Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Obama, Green Bailouts and Pecha Kucha

Forthwith, some links to tide you over the upcoming blog-less days. And remember, just because I link to a piece doesn't necessarily mean I agree with all the ideas therein. So Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Merry Kwanzaa, Festive Festivus and see you in a week or so.

More on speculation about Obama's to-be-named director of urban policy. One name being mentioned to run it, says Jeff Byles in The Architect's Newspaper, is Bruce Katz, the Brookings Institution’s chair in urban and metropolitan policy (Katz has called such speculation “premature”).

“This will be the first time in my professional life that we’ve had a president who comes from a city and has a strong urban agenda,” said Thomas Wright, executive director of New York's Regional Plan Association. “That position is not going to be your grandparents’ urban policy.”

Here's some wonderfully snarky comments on architecture in Russia from Russia! Magazine. It's courtesy of one of my regular readers, "Jumper." http://readrussia.com/winter_09_06.htm

More advice to Obama, this from John Norquist, former Milwaukee mayor and now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Courtesy of New Urban News:

"Green the bailouts. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may again be needed to ensure liquidity in mortgage markets, but now that the government fully controls them it should remove provisions that prohibit Fannie and Freddie from involvement in buildings that are less than 75 percent residential. That makes mortgages for McMansions in far-flung exurbs easy to write, but makes purchasers of condominiums in many mixed-use buildings scramble for non-conventional financing. A three-story building with condos upstairs and a small grocery store like Trader Joe’s on the first floor would be a godsend in a place like Iowa City or Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood, but Fannie and Freddie need to make it easier to finance."
Full version of Norquist's letter here.

A not-new but still interesting piece in Wilson Quarterly (courtesy of the ever-interesting Joe-at-the-front-desk) on a traffic engineering guru, the late Hans Monderman. (Contains this fabulous factoid: Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was trained as a traffic engineer. Go figure.) Monderman's most famous maxim was that traditional traffic safety ­infra­structure —warning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so ­on — ­is not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect.

Last, though not least, a reminder to the visually talented among you, from Manoj Kesavan, founder of http://www.point8.org/ : There's a Pecha Kucha night Jan. 15, starting at 7:30 p.m., at Alive (2909 NoDa). Pecha Kucha is a sort of open-mike night for visual presentations. You're limited to 20 slides, 20 seconds each. Deadline for sending your presentations is 5 p.m. Dec. 31.

Want to know more? See www.point8.org/pechakucha/ or e-mail present.pkn@point8.org

Monday, December 22, 2008

Obama's worst Cabinet pick?

Rick Warren's getting more national publicity, but Ray LaHood (shown left, with Obama) as transportation secretary has dismayed folks in the transit-smart growth-planning worlds.

Even though President-elect Obama is taking Amtrak to DC for his inauguration, the choice of LaHood, a moderate Republican from downstate Illinois with a not-so-hot environmental record, has folks upset. A recent piece on Streetsblog by Aaron Naparstek quotes a former Federal Transit Administration official: "In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy. He's got a horrible environmental record, he's bad on climate change and he's Caterpillar's bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?"

The Washington Post called him a centrist who grew up in Peoria and when elected in 1994 was one of only three Republicans who didn't sign Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." OK, so he's got his moderate creds. But does he know bat-droppings about transportation? Can he even articulate the difference between light rail, heavy rail (no, that's NOT passenger trains) and commuter rail? Does he understand that transportation is an environmental issue, not just a play-with-rails issue? For that matter, does Obama? The transportation secretary should have been part of his so-called energy team. That it wasn't is, sadly, telling.

More from Streetsblog, in this roundup of opinion. Some say he's a bicycling and rail advocate. And a D.C. advocate type (unidentified) says LaHood is "potentially malleable." I suppose that's better than "complete jerk," but still ...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Memo to Obama: Think sidewalks

Everyone wants to get his or her pet project onto President-elect Obama's list for his forthcoming stimulus package. (Alice Waters, e.g., wants a White House veggie garden.)

Here's a pitch, in the form of a letter to Obama, that rolled into my inbox from one of my list-servs. It's from Michael Ronkin of Designing Streets for Pedestrians and Bicyclists LLC in Salem, Ore., who suggests that small-scale sidewalk projects will stimulate the economy just as well as big road projects and are a lot faster to get rolling:

You have heard from many about repairing bridges and highways. You have been receiving many 'shovel-ready' wish lists of projects. Big highway projects are rarely shovel-ready; there will always be legitimate environmental and political hurdles to overcome, requiring robust public debate.

However, there are many small-scale projects that require little or no red tape, provide tremendous benefit/cost, and create the greatest number of local jobs per dollar spent: sidewalk repair, infill and construction, and bringing existing sidewalks up to ADA compliance. Sidewalk projects provide many economic benefits for communities large and small:
* Most of the sidewalk cost is labor (60-80%);
* The labor force is usually local; the bulk of the materials (sand and
gravel) can be found locally too;
* The wages are living wages, but not too high for financially strapped communities;
* The minimal amount of design needed can be done in-house or by small local engineering firms. * Local small contractors can perform the work;
* This provides work for small contractors hurt by the housing downturn, as they are doing less small concrete work for house foundations, driveways etc.;
* These are opportunities to make good use of existing incentive programs such as Emerging Small Businesses, Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, Minority-Owned Businesses;
* But most important are the positive results for the community:
* Sidewalks improve property values, make it easier to walk for short local trips, reduce municipal liability for trip and fall injuries, and help make the transportation system accessible to all pedestrians, including those the Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to help bring into the mainstream.

The backlog of sidewalk infill and repair is huge in most cities. When I worked as Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, I managed a small grant program (approximately $3,000,000/year statewide) that funded sidewalk infill projects. Every year we had to turn away many worthy applicants, as the requests exceeded available funds at a 5:1 ratio.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What University City needs

University Place -- the lone "urban" scene in University City
A study of housing trends in the University City area concluded it needs more higher-end housing near the employment core. To do that will require branding, strong and sustained marketing, supportive rezoning and significantly improved area schools.
The study, "Developing a Diverse Housing Stock in University City," from UNC Charlotte's Center for Real Estate, was funded by University City Partners and mentioned in the UCP newsletter for December.
The study notes that builders appear to have targeted the area for starter homes and townhouses. "Policymakers and the business community worry whether this will prevent University City from attracting and retaining upwardly mobile professionals," the report said.

The area lacks the urban-style communities that younger professionals most desire, other than at University Place.
Positives it cites: a big employment center, some large parks and greenways, UNCC, University Place, and the proposed light rail line.
To lure more affluent workers and higher-end housing, the study suggests:
  • Brand: Figure out what qualities make UC special.
  • Market: Devise a long-term plan to promote that image, getting help from the real estate community.
  • Urbanize: Encourage more urban-style development along the future light rail line on North Tryon Street.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Starbucks versus homegrown

This issue came up at Civic By Design on Tuesday, during a talk from AIA's Phil Kuttner and YMCA's Jarrett Royster. The AIA has been working for months to come up with some plans for the Central Avenue "international corridor" of ethnic restaurants between Eastway and Eastland Mall. (Note: This is just a recommended way of looking at things, will have no force of law or any city requirements. Though come to think of it, even the city's own adopted plans have no force of law. But I digress.)

Lots of interest in the room, of course. But Nancy Pierce of Merry Oaks neighborhood (and a gazillion other local activities) mentioned that after East Charlotte folks noticed the severe lack of Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Kinkos and other well-known and useful businesses in their part of town, they asked retailers and were told that the "International Corridor" reputation might be part of the problem keeping those businesses away.

Well, said a few folks on Tuesday, we don't want those chains anyway. We prefer authentic, locally owned businesses.

Later, Tom Warshauer from the city's Economic Development department, mused that many people see chains such as Starbucks as validation.

What do you think? Would you rather have Starbucks or something local? Would you want Starbucks if it meant the local folks got squeezed out? Or is the whole neighborhood development evolution a process that residents really don't have control of anyway? And what, if anything, could a local government do about any of that? (Other than finding a good BBQ joint, of course -- see my previous. And if you think Bubba's is great BBQ you need to get out more. As to Old Hickory House, that's good barbecue for people who don't really like N.C.-style barbecue. Mississippi people. Virginia people. Florida people.)

Oh, and please go to CharlotteEast.com and fill out their survey.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Coffee, barbecue and foreclosures

Three mostly tongue-in-cheek proposals:

1. During a City Council transportation committee meeting about how many connecting streets that the city has mapped as "proposed" that were never built when subdivisions were developed (answer: because no city ordinances require them to be built) – bicycle advocate Dan Faris leans over and says, "Why can't the city just buy a bunch of foreclosed houses, move them somewhere else, and put in the connecting streets that should be there?"
Good idea Dan. Though, A) I don't think the city has a pool of money to do that, and B) I'm not sure some of those starter-home houses are built well enough to survive a move.

2. Lunching on barbecue driven in from Lexington, the editorial board was – again – lamenting the lack of any truly excellent N.C.-style barbecue in Charlotte. (Bill Spoon's on South Boulevard is the best of the bunch, but it is NOT a large field.) Hmmmm. Why not, someone suggested, get the City Council to go ahead and buy that store building at Parkwood and Pegram – it had just said no, the night before, because it thought the building wasn't big enough – and offer it at reasonable rent to a willing BBQ-meister, perhaps of the Stamey or Bridges families. It's win-win: The city gummint gets steady rent, and the fine QC populace finally gets an amenity that's been sadly lacking for years.

3. The question came up at Civic By Design Tuesday night: why doesn't East Charlotte have Starbucks or Caribou Coffee or even a Kinkos? Some people think that's a slight. Others think East Charlotte would be better off without same-old-chain development. What about a locally owned coffee house along Central Avenue's international restaurant corridor, people said. Hmmmm. Good idea, but there's a glitch: What kind of coffee? Vietnamese? Colombian? Brazilian? American-style joe? Here's the idea: A willing local entrepreneur sets up an International Coffee House, serving all kinds. You'd need expert baristas for all genres, though. I don't trust Americans to make good Latino-style coffee.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Urban issues get higher profile

Folks in the urban planning and development worlds are cheered that Barack Obama says he's creating an Office of Urban Policy.

It's about time some president did this. It makes plenty of sense, and it shouldn't have taken a Democrat from a big city to have recognized it. The problems and issues exist and the government has to deal with them regardless of who's in the White House.
And perhaps the incoming North Carolina governor, Bev Perdue, should take the notion and set up something at the state level. North Carolina's cities share some uniquely urban problems, but few people at state level are focusing on them.

For the White House job, I haven't heard many names mentioned.

But for Transportation secretary, one name I've heard while gossiping with several people is Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Ore., (at left, and note bicycle lapel pin an early and ardent supporter of Smart Growth. But take that just as gossip. I have no pipeline to the Obama transition office.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Streets like Paris, eh?

So I'm sitting in this windowless room in the belly of the local transportation bureaucracy: sixth floor, city-county government center. CDOT offices. (Charlotte Department of Transportation for you non-geeks.) It's only 8 a.m., so I'm pretending to be awake. And I start to notice what's on the walls:

A white board with markers and erasers. Above it a clock (analog). A calendar. A poster of the 2004 Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization's Thoroughfare Plan.

Then I spot a print of Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 "Rue de Paris, Temps de Pluie" with people in umbrellas crossing a rainy street (copy above). A print of a Monet scene of a railroad in the snow in Paris. A poster with a photo of the Pont Alexandre III over the Seine. And a Michelin map of the city of Paris.

Do you realize how significant this is?

Let me explain. Charlotte is not Paris. Our traffic engineers (including the NCDOT folks) move traffic. They value speed, efficiency and "safety," not beauty or the value of the experience. Limited access highways through historic neighborhoods would be just fine by too many of them.
Paris is a city with high-volume, high-speed and beautiful boulevards that retain fabulous street life alongside the traffic. Walking down a Paris sidewalk is a magnificent experience. Even the traffic islands are magnificent. They don't have Independence Boulevard or South Boulevard. They have true boulevards. I have said for years that our traffic engineers and transportation planners needed to visit Paris and bring home what they learn.

But CDOT has been changing. It redesigned the city's street standards. It pushed the City Council to adopt a Bicycle Plan. I was there this morning to hear about its proposed Pedestrian Plan. (More on that at a later date. It will be discussed at a City Council Transportation Committee meeting Wednesday (Dec. 10) at 2 p.m., Room CH-14 of the Gov Center).

The windowless conference room, I'm told, has been dubbed "the Paris room."

Someone at CDOT gets it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Consolidation -- did anyone notice?

Maybe it was in honor of the no-longer-in office Parks Helms, but county commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts tossed out an idea Monday night at the swearing-in ceremony. After remarks about the economic challenges facing the county she offered this: Is it time to consider consolidation again?

She meant totally combining Mecklenburg County and City of Charlotte governments. It would save on administrative costs -- only one big-ticket manager, for instance -- and would certainly make it easier for residents to know whom to call if they have a problem.

It's an idea that arises once a decade or so and gets shot down after politicians realize there would be fewer elected jobs for them to run for. Helms championed consolidation for years. But it's too messy: How do you deal with the need for minority representation? How do you deal with Huntersville and Mint Hill and the other smaller towns, for instance? They don't mind being part of Mecklenburg County and they need representation at the county level. But they don't need representation on a "Charlotte" board.

We'll see if Roberts brings it up again. My guess: No.

Monday, December 01, 2008

But is it "progress"?

I was intending to launch a new topic this morning – first of the month and all that – but instead I'm pointing your attention to the comments on the previous posting, about Locust.

It's a good by-play on the pros and cons of town planning. Bob Remsburg, a former Locust city administrator, has weighed in, as well as former Locust council member Joe Bishop, as well as David Walters – whom the original post quoted. Also, Rick Becker, the mayor of Mineral Springs (in southern Union County) and Rodger Lentz, the planner who helped launch the "town center" in Harrisburg (in Cabarrus County, on the Mecklenburg line). It's a good summation of how town planning evolves. As Lentz (now planning director for Wilson in Eastern North Carolina and president of the N.C. chapter of the American Planning Association) points out, the original vision can be compromised due to developers' wishes or beliefs about the marketplace. As Becker points out, towns' plans rely on utilities and if needed utilities aren't present even the best plans can languish for years.

And as one of the "anonymi" points out, today's beliefs about "good" planning might in the end be proven all wrong:

The "awful alternatives" that we see in many places ARE the result of planning. In Charlotte the most obvious and glaring example of that was the utter destruction of close-in residential neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, to be replaced by "planned communities" such as the now-defunct Earle Village. That nonsense was urban planning just as much as the "new urbanism" version. I know some folks are fond of claiming that planning has evolved, but things don't evolve TOWARD something, and evolution does not presuppose an improvement. It is only a change in response to changing conditions. Since future needs, wants, and tastes can't possibly be predicted, planning done today can't possibly accommodate the needs, wants, and tastes of tomorrow. There's no real reason to believe that a generation from now the planners and "visionaries" who hold sway to day won't be vilified for what they've wrought.

It's a caution for all who care about planning and city- and town-building: We may think we're on the side of progress but sometimes it turns out "progress" isn't.

(And thanks to all of you for reading and taking the time to comment.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Locust: The story behind the story

One reason planners need patience is that it takes years for what they do to come to fruition.

The Nov. 16 Citistates Report, in the article "Ring Around Charlotte," praised the town of Locust in Stanly County for its New Urban-style downtown plan of a few years back.

But Locust was, in fact, years ahead of many towns in the state in adopting a form-based town code. It adopted its town plan and code in 1996-97, under the guidance of David Walters of the UNC Charlotte College of Architecture. I remembered his role and asked him for more details:

I did the Locust town plan and form-based zoning code in 1996-97. The town employed UNCC on a “contract for services” basis to use my skills and time. This small grant, $20,000 if my memory serves, covered my expenses, wages plus expenses for a student assistant. This was the same arrangement by which I did the codes for Davidson (with Tim Keane) and Huntersville (with Ann Hammond), and guided Cornelius towards their new code, all between 1994 and 1996.

More recently we have used a similar formula to produce well-received master plans for Mineral Springs (2005) and Wesley Chapel (2007-08) in Union County, using a graduate class I used to teach.

In Locust, the town debated long and hard about whether to take up the NCDOT’s plan for a bypass that would effectively kill their town by taking all the traffic and commerce away, or accepting that they would lose the mini-downtown to the big highway and then plan for a new town center on some open land.

To their eternal credit, the town’s committee voted to pursue the latter course, so in my plan and code I showed a "city center” area backed with higher density “neighborhood residential.”

It took nearly ten years to come to some fruition, but that’s about the average time for something like that. ... The main credit goes to the Locust citizens who had the foresight to plan their town a decade into the future.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bill James: "Why I hate sidewalks"

Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James wants to explain why he thinks sidewalks are a waste of public money. James, in case you're unfamiliar with local politics, is a conservative Republican County commissioner who lives in Matthews. He's not just controversial, he's a guy who lives to generate controversy. He's anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-public funding for the arts among other positions.

Here's the headline: If there were a sidewalk in front of his house, he said, then people would have a legal place to hold protests over things he does. With no sidewalk, they don't.

Well, OK, seriously, there's a bit more to his objection, and he's talking about residential streets in the 'burbs, not a blanket dismissal of all sidewalks. His e-mail is copied below.
Obviously I think he's wrong about the value of sidewalks, and about the value of connecting streets. (Could there possibly be any better reason for putting in a sidewalk than to allow a spot for anti-Bill James protests?) Here's James' e-mail. What do you think of his reasoning?

You forgot the best reason for not building sidewalks in some neighborhoods. It prevents political protests and theatrics.

When liberals get mad at something I have done (or they think I will do) they always threaten to 'protest’ in front of my house. Their threats are always designed to force my family, friends or neighbors to endure some angry mob as the price to pay for some vote or statement thinking that will change my mind.

Problem is, protesting in the ‘street’ requires a permit and isn’t likely to be granted in a residential neighborhood. Protesting on a sidewalk is a constitutional right.

Build a sidewalk and you guarantee that folks can (and will) show up to protest every decision (left or right) because sidewalks are ‘public.’

No sidewalks means the closest protesters can get to my house [and not be on the street] is about a mile away at the entrance to my sub-division. Of course, there I can’t see them or hear them so there is little point in them showing up.

Sidewalks in the 'burbs where there are cul-de-sacs are a waste of money and a reduction in privacy.

I live in a sub-division without sidewalks with one road in and out and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Crime is low, protests are non-existent and the quality of life is improved because sidewalks and connectivity don’t exist.

If I need to take a walk, I can walk along the street.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Where sidewalks SHOULD end?

Continuing the discussion of sidewalks and walkable streets, in response to my Saturday op-ed column, "Where the sidewalk shouldn't end," I received the following e-mail:

Why both sides? A person can only walk on one side at a time. I know some may argue safety from crossing streets, but that is on certain streets that may carry heavy traffic or number of lanes which make streets wider.

City and County standards for designing subdivision streets take some of those issues into account with “block lengths”, widths of streets, and connectivity. I believe that sidewalks on both sides of a typical subdivision street is wasteful and should only be required on busier and wider streets determined by traffic engineers.

Working for a real estate developer I know the costs of sidewalks do get passed along to homebuyers and on a typical 70’ wide lot with a 4’ wide sidewalk, the cost is +/-$850 per lot. As you said in your article “A slab of concrete. Impervious surface.” The impervious surface is also becoming an environmental issue concerning storm water runoff and municipalities looking into “post construction ordinances” which (try) to reduce the amount of impervious areas and treat the rest through a series of water quality ponds and rain gardens which drives the cost of a home way up, and limiting sidewalks to one side of a street can help the impervious area calculations and costs.

Of course, I think that in a city you need sidewalks on both sides, and for many reasons. Here's one: Today's quiet residential street in a quiet neighborhood with little traffic may, in 2030, be a high-traffic street. consider Kuykendall Road, or Barclay Downs Drive, or Sharon Road near the Queens/Selwyn intersection. All were, when built, at the edge of the city in quiet suburban areas. Now they're in-town streets with plenty of cars.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Where the sidewalk shouldn't end

My weekly Observer column in today's paper spins off some of the past week's discussion about kids walking to school, and sidewalks. The Charlotte developers' lobby is questioning whether the city should require developers to build sidewalks on both sides of residential streets.

If you want to follow my weekly column on a regular basis, go to this site: www.charlotteobserver.com/marynewsom and set up an RSS feed.

Now I gotta get back to my Saturday bloggers' camp and learn about tag clouds and other fun stuff.

Friday, November 14, 2008

City attitudes: The young have it.

Are the younger generation really different in their attitudes toward cities and urban life?

Here's a comment from my post "End of sprawl? Um, not yet."

"I think there's another factor too that's not entirely being examined. I'm a 26 year old young professional, and unlike young 'yuppie' professionals from past generations, my generation couldn't seem less interested in having a big house in the 'burbs. The majority of them seem to prefer more contained urban living. Will this new generation further the trend of new urbanism and fuel more inner city growth as they come more into their own? Only time will tell I suppose!"

Will this generation "further the trend of new urbanism and fuel more inner city growth"? Or will they be like previous generations and conclude that when they have children they require a house with a lawn, and suburban schools? I think one of the great untold stories -- and I hope to tell it one of these days -- is to debunk the myth that there are no families with children in uptown Charlotte.

But in Charlotte, at least, most of the uptown development seems designed with the assumption that folks with kids live elsewhere. Maybe that will change. Maybe the new 9-11 and Millennial generations will provoke the change. What do you think?

End of sprawl? Um, not yet

Christopher Leinberger of Brookings and the University of Michigan has declared an end to sprawl. "We are witnessing the beginning of the end of sprawl," he writes, in a piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He says the market is demanding it.
I've read a variety of writings along the same vein: Higher gas prices, or aging baby-boomers or Millennials or boredom with the suburbs are among the factors that planners and urban writers and Smart Growth advocates are saying will end the dominion of sprawl. I'm declaring those pieces to be the new trend in urban writing. Whether there's a real trend in U.S. development is, to my eye, still an open question.

So while I hope they're right, pardon me for being just a wee bit skeptical. Yes, as I look around my metro region of Charlotte, I see all kinds of interesting things: the New Urban-style Birkdale Village "lifestyle center" in Huntersville, about 10 miles north of downtown Charlotte, the New Urban-style Baxter Village in Fort Mill, S.C., revitalized or stable downtowns in Mooresville, Belmont, Salisbury and other towns. The transit plan in Charlotte has been successful and is shaping growth along its lines, as planners knew it would.

But in addition to those Smart Growth trends, there has been mile after mile after mile of dumb growth going on still. While Birkdale and Baxter were being so well designed, elsewhere in Charlotte mile after mile of single-use, single-family starter home subdivisions were going up, all on auto-pilot and many of them now tattered by foreclosures, even before they're 10 years old. "Sprawl slums," as Charlotte architect Tom Low calls them. (The photo above is of Peachtree Hills, a starter-home subdivision on the fringes of Charlotte.)

Maybe that's what the "beginning of the end" means, but so far, it's not necessarily visible.

Of course, in the past year, development of all kinds has been in hibernation. Maybe when it wakes up, it will forget the last 50 sprawling years. Sort of like the old Newhart show's ending: "Honey, you won't believe the dream I just had."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Can't walk to school? Whose fault, really?

To everyone who wants to blame:
-- the school board
-- the health department
-- the county commissioners
-- school desegregation
-- me
-- the Observer's editorial board
-- whoever else is handy ...

... for the fact that in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, as in many communities around the nation, it's difficult for most kids to walk to school, I offer the following complexities for your consideration. (If you're new to this, first visit my posting from yesterday, "Why it's not easy to walk to school," and the comments on it.) Now, here are a few things to ponder, among the many realities that affect the situation:
-- Until the late 1990s, the city of Charlotte didn't require developers to build many sidewalks in their new developments.
-- The city's budget for retrofitting streets with sidewalks, while expanding, is pitifully inadequate.
-- In North Carolina counties have no responsibility for streets or roads or sidewalks. Either the city builds and maintains them, or the state does. The state's attitude used to be to discourage any sidewalks built outside a municipal jurisdiction. Much of what's now inside Charlotte was in unincorporated Mecklenburg County when it was built (and later was annexed). Thus, few sidewalks.
-- Most of suburban Charlotte is pedestrian-hostile, with wide and busy intersections, few pedestrian lights and crosswalks, long blocks and little connectivity.
-- Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in its building designs and site-size requirements, followed state requirements based on a national organization, meaning those requirements exist all over the country. Only in recent years have some N.C. requirements become "guidelines" which school systems can occasionally bypass. The requirements included huge sites: e.g. 18 acres for elementary schools, 60 for high schools. CMS, to its credit, is building on smaller sites when it can, and building more multistory schools, which need slightly smaller footprint. And it's trying to keep walkability (and transit) in mind for newer schools.
-- CMS has been harangued for years by the anti-tax crowd to be more economical in its school building, so like many large systems slammed with growth, it moved to larger (I would say too large) schools. Larger schools mean students must come from farther away, making it harder for them to walk, especially in Charlotte's pedestrian-hostile suburban areas.
-- The appropriate elected officials to blame for crowded schools are the county commissioners. They're the ones who allocate money -- or don't -- to build new schools and maintain old ones. The school board asks, but usually doesn't receive all it asks for.
-- While some comments have noted the can't-walk-to-school situation isn't universal, it is common across America, even where there was no school busing for integration. Desegregation is essentially a red herring in this debate. Further, even when there was plenty of busing for integration, some kids attended schools nearby for at least part of their schooling.
Yes, it's theoretically possible a push for more walkable schools might have arisen earlier if all children were attending schools nearby. But I've lived in Charlotte 30 years and the whole "walkability" movement -- irrespective of school kids -- was nonexistent for most of that time.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why it's not easy to walk to school

"Why was it necessary to create a job in the health dept. to encourage kids to walk to schools? Isn't that something a principal/teachers/student nurse could communicate to the parents?"

Good question, from a comment on the previous posting. The situation is complicated. A few administrators at schools here (and other cities as well) don't want kids walking to school. They think it's unsafe. They think kids already have bus rides so why would they want to walk? In addition, many principals spend their time trying to make sure kids are learning and teachers are teaching. How students arrive at school -- as long as it's not causing immediate problems -- is way, way down the list. I wish the case were otherwise, but it's not realistic to think that will change.

And school nurses? Most school nurses are assigned to multiple schools and barely have time to turn around, must less launch campaigns to encourage walking.

But there are other problems, too, that even the principals who DO want kids to walk or bike can't surmount: Lack of sidewalks. Lack of crosswalks. Lack of midblock stoplights on long, long blocks. Lack of bike lanes. Lack of crossing guards. Those policies and decisions are not within a principal's authority, but reside with the City of Charlotte.

And it's even more complicated. Plenty of schools were built and designed for car- and-bus-only transportation. They're not in pedestrian-friendly settings. Here's a good example: Unless things have changed in the last couple of years, Greenway Park Elementary sits right next to the McAlpine Greenway, yet there's no pedestrian connection to the greenway. The school, like many, sits so far back from the road and its sidewalk that the whole setting conveys a subliminal message of "Don't walk here." Technically, of course, you can walk to that school. But it wouldn't be very efficient or pleasant.

Older schools -- Eastover, Myers Park Traditional, Davidson Middle, Midwood School, the old Wilmore School (now used for offices) -- were built when it was expected that kids would walk to school. That fell out of favor, all over the country.

School designs for the past 40 years had almost nothing to do with whether the assignment zones were neighborhood-school or crosstown busing. You see the same styles all over the country, not just in Charlotte. They have to do with state school design guidelines (influenced by national standards), traffic engineering and the architectural mode and practices of the day when they were built.

Reversing all the policies that combine to create an anti-walking environment is a huge task. I don't wany my school principals having to tackle it. They have another mission.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Healthy kids = walking kids

Good job by the Mecklenburg County Health Department. It created a job for a "safe routes to schools coordinator" and hired Dick Winters five months ago. The idea is that helping and encouraging more kids to walk to school can fight the growing problem of childhood obesity.

Winters is working with Cotswold, Highland Creek and Beverly Woods elementary schools -- and getting advice from Davidson, where a huge effort to get kids walking to school is having growing success -- to help them find parent volunteers and organize periodic "Walk To School Day" events. International Walk to School day was Oct. 8. Obviously, he hopes to expand to other schools.

He's learning, of course, that efforts at individual schools have to be paired with efforts to change some of the bureaucratic policies and procedures that can make it daunting for anyone, not just a student, to walk even a few blocks to a school. Some schools are situated where walking is difficult or unsafe, due to traffic or crime. At some schools, principals discourage students' walking or bicycling. I wrote a few years back about the city having taken away the crosswalk and light on Tyvola Road that let students and a neighborhood volunteer walk to CMS's Smith Language Academy.

Other schools have had more success. Winters said Highland Creek Elementary recently had to get more bike racks, and that one day someone counted 50 bicycles there. As Winters said, "We need a groundswell from parents to get policies changed."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Don't touch that tree

You know you're not in Charlotte when ...

... when you see a poster on a tree that there has to be a public hearing before it can be chopped down.

I saw this on a street tree over the weekend in Cambridge, Mass. Read the close-up below. Seems it's state law in Massachusetts (home, you'll remember, to godless groups and their advisers who hold fund-raisers for godless N.C. candidates).

And you know you're not in Charlotte when, if you mention the sign to a Cambridge friend, she says, "They ought to require hearings any time anyone wants to cut down a tree."

Even I wouldn't go that far. Some trees are diseased. Some were just planted in the wrong place. Some are -- should I say this? -- Bradford pear trees.
However, trees are amazing resources and plenty of folks here waste them without batting an eye. Even Charlotte's tree ordinance -- which we are lucky to even have and which gets praise around the state for simply existing -- doesn't protect very many large trees.
The tree ordinance for residential subdivisions protects Heritage Trees, those approaching the size of champion trees for each species. But it doesn't require saving remarkably big, old or otherwise significant trees.

An Observer story from June says the city's considering strengthening its commercial tree ordinance. No follow-up story on whether that happened. I'll try to get an answer later today. But I am safe, I think, in predicting that it wouldn't require public hearings before any street tree gets cut down.

Have to run out now to -- get this -- talk to a college class about blogging.

Monday, November 03, 2008

A medical office building plague

Random architectural musing, while driving through the Carolinas Medical Center complex over the weekend: Do they teach classes in architectural school on how to make medical office buildings ugly?

They must, because otherwise the law of randomness would mean now and again there would be a medical office building constructed that wasn't ugly and was even, you know, agreeable to look at. Ditto for hospitals. (Presbyterian Hospital, at least the older red brick part, on Hawthorne/Queens, is the pleasant exception to this pattern.)

You'd think doctors' groups and medical institutions would be particularly on the lookout for designs that encourage people to walk -- you know, get exercise? Ward off heart disease and diabetes and obesity? You'd be wrong. Most of their buildings are surrounded by moats of asphalt parking lots.

OK, end of random thought.

Traffic congestion: 'The condition of the city'

One of the most influential human beings in the world of architecture, planning, development, city growth and urban design is in town this week for a transportation conference. Andres Duany (ranked No. 5 on Builder magazine's list of the most powerful people in the planning industry) is giving a public talk this Wednesday 5:30-7 p.m. at the Levine Museum uptown.

Then he'll attend a three-day transportation summit conference by the Congress for the New Urbanism. Yep, Charlotte will be fairly crawling with New Urbanists. Here's a link for more about Duany, if you're not familiar with him and his work. Here's a link to information on the conference. (Correction: It's Congress, not conference, for the New Urbanism. Too much typing fast. My apologies.)

In a nutshell, Andres and his wife and business partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, helped found the whole New Urbanist movement.

You'll hear a lot of different definitions of New Urbanism, especially from developers and/or rival architects, many of whom paint it as a movement seeking only nostalgic houses with front porches. That's a simplistic look at a complex set of ideas.

In a nutshell, New Urbanism seeks to model new development on the successful, human-friendly designs of decades past.

I've heard Duany lecture over the years, and among the ideas that has stuck with me is this: When re grappling with the problem of traffic congestion, he said, remember: "Congestion is the condition of the city." Whether it's flocks of goats, ox-drawn carts, people on foot, people on horseback, carriages, cars, SUVs, buses, Jetson-style flying saucers, whatever. Cities are crowded places, and they are going to be congested.

What matters is whether people can get around in a multitude of ways: by car, on foot, bicycle, train, streetcar, bus -- the whole panoply of transportation options.

Love his ideas or hate them, Duany is always provocative, always an incisive observer of American (and world) societies.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What ails cities and suburbs -- and more

News from around:

Bull City Blues: Architect, engineer and planner Tony Sease raps Durham for how it's NOT making streets more comfortable for pedestrians in some new streetscaping projects.

Obama the City Dude: Alec McGillis writes in the WashPost that Barack Obama is the first candidate in decades who has spent almost all his life living in large cities, and speculates on what that might mean if he wins election. To make his point McGillis dismisses Dukakis as being from Brookline, not Boston, and Kerry as being more of Nantucket than Boston. That's a bit of a stretch.

Curing Urban-itis:
Americans have a love-hate relationship with cities, writes author William Finley in a column on planetizen.com. The problems of cities and of suburbs are inextricably linked, he says, but usually they're dealt with as if totally separate Problems he lists include traffic congestion, lack of affordable housing, blighted inner city neighborhoods and sprawl. He fingers the federal government -- among others -- for lack of leadership.

Here's his take on traffic congestion:
"Traffic Congestion is caused by one-person cars, auto and oil lobbies, subsidized parking, low gas taxes, political opposition to rapid transit, Federal and State failures to assist metro areas and the lack of regional leadership. It is always the other fellow’s fault."

Beauty Out of Season: Maybe Momma Nature decided the campaign muck was just too dreary and wanted to cheer us all up. Whatever the reason, some of the Rocky Shoals spider lilies are blooming out of season in the Catawba River near Great Falls, S.C. Lindsay Pettus sent along some photos from Bill Stokes. (one above, another below. )

The spider lilies are an endangered species that grow in the middle of the river. The colony in the Catawba is one of the largest known -- and when they bloom in the spring they're spectacular.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Foxx reels in big-name backers

At-large City Council member Anthony Foxx announced today he's running for mayor next year regardless of whether incumbent Mayor Pat McCrory wins the governor's race.

Foxx, a Democrat, told me he's rounded up enough early support to go for it. Among those supporters, he said -- and I was prying, he wasn't just tossing out these names -- are retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. and local Democratic Party bigwig Cammie Harris. McColl usually -- but not always -- backs Democrats.

Foxx told me he had decided just within the past few weeks, although he's been thinking about running for months. But he sent letters to supporters or potential supporters late last week. "I would defind that as the point of no return."

He'll probably face impressive opposition, likely Republican council member John Lassiter (if McCrory is ensconced in Raleigh) and possibly Democratic state Sen. Malcolm Graham, who's also been thinking about running for mayor for some time. Both are generally well-regarded and, in my experience, do a good job as elected officials, as does Foxx.

"Why now?" I asked Foxx. He gave a thoughtful and even visionary answer, which in a politician is refreshing. (Note: Lassiter and Graham could probably do the same. Many elected officials can't.) Part of it was a discussion of the current problems the city faces and how many of them are, in fact, regional problems: The economy. Transportation. The environment.

"When I ask people where the city's going, it's a microcosm of the country," he said. "People don't know where we're going."

Foxx grew up in Charlotte, went to Davidson and NYU law school. He's been on the council since 2005.

A contrary look at transit-oriented zoning

I heard an interesting proposal last week from architect-planner Terry Shook, who keeps a sharp eye on what's happening to properties along the Lynx Blue Line. It's a different way to look at the property-value increase along the line -- who benefits and who should benefit, and whether the city is letting developers get off too easy on the design of TOD projects.

The way it works now: The city, hoping to spur transit-oriented development (TOD) projects along the rail corridor, generally has taken the initiative to rezone properties to the TOD zoning. This creates an incentive to developers, which is why the city has done it.

But, as Shook points out, it also raises the value of the property, even if no developer has bought it yet. So in many cases it's the original property owners, not the developer seeking to do TOD, who benefits from the new, more intense zoning.

Why not, he suggests, hold off on giving out the TOD zoning until a development proposal comes in? That way the city has some leverage to hold over a developer whose proposal might not, otherwise, have great design? He offers in evidence the very tall project going up on Tremont at Camden Road: Its street-front design isn't very good, although it meets the TOD zoning requirements. If a property is already rezoned for TOD, the planners don't have as much leverage as they might if the owner was having to win a rezoning.

Here's some quick armchair analysis: The Shook idea would mean developers have to fight for a rezoning, which could well be a disincentive. Yet it would also mean the developers wouldn't be paying as much for the land, assuming that TOD-zoned land costs more to buy than industrial- or business- or other-zoned land. So while one incentive would be removed, there'd be another in its place. And if developers aren't paying so much for the land, they'd be more amenable to including affordable units in their projects -- especially if the city planners were pushing them to do so, in order to win a TOD rezoning.

I'm not saying Shook's idea is the solution to all problems. I'm saying it's an interesting view to ponder. Any developers or planners or property owners have thoughts, either pro or con?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Keep Charlotte 'Starched'

Long time, no Naked City. Too many candidates for editorial board members to research, too little time. More and better items to come tomorrow, I vow. I've been tucking tidbits aside. But here's a quick one now.

Architect/planner Tom Low was talking with Citistates Report writer Curtis Johnson last summer, thinking about Charlotte's bank-town soul. As it happened, he was wearing a "Keep Austin Weird" hat. That city has built a national reputation as a place where eccentrics and local color are both tolerated and celebrated -- not exactly the reputation Charlotte has. We're more of a starched-shirt kind of city. What would Charlotte's version of "Keep Austin Weird" be, Low wondered. Johnson quipped, "Keep Charlotte Starched." And thus, a movement was born. Or to be more accurate, a movement may be born or not, depending.

Low has launched -- well, he's trying to launch -- a "Keep Charlotte Starched" movement. There's a Keep Charlotte Starched Web site, as well as some stickers, if you're really keen on the idea.

But without one of our two banks, will Charlotte remain so starched? "How can we keep Charlotte starched?" Low asks. I'll ask, do we want to? Best three comments win a KCS sticker.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tracks before their time

Historic trolley car No. 85 (above)

Tracks before their time

Who knew? Maybe you did. But it was news to me to learn from CDOT interim chief Danny Pleasant that the construction work on Elizabeth Avenue near Central Piedmont Community College includes laying streetcar tracks.

The work started as a "pedscape project" -- making the area amenable to pedestrians. Developer Clay Grubb, whose project is at the Presbyterian Hospital end of Elizabeth, wanted wide sidewalks. CPCC, which generates pedestrian traffic, got excited about the pedscape idea, Pleasant tells me, and is moving its parking garage entrances off Elizabeth.

And some $5 million in CATS money is paying to lay down streetcar tracks. Makes sense. Why rip the street up in 10 years, when the streetcar line is actually getting built? And in the interim, what about good old trolley car No 85, (pictured above) which was banned from sharing the Lynx Blue Line with the heavier light rail cars?

Pleasant says the light fixtures are being installed with the electricity that eventually will be needed for streetcars. (Or something. I am no electrician so I'm probably getting that part wrong.) When done and the streetcars are finally set to run, all they have to do is put in catenary lines, he says.

The 2030 Transit Plan shows streetcars on that section by 2023 -- 15 years off.

Monday, October 06, 2008

"Green" developers council?

Got an e-mail from developer David Smoots in response to the recent Citistates Report.

He proposes that developers, city officials and residents collaborate to find alternatives to sprawl.

He writes:

Our community must be prepared for a paradigm shift. It will require the collaboration of developers (I am one), city officials and citizenry to consider alternatives to the sprawling kind of development we’ve had in Charlotte for so long. In one recent national study, “Measuring the Market for Green Residential Development,” homebuyers admit we have to face the issue of environmental responsibility head-on. Nearly 38% strongly agree, and 41.2% somewhat agree, that “in order to protect the environment we will need big changes in the way we live.”

While New Urbanism has caught on over the past two decades, Charlotte should now prepare for the next step. One idea: Motivate the Urban Land Institute to implement a strategy among local members and push for the creation of a Sustainable Stewardship Council.

This council would work with citizenry, government and private entities on environmentally friendly development issues within our community. An involved SSC Council could help promote water strategies, energy strategies, transportation, health strategies, recycling and reuse of materials in rezoning, and permit-related activities. The upshot? Local real estate developers would become better community leaders.
Several things are notable about his suggestion. First, it sounds like a good idea. I mean, it couldn't possibly hurt and it might help educate developers. Second, it's further proof that at least some developers think (know?) that building "green" is a market niche that they can exploit. More and more customers are looking for "green."

Is there a role for city and state regulations? Should city standards and zoning rules be changed to make them more environmentally sound? Note, this might not mean ADDING regulations so much as changing the ones we already have.

Friday, October 03, 2008

CATS boss: Build it now, or never

CATS chief Keith Parker thinks the 2030 Transit Plan -- the one with four more corridors plus a streetcar system -- should become a plan for 2018.

He told a transportation forum this week: "If we don't build the 2030 plan before 2030, it will be hopelessly unaffordable."

He said rising construction costs could price the expansions out of reach if the Metropolitan Transit Commission hews to its timetable. And with "a modest increase in revenue" it could be done within the next 10 years, he said.

The idea isn't at all crazy. Denver is doing something similar. Its light rail debuted in the 1990s but never got expanded. A few years back a coalition of the Chamber of Commerce, mayors and environmental leaders backed a regionwide system of six lines at $4.7 billion, to be paid with a sales tax. Voters OK'd it in 2004, even without a commitment of federal support. (The estimated price now is $7.9 billion. You can see why Parker is worried.)

In Charlotte, Parker said, the success of the Lynx Blue Line has everyone demanding transit. "Everybody wants rail. Everybody wants it now."

I'd gladly pony up a fraction more on the sales tax if it meant faster construction of trains to north Mecklenburg, University City and good transit service to the airport and out Indy Boulevard.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

'Catastrophic, but not unprecedented'

I caught up today with Dan Morrill, historian-about-town (he's a UNC Charlotte history prof and consulting director for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission) and he offered perspective on the Wachovia debacle and how Charlotte has faced similar economic crises in the past. (A quick tip o the hat, also, to Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett's book "Sorting Out the New South City," which I used to fill in some details.)

"The current situation is serious. It is catastrophic. But is is hardly unprecedented," Morrill told me.

Charlotte was once a gold town -- gold mines, companies that supported mining, even a mint making gold coins. Then came the California gold rush. "All the gold mines left, and the gold mining companies left," Morrill said. The banks declined.

Three Charlotte men -- lawyer J.W. Osborne, physician C.J. Fox, and merchant/lawyer William Johnston -- decided the city needed revitalizing and they pushed to build a railroad. In 1852 the first passenger train of the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad arrived. In 1854 the North Carolina Railroad arrived. "It made Mecklenburg for the first time a functioning part of North Carolina," Hanchett wrote. The railroads, Morrill said, "made Charlotte what it is."

The Civil War was an economic catastrophe for Charlotte, he said. So was the Great Depression.

After the Civil War, Edward Dilworth Latta and D.A. Tomkins launched the region's industrial age with cotton mills.

After the Depression, mayor and businessman Ben Douglas pushed for an airport. That built the city's role in commerce and distribution.

In each case, Morrill said, the decisive factor was assertive leadership.

Ahem. Who will play that role today? Politicians, who must always look to the next election, usually have a hard time taking a long-term view. The business oligarchy -- is that really the best leadership model for the 21st century?

My prediction is we'll see nonprofits -- foundations and philanthropic funders -- stepping in to play an expanded role.

Monday, September 29, 2008

How Wachovia sale affects Charlotte growth

No one knows, of course, what the loss of Wachovia bank from Charlotte will mean long-term. Will it stop the tower under construction? I think that's unlikely. But an oversupply of office space may cause uptown rents to sink. Call it "affordable housing for offices."

(Note, Wachovia Corp. will remain headquartered here, but it won't own the retail bank.)

Here's one early assessment, from UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute director Jeff Michael:

"It just seems to me, as someone who gets paid in part to observe Charlotte and its progress, that something significant and historic just happened here about which we can't even begin to predict the consequences. 

"On the one hand, we may have just witnessed the beginning of the end of Charlotte's upward trajectory, or alternatively, we may be getting ready to see just how resilient this city really is. Either way, it's going to be a major story that unfolds over many years, and not just over the next six months."

Lots of us are wondering whether that huge 48-story Wachovia office tower under construction will ever be finished.  I bet it is. 

Here's what we know:
  • Of its 1.5 million square feet, the bank was to have taken about half. 
  • Duke Energy is the second largest tenant of the 48-story building, leasing about 240,000 square feet
  • In June the bank announced Deloitte LLP, the accounting and consulting firm, would lease about 82,000 square feet – third largest tenant. 
  • Wake Forest's Babcock Graduate School of Management is another anchor tenant. 
  • In June, Wachovia said the building was fully leased.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why shouldn't Charlotte lead?

I've been taking some time off after working as the editor of the 2008 Citistates Report, which debuted in Sunday's Observer. If you read it, you may recall that writers Curtis Johnson and Neal Peirce suggested the inside-the-beltway crowd isn't going to pass meaningful legislation on controlling greenhouse gas emissions – and thereby save the globe from grave peril – and that the best hope lies with "bold, visionary urban regions."

Or maybe state regions?

This week marks the formal start of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. It's a carbon cap-and-trade program among 10 northeastern states from Maine south to Maryland. Other regions, and California, are watching to see how it works.

But to quote Peirce and Johnson, why not Charlotte? Why shouldn't this region become the first metro region to try something similar? To be innovative on energy? To lead?

If you're thinking "Why worry about all this energy stuff when the nation's financial system is in crisis?" here's a possible answer.

It's a report from my friend, Christine Gorman, a former Time magazine staffer and current free-lance science and health writer, who was at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York.

The plenary session yesterday [Wednesday] was kind of a sleepy affair until Al Gore got all worked up and said "clean coal is a lie. It's like healthy cigarettes" and argued that the current financial crisis is nothing compared to what's going to happen with the environment. "The world has several trillion dollars in sub-prime carbon assets," he says. Then he went on to call for a national "smart grid" for electricity and a carbon tax to reduce the payroll tax.

North Carolina showed some initiative with its Clean Smokestacks Act several years ago, to help cut down on air pollution and ozone. Surely it's time for some similar initiative to deal with the even larger problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

University Place: Bad design hurt a bright idea

Here’s another chapter of the old story: Bad design can undermine even the best intentions.

I caught up with former UNC Charlotte Vice Chancellor Doug Orr last week at a breakfast meeting of University City Partners to note the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking for University Place.

Orr, now president emeritus of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, is a widely respected figure in this region. He was key to the creation of University Place in the early 1980s, which was a groundbreaking effort by a state university to shape the development near it. The place drew tours of planners from all over the world.

In those days mixed-use development (homes and stores and offices all mixed together, the way they have been in cities until the mid-20th century) was viewed with suspicion here by residents and developers alike. Orr and UNCC colleagues Jim Clay and Al Stuart worked like dogs to educate people on the value of mixed-used development, to pull together a plan and see it executed. So did numerous other people and institutions. Finally, University Place was born.

But what should have been a triumph of good city planning simply doesn’t work as a neighborhood. With all those good intentions, the project design is deeply flawed. It’s multi-use, but not truly mixed use.

The design is, inherently, post-WWII suburbia. Homes are separated from the small, but very pleasant retail area around the artificial lake. The rest of the place is big box stores and chain restaurants and surface parking lots. It needed a street grid, with stores and homes interspersed along sidewalks. It needed, basically, New Urbanist design. Compare University Place to Baxter Town Center in Fort Mill to get an idea of What Might Have Been. And it needed city zoning and building standards that would allow it. They weren't in place in the 1980s. The other component institution, such as the University Hospital and a branch of the public library, were built with standard suburbia models. They are isolated pods sitting in parking lots, without sidewalks or connections other than clogged traffic arteries.

In the 1990s, UNCC under then-Chancellor Jim Woodward turned its attention elsewhere. The rest of the University Place property became a Big Box Bonanza. The surrounding area suffered from the same disastrous planning.

Charlotte’s elected officials and appointed planning commissioners in the late 1980s and 1990s chose the “let the marketplace decide” philosophy. The marketplace – as it does – created short-term profits and the ugly development that conventional suburban zoning rules produce: horrific traffic and an unwalkable section of the city.

It was a tragic missed opportunity for a part of the city that deserved far better. Those who worked so hard for University Place deserved better. The whole UNCC community deserved better.

Today, some determined people, including current UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois and University City Partners have undertaken the long and expensive process of retrofitting this standard-issue sprawl into something that will endure and enhance UNCC’s future. Transit may well be the factor that will save University City from its past. But it's a daily, visible reminder that no matter the good intentions, without good design, even good initiatives can falter.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

New future for Eastland Mall? (Part 2)

A reader e-mails to point to a redevelopment in the old Sears Building on Lake Street in Minneapolis. She opines: "The Art Deco Sears building is much more attractive, of course, than Eastland, but the idea is the same as what you’re talking about."

And it's a few miles from downtown, not out in the suburban neighborhoods such as Carowinds, and a bit closer in than Eastland.

Want to read the original posting, with comments? Here's a link. Or just look below.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

New future for Eastland Mall?

If you haven't visited Plaza Fiesta Carolinas, you should. You might be glimpsing an early version of the future for the Eastland Mall site.

Eastland is a fading ’70s-era regional shopping mall, in a part of Charlotte that’s seen huge demographic changes in the past 30 years, with an influx of immigrants and more racially integrated neighborhoods. The mall’s owner, Columbus, Ohio-based Glimcher Realty Trust, has had it on the market since 2005. It said in July it would no longer subsidize it. Store hours have been reduced; the non-anchor stores aren’t even open Mondays or at night. And the city of Charlotte now holds an option to buy two of the five parcels at the 70-acre property.

Plaza Fiesta is a newly opened, Latino-themed enclosed mall in a re-used building next to Carowinds, just off I-77 on the N.C.-S.C. line. It's where the old Carolina Pottery and outlet mall used to be. New owners from Atlanta, home to the first Plaza Fiesta, bought it and upfitted the interior to resemble a Latin American village.

The nonprofit forum, Civic by Design, hosted Plaza Fiesta architects David Schroeder and Sean Slater from Norcross, Ga., on Tuesday night. They talked about modeling the interior after real towns in Mexico, even to the extent of replicating owner Arturo Adonay's (corrected from earlier misspelling) grandmother's house in Mexico.

It’s laid out with streets and “alleys.” There’s a central plaza, a fountain and a lot of kid- and family-friendly spaces, such as a huge playground and a video arcade. It’s becoming a popular draw, even for Anglo families, the architects said. Yes, they’re going to be giving a positive spin, but I visited it with friends one recent Sunday afternoon and saw lots of people eating, strolling shopping.

But I was most interested in another aspect: its role as incubator for small, locally owned (in this case mostly but not exclusively Latino-owned) businesses. Much of the interior is filled with booths, arranged in trade-show layout, which play something of the role kiosks do at conventional malls – except those kiosks are likely to be run by national chains, not mom and pop businesses. In Charlotte, Plaza Fiesta officials visited Latino businesses along South Boulevard and recruited some of them to open spots at Plaza Fiesta.

Is it faux? Of course. Shopping malls are all replicas of true shopping streets in towns and cities. Is it in the wrong place, planning-wise? Sure. I asked Slater and Schroeder about those concerns, and they pretty much said, yep, it would be better in a more central spot, next to transit, and it would be better if it were in a real neighborhood with real streets and real houses instead of fake ones. “It is what it is,” Slater said.

But, according to them, it’s working as a way to give small entrepreneurs a toe-hold, it’s attracting crowds with lots of planned events, and it’s functioning as well as anywhere else in Charlotte as a gathering spot for the geographically dispersed Latino community. It’s safe, it’s pleasant, and – assuming they’re telling the truth – making money.

Here’s the Eastland hook: In the audience was Tom Warshauer, a city economic development manager whose assignments include Eastland Mall (also Independence Boulevard, and North Tryon Street). He was intrigued by the concept of a marketplace of small businesses arranged around a plaza, acting as a community gathering area. Maybe he was doing just a little daydreaming – don’t we all? – but he talked of the possibility of creating a Plaza Fiesta-type incubator space in a real neighborhood, in a more central and transit-served location – Eastland.

Just remember, you read it here first.

Monday, September 08, 2008

'Parkway' N.C.-style = boondoggle

They're calling it a "parkway"? That's about as Orwellian as the Republicans running a presidential campaign AGAINST Washington – you know, where they've held the White House?

Have you ever driven Connecticut's Merritt Parkway? Now that's a parkway. Here's one key fact: It prohibits truck and commercial traffic. So even when it's jammed with traffic, you're not hemmed in by tractor-trailers driving through your tailpipe or blowing you off the road. It's a noticeably more pleasant experience.

North Carolina's so-called Garden Parkway, a proposed toll road through western Mecklenburg County and eastern Gaston County, isn't – really – being built because it will relieve clogged roads. It's a development-enhancing road. And part of the rationale is to help the truck traffic from an intermodal (yucky word, it means dealing with trucks, trains and planes) facility planned at Charlotte's airport.

Read about how some transportation planners say the road isn't needed. And read about how two state senators (David Hoyle of Gaston and Robert Pittenger of Mecklenburg, who's running for lieutenant governor) have bought land along the proposed route Because of local politicians' continuing inability to say no to developers, those "parkway" interchanges are destined to become as full of glop as those around Charlotte's outerbelt highway. Tip o the hat to Observer reporter Steve Harrison for those stories. Pittenger, you'll note, recused himself from two votes that moved the parkway proposal through the legislature.

The 67 miles of the Merritt and Wilbur Cross parkways are lined with trees and woods, and the Merritt has a series of architecturally interesting bridges, designed by one architect. Both opened as toll roads but tolls were removed in 1988.

Even New Jersey has a parkway that prohibits truck traffic: The Garden State Parkway (not to be confused with our proposed Garden Parkway) was built in the early 1950s and prohibits trucks on the northern third of the route.

Somehow I don't think the N.C.-style "parkway" will be a "parkway" at all. New name suggestion: The Garden Boondoggle.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Quaint (??!!) Pineville

I came across this article about Pineville, by two planners: Kevin Icard, city planning director, and planner Travis Morgan.

"Pineville is a historic city filled with landmarks, rustic antique shops and bustling downtown district reminiscent of the 1950s," they write. Well, true that, if you're talking about downtown Pineville. The town is right to try to protect it. But what they have done -- requiring new buildings to have brick facades -- won't protect the cozy turn-of-the-century downtown at all.

Even more significant, compared to the rest of Pineville, its downtown is like a b-b rolling around a six-lane highway. The rest of Pineville is the worst of suburban retail sprawl: strip centers, power centers, a enclosed regional mall, big box stores clear to the horizon -- all of it unwalkable, all of it a traffic nightmare at virtually all times of day. Pineville is famed throughout the metro Charlotte region as the worst possible example of unplanned retail development -- not that that has stopped other places (Concord Mills in Concord, University City, Albemarle Road, etc.) from trying to steal that designation.

It is famous in local circles, also, for refusing to let Charlotte's newly opened light rail line into town. The wildly successful transit line now ends at the Pineville city limits.

I will give Pineville kudos for saying no to a Wal-Mart supercenter a few years back, and I will give its planners kudos for trying to save downtown Pineville. But I'm pretty sure that an ordinance requiring every new building to have a brick facade isn't the way to do it, however.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Which U.S. city has best planners?

Which city in the country has the best planning department?
I'm on the e-mail list for a group of planners-architects-landscape architects-nonprofit activists and journalists who've all taken part, as I did in 2005-06, in the Knight Program in Community Building at the University of Miami. A question went out recently to the group:

  • Which mid-sized to large cities have the best planning departments in the country?
I was interested in the dozen or so responses that came in. They went about like this:
  • "Nashville?"
  • "Denver?"
  • "Rick Bernhardt Nashville" [That was from a Tennessee developer. Bernhardt is Nashville's planning director.]
  • "Montgomery, Ala." [From the same developer. He had a lovely quote at the end of his e-mail, which is worth repeating here: "Every increment of construction should be done in such a way as to heal the city." -- from Christopher Alexander, architect and author. ]
  • "I think Portland, Oregon, probably belongs on this list."
  • "Portland has done some great things. ... A list of other forward thinking departments should include Fayetteville, Arkansas."
  • "Now that Harriet Tregoning is heading the DC Planning Department, that could very well join the list."
  • "One would hope Milwaukee qualifies, having had John Norquist as mayor and Peter Park (now in Denver) as head of planning."
  • "The cities of West Palm Beach and Stuart, Fla., might be worth looking into."
There you have it. Totally unscientific and based as much on reputation as on reality, but interesting nonetheless. Any planner-types out there care to second the above opinions, or disagree, or brag on their own cities?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Amtrak candidate

So now we have a vice presidential candidate who uses Amtrak every day. Joe Biden commutes from Washington to his home in Delaware. If he's elected, some people think that bodes well for rail travel. Would be nice to have some Amtrak champion with clout in DC.

It's worth noting that John McCain has been an Amtrak opponent for years. But who knows? Maybe his veep choice will be another train fan.

Planetizen.com offers this item about Biden and Amtrak.

While I was in Boston last year, we took the train to New York and I noticed that between Boston and New York Amtrak was something like nine Acela trains a day (that's the speedier, slightly nicer train), as well as almost hourly regular trains. They ran on time, and were quite handy.

Made me envious. While we were in NYC's Penn Station awaiting a train back to Boston, I heard an announcement that the train from New Orleans -- which is one of the few trains that comes through Charlotte -- was arriving ... three hours late. Figures.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What gov candidates SHOULD be saying

I caught up today with Charlotte Chamber president Bob Morgan (below, left), and asked what questions he thought voters should be asking of North Carolina's gubernatorial candidates.
He didn't hesitate for even an eye-blink: Transportation, he said.

1. First, he said, ask Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue (the Democrat) and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (the Republican) whether transportation funding is a priority for them. (As an experienced questioner, I'd say ask them their top three -- or maybe five, whatever -- priorities. THEN you'd see if "transportation" or "transportation funding" is among them.

2. Second, he said, ask how the state should pay for its transportation needs in the future. Some state officials estimate that by 2030 there will be a $64 billion (not million, billion) gap between state transportation needs and funds.

So far, according to Morgan, candidates are saying, "Fix the N.C. Department of Transportation," meaning (what follows are my words, not his) get rid of the cronyism and inefficiency that we've all come to know and love. Candidates also say they'd stop transferring money from the Highway Fund into the general fund.

Fixing DOT and stopping the transfer of funds may well be excellent ideas, but they don't solve the problem of there being not enough money to pay for the state's transportation needs: maintenance, new roads, maintenance, new transit systems, maintenance, better rail service, and did I mention maintenance?

Where does that money come from?

Of course, the answer has to be, "From the taxpayers." Maybe it's a sales tax, maybe it's a gas tax, maybe the state shuts down its education department or UNC Chapel Hill and transfers the money to the transportation department. (Note, I am NOT recommending that.) Regardless of how it's done, the money is taxpayer money.

Don't hold your breath waiting on either candidate to say so, though. Both Perdue (left) and McCrory (right) are smart enough to know the transportation mess isn't going to be solved without more money. And both are smart enough to know it's really stupid to talk about new taxes during a campaign.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Finding the Naked City

To answer Karina, who wrote:

"I sure wish this blog would attract some less nasty folk. (Why is it not listed under blogs on the website by the way?)."

You can find the blog if, upon opening CharlotteObserver.com, you click on the tab at the top labeled "Opinion" and then on blogs/columnists. Or click on the regular "Opinion" page and you'll see a listing for my Saturday op-ed column, and a teeny link to the Naked City blog.

I'm trying to convince the Web page designers to give this (and other blogs) more visibility. But for now, try bookmarking it, or or set up an RSS feed.

As to the tenor of the comments, let me remind everyone I police the comments and remove insulting or crude ones. If you disagree with me or with anyone else, that's fine. It helps provoke discussion. If you insult me or others or use profanity (even with ** for letters) or discuss the uses of corncobs or call people hillbillies or rednecks or other insults, your comments will be deleted. Stay civil and we'll all have a better time.

Finally, another reminder that one day soon, this blog will migrate from blogger.com onto a CharlotteObserver.com platform and you'll have to register and provide a name for your comments. So no more comments from "anonymous."