Friday, June 29, 2007

Son of "Dirty signs"

Friday afternoon Doreen Szymanski of the city's Department of Transportation returned the message I left Wednesday, asking whether the city ever cleaned off its grungy street signs. (See my Wednesday posting, below.)

If you see grungy signs, she said, call the city's 3-1-1 number to report it. "It'll probably show up in my office," she said, and she'd flag it to the attention of the city's Operations Department.

But no, she said, there's no system for cleaning the signs. When streets are repaved the workers routinely replace street signs that are older than two years, she said. But at the current pace of repaving, you might not want to rely on that, especially if the sign is getting unreadable.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Major street gets new name; and a report on dirty signs

Did you notice that -- almost in time for Independence Day -- a stretch of Independence Boulevard has a new name? From Kenilworth Avenue (at the Midtown redevelopment area) over to Seventh Street it's now Charlottetown Avenue. An article in the Observer last week revealed the news. So, is this a good thing or a bad thing or irrelevant? Thoughts welcome below.

One longtime Charlottean likes the idea of memorializing Charlottetown Mall (later known as Midtown Square), even if it's only on a small green sign. She wrote:

"Even if building it did cover Sugar Creek with concrete ... and even though I will be right in line when the Target opens where I once stood in line as a high schooler to see "Star Wars" at what was then the biggest theater in town ... I like it that "Charlottetown" -- and all it says about where Charlotte's been and is going -- will live on in a subtle, tiny way. A street sign. Pure Charlotte!"

My column last Saturday (yes, I write columns as well as this blog) about walls and the public realm brought in plenty of comment, most -- though not all -- in agreement. Sadler Barnhardt brought up an interesting point, about one small, additional way that the public realm is disrespected:

"Thanks for a good column. That reminds me of a project I have tried to get at least two Observer writers to help me with but no luck: the atrociously dirty street and stop signs around town. Is there money in the budget for this?? If not, why not? What can we do? Have you noticed? They have been this way for years."

He's right. Green mold covers many street signs in town. I'll try to find which department would be in charge of that. My first call will be to Doreen Szymanski of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, who seems to know -- if not everything -- then almost everything. I'll update this later, with a report.

And if you can e-mail me a photo of a particularly grungy street sign, I'll try to post it here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Is Ballantyne planned to be confusing or did it just happen that way?

Have you been to the cinema at Ballantyne? If so, you may have some thoughts to share on the topic that Hickory's Avis Gachet shared. Gachet, one of the Observer's community columnists this year and a faithful Forum writer, e-mailed me this. My response is below. And planners, it would be especially interesting to get your thoughts on this one:

Mary, Yesterday a friend and I spent the day in Charlotte. At noon we sought out the Ballantyne Theatre in Ballantyne Village. It was a nightmare to find. (Fabulous movie, however--"Away from Her.")

I had gone to the Website for directions. Found a phone number, and, after talking to two people, obtained rather poor directions. Found Johnston road off 485--no problem.

THEN...we began to negotiate our way through the maze. I had NOT been told to look for the tower. Even so, we found ourselves turning around in parking areas and going out of our way several times before we zeroed in on it. We were ten minutes late for the movie as a result.

Is that the current planning style in Charlotte? I have to say that I would opt for a strip mall instead.

I am NOT a timid driver. I drive in Washington, D.C. and New York City. I would drive to England if someone told me I could. One of these days if there is a fire or a crisis in that area, people will be frantic trying to evacuate.

Do you approve of that sort of design? This would be a real turnoff to many older drivers.
Give me a theatre in a former big box--with a parking lot one can find easily. I guess that I am a Philistine.

But I am one person who is old enough to: 1) see various fads come and go (each having the absolute answers, of course); and 2) feel that making things fancy is not always making them better.

I would not THINK of making a casual run for something from one of those shops near the theater. It would take an Act of Congress to get me there more than a very few times a year. Generally speaking, I will go anywhere--at least once.

Here's my response, only partly tongue-in-cheek.
Avis, I've been to Ballantyne Theatre and I fully understand your frustration. They need some signs that tell you where to turn! I've been there 2 or 3 times and usually I turn at the wrong place.

From what I see, it's the planning style everywhere to use movie theaters in large shopping center-mixed use developments. There's one at a Ballantyne-like shopping center in Mount Pleasant, S.C., called Towne Center-or-maybe-Centre (not that it's in the center of town.)

But I don't think the planners have any set "style" other than to encourage connectivity of streets, etc., etc. They tend to assume the retailers and developers will be savvy about getting people into their developments. And as we all know, sometimes they aren't savvy at all.

And then you can't discount the old Charlotte tradition of just figuring that people who are from around here will learn their way around and the other people, well, they're not from around here, are they? Example: Myers Park and its Queens Roads.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Kids: How much freedom do they need?

This follows up on the previous posting which included one father's musing about teens living in suburban or urban neighborhoods, and what the suburban-reared kids may be missing. A report in the U.K. speculates that the mental health of modern-day kids is at risk because they lack the freedom to explore the natural world that their grandparents had. Here's the top of the article from the Daily Mail of London:

When George Thomas was eight he walked everywhere.

It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike, and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision.

Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas's eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom. He is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home.

Even if he wanted to play outdoors, none of his friends strays from their home or garden unsupervised.

The contrast between Edward and George's childhoods is highlighted in a report which warns that the mental health of 21st-century children is at risk because they are missing out on the exposure to the natural world enjoyed by past generations.

Here's a link to the full article.

As a parent, I've struggled -- as I'm sure many of you have -- with figuring out where to land on the freedom-versus-safety spectrum. At what age do you let a child walk to a neighbor's house alone? When should you let a child go for a walk in the neighborhood for exercise? What about riding a bicycle?

I have a friend, a native Charlottean whose family got its land from King George III before the revolution. She grew up near Commonwealth and Central avenues, in the 1950s and 1960s. She remembers riding her bicycle over to the Coliseum on Independence (now Cricket Arena) to go ice skating. That was their hangout, she says. Or they would take a bus to go uptown to a movie. Would any parent today let a kid do that? If so, at what age? When our daughter was 11 or 12 I let her walk or take the Gold Rush shuttle from Discovery Place or the Main Library to The Charlotte Observer building, seven or eight blocks away.

I know other parents who'd be shocked to think of such a thing. And even others who'd let kids do that at a younger age.

It's one of the little-mentioned differences found in cities with strong public transportation systems: Teens and preteens have more freedom to move around the city without having to depend on parents chauffeuring them.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A city planner gets his due

Many of you who read this blog regularly knew and were probably friends with Warren Burgess. He was a city planner and urban designer who worked many years for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, then was town planner for the town of Davidson, and then worked at Neighboring Concepts in Charlotte. He died in 2005 at age 56. I wrote about him on and off over the years. Here's what I wrote when he left Charlotte for Davidson, and here's what I wrote when he died.

Many of his friends have wanted to honor him somehow. Now, three things are in the works to do so.

First, a poll of 70-some members of the N.C. chapter of the American Planning Association ranked Burgess among the most influential planners in the state. An article about the planners will be in the summer issue of Carolina Planning magazine. Others in the top eight:

F. Stuart Chapin Jr., a pioneer in founding the UNC Chapel Hill Department of City and Regional Planning; long-time Raleigh Planning Director George Chapman, a.k.a. "the dean of Triangle planning"; UNC Chapel Hill planning professor David Godschalk; Dave Owens, Richard D. Ducker and the late Phil Green of the UNC School of Government; and Wes Hankins of East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

(Another Charlottean, longtime Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Martin Cramton, was among "others receiving a substantial number of votes.")

But there's more. A group of Burgess' friends is working to put together an exhibition of his sketches and paintings in May 2008. They're talking with Linda Ostrow of the Queens Art Gallery, 1212 The Plaza. And they're seeking people who bought Burgess' work over the years who might want to donate a piece, as part of a fund-raiser. If you'd like to donate a piece, or work on the exhibit, contact Lenore Jones Deutsch.

Finally, there's to be a Warren Burgess Lane. NoDa-based architect and designer Babak Emadi of Urbana Architecture says he'll honor Burgess with a street named for him at Royal Truss Condominiums in the SteelGardens development. Construction on the project has started.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Say 'no' to gated communities. Asheville just did

People who live in gated communities and complain about traffic congestion remind me of people who say they hate sprawl and also hate density.

Guess what. The best remedy for traffic congestion is to have lots of streets, most of them relatively narrow and slow-speed, connecting to lots of other, similar streets. Traffic engineer and N.C. State grad Walter Kulash, in an interview with me years ago, compared an efficiently functioning street network to an electric company's power grid: "a dense, highly connected network of low capacity."

What prompted this reverie was the news that the city of Asheville just banned building any more gated communities. Here's the story. The city figured out that letting some neighborhoods wall themselves off makes it even harder to build a street network of connecting streets.

Charlotte, despite its much bragged upon "connectivity" policy, not only hasn't banned gated neighborhoods, there hasn't even been a proposal for the City Council to vote on.

I have two theories why Charlotte isn't talking about such a ban.

--First, developers wouldn't like it. Gated communities are popular with some affluent buyers, who assume they're safer. Guess it depends on which crimes you're worried about. I might worry about disproportionately high rates of insider trading or hedge fund fraud in gated communities. (But seriously, I recall seeing a study a few years back done in Atlanta, that compared crime rates in a gated community with those in a comparable, but non-gated community. The gated community had more burglaries.)

--Second, even when planners and politicians are willing to displease developers -- which believe it or not does happen upon occasion -- they still operate with a mindset dating to maybe the 1960s or 1970s, in which central Charlotte truly was threatened by vast growth flowing to the suburbs. In this mindset, the city shouldn't do anything that would discourage development here.

Even though the city is experiencing growth so rapid and extreme that infrastructure can't keep up with it, and even though demand for close-in housing is so great that prices are being bid up to an unhealthy level and in-town houses are being scraped away so in-town mansions can be built -- despite all that the planners and politicians are still afraid they might scare off growth.

Silly, isn't it?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Raising teens: City v. Suburbs

I got this e-mail from a planner-type I know who has lived in bigger cities than Charlotte, though he's been here for a few years now. He referred me to this article by Mark Hinshaw, an urban designer in Seattle: "Why Raise Your Kids in the Suburbs?"

But my planner friend, who raised HIS kids in the suburbs, also sent along some of his own thoughts and observations. If you're like most of us, raising your own kids in the 'burbs, you may enjoy his reminiscences and conclusions.

As a kid, I was raised in urban neighborhoods on Cleveland's westside and close-in suburbs. We walked nearly everywhere and took the bus when it was too far.

As a result, we got to know a variety of people and have a range of experiences. As an adult parent, I (and my wife) raised our kids in the suburbs where they had their own yard, a small circle of friends and we had to drive them everywhere. Despite my wife's and my best efforts, looking at our now-grown children, I believe that their suburban upbringing deprived them of many things, including how to interact with unfamiliar people and out-of-the-ordinary experiences.

Our society today suffers from many maladies. To me, an underlying problem is people's inability to relate to others who are different, and the fear and distrust this engenders. The old urban neighborhoods where people sat out on their front porches, walked and rode public transit helped people relate to and experience other people, including those who were different. Today's suburban developments with their dependency on the automobile have given us years of people driving around in their steel cocoons (cars) and retreating to their backyards (instead of their front porches), and as a result have helped create an America where people have trouble relating to others, particularly those who are different.

In the last two suburban neighborhoods (in Cleveland and Charlotte) I have lived in, I hardly knew my neighbors. Some I only saw when they drove by in their car.

On the flipside, something I have experienced firsthand in Boston, Seattle and Cleveland is what I affectionately call the "back of the bus (or streetcar)" phenomenon. People who are regular transit commuters tend to take the same trip to and from work each day. Over time they get to know each other and develop friendships.

In Boston on the Green Line/Beacon St. there was a bunch of us who regularly talked and exchanged information and experiences. In Seattle and in Cleveland on the express trips I used, a regular group of people (myself included) sat in the back of the bus and developed into a real group of friends, that resulted in us actually doing things together socially. While I have not had that same experience in Charlotte (my own schedule and limited service keeps me from regular transit usage), I have heard of it happening on some of CATS routes (i.e. Route 61 from the Arboretum, some Route 77x trips).

Public transit usage brings people together by definition.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that getting more people to use transit will solve all of society's problems. It will help, though.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

"Green" conventions? And other news

Should Charlotte's convention center start trying to capture the "green convention" business? Successful event planner Mary Tribble, who's back from a national conference on the subject, said Tuesday she believes more national conventions will aim their business at cities and facilities that can market themselves as "green." The Charlotte Convention Center is not LEED-certified, of course. [LEED = Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.] Nor will the new NASCAR Hall of Fame be. (See my May 23 posting, below.)

Tribble says she and Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority honcho Tim Newman are forming a task force to see what can be done in Charlotte.

-- In Wake County, even conservative tax-watchdoggers are pushing FOR a land transfer tax to generate money to build schools. Click here for the N&O's story.

Excerpt: Even former county commissioner Phil Jeffreys, speaking as a member of the fiscally conservative Wake County Taxpayers Association, was on board for a transfer tax. "We need to make sure we go to the legislature and really push on real estate transfer fees," said Jeffreys, who was voted off the board in the last election after voting "no" on many spending proposals.

-- In fast-growing Chatham County, county commissioners on Monday enacted a moratorium on residential development. Click here for the story.

-- Courtesy of one of my favorite planning info sources,, here's a link to a Wall Street Journal article about the trauma subprime loans are causing in many minority neighborhoods, including a long-established middle-class area of Detroit. According to the article, so many homeowners are facing foreclosure now that it may well erase any gains in homeownership the nation has seen. (And don't forget the Observer's coverage, complete with online map of local foreclosures. Here's a link.)

--And finally, also from Planetizen, here's a piece in which the author takes aim at Reason magazine's assumptions about mass transit versus road-building.

Great Bike Commuter Challenge -- Read Your Name Here

Those who took part in the Bike Commuting Challenge (part of Bike Charlotte!, May 4-13) saved a total of $536 in gasoline (or $2,600 in total car costs). Other fun facts below.

Thanks to John Cock (The Lawrence Group) for forwarding results of the Commuter Challenge from Bill Clark of the Bicycle Commuter Mentor Program.

Altogether, we had 77 cyclists, 26 new cyclists, 22 female cyclists, and around 250 commutes made at an average of 7.5 miles each way! For that week, some quick math shows that we:
--did not drive 3,750 miles during that week;
--saved $536 in gas between all of us (or $2,600 in total car costs);
--kept 3,500 - 4,300 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (about the weight of a car); and maybe got a little bit of exercise!

Some highlights of this year's results include:
--Top workplace participation for a small workplace: TKM's Best (TKM Associates) with 100% participation!

--Top workplace participation for a large workplace: The Midnight Ramblers (The Charlotte Observer) with 2% participation. Yes, only 2% - but there are a lot of folks at these large businesses to convince to bike, and 2% is a great percentage.

--Top non-businesses group participation: The Greenway Go-Getters (The Greenway Advisory Council) with 100% participation and The Bicycle Advisory Council with 87% participation!

--Most riders in a small workplace: Charlotte Department of Transportation with 6 riders!

--Most riders in a large workplace: Bank of America's Gateway Village Team with 11 bikers!

--Most riders in a non-workplace: Wesley Heights Neighborhood with 4 riders!

--Most number of new riders in a small workplace: Full Blast Face Meltery (REI Pineville) with 3 new cyclists!

--Most number of new riders in a large workplace: Charlotte Observer with 4 and Duke Energy with 3 new riders!

--Most number of new riders in a non-workplace: The Portaro Family with 2 new riders!

--Most number of female cyclists in a small workplace: The Park and Wreckers (Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Planning Department) with 2 female cyclists, one being seven months pregnant and biking every day! (Way to go, honey!)

--REI also had 2 female riders!
-- Most number of female cyclists in a large workplace: Piedmont Natural Gas and Gateway Village with 3 female riders!
Most number of female cyclists in a non-workplace: Team Diva of the Dirt Divas Mountain Bike Club with 3 female cyclists and Wesley Heights Neighborhood with 3 female cyclists as well!

The teams which are the envy of all bicycle commuters and whose members live the closest to work include LG Love (The Lawrence Group - 1.5 mile average distance), REI (2 mile average distance), and The Drafters (The Housing Studio with and average driving distance of 3 miles).

The team that is way more dedicated than the average human being is the Charlotte Bicycle Advisory Council with an average commuting distance one-way of 19 miles!

A special recognition to the US Bankruptcy Court for getting the judge on a bike?!

Final recognition to a Bank of America team called Pigs CAN Fly for having the best team name, to the Heartwood Tree Service guys for always being there and showing a great performance, to Duke Generators and The Portaro Family for showing the media how it's done, to Smokin' in Spandex for their enthusiasm and to the captains of BikURS, eC Riders and Crown Club Cruisers for dealing with the most number of excuses!

If you're a cyclist and wondering about how to bicycle in Charlotte, visit the Charlotte Department of Transportation's Bicycle Program web site. Or try B.I.K.E.S., a local bicycling advocacy group.