Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Obama, Green Bailouts and Pecha Kucha

Forthwith, some links to tide you over the upcoming blog-less days. And remember, just because I link to a piece doesn't necessarily mean I agree with all the ideas therein. So Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Merry Kwanzaa, Festive Festivus and see you in a week or so.

More on speculation about Obama's to-be-named director of urban policy. One name being mentioned to run it, says Jeff Byles in The Architect's Newspaper, is Bruce Katz, the Brookings Institution’s chair in urban and metropolitan policy (Katz has called such speculation “premature”).

“This will be the first time in my professional life that we’ve had a president who comes from a city and has a strong urban agenda,” said Thomas Wright, executive director of New York's Regional Plan Association. “That position is not going to be your grandparents’ urban policy.”

Here's some wonderfully snarky comments on architecture in Russia from Russia! Magazine. It's courtesy of one of my regular readers, "Jumper." http://readrussia.com/winter_09_06.htm

More advice to Obama, this from John Norquist, former Milwaukee mayor and now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. Courtesy of New Urban News:

"Green the bailouts. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may again be needed to ensure liquidity in mortgage markets, but now that the government fully controls them it should remove provisions that prohibit Fannie and Freddie from involvement in buildings that are less than 75 percent residential. That makes mortgages for McMansions in far-flung exurbs easy to write, but makes purchasers of condominiums in many mixed-use buildings scramble for non-conventional financing. A three-story building with condos upstairs and a small grocery store like Trader Joe’s on the first floor would be a godsend in a place like Iowa City or Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood, but Fannie and Freddie need to make it easier to finance."
Full version of Norquist's letter here.

A not-new but still interesting piece in Wilson Quarterly (courtesy of the ever-interesting Joe-at-the-front-desk) on a traffic engineering guru, the late Hans Monderman. (Contains this fabulous factoid: Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was trained as a traffic engineer. Go figure.) Monderman's most famous maxim was that traditional traffic safety ­infra­structure —warning signs, traffic lights, metal railings, curbs, painted lines, speed bumps, and so ­on — ­is not only often unnecessary, but can endanger those it is meant to protect.

Last, though not least, a reminder to the visually talented among you, from Manoj Kesavan, founder of http://www.point8.org/ : There's a Pecha Kucha night Jan. 15, starting at 7:30 p.m., at Alive (2909 NoDa). Pecha Kucha is a sort of open-mike night for visual presentations. You're limited to 20 slides, 20 seconds each. Deadline for sending your presentations is 5 p.m. Dec. 31.

Want to know more? See www.point8.org/pechakucha/ or e-mail present.pkn@point8.org

Monday, December 22, 2008

Obama's worst Cabinet pick?

Rick Warren's getting more national publicity, but Ray LaHood (shown left, with Obama) as transportation secretary has dismayed folks in the transit-smart growth-planning worlds.

Even though President-elect Obama is taking Amtrak to DC for his inauguration, the choice of LaHood, a moderate Republican from downstate Illinois with a not-so-hot environmental record, has folks upset. A recent piece on Streetsblog by Aaron Naparstek quotes a former Federal Transit Administration official: "In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy. He's got a horrible environmental record, he's bad on climate change and he's Caterpillar's bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?"

The Washington Post called him a centrist who grew up in Peoria and when elected in 1994 was one of only three Republicans who didn't sign Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." OK, so he's got his moderate creds. But does he know bat-droppings about transportation? Can he even articulate the difference between light rail, heavy rail (no, that's NOT passenger trains) and commuter rail? Does he understand that transportation is an environmental issue, not just a play-with-rails issue? For that matter, does Obama? The transportation secretary should have been part of his so-called energy team. That it wasn't is, sadly, telling.

More from Streetsblog, in this roundup of opinion. Some say he's a bicycling and rail advocate. And a D.C. advocate type (unidentified) says LaHood is "potentially malleable." I suppose that's better than "complete jerk," but still ...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Memo to Obama: Think sidewalks

Everyone wants to get his or her pet project onto President-elect Obama's list for his forthcoming stimulus package. (Alice Waters, e.g., wants a White House veggie garden.)

Here's a pitch, in the form of a letter to Obama, that rolled into my inbox from one of my list-servs. It's from Michael Ronkin of Designing Streets for Pedestrians and Bicyclists LLC in Salem, Ore., who suggests that small-scale sidewalk projects will stimulate the economy just as well as big road projects and are a lot faster to get rolling:

You have heard from many about repairing bridges and highways. You have been receiving many 'shovel-ready' wish lists of projects. Big highway projects are rarely shovel-ready; there will always be legitimate environmental and political hurdles to overcome, requiring robust public debate.

However, there are many small-scale projects that require little or no red tape, provide tremendous benefit/cost, and create the greatest number of local jobs per dollar spent: sidewalk repair, infill and construction, and bringing existing sidewalks up to ADA compliance. Sidewalk projects provide many economic benefits for communities large and small:
* Most of the sidewalk cost is labor (60-80%);
* The labor force is usually local; the bulk of the materials (sand and
gravel) can be found locally too;
* The wages are living wages, but not too high for financially strapped communities;
* The minimal amount of design needed can be done in-house or by small local engineering firms. * Local small contractors can perform the work;
* This provides work for small contractors hurt by the housing downturn, as they are doing less small concrete work for house foundations, driveways etc.;
* These are opportunities to make good use of existing incentive programs such as Emerging Small Businesses, Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, Minority-Owned Businesses;
* But most important are the positive results for the community:
* Sidewalks improve property values, make it easier to walk for short local trips, reduce municipal liability for trip and fall injuries, and help make the transportation system accessible to all pedestrians, including those the Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to help bring into the mainstream.

The backlog of sidewalk infill and repair is huge in most cities. When I worked as Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, I managed a small grant program (approximately $3,000,000/year statewide) that funded sidewalk infill projects. Every year we had to turn away many worthy applicants, as the requests exceeded available funds at a 5:1 ratio.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What University City needs

University Place -- the lone "urban" scene in University City
A study of housing trends in the University City area concluded it needs more higher-end housing near the employment core. To do that will require branding, strong and sustained marketing, supportive rezoning and significantly improved area schools.
The study, "Developing a Diverse Housing Stock in University City," from UNC Charlotte's Center for Real Estate, was funded by University City Partners and mentioned in the UCP newsletter for December.
The study notes that builders appear to have targeted the area for starter homes and townhouses. "Policymakers and the business community worry whether this will prevent University City from attracting and retaining upwardly mobile professionals," the report said.

The area lacks the urban-style communities that younger professionals most desire, other than at University Place.
Positives it cites: a big employment center, some large parks and greenways, UNCC, University Place, and the proposed light rail line.
To lure more affluent workers and higher-end housing, the study suggests:
  • Brand: Figure out what qualities make UC special.
  • Market: Devise a long-term plan to promote that image, getting help from the real estate community.
  • Urbanize: Encourage more urban-style development along the future light rail line on North Tryon Street.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Starbucks versus homegrown

This issue came up at Civic By Design on Tuesday, during a talk from AIA's Phil Kuttner and YMCA's Jarrett Royster. The AIA has been working for months to come up with some plans for the Central Avenue "international corridor" of ethnic restaurants between Eastway and Eastland Mall. (Note: This is just a recommended way of looking at things, will have no force of law or any city requirements. Though come to think of it, even the city's own adopted plans have no force of law. But I digress.)

Lots of interest in the room, of course. But Nancy Pierce of Merry Oaks neighborhood (and a gazillion other local activities) mentioned that after East Charlotte folks noticed the severe lack of Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, Kinkos and other well-known and useful businesses in their part of town, they asked retailers and were told that the "International Corridor" reputation might be part of the problem keeping those businesses away.

Well, said a few folks on Tuesday, we don't want those chains anyway. We prefer authentic, locally owned businesses.

Later, Tom Warshauer from the city's Economic Development department, mused that many people see chains such as Starbucks as validation.

What do you think? Would you rather have Starbucks or something local? Would you want Starbucks if it meant the local folks got squeezed out? Or is the whole neighborhood development evolution a process that residents really don't have control of anyway? And what, if anything, could a local government do about any of that? (Other than finding a good BBQ joint, of course -- see my previous. And if you think Bubba's is great BBQ you need to get out more. As to Old Hickory House, that's good barbecue for people who don't really like N.C.-style barbecue. Mississippi people. Virginia people. Florida people.)

Oh, and please go to CharlotteEast.com and fill out their survey.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Coffee, barbecue and foreclosures

Three mostly tongue-in-cheek proposals:

1. During a City Council transportation committee meeting about how many connecting streets that the city has mapped as "proposed" that were never built when subdivisions were developed (answer: because no city ordinances require them to be built) – bicycle advocate Dan Faris leans over and says, "Why can't the city just buy a bunch of foreclosed houses, move them somewhere else, and put in the connecting streets that should be there?"
Good idea Dan. Though, A) I don't think the city has a pool of money to do that, and B) I'm not sure some of those starter-home houses are built well enough to survive a move.

2. Lunching on barbecue driven in from Lexington, the editorial board was – again – lamenting the lack of any truly excellent N.C.-style barbecue in Charlotte. (Bill Spoon's on South Boulevard is the best of the bunch, but it is NOT a large field.) Hmmmm. Why not, someone suggested, get the City Council to go ahead and buy that store building at Parkwood and Pegram – it had just said no, the night before, because it thought the building wasn't big enough – and offer it at reasonable rent to a willing BBQ-meister, perhaps of the Stamey or Bridges families. It's win-win: The city gummint gets steady rent, and the fine QC populace finally gets an amenity that's been sadly lacking for years.

3. The question came up at Civic By Design Tuesday night: why doesn't East Charlotte have Starbucks or Caribou Coffee or even a Kinkos? Some people think that's a slight. Others think East Charlotte would be better off without same-old-chain development. What about a locally owned coffee house along Central Avenue's international restaurant corridor, people said. Hmmmm. Good idea, but there's a glitch: What kind of coffee? Vietnamese? Colombian? Brazilian? American-style joe? Here's the idea: A willing local entrepreneur sets up an International Coffee House, serving all kinds. You'd need expert baristas for all genres, though. I don't trust Americans to make good Latino-style coffee.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Urban issues get higher profile

Folks in the urban planning and development worlds are cheered that Barack Obama says he's creating an Office of Urban Policy.

It's about time some president did this. It makes plenty of sense, and it shouldn't have taken a Democrat from a big city to have recognized it. The problems and issues exist and the government has to deal with them regardless of who's in the White House.
And perhaps the incoming North Carolina governor, Bev Perdue, should take the notion and set up something at the state level. North Carolina's cities share some uniquely urban problems, but few people at state level are focusing on them.

For the White House job, I haven't heard many names mentioned.

But for Transportation secretary, one name I've heard while gossiping with several people is Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Ore., (at left, and note bicycle lapel pin an early and ardent supporter of Smart Growth. But take that just as gossip. I have no pipeline to the Obama transition office.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Streets like Paris, eh?

So I'm sitting in this windowless room in the belly of the local transportation bureaucracy: sixth floor, city-county government center. CDOT offices. (Charlotte Department of Transportation for you non-geeks.) It's only 8 a.m., so I'm pretending to be awake. And I start to notice what's on the walls:

A white board with markers and erasers. Above it a clock (analog). A calendar. A poster of the 2004 Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization's Thoroughfare Plan.

Then I spot a print of Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 "Rue de Paris, Temps de Pluie" with people in umbrellas crossing a rainy street (copy above). A print of a Monet scene of a railroad in the snow in Paris. A poster with a photo of the Pont Alexandre III over the Seine. And a Michelin map of the city of Paris.

Do you realize how significant this is?

Let me explain. Charlotte is not Paris. Our traffic engineers (including the NCDOT folks) move traffic. They value speed, efficiency and "safety," not beauty or the value of the experience. Limited access highways through historic neighborhoods would be just fine by too many of them.
Paris is a city with high-volume, high-speed and beautiful boulevards that retain fabulous street life alongside the traffic. Walking down a Paris sidewalk is a magnificent experience. Even the traffic islands are magnificent. They don't have Independence Boulevard or South Boulevard. They have true boulevards. I have said for years that our traffic engineers and transportation planners needed to visit Paris and bring home what they learn.

But CDOT has been changing. It redesigned the city's street standards. It pushed the City Council to adopt a Bicycle Plan. I was there this morning to hear about its proposed Pedestrian Plan. (More on that at a later date. It will be discussed at a City Council Transportation Committee meeting Wednesday (Dec. 10) at 2 p.m., Room CH-14 of the Gov Center).

The windowless conference room, I'm told, has been dubbed "the Paris room."

Someone at CDOT gets it.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Consolidation -- did anyone notice?

Maybe it was in honor of the no-longer-in office Parks Helms, but county commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts tossed out an idea Monday night at the swearing-in ceremony. After remarks about the economic challenges facing the county she offered this: Is it time to consider consolidation again?

She meant totally combining Mecklenburg County and City of Charlotte governments. It would save on administrative costs -- only one big-ticket manager, for instance -- and would certainly make it easier for residents to know whom to call if they have a problem.

It's an idea that arises once a decade or so and gets shot down after politicians realize there would be fewer elected jobs for them to run for. Helms championed consolidation for years. But it's too messy: How do you deal with the need for minority representation? How do you deal with Huntersville and Mint Hill and the other smaller towns, for instance? They don't mind being part of Mecklenburg County and they need representation at the county level. But they don't need representation on a "Charlotte" board.

We'll see if Roberts brings it up again. My guess: No.

Monday, December 01, 2008

But is it "progress"?

I was intending to launch a new topic this morning – first of the month and all that – but instead I'm pointing your attention to the comments on the previous posting, about Locust.

It's a good by-play on the pros and cons of town planning. Bob Remsburg, a former Locust city administrator, has weighed in, as well as former Locust council member Joe Bishop, as well as David Walters – whom the original post quoted. Also, Rick Becker, the mayor of Mineral Springs (in southern Union County) and Rodger Lentz, the planner who helped launch the "town center" in Harrisburg (in Cabarrus County, on the Mecklenburg line). It's a good summation of how town planning evolves. As Lentz (now planning director for Wilson in Eastern North Carolina and president of the N.C. chapter of the American Planning Association) points out, the original vision can be compromised due to developers' wishes or beliefs about the marketplace. As Becker points out, towns' plans rely on utilities and if needed utilities aren't present even the best plans can languish for years.

And as one of the "anonymi" points out, today's beliefs about "good" planning might in the end be proven all wrong:

The "awful alternatives" that we see in many places ARE the result of planning. In Charlotte the most obvious and glaring example of that was the utter destruction of close-in residential neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, to be replaced by "planned communities" such as the now-defunct Earle Village. That nonsense was urban planning just as much as the "new urbanism" version. I know some folks are fond of claiming that planning has evolved, but things don't evolve TOWARD something, and evolution does not presuppose an improvement. It is only a change in response to changing conditions. Since future needs, wants, and tastes can't possibly be predicted, planning done today can't possibly accommodate the needs, wants, and tastes of tomorrow. There's no real reason to believe that a generation from now the planners and "visionaries" who hold sway to day won't be vilified for what they've wrought.

It's a caution for all who care about planning and city- and town-building: We may think we're on the side of progress but sometimes it turns out "progress" isn't.

(And thanks to all of you for reading and taking the time to comment.)