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. 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, 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 onto a platform and you'll have to register and provide a name for your comments. So no more comments from "anonymous."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Student parking: Fewer spots, higher fees

The high cost of free parking, chapter 29:

Raleigh high school students are upset about a plan to raise their yearly parking fee by $50, the News and Observer reports. It would go from $120 to $170 a year. In 2005, the Wake school board doubled the fee to $240 a year, but rescinded it after students complained. Charlotte-Mecklenburg students pay $25 a year. Durham students pay $75; Chapel Hill-Carrboro students pay $100.

No parking is free, it only looks that way. The cost of the land, the grading and the asphalt to pave school parking lots is absorbed by taxpayers. In 2006, a CMS architect told me each parking space the system builds costs $4,000 -- not including the land cost. Those same taxpayers also shell out for a complete mass transit system for students only -- school buses. (Note, school bus costs come from two different pots of public money: county and state.)

Call me heartless. My driver's license-toting high school daughter would shriek if she knew I was writing this. But I think schools should offer less parking and charge more for it. Yes, it would probably cost more for high school bus routes, but maybe not that much more. They've got to hire drivers anyway, and drive the routes for the kids who do take the bus. Many of the buses end up with empty seats anyhow, because so many kids drive. (OK, OK, offer a "hardship" option to low-income students if they can prove to the principal they need to drive to school and can't afford a higher parking fee.)

If parking cost more, more kids would walk, bicycle, take the school bus or a city bus, or carpool. The pocketbook talks.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A little light reading

A few links for you today, as today I have to work on the part of my job that takes up the bulk of my work time: writing editorials, an op-ed column and helping produce the daily Opinion pages of the Observer. So happy reading, y'all.

-- MIT scientists say the country could slash the amount of fuel guzzled by a gas-guzzling nation by 30% to 50% by 2035, with such changes as lighter cars, hybrids and fuel cell cars. In other words, newer technologies. Here's a link to a piece about it. Note, the words "MIT" and "scientists." That means it's not light reading.

-- Outside magazine's list of what it deems the Best Towns 2008. No Carolinas towns made this particular list, though Wilmington made the "Rest of the Best" category.

Excerpt: "WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA (POP. 95,900) ... With nearby beaches along the Cape Fear coast, an ever-expanding Riverwalk, a National Register historic district comprising more than 230 blocks, and a renewed economy that has been fueled partly by an active filmmaking sector, "Wilmywood" has become much more than a shadow of its former self."

-- NY Times: Downtowns across the U.S. see streetcars in their future. Mentions Charlotte.

-- San Jose tries to fight sprawl from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Survey results: Uptown by car, foot, bike

The city, as part of its study of I-277 (the famous "freeway cap") study, conducted a survey of motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists who use uptown. A synopsis of the results is part of this PowerPoint presentation, which was given last Monday. If you can follow that link, the PowerPoint contains a drawing (above) of one possibility for what South Tryon might look like in years to come. The artist was Ed DeLara of the consulting firm HNTB, which conducted the design workshop pro-bono.

Here are some highlights from the survey results.

From motorists:

Commuters and visitors think signs that list more exits and the distances to them, and better lighting on signs, would improve I-277. They think more signs directing drivers to I-277 access streets are needed.
Other concerns commonly voiced by commuters and visitors:

  • Difficulty merging onto and across I-277 to reach their exit.
  • Fast and aggressive driving on I-277
  • Inadequate signage to alert drivers to when and where their exit is.
  • It's not wide enough for a “breakdown lane” to get fender-benders and breakdowns out of traffic.
  • Too dark, poor visibility on several stretches of I-277 at night.
  • Poor driving conditions in the rain; standing water.
  • Trash and litter.
From pedestrians:
  • The chief complaints are the prevalence of jaywalking and the aggressiveness of uptown drivers who speed through intersections and make turns into pedestrian crosswalks.
  • Also, the sidewalks across I-277 at Tryon and College are not perceived as pedestrian-friendly. Sidewalks, particularly on College, are narrower and traffic moves faster than in the center of the city. There was also a comment that these sidewalks are dirtier and more littered.
  • Darkness and poor visibility under the I-277 overpasses.
From bicyclists:
  • Bikers' chief concern is being visible to drivers who are driving fast and aggressively, often distracted by cell phone conversation.
  • Concern over the speed with which drivers exit onto streets such as South Boulevard and College from the right, where the cyclists are riding.
  • Darkness and poor visibility under the I-277 overpasses. (Gee, anyone notice a pattern?)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Just what IS "pedestrian-friendly"?

Some very quick reactions to a couple of comments from previous posts:

"Cato," a regular reader, was talking about how some downtown streets are great, but others aren't very exciting. Yes, they have sidewalks, but . . . He says, "The Wachovia Securities stock ticker board at the corner of College & MLK could have been a minor landmark, but it's in such a dead zone practically no one sees it."

Commenting on an earlier posting, "Anonymous" asked: How are you defining "pedestrian friendly? My neighborhood of Spring Valley is very pedestrian friendly where you could walk continuously for several miles without the bother of busy intersections, plenty of sidewalk and wide streets for bikes, jogging strollers, etc."

I define pedestrian-friendly as having good sidewalks that are wide enough for several people at a time, including those with strollers, and having intersections designed so they don't terrify you if you have to cross. They have relatively short blocks so you can get somewhere without going too far out of your way. They have destinations, so you're not walking aimlessly only for exercise (though I like to walk for exercise).

In my definition, really pedestrian friendly streets need something interesting to look at. Different people think different things are interesting, of course. I like to look at people's gardens, landscaping and big old trees. This bores my husband something terrible. He likes store windows, sidewalk cafes and lots of people on the sidewalk.

But most everyone can agree, I think, that surface parking lots, parking garage entrances, loading docks and long blank walls are not pedestrian friendly. Those are, as Cato suggests, "dead zones."

How do you avoid them? Simple (if not easy). Encase parking garages in ground-floor retail, like Seventh Street Station. Put surface parking lots behind buildings.

I like to walk uptown, and some streets are quite comfortable for pedestrians: E.g., Tryon Street. Others are awful: College Street between Trade and Fourth, or Fourth Street between Church and Poplar.

Got nominations for great pedestrian streets? Or horrific ones?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

CDOT: "Don't Walk Here" Wall Doomed

Here's the word from Danny Pleasant, interim director of the Charlotte Department of Transportation, responding to my post earlier today about this pedestrian obstruction on Brevard Street as you head from Fourth toward Third Street:

Good news, Mary. We have a project to convert Brevard Street between Trade Street and Stonewall Street into a more pedestrian oriented, two-way, two-lane street. It will follow the current work of converting Caldwell Street to two-way operation. We are in the process of selecting a design firm. The process should finish up in October. The project will include sidewalks on both sides of Brevard the length of the project. It will take a couple of years to build. But when it’s done, the brick wall will be gone.

Here's what I had written earlier:

Don't you love this? Walkable Charlotte, eh?

This particular barrier to pedestrians is on Brevard Street, between Fourth and Third streets, a half a block from the Transportation Center -- a spot to which thousands of people walk daily.

Last time I asked about it, several years ago, someone at either CDOT or the city planning office told me they were waiting for that property to develop and when it did, they'd make sure the sidewalk got built. That's been several years. Guess they're still waiting. I'll see what interim CDOT chief Danny Pleasant has to say.

And to be fair, I'll say that CDOT has improved dramatically in its attention to pedestrian comforts, and that uptown Charlotte is, square foot for square foot, the largest pedestrian friendly site in the city. Does anyone know of any others that would compete for that distinction?

Yesterday: Don't Drive. Today: Don't Walk?

Don't you love this? Walkable Charlotte, eh?

This particular barrier to pedestrians is on Brevard Street, between Fourth and Third streets, a half a block from the Transportation Center -- a spot to which thousands of people walk daily.

Last time I asked about it, several years ago, someone at either CDOT or the city planning office told me they were waiting for that property to develop and when it did, they'd make sure the sidewalk got built. That's been several years. Guess they're still waiting. I'll see what interim CDOT chief Danny Pleasant has to say.

And to be fair, I'll say that CDOT has improved dramatically in its attention to pedestrian comforts, and that uptown Charlotte is, square foot for square foot, the largest pedestrian friendly site in the city. Does anyone know of any others that would compete for that distinction?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Quiz: Which local pol to attend both conventions?

City Council member James "Smuggie" Mitchell will be attending the Republican National Convention next month in St. Paul, Minn. Say what? Mitchell is a lifelong Democrat.

He's also going to the Democratic convention in Denver later this month. Mitchell will attend both conventions as president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, a nonpartisan group that's part of the National League of Cities.

"Sometimes duty calls," he told me. And he pointed out that the top issues for cities at the moment -- foreclosures and crime -- aren't partisan issues anyway.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Confederate memorial: Why 1977?

Following up on the Confederate Memorial I stumbled across on the lawn at the old City Hall:

One commenter said: "You wonder what politicians in 2008 think about that memorial? They probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about it at all."

At least one politician wasn't thinking about it at all, because he wasn't aware of it. I called the City Council member who represents uptown Charlotte, James "Smuggie" Mitchell. Mitchell is an African American Democrat, a lifelong Charlottean. He said, "Wow. I did not know it was there. ... That's my district and I kind of pride myself on knowing what's there -- restaurants and places to visit -- and I did not know. Wow."

He thinks the monument should stay. "As an African American I was always taught to associate the Confederacy with oppression," he told me. But as he grew up, he said, he learned that "you have to respect that people fought for what they thought was right." Part of being a leader, he said, is respecting the diversity of opinions that people have.

Of course, he said "Respecting is different from embracing."

He, too, thought the 1977 timing was odd. As another commenter noted: Why erect a memorial so long after the Civil War? ... Was it erected to convince people that it is okay to be racist? Was it a reaction to blacks gaining political power and greater equality? Was it the act of ultra-conservatives that want to make this state like the clearly backward one to our south? Good people died during that war and they should be remembered. However, the fact that this was erected in 1977 suggests that this was more a reaction to modern civil rights than to fallen soldiers."

A reader e-mailed this thoughtful note:
As a Southerner who feels remorse at the conduct of my ancesters, I feel qualified to make this observation. If we remove markers such as this, we remove valuable insight into the mindsets of individuals and groups during the course of history. Someone had this erected, and others did not stop them. This is valuable information to future generations. Rather than removing it, erect another marker telling the people of the future that the people of 2008 feel remorse at the mindset of the past. Both the ones in 1865, and the ones in 1977. Removing the evidence of errors made opens us to the possibility of repeating mistakes.

And one last note: I'm a Southerner, and both my parents grew up in the South and lived there for all but five years of their lives. I've lived in the South all but six years of my life. I've lived in Charlotte for 30 years. You may not agree with what I write, but I'm no Northerner.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Surprise! Confederate memorial at City Hall

Did you know there's a Confederate Memorial on the grounds of Charlotte's old City Hall? I didn't, until I chanced to walk past it Monday morning. It's not prominent, set off to one side along Davidson Street. And by Confederate memorial standards it's modest – no statues of men on horseback. It's just a square hunk of granite with some carving. This not being South Carolina, no Confederate flag was flapping in the breeze.

"Mecklenburg County remembers with honor her gallant sons who fought in the armies of the Confederate states," it says. "With the other brave soldiers of the South, they struggled nobly for the cause of independence and constitutional self-government. Their heroic deeds will be forever honored by patriotic men and women."

Now, a Confederate memorial isn't a rare thing in the South. They were erected for decades after the Civil War and on into the early years of this century.

Then I saw, at the bottom of the granite square, this: "Erected by the Confederate Memorial Association of Charlotte, May 10, 1977"

1977! Does that strike anyone else as a bit late in the 20th century to be erecting memorials to a cause that – for all the talk about states rights and honor – saw nothing wrong with enslaving thousands of human beings? By 1977 the schools were integrated, black Americans were voting, and no one was being arrested for sitting in the front of the bus. Harvey Gantt, a black architect, was a city council member, if I'm not mistaken, and another black politician, Fred Alexander, was serving in the state Senate. Yet apparently Charlotte's city fathers and mothers were OK with putting up memorials to the Confederacy at City Hall.

I wonder what politicians in 2008 think about that memorial. I doubt they'd allow one erected today. But would any push to have it removed?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

I-277, the low road or the high road?

Talking about whether to cap I-277 uptown and put something atop it, one commenter today (Anonymous 3:48 p.m.) said-

"Mary, you forgot to mention the supermarket and hotel in Newton that traverse the Mass Pike as you drive into Beantown. This stuff makes sense guys."

I appreciate the thought, but that hotel and grocery (Shaw's, I think) look like rather awful places to hang out, I have to say. I much prefered the grassy lawn between Harvard's Science Center and the gates of Harvard Yard and the Memorial Hall. That grassy lawn was a cap over a high-volume street in Cambridge.

In other words, design and location matter, too.

Note today's article on the issue by Clay Barbour. It shows which developer is buying property where along tht section of I-277. I'd link to it, but it doesn't seem to be appearing anywhere on that I can find. You'll have to dig up the on-paper newspaper. Note, there's a cool map with the printed story.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Charlotte's own Big Dig -- without a dig

(At right: Digital rendering of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway atop the Big Dig in Boston.)

All is takes, you see, is for a developer to be interested, and suddenly the city decides it's interested, too. At least, that's how it might look to a cynic. (Moi? Mais, non!)

It's been more than 10 years since the idea was first proposed to cap I-277 and put a park there. It's been eight years since it was included in the Center City 2010 plan.

Next week, the city's transportation department will take a serious look at the possibilities. It's part of a four-day design workshop to look at I-277 and its interchanges from Mint Street to Kenilworth. The freeway cap is sure to come up, I'm told.

Here's a tidbit that might be more than coincidental: Developer Afshin Ghazi of the EpiCentre has bought a spot of land uptown at Tryon and Morehead, overlooking the I-277 gulch. He's a smart guy and he knows that in other cities, freeways have been capped and developable land created. Columbus, Ohio, put a retail development above a freeway. In Boston the Copley Place shopping mall sits over the Mass Pike. And Boston's famous Big Dig (above) is really a freeway that's topped with a park. Of course, in Charlotte we wouldn't have to do that expensive digging part.

The caps themselves aren't all that expensive -- at least, not in the relative terms of massive freeway construction budgets. But putting development on a cap would boost city revenues. It will be interesting to see whether the original idea for a park survives.

Also, I hear that the consultants who'll do the workshop, HNTB, have been hired in Kansas City to help explore a freeway cap there.

Read my Saturday column in the Observer -- here's a link to the Opinion page for -- and I'll tell you more about what's happening.

Two Dilworth houses saved

Ted Alexander of Preservation North Carolina phoned Thursday to report that two historic houses in Dilworth had been sold to an owner who'll preserve them.

Ted left a voice mail and he's now out of the country, so I don't have publication-worthy confirmation on the buyer's name. He said the closing was Wednesday. The houses, at 329 E. Worthington Ave. and 1818 Euclid Ave., had been up for sale by an investor.

As I wrote in a column last year, the zoning was 22 units an acre, and it was likely the two lots could have been packaged, the houses demolished, and apartments or condos built.

The houses were modest, both dating to the early 20th century and, as PNC President Myrick Howard put it, help tell the story of Dilworth, a neighborhood designed with homes for the wealthy, the middle class and workers. "If all the worker parts are lost," he said, "the story's lost."

As I reported last year, other cities such as Raleigh, protect their historic districts better, by not allowing large-sized additions to small houses if they're out of keeping with the scale of the neighborhood. Charlotte, you'll not be surprised to learn, does not. The fabric of Dilworth, a local historic district, is being changed by steroid-sized expansions. At least these two modest houses will survive to convey to future generations what the neighborhood used to be like: a place for people of high, middle and lower incomes.

PNC stepped in and bought the houses. They resold them with protective convenants in place to preserve them.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Lane-merging: The scientific way

At last, vindication.

While researching totally other topics, I found this piece in Sunday's New York Times magazine addressing at length the question of whether it's OK to zoom to the front of the vacant lane when a merge looms, and the other lanes are full of drivers patiently waiting their turn.

Remember the piece I did last month, "A contrarian look at lane-merging"? It hit a nerve, with most people firmly on the side of those who wait patiently in line. You'll note I didn't say I do this. I don't want people shooting me the finger, or maybe bullets. I just said it would be more efficient if people just did alternate merging.

The scientists who study that sort of thing -- and amazingly, there are many -- appear to conclude that if the world were full of perfectly behaved drivers, it would be more efficient if everyone used all the lanes possible, but left enough space in front so the mergers could merge without anyone having to stop.

This will happen, of course, about the time that all our kids do their homework with no nagging, bluebirds sing in the meadows all day and everyone learns the proper use of it's versus its.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

'City of trees' fires arborist

Nope, not Charlotte. Atlanta. The New York Times tells us Atlanta's "defender of trees" got the ax. Many people speculate it's because he's more vigorous about citing developers for tree-cutting infractions than the other people in his office.

This got my attention: "Builders must pay hundreds of dollars for every tree they uproot, even with the city’s permission. ... The penalty for violators is far heftier: One developer was recently fined $24,000 for illegal tree clearance, and Tyler Perry, the movie actor and director, was penalized $177,000 for unauthorized deforestation on his property."

Atlanta's fired arborist said he had issued 70 citations for illegal tree removal this year, while the five other arborists in his division issued a total of 29 citations. This does not sound like Charlotte, does it?

I called Laura Brewer, Charlotte's senior urban forestry specialist. Charlotte's tree ordinance doesn't make builders pay if they uproot trees except for city-owned trees in city right-of-way. Even then, unless it's a big tree they're usually allowed to plant a replacement tree as compensation. That's one reason for the slow loss in the city's tree canopy.

As far as private development, Charlotte's ordinance protects only a few of the trees on private development. On single-family developments a 10 percent tree save is required, although a developer can plant new trees instead of saving existing ones. On commercial development, only the trees in the setback must be saved, if they're 8 inches or larger in diameter.

I asked Brewer if the city had fined any tree ordinance violators in the past year. "I don't believe we have." The city would rather have trees than fines, she said: "Usually, what we've done in the past is require mitigation."

She said a new ordinance is being proposed that would require commercial developers to save 15 percent of the trees on site, rather than those in the setback.

A study in 2003 by American Forests found the total acreage of trees in Charlotte fell almost in half between 1984 and 2003, from 63,000 to 33,000.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Who's moving on up?

My buddy Joe (and earlier, Tom Hanchett) shared a fascinating, though lengthy article in The New Republic by Alan Ehrenhalt about urban "inversion" -- not the kind where hot polluted air settles over a city -- but a demographic shift.

His point is that Chicago and other cities are seeing more middle- and upper-income people moving to the center, and low-income families and immigrants moving out to the far suburbs. He attributes it to several factors: de-industrializaton, less crime, young people eager for urban life, and traffic.

It includes several mentions of Charlotte, which is experiencing the kind of inversion he writes about. Here's one:

In downtown Charlotte, a luxury condominium is scheduled for construction this year that will allow residents to drive their cars into a garage elevator, ride up to the floor they live on, and park right next to their front door. I have a hard time figuring out whether that is a triumph for urbanism or a defeat.

In Atlanta, he says, "the middle-class return to the city is occurring with more suddenness than perhaps anywhere in the United States," and most people say it's due to traffic and gas prices.

'Extreme': Higher taxes? Who pays?

Plenty of folks reading the previous post worried that the King family might not have money for the higher taxes they'll pay. Some suggested the day care they run isn't licensed. It is, and has a four-star rating.

Newsroom colleague and great writer Elizabeth Leland, apparently a Naked City reader, e-mailed me with a note pointing to Mark Washburn's article Saturday about the size of the house and the family's upcoming bills.

A pertinent excerpt is below, or you can read the story online. Mark's story doesn't address the questions of "green" building, though some who left comments
say the show makes a point of using energy-efficient techniques. Does anyone have any information?

What is not generally known is that producers often set aside money to ensure families can afford their gift homes. Community fundraisers, such as this week's concert at SouthPark, help underwrite the accounts.

"Most family mortgages are paid off," says Didiayer Snyder, one of the designers on the Charlotte build. Also, money is put in escrow for things such as power bills and other expenses, including scholarships.

In the case of the Kings, they are planning to finish degrees at UNC Charlotte and the show might make that part of the package, but it probably won't be known until the show airs in October.

"We do not build McMansions," says Diane Korman, senior producer with Lock and Key Productions in Hollywood, which creates the shows for ABC. "Houses need to be affordable for the residents."

... Korman said this week that the Charlotte project has been designed to fit in with the Windsor Park neighborhood, which is mostly one- and two-story brick homes. Lavish palaces are not the goal of the program, she said.

Monday, August 04, 2008

"Extreme Makeover": Is house too big?

Jerry Fleeman of Gastonia e-mails with this (sarcastic) query:

"Given the many past columns and blogs surely you will write on the evils of the McMansion built by the TV show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" in the Windsor Park neighborhood of Charlotte.

A 1,900 square-foot single-story house was transformed into a 5,100 square-foot multi-story mansion. Surely this house now adversely impacts the neighborhood. Some quotes from the Observer story: "At 5,100 square feet, it barely fits on their Sudbury Road lot. "
And, "Its tall roof soars over the Windsor Park neighborhood, where modest one-story brick homes are the standard."

Whaddaya think?

I've been wondering how much thought went into making the house as energy efficient as possible. Does anyone know? I've not been following it closely. Is there daylighting? Passive solar? Any solar panels? Geothermal heating? Recycled materials?

I hope some provision is being made to help this family with what are likely to be much higher utility bills (unless the house is "green") and higher property taxes.

Finding the Naked City, Part 2

I'm taking a vacation day today and possibly tomorrow, so no new Naked City news for now. (Try saying that 5 times, fast.)

To the readers asking how to set up an RSS feed: When I use Firefox as a browser there's an orange box in the window where the URL shows. Click on it and you're asked how you want the feed to work.

Naked City is listed under the "blogs/columnists" link that shows only if you scroll your cursor over the "Opinion" tab at the top. The blogs/columnists link showing when you open the new home page give you only "News" blogs/columns because the "News" tab automatically opens. For Sports, Editorial Page, Entertainment or other columnists you have to click on the appropriate tab.

Meantime, what's the reaction to the Observer's newly designed Web site? It's now instead of The URL will keep working for a while but it will disappear at some point, so be sure to fix your bookmarks.


Sunday, August 03, 2008

Finding the Naked City

I've been trolling through our new Web site, which looks a lot better, IMHO. But is it just me, or is it harder to find The Naked City? Granted, this smacks a bit of Al Franken's old schtick ("How does that affect me, Al Franken?")

You'll now find blogs from those of use working in the Editorial department (Jack Betts, Kevin Siers, Ed Williams, Daily Views) under "Opinion" at the top of the page -- but you'll no longer find our blogs listed on the Opinion main page. (Columns, yes. Blogs, no. Who knows why? I'll ask around as soon as our excellent online folks recover from their exhausting roll-out-the-new-site week.)

Nor will you find us on the main homepage unless we've posted in the last few hours.

If you're an occasional Naked City reader or a newcomer who found it skimming through the online newspaper, let me recommend bookmarking the site or setting up an RSS feed. Otherwise drilling down to find this blog might take longer than you care to spend.

And here's a kicker some of you anonymous commenters will surely want to know: We're moving to a new blogs platform sometime soon and registration will be required for anyone commenting. I'm told this will allow commenters to keep the same moniker and to look back on all their comments. Love it or hate it, I have no control over it. Just wanted to warn folks.

Until then, it's easier to have a conversation if you'll post using a name so we don't have to refer to "Anonymous 2:57 p.m" and so on.

Now, feel free to go back to commenting on the Overstreet Mall and uptown retail. As to the use of "vibrant" -- I agree it's overused and under-defined, and you'll note I didn't use it. "Vibrant urban village" is a phrase that has grown especially cliched among planners and developers.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The end of uptown hamster tunnels?

Some folks are aghast that Charlotte Center City Partners President Michael Smith would cast aspersions on the Overstreet Mall system uptown of sidewalks and hidden shops. In an Observer article published Thursday, Smith said the overstreet system “is dilutive to creating a vibrant center city.”

One of those aghast is Bill Little, who owned the BB&T Center -- home to many interior retail spaces -- until selling to an REIT a couple of years back. He consistently defends it. Here's a portion of a letter he wrote to the Observer:

"Mr. [Michael] Smith fails to see the big picture. Overstreet Mall is more than a series of pedestrian bridges connecting coffee shops and newsstands. Think of it, rather, as effectively bringing millions of square feet of office space under one roof. I know of no other U.S. city east of the Mississippi where more office space -- not to mention hotels, parking, retail, performing arts centers, and residential buildings -- can be accessed under cover."

I'm on Michael Smith's side. People who say they want more stores downtown aren't going to get them until at least three things happen.

First, better designed retail space has to be available -- the kind where you can walk past the store windows, see inside and go right in. You know, like old storefront buildings (example: inside the Latta Arcade) and like stores in shopping malls. Those mall folks understand window shopping. Architects who design office towers and grudgingly throw in required ground-floor retail space do not.

Second, uptown needs a retail cluster. People like to shop where other shops are. Again, the shopping center developers understand this. Uptown not only doesn't have this cluster, there's little hope it will get one. The retail spaces built in recent years (required by the uptown zoning) are too scattered. The older retail spaces that might have served to link them together have almost all been demolished for the new towers. The only solution would be building a sort of outdoor-air shopping mall uptown. That's expensive.

Finally -- you knew I'd get here -- Overstreet Mall should transition to business support tenants: Printing companies, shoe repairs, cleaners, etc. I'd say it has to go, but the city in its infinite wisdom granted what amounts to perpetual rights-of-way over the streets. So the tunnels will be with us for years to come.

Why do you think shopping malls locate at interstate interchanges? Traffic. Uptown, the traffic is feet. In Charlotte too many feet are diverted into the overstreet system. Or conversely, too many feet are people on the sidewalks with no clue the overstreet system exists or how to get there. In either case, potential retailers suffer.

Yes, I confess I use the overstreet system when it's pouring rain or I need to get into one of the buildings. I understand some symphony-goers were shocked and appalled that they were expected to -- gasp! -- set foot on the sidewalks and walk when the overstreet passage between the Blumenthal and its deck was taken down. But it's perfectly possible to have an excellent shopping district without those tunnels.

If you want strong retail uptown, not the half-hearted retail we now have, eventually Overstreet will have to change.