Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New Urbanism or sell-out?

The Charlotte region gets a lot of positive national attention for its examples of New Urban-style development: Vermillion, Fort Mill’s Baxter, Birkdale Village, Concord’s Afton Village and the municipal ordinances of places such as Davidson, Belmont, Huntersville, etc. But if you live here you’re more likely to hear from people who are either convinced New Urbanism is socialism in disguise and means we’ll all be rounded up somehow and forced to live in high-rise tenements, or they’re confused by developers who advertise typical suburban subdivisions as New Urbanism because they’ve thrown in sidewalks and front porches.

Reality is more complex. Today’s Next Big Thing article by Doug Smith about Vermillion is one example. Is it a sell-out of New Urban principles that developer Nate Bowman is building or planning nearly 250 single-family homes that will exceed 4,000 square feet and sell in the high $400,000s?

I suspect plenty of developers who’ve gotten rich with a formula of conventional suburban subdivisions will point and say, “Told you so. New Urbanism doesn’t sell.” And plenty of New Urban zealots will want to kick Bowman out of the New Urbanist club and will point out how environmentally unsound it is to build gigantic houses on single-family lots out in the suburbs.

Reality? The whole point of New Urbanism is to mix it up. No monocultures, of housing type or income. That means you want houses of different sizes at different price points. You also want apartments and townhouses, garage apartments, carriage houses. And you want stores, offices and as many other uses as you can get to co-exist comfortably with one another. A neighborhood of nothing but townhouses, even if they look just like Beacon Hill, is not New Urbanist.

Do I, personally, think most people need 4,000-square-foot houses? No way. I, personally, think that unless you have five or six kids, you’re wasting materials and energy and you should be ashamed of yourself for being that profligate. (Hypocrisy disclosure: If I won the lottery there is a reasonable chance I'd get a mansion-esque place. Biltmore maybe? Or maybe not. I don't like dealing with window treatments.)

Although it happens that pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are a lot more energy efficient, the underlying point of New Urbanism is neighborhood design, not energy-efficiency or having to meet all of my particular pet peeves – or yours, or anyone’s.

The new phase of Vermillion will also include more townhomes and three-level dwellings, and Bowman is planning to add more retail. It’s within walking distance of a planned transit stop and the core of old, downtown Huntersville. Sounds to me as if it passes the test.

And as to whether the market wants only suburban subdivisions? Get hold of today’s newspaper and notice all the ads around Smith’s piece on pages 4D and 5D. “Introducing Southborough, a new urban village,” “New condos in Davidson’s South Main Arts District,” “Condo Flats As Cool As the Neighborhood Around them.” A lot of developers seem to believe there’s a market for urbanism, too. Here's the big Vermillion plan that ran in today's paper, but isn't online:

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

'Green' wins a fight in south Charlotte

It looks as if the greenway protection gang in south Charlotte won its fight with City Hall. (To be precise, they were fighting Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities, a city department, and the county Park and Recreation Department.)

I wrote about them in my Urban Outlook column Jan. 20, “Once foes, now greenway fans work to save it.” Then I got sick in February (as did everyone in my house) and I didn’t close the loop to make sure what looked likely at the Feb. 7 Mecklenburg county commissioners’ meeting really did happen. It did. Unanimously. The commissioners agreed to use a compromise route for a new sewer line that wouldn't plunder a bottomland forest along the Lower McAlpine Greenway.

Barry Shearin, CMU’s chief engineer, said today the utility department is proceeding with what was called Alignment 1A, which doesn’t cross the creek or require any disruption of the greenway forest. It turns out, he said, the cost of Alignment 1A (an estimated $4.7 million) is roughly equivalent to the cost originally projected for the project, along what came to be known as Alignment 1, before development in the area made that alignment more expensive.

Here’s the good news and the bad news. I’ll start with the bad. Not only was CMU not looking very creatively for ways to protect the creek and the greenway from sewer construction and easement disruption, the county park and rec department did not appear to be pushing them very hard to do that. After all, the county owns the greenway.

Here’s the good news. Neighbors in the area DID push to protect their greenway, and it was their pressure that inspired CMU to find a more environmentally benign option that didn’t cost much more money. It’s too bad they had to push the park and rec department, too. They used to full advantage the park department’s admirable network of citizen advisory committees, up to and including the park and rec commission.

It worked. Bravo!

Friday, February 23, 2007

'Developers ... got their way every single time'

South Charlotte neighborhood activist Angela Pumarada shares her perspective, after reading my column of Feb. 17, “Got enough schools? Roads? No? Read on.

Pumarada, like many who live in fast-growing Charlotte, is fed up with development that gets a green light when we lack enough schools, roads, or other infrastructure to serve it.

But before I get to Angela’s remarks, Jonathan Wells of the city planning department says if you’d like to take that survey on infrastructure needs online, it’s posted now. Here’s a link.

Here’s what Angela said in an e-mail to me:

Over the years I have fought rezoning petitions and won. I have attended meetings with planning staff and developers. One time, at one of those 6 p.m. meetings, I was one of three non-developers in the room. At that meeting I was amazed at how developers argued every change [then-Planning Director] Martin Cramton proposed and how they got their way every single time. Stores the size of Target are allowed pretty much anywhere.

I was involved when the General Development Policies were updated a few years ago. Those are the ones with the infamous grid with points [which make a proposal more likely to win planners’ recommendation] for when a school is nearby. I witnessed how one major developer argued for points when farmland was across from a proposed development and there was not enough infrastructure to get a point, saying planners should envision the future and give points for what could be built there someday. Do city planners have a crystal ball they can consult? I would like to have one of those.

Residents get sick and tired of the developers getting their way. I have an acquaintance who tried hard to get the City Council to adopt an adequate facilities ordinance, but nobody wants to take the heat. Impact fees are taboo here. Other communities thrive even when impact fees are in place. Developers there build schools and roads and some pay a hefty fee to build houses.

In Charlotte, developers line their pockets with money, then walk away, leaving an undue tax burden on local residents. They argue impact fees are taxes on new residents and that taxes should be spread among all citizens. That is hogwash. New development should pay for itself when it comes to schools, roads, parks, fire stations, libraries, etc.

My neighborhood around The Arboretum is pretty much built out and we are seeing incredible traffic issues. With a few newer schools, we are seeing fewer trailers. I feel sorry for the residents of the Ballantyne area.

As far as attending meetings, Charlotte should allow for meetings at other times besides 6 p.m. I can go to an occasional meeting at that time but I cannot commit to regular meetings at 6 p.m.

If the city wants input, they can hold two sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening. I am sure I can get a few people there during the day.

I will be contacting Jonathan Wells and asking for more information on the planned nfrastructure discussions.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Neighborhood fights CDOT and -- gasp! -- wins

Are you sick of trucks and other sloppy drivers gouging huge tracks in your front yard?

Some residents in the southern Mecklenburg subdivision of Providence Plantation got fed up and planted a bunch of 3-foot wooden posts to fend off drivers, and protect their lawns. The city ordered them to remove the posts, saying they were a hazard and violated code.

The residents fought back and – get this – they won. Here’s a story about it.

The Charlotte Department of Transportation looked at the posts and concluded they weren’t much of a hazard because they were relatively small and were on low-speed streets. CDOT rescinded its removal orders and drafted new guidelines.

In our neighborhood people have used metal spikes with plastic tape, fancy metal grillwork (what ARE they thinking?), decorative plastic dividers, wooden stakes with string – you name it.
At our house we use big rocks.

Still the big construction trucks just plow into all those supposed barriers. Anyone have any success stories to share?

Grow ’Em Big

Huntersville is now bigger than Monroe, Salisbury and Statesville.According to 2005 Census estimates, Huntersville has also topped Shelby, Lenoir, Albemarle and Boone, among other well-known municipalities. The 2005 Census estimate puts Huntersville at a little more than 36,000. But Huntersville town staff used 2000 Census data and certificates of occupancy to come up with an estimated 40,082 residents. That puts it neck and neck with Hickory, which was at 40,232 in the 2005 Census estimates. Here's a story about it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Infrastructure survey -- update

Update on infrastructure survey (see post just below this):
I’m trading voice mails today with city planner Jonathan Wells, and he leaves word that the planning department hopes to put that survey online. But because I haven’t reached him, I can’t tell you when. “Soon.”

One fact to add to the comments below – love the new arena or hate it, but that money couldn’t have gone to build schools. That’s because city of Charlotte built the arena, but city money doesn’t and can’t by law build schools. County money builds schools. Yeah, I know, it’s confusing. (The arena money could have built roads or hired more police officers, however.)

Another fact to add, to Rick's comment about the land transfer tax: The main stated reason city and county folks are interested in a land transfer tax more than impact fees is that it brings in millions more per year than impact fees would and isn't felt as directly by those who pay it. It just gets folded into the closing costs.

And just one last thing, in case you aren't confused enough: In North Carolina, counties can't build roads. No such thing here as a "county road." We have city streets and roads, and state roads. Not that anyone brought it up, but it's another thing newcomers (and even old-timers) have a hard time figuring out.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Do we have enough schools? Roads?

If you’d like to send a message to the city planners, here’s your chance.

First, a yes or no question: Do you think infrastructure availability – that is, schools, roads, etc. – is adequately considered when development decisions are made?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg planning department is kicking off an attempt to add a chapter to the city’s general development policies to deal with how the city plans for infrastructure. Thursday night at a public meeting, folks who attended got a chance to fill out a questionnaire.

It began with the question above. If you want to offer your thoughts to the planners, take that question and those below, fill them out, and then mail them to Jonathan Wells, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department, 600 E. Fourth St., 8th Floor, Charlotte, NC 28202.

Or you can copy them into an e-mail and e-mail to me, and I'll forward to the planner running the process:

A couple of ground rules. First, this initiative applies only to Charlotte or unincorporated Mecklenburg. Also, “infrastructure” in this case means buildings and equipment, such as school buildings, streets and roads, water-sewer pipes, firetrucks, parks, etc.

The rest of the questions:

2. On a 1-to-4 scale, with 1 “not concerned,” 4 “very concerned,” how concerned are you about the community’s ability to provide:
-Schools (buildings – not teachers, curriculum, etc.).
-Public safety (capital costs, not the employees).
-Transportation (streets, roads, sidewalks, etc.).
-Water and sewer.
-Storm water (drains, ditches, etc.)

3. On the same 1-4 scale, with 1 “not needed” and 4 “very much needed” what types of policies are needed to more closely link land development decisions and the availability of the infrastructure (see the above list) to serve it:
-Policies to better manage the increasing demand for infrastructure.
-Policies to use existing/future infrastructure resources more efficiently.
-Policies involving seeking new or innovative means of providing infrastructure.
-Policies to ensure infrastructure development minimizes environmental impacts.
-Other policy areas (please specify)

4. Any other comments?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Pittsboro, N.C., hits the big time

In the category of “my, things change,” we have Starbucks in Pittsboro. To be specific, TWO Starbucks in Pittsboro.

Pittsboro – if you’re not from North Carolina or don’t get out much – is a formerly small town just south of Chapel Hill and the county seat of Chatham County. It’s where you used to turn left to get to Chapel Hill if you were driving the back way through Asheboro and the Blue Mist. (Though some of my Asheboro-savvy friends have pointed me to the Henry James on U.S. 220 for even better barbecue. No, it isn’t named for the novelist.)

Pittsboro has a great old county courthouse in a traffic circle in the middle of town. Or at least, it used to. If Starbucks has come to town it’s entirely possible things have changed.

Let me note here that while Pittsboro may be chi-chi enough to attract TWO Starbucks, most of East Charlotte remains Starbucks-free. South of University City and east of Monroe Road, you’re out of luck. (Starbucks’ web site shows stores way out Indy Boulevard and one apparently tucked into a place called Northlake Commons either in or near Mint Hill.) Indeed, if you drive the rural route to Chapel Hill, either heading out Albemarle Road or up N.C. 49, you’re in Starbucks-free land until you hit Pittsboro and 15-501.

Think Starbucks will ever recognize East Charlotte as a market? Does it need to?

And just for fun, reader Don May, who lives near Lake Wylie Elementary shared this photo with the Observer. It was shot Jan. 20, on Laurel View Drive. “Thought you might want to show your readers that neighborhoods and wildlife can coexist,” he says.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Schools: Build cheap or build green?

A new Guilford County middle school is getting a lot of publicity because it’s been designed to be more environmentally sensitive than most schools. Here’s what the Raleigh News & Observer wrote about it.

How does it compare to what’s being built by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools? Well for starters, though the article says the new Northern Guilford Middle school was built for only a half a percent more in construction costs, for $26.5 million, CMS’ middle schools are being built more cheaply, especially if you consider cost per student.

I phoned Tony Ansaldo, CMS director of architecture, to get some facts. Ansaldo said Crestdale and Bradley, two of CMS’s newer baseline (that is, typical) middle schools, cost approximately the same in today’s dollars as the Guilford middle school but are designed for 1,200 students instead of 950 at the Guilford school. He says the next CMS middle schools to be built will likely be 130,000 square feet for 1,200 students, down from 145,000 square feet at Crestdale and Bradley. The Guilford school is 140,000 square feet.

Ansaldo applauds Guilford for working to build a greener school. He also talked about what CMS is doing to help make new schools greener. (One irony, he noted, is that older schools from the 1930s to 1950s have much better daylighting than the 1960s and 1970s schools.) Among other things, CMS tries to design window walls to take advantage of daylight, though most CMS schools are not being designed specifically as "daylit" schools, he said. (One exception is the new Mint Hill Middle School, where a UNC Charlotte daylighting expert was a consultant.) People using the school love it, he said, though the higher windows are harder for maintenance crews to clean.

Ansaldo also said CMS had looked at the dimming system for fluorescent lights, mentioned in the article, but at the time it wouldn’t have paid for itself over the school's lifetime. Technology is changing quickly, he noted, so maybe newer systems are more economical.

With those advances it's possible that soon the cost of building a green school will be cheaper than a conventional building, even before lifetime energy costs are considered.

There’s a cohort of people in Charlotte-Mecklenburg who really want CMS to build the cheapest schools possible. They make a lot of noise, and many are not conversant with green building, either the concept or the details.

Another cohort wants CMS to build much greener schools. They don’t make nearly as much noise, at least not in political circles. And they don't seem to recognize the political power the "cheap" cohort exerts.

So the current push for school buildings is for cheap, not green.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Is our taste tacky, or is modern architecture yucky?

Is the problem that most Americans are cretins when it comes to architecture?

Or is it that architects keep designing weird and ugly buildings that aren’t pleasant to look at or be inside?

Or is something else causing the disconnect between buildings architects love and buildings Americans love?

Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal reports on a public opinion survey by the American Institute of Architects to pick Americans’ 150 favorite buildings. The results are quite revealing. The most recent structure in the Top 10 was built in 1982 – Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington. (Sure, the list shows the National Cathedral as a 1990 building, but it took 80 years to build.) After that, the most recent was the Jefferson Memorial (No. 4) in 1943, then the Golden Gate Bridge (No. 5, 1937).

It’s hard to avoid the recognition that Americans simply do not embrace much of contemporary architecture, and they feel a lot of affection for Neoclassical national monuments or other century-old monuments and buildings. And, finally, that they like places whose walls carry emotional weight as well as building load.

Asheville’s Biltmore House (1895) came in at No. 8. No. 1 was the Empire State Building.

Maybe the most controversial choice? It's probably the lavish (some would say egregiously tacky) Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which ranked No. 22 – ahead of such architects’ faves as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pa. (1935, No. 29), Chicago’s Sears Tower (1974, No. 42), and Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003, No. 99).

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Quenching your thirst for transit facts

Several of the comments on the previous post had some mistaken assumptions or questions, such as whether parking at the Scaleybark station would be built by the city, and whether it would be free.

Tom Flynn, the city of Charlotte's economic development director, had some answers.

– The parking for transit riders will be free. At this point, says Flynn, both development proposals under consideration would also offer free parking for people using the stores. It's possible, Flynn says, that the residential portion of the development would have parking restricted to residents only.

– Flynn also verifies that, essentially, the city is paying for the parking at the station. Each development proposal is a complicated financial deal, with developers paying $3 million to the city for land CATS had bought earlier, planning for parking. The developers will pay to build 315 parking spaces. (The Bank of America proposal calls for a deck, worth about $5 million to $6 million, and the Scaleybark Partners' proposal would be a surface parking lot costing about $1.5 million, which might convert to a deck during a future Phase II development). In each case the city would end up either owning the land under the parking lot, or owning a portion of the parking spaces in the deck.

– How much will monthly transit passes cost? I have a call in to CATS PR woman Jean Leier.
But they're expected to be the same as monthly bus passes. Current monthly bus passes (unlimited rides) are $48, and express bus passes (unlimited rides) $66. A fare increase has been proposed (a public hearing is set for Feb. 28) under which monthly bus passes would be $52 starting July 1, and express passes $70. One trip (bus or rail or a combination of both) would be $1.30.

– Yes, the Scaleybark Partners' proposal includes land the developers had purchased previously in hopes of doing a transit-oriented development at the site. In analyzing the deals, the question before council will be whether to spend more now and get a larger, more intense transit-oriented development that is expected to bring in more tax revenue in future years, or spend less public money now for a development that won't bring in as much money later.

– And who goes to the store at a transit station? Experience in other cities shows that, as usual, "It depends." The more residents living within walking distance, the better chances for retail that goes beyond coffee shop/newsstand/dry cleaners. Both development proposals include a grocery store and a library branch.

– One final point. Cities such as Atlanta and Miami built transit systems but didn't, until a few years ago, change their suburban-style land use codes. Much of the development at their transit stops wasn't conducive to walk-in or bicycle-in business and didn't encourage high-density residential development nearby. They had a lot of big parking lots right next to the stations, and so missed out on the possiblity for coffee shops, dry cleaners, etc. That means comparing development at Atlanta's Metro stations of 15 years ago with Charlotte's plans is kind of apples to oranges.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why design matters

The city’s plans to sell 17 acres at its Scaleybark light rail station for transit-related development moved ahead a notch last week. On Wednesday a City Council committee voted 3-2 to recommend one of two proposals. (Yes: Nancy Carter, Andy Dulin and James Mitchell. No: John Lassiter and Don Lochman.)

The recommended (though just barely) proposal is from Scaleybark Partners – a coalition of Pappas Properties, GreenHawk Properties of Raleigh, Shook Kelley, ColeJenest & Stone and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, among others. The other comes from a coalition of Bank of America, Harris Murr & Vermillion and Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh.

Financial analysis is ongoing. The headline seems to be: Scaleybark Partners project would cost more now but bring in more revenue later. But let’s talk about design for a minute, specifically retail, and learn a cautionary tale from the Bay Area.

Fruitvale Village is a transit village built on a former Bay Area Rapid Transit parking lot in Oakland, Calif., that “has become a reluctant symbol of the difficulties that transit-oriented development (TOD) can encounter,” says an article in the December issue of New Urban News, an industry newsletter. (To read it, click on "Past Articles.")

Some cautions: Don't assume the whole development’s a failure because it’s had problems filling its 40,000 square feet of retail space. The vacant stores are slowly being filled, and the development has been successful in many other ways. And it's simplistic to single out one factor alone to blame for its retail problems.

BUT – you knew a "but" was coming – here’s what Charlotte should pay attention to. “BART more or less mandated that the main commuter parking garage be built where it would create a short and direct route between commuters’ cars and the station,” says the article. That means transit riders who arrived by car had no incentive to walk past the retail space.

The design from the Scaleybark Partners puts some retail space directly between the parking lot and the rail station. The Bank of American design doesn’t. I hope City Council members, scheduled to choose a developer Feb. 12, look closely at whether the design will make retail success a big uphill struggle.

Oh, and one more thing. The Unity Council, the nonprofit community development corporation that sponsored Fruitvale Village, made some dumb moves. Said Unity Council’s Jeff Pace: “We turned away Starbucks twice.”

Friday, February 02, 2007

Help for East Charlotte?

So much to say, so little time. So here are two quick hits, then news about an opportunity for East Charlotte’s international corridor, Central Avenue.

Ask and ye shall receive? Saw today that Duke Power will help pay to bury some power lines in Greenville, S.C. Why not Charlotte? Apparently Greenville asked and Charlotte didn’t. After a major 2005 ice storm, Greenville and Duke negotiated for a year. Note this line in the story: Duke Energy Carolinas President Ellen Ruff says Greenville and Durham were the only cities in Duke’s service area to push for overhead lines to be relocated. So now Duke’s starting a “pilot project” on cost-sharing with municipalities – but only in S.C.

Argh! Charlotte (and the rest of North Carolina) had a horrific ice storm in December 2002 that knocked out power for a week or more. During Hurricane Hugo in 1989 almost the whole city lost power, many for two weeks or more (including our house). After the 2002 ice storm the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission and City Council made a few noises about pushing Duke to bury power lines here. But what got buried was the idea, not the power lines.

More design discussions: Architect Manoj Kesavan says the new point8 online magazine is up and running. Its editorial team is made up of artists, designers, writers and enthusiasts. But, it says, “We believe that what you have to say is far more important than who you are.” The goal: “To promote creativity, critique and communication.”

East Charlotte: Local architects hope to work with Central Avenue’s international corridor to help business owners, property owners, residents and the larger community to “address the urban fabric and architectural issues that hinder the area’s development.” They want to help figure out how to make the area more walkable, more economically vibrant and help build an identifiable image.

(My quick two cents: Change the zoning ordinances that apply. The standard business zoning that much of the street carries allows, even requires, auto-oriented design. And you’re shocked when it gets built?)

The Charlotte chapter of the American Institute of Architects plans to spend the first quarter of 2007 studying the area, and meeting with residents, businesses and other interested groups. In late April, San Diego urban planner Teddy Cruz would facilitate a workshop on the area.

To hear more about ideas for the project, come to the Civic by Design forum 5:30-6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Levine Museum of the New South uptown.