Monday, October 30, 2006

Arts: Road to riches or silly distraction?

Interesting luncheon speech last week from writer Joel Kotkin. Sorry that I’m only now getting this blog post written. (My Observer colleague, Forum Editor Lew Powell, somehow thought he deserved a vacation, and the rest of us had to double up a bit to cover for him.)

Kotkin is Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation . His most recent book is “The City: A Global History.” He was a provocative choice to speak to a conference put on by the nonprofit group, Partners for Livable Communities, which drew a good number of people interested in public art programs, cultural amenities, creative economies, etc. I’ll confess right off I haven’t read his book. I’m only reporting what he said in his speech.

Part of Kotkin’s message was this: Forget “arts” as a way to economically reinvigorate cities. What successful cities throughout history have provided are public safety, functioning economies, upward mobility, and “sacred” spaces, which don’t necessarily have to be religious. If a city has commercial success, then arts and culture will flourish, as they have throughout history in cities such as Venice, Florence, Amsterdam, London and New York.

He quoted Herodotus, the 5th century-B.C.E. Greek historian: “Human prosperity does not abide long in one place.” His point: Cities rise and fall. Cities and regions compete. Get used to it.

“There is no case that I know of,” Kotkin said, where art has done anything by itself “except to create a tourist economy.” He obviously thinks cities that desperately chase the so-called “creative class” and don’t pay attention to basic needs such as public safety and infrastructure (streets, sewers, schools) are misguided.

I agree, up to a point. Cities have to have thriving economies or they stop being cities and dry up and blow away. Without the things he lists – safety, jobs, etc. – they fail. But the arts are a segment of an economy. They produce things other people want to buy. Artists buy supplies and many of them hire help. As such, they're small businesses. Cities wanting to diversify their economies – for example, old textile towns – need lots of different economic enterprises, and the arts should, or at least could, be among them.

And just one word: Asheville. Being known as an artsy town lures other artists.

But Kotkin’s cautions are well-taken. I’m not sure city boosters anywhere can just decide to become cool and artsy and have any promise of success.

One of Kotkin’s funniest quotes was from an unidentified talk radio host: “If you need a campaign to prove you’re hip and cool, you’re not.”

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cheap housing, expensive transportation

It’s conventional wisdom that families move to the suburbs to get cheaper housing.

But a new study looks at the combined weight of both housing and transportation for low- to moderate-income families in 28 metropolitan areas and finds that combined costs of the two expenses are surprisingly constant. In other words, your housing costs may go down, but your transportation costs go up. Or vice versa.

Here’s a link that will get you to the report, "A Heavy Load," as well as some fact sheets.

The report, released Oct. 11, is from the Center for Housing Policy, the research affiliate of the National Housing Conference, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that studies housing policy, specifically affordable housing. Among the sponsors of this report: The Bank of America Foundation, and the National Association of Realtors.

In a nutshell, the study found that working families in the cities studied spend about 57 percent of their incomes on housing and transportation, with roughly 28 percent for housing and 29 percent for transportation. The share of income devoted to one or the other varies, but the combined costs tend to stay about the same – 55 to 60 percent.

Why does this matter? A lot of folks, including policymakers, have the rather simplistic view that an affordable house in the suburbs is the single best solution to help family income. This study shows the picture is a lot more complex.

And it also shows that if you’re planning to buy (or even rent) a new place, prudent financial planning means you should look at the big picture, not just housing costs alone.

From the report:

The study also points to the importance of infill development that expands the supply of affordable housing in inner city and older suburban neighborhoods that have good access to traditional job centers; the development of more affordable housing near transportation hubs and suburban employment centers; providing good quality and reliable transit for suburb to suburb commuting, as well as for helping families in the outer suburbs get into the central city; and policies to encourage car sharing and to reduce the costs of car ownership for families who cannot easily get to work via public transit.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Don't Do This At Home!

This post is specifically for planners, architects, landscape architects, engineers, developers and government types who know the rules and standards that force development to look the way it does. And (obviously) for any other interested readers, too.

My architect pal Tom Low, of Duany Plater-Zyberk's Charlotte office, shares this lovely photo of a street in Paris and asks – Can you do this at home?

I’m no expert, but here are a just few things I spotted that I don’t think would be allowed in Charlotte or most other places nearby:

  • Cafe tables too close to (or possibly even in) the street.
  • Tables without any awning or umbrella to cover them. (I think that’s an overly zealous health regulation.)
  • Awnings encroaching over the public sidewalk.
  • A blackboard sitting in the street.
  • And I’m not sure, but I suspect those signs somehow run afoul of the city’s sign ordinances, which are, in my opinion, too strict on benign signs and too lenient on billboards.
So let’s hear it: Can you do this at home?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Uptown parks – developers’ pawns?

I got a morning rant the other day from a guy I know – a government worker who doesn’t want his name made public, who’s lived here several years. It’s about uptown’s parks-on-the-move. My very quick reply to him, and his comeback, are below:

“Do any of our leaders or other citizens have the courage to speak out about the ongoing madness of selling and trading our uptown parklands? I have been astonished at this since I have come here. One day there is a park, the next day there is a hole with condos going up (McDowell/Fifth). Now the news about Marshall Park being sold/traded. Not to mention the park that was approved by Mecklenburg County that was well under way in terms of design and process, but is now on hold until the profit-seekers can figure out something that suits them better. It appears to me that parks and open space truly owned by the public (which means they can be depended on to be there for generations to come) are absolutely the lowest priority.

“Parks should be stable features in our society that we can enjoy now and take comfort in the fact that they will be there for the people who come after us. They shouldn’t be traded around on a map like chess pieces, to suit the needs of the investor conglomerates who seem to be in a leadership role in designing the uptown area. We are already in a major deficit situation with parks and public gathering spots (read: “owned by the public”) in our uptown area. Sure, parks can and should be improved and enhanced, but not just “moved.” Existing parks should be incorporated into new development projects, expanded, enhanced – not sold or traded. This is madness.

“I am astonished that no one speaks about it. What does it say about who we are and who we want to be?”

My reply:

“I enjoyed the rant. Thanks for sharing.

“There are some sound reasons for all the park-moving. At least I sorta think so. The park planning consultants brought in for the Third Ward park suggested moving the site, for some very good reasons, and the baseball-land-swap would move the park to where they suggested – touching South Tryon.

“Marshall Park is a badly planned, badly situated park that, since I moved here in 1978, has never been well-used by uptowners. I’m not sorry to see it go, as long as a better designed park replaces it. Which is also in the planning.

“The First Ward Park at Sixth and McDowell similarly suffered from no one ever using it, except for the basketball court. There’s a First Ward Park planned for closer to Tryon Street, across from ImaginOn and abutting the new UNCC building. It should also be a better location and a better design.”

And his comeback: “With all the new housing going in around where the parks were sold they would have been used. Parks should be solid piecemovable landscape, not moveable ones! A building permit for the new condos at Sixth and McDowell should not have been issued until the replacement park was in place. How do we know it will ever come to pass? If a developer is willing to pay more for it, it will be sold. How do we know if any of the new replacement parks, which never seem to materialize, will be sold and traded in the future?

“How can we achieve some stability and lasting presence for the parks, old or new, if they can be sold and traded at any time?

“Yes, you can use my rant [I had asked his permission] but, I wish you could see some of the finer points about the future, about stability, and about who is actually doing the planning. Also: The incredible lack of park and open space in the uptown area in general, and the trend toward marketing corporate green space as “a park.”

“We need public gathering spots that the public owns!"

I thoroughly agree uptown needs more public gathering spots that the public owns. And he’s right, the trend of dealing away parks could set a horrible precedent. And “who is actually doing the planning,” well, it's obvious and has been for decades that developers are doing the planning. Neal Peirce said as much in his “Peirce Report” for the Charlotte region in 1995.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Subdivision names -- where are the quail?

We have a joke in our house that subdivisions are always named for whatever they destroyed – no oaks left in Oak Grove, no quail in Quail Hollow, no foxes left in Foxcroft, and so on.

Check out this fun (but – warning! – slow-loading) site from Denver.

I love the grid. Anyone want to try a grid for Charlotte?

If you do, here’s my short list of what to include:Sharon. Quail. Providence. Carmel. Pines. Oak/Oaks. Leas. Stone. Forest. Park. (Anything)-stead. Meadows. Hill. Haven. Croft. Park. Landing. Shores. Preserve.

Odd, we don't have a Possum Hollow. Or Toad Landing. Or Kudzu Croft.

If you were naming a subdivision, what would you call it?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why derailing transit would be stupid

I’m just back from almost two weeks in Italy (bless those Frequent Flyer miles). While I was gone, there’s been more fractiousness over mass transit in Charlotte, including a lot of talk by some antediluvian county commissioners about forcing a do-over vote on the half-cent sales tax for transit.

Like a lot of folks, they think the light rail (and bus and streetcar) mass transit system Charlotte is building will be a waste of money. They’re wrong. Obviously, the transit system should be built as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Like many people, I have some concerns about that.

Just as obviously, if there are major problems with a contractor – such as Parsons Transportation – that are costing millions, Charlotte Area Transit System leaders and the city manager should be more open about it, earlier on. Their behavior smacks of secretiveness.

But many of the transit critics seem oblivious to this: The system isn’t being built for 2010, or 2015 or even 2025. It’s being built for 2050 and 2100 and beyond – for the future, when Charlotte traffic will be as horrendous as Milan’s and Rome’s.

We had one experience that shows clearly why rail is the better option for as many transit corridors as we can afford it on:

We flew into Milan and had train reservations from Milan to Florence. Unlike Rome, in Milan there’s no rail service from the international airport at Malpensa, about 30 miles out, to the central train station. There is, however, a bus for just 5 Euros.

Problem is, we made the trip at rush hour – 7:30 a.m. As the autostrada traffic ground to a halt over and over, I began to fear we’d miss our 10 a.m. train. The trip took almost 2 hours. In light traffic (our return journey last Saturday afternoon) the trip took only half as long.

Unlike bus transit, rail isn’t slowed by heavy traffic. The journey is reliable and predictable.

Fast forward to Rome, last Friday. As happens in Italy, a strike had been called – this time for the city’s bus and Metro system. All day, until buses began to run again about 6 p.m., the streets were at a standstill. As tourists just walking around, we weren’t inconvenienced. It was even easier to cross the street: Just tread your your way between stopped cars. But for people trying to work or run businesses, it was a nightmare.

To resort to a cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will Charlotte be. If growth continues, even more slowly than today, this place will be huge someday. Without reliable, workable options to private auto travel, it will grind to a stop, as Rome did on Friday. The most cost-effective way to build a rail transit system is to do it before the place grows as dense and expensive as, say, Rome. The later you wait, the harder and more costly it is.

That final lesson is proved by the problems Rome has had for decades trying to build and expand its subway system, which is far less extensive than in cities such as Paris, London, New York and Boston. The trouble is that in a 2,500-year-old city, they can’t dig tunnels without bumping into archaeological treasures and ancient ruins.

In Charlotte we don’t have that excuse. Yet.