Thursday, July 31, 2008

Mayoral talk over lunch?

Spotted having lunch today at Mimosa: City Council member Anthony Foxx (right), a Democrat, and former City Council member Patrick Mumford (left), a Republican.

Maybe they lunch together often and it's no big deal. Who knows? But I stopped to greet them and when I asked what they were talking about (hey, I'm a journalist and it's my job to be nosy) they just smiled and didn't answer.

The common denominator for Foxx and Mumford -- other than their council experience -- is that both have been the subject of speculation about mayoral ambitions. Charlotte's current mayor is running for governor. The next mayoral election isn't until 2009. If Pat McCrory moves to the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh, who succeeds him?

I'm not an expert at this moment in how a mayor gets chosen if one leaves office, but I'm pretty sure that if a Republican leaves, a Republican must be appointed. If recent council history is a guide, council members would rather appoint someone who doesn't plan to run for the office. That's how Greg Phipps got appointed to the council in 2005 after Malcolm Graham was elected to the state Senate.

Mumford left the council in 2007, saying he wanted time with his family. Might he be a candidate to be appointed mayor if McCrory wins the governorship?

Foxx, of course, is considered likely to run for mayor regardless of whether is opponent is McCrory, or any other Republican.

Mumford, by the way, had a pizza and Foxx had a bowl of chili. Bon appetit!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How does your neighborhood rate?

Interesting story in today's newspaper about the city's semi-annual statistical study of neighborhoods. It's called the 2008 Neighborhood Quality of Life report. If you want to see the map I think you have to see the on-paper version (at 50 cents still cheaper than a cuppa coffee), as I can't find an online link. But here's a link to the report itself. Warning: It's a slow-loading PDF file. Here's a link to the page on the City of Charlotte's Web site about the report.

I haven't read the report yet -- it's 246 pages -- so don't kick me around for "endorsing" it; I'm simply sharing it for those who might be interested. I hope to find time this week for some reporting, with luck for my Saturday column.

One quick thought: I find its terminology unclear. The report says that in 2006 it changed its classifications from Stable, Threatened, and Fragile (also unclear -- which is better, "threatened" or "fragile"?) to Stable, Transitioning, and Challenged. But Transitioning is applied to neighborhoods in "an improving or declining position." So if the number of "transitioning" neighborhoods has increased, is that good news for the city or bad news? Who can tell? And is this because the city wants only happyface news about its neighborhoods? Or because these kinds of reports are done by geographers and academics, not writers or editors? Who can tell?

Anyway, happy reading. Check back with you later.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Save 8th Street uptown

Yes, I'm a dweeb. I'm sitting here watching the City Council meeting on TV. Just watched Mayor Pat McCrory veto a proposal for the city to buy a small convenience store in the Belmont neighborhood.

Lotta council discussion, and much of it reasonably intelligent, even when the members disagreed with each other. McCrory's veto was the right thing to do. I wrote a column on this issue last year. I can't link to it tonight, but will try to add a link tomorrow. Headline: The Belmont neighborhood -- thanks to strategic city investments and other good efforts -- is on the upswing. The private marketplace is slowly regenerating it, and those old retail buildings will help add character and a home for small business entrepreneurs. If there's a crime problem (and with some of the old stores, there is) the solution is policing, not the buildings. The city's money is needed in other, more desperate neighborhoods.

But here's what inspired me to crank out this posting. They're talking about a plan for the First Ward section of uptown, and for a park. It's a complicated land-swap deal, and will involve a park, underground parking, a UNC Charlotte building and other good things.

BUT, and it's a big but, council member Nancy Carter is spot on with her resistance to the proposal to close Eighth Street for the park. Uptown's traffic can be so congested that the last thing it needs is to close off even more of its grid. And as its development continues it is going to get even more congested. The city can't keep chipping away at connectivity uptown. Plenty of excellent parks have a small-scale street running through them, and this one could be one of them.

The Central Avenue challenge

Wonderful discussion about retrofitting suburbia. If you haven't read the comments, I recommend them.

Retrofitting can be expensive for taxpayers, when a city has to build sidewalks, add storm drains and so on. The city's changes in recent years -- requiring sidewalks, better street designs, etc. -- help with new construction only. Even the city's admirable, if slow-moving, sidewalk-building gets at only part of the problem.

Most of the potential retrofitting happens as part of the natural economic evolution of a city: A business closes, another business buys the building and renovates it, or tears it down and build again. Or a business expands its building.

The city's passivity is hurting those small-scale opportunities all over town. Here are two examples, both a couple of years old, are the Bank of America branch at Kings Drive and Charlottetowne Avenue (a.k.a. the old Independence Boulevard), and the Bojangles at Third Street and Charlottetowne. Plenty of other examples abound all over the city, especially along the so-called International corridor of Central Avenue, between Eastway Drive and Eastland Mall.

That branch bank and the Bojangles are welcome businesses. I just spent a year in Massachusetts, suffering withdrawal from good fried chicken and biscuits, so believe me, I value Bojangles. The bank replaced one that was demolished for the Little Sugar Creek Greenway and was needed in the neighborhood.

BUT ... The two buildings -- not the businesses within, but the buildings and lot designs -- are awful for the location. They're suburban in design -- one-story buildings with deep setbacks from the street and huge parking lots out front. They're unsuitable for an in-town location, especially an area where other developers are trying to build more urban patterns. Those two small buildings should have helped with the urban retrofit of Midtown area, yet they didn't. Why not?

The city's old-fashioned zoning codes are to blame. Although I often praise the city's planners for devising a variety of urban codes in the past 10 or 15 years (MUDD, PED, TOD, etc.) those standards apply only to property that holds that zoning. If your property has the older, suburban-style business zoning (B-1 or B-2) you can build suburbia with no trouble from the city. You're virtually required to, in fact, because of the required setbacks and buffers. You have an economic incentive as well, because going through a rezoning costs money. Keeping your old zoning doesn't.

Plenty of other examples abound along Central Avenue. Small owners, small buildings, and old zoning codes add up to lost opportunities for small retrofitting steps over time.

If you're one of the hundreds of people deeply wishing to see a Central Avenue revitalization, you should push the city to change its B-1 zoning standards. I'm getting tired of visionary plans that don't address this issue. Central Avenue still looks like bedraggled suburbia because the underlying rules that govern building designs haven't changed under the old zoning that exists along Central Avenue. To change the way things look, change the rules that govern how things look.

(UPDATE as of 7:30 p.m.: Got an e-mail this afternoon that said the city had adopted a PED overlay for Central Avenue. If that's the case it would do exactly what I'm hoping for -- require more urban-style development. But I can't find it listed on the planning department's web page. Doesn't mean it didn't happen, but means I can't, tonight, confirm or deny it.)

And before you go off about how the city shouldn't set design standards, let me just open your eyes to the reality that B-1 zoning, which requires deep setbacks, is less favorable to property owners than a zoning that would allow them to build closer to the property line and cover more of the land with buildings and less with setbacks and buffers. If you're required to keep 35 feet of property vacant in front, you can't build as much income-producing square-footage as if you're required to keep only 15 feet of property vacant in front. I'm not proposing ADDING a lot of design controls, only altering the ones that already exist.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Any hope for '60s suburbia?

Excellent question at the end of the previous comment string, from "Tom" from Nashville.

"Suggestion for your next blog topic: Is it possible to "retrofit" a suburb, particularly the middle-ring suburbs that are struggling, to be more connected and urban? Can a '60s-style neighborhood be made to behave like a '30s-style neighborhood?"

You won't be surprised to hear I have thoughts. But this afternoon I have other tasks. So I'll toss out the question and let others take it on. Maybe Dan Burden of Walkable Communities Inc., can weigh in, or someone from the Congress for the New Urbanism, or some developer/designer who's done a retrofit project and can talk about how it went.

See you later.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Walkable rating - We're not last!, a cool site I plugged a year ago, looked at 2,508 neighborhoods in 40 cities. Charlotte didn't do too well. That's a euphemism. Charlotte was in the basement: No. 38 out of 40. (Cherry, Fourth Ward and Downtown Charlotte were rated our most walkable neighborhoods.)

The site measures walkability with a walkability checklist which assesses stuff such as whether a neighborhood has a discernible center, mixed-use development, sidewalks, traffic that doesn't go too fast, narrow streets (calmer traffic), parks and public spaces, etc. The software used for measuring is based on Google maps, U.S. Census data, Zillow neighborhood boundaries and Yellow Page information, and it assigns values to locations such as schools, workplaces, supermarkets, parks and public spaces based on how near they are to an address. (Based on some comments I saw elsewhere, the software has some glitches.)

USA Today had a piece
on the list, noting the bottom three: Charlotte, Nashville and Jacksonville, and the Huffington Post had a short blurb on the Bottom 10 as well.

Why is Charlotte so un-walkable? It's hard to find just one villain; there are several. The part of the city built before World War II (as in Cherry, Fourth Ward, and downtown) is much more pedestrian-friendly. After WWII, traffic engineers and planners embraced some theories, based on the ideals of Modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, that have proven to be ill-suited for urban life. The federal government was in thrall to the automakers and began subsidizing auto travel with vast new highways while shrinking subsidies and passing laws that hurt rail transportation.

Single-use zoning was considered modern and progressive -- yet another reason not to let yourself be blinded by an idea just because it's labeled "progressive." The traffic engineering profession promoted neighborhood layouts that didn't have connecting streets.

In addition, elected leaders in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County rarely did anything that developers didn't like, such as require sidewalks to be built or require subdivisions with lots of connecting streets, or require subdivisions to connect to the subdivision next door. Neighborhood activists fought street connections -- witness the silly closure of East Kingston in Dilworth. After all, if you live on a street that doesn't connect you understandably prefer the lack of traffic to what you'd have with through streets. Private comfort for a few trumped street networks that would have benefited the greater community.

The city's transportation department in recent years has pushed admirably for more pedestrian amenities, and it's making progress, although the rate is slow. Retrofitting the mistakes of 50 years will take money and time -- lots of it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The candy bar approach to city planning

Thank you, anonymous commenter from 5:20 p.m. Tuesday. I am not against density or height. I am against height in the wrong place. You can make a case that next door to the Arlington is an appropriate spot for density, and I won't get in your face about it, although I think the proximity to the Dilworth Historic District makes it problematic, for reasons I've mentioned before. Overall, I tend to agree with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who says that six five-story buildings are better than one 30-story building.

But here's the crux of my objections to the South End rezoning: The whole point of a small station area plan is to plan what heights and densities are appropriate on which spots. If the planners who wrote the South End Station Area Plan and the City Council who adopted it in 2005 believed that site was appropriate for buildings twice the height of the rest of the area's height limit, why not have the plan say that? Why limit the appropriate height there, in the plan, to 120 feet? Those kinds of issues are precisely why your tax money pays for planners and why your elected representatives adopt small area plans.

Why even bother with any plan if it's routinely disregarded?

It reminds me of taking a kid to the grocery store. You say before you go, "I'm not buying you candy in the check-out line." If you then buy the kid a Snickers in the check-out line, that kid will cry for candy on every visit to the store for the next 20 years. And you will have undermined any credibility your authority might have had.

One last thing, responding to a commenter on the post about the Piedmont Town Center project: I LOVE Filene's Basement. Offer one of those up and I'll be out there with my chainsaw. (Joke, people, joke.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

South End tower wins swift OK

Reporting live, from City Council:
(See previous post, also from council meeting, about a first -- a developer urging council to reject his own rezoning petition.)

The City Council launched the vote-on-rezonings part of its meeting at roughly 6:25 p.m. By 6:39 p.m. it had finished its rezoning decisions. They ripped through 18 rezonings, all except one of them approved unanimously with no discussion on any, except for about 30 seconds on the one that was approved 7-2 (for a day care center at The Plaza and Barrington Drive).

That proposal to allow a 250-foot high-rise tower in South End? The one that was in violation of the South End Transit Station Area Plan, which set a 120-foot height maximum? I didn't have a stopwatch, so I couldn't tell you whether it was 5 seconds or 10, but there was no discussion, nothing. Unanimous approval, and on to the next agenda item.

Sure, the council's rezoning meetings can drag. The public hearing part of the meeting tends to bring out developers and neighborhood opponents. It's 7:34 p.m. and they're just on No. 6 in a 15-item public hearing agenda. And council member Michael Barnes just pointed out that there have been numerous violations of the Northeast District Plan in recent years. So why didn't he -- or anyone else -- think it was worth maybe a little public discussion about why they were violating the South End station area plan, adopted in 2005?

Maybe there were good reasons. Maybe the 120-foot maximum height limit adopted as part of the Transit Station Area Principles isn't a good idea after all. You, the voting public, have no way to know why the council members decided to treat their own adopted plans as virtually irrelevant.

They're on auto-pilot. The biggest issue facing the city for decades has been growth and how to deal with it and pay for its impacts. You'd like to think your elected officials are thoughtfully debating the pros and cons of different growth proposals. Guess what. I'm watching them tonight, and it's pretty hard not to conclude they've abdicated that responsibility.

Developer wants own project nixed

Reporting live from City Council:

This has got to be a first. Bailey Patrick, the dean of local developers' lobbyists, just got up and urged the City Council to vote against his own rezoning petition.

It's a rezoning proposal from Crescent Resources, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, which wanted to change its plans, approved in 2005, for the Piedmont Town Center development near SouthPark. They wanted to change approvals for retail and office space into residential space.

The planning staff opposed it. Neighbors opposed it and signed a protest petition against it which means it would need a super-majority vote from the City Council.

The proposal would have wiped out a stand of immense old trees. During the 2004 rezoning -- after some publicity from yours truly -- the developer agreed to leave a large wooded buffer, giving the trees a reprieve. I visited those trees -- immense white oaks along a small stream. The new development would have cut them all down to form a retention pond along the creek.

The real crime here is that it would have been perfectly legal. If you think the city's tree ordinance protects trees, may I suggest you probably also believe that the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11.

It appears Crescent decided to cut its losses. Council member Andy Dulin, generally a good friend to developers, made a motion to deny the petition even before the public hearing opened. Which would have been illegal. "I gotta have a public hearing," Mayor Pat McCrory reminded him.

At which point Bailey Patrick got up and urged the council to reject the rezoning. His client, Crescent, would have withdrawn it, he said, but because the protest petition wasn't withdrawn it couldn't legally do that.

Surely it was a first. I happened to be sitting next to 23-year Keith MacVean -- who has, as the joke goes, gone to the dark side and now works for developers (one of his new clients made that joke so I figure it's OK) -- who couldn't remember it happening before.

He also confirmed that the rejection by council means the developer can't come back with another proposal for two years -- unless it seeks a more intense zoning, such as UMUD.

At 9:27 p.m., after hearing a negative recommendation from the zoning committee of the planning commission, which met quickly after the regular council meeting, the council did as Patrick asked -- they voted down the rezoning.

Friday, July 18, 2008

When property rights hurt markets

This may be like throwing gasoline onto a fire, but here goes. Because I'm busy today writing a column for Saturday's Observer -- which I hope you'll read at -- I'll toss out some red meat to the libertarians and free-marketeers among you. Check this book review from about "Gridlock Economy," by Michael Heller, an academic who studies property theory. The subtitle: "How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives."

Heller argues, says reviewer Tim Wu, that creating too many property rights can actually wreck markets. Wu then critiques both the book and Weller's thesis, but concludes that even though it has some flaws it's one of those concepts that helps you see the world in a different way. The idea is that too many property owners means there are too many stakeholders and that can impede the functioning of the marketplace. As Wu puts it, "The basic idea that too many stakeholders can kill a project is well-known to anyone who has ever worked on a committee or spent 15 minutes in Washington, D.C."

Read before you rant. And please recognize that just because I link to an article I find interesting, it doesn't mean I necessarily agree with everything in it. It usually means I'm working on my full-time job as an editorial writer and oped columnist and don't have time for lots of blogging. Full disclosure: I haven't read the book and until today had never heard of Michael A. Heller.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Waning faith in the free market

In the category of things found while looking up other things, here's an interesting front-page piece in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times, "Americans may be losing faith in free markets."

The writer, Peter G. Gosselin, quotes several experts, including Kevin Hassett, at the American Enterprise Institute.

William Galston of the Brookings Institution in Washington says, "We're at a hinge point. The strong presumption in favor of markets, which has dominated public policy since the late 1970s, has been thrown very much into question."

Even the American Enterprise Institute's Hassett concurs in the existence of the backlash. "There may be a backlash against markets at the moment," he says, though he goes on to say he doesn't see any alternative view of how things should work.

They cite the convergence of issues: a housing meltdown that resulted from an unregulated corner of the mortgage market (high-risk loans), the price of gasoline (generally blamed on the laws of supply and demand and oil market speculation), disappearing U.S. jobs and worries about retirement investing based on the assumption the stock market will always rise.

"We're [he means Americans] not ready to throw out markets altogether," says economist Robert E. Litan of the Brookings Institution and the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., "but we want government to do something about the excess.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Optimistic about Charlotte pessimism

(Note: Reworked as of 1:58 p.m. to more clearly reflect Peres' remarks.)

This has to be a quick post, as I'm buried in other matters today.

I caught up with Mark Peres yesterday. Peres is the founder/editor/publisher of Charlotte Viewpoint, a nonprofit online magazine that aims to offer intellectual discourse about Charlotte, especially center city.

"I'm optimistic about the current pessimism," Peres said. (Or words to that effect. I wasn't taking notes.) Um, why? Because, said Peres, maybe the current pessimistic scenarios -- including but not limited to Wachovia's problems, although like most of us he doesn't wish more harm to befall one of the city's two Big Banks -- might tamp down on speculation and "get us back to more sound management principles."

Interesting point. But is there really any pessimism around here? Charlotte's relentless optimism, or some might say boosterism, is as deeply rooted and unquenchable as kudzu.

So feel free to start commenting on optimism/pessimism/boosterism or even kudzu. (I remember reading about one farmer who kept his cattle alive during a horrible drought when he learned they'd eat kudzu.)

Finally, feel free to keep jawing to one another about NoDa, as the comments are fun. But warning: I'm deleting comments that insult others or use words I decide are outside the bounds of polite discourse.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Why razing NoDa really isn't a good idea

Plenty of you disagreed with my previous analysis of the threat to NoDa from the transit-oriented development. Many people said, in essence, it's dump, tear it town. I predict you'll get your wish within the next 10 to 15 years.

Those of you enthralled with all-new development that wipes away anything that was there before seem to think it's about nostalgia. It isn't. It's about entrepreneurs and small businesses, the very basic elements that build a local economy.

New buildings have expensive rents. Old buildings have cheaper rent. Old buildings breed entrepreneurs. It's not the architecture, it's the price of the space.

As urbanist writer Jane Jacobs put it, "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. ... If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction. ... New ideas must use old buildings."

In addition, companies that lend money to developers to finance new developments typically require that the space be leased to "proven" retailers, in other words, chains. That's why you don't see small, local businesses going into new buildings. Starbucks is welcome. Smelly Cat Coffeehouse isn't.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Transit's threat to NoDa

How to route the to-be-built northeast light rail line? CATS officials are pondering that question. Read about it in this story from Sunday's Observer, from The City section. If you want a public voice, there's a hearing Tuesday 6-8 p.m. in the fellowship hall at Sugaw (not Sugar) Creek Presbyterian Church, at North Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road.

I was hoping CATS would route the northeast corridor up North Tryon Street instead of the railroad corridor that parallels North Davidson Street. Apparently that's not to be, at least between uptown and NoDa. CATS is still considering whether to put a section of the line along North Tryon between Sugar Creek Road and Eastway Drive. North of Eastway, the route follows North Tryon Street.

I'm very worried about the NoDa business district being beset by the same forces that are hitting South End and threatening the Dilworth historic district and its bungalows. Except the NoDa retail area is closer to the rail line than much of Dilworth, and NoDa's business district has a better preserved "Main Street"-type feel to it than anything that was in Dilworth. That's all at huge risk, because the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zoning that applies to transit station areas allows high-rise buildings of up to 120 feet -- or higher if your developer asks for an exemption.

The way land values work, if zoning allows high rise buildings on your land and there's a strong economic market, eventually you're likely to have high rises there. Say so long to the Center of the Earth Gallery building, the Evening Muse building, the Neighborhood Theatre building, and say hello to more brutalist modern towers like the reviled, pink Arlington.

Even more threatening to NoDa is that it lacks even the protection Dilworth has as a historic district. NoDa isn't a local historic district, which requires new development to blend in with the old. Being a historic district hasn't prevented the bulldozing of some bungalows or the ballooning of others into wannabe McMansions twice the size of the original house. But it's much better than no protection at all.

If NoDa's main street were to avoid TOD zoning because the rail stop was put up on North Tryon, then you wouldn't have those sky high, I-can-build-a-tower land values wreaking quite as much havoc on NoDa's business district. The super-intense development would instead be a half mile north on North Tryon Street, which heaven knows could use TOD's better urban design rules as well as stronger economic sizzle. Some South End-style development there would be a very good thing.

In the middle of NoDa, those transit-oriented high-rise buildings would merely kill the special place that has grown up naturally along North Davidson and 36th streets.

One solution would be for the city to craft a more historic-preservation option for TOD, capping heights at three or four stories. Sadly, given the grip developers have on the development-loving city officials, that's about as likely to happen as I am to be picked as the vice presidential candidate for John McCain or Barack Obama.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A contrarian look at lane-merging

OK, here's the piece I promised, about lane merging. Note: I don't do this, because the social opprobrium would be overwhelming.

The situation I'm talking about isn't merging onto freeways. (On freeways, one should whenever possible change lanes or slow down to allow the merging vehicle onto the highway. ) I'm talking about when there's an unexpected obstruction in one lane of a multi-lane road or street, such as a stalled car, a moving van or construction.

Just for a minute, think of this situation as a traffic engineer might, viewing the pavement in each lane as "vehicle storage space." If something up ahead is causing traffic to stop or slow dramatically, why should all the vehicles line up in one lane only? That just backs the tie-up even farther down the street. If both lanes were used, with each vehicle fairly and equitably alternating merging, once the obstruction was reached, it would cut in half the length of the clog on the street.

In reality, though, as so many previous comments have shown, people don't act the way engineers view the world. We use our driving as a status quest. People want to be the cutters-off, not the cuttee. They think people who try to cut in front are greedy and ill-mannered. Sometimes, especially when the only vehicle zooming to the head of the formerly empty lane is a gas- and space-hogging Hummer, they are probably right.

Second, this is nothing I thought up in Boston. I noticed it some years back here in Charlotte. In Boston, in such a situation what they do is honk their horns. This is both useless and nuts. I mean, do they think the stalled car will, Lazarus-like, revive itself, or the moving van will decide to go away and come back at midnight, if only it hears some beeping horns?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Do cut in line while merging. Please!

Stay tuned to this space, and tomorrow or the next day I'll explain why, contrary to what most drivers think, it really isn't rude when -- seeing a merge coming up -- you drive all the way to the front of the empty lane instead of hanging in the long, long line in the other lane.

Not that I would do this, mind you. I don't want to get shot by some road raging nut. I'll explain more later. Today column-writing for Saturday Viewpoint page comes first. In the meantime, some interesting reading to keep you busy:

The end of suburbia? Joel Kotkin says (in the L.A. Times) "not yet." Link.

Kotkin's responding, in part, to an article in the March Atlantic magazine, that created a lot of buzz, from Christopher Leinberger, positing that McMansion suburbs will become the next slums. Link.

Now, here's a critique of Kotkin's piece, by Bill Fulton of the California Planning & Development Report. Link.

This month's Atlantic has an interesting and provocative piece on crime in Memphis, with a mention of Charlotte, pegging the rise in crime in suburban areas to the rise in Section 8 housing vouchers and the demolition of old-line housing projects. Link.

Interesting developments in Sacramento, chronicled by the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ tells how the six-county Sacramento region agreed on a plan for growth -- including that some areas simply wouldn't allow development -- and is making it happen. Link.

Here's Witold Rybczynski on the legacy of Buckminster Fuller. Link.

Also, a piece from former Maryland governor Parris Glendenning saying Americans are tired of feeling like victims. Link.

And finally, here's something you're unlikely to see out of Charlotte-Mecklenburg: "The county board of supervisors in Loudoun County, Va., has voted to ban itself from accepting any campaign contributions from developers or builders." Link.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Mean drivers? Charlotte tops Boston

As many of you know, I've just spent 10 months in Cambridge, Mass., generally considered part of the Boston metro area, since Harvard Square is closer to Boston's Fenway Park than SouthPark is to downtown Charlotte. "Boston drivers" have a fearsome reputation nationwide for inappropriate, even insane behavior as well as ripe invective and insults.

I did some driving in Boston, and a lot of driving in Cambridge. My conclusion: Boston drivers are nicer than those in Charlotte. Now I'm back in the city where, if you need to change lanes, no one will let you in.

In Boston, those supposedly demented and reckless drivers routinely let other cars merge in front of them. In Charlotte they act as if you're trying to steal their birthright.

Years ago we vacationed in Boston and New England in a rented car and, because my husband had injured his arm, I did all the driving for two weeks. Yes, those New England rotaries are hair-raising. Yes, the lanes are poorly marked, and people treat lane markings as mere suggestions, anyway. But when you need to change lanes they let you. I remember getting back to Charlotte, zipping down Providence Road, turning on my signal and starting to merge into another lane. The SUV on my left flank sped up to ensure that I couldn't. So did the SUV behind it. I knew I was back home again.

For the past year every time I needed to turn left, the Cambridge traffic would stop to allow it. No surly looks. No speeding up out of spite. This morning I sat behind a garbage truck on Providence Road, near Christ Church, hoping to change lanes, left-turn blinker a-blinking, as the left-lane cars streamed past. And streamed. And streamed. One car hung back, looking as if it was letting me in. I began to edge over and the driver sped up, just to ensure that I didn't get ahead of it. Welcome home.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Building codes: Back to the future

Three cheers for Jim Bartl.

Ever heard of him? If you're a builder you probably have. Bartl is code enforcement director for the county's Land Use and Environmental Services Agency. He's been working for years, slowly and deliberately, to get the county's and more significantly, the state's building codes -- which dictate the county's -- to be more flexible and to recognize changes in the way developers and planners want to build projects.

It's because of Bartl that North Carolina adopted a rehab code for older buildings, so owners of older buildings no longer have the devil-or-the-deep-blue-sea choice of either spending a fortune to bring old buildings up to modern codes, or to tear down and build new.

Now, the codes are changing for live-work units. A live-work is a place where you can live AND have a business. A century or more ago, this was common and perfectly legal to build. You could open a business and live above it. The jargon is "vertically integrated." It's an urban form dating at least to the ancient Roman empire. But those buildings have been hard to build legally in places such as North Carolina, where codes were written as though everyone would build only new, suburban-style, single-use-zoning developments. Even when zoning allowed them, as in Cornelius, the building codes made it difficult to build economically and created odd rules about which floor you had to live on, and work on.

Bartl knows that traditional neighborhood development, or transit-oriented development, or whatever you want to call it, needs codes that allow such live-work spaces.

"Until now," writes Bartl in a memo, "there was no provision for any use other than residential in the IRC [International Residential Code]. Since live-work units mix in a commercial use (the “work area”), they were driven out of the IRC, into the International Building Code (IBC). This incurred an increase in code-related construction requirements (use separation, construction type, egress, fire prevention) far in excess of any low risk hazard present in the work function. The added requirements drove the construction costs up, and inevitably drove the units out of the affordable housing range."

Finally, last year, he reports,
the International Code Council Final Action Hearings approved a live-work code change to both the IBC and IRC. The change will be incorporated in the 2009 IRC and IBC, and likely will be available in North Carolina in a few years. Until the, he states, the county department will accept residential project live-work proposals, using the ICC-approved live-work code.

Note: If you're planning to build something based on this blog posting, please contact Bartl or his department for the fine-print rules that I have probably oversimplified here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Pantheon Project: What If Charlotte...?

Scrolling the e-mail inbox, I found this invitation for free gelato on Tuesday, as well as an hour of imagining what could be ....

The Civic By Design forum -- a monthly discussion group about urban matters -- on Tuesday evening is offering free gelato, purchased from Dolce, with its July forum: " The Pantheon Project: What If Charlotte ... "

Consider the Pantheon in Rome, a 2,000-year-old building that remains an architectural marvel, and a transcendent place to experience:

When: The event will be Tuesday (July 8), 5:30-6:30 p.m. at the Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh Street (Free parking at Seventh Street Station parking deck).
What: Imagine some of the world's best urban places were suddenly placed in today's uninspiring locations all around Charlotte. Local planner Blair Israel came up with a great location, and Tom Low's recent visit to Rome inspired an idea. What if the Pantheon -- including its surrounding piazza with fountain, teeming neighborhood of stores, gelato bars, churches, businesses, homes, etc. -- were to rise out of the pavement at Kings Drive and Morehead Street, where the Little Sugar Creek Greenway is being developed.

How would you transform that spot into a civic destination so compelling that people would flock there from all over and it would become a gathering spot for centuries?

Bonus: RSVP by today to
and you'll get gelato at the event. (Or maybe even if you don't RSVP).

For a map and 360-degree view of the site, go to
this link.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Money's in driver's seat in NYC

People's pocketbooks and wallets drive behavior. Remember the idea New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed, modeled on a program in London? If you drive your car into the most congested areas of Manhattan, you have to pay a daily fee. The revenue would go toward improving public transit services.

The idea collapsed this spring in the New York state legislature. Now, reports the New York Times, $4-a-gallon gas is accomplishing some of the same goals anyway. One big difference, of course, is that high gas prices are reducing traffic everywhere, not just in the most congested areas. And there's no extra revenue for public transit.

Meanwhile in London, where congestion-pricing godfather Ken Livingstone lost his re-election for mayor, new mayor Boris Johnson, a Conservative, is looking again at the the most recent congestion-pricing zone extension in the western part of the city and says he doesn't want any more extensions.

"I am not going to be having any more congestion charges," he was quoted as saying in The Guardian. "What I am determined to make happen is a modal shift towards bicycling and walking, not just in inner London but also in outer London."

The program overall has been popular with Londoners, who saw congestion diminish and liked what they saw. The betting -- from one of Livingstone's deputy mayors whom I met in Cambridge -- is that it's so popular that even the conservative Johnson won't scrap the whole program. And note that, unlike so many of the more conservative pols in the U.S., even Tory Johnson wants more people walking and bicycling.

Charlotte's crickets get worldwide attention

The Christian Science Monitor looks at the effects of foreclosures across the country, mentioning our Queen City insects along the way:

"From Atlanta's urban core to leafy neighborhoods filled with chirping crickets in Charlotte, N.C., some 2.2 million homes are expected to go through foreclosure – and stand empty – by the time the mortgage meltdown ends, according to Global Insight, an economic research firm."

Housing expert Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution compares the foreclosure crisis to a lot of mini-Katrinas slamming cities all over the country.

The article focuses on Atlanta, and then lists a variety of mechanisms being used in cities to help homeowners. No further mention of Charlotte, or its crickets.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What's new? Take a walk, and take a ride

First, however, whoever made the comment on the previous thread about New York City buses was making a perfectly legitimate point, until he/she added at the end: "Idiot." Make your points, stow the insults. Now the whole comment is gone. I'm cracking down on incivility. Too many readers have told me: "I'd like to comment, but I'm afraid of the attacks from the mean readers."

Last week I took a walk from the Observer building at 600 South Tryon up to The Square to see what's new. I noted the site of the historic Jack Wood store is STILL undeveloped. Two very nice historic Tryon storefronts, plus a small-scale collection of historic buildings known as Film Row on Church Street, were torn down in 1998. Because of some clumsy computer stuff I can't link here to a couple of columns I wrote at the time, but the words "civic vandalism" were used.

Notice, that was 10 YEARS AGO! What's there now? A surface parking lot, and a fancy-schmancy sign. In other words, developers haven't yet succeeded in putting together a buildable project there. For a full decade Tryon Street has been deprived of some graceful storefronts it could badly need.

Reminds me, again, how lame Charlotte's development laws are at protecting older buildings. Those buildings should never have been demolished until building permits were in place for what was to replace them, or at a minimum until a developer got the replacement project rezoned.

Other cities' politicians have spines, or even a moderate interest, in protecting historic buildings. Charlotte's elected officials don't seem to care. Nor have city planners proposed much of anything to strengthen the situation, unless that happened in the past 10 months. If they did, someone please let me know.

Another huge change: I took the bus to work today. It was so full people were standing. A nice young man even got up to offer me his seat! This is a huge turnaround from even a year ago. I know $4-a-gallon gas hurts many people's budgets and is a drag on the economy, but it's also a good way to get people to change transportation habits -- and that's a real important tool in the fight against global climate change. After a year using Boston's excellent public transportation system I know I'll be using CATS a lot more.