Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ignoring pedestrians? Drivers beware!

Drivers who ignore pedestrians, beware! At least, beware if you’re in Chicago.

My buddy Tom Low – architect and planner with Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Charlotte office and founding father of the Civic By Design forum – shares this link to a ChiTrib article about that city considering plainclothes “stings” to catch drivers who endanger people on foot.

The article says on average more than one pedestrian is killed in a traffic accident each week in Chicago – one reason the city takes the problem seriously.

Tom wonders: What are some other things and places that makes it hard for pedestrians here in Charlotte? (And just today, a student at Providence High School was hit by a motorist. Story here.)

He writes, “For example, excessively wide street-corner-turning radii allow for motorists to move faster around corners, while potentially doubling the crossing distance from curb to curb for pedestrians, compared to more traditional tight urban street corners.

“The combination of fast cars and longer crossing distances discourages pedestrians from at least getting an even chance to use the public realm. This will become more of an issue as suburban places like SouthPark rebuild the private property with more urban uses and density, while the public streetscape was originally designed as higher speed, suburban arterials. My office at Queens and Providence in the Myers Park commercial neighborhood suffers from this problem too.”

Charlotte DOT is a lot more sensitive on this than it used to be, but much of the city was built in the bad old insensitive ways.

My beef, as a pedestrian? I have dozens. Here's a big one: We need more pedestrian crossing lights, and longer crossing times for walkers. For example, in the SouthPark and Morrocroft areas (and lots of others, too) many of the lights don’t give a pedestrian crossing OK at all unless you press the button. Even then you get maybe 5 seconds, max, before that “Don’t Walk” hand starts flashing.

This absurdity is subtly training me to ignore the blinking hand – NOT behavior traffic specialists want to encourage, I presume.

Friday, December 15, 2006

East Charlotte's new, Belk-free future

I can’t say I was surprised Belk decided to pull the plug on its Eastland mall store. It’s been rumored for years. But what will it mean for east Charlotte and for Eastland mall? I’d love to hear from some Eastland-area neighbors.

Here’s my take. On one hand, the demographic changes in east Charlotte that have affected Eastland mall and its Belk store are another indicator of a national phenomenon of economic problems besetting so-called “first ring” suburbs – neighborhoods built from the 1950s to the 1970s, even 1980s. They lack the redevelopment cachet of uptown or older, streetcar suburbs such as Plaza-Midwood, Dilworth and Wesley Heights, etc., and their housing stock is aging, sometimes not gracefully.

The comparatively less expensive houses and apartments in east Charlotte have attracted a lot of immigrants. The area has also attracted more than its share of “affordable housing” development projects, especially if you consider the almost complete absence of that kind of project in the relatively affluent pie-slice of Charlotte that sits to the south of uptown. As we all know – well, you’d think city leaders would know this but some of them too often act as if they don't – clustering too much starter-level and “affordable” housing in any one chunk of the city drags down property values for everyone there.

On the other hand, no one in city government who’s been paying attention – and yes, they do often pay attention – will be any more surprised than I am. It's been rumored for years that Belk was going to close that store. Here's an Observer article from June about the situation. Harris Teeter closed its Eastland store earlier this year. All over the country, enclosed regional shopping malls are fading. The hot new ticket is the “lifestyle center.” I haven’t researched this, but from chats I’ve had with developers and national planners, I’ve begun to suspect Northlake might be the last enclosed regional mall ever to be built in America. Eastland was probably fated for trouble regardless of the area's demographic shift. And what’s in the cards for Carolina Place? Eastridge in Gastonia? Northlake?

What should happen next? And what can the city do about it? The city has an Eastland area redevelopment plan, which envisions all kinds of wonderful, walkable infill development, but I question how realistic it is. Unless Eastland’s owner finds a deep-pockets buyer willing to do a complete grayfields redevelopment – the kind where investors DON’T get a fast return on investment – I fear the Eastland area won’t have a bright near-term future. There isn't a whole heckuva lot the city can do about it. One thing it CAN do, though is to adopt a more sensible affordable housing policy – like, require a small percentage in ALL developments? Hello? Another thing is to come up with more creative policies to increase the kinds of housing that the non-rich can afford, such as allowing granny flats, or garage apartments, carriage houses and small dwellings at a single-family-home lot. And finally, it can change the design rules on the ancient B-1 zoning throughout that area, so anything new that gets built will be built to more walkable, attractive standards. Eventually the area could attract the kind of funky shops that you call walk to, like what you see in Plaza-Central, but only if the area moves away from its auto-worshipping design.

Long term, who knows? The Plaza-Midwood phenomenon is moving slowly out Central Avenue. In-town neighborhoods with affordable middle-income housing are likely to become attractive again, once their faded ’60s-’70s look comes to be seen as charming, not stale – the way some ’50s ranch houses are now prized for retro funkiness.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

School shopping? Read this

You may not know this if you don’t have a child in school or ready to start school in Charlotte, but late fall and early winter – i.e. now – is prime hunting season for schools.

For weeks parents of children who’ll start kindergarten August 2007 have been touring different Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to help them decide where to enroll their kids. Regularly assigned school? Magnet school?

Despite what some people say, CMS offers some excellent schools, including many highly regarded and wildly popular magnet schools. Some of its regular schools are so highly sought after they affect housing prices in their attendance zones.

But some CMS schools are clearly troubled. How do parents, especially people new to Charlotte, learn which is which? Just asking real estate agents or people you happen to run into doesn’t guarantee you’ll get anything close to accurate information. I keep hearing about real estate agents who wave people away from CMS altogether. That may not be doing their clients any favors, if you consider the costs of private school tuition, or of commuting in from outlying counties.

Any careful parent, even those not new to Charlotte, will have questions, such as:

– Which magnet programs are so popular your chances of winning a seat in the lottery are small?

– Are there some strong, but “undiscovered” magnet programs where your chances of getting a seat are good?

– Which schools have strong principals?

– How much weight should I put on a school’s test scores, alone? (Answer: Look beyond simple numbers. One example I’m familiar with: Language immersion students typically don’t do so hot in reading on third-grade tests, but by fifth grade their scores rise significantly.) Here's a link with a lot of test scores (though the latest are 2004-05).

I’ve recently had an e-mail exchange with someone who’s moving to Charlotte and is trying to figure out where to place her child for next year. He’ll be a third-grader. I’ve helped at open house tours at our daughter’s magnet program (where she attended K-8) and I know how eager parents are for first-hand information about a school or magnet program, even when they’ve done prodigious amounts of research.

So it occurred to me that my blog-readers might be a resource for parents looking at schools.

Put your questions/comments about specific schools below.

Here’s some of what I told my e-mail correspondent about choosing a school in CMS.

Whatever elementary school you choose – there are a bunch of really excellent ones – also look ahead to middle and high school. Even if you go with a magnet program, you want to make sure your house is in the attendance zone for good middle and high schools. Myers Park High is the premiere high (OK, so I’m biased), though parents at Providence would probably fight me on that. Other good high schools include South Meck, the northern high schools (North Meck, Hopewell, etc.) Ardrey Kell High in the south is brand new, but the attendance zone is affluent so it’ll probably have great test scores. Butler and East Meck also have good reputations, especially East Meck’s International Baccalaureate magnet program. And Northwest School of the Arts magnet – (grades 6-12) has a devoted following.

Middle schools: the Alexander Graham (a.k.a. “AG”) Middle School is fabulous. Lots of Observer folks send their kids to Piedmont Middle School and rave about it. Davidson IB Middle is great. Randolph IB program is also excellent.

On to elementary schools. There are some excellent and very popular magnet programs. Best bet if you’re looking at mid-year enrollment: Call the school and talk to the principal. Some schools have waiting lists, some don’t.

Reasons you might want magnets: Interesting and enriching programs. Also, stable assignment. The neighborhoods way out at the fringes (Lake Wylie, Steele Creek, Ballantyne, Huntersville, Davidson, etc.) are growing so fast and new schools opening so often they keep having to re-do attendance lines. Many people prefer those far suburban areas because the families are relatively affluent and well-educated and there’s less racial and ethnic diversity, which some people fear (although others relish it). The disadvantage of those areas: schools very crowded, changing assignment zones.

Now, back to the issue at hand, i.e. elementary magnet programs:

– Montessori is very popular.

– Elizabeth Traditional and Myers Park Traditional elementaries are very popular with strong parent support, including parents who could easily send their kids to private schools.

– Language immersion is growing in popularity. It’s a fabulous program, strong principal, good test scores (our daughter was in French immersion so I know more about this than some other magnet programs). Schools: Smith on Tyvola Road is K-8, a countywide magnet for German, Japanese and Chinese, meaning anywhere you live, you can go there, and all middle school immersion kids can go there. K-5 French and Spanish are divided into attendance zones between Smith and Oaklawn. Hard to get into beyond first grade level, though sometimes there’s “late immersion” for older grades.

– Spanish immersion elementary is at Collinswood. It gets great test scores. Principal Maria Petrea is fabulous, wins national recognition, etc. But the school population is about half Hispanic, and this scares off some white parents – go figure.

– Dilworth Elementary: performing arts magnet. Great neighborhood.

– Other, regular elementaries that are popular and well-regarded include (but aren’t limited to): Selwyn, Sharon, Eastover, Cotswold, Beverly Woods (the new super sends his daughter there), Davidson (all those professors’ kids), plus most any of them out in the fast-growing affluent suburban neighborhoods such as McKee Road, Providence Spring, etc.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Put up your goo

They’ve emerged, and they’re on the march. I saw one yesterday. Today I saw a half-dozen. Tomorrow it will be dozens.

I’m talking about the small, gray, wingless moths (see rather blurry photo, right, taken in our back yard with my cell phone) trying to hike to the tops of Charlotte’s trees and – since they’re female – lay thousands of eggs. Next spring, on a warm and sunny day, the eggs will hatch into small green worms, who will proceed to devour all the emerging leaves on the trees. After a few years of this, the trees get terribly weakened and become more susceptible to dying from disease, drought or other ills.

If you haven’t spread the goo on your tree bands, get cracking. Those tree bands you and hundreds of other Charlotteans put up aren’t worth diddly unless they’re smeared with the goo to trap the moths. The past couple of cold mornings have encouraged the little bugs to start their yearly tree climb.

After a horrific outbreak last spring of the worms – known as fall cankerworms or Alsophila pometaria – the city of Charlotte this fall is encouraging homeowners and neighborhood groups to put the moth-catching traps around as many trees as possible. It’s not difficult, just a bit time-consuming. The key ingredient is a sticky goo called Tanglefoot. Here’s a link to the instructions. It also lists local hardware stores where you can get the supplies. Call first. Blackhawk Hardware says they’re out of Tanglefoot today, but expect more tomorrow. University City Boulevard Home Depot reports it, too, is out of Tanglefoot and doesn’t know when or if it’s getting more.

(Here are a couple more tips. First one is from Robbie Robinson at Blackhawk Hardware: Tanglefoot gets stiff in the cold. Microwave it so it spreads more easily. Second – don't ask how I know this – if a small girl happens to rub her head in the sticky goo, don’t even try to get it out of her hair with shampoo. Use an orange-scented product called Goo Gone and be plenty patient.)

Usually, if you smear the Tanglefoot too soon, falling leaves stick in it, shrinking the sticky area that will trap the egg-bearing moths. Typically Charlotte’s willow oak trees don’t lose the last of their leaves until well into December.

This year is different. An early cold snap, combined with a storm in November, means most oaks have been bare for weeks. That’s why the city’s behind in its leaf collection. And that’s why NOW is the time, if you haven’t already, to put up your goo.