Monday, April 30, 2007

Charlotte: Graveyard for theater?

Is Charlotte a city where the arts are healthy? You be the judge. The latest, unfortunate wrinkle in the city's theater scene is that Steven Beauchem, a theater enthusiast who was trying to see if support exists here for professional regional theater to take up where the now-defunct Charlotte Repertory Theatre left, has called it quits.

Here's what Beauchem wrote, in a lengthy e-mail. In a nutshell, he concluded that "Charlotte isn't ready for locally produced, regional-level, professional theatre." There simply isn't enough community-wide support to make it feasible to found such an effort, he came to believe. The Catch-22, he notes, is that to demonstrate that support exists you have to put on some productions, and that to put on productions you have to have support. (And all you libertarian types, "support" doesn't mean govt money.)

It's wrong, he says, to blame the Arts & Science Council or the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

I'd love to hear what theater-lovers (and others) think about Beauchem's efforts and his conclusions.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Trying to comment?

If you've tried to comment in the past couple of days and couldn't, try again. I tinkered with the settings the other day and seem to have disabled comments by mistake. I think I've fixed it. If it's still a problem, let me know.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

New theater gets a name

A few tidbits from the City Council meeting Monday that didn't get headlines, plus some national recognition for ImaginOn:

Council news: The council approved naming the new 1,200-seat theater being built as part of the Wachovia-cultural arts campus on South Tryon Street the Knight Theater.

No, you conspiracy buffs, it isn't about the Charlotte Knights minor-league baseball team, which wants an uptown stadium. The theater will carry the name of John S. and James L. Knight, "for their involvement in and commitment to the Charlotte community," and for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which gave a $5 million donation to the arts endowment campaign.

Yes, there's a connection to the newspaper, but the newspaper is entirely separate from the foundation. The Knight family owned multiple newspapers, including The Charlotte Observer and the former Charlotte News. In 1974 Knight Newspapers merged with the Ridder newspaper company and became Knight Ridder, which last year sold itself to McClatchy, which now owns the Observer.

The Knight family set up a foundation, which makes major national journalism grants as well as grants in 26 communities that had Knight Ridder newspapers at one time, including Charlotte.

The council also OK'd naming the new Afro-American Cultural Center facility for former Mayor Harvey Gantt, who's been active in politics, civic affairs and architecture since his mayoral terms in the 1980s. He's most deserving of the honor, IMHO.

ImaginOn: The Project for Public Spaces, a well-known nonprofit group that helps teach planners and developers and others how to make the most of parks, plazas, markets and other public gathering spots showcases ImaginOn in its April newsletter. Take a look.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Developers want in on transit project

Reports of the death of the Scaleybark transit-oriented development were, as Mark Twain might have said, greatly exaggerated.

Two of the original three development groups are back in the game: Scaleybark Partners, led by Peter A. Pappas of Pappas Properties, and as of last week, Crosland.

After a Bank of America-led development group pulled out April 9, Scaleybark Partners, which had pulled out in February, asked to get back into the negotiations. Its new proposal is squishier on whether it is committing to build some of the things the city says it wants: affordable housing, and a parking deck. It doesn't say it won't build them, but doesn't nail down that it will.

And last week, a group that had dropped out even before Scaleybark Partners, led by Crosland, wrote the city asking to get back into negotiations, too.

Here's a link to the Scaleybark Partners proposal. At last Wednesday's meeting of the City Council's Economic Development and Planning Committee, the committee decided to recommend that the council tonight (Monday) vote to keep negotiating with the Pappas group.

But that evening the Crosland letter arrived (here's a link to the new offer from Crosland). It says it's offering $6.4 million for the 17 acres of city-owned and Charlotte Area Transit System-owned land.

The Pappas offer is for $3 million for the CATS land, 9 acres, and $3.1 million for the 8 acres the city owns. But the 8 city-owned acres would be in a Phase II, on or before Oct. 1, 2012.

And with this kind of deal, the purchase price you see isn't always an apples-to-apples comparison with another deal. Which is a fancy way of saying I don't know if the Crosland proposal really is more money for the city or not.

Jamie Banks, the communications/marketing manager for the city's Economic Development office, tells me it's off the agenda for City Council tonight. Want to see what IS on the agenda? Here's a link.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Inspired by a grand old building

Quick: What’s the highest spot of ground in Charlotte?

Answer: Biddle Hall at Johnson C. Smith University on Beatties Ford Road.
JCSU threw a small party Tuesday to celebrate its 140th anniversary and to show off its recently renovated Biddle Memorial Hall, which dates to 1883. It’s the red brick building with a tall clock tower visible from I-77. In demolition-happy Charlotte it’s one of only a few buildings remaining from the post-Civil War era.

Biddle Hall inspires in several ways. Atop the city’s highest hill, the views from President Dorothy Cowser Yancy’s fourth-floor office are stunning. She’s eye-to-eye – across the chasm of I-77 and a chunk of uptown – with the Bank of America Corporate Center.

It’s also inspiring to remember that more than a century ago, JCSU students had to help build Biddle Hall. As a historically black college, it has never benefited from the wealth lavished on a Harvard or Yale, or even UNC Chapel Hill. For the not-so-long-before enslaved black residents of the South, the chance to attend what was then Biddle Memorial Institute and get an education must have felt like a mirage come to life.

The luncheon’s guests, almost all women, included a number of current and former elected officials as well as civic activists and philanthropists. That, too, made many of us there feel a quiver of pride in what women have accomplished at JCSU and elsewhere, once we got a chance. Like many colleges, JCSU began as all-male. It didn’t admit women until 1932, and Dr. Yancy is the school’s first female president.

Finally, from the numbers of alumni in attendance and referred to with such affection, I glimpsed the closeness of the JCSU family. Several, such as Charlotte civic activist Jeanne Brayboy (who isn’t an alumna), have families with numerous generations of JCSU graduates.

Fun trivia: Among the school’s alumni are former U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton, who with Rep. Mel Watt in 1992 became North Carolina's first two black members of Congress since 1901; Vera and Darius Swann, whose lawsuit against Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools led to the U.S. Supreme Court ordering desegregation in 1971; John Rice, father of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Biddle Hall is one of Charlotte’s treasures – and not just for the black community but for the whole city. It’s worth a visit.

The hall’s renovation won a 2005 award from Preservation North Carolina. If you’d like to contribute to the school to help with upkeep of the newly restored hall, here’s a mailing address:

Send tax-deductible donations to Johnson C. Smith University, c/o Office of Development, 100 Beatties Ford Rd., Charlotte, NC 28216.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

That long, long commute, and other topics

--Turns out the conservative business crowd has discovered, or may be discovering, the value of designing cities so people can choose to walk or bicycle as well as drive. We can only hope. The journal "The American: A Magazine of Ideas," published by the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank with a libertarian bent and close ties to the Bush administration, has in its April issue online such an article: "Walk This Way," by Brent M. Eastwood. Here's a link.

--And in keeping with that article, here's a lengthy but interesting look at the phenomenon of commuting from the New Yorker magazine online, "There and Back Again: The soul of the commuter," by writer Nick Paumgarten. One finding: Average travel time for Americans keeps going up. Pay special attention to the section about studies that show commuting by car makes people unhappy.

"The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of," Paumgarten writes. "When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people."

"... On the train or the bus, one can experience an illusion of fellowship, even if you disdain your fellow-passengers or are revolted by them. Perhaps there’s succor in inadvertent eye contact, the presence of a pretty woman, shared disgruntlement (over a delay or a spilled Pepsi), or the shuffle through the doors, which requires, on a subconscious level, an array of social compromises and collaborations."

It will make you think regardless of whether you think commuting is the last outpost of healthy American individualism or a scourge on the world or something between those two poles of opinion.

And a request from your humble blogmeistress: One of the people who sent me the link noted, "Would talk about it on your blog, but am too discouraged by the uncivil nature of remarks on both sides of issue. " We have a lively forum going, but the insults and meanness of a few drive away others who want to add their voices, too. Please be aware of that dynamic if you add comments. All opinions are welcome.

--Finally, North Carolina now has the not-so-happy distinction of one of our Tar Heel rivers making the 10 Ten Most Endangered Rivers, a list put out by American Rivers, a nonprofit group pushing for healthier rivers. The Neuse, which flows through the fast-growing Triangle area and then through hog-farm country, snags the non-honor. Here's a link to the press release. "... With more than a million people and two million hogs and woefully inadequate sewage treatment in place for both in the Neuse Basin, it is a river in deep trouble," says the announcement. If you're more interested, here's a link to the Raleigh News & Observer's article today. And here's a link to my Raleigh-based colleague Jack Betts' thoughts, on his blog, This Old State.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A glimpse of Charlotte past

My item about Jim Cochran tying himself to the tree on Wendover Road brought another interesting glimpse of Charlotte 30 years ago. I got this e-mail from John Elliot, who grew up on Churchill Road (off Wendover Road north of Randolph Road). I share it because even recent history in Charlotte is at risk of being forgotten as development changes the landscape.

He wrote:

In about 1975, a small contingent of Mecklenburg folk met w/me (Gov. Jim Holshouser's deputy. ombudsman) in the Capitol concerning the trees. I felt I had to recuse myself from direct involvement, because I grew up on Churchill Road, and my parents still lived there, but advised them to attend a forthcoming "Peoples Day" I was advancing for the governor in Charlotte. On the appointed day, they attended at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse and had one of the first interviews with the governor, of the day. As was my duty, I briefed the Gov and Butch Gallagher, the Ombudsman (also from Charlotte) at the beginning of each 5-minute interview session on the subject matter, then returned to my post outside the chamber to facilitate interviews and security.

After the interview with the Wendover folk, Gallagher came out with them and asked that I cancel the appointed lunch w/some bankers and local politicos (Mayor Belk, IIRC) and get the SBI (or Highway Patrol) cruiser brought around at noon. Gallagher, the governor, and, I think, someone from the Mecklenburg delegation rode out Providence Road to Wendover, saw the trees, which the NCDOT had said were in the way. The governor instructed Gallagher to communicate the governor's desire to save the trees if at all practicable. And they did.

I don't know how much longer those trees will last. I would guess they were acorns around 1940? Our willow oaks at St. Martin's on Seventh Street were planted in 1919 (acorns, c.1909), and we've already had to take down four of them due to drought-related fungus disease.

Because I was curious about Wendover Road in those days, Elliot sent me the following description of life in that part of the city in the days before SouthPark, Route 4, etc. It's edited for brevity:

I rode a bike home from Eastover Elementary in the '50s & walked (hitched) home from AG [Alexander Graham Junior High] in the early '60s, so I'm pretty familiar with Wendover. The great canopy of willow oaks ran from Sharon to Providence, ended there, so the section of Wendover to Randolph must have been developed differently. I can remember that when the Belt Road was being planned, there were alternative routes, including one going through MPCC [Myers Park Country Club] golf course, which would have reduced it to a 9-hole course. The club was offered the option of accepting that route, and the city would build them an additional 18-hole course out further, but they and the school board turned it down (school board because of proximity to Myers Park/AG/Selwyn campus). ... Wendover ended at Randolph, continuing in the form of Wendover Circle, a half loop, that ran around a great estate that is now home to the "giant bagels," spawned Churchill, then flowed down the hill to the creek where it joined Randolph.

At the creek was an old grist mill -- I 'spose it's still there -- and there were cotton fields twixt Billingsley & the creek--plenty of crawdads in the creek. Churchill was bifurcated by the city limits, which meant that the kids on the upper end had to pay tuition to go to Eastover, AG, MP, rather than the county schools. 'Course, the kids across the cotton fields couldn't go to either set, being that they had the poor judgment to be born by black parents, so they just walked next door to Billingsley School. ... It was a great neighborhood in which to grow up ... we played in the woods all day, and camped in them at night. Sort of a Blowing Rock, but an easy ride on bus # 7 uptown, to the Y, movies, Belk's, and Tanner's.

John Elliot

PS: My grandfather, R. M. Mauldin, was chairman of the school board who "visioned" having 3 schools on one campus, separated by only trees and creeks. My dad worked out the swap that moved the Y to the old AG building on Morehead, and AG out to Jimmy Harris' farm, making the vision happen. But that's another story.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Critiquing the rail critics

Finally. Here's a study that analyzes some of the criticism of rail transit and points out where it's on target and where it's off. (Warning: It's 52 pages.)

It's from Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Victoria, BC. (That's Canada, in case you don't get out much.)

Among his findings:
-- Several recent studies indicate that ... rail transit does reduce congestion (Page 10).
-- Average operating costs per passenger-mile actually tend to be lower for rail than bus (page 11).
-- Both motorist and truck congestion costs decline in a city as rail transit mileage expands, but congestion costs increase as bus transit mileage expands, apparently because buses lure fewer travelers from driving and contribute to traffic congestion themselves. (Page 10).

Litman includes a lengthy section examining statements by Randal O'Toole, a prolific rail transit critic and darling of the Cato Institute and other rail critics. Litman finds some of O'Toole's reports based on incorrect data and flawed analysis. (Example: "O’Toole states incorrectly and without citation that regions with rail system devote 30-80% of their total transportation capital budgets to transit.")

Finally, there's a very long point-counterpoint between Litman and O'Toole.
Happy reading.

Monday, April 09, 2007

N.C. cities should tackle growth together

We all know Charlotte is feeling explosive growth. Last week the U.S. Census released a population report showing Charlotte at No. 7 among metro areas in 2006 growth. This links to the Observer's story.

The city's six-county metro area (Anson, Cabarrus, Gaston, Mecklenburg, Union and York counties) added more than 61,500 people last year. Raleigh-Cary was No. 15.

Why bring up the obvious? Because as the Raleigh stats make clear, Charlotte isn't facing its growth pains alone. Plenty of other N.C. cities and towns have our problems: Overcrowded schools and not enough county money to build what's needed without raising property tax rates beyond what's politically acceptable. Development rules that aren't adequate to protect the environment, and slack enforcement.

In Wake County, a grass roots group of residents has formed Wake Up Wake County. They're pushing for, among other things, permission from the N.C. legislature to enact a real estate transfer tax. That's one of the revenue sources that's been talked about -- or more accurately, whispered about -- in Mecklenburg as well, by City Council as well as County Manager Harry Jones.

Wake Up Wake County reports that 15 different bills have been introduced in the legislature so far that would allow a real estate transfer tax or allow local governments, in their wisdom or foolishness, to choose from a menu of tax options that includes the transfer tax.

Currently the only tax that cities and counties can raise without legislative permission is the property tax. Some fees can also be raised without kissing the rings in Raleigh. That's why there are so many local government fees.

Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, has introduced a bill that would more than double the existing tax on real estate sales, which is now $1 for every $500 in value. He told the Observer's Jim Morrill that it was essentially a bill holding space for any proposals that might come out of a commission he co-chairs that's looking at the whole state tax system.

Of course, within about 20 seconds the N.C. Association of Realtors had launched a huge campaign with signs, TV, radio and print ads calling a transfer tax "the home tax." "Taxing the equity in your home is like taxing the American Dream," one ad says. "It's a bad idea." It was almost as if they had that campaign all ready, and were just waiting for a bill to be filed.

But, isn't the property tax also a home tax? And if your revaluations are minimally current, doesn't it, too, tax your home equity, or at least part of it?

My overall point is not so much about whether a real estate transfer tax is the best thing since sliced bread, but to note that the only way North Carolina's fast-growing urban areas will get diddly out of the power-stingy legislature is to work together. Instead of, or even better, in addition to Wake Up Wake County, we need a Wake Up North Carolina group who will go to bat for Charlotte, Raleigh, Asheville, Wilmington and all the other booming urban areas.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Keep it clean

Dear readers,

Many of you seem to be having a wonderful online talk about the role of government, society, taxation, etc.

BUT a few people are acting like jerks. Stop. Keep it clean, please. Comments with obscenity, profanity or otherwise unacceptable discourse are deleted.

And even if you get truly steamed, try to refrain from childish name-calling. This is an interesting and provocative forum. Please help keep it that way.

And finally, my thanks to those many regular readers who, even though they disagree with one another, do so with civility (if not affection).