Thursday, October 30, 2008

What ails cities and suburbs -- and more

News from around:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 27, 2008

Foxx reels in big-name backers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A contrary look at transit-oriented zoning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Keep Charlotte 'Starched'

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tracks before their time

Historic trolley car No. 85 (above)

Tracks before their time

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 06, 2008

"Green" developers council?

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

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

He writes:

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 03, 2008

CATS boss: Build it now, or never

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 02, 2008

'Catastrophic, but not unprecedented'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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