Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A call from Robo-Gorman

Just as I was getting out of the shower this morning, the phone rang. Expecting it was the Bellsouth technician responding to a service complaint I had lodged about 30 minutes previously, I sprang to answer, wearing what you usually wear when you just step out of the shower.

Instead, I heard a mechanical voice: “Hello, this is Doctor Peter Gorman ... (Pause) ... Hello ... (Longer pause) ... Hello ... (Pause.)” Was the darn record stuck? (That's for readers old enough to remember records and when they got stuck.)

Was it waiting for some voice-activated gizmo? “Hello!” I responded, a bit loudly. “Hello! Hello!”

If I weren’t a trained professional journalist with an interest in education, I’d have hung up. But since I’d spent 2 1/2 hours the day before listening to Gorman brief Observer reporters and editors on his plan, I wanted to hear what he was telling people. Finally, whatever gremlin had attacked Robo-Call relented and the CMS superintendent was able to launch into his mechanized spiel.

He told me that today – his 103rd on the job, he was careful to note – he was unveiling his plan to improve Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and invited me and all other CMS parents to watch the CMS channel tonight at 7 to learn more, or to visit the CMS web site. (Or you can read a PDF version of the plan here.)

I gathered that all CMS parents were getting a similar Robo-Call. But since this was 9:15 a.m. I wondered how many would be home to receive it. And coming just a few weeks after the end of election season, with its over-the-top glut of Robo-Calls, was this really the best way to share the information and make people feel all warm and fuzzy about Gorman's plan?

On the other hand a lot of people are truly clueless about what’s going on in their city. They may or may not watch TV news, or listen to radio news. If they’re not reading the paper – and a lot of people don’t, else they’d have seen Gorman’s article on today’s oped page – they may not know anything about Gorman and his promise of an After 100 Days plan. In short, was this an annoying interruption at home or a welcome attempt by CMS to try to communicate better with parents?

Notice, I didn’t get into what I think about the plan itself. In a nutshell: It’s a good one. No miracle bullets, but then, I don’t think any miracle bullets exist. Closest thing to a miracle bullet would be to double teacher pay so more of the best and the brightest choose teaching as a career. But politicians don’t want to raise taxes as much as they’d have to.

If you want to read more comments, check out the message board about Gorman’s plan. Or, as always, put thoughts below.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Growth – some ruminations

On to other topics, as I see not many of you were interested in the Modernism versus New Urbanism article. I do recommend, however, reading the 11/27/06 comment about Marianne Cusato’s experience with post-Katrina plans and the audience rising up to oppose a Modernist design being imposed upon them. (Even I concede that when Solomon’s talk was presented as a speech and slide show, my own attention span wore about after about an hour.)

Today, during a briefing from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman on his Strategic Plan 2010 (I’ll reserve comment until it’s unveiled tomorrow) I found, deep in my legal pad, notes I apparently scribbled to myself during some other meeting at some other time.

It appears to be observations about planning and growth in Charlotte and this region. Thoughts? Put ’em below.

1. Are city plans worthless?

– The incredible weakness of planning. Plans are timid – rarely push against development in the works.– Worse, city policy – adopted after developer pressure – guts them. The rezoning-changes-the-plan rule. [That refers to the nutso policy of City Council, whereby any vote for a rezoning that doesn’t conform to the adopted plan magically alters the adopted plan so that, voila, the new zoning now becomes part of the plan. It’s a travesty.]

– Council, even staff, frequently won’t support [plans]. (See above.), Plus lack of money for enough staff.

2. Developers– Not monolithic. [I meant there are many developers, and they’re not all alike and don’t all share the same views.]

– Change the rules. If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, etc.

– The lying. [I meant here, that some developers – not all – tell lies, either to neighbors or to elected officials.]

3. No hope for real regional planning without state involvement.

4. State legislature major hypocrite. “Land use is local” excuse. But won’t give localities authority for such land use tools as impact fees, etc.

5. Follow the money. Even if Mark Felt never said it. [Felt was Watergate’s Deep Throat.]

6. Traffic congestion is inevitable. “Congestion is the condition of the city.”

[That’s a quote from architect and planner Andres Duany, one of the founders of the New Urbanist movement. His point: It’s in the nature of cities to be crowded. You can’t cure congestion in a city.]

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Modernist architect skewers Modernism

Ever wondered why so much architecture nowadays – especially architecture that other architects rave about – looks as if it was designed by someone who’s got an inner ear balance disorder? Or what, really, is so bad about designing a building that pays homage to the past 2,000 years of architectural tradition?

Last June I had the opportunity to hear a devoted modernist architect, Dan Solomon, give a speech in which he skewered the modernist architectural movement in the United States and proposed a different way of looking at modern architecture, one that doesn’t jettison the past but builds on the best of the past.

Solomon is a founding member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Yes, despite what some people may tell you, New Urbanism as an architectural and planning movement has plenty of room for modernist architects.

His talk was fascinating, and one I think many architects and others will enjoy reading, no matter what their position is on Modernism (though any architect who admits to not liking Modernism is usually subject to withering scorn, and Solomon explains why). And it explained to me why the Harvard School of Design (including its devotees on the New York Times’ architectural writing staff) holds such disproportionate sway over architectural thinking in America today.

Here's the LINK. Warning – it’s long. And I don’t have the slides he showed. But with a long holiday weekend looming, it should keep you busy.

Here’s a sample – he’s characterizing the attitudes of many of today’s Modernist architects:

“ ... Populist hostility to an abstract modernism is a philistine ignorance tobe ignored; references to vernacular building, the imperatives of place orclassicism are inadmissible, and dissonance, not harmony, is the order of the day.”

Happy reading.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hoofing it? Sound off

NOTE: The survey mentioned below will take comments until Dec. 8, not Nov. 24 as I said on Tuesday.

Gee, I hate to break off yet another pro-con tirade about transit (see comments on my previous post, many offered while I was on vacation last week). But here goes.

Even though today’s weather is making most of us vow not to be outdoors at all, today’s topic is walking: for pleasure, for exercise, for dogs and as transportation.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in Charlotte in the past 10 years is the number of people walking, for all the reasons listed above. Part of that’s due to the slow but steady improvement in the number of, and quality of, city sidewalks. Part of it’s due to newcomers who are used to living in places where walking is easier. If you’ve ever spent time in New York, for instance, you know walking five or six blocks is simply routine. You wouldn’t think of driving that distance. In Charlotte, most people wouldn’t think of walking that distance.

Why should the city try to encourage people to walk? Consider public health – most of us are getting fatter and we need the exercise. That drives up health costs for everyone, from our insurance rates to the cost of Medicare and Medicaid.

Consider transportation costs. It’s a heckuva lot cheaper to build sidewalks than to build – or even widen – streets. The more people can walk places, the less they’ll clog our streets with their cars.

Try recreation. Walking and hiking are immensely popular exercise.

Try household budgets. Walking is cheaper than driving.

And consider all the people who can’t drive. That would be kids, the disabled, and many elderly for whom loss of a driver’s license too often spells loss of independence.

Amazingly, the City of Charlotte’s Transportation Department now has a pedestrian program manager, Vivian Coleman ( She’s working on a pedestrian master plan to improve walking conditions throughout the city.

As part of that, she’s asking everyone who’s interested to take ">this online survey. It takes less than 10 minutes – more like 3 unless you read really, really slowly. It will be available until Friday, Dec. 8. Go to it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Controlling growth -- or not

Which party controls the Mecklenburg County board of commissioners – which was still unclear Wednesday afternoon – could have some potentially far-reaching effects on how the county grows and how it pays for the growth.

As I write this midafternoon Wednesday, it looks as if the Democrats will control the board. Two of the three at-large seats were won by Democrats: Jennifer Roberts was top vote-getter and Parks Helms came in third. Republican Dan Ramirez was second. But only 78 votes separated Helms from fourth-place finisher Kaye McGarry, with 1,340 provisional ballots due to be counted Nov. 17. So if McGarry were to overtake Helms and win a seat, the board majority would be Republican.

So what would that mean? Two big issues come to mind. One is transit – which plays a major role in shaping where development goes and what kind of development it is. The board’s current Republicans pushed unsuccessfully in October to study whether to hold a referendum to repeal the transit sales tax. District 1 rep Jim Puckett, who seems not to have been re-elected, was particularly outspoken: He thinks any such tax ought to go to roads, not mass transit.

The other issue is whether to find alternative revenue sources to help take the pressure off property taxes to pay for growth-related needs, such as schools, parks, etc.

I thumbed through notes from interviews with five of six at-large candidates before the election, and I hauled out the candidate questionnaire published in the Charlotte Business Journal by the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition’s political action committee.

First, the questionnaire: One key question was whether candidates would support real estate transfer taxes and/or impact fees – two methods some other N.C. counties use to raise revenue for growth-related costs. Another was whether local governments should be allowed to adopt adequate public facilities ordinances as a way to stop or slow growth. Those ordinances say new development can’t overload public facilities, such as schools and roads. Typically developers pay into a fund to bring public facilities up to par or else phase developments to give public facilities time to catch up. So the question’s phrasing was a bit disingenuous, or not well informed.

The answers? Roberts said she’d be “willing to explore all the options,” including impact fees and land transfer taxes. She gets multiple bonus points for being the only one to point out a gigantic flaw in the APFO question. “Local governments are already allowed to adopt APFOs. Davidson has one.” Nicely done, especially the part where she neglected to say whether she’d consider one here.

Ramirez didn’t respond to the questionnaire.

Helms wouldn’t support transfer taxes or impact fees. He said local governments should be able to adopt APFOs.

McGarry said no to transfer taxes and impact fees and said governments have the authority to keep up with infrastructure as they approve projects. That’s technically correct, though I think if Charlotte City Council suddenly started rejecting development plans due to road incapacity, they’d be hit with lawsuits.

Republican Jim Puckett, who finished fifth for an at-large seat and isn’t likely to win, said no to both. Democrat Wilhelmenia Rembert, who finished sixth, said yes to both.

Among district winners, Republican Karen Bentley said no to both. Democrat Norman Mitchell didn’t respond, but he’s said before he favors looking at those options. Democrat Dumont Clarke said he’d like to see both studied.

Dan Bishop and Bill James, both Republican, and Valerie Woodard, a Democrat, didn’t have opponents and so weren’t included in the questionnaire.

Now the issue about transit, from my notes:

Roberts: Voted against studying a transit tax repeal when it came before the board in October. Helms: Ditto. Rembert: Ditto.

Ramirez: Apparently we editorial board members who interviewed him didn’t ask about it. (Twenty lashes with a wet noodle!)

McGarry: Would put a transit tax repeal on the ballot.

Puckett: Proposed studying transit tax repeal. Voted against transit tax in 1998 and thinks roads are a better use of tax money than mass transit.

Bentley: “No hard answers” on a transit tax repeal measure but supports looking at it. Voted against transit tax in 1998.

Mitchell: Voted against studying transit tax repeal.

Bishop and James: Voted for studying transit tax repeal.

So what happens next? We'll have to keep watching.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A "Curious Charlotte" campaign

Christie Taylor thinks Charlotteans need to be more curious.

Taylor, an owner of downtown’s Hodges Taylor Gallery, is pitching a proposal to anyone who’ll listen. Her idea, which she freely concedes isn’t fully formed yet, is to embark on a campaign to encourage more people to be more willing to try new things, ask new questions, befriend new people – you know, the things you do if you’re curious.

Her idea is aimed in part – but only in part – at encouraging people to sample the city’s arts offerings: plays, concerts, art galleries, the opera, etc. Her question to me over lunch this week: Why are people afraid to try new things?

I had a few possible answers. First: Too many cultural offerings cost too much. Example: I went to the opera “Madama Butterfly” last weekend. The good news: I stayed awake, unlike my only previous opera adventure some years back, in which I napped through an embarrassing amount of “Don Giovanni.” The bad news: The seat – which was a very good one, granted – was $75.

That alone keeps people from trying new things. If you aren’t sure you’ll like a new type of cultural offering, you’re unlikely to want to risk that kind of money. Heck, even Children’s Theatre tickets can be as much as $18 each. Take an adult and two kids, and that’s $54. (Yes, they offer less expensive tickets. So does the opera.)

Second, people crave comfort. When you’re working all day, fighting traffic to get home, worried your job will move to India, afraid you may not have health insurance next year and your pension may evaporate before you retire, getting outside your comfort zone isn’t high on the list of things you crave. What you crave is the psychic equivalent of macaroni and cheese.

But I also think Taylor’s got a good idea: Get us to mix it up a bit more. Maybe have a “free night” at the opera, symphony, theaters and museums every month or two, to invite in newcomers. But beyond that, I don’t have much inspiration.

You might, though, have a cool idea for a Curious Charlotte campaign. Let’s hear them.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A mediocre-class city?

In a city with high aspirations, Charlotte’s architecture by and large hasn’t risen to meet those aspirations. Why not?

Why, for instance, isn’t the collection of facilities soon to be built uptown – the new Mint Museum of Art, the new Bechtler Museum, the new Afro-American Cultural Center and the new performing arts theater and the NASCAR Hall of Fame – being treated as the opportunity of the century? After all, they have the potential to mark a huge section of uptown, and to shape its design, activities and architecture for decades.

But do you even know what those buildings will look like beyond some rudimentary drawings that have been published in the newspaper? And did you like what you saw? The Hall of Fame sketch I saw looked like a bad parody of a 1950s Jetsons’ city. All it needs are jet-cars in the sky, women in tennis skirts and guys in unitards.

A group of architects, artists, designers and interested others have been meeting monthly to talk through the state of design and art in Charlotte. Their next meeting, Monday, Nov. 6, at the Mint Museum of Art on Randolph Road, will tackle “What’s Ailing Architecture?”

Panelists will be three architects: Rebecca Fant, current president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects; Peter Wong of UNC Charlotte's College of Architecture, and Murray Whisnant. Moderator will be Manoj P. Kesavan of Adams Group Architects, a founder of the Point 8 Forum.

Here’s Manoj’s outline for the panel’s discussion:

Architecture is quite high-profile these days. There is a never-before media attention, creating a roster of celeb architects (or “starchitects”), whose names alone are enough to sell out the commercial developments that they design. Also perhaps there has never been a time in history with so many professional architects designing so many buildings.

Yet most of what we see around is “junk architecture” – buildings of hollow elegance that are created for instant consumption, and are of no lasting value. Why is the higher number of professionals and the increased attention not leading to a increased level of public awareness and higher quality of built environment? Why are most affluent American cities like ours so impoverished when it comes to having structures that are capable of inspiring/touching deeply those who enter it or inhabit it?