Monday, September 18, 2006

A conservative’s idea for uptown

Got an e-mail from John Kemp of Matthews, who usually disagrees with much of what I write. For instance, he liked the Urbies in Saturday’s Observer, but only if all the icons were reversed! Anyway, he poses this proposal for uptown Charlotte. What do you think? My thoughts are below:

Somebody around here just “doesn’t get it,” and it may be me. We need to quit “spreading ourselves around” and concentrate our efforts on a huge center-city park. Central Park is an unbelievable attraction for NYC, Boston Common is for Boston, as is Golden Gate Park in San Francisco where we lived.

We could put all of our “stuff” in the park: Discovery Place, the African American Museum [Afro-American Cultural Center], the main library, the Mint Museum, the Aquatic Center, bike paths, walking & jogging trails, $10 million dollar soccer complexes (and not in Matthews), baseball & softball fields, a zoo & aquarium, an amphitheatre, a large (shallow) lake with a big spraying fountain for wading & splashing and paddling around, horse stables, pertinent monuments and sculptures, etc.

Locals could then visit three or four “attractions” daily, and visitors could see most of them in one weekend. You would only park one time and be shuttled around by free buses. Attendance at these “attractions” would dramatically increase. Security would be much simpler.

Of course this would probably take a minimum of 500 acres which may be impossible to get very close to Trade/Tryon. (I am uncertain as to what you mean when you refer to the part of downtown “best suited” for a baseball stadium), but I think the concept should be explored. A “snaking” tract is just as good, if not better. You do not have to have a square or rectangle.

“Too expensive and not worth it?” Believe me, fiscally I make Reagan look liberal. A center city park is not an “expense,” it is a magnet.

My thoughts: I agree with Kemp that putting a lot of interesting attractions in one park would make a much more alluring park. For instance, the Tuilleries park in Paris contains a small amusement park with rides, as well as pay-by-the-minute trampolines and pony rides for kids, in addition to its well-known formal walking paths and outdoor cafes.

The Luxembourg gardens have not only trees and flowering shrubs and grass, but a fruit-tree orchard, puppet shows and the famous pond where kids can rent toy sailboats they push with sticks.

Having a lot of attractions close by helps all the attractions – just ask the stores that locate in shopping malls.

BUT uptown needs more than one park. That’s to give people who live and work there access to non-pavement areas relatively near where they live and work. They don’t have to be fancy, but if you’re choosing to live in a condo or apartment uptown, you’re giving up your lawn and garden – usually willingly. That doesn’t mean you should have to give up kiddie playgrounds, flower gardens and places to picnic, fly kites, throw Frisbees, play catch, sit in the sun, read a book in a quiet outdoors spot, and so on.

Also, uptown needs lots of zones that hold something of interest. Every neighborhood needs a variety of things going on: Residences, stores, workplaces, and so on. Too much clustering of similar uses turns into single-use zoning, which doesn’t work in urban neighborhoods. So I wouldn’t put everything into that great park.

The other problem that Kemp recognizes is finding space in what we think of as “uptown.” Remember, Central Park was anything but central when it was planned. It was at the fringe of the city.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Sidewalk sign wars

I guess the city of Charlotte has conquered the problem of illegal real estate signs in rights of way all over town, because it’s now free to try to clamp down on sandwich board signs on uptown sidewalks.

A memo to the mayor and City Council, sent Wednesday, says the Charlotte Department of Transportation next week will send a letter to uptown businesses warning them about putting A-frame signs in the public right-of-way – that is, the sidewalk.

“The number of these [illegal] signs has risen dramatically in the past 12-24 months, especially A-frames (sic) type signs,” the memo says.

Why is CDOT bothering? Because, the memo says, the signs “have become obstructions to safe pedestrian movement within the Central Business District. ... Efforts to gain voluntary compliance in the past have shown limited and temporary results.”

Here’s the problem: The city says it wants to encourage more retail uptown. That’s a good goal. Folks who live and work uptown clamor for more.

But did you realize there’s already 1 million square feet of retail uptown? That’s the size of a regional shopping mall. The reason you didn’t know it is that uptown retail is mostly hidden. It’s in Founders Hall, or up in Overstreet Mall, or deep inside the Ivey’s building. The only way those retailers can attract the attention of people on the sidewalk to their very existence is to put out signs. For many of them, those signs are survival.

(Here, I’ll spare you the lengthy rant about the incredible cluelessness for 20 years in which city zoning laws, architects, developers and banking CEOs allowed and promoted the idea of locating uptown’s shops far, far from the city sidewalks, and not putting any good retail display space on the sidewalks.)

If the city wants to help encourage more retail business uptown, it should be doing its best to help existing retailers survive. Because retail begets retail. And that means they need those signs.

No, they shouldn’t block the sidewalks. Yes, there does appear to be something of a sign war going on, which needs to be reined in. And yes, the signs are legal if they’re not on the public sidewalks.

But a more useful city response would be to work with the restaurateurs and retailers to figure out how they can flag customers, without so much sidewalk clutter.

One last note: In the photo sent with the memo, posted above, the signs aren’t crowding pedestrians off the sidewalk at all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Calling all nominations

Every September I award "Urbies" in a column about the winners/losers in the growth and urban life scene in this region. This year’s column is planned for Saturday.

Know of some places, events, news developments or people who need praise? Or a (symbolic) piece of possum roadkill? Put your thoughts below. By Wednesday. And sorry, the only prize is public honor and glory. We have no budget for statuettes.

A note of caution: This ain’t a democracy. I get to exercise autocratic authority on what my opinion is. But other people’s ideas and opinions are always a help, and lots of people know lots of things I don’t. If you have something you’d like to suggest and you think I might – seriously – want to follow up with you, shoot me an e-mail at so I can contact you. Thanks in advance to all.

Here’s a link to my 2004 Urbies column, so you can see what I'm talking about. Another note of caution: It’s MUCH better when you read it in the newspaper-on-paper, because, you see, I have this great little dead possum illustration that runs with it. It’s a visual thing ...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Strategically planning for “grittiness”

Want to know what Charlotte is like? Charlotte is the kind of place where city bureaucrats are talking about how to come up with a strategic plan to add “grittiness” to part of uptown. Imagine Beale Street, they say.

Interestingly, in July I visited Beale Street – the downtown Memphis street filled with blues bars, many in ragged old buildings. I’m pretty sure Beale Street didn’t arise because of a strategic plan for “placemaking.” It came about because it was a part of Memphis nobody else wanted, real estate was cheap and being the Northern End of the Mississippi, as Memphis likes to say of itself, some blues musicians happened to be handy.

At 6 p.m. Thursday Sept. 21 in the Government Center, (probably room 267), there’s to be a public meeting to talk about “placemaking” along Brevard Street between the to-be-built NASCAR Hall of Fame and the already built Bobcats Arena.

The idea is that the street could blossom with bars, cafes, restaurants and other attractions.

As the Jetsons’ dog used to say: Rotsa ruck.

For one thing, Brevard is a one-way street and so wide it looks to have the engineered standards of a freeway. More important, it’s hard to do “gritty” in new buildings, and not just for ambience reasons. New buildings are more expensive. So if you’re a bar, leasing space in a new building is more expensive. Thus you have to charge more for your drinks – hard to do in a competitive environment – or go for the high-end, luxury clientele who can afford to pay for pricey food with higher mark ups. In other words, the glamour gang, not the gritty gang.

The part of uptown that’s already “gritty” – sort of – are the bars along College Street, where – duh! – some old buildings were upfitted into bars a decade or more ago.

Another difficulty is that Brevard Street holds several Large Monoculture Buildings: The windowless hindquarters of the convention center. A bland Southern Bell office building. The modernist-suburban-style United Way Building. The side of the Transportation Center (a.k.a. bus depot).

A lot of the street just goes past surface parking lots – where new buildings presumably would go.

A few buildings have promise, though: Part of the United Way complex includes the building once home to the McCrorey YMCA, which served the black neighborhood that was blasted to oblivion by urban renewal. A couple of old buildings on the south side of East Trade Street survived the arena-led destruction. The Grace AME Zion Church building, whose congregation moved to the ’burbs, has been sold to the Historic Landmarks Commission which will protect it, then renovate and resell it. The historic storefronts at Third and Brevard are almost all that remains of the black, Brooklyn neighborhood.

Here’s my contribution to the goal of “grittiness” on Brevard Street: Move the Coffee Cup restaurant – yep, the historic little soul food restaurant that’s to be demolished by Beazer Homes – to one of those Brevard Street parking lots. Now that would add grittiness.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Charlotte, the next "chain" city?

After my Saturday column about the probable demise of the Coffee Cup restaurant (“It’s just an old building sitting on pricey dirt”), I got this semi-rant from reader Ed Stone. I’m posting it with his permission.

What do you think? Is Stone on target? Is Charlotte’s destiny to become a characterless Atlanta wannabe?

(I have to disagree with his smear of vanilla, in the fourth paragraph, as though it is soulless and lacking in character. But that’s a topic for another day.)

It is the mission of our City Council and the Charlotte Center City Partners to turn Charlotte into Atlanta. As rapidly as possible, with minimal, insincere lip service to what is viewed as the commerce-blocking detritus of the past. Once you accept that perspective, you will have far fewer surprises and be better prepared to navigate the changes.

Just as council put a few million bucks into restoring a trolley so as to pretend some little link to history, just hang on and you’ll see them spend a few million to get some of today’s buses running routes and reconstructing a micro-dairy farm near Selwyn. With dollars, we can build some simulated-genuine-fake-old new stuff to look substantial.

Charlotte’s motto, in action, is “to seem, rather than to be.” We’ve torn down what we were, now we are bulldozing what we are. The goal is to be just another installation of a “chain” city, as cookie-cut as the next McDonald’s burger joint.

Cities are following the model of airports, and we’ll not see much difference among them, as our airports and cities are being rebuilt to function as standardized, vanilla, soulless, high-density conduits for passers-through and cash.

The Coffee Cup’s land tax value issue is just an egregious example of what every Mecklenburg homeowner is facing. Time to cash in, and let Chi Chi’s, Sak’s, Wal-Mart, Johnson and Wales, light rail, Bobcats, Panthers, baseball, a “stroll district.” NASCAR, NoDa, “South End” and the “no cul-de sac” ordinance, et al, have it. Tear-downs and high-density condos. Maximize the tax value per square foot. Oppose the “growth agenda” of council and you’re a pro-unemployment Luddite.

Quite a shame, as we are throwing away the single claim to competitive advantage and distinctiveness we could have as a city, in favor of being an Atlanta Jr. lookalike-wanna-be.

The world is not clamoring for another Atlanta, as far as I know.

Friday, September 01, 2006

No, Bo, say it ain't so

The e-mail asked me:

“Is there any way you can find out why the city allowed the new Bojangles at 3rd and Independence to be placed in a typical suburban form? Here is a prominent corner between two high-profile projects, Elizabeth Avenue/CPCC and Pappas’ [Pappas Properties] Metropolitan and what do our planners allow? Suburban schlock. The store is pushed as far back from the corner as possible, meanwhile, the new store at Highland Creek will be urban (pulled to the corner with parking in the back). What do you think about this? Can you find out why what happened has happened?”

Full disclosure: I’ve been a Bojangles fan since they were founded in Charlotte in the 1970s. One night fellow copy editor Hank Durkin (who bailed out years ago, for Microsoft) took me to this fast-food joint at South Tryon and West Boulevard, and I’ve loved it ever since. (That original Bo’s, btw, was demolished and is now a parking lot for the newer Bo’s next door.)

But say it ain’t so, Bo. Your new spot at Third and Independence is essentially a huge parking lot, with a building distantly visible far away, behind the asphalt. It’s about as “urban” as the Costco on Tyvola. The rest of the area is shaping up so much more nicely, with the new CPCC buildings, the offices farther down Third with ground-floor retail, and the aforementioned Pappas project at the old Midtown Square. Too bad Bojangles dumped such inappropriate development at the corner.

My correspondent also sent a link to a discussion forum at, devoted to the ugly new Bojangles. Someone in there reports that Bojangles wanted to do a more urban design and “planning” wouldn’t let them. That didn’t ring true. I checked with Keith MacVean, land development program manager at the city-county planning staff.

The villain is the old B-2 zoning at the site. It allows suburban schlock – or as MacVean called it “highway commercial.” It does NOT, require it. Bojangles could have pulled the building up to within 20 feet of the Independence right of way, he said. The company didn’t. Because no rezoning was requested, the company didn’t even need to talk to the city planners, who would likely have tried to negotiate a more appropriate design.

There’s an upside, though, MacVean said. “I think they took down a billboard.”