Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Creative class, raise your hand

Social theorist Richard Florida has both champions and skeptics. Joel Kotkin, for instance, who spoke in Charlotte in October at the Partners for Livable Communities conference, pooh-poohs Florida’s theories.

But one big national foundation is putting money into figuring out how to apply Florida’s theories to Charlotte.We’re one of three cities starting a Knight Creative Communities Initiative. Others are Tallahassee, Fla., and Duluth, Minn.

Florida, in his bestseller, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” uses data to show that cities that prosper (at least in the measures he sets) also happen to be attractive to what he calls the creative class. The creative class are young, well-educated and work in jobs that require creativity. Cities that attract them, Florida says, also exhibit tolerance for immigrants, newcomers, artists and gays.

Note, he doesn’t say the gay people, per se, are the creative class. The point is that the civic soil that promotes tolerance also seems to be a fertile habitat for the creative class – and for economic prosperity. The Creative Communities Initiative is being launched by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in partnership with seven major Charlotte-area groups as well as Richard Florida. It’s seeking 30 volunteers, “community catalysts.”

Think you’re a creative class community catalyst? To apply, visit UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute web site.

Other community partners are: the Arts & Science Council, Central Piedmont Community College, the Charlotte Chamber, the Charlotte Regional Partnership, Foundation for the Carolinas and The Lee Institute.

What’s the Knight Foundation and how does it relate to the formerly Knight Ridder-owned Charlotte Observer? The foundation is completely separate from the paper, though its money originally came from the family that founded the “Knight” part of Knight Ridder. Here’s some info: “The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation promotes excellence in journalism worldwide and invests in the vitality of U.S. communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers (one of which is Charlotte).”

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A very very very big box

IKEA’s announcement last week that it’s building a store in Charlotte kicked off a frenzy not equaled since Nordy’s finally opted to come here. I’ve never been to an IKEA, so I’m not in a position to rave about their furniture, though I know lots of other people who do.

But a source at the city planning department says there’s a battle, of sorts, going on over the size of the signs IKEA wants. That’s why it’s requesting a very urban-type of zoning (MUDD-O for those of you who know the lingo). That “-O” is key. It stands for optional, and it means you can get permission for all kinds of things that, without the “-O,” you wouldn’t be allowed to do. Such as have very large signs and very tall signs.

In reality, “battle” isn’t the right word since it sounds as if the planners are going to buckle and allow IKEA its gigantic signs. “We have no leverage,” my source said. The building's architecture is “not negotiable.” According to this source, IKEA's negotiating stance was essentially “take it or leave it.”

I’ve never shopped at IKEA, so maybe it’s such shopping nirvana that it’s worth breaking all the rules for. It does have plenty of fans. But man, that is one ugly building. And at 345,000 square feet, it’s going to be one very huge, very ugly building – roughly twice the size of the 176,000-square-foot Wal-Mart supercenter to which Waxhaw just gave thumbs down. And did I mention that the building is ugly?

“It is not an attractive building,” said my planning source, who clearly hadn’t gotten the memo from on high to praise all things IKEA. (Or maybe said memo was indeed received. You’ll notice I’m not using the planner’s name.) “It’s a blue and yellow big box. Yeucch!”

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A good day for reading

It's a lousy day for doing anything much beyond staying home and reading. (Wish I could do that!) So if any of you are lucky enough to be doing that, here are some things I've been squirreling away for a rainy (or freezing-rainy?) day. They're links to interesting articles folks have sent over the past several months. So, if you’re interested:

– A Brookings Institution study concludes that CEO-led civic organizations have become less cohesive and risk losing their capacity for action. Charlotte’s one of the cities studied. The report includes, for example, a section titled “The Loss of the Hometown Bankers.” 'Course, it’s the Charlotte banks that have helped create that situation elsewhere ... Here’s a link.

– Here’s a link to an article in Metropolis magazine about the relationship between the type of places we live in and chronic health problems.

– And here’s one to an article about the role farmers markets can play in a city. If you're a devotee of the Charlotte Regional Farmers market, I hope you know it's open year round, and organic farmers such as Donnie Cline and Dean Mullis are there weekly, selling wintry veggies such as kale, turnips and radishes. In addition you can now buy pasture-raised pork and -- sometimes beef and lamb -- from farmers in the region.

Happy reading.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An inside look at developers' influence

My post about REBIC brought this commentary from Lewis Guignard. It helps illustrate how interest groups in general, and REBIC in particular, shape public policy. And it raises a provocative point about representatives of interest groups, and the degree to which they should let those personal interests guide their input to the larger, citizen committees.

Guignard, a Libertarian, ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner in 2002 and 2004 and has been a member of Citizens for Effective Government, a low-tax interest group.

Please note, these are his opinions, not mine. Some of the people mentioned disagree with Guignard's take on things.

From here on down is from Guignard:

Tim Morgan and REBIC – the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition lobbying group – are an example of how politics work in Charlotte/Mecklenburg. Some years ago the board of county commissioners created the Citizen’s Capital Budget Advisory Committee.

Originally the committee was to make recommendations to the county commissioners on capital budget projects, which include schools, courts, libraries, parks and land banking. Interested citizens apply for a limited number of positions. In the case of the CCBAC the majority of citizens are appointed by the BOCC, while two are chosen by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board.

Any citizen is qualified to serve. Employment is only considered a factor if a particular type knowledge is needed, so people with connections to advocacy groups are not disqualified. When I was appointed almost 9 years ago, REBIC had a member on the committee. When she resigned another REBIC member, Tim Morgan, was immediately appointed. You might say the REBIC seat changed people, because it may as well have been the same person. Through every committee meeting, you could be sure the only point of view would be what REBIC desired. An “individual” did not exist.

Since then other advocacy groups have worked for their members to be chosen. Are these members concerned about the county as a whole, or only their particular piece? For example, REBIC was very concerned in the late 1990s about the issue of setting aside land for open space. REBIC members at the time [not Morgan] worked hard to reduce the amount of “open space” included in the goals for the 1999 Land Banking bonds.

Two other organizations which have found it useful to have seats on the committee are FLAME, an organization formed in southwest Mecklenburg to advocate for more schools for the southwest, and FUME which does similar work in the north. Michael Murdock of FLAME and Rhonda Lennon of FUME received appointments to the CCBAC. Both sought CCBAC membership to further their advocacy for particular schools.

How appointments of people from advocacy groups affect the working of a committee is shown by a particular instance of the CCBAC. The CCBAC was between project proposals and was taking the time to work on a long-term construction schedule for CMS, a project which could have helped the entire county through some very trying times.

Instead of doing that, Mr. Murdock and Ms. Lennon with the help of others, including Morgan of REBIC, worked to subver the process, and made a recommendation supporting FLAME’s and FUME’s individual position on schools.

Later Mr. Murdock became the chair of the CCBAC, and late last year I had occasion to ask him about why he would subvert the process when the opportunity to help the whole county was available. His answer was: “I got my school didn’t I?”
(Murdock phoned this afternoon to say his memory of the discussion with Guignard differed. He says Guignard didn't ask "Why did you subvert the process?" and that Murdock's remark took place during a general discussion on election night about advocacy groups FUME and FLAME. The quote was right, Murdock says, but it was ripped from its context.)

Expand this thought process to the many involved in government, including REBIC, the various Chambers, and other advocacy groups and you will understand that our problem of government is that so many people use it to further their personal goals.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Who's living uptown, and why?

Uncle Dennis, an uptown denizen I run into occasionally at places such as the Reid's wine bar, shares this link to a survey of uptown Charlotte residents.

The survey was sponsored by Charlotte Center City Partners, the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte, and UNCC's Center for Real Estate. Bill Graves in the UNCC Department of Geography and Earth Science prepared it.

A quick summary of its findings: Uptown Charlotte residents are younger, more affluent and better educated than Mecklenburg County residents as a whole. More of them moved uptown from Mecklenburg than from other places, and more moved in from the "outer suburbs" than the "inner suburbs."

Urban amenities were a big draw. Parking for visitors is a big problem, as is the lack of retail. Crime wasn't listed as a particular worry.

Does this ring true for you uptown dwellers? What about schools -- are they a concern for you? And what, if anything, might make you non-uptown dwellers more interested in uptown?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Possum hunting

Turns out REBIC keeps a stuffed possum in its office, in honor of the frequent “Possum” awards it gets from my yearly Urbies column.

As those who read my Urban Outlook column know, every year I give out Urbies and Possum awards. The possum looks like this:

REBIC is the local developers’ lobby, a.k.a. the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition. It gets mentioned now and again, and so far it’s batting 1.000 in always being adorned with the dead marsupial. Our archives show they received their last possum on Oct. 30, 2005, when I wrote:

"REBIC: The local Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition lobbying group, like any of us, is entitled to present its views to elected officials. But REBIC's views seem to outweigh other folks’. It has tried to weaken just about every environmental protection and open space preservation proposal to emerge from local government. In 1998 it even opposed sidewalk requirements as “too much of a good thing.” In 1999, Huntersville proposed a voluntary pilot project to save rural land. REBIC blasted that gnat with cannon fire. In a shamefully misleading tactic, its lobbyists got legislators to kill the idea by telling them it was an impact fee, which it wasn't at all."

REBIC, which used to concentrate on Charlotte-Mecklenburg, has branched out in recent years and now has staffers who also lobby in Union, Cabarrus, Gaston, and across the S.C. border in York, Lancaster and Chester counties. It was REBIC’s guy in S.C., Tim Morgan (brother of Charlotte Chamber chief Bob Morgan) who brought in the possum to REBIC offices and, to my delight, let me visit it and snap its portrait there.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Cities are unhealthy? ARGH!

I have to weigh in, in response to this anonymous comment, posted on New Year’s Day:

Why on earth do we want to pave over everything and make everyone live in big, huge cities? I lived in Chicago for years, and it was a nightmare. In the summer there is a measurable heat bloom in major cities because they lack enough green area to handle direct sunlight. All of the pavement and concrete just absorb sunlight and create a residual heat.

Just outside the city in the suburbs it is measurably cooler because sunlight is more naturally distributed with backyards and more trees.

This rush to force everyone into massive cities is not healthy.

Argh! I wish more people understood this reality: In a big urban area, the more people who live out in the suburbs, the more acres of land get plowed up, trees uprooted and green area destroyed to build their new neighborhoods.

Do people who say they really, really love trees bother to think about all the trees (and wildlife) that died to build their subdivision?

I’m not saying everyone should be forced to live in cities. You couldn't make that happen even if you were stupid enough to try. But with good planning city living need not be “nightmare.”

Local government should provide enough green areas. Parks, greenways, street trees and green rooftops can make a big difference. Make city living more attractive – with parks and trees and safe neighborhoods and all the rest – and you’ll keep a lot of farmland and woods from getting paved over out in the 'burbs.

I say this as someone with a front and a back yard that I enjoy. I love to garden. I fully understand why people like houses with yards. But we should stop kidding ourselves that it’s more environmentally benign.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Behind the lines of Catawba's water war

Updated -- see below.
Several noteworthy developments are emerging in the great Catawba water war – the request by Concord and Kannapolis to take a maximum of 26 million gallons a day from the Catawba River basin and send it into the Yadkin-Pee Dee basin.

The request has been hotly contested along the upper Catawba and in South Carolina. I wrote about it in Urban Outlook for Saturday's Observer. If you have thoughts, please feel free to comment below.

One significant development came in December, and it got discussed at Friday’s meeting of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Commission in Rock Hill:

--- Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has waded into the water war. A letter from CMU chief Doug Bean to N.C. Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, who chairs the basin commission, suggests the cities suspend their original request for a year, under a proposed agreement in which a water management group would be set up to look at water supply issues basinwide. Or, the letter says, the two cities should accept an EMC proposal for only 10 million gallons a day from the Catawba and not ask for any more for a year. (Note, I updated the previous paragraph Tuesday after a state environmental officer called to point out that CMU's proposal wasn't to defer the lower, 10 mgd amount.)

CMU has been the very big, very silent elephant sitting over in the corner during this fight. It dwarfs most of the other water users. And it already has an IBT certificate to shift 33 million gallons a day from the Catawba into the Rocky River (Yadkin-Pee Dee) basin. It has obvious reason to care about the basin losing more water, but it can’t really get out there and fight IBTs on general principle.

Bean’s letter notes that if the Concord-Kannapolis IBT goes to court, which seems likely if the full amount is granted Wednesday, court decisions might not please anybody.

--- Also Friday, Clodfelter and the commission made clear they’re looking at how they might declare the Catawba basin a “Capacity Use Area.” That’s a mechanism set up under the 1967 N.C. Water Use Act that, basically, gets all major water users to the table to hash out what to do if it looks as if the water supply won’t serve everyone wanting to use it. The Catawba basin isn’t at that point yet. But within 50 years, it may well be.

The Capacity Use Area process so far has only been used in Eastern North Carolina, in regions using groundwater.

--- Wednesday Mecklenburg County commissioners passed a resolution asking the N.C. General Assembly to improve the state process for considering and approving IBT requests and for managing conflicts over shared water resources. The commissioners didn’t come out and say don’t – or do – approve it. (See CMU, above.) But they’re right that the process needs improvement.

As Clodfelter pointed out Friday, if you hold an IBT certificate from the state, then your rights to the water from another river basin are superior to the rights of the people in that basin, “which is just bizarre,” he said. “It’s all outta whack in North Carolina.”

The state Environmental Management Commission is scheduled to decide the issue Wednesday. My prediction? Look for either a deferral, or granting of the lower, 10 million gallons a day option.

Links added: In Tuesday's Observer’s, the Viewpoint page presented a pro-con package by elected officials throughout the Catawba region, and in Concord and Kannapolis. Here's a link to the pro side of the argument, and a link to the "con" side.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A tree-lover weeps

Happy 2007 to everyone. I’m back at work after some much-needed time off, and some not-so-much-needed holiday feasting. Sorry to have left you readers with nothing new to read.

This one’s for tree-lovers. I had a plaintive e-mail on Dec. 27 from Sherry Williams, a longtime Observer reader and letter writer. It was Sherry and her husband, Sam, who were forced by the city a few years back to whack off the blossoms of some daylilies they had planted in a median near their home, because the city feared the flowers were a traffic hazard.

Here’s an excerpt:

Today at 9:20 AM I called the Observer about the trees in Charlotte, being felled for no apparent reason near Midtown Square. I am afraid, during the course of trying to state my point of view, I cried. The idea that all of the hawks and owls whose homes have been removed (six large oaks and one magnolia) just this week, from Kings Drive, causes me to cry. ... I feel that large oaks have souls and cutting them without cause is the worst kind of evil.

I wasn’t “venting,” I was brainstorming. I want to save what is left of the trees and some of the open space. However, clearly, I don’t know how to do it. Happy New Year. Sherry Williams

I drove past the site later that day. The oaks cut were apparently near the Kings-Independence intersection. It was cordwood by the time I saw it. Here’s how I responded to Sherry:

Like you, I hate it when trees are cut down. But in the Kings Drive case, I have to conclude the overall project will result in a lot more trees living a lot longer, as what are now a bunch of concrete parking lots that cover Little Sugar Creek are dismantled and turned into greenway – for posterity.

In our neighborhood, a half-acre lot of woods and wetlands was recently all but clear cut. All fully legal, of course. If you really want to have an effect, keep beating up on City Council members and the mayor to enact stronger protections for our natural landscape. They think because we have a tree ordinance (a relatively weak one) and a county creek buffer ordinance – which has grandfather-clause exemptions big enough to accommodate the Biltmore House – that we don’t need stronger ordinances. We do.