Monday, November 24, 2008

Locust: The story behind the story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bill James: "Why I hate sidewalks"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Where sidewalks SHOULD end?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Where the sidewalk shouldn't end

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

City attitudes: The young have it.

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

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

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

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

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

End of sprawl? Um, not yet

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why it's not easy to walk to school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Healthy kids = walking kids

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

Don't touch that tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 03, 2008

A medical office building plague

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

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

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

OK, end of random thought.

Traffic congestion: 'The condition of the city'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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