Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Study: 'Gated' doesn't equal 'safer'

Chief Rodney Monroe had some other interesting things to say, in addition to spilling the beans about the Ritz-Carlton-EpiCentre noise issue.

After giving a short presentation Monday to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, planning commissioner Nina Lipton asked the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief whether he had any data on safety in gated versus nongated communities.

"We looked at that," Monroe said. The police and planning departments matched up communities as closely as they could, looking at income levels, multi-family, single-family and other factors. In terms of crime rates, Monroe said, "We saw no difference."

What matters in terms of neighborhood safety, he said, is who's living there: Are residents looking out for their neighbors? Are they taking responsibility? If it's a rental community, is there professional management? Are renters being screened for criminal records?

Lipton noted that planners often hear "safety" as a reason to avoid following the city's connectivity standards. Monroe essentially shot down that rationale for gated communities. Just making a development gated doesn't make it safer, he said. "Sometimes it creates an opportunity for me to charge you more."

I asked Planning Director Debra Campbell after the meeting for a copy or a link to the study. She said the department was still looking at the methodology to make sure, as she put it, that they were really looking at "apples to apples" comparisons. She said the topic had been a hot one last winter and spring but with the development market so slow the department hadn't seen any reason to rush to give the information to the City Council. (If I were on the council I might ask them for it again.)

Indeed, I wrote a column about that very topic on Feb. 28, after City Council twice winked at its adopted policies on connectivity, despite planning staff opposition. That column isn't available online for a link. (Update: CharlotteObserver.com's fabulous Dave Enna found it. Here's link.) But it described a a Feb. 16 rezoning for a gated apartment complex near Arrowood Road. The other was a Nov. 17, 2008, rezoning for 300 apartments on Woodlawn Road that didn't want the city-desired connecting street. (That development isn't happening; the Charlotte Housing Authority hopes to put a development there.) Not surprisingly, neighbors near both of those proposed developments didn't want more traffic on their streets. Neighbors aren't always right, you know. As I wrote in February, "Facing a double-whammy of developers and neighbors against connectivity, council members' spines tend to take on a jelly-like consistency."

Monday, December 07, 2009

When cultures collide ... uptown

If you're paying big bucks for a room at the Ritz, do you really want to hear loud bands playing at a huge collection of bars right across the street? Apparently, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe, the answer is no.

Monroe was giving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission a presentation Monday and mentioned the police were getting noise complaints from patrons of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which just opened Oct. 1.

Above the eighth-floor in the hotel, he said, you can really hear the sounds of bands on the rooftop patios. "It'll rattle your windows," he said. "When you pay a thousand dollars a night you don't want your windows rattled."

(Note of responsible journalism here: I checked the Ritz-Carlton web site and a weeknight room can be had for roughly $300-$370, less on weekends. I didn't see any $1,000 possibilities. But then, I couldn't find a room rate for the Presidential Suite, which looks rather lavish.)

Monroe was answering a question from a planning commissioner about how or whether zoning and plans affected crime rates. He pointed out that both the EpiCentre and the Ritz were developments everyone had wanted. "Be careful what you ask for, you just may get it!"

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Governors 1 - Mayors 0

Did the Obama administration and the Congress favor states over cities in the stimulus package? This article in the Atlantic magazine finds evidence that happened. It notes that Veep Joe Biden, in a In a September speech on the stimulus, lamented that “Congress, in its wisdom, decided that the governors should have a bigger input.”

Wi-Fi on city buses?

Keith Parker, late of CATS and now leading the transit system in San Antonio, talks in this Houston Chronicle story about the experiment offering free Wi-Fi in city buses. It's a pilot project, to see if the service gets used by enough riders to make it worth installing permanently.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Charlotte snags 'Smart Growth' award

Although Charlotte's policy to design streets to better accommodate pedestrians and bicycles remains under assault by the local developers' lobby – who claim the extra pavement required for sidewalks and more streets isn't good for the environment – note that the Environmental Protection Agency has given the city an award for those very same Urban Street Design Guidelines.

The EPA announced today that Charlotte is one of four winners of its Smart Growth Awards.
Click on this link to the EPA web site, which should be updated after 3 p.m. Here's what the press release says:

Policies and Regulations: City of Charlotte for Urban Street Design Guidelines. As the central city in a rapidly growing metropolitan area, Charlotte, N.C., is under intense development pressures. Rather than continue the automobile-dominated development patterns of the last 50 years, Charlotte adopted Urban Street Design Guidelines to make walking, bicycling, and transit more appealing and to make the city more attractive and sustainable.

Other winners:

Overall Excellence: Lancaster County (Pa.) Planning Commission for Envision Lancaster County. "Lancaster County, in south-central Pennsylvania, is known for its historic towns and villages, and its fertile farmland. To maintain the county’s character, its diverse economy, and its natural resources for future generations, the Lancaster County Planning Commission established a countywide comprehensive growth management plan, which protects valuable farmland and historic landscapes by directing development to established towns and cities in the county."

• Built Projects: Chicago Housing Authority, FitzGerald Associates Architects and Holsten Real Estate Development Corporation for Parkside of Old Town. "Parkside of Old Town sits on eight city blocks that were once home to a public housing complex notorious for criminal activity. The redevelopment has transformed the neighborhood by reconnecting it to downtown Chicago and tying together mixed-income housing, parks, and new shops and restaurants."

• Smart Growth and Green Building: City of Tempe, Ariz. for the Tempe Transportation Center. "The Tempe Transportation Center is a model for sustainable design, a vibrant, mixed-use regional transportation hub that incorporates innovative and green building elements tailored to the Southwest desert environment. The Tempe Transportation Center is a true multi-modal facility that integrates a light rail stop, the main city bus station, and paths for bicyclists and pedestrians."

More federal streetcar bucks?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in New Orleans, announces $280 million in federal streetcar and bus money to be made available. Streetsblog.org has the story.

It isn't new money, but unallocated funding for "New Starts" programs and buses.
Here's what Streetsblog's Elana Schor writes:

The money is set to be divided into two parts. The first would award $130 million to streetcars and "urban circulators," with a focus on proposals that promote mixed-use development in local neighborhoods. No project can win more than $25 million from that pot, however, which would provide about 12 percent of the funding New Orleans needs for its ambitious streetcar expansion plan.

The second $150 million group of bus grants would go to proposals that "provide access to jobs, health care, and education, and/or contribute to the redevelopment of neighborhoods into pedestrian-friendly vibrant environments," the U.S. DOT said in its announcement.

Obviously, there's no way to know today whether Charlotte's fledgling streetcar project might be eligible for any of that streetcar pot of money. Or what $25 million would pay for.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

All politics is local - especially stimulus politics

A testy flappette erupted Monday night at the City Council meeting, involving the conjoined issues of federal stimulus money and the degree to which any district rep should go against the wishes of a fellow district rep on an issue in his own district.

The issue was whether to award a contract for $639,362 in stimulus bucks. The money will pay for fiber optic cables and cameras and other techno-equipment to let traffic lights on 13 miles of N.C. 51 (Pineville-Matthews Road) and about a mile of Providence Road south of N.C. 51 adjust their timing in response to traffic. I.e., better traffic flow, fewer backups at lights. Want more details? Here's a link to the agenda, see page 18.

As it happens, the project is almost entirely inside District 7, represented by Republican Warren Cooksey.

And for months, Cooksey has been pulling a Mark Sanford routine, although in his case it's not trysts with an Argentine soulmate or questionable use of funds, just Sanford's refusal of federal stimulus money for South Carolina. Cooksey's been voting against any measure that involves federal stimulus money. He opposes the stimulus spending because it raises the national deficit, because the president and Congress are Democrats (he doesn't say that, but you get the idea), yada yada. You know the arguments.

Meantime, just about every time you say hello to Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, he goes off about how the Democrats are horribly misspending all that stimulus money and how dumb they're being, etc. etc. I don't even talk to him that much and I've heard it at least a half-dozen times. He played that riff again Monday night. I imagine some council members might be a wee bit annoyed at the endless Demo-bashing.

In other words, partisan national politics is infesting council operations – no surprise, and not the first time.

This time, though, the partisan stuff got tangled in an existing, informal pattern among district reps that says you generally don't oppose another district rep's position on issues in his/her district. It's not a firm agreement, nor always followed. But you see it a lot in zoning cases, for instance. (For the record, I wish district reps would apply their own judgment to those zoning issues instead of letting the one person who's more apt to be swayed by shallow NIMBY concerns control the whole shebang. But that's a posting for another day.)

Monday night, some council members wondered aloud: If the district rep opposes this, why should we be for it? (Purely coincidentally all were Democrats).

Democrat Michael Barnes, District 4, said (I'm paraphrasing here), If a district rep doesn't believe in projects in his district, why should we support them?

Democratic at-large rep Susan Burgess pointed out for anyone watching on TV that she would support the spending to help traffic on N.C. 51, even though the district rep opposed it.

Then Republican at-large rep John Lassiter, who lives near N.C. 51, got surprisingly testy. It was as though he had been holding inside weeks worth of anger at Democratic council members. Trust me, the guy was angry. He said (again, I'm paraphrasing), I don't understand how you [i.e. the Democrats] would choose to vindictively punish the people in the district just because their rep is acting on his conscience.

In the end, the measure passed, but four district reps voted no: Barnes, District 3 Warren Turner, District 2 James Mitchell, and – no surprise – Warren Cooksey.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mayor Pat's last council meeting

We're in the middle of the Citizens Forum part of tonight's City Council meeting - when anyone can address the council. As the dinner meeting was breaking up about 6:45, Mayor Pat McCrory asked whether Martin Davis would be appearing.

Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the Republican primary, has a habit of appearing and trashing McCrory for being socialist, for his support of transit.

Told that Davis wasn't on the schedule tonight, McCrory, knowing this is his last business meeting as mayor, quipped that he might have finally told Davis what he thought of him.

But later he was clearly moved to tears when a group from the Greenville Community Historical thought Association [Greenville the neighborhood, not the cities in North or South Carolina] came to the lectern to present him with a plaque and certificate. As longtime neighborhood advocates and civic activists Thereasea Elder and Maxine Eaves spoke, McCrory's face was somber and he had to wipe his eyes.

7:29 PM - McCrory again mentions his regret that Martin Davis isn't here, and then several other old favorite council speakers, (Ballerina Man, Ben3, etc.) most notably, he said, "Helicopter Guy." That would be the famed "Rogue Helicopter"clip on YouTube. If you haven't seen it, have a look.

Mayor Pat on his last council meeting tonight

Tonight will be Pat McCrory's last real City Council meeting as mayor. Sure, he'll be there Dec. 7 for the new council swearing-in, but that's different. He's been Charlotte mayor longer than anyone - 14 years - and leaves a huge legacy, especially with the city's transportation and light rail system.

I caught up with him this morning to ask what he was thinking and feeling. Any big to-do planned?

No, he said. "I'm not big on goodbyes. I get too sentimental."

I asked, What are your thoughts? "A combination of sadness with being very proud. ... I'm a very sentimental guy so I don't like the last of anything." But, he said, "It's time to move on."

He talked a lot about a meeting last week in Greenville, S.C., with a coalition of mayors and academics and business people trying to raise awareness of the existence of an urban mega-region from Atlanta through Raleigh. He and retiring Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin are pushing the effort. The group hashed out a mission statement ("It was like making sausage.") They'll probably form a 501(c)3 nonprofit group.

And he raved about downtown Greenville, which has reclaimed the historic Reedy River Falls and built a public garden alongside it with a pedestrian suspension bridge over the river. "Just gorgeous!" McCrory said. "They let people swim in the river and play in the falls!" He told Greenville Mayor Knox White he was envious. But McCrory being McCrory, he added "He's envious of our light rail."

McCrory said he met with Mayor-elect Anthony Foxx last week and gave him advice about time-management, ethics, how best to spend his time with national groups, etc.

He intends to stay busy with initiatives such as the Mega-region initiative and with speeches all over the country about Charlotte's light rail line and the accompanying transit-oriented land use planning. He calls his presentation, "From Mayberry to Metropolis: Creating the Best of Both.," and says, "We're seen as a role model for how it's done."

He talked - again - about his dislike for the way the federal stimulus money is being spent, and his belief that the council's vote to pursue a planning and design study for a streetcar was misguided.

And you won't be surprised to hear that he figures he'll still be putting in a word here, a word there.

Keep an eye on McCrory. I expect he won't fade quietly into private life.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Less traffic downtown?

I'm working on non-blog matters today (I'm writing my regular Saturday oped column, this week about the Soul of the Community survey, and what people really want in order to feel loyalty to where they live. Read it Saturday at www.charlotteobserver.com/marynewsom)

So I'll just share this interesting info, which rolled into my e-mail inbox a few minutes ago. Weekday morning traffic in downtown Charlotte is down. It's from the city's Department of Transportation. In their words:

CDOT has released results of a traffic count study conducted in September 2009. The area examined was uptown Charlotte. Counts were collected during workdays from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m.

Analysis of the data indicates:

1. Counts of vehicles declined from 2006 to 2009 by over 6,000 cars (approximately 15%) to the volume last seen in 2005.
2. The average number of people in vehicles has remained fairly constant since 1997 at about 1.1.
3. While certainly the downturn in the economy has played a part in the change, the increased use of mass transit (CATS buses-local and Xpress and LYNX light rail) has contributed to less rush hour congestion as well.
4. Another contributing factor is the increase in uptown dwellers walking to work and school.
5. Many companies allow workers to telecommute.
6. Traffic counts were not conducted in 2007 and 2008 due to numerous large road construction projects in uptown.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's happening to East Boulevard?

A neighborhood activist in Dilworth tipped me off to property that's changed hands along East Boulevard, at the corner of Garden Terrace and East, where East Boulevard Bar and Grill has lodged for decades. EBB&G is moving (has moved?) up the street.

Word on the street is that Carolinas Medical Center bought that property and has "plans." I know a meeting is planned in coming weeks between hospital officials and Dilworth neighborhood leaders.

This much I know to be true: Many Dilworthians worry about the hospital's continuing expansion. Yes, expanding is understandable for a large, urban medical center. But CMC's campus so far is a suburban office-park-style configuration: lots of surface parking lots, parking decks with no other uses, oversteet walkways, grass that isn't a public park where you can play Frisbee or have a picnic, etc. etc. Not suitable for an in-town neighborhood.

But even if new buildings are better designed, as I hope to see, CMC's campus is still a gigantic single-use footprint. In an urban setting, that's not a good thing.

The city's zoning standards allow suburban office-park parking and other suburban-style hospital uses in any neighborhood if the property is zoned for office or commercial, etc.

Some of this block is zoned multifamily, so maybe there will be a chance for neighborhood and/or planner input. Let us hope. But a scroll through the Carolinas HealthCare System's board of directors shows a lot of big names - the kinds that too often make elected officials bark prettily, lie down and roll over.

A check of online property records for parcels in the old EBB&G block (which includes the site of the former Chez Daniel restaurant, among other businesses) lists as owner Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, a well-connected law firm (Russell Robinson, Robert Sink, Richard Vinroot, etc.)

I checked with a helpful city planner, who knew of no conversations about development plans for the block.

In September, the Observer's Karen Garloch reported that CHS president and COO Joe Piemonte said the hospital system didn't have specific plans for its East Boulevard property. "We're kind of standing pat ... and monitoring very closely for maintenance. Some of those buildings need to be torn down," he said then.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Walking? Hazardous duty in Raleigh, Charlotte

This morning's topic: the hazards of walking in Charlotte. One recent horror story: On Election Day my husband and I walked to our polling place, and then to the cleaner's – which meant crossing the vast Providence Road-Sharon Amity/Sharon Lane intersection. Even after we waited for the crossing light, we couldn't set foot into the crosswalk for fear of becoming grease spots on the asphalt, as vehicle after vehicle sped around the generously curved corner, designed to make it easy to turn at 30 mph (and making it easier to destroy anyone on foot). Knowing state law gives pedestrians in a crosswalk the right of way, and thus my heirs might at least get a nice settlement, I ventured into the crosswalk. A monstrous black SUV nearly creamed me. The blond driver, on her cellphone, never even saw me.

When we made it across, then we had to cross the other street. This time, we edged into the crosswalk so drivers could see us, and stop for us. A driver wanting to turn right (into our path) kept edging forward. I made eye contact, which usually signals to drivers to stop. So far so good.

The light changed. We stepped farther into the crosswalk. Zoom! She drove right in front of us. I am here to recount this only because we are reasonably spry. My husband shouted at her so loudly she – get this – stops her car in the left lane of Providence Road and sits there for several minutes. Hmmm. Driver safety class needed?

Which brings me to this: Although most Charlotte drivers aren't thinking about pedestrians, we are NOT the most dangerous N.C. city for pedestrians in the state. Raleigh takes that ranking.
(Here's a link to the Triangle Biz Journal article on the same ranking.) The study, by an advocacy group, Transportation for America, used an index based on the number of pedestrian fatalities relative to the average amount of walking by residents. The deaths came from 2007-08 data; the walking stat was based on the percentage who walk to work in 2000. I.E., it's not a perfect measure - but it's probably relatively close in terms of rankings if not absolute numbers.

Orlando, Fla., was the most dangerous city for pedestrians, followed by Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla. Memphis, Tenn., was No. 5. Charlotte was No. 12 on the list. All are in the Sun Belt (well, Louisville maybe is borderline), until you get to No. 14 (Detroit) and then to No. 20 (Kansas City). Here's a direct link to the rankings. And here's one to the study, called Dangerous By Design. That reflects the reality that most Sun Belt cities grew during the 20th century, when pedestrians were discounted completely in street and highway designs.

Pedestrian safety starts with safe sidewalks, of course. But there's more. Traffic speed is a huge factor, and for the last half of the 20th century even in-town streets were designed for speed, not for pedestrians. Another factor is turning radius of corners. If they're wide, pedestrians are endangered by speeding cars turning. A huge factor is enforcement. Where police take pedestrian safety seriously, drivers get the message. I don't think Boston drivers are more courteous or innately kinder. Yet in Boston they stop for pedestrians. Police enforcement (and seeing other drivers do it) trains you. In Charlotte I've seen police cars almost mow down pedestrians uptown.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

WashPost notes Hickory's plight

Last month it was "bust in banktown" - Binya Appelbaum's Washington Post situationer about Charlotte.

Today, economic trauma in Hickory makes above-the-fold of the Post front page.
Here's a link to the story. For those of us in the Carolinas, it's an old story: Textiles and furniture jobs have been bleeding overseas for years. (But we were comforting ourselves with all those stable, high-paying bank jobs.)

Interesting that in the larger U.S. media centers the plight of the Carolinas is only now sinking in. Charlotte and North Carolina have done a good job of positioning themselves in recent decades as "recession-proof" – now that it's clear we're NOT recession-proof, perceptions have lagged reality. As they usually do.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

A better South - with higher taxes?

Reminder: I'm at the conference, "Setting An Agenda for a Better South," sponsored by the Center for a Better South, based in Charleston.

We've just taken about 30 minutes to do a budget-setting exercise, based on the S.C. state budget. The assignment: Decide which programs you might want to give more money, which ones less, find new revenue if you can.

The room is over-represented with Democats, so we all raised taxes - the S.C. cigarette tax is nation's lowest, 7-cents a pack, so we all raised that. I was tempted to defund the S.C. governor's office completely. (Gov. Sanford, hello?). But it would be wrong.

Instead I, and plenty of others, reduced some sales tax loopholes, such as removing the $300 cap on sales taxes for cars.

But now we're talking about how unrealistic the exercise is, since only two of us here are elected officials (and a third is hoping to become one), and noting also that we took 30 minutes, when really you'd want to learn a lot more about which programs really did what.

But the point we're supposed to notice, I think, is that tax structures are in need of reform (not to raise taxes so much as to make them more fair), and that you really have to think about targeting your new spending in the areas you think are important. Most states have tax structures designed in the pre-World War II era, we were told this morning.

Jay Barth of Hendrix College is pointing out that many states, also, need revisions to state constitutions. SC constitution, e.g., says students need "minimally adequate education" says Adolphus Belk of Winthrop College. Thank goodness for NC's "sound basic education" clause. Maybe Judge Manning (Leandro case) needs to start riding a circuit through the South?

More that's good/bad about the South

More goods/bads about the South as a region:

Fried Chicken
Livermush (OK, I confess, I didn't call that out. But I should)
Plenty of land and opportunity to learn from others' mistakes

Racial attitudes impede progress.
"Race" is still black and white, ignoring other ethnicities.
Retributive justice is expensive (we put a lot of people in jail)
Unusual resistance to change
Poor reputation, and we live up to it sometimes
Sahara of the Bozart
Patronizing attitude toward woman
Kudzu (OK, I added that one myself, too)

What's good/bad about the South?

We're calling out goods/bads about the South as a region:


Southerners are storytellers
Humor and style
Agrarian connection to land
Rich connection to history
Strong public college system
Natural resources, mountains-beach, etc.
Strong family connections
Personal relationships

Reseparation in schools
Lack of progressive infrastructure
Deeply ingrained acceptance of violence in all forms
Awareness of history begins in 1860, ends in 1865
Lack of technological infrastructure in rural areas
Low tax base
We're not embarrassed enough about poverty
Lack of commitment to K-12 education
Historical avoidance of talking about "the bad stuff"
General acceptance of low expectations - "Well, we're a poor state."
Lack of regional planning

How - whether? - to improve the South

I'm spending the day at a conference at Davidson College, "Setting an Agenda for a Better South" - more info to come. There's a conference blog at thinksouth.org. Conference organizer is the Center for a Better South, based in Charleston, a " pragmatic, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to developing progressive ideas, policies and information for thinking leaders who want to make a difference in the American South." (Follow on Twitter at #bettersouth.)

For now, if you didn't see it, note my regular Saturday op-ed column, "The big national story that wasn't."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

From 'can-do city' to 'city that learns'

Mark Peres of Charlotte Viewpoint online magazine calls it "A call to redefine the city." It's a paper, available here, looking at whether Charlotte can change its self-image from "a can-do city that gets things done through
public-private partnerships” to “a smart city that learns.” It's a call to invert the city's top-down model into a bottom-up one that engages a broad base of citizens in the city's success.

The paper is an outgrowth of an event Peres and Civic By Design's Tom Low put together in October to explore how Charlotte might "create greater capacity in the region to address existing and future systemic issues." Peres took the conversations that night and distilled them into some key findings (the following is his words, not mine):

• The narrative that Charlotte is “a can-do city that gets things done through public-private partnerships” is code for many for top-down-driven initiatives. The topdown nature of the city has led to great civic successes, but an unintended consequence is passivity in the general populace and distrust among many.

• The city rewards social conformity. There is a perceived divide between corporate executives and non-conformist creative citizens.

• We are consumers of received culture – not producers of original work. Our investments – theaters, museums, arenas – reinforce consumption. We have not similarly invested in assets that lead to innovation: e.g., medical and law schools, interdisciplinary education, an MFA program in fine art or design, artist incubators.

• There is not a shared vision of the region. Citizens in different neighborhoods and municipalities are not well-connected to each other – let alone to the world. There is not a regional identity or a cosmopolitan character. Racial, ethnic, and immigrant populations tends to self-segregate.

• Charlotte is often described as a young city, but it was settled in the late 1700s. It is only young in that it has just recently become nationally recognized as a banking center, and its skyline and suburbs have recently been built. It is immature in its development of economic diversification, social capital, urban design, transit, and ecological sensitivity.
The paper ends on an optimistic note, logging in some of the many community conversations and cross-boundary initiatives going on. "In a fundamental way, community creation is the work of the 21st century," Peres concludes.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Firebird: Will she survive skateboarders?

At the unveiling Tuesday afternoon of the late Niki de Saint Phalle's sculpture, “Le Grand Oiseau de Feu sur L'Arche” (“The Large Bird of Fire on the Arch”), amid the cheers and greetings and oohing and aahing, a small worry emerged among the spectators: "How are they going to control the vandalism? How will they keep the skateboarders from damaging it?"

I heard this from a high-ranking city staffer, and from the head of one of the city's major cultural organizations, and from other cultural arts types plus some regular folks.

So, taking the opportunity to horn in on colleague Larry Toppman's interview with John Boyer, president of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, I asked him The Skateboard Question. Boyer was unflappable. "Speaking as a skateboarder ... " he began. Turns out, as a California boy, he was a skateboarder. "The best of them know better," he said, "and so I'm just trusting they understand a good thing when they see it."

The "Firebird" sits (squats?) in a plaza in front of the Bechtler on South Tryon Street. It's a sparkling mosaic of glass bits, depicting a bird standing on a large parabolic arch. People were having photos taken standing between its legs. (In the photo above Andreas Bechtler, whose collection forms the museum, is second from left.) A small girl of about 3 was putting her face right up to it to see how the mirrors changed her view. As I stood admiring it, I noticed how the mirrors showed random spots in the scene behind me: Two or three images of City Council member Warren Cooksey looking cheerful, one of Charlotte Symphony President Jonathan Martin looking pensive, and multiple other shards of the scene.

Boyer wasn't at all disturbed by the hands on the glassy sculpture. "When I see those fingerprints on the mirror, that is a beautiful thing," he said.

I asked artist Linda Luise Brown if she knew why Saint Phalle used the arch form. Brown noted Saint Phalle's work had a strong feminist core.
I did more research. I believe it is safe to conclude the Firebird is a "she." One of Saint Phalle's most famous works was the 1966 Hon-En-Katedral ("She-A-Cathedral) in Sweden, where you entered the exhibit by walking between the legs of (i.e. through the vagina of) a reclining woman. Her early works of female forms, were called Nanas. She once said, "For me, they were the symbol of a cheerful, liberated woman. Today, after nearly twenty years, I see them differently. I see them as heralds of a new matriarchal era, which I believe is the only answer."

Tuesday afternoon, people were drawn to the passage between the Firebird's legs. "A new matriarchal era." On South Tryon Street, no less!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Uff-Da! Twin Cities visit 'audacious' Charlotte

A large group of folks from Minneapolis-St. Paul were in town Sunday until Tuesday afternoon, on an inter-city Chamber visit. It's the sort of thing Charlotte civic and business leaders do every year, although this year they stayed home. Here's a link to the St. Paul Chamber's Web page, where you can see the agenda.

My friend Curtis Johnson, an educator and author of, among other things, the 2008 Citistates Report, was one of the group. He sent this e-mail report late Tuesday: "The delegation was duly stirred by its contact with Charlotte people. It prompted much discussion about whether Charlotte has audacity and MSP has ambivalence." He promises more info later.

Is Charlotte audacious? Are the Twin Cities ambivalent?

I sought the opinion of our departmental Minnesotan, editorial cartoonist Kevin Siers, who's from the Iron Range and lived in MSP for about 10 years.

"Audacious? If you mean Charlotte has more naked self-promotion, then yes," he said.
"They're [the Twin Cities] Midwestern, you know."

For the record, he points out that St. Paul and Minneapolis have distinctly differing personalities. SP is blue-collar, Catholic, and "has more interesting architecture." Minneapolis is Lutheran and "lots of steel and blue glass."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Listening to the 'political slime' alarm

I've interviewed a lot of politicians, and sometimes – not most of the time, but sometimes – you feel as if you want to take a shower afterward. The two who set off that slime-alarm bell most loudly? Jim Black and Mike Easley.

Black, the Matthews optometrist and former N.C. House speaker, is now in prison for a variety of election-related (and cash-in-envelopes-in-the-men's-room-at-the-Capital-Grille-related) behaviors. Former Gov. Mike Easley is being depicted by Observer and Raleigh News & Observer coverage, not to mention at this week's state elections board hearings, as extremely challenged in the ethics department.

From now on, I will listen to my instincts more often. There have been some other candidates over the years, some of them still in office, who set off that alarm. I'm not going to say who, because to accuse them of being crooks, without having evidence, would be libel. And it would be unfair, because there is the possibility my slime alarm isn't 100 percent accurate. (For the record, none of the City Council candidates or mayor candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot set off the slime alarm. I don't agree with some of them, but that's different.)
And don't get me started on the "crazy as a bedbug" alarm. That's an even longer list ...

Monday, October 26, 2009

'Firebird' has landed

A large white tent positioned in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art was my clue. I was heading back from the Starbux at The Square and spotted it. Hmmm. It's right where the Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture The Firebird is supposed to go. Being a snoopy journalist, I concluded it might well be a tent covering the sculpture itself.

I jaywalked across Tryon and noted that the yellow "keep out" plastic tape was down on the sidewalk side, i.e. public right of way, so I walked up and peeked through the openings in the tent. Saw a ga-zillion small mirrors.

The Firebird landed on Saturday, arriving in two pieces, on a truck. (The photo above was taken Saturday by Observer staff photog Yalonda M. James. The man depicted is Andreas Bechtler, whose art collection the museum will house.) It's now under a tent while it's being worked on by conservator Lech Juretko, who'll be cleaning it, replacing damaged tiles, etc. Official unveiling will be Nov. 3 - Election Day.

The Firebird is mirror mosaics over polyester, on steel innards. The late de saint Phalle (1930-2002) created it in 1991. Bechtler press info says it's 146 inches (12 feet) tall.
I think it is destined to become a Charlotte favorite. As such, it will need a name. Birdie? FB? Sparky?

Commuter rail - westward ho?

Commuter rail to ... I bet you're thinking, " ... to Davidson and North Mecklenburg." A rail line to the north is one of CATS' top priorities, to be built as soon as the feds cough up some money to build it.

In Gaston County, though, they're thinking commuter rail from Charlotte to Gastonia. The Gaston Gazette recently reported on the City of Gastonia's first estimates of what it would cost to build a commuter line on the old Piedmont & Northern railbed, which runs from Charlotte to Mount Holly and on to Gastonia: $265 million to $300 million.

Part of the route's right of way – between Mount Holly and Charlotte – is controlled by CSX and carries freight. The N.C. Rail Division of the N.C. DOT owns the 11.6 miles from Mount Holly to Gastonia, plus a 3-mile spur to Belmont. Here's a link to a map of the P&N line in Gaston County. And here's a link to the NCDOT's page showing the rail rights of way it owns. The P&N was built by tobacco and power company magnate James B. Duke, and carried passengers until 1951.

At the moment, of course, there's no state, federal or local funding for this rail project. And the Charlotte Area Transit System (aka CATS) doesn't have the P&N line as one of its five proposed transit corridors. It's just an idea – but one with support among some key Gaston County leaders, who see a stronger connection to Charlotte as a way to boost economic prospects in a county where unemployment last month was 13.3 percent.

Reminder of terminology: "Commuter rail" typically means a passenger train akin to the inter-city Amtrak service, although some commuter rail uses newer technology, and the cars are usually less comfy. Stations are relatively far apart compared with subway, streetcar, light rail service. But don't call it "heavy rail." That's a term for a system with a powerful electric rail down there with the tracks. It's the "third rail," the kind you should never, ever touch – hence the expression, "Social Security (or any other untouchable policy) is the third rail of American politics." Subways, not commuter trains, tend to be "heavy rail."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Progressive zoning plans - not here

The city of Miami last night adopted a zoning code overhaul, called Miami 21. Here's the Miami Herald article on it. Why should folks around here care? Here's why:

The new zoning overhaul is what's called a "form-based code." Raleigh is about to write one. Cabarrus County already has one. So does Davidson. Miami is the largest city, so far, to adopt one, but Denver is likely to adopt its own comprehensive form-based code in a matter of months, says blogger Mike Lydon. It's an approach to zoning that many progressive cities are taking on. Should Charlotte?

A form-based code bases rules that govern planning and zoning on buildings' form, not their use. In other words, what goes on inside a building (residence? office? store?) is less important than how the building fits in with what's around it.

For instance, it says parking lots have to be behind new buildings, and the buildings have to sit at the sidewalk – which makes walking down the sidewalk more attractive, thus encouraging people to walk instead of drive.

Form-based codes also generally use an approach with a weird-sounding name that makes plenty of sense – a "transect." It means you look at which areas are intensely urban, or completely rural, or somewhere in between and design things such as streets, sidewalks, even storm water management, based on how urban or suburban or rural an area is. It prevents, for instance, plopping a highway designed for intercity travel (think I-277) into a dense urban core. To move traffic there, it would say, use a high-capacity boulevard. (Think Champs-Elysee.)

Just as important, when adopted, a form based code is a plan with teeth. It overlays the city's expectations for urban density or suburban density or rural density onto the whole jurisdiction, complete with the zoning rules that govern those areas. So the "plan" isn't just a guideline but is a legal requirement. Imagine that!

One of the leaders of Miami's effort was the dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a luminary in the New Urbanism movement.

Here's a link to the Web site for the code itself. And if it rains today and you're looking for some meaty reading, here's the pdf for the code itself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Don't waste time seeking hubby in CLT, blog says

Faithful reader "Rebecca" shares a link to The Daily Beast's new city ranking, "Best (and Worst) Cities to Meet Men."

Our beloved Queen City ranked 26 out of 36. At least we beat San Jose.

"After New York City, Charlotte is the country's banking capital, making it the home to a number of young yuppies in training," quoth the Beast. "Though highly educated, the city has a serious shortage of available bachelors. You'd be better off hedging your bets on Wall Street."
The posting quotes the editor of Creative Loafing, Carlton Hargro: "The men say the women are difficult to date in the sense that people don’t go out as much, and the women say that the guys are in a perpetual state of adolescence and they’re just trying to get laid; they’re not interesting in wining and dining.” Maybe they shoulda asked our "Paid To Party" blogger Sarah Aarthun?

Quips Rebecca: "Apparently we are not only dumb but our men are cheap and immature." The Daily Beast, you'll recall, ranked Charlotte at No. 16 among what it deemed the smartest cities.

WashPost on the QC: 'Bust in Boomtown'

The Washington Post's Binyamin Appelbaum – whom you might remember as a business-staff reporter at the Observer until 2007 – weighs in today in the Post with a look at Charlotte: "The Bust Hits the Boomtown that Banks Built."

He writes that the opening of the cultural campus uptown "may be a last hurrah."

An excerpt:

"Few American cities prospered more over the past two decades than Charlotte, its growth propelled and gilded by Wachovia and its crosstown rival, Bank of America. Executives shoehorned gaudy mansions into old neighborhoods around downtown. Workers poured into vast subdivisions on the city's ever-expanding periphery. With coffers overflowing, giddy public officials spent tax dollars on a manmade river for whitewater rafting.

"Now Charlotte is suffering. Unemployment has spiked to 12 percent, well above the national average."

Appelbaum was one of the key investigators in the Observer's lengthy, multi-year look at mortgage fraud, foreclosures and Beazer Homes. Read the "Sold a Nightmare" series here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where developer money flows (updated)

At last week's East Charlotte candidate forum, one question the neighborhood group asked of all City Council candidates was whether they had received a campaign donation from REBIC, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, a powerful lobby of developers and real estate executives. (Technically the campaign donation is from its PAC known by SPAACE.)

Libertarian Travis Wheat, Democrat Darrin Rankin's wife (who was representing him) and Republicans Matthew Ridenhour and Jaye Rao reported no REBIC donations as of last week. Democrats Patrick Cannon and David Howard and Republicans Edwin Peacock III and Tariq Scott Bokhari all reported receiving a total of $1,000.

Despite the lack of REBIC money, Rankin's campaign spending reports show campaign contributions from uber-developer John Crosland ($1,000), uber-lobbyist Bailey Patrick Jr. ($100), developer Howard Bissell III (son of Howard "Smokey" Bissell).

Incumbent Democrat Susan Burgess bragged last week at the forum that she had never gotten a REBIC donation, which she attributed to her positions on environmental and other issues. But a close look at her campaign reports shows generous developer money flowing her way. Here's a sampling (all are developers unless otherwise noted): Clay Grubb $1,000, David Miller $1,000, Stoney Sellars $1,000, construction magnate Luther Cochrane $750, Smokey Bissell $500, real estate lawyer Collin Brown $500, John Crosland $500, Afshin Ghazi $500, David Haggard $500, Fred Klein $500, Al Levine $500, Daniel Levine $500, Todd Mansfield of Crosland $500, Pat Rodgers of Rodgers Builders $500, real estate lawyer Jeff Brown $400, lawyer Bailey Patrick $200, John Collett $250, Jim Dulin $250, David Furman $250, Peter Pappas $250, "unknown" with Childress Klein gave $250, Ned Curran $150.

Update, 3:55 p.m. Tuesday 10/20: Burgess has added a reply in the comments below. Also, be aware other City Council candidates also get developer money. This is NOT a complete list of any candidate's donors, but just for starters:

- Edwin Peacock III: $1,000 from John Crosland, $450 from Ghazi, and $1,000 each from Al and Daniel Levine.

- Patrick Cannon $1,000 from Crosland, $500 from Clay Grubb, $400 from Stoney Sellars.

- Tariq Bokhari reports $500 from Crosland, and $150 from lawyer Bailey Patrick.

- David Howard: $1,000 from Crosland.

- Andy Dulin (District 6): $500 from Crosland, plus $1,000 each from the Levines.

- Warren Cooksey (District 7): $250 from Crosland, $500 from Joel Randolph (in Sept. 2008).

Read all the donation reports for yourself: Here's a link. Be aware that the final reports aren't due until after the election. And it's sometimes instructive to see who chips in with donations after it's clear who'll be in office. Next campaign finance report due Oct. 26. Then nothing more is due until Jan. 29. It's remarkably handy for keeping the voting public from learning who might have tossed in a big bundle right before election day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Weirder Charlotte or Starchier Charlotte?

Uh oh. Trouble ahead for Tom Low's "Keep Charlotte Starched" (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) campaign. My colleague Jeff Elder reports from this weekend's Charlotte BarCamp 2 that folks in attendance wanted to start a Make Charlotte Weirder movement. (Of course, Little Shiva beat everyone to this, several years ago, with her WeirdCharlotte.com site)

So, what will it be? Weirder Charlotte? Starched Charlotte? Do we burn the khakis or starch them? Wear jeans instead? Starched jeans?

Which city is starchier - Charlotte or Atlanta? Where does RDU fit in this spectrum? Weirder than Charlotte, more starched than Austin? My two-cents: We should try to shoot the moon (card-playing term, folks, not a NASA attempt) and aim for San Francisco-level weirdness. What with Wells and all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is landlord "compromise" in jeopardy?

Based on comments at Monday's City Council meeting and at the Tuesday City Council candidate forum in East Charlotte, I count at least five council members who have indicated they support a landlord registry program as originally proposed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department: All residential rental property owners would have to register and pay a small fee.

But the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition lobbied against that proposal, so the City Council committee studying the matter (Democrats Warren Turner and Patsy Kinsey, and Republicans Edwin Peacock and Andy Dulin) ordered a "compromise." The compromise would register only the worst of the landlords - worst being the ones at the top of the list for criminal activity, etc.

However, council members Turner, James Mitchell, Michael Barnes and Nancy Carter all said they support full registry, not partial. Anthony Foxx did not stake himself out Monday but asked a question in order to elicit the answer that full registration would noticeably reduce the registration fee, as it would be spread over a much larger number of landlords.

Kinsey, who is on the committee that coughed out the compromise, pointed out that the compromise was the only way to get the proposal out of committee, as they were stalemated.
Susan Burgess said at the forum Tuesday she supports full registration.

If Kinsey OR Foxx were to vote for full registration rather than partial, that measure would pass.

But, as Burgess said when I asked her Tuesday about it, 6-5 isn't a veto-proof vote. Would the mayor veto it? She said she didn't know.

For those who haven't checked in on this issue, the police want a way to get problem landlords to the table to talk with police about measures to reduce crime on their properties. Police also want a way to be able to find out who the property owners are. They say it can be difficult to find telephone numbers or responsive people with some out-of-town property owners. Neighborhood activists over the years say the same thing - some property owners really don't want to be found.

The question is whether it's worth the hassle of citywide registration to get to the comparatively few landlords causing problems. REBIC and the apartment association don't think it is. The police originally said it was. (The staff needed for the program would be funded with the fees.) When told to "compromise," of course, they dutifully complied.

Key fact: The matter comes before the council in November - after the election. So anything can happen.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Congestion is GOOD?

Provocative piece on Saturday in the Wall Street Journal by New Yorker writer David Owen, author of the new "Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability."

Here's his point, in a nutshell: Measures to ease traffic congestion are not good for the environment, because congestion is what makes people decide to opt for mass transit, which is decidedly better than driving.

He's right, of course, although his seeming prescription – just let them sit in traffic if they won't take the subway – seems a bit New York-o-centric. After all, in only a tiny handful of U.S. cities is taking mass transit much of an option. But there's much merit in the idea of figuring out how to funnel more money into transit revenue, through such ideas as bridge access fees (well, not in Charlotte) or congestion pricing scenarios.

A glimpse of progressive transportation

Parents, students walk to Olde Providence Elementary last Wednesday

After my Saturday column about kids and walking to school, I got a meaty e-mail from a reader who lived for many years in Oregon, but who has moved back to North Carolina. She loves it here, but longs for the more progressive planning and transportation options of her former city. She points out:

1. The Safe Routes to School bill passed in 2004 or 5, I think (we moved back to N.C. after 14 years in Lake Oswego, OR, so my memory may be failing me). This bill requires that cities, counties, and school districts all work together to provide safe walking or bike riding routes to school. Many cities/school districts now have route maps; the walking school bus you mentioned is a daily occurrence, and parents who no longer sit in long lines to drop off their children in the car have found that they get to work faster.
2. Every 5th grader in the state now receives bicycle safety training, originally started by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (of which I was a member). I participated in the “graduation,” and was still surprised to witness children giving their signals correctly, stopping at stop signs…and then turning without looking both ways! The trainer said that at this age, their brains cannot fully detect distance, and training in the 5th grade is the perfect starting point.
3. The Bicycle Bill passed in 1975 and requires that anytime a new roadway is built or reconfigured (not resurfaced), that 3-6 ft bike lanes must be added. It’s the law. Statewide.
[Note from Mary: In Charlotte the developers' lobby stoutly opposes city efforts to require bike lanes on collector streets, because of the "added cost" of bike lanes.]
4. “Cycle Oregon” is a yearly, quite expensive, bike tour covering different routes through Oregon. This ride is effectively changing the minds of the anti-cyclist, especially in rural areas because of the way Cycle Oregon has approached the ride. Simply, for each stopover in whatever small town they arrive, that town gets a pot of $$$$$ (comes out of the entry fee). Now towns vie to be a part of the ride and cyclists find tents, food, music, set up for them by the locals and motorists honking and waving, rather than trying to run them down.
5. Each city in the Portland metro region has a transportation advisory board (of which I was a member/chair for several years); and each city has to strive to meet alternative transportation goals set forth by law from the state, county, and METRO (regional government).
6. The Willamette Pedestrian (yes…I was also a member) Coalition is a nonprofit striving for safer walking access.
7. ACTS Oregon is the Alliance for Community Traffic Safety (of which I was a member representing my city), comprising police, fire, EMT, motorcycle, light rail, bus, truck, bicycle, pedestrian, disabled, “safe routes to school,” train, school, city, county, ODOT. Any group interested in moving people safely is welcome to join. In any given conference, members can participate in activities such as sitting in a big rig to understand where the blind spots are, taking a tour by bike in that town to check out their cycling infrastructure, hearing a talk by Southern Pacific on how to avoid train accidents, attending the awards given to police who go “above the call of duty,” etc. Bringing myriad groups together to discuss safety effectively put an end to bickering about whose safety is more important.

The attitude toward cyclists and pedestrians is not perfect in Oregon - do not think I’m talking alternative transportation utopia! There is still conflict. That said, in Portland alone, over 10,000 people/day cross the bridges (counters have been set up for years) on bike/foot to get in and out of the city, and road expansion has been minimized because they’ve added light rail, trolleys, sidewalks, and bike paths. The suburbs are even connected.

Personally, even though we lived in a suburb of Portland, we were able to live car-free for the 14 years there because I could plop my bike on the bus, ride the first leg (fairly dangerous stretch that now has a light rail line with bike access running alongside it—happened AFTER we left), get off the bus at the Sellwood Bridge and ride the rest of the way (2 miles) alongside the Willamette River on a dedicated bike/ped highway. Daily I passed fathers/mothers on their bikes with their children on bikes or carriers on the way to school/work. Those children were ALWAYS smiling!

Sorry to be so wordy; moving back to NC has been a blessing because both our families live here. I don’t miss the rain in Oregon, but I do miss the power that the public had to ensure that every man, woman, and child had safe access, whether they were in a car, on foot, on a bicycle, or in a boat! We also had to buy a car and I’ve gained 10 pounds since I stopped riding my bike everywhere!

Note: I’ve seen a lot of letters to the editor about light rail, cycling, etc., and have never wanted to respond because I’ll get told “move back to Oregon” by other readers. I don’t want to move back, but I would like to see the Charlotte metro region move into the future!

Keep up the discussion!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Challenges for 2020 Uptown

Let's get down to it. The Center City 2020 Vision Plan launches this month. There will be a public workshop Oct. 21, 5:30 p.m. at the Charlotte Convention Center.

The nonprofit Charlotte Center City Partners, the city and the county held a media event on Sept. 30, including a tour of neighborhoods in and around uptown that will be part of this study. The Observer's April Bethea wrote an article, and on Sunday the editorial board opined, with "New uptown plan to look beyond 'uptown.' "

CCCP, in particular, deserves credit for pushing this idea. Some of my sources tell me it's CCCP – not the city or county – providing the energy behind the 2020 Plan. CCCP President Michael Smith and his senior vice president of planning and development, Cheryl Myers, have a good grasp of the many issues involved.

So here's my two-cents worth on what I hope the 2020 Plan looks at:

• What's wrong with the sidewalk experience uptown? How can it be improved? What needs to change (UMUD standards, for instance) to ensure that we don't keep replicating the errors?
By "sidewalk experience" I don't mean just cracked pavers or crosswalks or utility poles blocking sidewalks on lesser streets. I mean whether it's interesting to walk down the sidewalk. Can you look into store windows? (We know the sad answer to that one, alas.)

Walk down East Trade Street from College to the Transportation Center and you'll see what I mean. Surely we can do better than EpiCentre loading docks and Ritz-Carlton driveways for what should be one of uptown’s premier streets.

Or walk along the "new" Brevard Street between the backside of the Convention Center and the backside of the NASCAR Hall of Fame complex. You'll see that from an urban design standpoint, "backside" is a most polite term. Can I say that the new buildings have created a sidewalk experience that sucks? How did that happen, with the city government's deep involvement in those projects? We do, in fact, employ urban designers. Were they listened to? Whatever happened to requiring street-level retail? This is not a block anyone should be proud of creating.

• Grapple with the pre-existing and outdated zoning categories. They’re what bring us new, suburban-style branch banks right across the street from the urban Metropolitan development in Midtown. They bring us the new, suburban-style Bojangles at Third and Charlottetowne Avenue, and the new, suburban-style Family Dollar at Five Points next to Johnson C. Smith University. It's fine to allow old, nonconforming buildings. But for heaven's sake, if new buildings are going up, can't you ensure that they're not the same old suburbia-in-the-wrong-place?
Two years ago, the city's planners were drowning in rezonings and didn't have time for this. Guess what? Now they do. And they aren't looking at this?
This is where Planning Director Debra Campbell could play an important leadership role.

• Related to the previous: How can the city help create true “centers” for neighborhoods – neighborhood centers where you can easily walk to stores, restaurants and offices? It's hard to explain this concept to people whose only frame of reference is shopping centers and subdivisions, but in older cities different neighborhoods have small "downtown"-like clusters of stores and other businesses. In Boston, the Brighton, Jamaica Plain and North End neighborhoods are good examples. Almost all that's left of what Charlotte used to have are the Plaza-Central and NoDa commercial areas, both compact and walkable.
The city is committed to a "centers and corridors" strategy. But so far it's concentrating on "corridors."
Some of the newer, mixed-use projects (e.g. the Metropolitan) are too much reminiscent of shopping centers rather than neighborhood centers. Part of it is weak project design, part of it is how developers have to put projects together to get financing (including locally owned retail makes it well nigh impossible for developers to get financing), and part of it, I fear, is that the idea of incremental, small-scale buildings owned by different owners has gone the way of the Edsel. Can we bring it back?

• Engage Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in this conversation. I mean, really engage. Few things can hurt a neighborhood on the brink faster than being assigned to a low-performing school – or revive one quicker than being reassigned to a popular, high-performing school. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools needs to be a full participant in this plan. Yes, school assignment can be nasty and politically radioactive. That's why they call it leadership.

• Why 2020? I want a plan that looks well beyond 10 years. This should be the 2050 Vision Plan. We've had more than enough short-term thinking. The quest for short-term profits at the expense of long-term financial stability is one of the things that drove the global economy into this horrible economic slump. Charlotte's center city planning should rise above that.

(A note of disclosure: Observer publisher Ann Caulkins is a co-chair of the CCCP planning effort. She hasn't told me to write this, or told me what to write. As of this moment she doesn't even know I'm writing this, much less know what I'm saying.)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Planners DO try to reduce paper

This just in: Planner Tom Drake, hearing about Stephen Overcash's lament about the 26 copies of each rezoning plan, tells me that the city Planning Department now lets you submit only 12 copies plus a CD. But you have to do that each time you submit a new plan for review.

That's only half the paper, which is something, I suppose. ...

Ahem, Charlotte: REDUCE, reuse, recycle?

Got an interesting e-mail from local architect Stephen Overcash of Overcash-Demmitt Architects, responding to my Saturday op-ed on Charlotte and recycling. He points out that there are other ways in which, in his opinion, the city's operations could be far "greener." Take, for instance, the dozens of very large paper plans you have to submit multiple times for every rezoning.

His note:

Hi, Mary:I enjoyed your article last weekend about the City of Charlotte not really being very green and I agree. I am an architect and am appalled at all the waste in the governmental system. There was a discussion over a year ago if the City should hire a Green Guru to help make recommendations, but the Mayor stated that he thought it wouldn't be prudent to incur that expense in the midst of a downturn in the economy. First of all, a good Guru will save the taxpayer his salary many times over in reduced costs. Second, I think with all the professionals that are unemployed, it would be a good time to "get a bargain."

I agree that we need better receptacles for recycling, but out of the three: reduce, reuse and recycle....recycling is a good, but distant third choice. The City of Charlotte should be striving to reduce.....

One example of my frustration: Every time I apply for a rezoning, I am told to submit 26 full-size sheets (sometimes the submittal is 2-3 sheets). Supposedly these are distributed around the various agencies that review them, but we only get comments from about 8 agencies. When I have repeatedly asked the Planning Department (and Debra Campbell directly), I am given some version of an answer that "that's the way it is," "that's the way it's always been done," etc.

When I asked her where the additional 20 sets go, she informed me that many departments, such as DOT, have several reviewers and they all need their own set. Planning is not amenable to a couple of sets to share and a PDF to review on the screen ... or better yet, just an electronic file where I don't have to drive the hard sets down. Once we receive comments, they request another 26 sets, for the second review. Once we are approved, they request a final 15 sets. Where is all this paper going? Why can't the City come into the 20th Century and only request an electronic file that would save storage space, additional files, air conditioning, on and on? (I pray that all the old sets of drawings are at least being recycled behind the scenes, but have been afraid to ask.)

I appreciate your articles trying to keep a little pressure on the Government.

Disgusted in Charlotte,

Stephen Overcash

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Smart city? Raleigh wins round 1

They may think they're so smart in the Capital City and the Bull City (aka RDU) but the QC has something up its sleeve. More on that below.

First, if you haven't seen this, it's a fun survey from the blog, The Daily Beast. Today even the august Observer editorial board weighed in.
The Daily Beast has ranked a bunch of cities as "America's Smartest Cities" and our Tar Heel colleague up I-85 snagged first place. Raleigh-Durham, says the Beast, "has just about every intangible useful in attracting and developing a smart populace: It’s a university hub, including two of the nation’s elite schools (Duke and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), and those schools led to one of the nation’s great technology incubators (Research Triangle). On top of that, Raleigh, as the state’s capital, attracts engaged political minds, as well." (You may insert favorite joke here about Raleigh politicians.)

Charlotte hit No. 16 – sort of, well, unremarkable. We were deemed less smart than Hartford-New Haven, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City (ouch). But we bested Hotlanta (No. 23) as well as No. 30, Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek (but where's the sport in that?), and Greensboro and Jacksonville, Fla., tied for No. 37.

Here's what the editorial board had to say. One might say we were bemused, and noted the lack of mention of N.C. State.

But remember that hornets nest? The Queen City is a fighter. So if you are interested in seeing this region become smarter – catch up to Baltimore, anyone? – consider this Oct. 15 event: "A Smarter Charlotte."

A group of people put together by Mark Peres (above, right) of the online magazine Charlotte Viewpoint and Tom Low (right) of Civic by Design will host, "A Smarter Charlotte: Enhancing Our Community Intelligence for the 21st Century." It's 5:30-8:30 p.m. at the just-will-have-opened Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture at South Tryon and Stonewall streets. Tickets cost $20, which includes refreshments. For an agenda and to register, click here.

"Good things occur when good people convene in the right way," say the organizers.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Recycling, redux

If you didn't see my Saturday column on recycling in Charlotte, take a look here. And in a related matter, in a previous posting, I promised follow-up information on the new recycling bins, and whether we could recycle the old red ones.

Some answers, courtesy of Gerald Gorbey, deputy director of solid waste services for the City of Charlotte.

Can or will the city recycle the old red bins (which are No. 2 plastic)?

Gorbey: The city will not require that red bins be returned. Citizens will be allowed to use them for marshalling bins for their recyclables or for storage use, etc. If citizens prefer to throw their red bin away, the City will collect it and recycle it. The exact process for doing the bin pick-up has not been determined yet. The bin will be recycled either through the county’s material recycling center or through a contractual arrangement with the roll-out cart company that provides the new recycle carts.

What color will the new, rollout recycling bins be:


Any plans to begin recycling of compostables/kitchen scraps?

No plans are underway for providing this service.

And to repeat:

The new rollout recycling will be "single-stream" which means you don't have to sort it, just dump it all into the bin, which will have a lid to keep it dry and, in theory, keep out varmints. However, they are not raccoon- or possum-proof. Yes, I once encountered a possum that had crawled into our gray rollout bin. And another time, a trail of peanut shells led away from the bin, where I had tossed some stale peanuts after a trip to the circus.

As to whether we'll ever see the sort of easy recycling bins uptown that I mentioned in my column, well, who knows? City council member Edwin Peacock told me today that "phone calls have been made."

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Sound off on city's energy policy

A city press release informs us that Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents can submit ideas and suggestions online about how the city should spend $6.7 million, part of a federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant.

The grant is to invest in projects to reduce fossil fuel emissions and energy consumption and to create "green jobs" and renewable technologies.

To give your ideas or take the Community Input Survey, visit www.charlottenc.gov and click on City Energy Strategy. The survey ends at midnight Monday (Oct. 5).

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Can we recycle the recycling bin?

As of next summer the city of Charlotte is changing the way it collects recyclables. The red bins will give way to large rollout containers (an example is shown above) where you'll dump everything and roll it to the curb every other week. This will, in theory, inspire more people to recycle more things. (Clarification: You'll have a recycle rollout bin as well as a regular garbage rollout bin.)

Even if it doesn't, at least now you can roll it out instead of having to haul a bin loaded with newspapers, magazines, cans, glass, etc.

But what should the city do with the red plastic bins? I was talking today with council member Edwin Peacock III, who chairs the council's environment committee, and he said he'd be interested in hearing suggestions.
He noted his own family's red bin had been used for sledding and for washing a dog, as well as recycling. At our place we have three red bins (we read a lot of newspapers), and two are held together with duct tape, having had close encounters with various vehicles.

I vote for recycling the bins. But are they No. 1 or No. 2 plastic?
If not, maybe there's a public art project awaiting, involving a collage of red plastic shards ...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What doomed the Coffee Cup?

For those who don't always see the Saturday Charlotte Observer, here's a link to my regular weekly op-ed column. Today's topic: what really doomed the Coffee Cup restaurant, the building demolished on Thursday. "It was pricey dirt that killed the Cup."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Charlotte's energy strategy

Tuesday night, the public's invited to a meeting at Charlotte's city-county government center uptown to discuss and share ideas for the city's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (Energy Strategy). The city got a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and if it can develop and submit an energy strategy in 120 days it will be eligible for the first half of more than $6.4 million in grant funding.

The public workshop starts at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers, then "idea sharing" in the lobby. If you can't make it you can watch it on TV on Channel 16 (if you have Time Warner Cable) or online at http://www.charlottenc.gov/

Here's my 2-cents worth. If you have yours, go tell the folks next Tuesday:

1. Figure some sort of horrific punishment for office building managers who set the A/C too cold during the summer. Maybe chain them to large blocks of ice in January? Force them to pick cucumbers in 95-degree sunlight? Think of all the energy we'd save if indoor summertime temps were normal (75 or so) instead of 68. I went around with a thermometer earlier this summer and noted numerous uptown offices that were icy.

2. Change the tree ordinance to require large maturing shade trees (not teeny crape myrtles or narrow cypress trees) planted in all surface parking lots and located so that they provide shade for the parking places, especially in the afternoon. Hint from a long-time Southerner: If you can park in the shade, your car won't be 150 degrees when you get inside. The tree ordinance already requires trees, but apparently shade hasn't been much of a value, hence the shrubby little things you see.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Art comes to Central Ave.

My Twitter buddy @underoak (aka Merry Oaks resident and free-lance journalist and social media expert Andria Krewson) shares this photo of one of the murals going up along Central Avenue, part of the city-funded streetscape project. If you'd like to see sketches from the other artists selected for the series of murals on vinyl, visit the UnderOak blog.

Andria tells me the stencil-like bike wheels at the mural's bottom are the artist's nod to freelance photographer and avid biker Nancy Pierce, who lives in Merry Oaks, and other neighbor bikers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Growing church vs. historic bungalows

It was easily the most interesting of the rezoning cases the City Council heard last night – and the one that brings up the trickiest issue of the evening: What rules, if any, should the city have to limit institutions that encroach into neighborhoods? And how do you deal with big ugly surface parking lots? They're not pedestrian-friendly, nor do they contribute to the much-loved-by-planners "vibrant urban village." They're also polluters, due to polluted storm runoff.

A church in the Wilmore neighborhood wants to expand and build a large new building and a big surface parking lot on a street now holding several historic bungalows. (By "historic," here, I don't mean designated landmarks or in a designated historic district, simply a neighborhood that dates to the turn of the 19th-20th century and has an ambiance akin to Dilworth, Elizabeth and Wesley Heights.) The church has said it won't demolish the five houses but will move them to other property it owns.

The matter was a public hearing on zoning case 2008-158. The council vote should come next month.

Several things made this an interesting presentation. First, the council chamber was virtually filled with members of the church, Greater Galilee Baptist Church, whose current sanctuary (shown above, photo courtesy of the church) is on South Mint Street at West Park Avenue.

Second, one speaker in favor of rezoning had a great line: "We, as people, are in noncompliance. With Jesus."

Yet opponents had some good points: Why should a church be allowed to remove five houses and put up a surface parking lot? As neighbor Chip Cannon put it, this would be putting "a suburban mega-church in the center of a small-scale pedestrian neighborhood."

Some political realities are in order. This church is African American. Two at-large council members are running for mayor and both want African American votes (though black candidate Anthony Foxx has an edge there). Among nine at-large candidates (for four slots), three of the four Democrats are African American. Two at-large incumbents – Democrat Susan Burgess and Republican Edwin Peacock – will have to vote on this petition. Burgess, in particular, will want as many Democratic votes as she can get in November. If she faces black voters' triple-shotting for the three black at-large candidates, she'll have a problem.

Another political reality: No one wants to vote against a church, especially an obviously growing church. Maybe they'd do that in some other city in some other state, but in oh-so-Christian Charlotte? Not on your (eternal) life.

Yet another political reality: How fair would it be to crack down on an African American church when Carolinas Medical Center has been allowed to devour vast tracts of Dilworth with, near as I can tell, hardly a peep of protest from the city? And the affluent and predominantly white Myers Park United Methodist plopped a surface parking lot (nicely landscaped, though) at the prime corner of Providence-Providence-Queens-Queens. No one told them, "No." (Note to out-of-town readers: That intersection is for real. Don't even ask.)

Final political reality: I chanced to be sitting near Planning Director Debra Campbell and asked if there were any zoning standards that said you can't put in a parking lot, and she said, only in the UMUD (uptown) zoning. I asked if planners had considered cracking down on surface parking lots in other zoning categories. She just laughed – heartily, I must add – and said, "No way."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Corbu? Or You?

Yesterday I posed the question of who should be on the list of worst urbanists – spinning off Planetizen.com's entertaining Top 100 Urbanists list.

The easy, cliched choice would be Le Corbusier, the brilliant but destructive architect whose vision for the city of the future was one of tall towers surrounded by large lawns and big highways. In other words, this guy invented Charlotte's suburban office park development Ballantyne, as well as this nation's many failed public housing towers. But Corbu was avant-garde and influential, and many others took up his theories. This was especially true in the U.S., where they dovetailed nicely with the auto and petroleum industries' push to get everyone into automobiles and driving a lot.

But thinking of Le Corbusier made me think of General Motors and its famous Futurama display at the 1939-40 New York Worlds Fair, depicted at right. Surely the automobile and petroleum industries – with their powerful influence on Congress and highway funding and with GM's purchase of many urban streetcar systems in order to dismantle them – did more to shape the nation's cities for the worse than any one architect could.

But then, of course, it's worth remembering that while Le Corbusier did influence huge numbers of architects in this country, Walter Gropius and his colleague Sigfried Giedion (who wrote "Space Time and Architecture") probably influenced more, during Gropius' many years at the Harvard School of Design. So maybe Gropius and Giedion should be on the list.
But again, wait. Architects challenge us to think. They may be wrong but who, really, decides what gets built? It's government that makes the rules that shape our cities. What about Herbert Hoover, who before he became president was Commerce Secretary and commissioned the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, which to this day underpins most land use ordinances in America and whose very foundation rests upon the theory that separating uses is the way to a safe and healthy city or town. As Jane Jacobs later showed us, it really isn't.

The federal government funded the interstate highway system, envisioned as a way to connect cities. But when it entered the city it caused open, ugly wounds to the urban fabric that continues to damage cities to this day.

It was the federal government whose rules for backing mortgage loans created the redlining that cut off access to credit for anyone who A) was black, or B) lived anywhere near black people, or C) was one of a variety of so-called undesirable ethnics, such as Mexican or Bohemian or D) lived anywhere near any of those so-called undesirable ethnics.

It was the federal government, again through its financing rules, that encouraged the sprawling, low-density suburban subdivision design that vanquished more urban dwelling forms.

Consider: The government is by the people, for the people and of the people. It's all of us. So maybe that worst urban thinker arrow should spin around and start pointing at all of us?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

But who oughtta be 'Worst Urbanist' ?

My colleague Jack Betts, who writes our This Old State blog, read the last post – Who tops 'Top Urbanist' list? – and suggested this, "Be fun sometime to do a list of the Ten Worst urban thinkers… There'd surely be some NC nominees." And he's surely right.

I saw that a commenter on my previous posting nominated Bissell Hayes to top the "sub-urbanism list." Right away, I started thinking about other Charlotteans (Bissell Hayes is a company, not a person, and now it's part of Cottingham-Chalk/Bissell-Hayes) who might be on that "worst urban thinkers" list.

Of course, A.G. Odell leaped to mind. He was a big proponent of uptown, to be sure, but his ideas for "improvement" were derivative of Robert Moses, or maybe Corbusier-esque. One reason downtown Charlotte has so many blocks and sectors that seem dead is that our civic leaders (Hugh McColl among them) kept following Odell's 1966 master plan for uptown development, when they shouldn't have. It tries to impose a single-use pattern, as in "here is your cultural district, there is your government district, here is your entertainment district" and so on. BAD idea.

At first I thought Henry Faison deserved a spot, for Eastland and other suburban shopping malls that wither, long after he's made his money and sold to others. But then, I thought, Faison isn't really an urban thinker, per se. He's just a developer doing what the city zoning and policies allow.

Here are Betts' suggestions:

• Whoever designed the Research Triangle Park – granted, it wasn't urban then but now it's an urban fortress, with concrete moat, in the midst of one the south's largest areas of urban academic sprawl.
• And how about whoever was mayor when the old Charlotte Coliseum was built way out yonder? [The first time that happened the mayor was Victor Shaw, but this being Charlotte he appointed a committee, headed by department store executive David Ovens, to work up a plan for a coliseum-auditorium project built in 1955 way out on Independence Boulevard. And the architect for both the old coliseum and Ovens auditorium? A.G. Odell. And while its location is horrible, and the big ugly parking lots are horrible, I do like the old Coliseum itself, with that great silver dome. And this being Charlotte, we did it again in the 1980s, when Harvey Gantt, an architect and planner was mayor. Built another coliseum way out on Tyvola Road./ mn]

• Or whoever was in charge of letting Raleigh's RBC Center get built in a place that makes visitors stand around in the parking lot after games or performances looking around in puzzlement: where are the bars, the pubs, the cafes, the restaurants, the museums? What were they thinking??????

• Or Tom White when he insisted the N.C. Museum of Art be built in an area where….(see RBC, above….) but at least there was a youth prison (Polk) handily right next door for the arts-and-petty theft crowd.

Who tops "Top Urbanist" list?

The Planetizen.com votes are in and - no surprise - Jane Jacobs has topped the voting of the 100 Top Urban Thinkers. If you don't want to take the time to follow the link to all 100, here are the Top 10:
1. Jane Jacobs
2. Andres Duany
3. Christopher Alexander
4. Frederick Law Olmsted
5. Kevin A. Lynch
6. Daniel Burnham
7. Lewis Mumford
8. Leon Krier
9. William H. Whyte
10. Jan Gehl

Sad to say, Charlotte's Terry Shook dropped off the list during the voting. And am I being persnickety in wondering if there's a whiff of sexism in the No. 2 position for Andres Duany and his partner (and wife, and dean of the U. of Miami School of Architecture) Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is way down at No. 24? Yes, Andres is the showman of the pair, no doubt. But still ...

Jane Jacobs' topping the list provides me with a chance to tout a new book about the Manhattan activist's battles with Robert Moses (who also made the list, but at No. 23, just below Baron Haussmann, who remade Paris in the 1800s). It's "Wrestling With Moses," by Anthony Flint. It's an excellent and readable account, and since biographies of Jacobs aren't plentiful it helps to fill some blanks in our understanding of her life and work. Here's a link to a long and excellent article about the book in The New Republic from Harvard's Ed Glaeser (who made Planetizen's list at No. 51).

Back to Jacobs being No. 1 - Here's one intriguing thought from Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura, Calif.:

"We're all better off for more attention being drawn to the work of Jane Jacobs -- not just 'Death and Life [of Great American Cities]' but her later work on economics and cities. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tony's book, I don't share his view that Jane Jacobs has won the legacy battle. The widespread embrace of her work is often shallow, and developers continue to push megadevelopments that look cute, but are barren monocultures that cannot replicate the 'complexity' she celebrated."