Wednesday, May 30, 2007

City's alleged '$50M to LRT' just ain't so

Several people recently have posted comments akin to this one (look deep into the lengthy comments thread):

Yes Mary...please get with Ms. Burgess immediately and ask about the $50 MM that city council funded to LTR [light rail transit] to the detriment of public safety (ie: police officers).Oh, and ask about that bald face lie they told to the general public that the 2006 increase was necessary to FUND additional police officers. They would have plenty if not for the $50 MM funded to LTR, so really it was an LTR tax.

I asked Susan Burgess. I asked Deputy City Manager Curt Walton. I asked Budget Director Ruffin Hall. They all said the same. The city budget doesn't allocate any money to the transit system -- not for operations, not for building the rails or stations. It never has. All the LRT money comes completely from within CATS' separate budget. (See technical note below.)

Best we can figure -- I mean Hall, Burgess, Walton and I -- people who are talking about the $50 million are referring to a $50 million street and sidewalk infrastructure package known at City Hall as SCIP, the South Corridor Infrastructure Program. That project is building much- needed sidewalks and improving intersections, as well as solving decades-old drainage and sewage problems, along South Boulevard near the light rail line.

The city decided to speed up some of that work so that people would have sidewalks on which to walk to transit stops and so streets and intersections on the South Boulevard corridor would function more smoothly once the light rail operations start. Those needs have lingered for years, decades even and many of them predate any notion of light rail. The city decided it would be more efficient and effective to do the work all at once, rather than tear up the street for an intersection improvement, then tear it up a few years later for storm drainage, and then later still to add sidewalks and bike trails.

SCIP is being paid for through bond issues that voters passed -- let me repeat that, VOTERS PASSED -- in 2002 and 2004. The City Council's decision to raise property taxes came in 2006. In other words, those decisions were not linked, and the voters approved the SCIP projects. Whatever Susan Burgess may have said on the radio (she told me she couldn't remember saying anything like that) she was either misunderstood or bumbled what she was trying to say.

People who are spreading this alleged fact are either:
A. Confused and/or misinformed.
B. Getting their "facts" from news sources that are confused, misinformed or don't understand the city budget.
C. Deliberately spreading misinformation.

I'm going to assume most people are A. City finances are tricky and boring to understand. Most people whose jobs don't require them to attend City Council meetings or interview city officials don't have the time or interest to fathom things such as the difference between capital budgets and operating budgets.

But here's a quick lesson. The $50 million capital improvement project SCIP comes from the capital budget -- i.e. one-time expenditures, such as when you get a new roof for your house. Debt service on city bonds also comes from the capital budget.

Police officers' pay comes from the operating budget -- i.e. continuing expenses, such as paying the light bills. In other words, you can't just take money allocated to repay bonds and convert it easily into police officer positions. (See the other technical note below.)

(Technical note: For bond-issuing reasons, the CATS budget is housed within the
city's budget, because there's no official government entity that runs CATS, as there would be if the Metropolitan Transit Commission were an authority. But the CATS budget and the city's budget remain separate.)

(Other technical note: Yes, city officials have to balance how much revenue to put into their capital budget and how much into their operating budget. So yes, there is a relationship between those budgets. But the city has been issuing street and sidewalk improvement bonds for years and years, long predating CATS and the light rail plans. Most council members see those improvement projects as basic, continuing city services.)

Wanted: Green roof expert in mountain city

Asheville tries to hire an architect who'll do a green roof for its new civic center; can't find a taker. Any green-roof experts willing to contact Asheville? Here's the Citizen-Times' version.

The idea, of course, is that a roof with stuff growing on it is better insulated and helps save energy costs for the building in the long run, as well as absorbing stormwater (i.e. fewer taxpayer dollars going to storm drain projects) and keeping down the urban heat island effect. Which means lower A/C needs for everyone.

Some of my architect sources tell me green roofs still have some kinks to be worked out. Like trying to keep birds' nests from being sucked into air ducts. Or, finding plants that will grow in the hot (HOT!) and occasionally very dry environment. A planted roof I visited in Providence, R.I. -- you know, New England where it isn't all that hot -- was planted in desert cacti and other dry-heat loving plants. My suggestion? Bermuda grass or crabgrass. Or both. Heat and drought just encourage them.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Creek loses its concrete cap

This is cool, so I'm putting it up right away, but please read my post from earlier today (it's just below) about transit myth-busting.

Little Sugar Creek is free! It's being removed from its concrete prison even now. County real estate services project manager Jay Higginbotham shot this photo today from the new bridge over Independence Boulevard.

The old concrete parking lot was built atop the creek when the former Midtown Square -- originally Charlottetown Mall -- opened in 1959, the first enclosed shopping mall in the South. Engineer Pete Verna supervised the project for developer James Rouse, who went on to national fame for such projects as the planned town of Columbia, Md., and Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston. It was Verna, who's still doing engineering work here, who designed the concrete over the creek, he told me in an interview a few years back.

Eventually all the concrete will be removed from the creek, and the county greenway system will run beside it.

More myth-puncturing -- and a little news

Read to the end of this, as I've tucked in a news item.

Is it true only 2 percent of the public in Charlotte rides public transportation?

You'll hear that stat a lot. It counts everyone driving through the region on I-85 or I-77, commercial delivery trucks, tractor-trailers, etc. -- trips transit would never compete for. Nearly 10 percent of the workforce in uptown Charlotte takes public transportation every weekday.

Light rail will never reduce congestion.

In a growing metro region, building mass transit doesn't result in fewer cars on the road than before. However, mass transit will keep congestion from being as bad as it would be without mass transit.

In large and very large urban areas with rail, traffic congestion grows at a 42 percent lower rate than in similarly sized urban areas without rail. That's from a study in 2000 by Mobility Planning Associates of Austin, Texas.

The well-respected Texas Transportation Institute, in its 2005 Urban Mobility Report and Texas Transportation Index, found that in the Charlotte region, people who ride public transportation versus driving alone reduce congestion delays by 6 percent to 12 percent, or more than 2 million hours of congestion delay per year.

Public transportation provides 3.25 times more congestion relief than operations treatments such as signalization, intersection improvements, incident management, etc., according to the TTI study.

In coming months you'll hear a lot of people offering up statistics purported to show that light rail transit is a bad, bad, evil and/or spendthrift idea. Plenty of anti-tax folks just don't like more taxes. Other, libertarian types don't like public governments spending money on big public works projects. Others just like to make political hay.

Be smart. Statistics are like cakes. How they turn out depends on what ingredients you start with. For just about every stat purporting to show CATS is wasting money and poorly run and light rail is "failing" all over the country, you can find other stats -- many of them from groups such as TTI that are neither transit bashers nor transit zealots -- that will show the opposite, or will show a more complex, nuanced reality.

Now news, of a sort:
Transit and city officials are looking at whether part of the South Corridor light rail line -- which they call the Lynx Blue Line -- could open earlier than planned. Target date, CATS chief Ron Tober told me, is Oct. 27. The section that would open, he said, would be from uptown to as far south as they determined they could do it safely.

City Manager Pam Syfert says the City Council will be asked to look at the pros and cons of an early opening.

Betcha they're looking at that Nov. 6 election, when the kill-the-transit-tax measure is likely to be on the ballot. Generating a lot of positive community enthusiasm right before the election surely couldn't hurt. But any glitches, and they're toast.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A "green" NASCAR Hall of Fame?

If they hadn't kept using the word "sustainable" ...

After a lot of talk about the importance of "sustainable" designs, having to do with the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it turns out the city (the owner of the building) hasn't pushed for a "green" building -- i.e., one designed to use fewer resources, fewer polluting resources, and to use less energy in both construction and operation. And it doesn't look as if it's going to.

George Miller (at right) of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the firm designing the new NASCAR Hall of Fame, gave a briefing at Wednesday's monthly AIA (American Institute of Architects) luncheon. Among the interesting details -- e.g., the "ribbon" wrapping around the building will be stainless steel and no, they haven't yet figured out structural details -- he talked about making the building "sustainable."

Earlier, Mayor Pat McCrory, in accepting an award from the AIA chapter for his work on behalf of what architects call "the built environment," said his overall philosophy for development is, "Do it right the first time and make it sustainable."

I couldn't stop myself. During the Q/A period I asked Miller whether the Hall of Fame would be LEED certified. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a rating system devised by the U.S. Green Building Council to encourage builders, developers and architects to build more environmentally benign buildings. Only two N.C. buildings are listed as certified -- none in Charlotte -- although ImaginOn and the Davidson College admissions office are among a number of LEED-registered buildings in this area.

Miller sort of hemmed and hawed and said, "We haven't talked in great detail," and that they were going to try to incorporate as many LEED techniques as possible.

Luckily for me, I was sitting smack next to City Engineer Jim Schumacher, who's the lead staff person on the Hall project. After all, the city is Miller's client in this. I asked Schumacher if the city had talked about LEED certification with the architects. No, he said. We told them, he said, "Do what makes sense."

Schumacher said the mechanical systems would meet LEED standards.

That leaves out techniques such as daylighting, reducing construction debris and using recycled materials. Some of those things, such as daylighting, aren't just feel-good issues, but have significant long-term implications for future operating costs.

I phoned Anthony Foxx, who chairs the City Council's Environmental Committee. He confirmed there'd been no discussion on the full council about whether to require/suggest/wish for a LEED-registered or certified project. "I did raise the issue with Engineering and Property Management," Foxx told me. "They pushed back on it, primarily concerned about the tightness of the budget."

LEED isn't a perfect instrument, and anyone who's familiar with it would agree. But it pushes builders and designers to consider a building's life-cycle costs along with short-term construction costs, and it helps educate them in new technologies and materials.

And it isn't necessarily more expensive. A Statesville elementary school that is LEED-certified was built for no more money than a regular elementary school, school district officials have said.

So, Mayor Pat, sir, and your colleagues on the council: How about pushing for the Hall of Fame to be LEED-certified? The city is the client, and the city should demand the best long-term value for its buildings.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Council panel picks a developer for Scaleybark

I've been in Charlotte long enough to know that you should never, ever count Crosland out of any city deal until the final buzzer. For decades developer John Crosland Jr. was the city's preeminent master of getting what he wanted out of elected officials. He's retired now, and others run the company he and his father, John Sr., built. The company is still doing suburban subdivisions but has done more urban-oriented and mixed-use projects (Birkdale Village, Alpha Mills renovation). Now it's going for transit-oriented development.

Fast-forward to Monday's City Council committee meeting, where the Economic Development and Planning Committee (hereafter ED&P) was briefed on the three development teams seeking to build a transit-oriented development (hereafter called T.O.D.) at the Scaleybark station. (Note to you who don't read all the fine print inside the Observer: Yes, all three original development proposals withered. But all three development teams submitted new proposals.)

David Furman of Boulevard Centro retooled what was formerly known as the Bank of America proposal.

Crosland, which had dropped its St. Louis-based affiliate McCormack Baron & Salazar, offered a retooled proposal.

So did Scaleybark Partners, a coalition that includes Pappas Properties (Phillips Place, the Midtown development, etc.), GreenHawk Partners of Raleigh, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, Shook Kelley design and something called Citiventure Associates of Denver, which is run by Marilee Utter who's been to Charlotte several times to give talks on transit-oriented development.

The committee unanimously recommended ---- Scaleybark Partners.

The staff had recommended against Boulevard Centro -- the only team to guarantee a parking deck -- because it sought a loan from the city. There's no money now for a loan, said Tom Flynn of the city's Economic Development office.

Both the Crosland and Scaleybark Partners proposals include affordable housing -- 90 units from Crosland (with a commitment to start 30-50 of them in 2008 regardless of whether they have in hand some tax credits to build them) and 80 units for Scaleybark Partners.

Both guarantee parking for the light rail station. Neither guarantees a parking deck (preferable for T.O.D. but more expensive). Both said they'll build one if market conditions are right, i.e. if they can get enough money from developing land that would otherwise be under a surface parking lot to make it worth the extra expense.

Neither offered a site design. Scaleybark said it would build open space -- i.e. a park -- before this November and do some landscaping and streetscape improvements by the end of 2008.

Neither offers a guarantee for a new library, though both say they'd like to try to build one.

The city would net a few hundred thousand dollars more from the Crosland proposal. But the council members on ED&P (John Lassiter, Nancy Carter, Andy Dulin, Don Lochman and James Mitchell) seemed to prefer several things about Scaleybark Partners:

--The development team has remained the same.

--Citiventure has T.O.D. experience. (Crosland said its planners would also have experience, but its development team isn't fully formed yet.)

--They liked Scaleybark's willingness to build the open space first, so the station area looks more inviting.

--They're familiar with the Housing Partnership, a local nonprofit with a strong record of building affordable housing.

--And a key point, mentioned by Carter: Crosland owns a big chunk of land across South Boulevard and intends to redevelop it. There's value in having different developers doing projects near each other, so you don't have a big chunk of your city looking exactly alike. She's right, though it's a point of design likely to be lost on a lot of people.

Here's a link to a Powerpoint presentation made to council on May 14 that has some of the key information. Here's a link to Monday's presentation. (Be forewarned that our online guru notes many of you may not have a viewer that can see it.)

The full council still has to make its recommendation, probably May 29. The memorandum of understanding would go to council July 11, and a development agreement would come in July or August.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Measuring local business health

How's business?

The Charlotte Regional Partnership and UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, trying to answer that question, have devised the Charlotte Regional Business Barometer.

It's a regional snapshot, combining data from the region's North and South Carolina counties. Some notable "down" arrows: unemployment and business investment.

The partnership's CEO, Ronnie Bryant, says in an e-mail newsletter:

"Our activity over this economic period has remained strong, although we can see some leading indicators that suggest some of the economic sectors and particularly U.S.-based small businesses are proceeding very cautiously with their capital spending programs."

Monday, May 14, 2007

South End bridge? Wake growing too fast?

Still mad that the pedestrian bridge over I-277 that was to have paralleled the light rail/trolley tracks got scrapped? Then attend an open house Tuesday, 5-7 p.m., to hear about other connections being talked of between South End and uptown. More info here.

Staff from the city and a consultant are looking at several ideas, including a pedestrian and bike path to be built on the I-277-Caldwell Street Bridge, as well as capping the freeway. The idea to cap the freeway has been around since the Center City 2010 Plan, as a way to create land for a park to connect uptown with South End and Dilworth.

Don't laugh, several cities have put roofs atop freeways and created parks. The meeting's in Room 267 at the Gov Center uptown.

Could too much growth hobble Wake County? See what the Raleigh N&O has to say.

Also in the Capital City, Raleigh City Council on Tuesday will consider adopting permanent year-round water restrictions beginning this summer. Other N.C. municipalities with similar year-round restrictions include Cary, Greensboro and Fayetteville.

The Washington Daily News in Eastern North Carolina's Washington County (county seat Plymouth) reports on efforts there to pass a land-transfer tax, and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners' response to the state Realtors' contention such a tax would slow growth.

And finally, here's an idea that's long overdue for Charlotte: Help increase the number of affordable places to live by relaxing the out-dated zoning rules against garage apartments, granny flats and other so-called accessory units. Here's architect Roger K. Lewis from the Washington Post on the same, courtesy of

Friday, May 11, 2007

Charlotte pols lack guts?

It's obvious Charlotte-Mecklenburg isn't the only place slammed by growth that's outpacing its ability -- or at least its willingness to raise property taxes enough -- to pay for building the schools needed for all the newcomers.

A total of 46 -- FORTY SIX -- bills in the General Assembly would give local governments across the state new authority to levy taxes beyond property taxes. Other places want permission to enact land transfer taxes, which adds a fee to real estate transactions. Or they want permission to levy impact fees on new residential construction. Or they want permission to raise sales taxes to help pay for building schools.

WakeUp Wake County, a group that advocates more limits on growth, recently hired a well-known lobbyist to push a fee of up to 1 percent on real estate transfers. At least three Wake County legislators have sponsored bills to let Wake enact some new taxes, if voters approve.

What's Mecklenburg County asking for? Nada. Zip. Zilcheroonie. (OK, to be fair, I think they passed a resolution supporting an N.C. Association of County Commissioners' attempt to get broad permission for all counties. But that bill's going nowhere, and other counties have been far more assertive about asking the Leg for what they need.)

What's Charlotte asking for? Nada. (Nope, the city doesn't pay for schools. It does pay for road and street improvements made necessary by new development. Why not ask for an impact fee for street improvements?)

Here's a roundup story from the Raleigh News & Observer. It mentions the massive campaign being sponsored by the N.C. Association of Realtors, to "Stop the N.C. Home Tax."

How disingenuous. Let's see. Right now, school construction is paid for mostly through bonds or other debt, which is repaid with, hmmmm, let me get this right -- property taxes. So a real estate transfer tax -- which would apply to every transaction, not just homes -- is a "Home Tax." And the tax you pay because you own your home is NOT a "Home Tax"?

The thing is, when you ask representatives of the N.C. Association of Realtors, "Well, how do you propose that counties find money to build schools? Shall we infer that this means you support raising property taxes?" they just hem and haw.

Or, they say, governments should trim their budgets. Oh, for pity's sakes. That's like saying Americans should exercise more and watch less TV and parents should teach their kids better manners. In other words, yes they should, but they haven't done it yet and are most unlikely to do it in the future, because there's no way to make them.

Furthermore, I don't think county governments can cut enough to find the billions needed to build the schools they need. What are they going to do, stop paying for social services that they're legally required to provide? Stop running public health departments? People who say "just cut the budget" either don't know much about local government budgets or are among the tiny minority who believe that virtually no government services are really needed. And the majority of voters don't agree with them. Which is why it's hard for elected officials to cut services enough to find the money to build schools.

Why are Mecklenburg's local officials so much more passive about proposing impact fees or land transfer taxes than those in Wake? Any ideas?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

East side speaks out

What do east Charlotte residents like about where they live? What would they improve?

Those topics generated some deeply felt remarks by a small group of East-siders at a Monday night discussion sponsored by AIA Charlotte (the American Institute of Architects' Charlotte Chapter. The impetus for this is a project by AIA Charlotte that aims to study the Central Avenue corridor and come up with a vision for improving it, looking at issues of (their words) "safety, connectivity, transportation alternatives, walkability, open space, image and economic vitality."

So they've been talking with residents. Monday night's session was one stab at that. About two dozen residents attended, although it looked to me as if hardly any were from the Latino community (you can't always tell from a glance, obviously) or the immigrant community (which takes in Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European as well as Latino).

Some of the comments:

-- Residents like the diversity of the area and think that newcomers who move to the area do, too.

-- They feel as though they get an unjustified bad reputation, especially about crime. "I have such good neighbors," said one woman, a widow who's lived in the neighborhood for 52 years.

-- Roberta Farman, who lives in Medford Acres and who just resigned from the city-county planning commission, talked with affection about the great old trees and rural look of her neighborhood. "You're 4 miles from downtown and could almost be in the country," she said.

-- "Someone needs to mention food," said Tom Tate, school board member who lives in Plaza-Midwood. "Anything you want, you can find it."

-- Schools are an issue, although Tate said some schools in the area are like East Charlotte overall, in that they're better than the perception. But people who move in with young kids will either move away or put their kids in private or magnet schools because of the reputations of Eastway Middle School and Garinger High School.

-- Gentrification, as in rising property values and more upscale development, is generally welcomed. It's coming out Central Avenue, they predicted.

-- That said, Louise Barden whispered to me about two houses for sale, both on half-acre lots, on Progress Lane -- a street lined with huge, Myers Park-worthy old oak trees. They'd be eye-popping steals in other neighborhoods. One with four bedrooms and 1,700 square feet and a tax value of $104,000 is to be auctioned this weekend. Another, with a pool and 1,900 square feet, but only two bedrooms, is listed at $195,000.

-- There's much concern about big boxes, dilapidated buildings and generally shoddy development left over from a few decades ago. " '60s strip centers," one man said. "Their life cycle was 20- 30 years at most." Residents want better guidelines for new development, so they're not left with 2007's version of those flimsy '60s strip centers.

Life, as they say, is complicated. It's precisely because those dilapidated old buildings are available, cheap, that they've attracted the rich mix of ethnic restaurants from all over the world. Start-up businesses tend to need cheap, old buildings.

On the other hand, as some of the residents noted, the grungy look of some of those falling-down 60s strip centers is likely to be a turn-off to the more upscale residents that gentrification is expected to produce.

The Naked City solution -- I've written this before and I expect I'll write it again -- is for the city to revamp the standards for its older zoning categories, such as B-1. The old standards allow and in some cases even require suburbia -- buffers, large setbacks, too much parking. Changing those standards for B-1 would mean when new places are built on old zoning they'd have a more urban look. Examples of new buildings on old zoning: Eckerds in Myers Park and Dilworth, the Bojangles at Third and Indy Blvd, and Burger King on Fourth Street in Midtown. Compare the Bo and the BK to the much nicer-looking buildings along Third street just off Indy.

Like the good planner he is, Kent Main of the planning department attended the East Charlotte meeting. I asked him if there were any plans afoot to change the old zoning standards. It's on their long-term list, he said, but they're deluged with other things (rezonings, TODs, etc.) so it's back-burnered.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Myth-busting: CATS compares well with other cities

(The full report is now available online from the UNCC Center for Transportation Policy Studies. Folks at the center reported some problems with it, however, so if you can't open it, try again later. This links to the center's home page, where there's a link to the report.)

Are Charlotte's bus system costs way out of line for similar cities?

Does the cost for building the South Corridor light rail line make it among the most expensive in the country?

Have the South Corridor construction costs gone up so much that it stands out among public projects as bloated and wasteful?

If you only read the John Locke Foundation's data, or listen only to AM talk radio, or believe everything someone tells you in the grocery store line -- or in the comments section of this blog -- you're going to answer YES, YES and YES.

And you'll be wrong. So says a new research report from Edd Hauser. Hauser is founding director of UNC Charlotte's Center for Transportation Policy Studies, and he has a lengthy and impressive pedigree in transportation engineering and planning, including master's and Ph.D. degrees from N.C. State in transportation engineering and a master's in regional planning from UNC. He helped found the Institute of Transportation Research and Education (ITRE) at UNC, was an assistant state highway administrator at the N.C. Department of Transportation and worked in the private sector for almost a decade, with Kimley-Horn and Associates.

He happened to see a March 26 City Council meeting at which Charlotte Area Transit System chief Ron Tober and City Manager Pam Syfert gave their version of the effect on city taxes and CATS if a proposal to eliminate the county's half cent sales tax for transit succeeds.

"Emotions are running amok in this. I wanted to start looking at the data," Hauser told me today. He and colleagues at the CRPS started looking at the numbers. "Our objective was to layout relevant data. I had no idea what it would look like when I started."

His report isn't available online yet, but here's a link to an executive summary. (Hauser points out a typo. In the bulleted paragraph "Construction Cost Estimating," the phrase "the original project cost" should read "the original project cost estimate.")

He found CATS' bus operations are comparable to, and in some cases are more economical than those in comparable cities, including four others in North Carolina, using three widely accepted measures of cost. He found CATS per-mile costs for light rail construction are in the middle of other cities with recent LRT projects.

He looked at metro areas from 300,000 to 1 million population, but only three of those had light rail transit operations so he also looked at metro areas roughly Charlotte's size with more than a million population. He looked at operating expenses per passenger mile, operating expenses per vehicle revenue mile and cost per passenger trip.

For areas of more than a million, CATS' bus operations ranked No. 1 (i.e. least cost) in operating expenses per vehicle revenue mile (VRM); No. 4 in operating expenses per passenger mile; No. 8 in cost per passenger trip.

For areas of 300,000 to a million, CATS' bus operations ranked No. 2 out of 10 in operating expenses per passenger mile; No. 3 in cost per passenger trip; No. 4 in operating expenses per VRM.

He also compared CATS with bus systems in Raleigh, Greensboro, Durham and Winston-Salem, "with all four systems in total having fewer operational buses than the Charlotte system," the full report notes. CATS ranked No. 3 in operating expenses per VRM, No. 4 in operating expenses per passenger mile, and last in cost per passenger trip.

He looked at Charlotte's capital costs for its light rail construction, compared with 9 other new transit projects, and converted all costs to 2007 dollars. In cost per mile, CATS ranked 6, with $48 million per mile. More expensive per mile were St. Louis ($56 million), Dallas, ($60 million), Phoenix ($65 million), and Seattle ($179 million).

Finally, he looked at other regional transportation construction projects, to see how much they cost above their original estimate. The current estimate for the U.S. 29-601 Connector is 305% ABOVE the original estimate. That for the northwest segment of I-485 is 584% ABOVE the original estimate. The current estimate for the U.S. 29-N.C. 49 Connector is 327% ABOVE the estimate. The third runway at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is 180% above the original estimate.

The CATS South Corridor line is 109% above the estimate.

(Note: "original estimate" is what you get from the engineers after thorough study. The estimates given before the 1998 sales tax referendum were projections, not specific estimates for specific routes, with a specified number of stations, etc., from engineers. Why would anyone who knows anything about public projects and how they're funded think they'd be precise engineering studies, when there was no funding at that point for study or design? In other words, of course they were flabby. Get over it. And all the brouhaha because the costs weren’t given in inflation adjusted dollars? Maybe that SHOULD be standard practice but it isn’t. Hauser says typically construction project estimates aren’t adjusted for expected inflation.)

I hope he'll be able to put the whole report online. Hauser is a researcher who looks at the data and then draws his conclusion, rather than drawing a conclusion and then seeking data to support it. "A lot of information is put into the media based on an incomplete look at relevant data," he said.

What should you conclude? If you think any spending on light rail transit, or on a public bus system, or both is a waste of money, none of that information will change your mind. But if you're under the impression CATS is a lot more inefficient than other transit systems, then consider whether you've been getting only part of the story, from whoever you're getting your information from.

Friday, May 04, 2007

What's up with the Cup?

I caught up this week with Gardine Wilson, one of the co-proprietors of the Coffee Cup, the venerable soul food restaurant threatened with demolition. Beazer, the developer that owns the property, plans a mixed-use project there. Things don’t look good, though Wilson says he’s trying to stay optimistic.

City Council in March designated the 60-year-old building a historic landmark, but even that doesn’t prevent demolition. It just delays it by up to a year. So for now, the Cup sits forlornly amid several blocks that have been cleared of all buildings and vegetation. It looks like a mesa rising from the desert.

Wilson says they’re still negotiating with Beazer. The company doesn’t really want to try to build around the old restaurant building, he said. One possibility is selling some property to Wilson and co-proprietor Anthony McCarver, with Beazer moving the old building, or maybe moving into a new building. Which, as we all know, just wouldn’t be the same.

Wilson said Beazer is having experts look at whether the building can be moved, the same ones, he said, who moved the Ratcliffe Florist building on South Tryon Street.

I asked if he was optimistic. “I think Beazer is pretty well set on what they’re doing,” he said. “They’ve said they’d pretty much wait that year out (for demolition) and take it from there. Unfortunately, they do own the building.”

Among Wilson’s worries is that the business can’t survive if it’s forced to close for months of construction.

Another worry is that land nearby is now incredibly valuable. If your business is on expensive land (whether you’ve bought it or someone else has), it’s hard to make a profit if you’re a modest, 38-seat diner that traditionally offered good food at modest prices. You’d have to jack up prices, or add a lot more seats. Or both.

“We want to maintain the essence of what the Coffee Cup is – the warm feelings, the Southern hospitality,” Wilson said. “People come from all over the world. We had some folks in here from New Zealand last week. ... They had us on the Travel Channel last week, on a show called ‘Taste of America.’ I got calls from Denver, Texas, Mississippi and California.”

Beazer, I’ll point out, hasn’t had much good publicity recently. Observer investigations have found rampant foreclosures in some of Beazer’s starter-home developments, and some loan applications with, ahem, problems. Last week the Observer reported that a Beazer executive in 2001 offered homebuyers $100 to rate the company highly on customer satisfaction surveys.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into whether anyone related to the homebuilder violated securities laws.

Seems to me Beazer needs a lot of good press.

Seems to me that working out an arrangement to let the Coffee Cup survive in place, business intact, would bring in a lot of community kudos.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What does 'professional' theater really mean?

Here are some facts about professional, Equity and union theater, courtesy of Observer theater writer Julie York Coppens. This is to clarify some of the comments on my previous post, which make some factually murky statements. And it's all relating to the now-shriveling efforts by Steven Beauchem to try to find community support for a regional, professional theater to replace the defunct Charlotte Rep.

There are several pro theaters in the Carolinas -- all more successful than Trustus, which one commenter mentioned: The most obvious are Flat Rock Playhouse, Playmakers Rep in Chapel Hill, Blowing Rock Stage Co. and Triad Stage in Greensboro.

The union/non-union question is worth addressing, Coppens says. When people say "professional regional theater," they mean (among other things) a company affiliated with Actor's Equity, i.e., most of the talent and crew are union and so earn what might be called living wages.

The pro companies listed above live at various points of a sliding scale Equity has devised to allow smaller and emerging professional theaters, which have lower potential box-office income, to hire fewer union members and to pay those at a lower rate than the larger, more established houses do. Thus, all are professional/union, but only Flat Rock (as far as Coppens knows) is fully so -- though even Flat Rock relies on a lesser paid army of "apprentice" laborers and chorus members who are working toward Equity status.

Charlotte's two remaining professional theaters (Actor's Theatre and Children's Theatre) provide occasional work for Equity members under Guest Artist contracts, but not at a pay level or of a consistency for someone to live and work here long-term. That's why so many of our best artists have left town. Steven Beauchem was trying to establish an Equity-affiliated company, which you really can't do for less than a quarter-million. Presumably most of the talent, especially at first, would be jobbed in from NY or Chicago.

Charlotte's fringe theaters (like BareBones) call themselves professional. Is it professional if the actors are making $100 for four weeks of work? But "professional" also refers to a company's orientation, its artistic ambitions, its emphasis on product over participation. Says Coppens, "I know some amateur/community theaters that show more professionalism, in the way they work and in the product they put on stage, than a lot of fringe theaters do. The old lines are blurring."

The Observer plans more coverage of the Rep-replacement issue in coming days.