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?