff/visitor parking, 125 cars. Cost of parking (not including bus space or land), $500,000.

Here’s something else driving up school-building costs. Schools have to build plenty of on-site “stacking” – a technical term that means driveway space to allow cars to line up one behind the other, as in car pool lines. The city of Charlotte doesn’t want any of those cars out on city streets, even small neighborhood streets. And in many cases CMS would want the stacking space regardless of CDOT requirements, for safety reasons.

High school stacking: 1,170 lineal feet, typically 12-foot-wide lanes, for 14,040 square feet of “stacking” – a hair shy of a third of an acre, and roughly $20,000 in land costs. (This doesn’t count paving cost.)

Middle schools: 2,003 lineal feet, totalling 24,036 square feet, or .55 of an acre, with estimated land cost of $33,100.

Elementary schools: 1,323 lineal feet, totalling 15,876 square feet, or .36 acre, land cost $21,600.

High schools have less, because more kids drive themselves. And park.

Obviously it’s not a good idea to let schools’ dropoff and pickup traffic clog busy streets, such as thoroughfares. But this IS a city, after all. We have a large and growing city bus system. Plus CMS runs its own public transit system, the school buses. It’s time to look closely at how much we’re spending to let students park and let parents sit in long carpool lines, at schools that are already paying to provide transportation.

Finally, consider this: If it’s a question of building a neighborhood school close enough to a neighborhood so kids can easily walk, and letting some cars back up on a neighborhood street for 15 minutes twice a day, or else building on a site big enough to accommodate more than a third of a mile of driveway on site (2,003 feet is .38 mile -- and remember, it takes up to half an acre more land), that’s a no-brainer.

Eastover Elementary was built in 1935 on a tight site smack in the middle of a neighborhood. I hear cars do stack up on Cherokee Road when school opens and lets out. Guess what? Neighborhood drivers may be annoyed now and again, but Eastover doesn’t seem to be hurting from it. It’s one of the city’s most desirable places to live.

Schools and transportation folks need to rethink how much parking and driveway space they’re having to build.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Free" parking? A myth

Amid the back-and-forth about uptown parking (see comments at my previous post) I’m surprised no one pointed out the truth about free parking. It’s not free.

“Anyone who owns an office building knows parking is never free,” is how David Feehan put it. Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association, was the moderator at Monday’s parking workshop, sponsored by Charlotte Center City Partners and the City of Charlotte.

The cost of “free” parking is hidden in what you buy, in your rent, even your paycheck. Think about it. Let’s say I want to build a store. I buy 10 acres in a place where the going rate is $10,000 an acre, paying $100,000 for land. (I’m using easy numbers, not realistic ones.) I put the store building on five acres, and set aside the rest for “free” parking. I’ll be making income from store sales with half my land, but not the other half.

So when I figure out how much to charge, part of what I have to figure in – in addition to my competitors’ prices – is the $50,000 I paid for the land under the parking lot, as well as the cost to pave it and resurface it now and again, and taxes and insurance, etc. etc. Yet that land isn’t producing any income for me.

Of course, other store owners have to do the same thing. So everyone’s absorbing the cost of their parking lots. (Ditto office developers or condo tower developers. What they paid for the land they’re using for parking gets built into the price at which they sell the project, or else the lease rates if they lease it.)

But if I could build my store and not need that parking lot (say, if I could offer my customers beam-me-in-Scottie transportation, for free), I could offer my goods for less. Or pay my workers more. Or both.

Obviously, with most people driving most places, you have to offer parking if you’re a store, office building, apartments and so on. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. Just pointing out it isn’t really “free.” The main reason you pay more uptown is that uptown land costs more, because it’s in high demand. If restaurants offer “free” parking, they just raise the prices for the fettucine alfredo. If governments offer free parking at government buildings, it’s paid for through taxes.

A UCLA professor of urban planning, Donald Shoup, has studied parking and written a book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” in which he estimates Americans in 2002 paid $127 billion to $374 billion a year in subsidized parking. Here’s a link to an NPR interview with him from 2005.

He thinks too many cities and towns require developers to build excessive parking, and that many stores choose to build too much, trying to accommodate all the shoppers on the Saturday before Christmas, so the lot is half-filled most days of the year.

I think he's right. But of course, most people would rather not have to see (and openly pay) the cost of their not-so-free parking.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Uptown parking: Sound off

A study group from the International Downtown Association and a national consulting company, Carl Walker Inc., are looking this week at parking in uptown Charlotte. They’re holding stakeholder meetings today and tomorrow, and then Wednesday will present some recommendations.

Turns out some cities have a parking services manager, or a parking management division in their transportation departments. Other cities have private, nonprofits groups that oversee parking management. Charlotte doesn’t.

Here’s some of what they were asking a workshop group this morning about parking uptown. Feel free to offer your own thoughts in the comments section (below):

– Is finding parking uptown a real problem, or a perception problem, or some of both?

– Do people have a hard time finding where the parking lots and parking decks are?

– Does fear of not finding a parking spot keep people from going uptown?

– How much difference does the lack of uniform signage make, or the lack of uniform pricing and ticket validation rules?

– How much of a problem, if any, is the so-called “Cinderella parking” – spots that magically appear or vanish, based on whatever day of the week it is, or whether there’s an event at the Bobcats Arena?

– What’s the going rate for monthly parking? When the moderator, David Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association, asked the crowd that, hardly anyone piped up with numbers. I began to suspect people who own parking lots/decks may not like their rates revealed.

– Do you have any uptown parking secrets you’d like to share?

I’ll share my “secrets.” I figure word will get out anyway so what the heck.

One: Park free for 90 minutes underneath ImaginOn, if you validate your ticket upstairs. Enter off Sixth Street. I’m honest, though. I’ve used it only when I had business at ImaginOn.

Two: Park up to 90 minutes at Seventh Street Station (enter off Sixth or Seventh streets), even during those expensive Event Parking Nights, if you buy something at Reid’s and get your ticket validated. It so happens that Reid’s is one of the few places here selling Blue Bonnet brand ice cream, about which Johnny Apple raved in the New York Times’ food section recently. So ...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Activists? Here? You must be kidding

Reading last Sunday about Ron and Nancy Bryant’s move to Stanly County got a bunch of us in the newsroom talking about whether Charlotte is “activist-challenged,” as in, not as many citizen activists kicking up a grass roots fuss about things as many other cities seem to have.

I’m among those who think Charlotte has less of that sort of activity than you’d expect for a city this big and this lively. Over the years I’ve opined on my own theories about this. For instance, are we a City of Squelchers? (My column by that name, and a follow-up column, ran in April and May 2003.)

Then, at one of the cultural stakeholder meetings run by the Artspace Project folks, someone – I don’t remember who it was – asked why Charlotte seemed so different from, say, Minneapolis in terms of getting its cultural act together. The Artspace guys, one of whom is a Republican ex-state legislator from North Dakota, made some quips about there not being a lot to do in Minnesota in the winter so they had to offer more diversions.

My theory on this has several components:

First, bankers aren’t as likely to be activists as many other professions.

Second, colleges and universities breed activists. UNCC until recent years was young, small and didn’t attract the kind of students interested in activism. I think that’s changing, though. Queens and JCSU are too small to have a huge, lasting effect on the local civic culture. And Davidson students live in the “Davidson cocoon.”

Third, if you’re trying to make money and climb the social ladder, political or environmental activism is not the way to do it. You might tick off someone you want to do a business deal with. Or his or her spouse. Or their relatives. Instead, you write thank you notes and never criticize anyone in public about anything.

Fourth, Charlotte had plenty of activists a century ago. They were labor organizers, mill workers and streetcar motormen. The activists were scorned by the business establishment, fired from their jobs and in some instances killed.

Business won that battle – Charlotte remains one of the least-unionized places in the country, for better or worse. But the violence and repercussions from those days set a tone here for working people: Don’t raise your head. Don’t draw anyone’s attention. Just keep quiet and do your job. This used to be a very big milltown. The textile mills are gone. But maybe the sense of obeying the mill owner (a.k.a. B of A or Wachovia) lives on?

More people now are open environmentalists than a decade ago, which is good. But I wonder, how much of that is simply that environmentalism today is so mainstream. I mean, isn’t everyone an environmentalist by now?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Local 'good guys'

OK, here’s my list of good guys and bad guys. I’m not as grouchy on Mondays as I’ll be by Friday, so it’s heavier on the good guys than bad guys. And please don’t complain that I’ve left off person X who is a wonderful asset to the community. Of course I have. I can’t remember everyone, or know everyone. Want to disagree? Add your thoughts below.

Some caveats, in addition to the concept of my last post, that people are complex. Sometimes politicians do things I agree with, but I keep wondering if they’re just sticking a finger in the political wind. There are other people who I’d put on the list, but I haven’t met them or don’t know enough about them, or I just didn’t happen to think of them.

Enough throat-clearing. Here are a few elected officials who don’t get a lot of on-camera time, so you may not be as familiar with them as with the same old faces, but are among the “good guys in government from this area: Michael Barnes, Dan Clodfelter, Anthony Foxx, Molly Griffin, Randy Kincaid, Don Lochman, Patrick Mumford, Wilhelmenia Rembert, Jennifer Roberts. (They’re in alphabetical order)

Do I agree with everything they do? Course not. But they’re trying to make the place better and doing it with thought, integrity and – far as I can tell – keeping the greater good in mind, as opposed to self-aggrandizement.

More names, on my local “good guys” list: Phil Dubois, Shirley Fulton, David Furman, Harvey Gantt, Mary Hopper, Francis Haithcock, Michael Marsicano, Bill McCoy, Dale Mullinax, Tony Pressley, Dennis Rash and Betty Chafin Rash.

The bad guys? Bill James. Larry Gauvreau. Each, in my opinion, is more interested in perpetuating racial discord than in solving anything.

There are others I’m not high on, including not a few politicians who I think are just wrong about issues, but who try in their own, misguided ways to do what they think is right. And there are some who I think are right about issues but who are just too annoying to put up with, or clueless about how to be effective. That last category is, sadly, rather large.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Yikes! I agree with HIM?

I know, it was cowardly to put up the question – who are the local good guys and bad guys? – without my own opinion. So I’ll offer up some names. Later.

First I have to add context. Amazingly, I found myself agreeing with much of what local libertarian/Republican/political activist Lewis Guignard e-mailed me about the question.

“Too simplistic.

“Certainly I don’t agree with the actions and politics of various people. Does that make them bad, or bad only relative to my point of view?

“I believe it takes all kinds of us to make this city what it is and has been.”

He goes on to give his thoughts about what makes a good guy: trying to make a difference, making decisions based on facts, not on preconceived notions or preconceived political, religious, etc. beliefs.

“I suggest we all fit both molds, at sometimes more than others,” he said.

I know, you can count on one hand the times Guignard and I have agreed. But he’s right in saying that, in truth, people are too complex. Good people do things out of the highest motives, but they turn out badly. Bad people – I mean people motivated by greed, hatred, selfish disregard for others or even just stupid people – every now and then come up with something good. As the saying goes, even a blind pig will snuffle up an acorn now and again.

Here’s a great example of the difficulty of pegging people as “good guys” or “bad guys.”

Remember Tom Bush, the conservative Republican county commissioner in the 1990s who helped lead Charlotte’s homophobic spasm over the play “Angels in America”? The same Tom Bush is the politician responsible for initiating one of the most far-reaching local efforts to clean up polluted streams and creeks, the county SWIM (Surface Water Improvement and Management) buffers and program.

He did real harm to local arts, but he also kicked into gear one of the county’s most highly praised water quality improvement efforts. So how do you balance the scales on Tom Bush?

Oops, have to go work on my other job – writing columns and editorials. I’ll get back to you with my own good guys-bad guys list.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Heroes and villains – Charlotte style

Twice, in less than 24 hours, I’ve run into people who’ve made me think about who have been the good guys and the not-so-good guys in Charlotte. So I’m interested in how you bloggers would answer this one. Comments welcomed below.

This morning in the Observer’s lobby I ran into longtime Observer editor and historian Jack Claiborne, now retired from the UNC Charlotte press office. He’s been researching a history of the Charlotte City Club, the old-line uptown club founded in the late 1940s. The history, reports Jack, who loves history, is fascinating. “It has heroes and villains,” he said.

“As does everything,” I replied. I began wondering who might be the heroes and villains of that particular tale.

Then I realized I’d been thinking through a similar idea already, though from a completely different set of circumstances.

Claiborne grew up here and spent most of his adult life here. Yesterday I lunched with a brand new Charlottean, a guy who moved here with his wife for new jobs, knowing not a soul. He comes from a job in a major urban area in Ohio where he had a significant role in local government and politics. (I’ll use his name if he lets me – I’ve asked.) He’s trying to learn Charlotte now, so one of his many questions was to ask who were the good guys and bad guys here.

I tossed out a few names of local politicians – Republicans and Democrats – who in my experience are thoughtful and intelligent and appear to operate with personal integrity. But politicians are only a small slice of the pie. Business executives, citizen activists, philanthropists, educators and plenty more types of people really shape the place. They’re the good guys and the bad guys he was asking about.

I’m still pondering who’d be on my list. Who’d be on yours?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Student activists-in-training

Quick: Name the county manager? Know what he or she does?

Have you ever cared enough about your local government to get off your duff and attend a City Council, county commissioners’ meeting or a school board meeting?

Ever watched a real a local courtroom in session?

Most people don’t bother.

And don’t get most adults started on “What’s wrong with kids today?”

But there’s a lot right with kids today. I saw some of if Tuesday night, spending a great couple of hours with a group of almost 40 youths, mostly high school students, who had spent time this summer learning more about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and voters (and voters-to-be).

Class members and their parents were at the graduation dinner for the first Civics 101 class offered for high schoolers and graduates under 21. The local League of Women Voters has offered Civics 101 classes for years, to teach budding citizen activists who’s who and what’s what in local government, and how voters and residents can get involved.

This summer, with help from Kids Voting, Partners in Out of School Time, Right Moves for Youth, the United Agenda for Children, and Youth Homes Inc., the league put together Youth Civics 101: A Venture Into Local Politics.

The young people seem to have emerged unscarred, even from the county commissioners’ recent battle – which they chanced to watch – over adopting the Martin Committee’s recommendations on school building and renovations.

As with Civics 101, the last session was at the Observer building, and included a tour of the newspaper.

Here’s a Naked City High Five to the three dozen young people who took part, and to all the sponsoring groups, and especially to the League for its ongoing efforts to get more of us more interested in becoming local activists.