Saturday, February 28, 2009

NYC banning traffic on Broadway

(Photos show Herald Square before and after, courtesy of

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced this week he'll bar auto traffic from several blocks of Broadway. It's a way to try to reduce congestion in the Times Square and Herald Square areas. While it may sound like a crackpot idea, there's some counterintuitive evidence that, in other cities where streets were barred to traffic, the overall traffic did, in fact, diminish. Newsweek has a rather in-depth article on the proposal and the underlying thinking.

The New York Times web site has a kind of pro-con debate among urban observers such as architect/planner Alex Garvin and the Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole.

Conventional wisdom in the U.S. has been that pedestrian malls didn't work – cities that tried them gave them up. Even our own Rock Hill, which turned its downtown into a covered-roof shopping mall, eventually had to pop the top and revert to a more traditional downtown, complete with sky, clouds, rain and sun.

But, as the Newsweek article points out, New York is unique among U.S. cities, due to its population density, rigid street grid, high proportion of residents without cars and excellent public transit services. It's certainly an idea worth watching. That said, Charlotte doesn't have density, a grid or extensive transit, so anything learned from the NYC experiment isn't likely to be applicable here, regardless.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Perdue: N.C. DOT office stays in Stanly

In one of those Relics From Another Era kind of situations, the N.C. DOT's regional office in the Charlotte area is not in the city of 670,000 but in the lovely Piedmont city of Albemarle, population 15,000, in bucolic Stanly County.
Charlotte officials aren't the only ones who think that's a little nuts. The District 10 office covers Mecklenburg, Stanly, Union, Anson and Cabarrus counties. All, of course, have legitimate DOT needs and issues. But come on.
But WCNC reports, Gov. Bev Perdue isn't thinking of moving that office to Charlotte. "Right now, I'm just thankful to not be closing offices down," Perdue said when asked about the Department of Transportation’s office for the Charlotte region.
And why, you may ask, Stanly County? Old-timers say it's because, in an earlier era, the road department offices were put in counties with state prisons, so they could more easily use prisoners to work on the road gangs.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

CATS to join Google Transit

Google has a transit-finding component to Google Maps, and starting soon, the Charlotte Area Transit System (a.k.a. CATS) will be a part of the service.
You'll be able to look online, click on where you are on the map, click on where you want to go, and you can get transit directions. Just like driving directions.

CATS chief Keith Parker says the program uses CATS routes and and schedules, so it will tell you when the bus or Lynx is supposed to arrive, but won't be able to say, for example, Bus 20 is running 20 minutes late.

CATS isn't spending money on this, he said. Google does it.

If you go to the link above, or try, right now, you'll see a big map of the U.S., with no transit options offered in North and South Carolina. Hmm, you'd think Amtrak might want to at least load its passenger service into this.

This news came via a tip from Harry Johnson. Check out his Carolina Transit blog.

An addendum: In giving it a test run, I checked for directions from our house to the Dowd Y on Morehead St. No transit directions (yet), but there is an option for walking directions. I got the walking directions, but also a caution note popped: "Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths." So very Charlotte.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bits: Trails, transportation, go-go-suburbia

A few quick links of interest:

The Carolina Thread Trail project recently got its 100th Resolution of Support -- from the Town of Wingate in Union County. That represents at least one entity from every county within the 15-county footprint. The Thread Trail is a proposed regional network of trails, including greenways, riverside trails and conservation corridors. Local communities plan and build their own portions.

Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe writes about The Transformation of Transportation -- big increases in transit ridership all over the country, and opines that it makes more sense to put federal dollars into transit systems than to prop up auto companies that are eliminating jobs. talks with new Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. LaHood says high-speed rail between cities is, if not No. 1 on President Obama's priority list, then near the top. He predicted a substantial effort (read, "money") in coming years in five or six regions of the country, beyond the $8 billion in the stimulus package that just passed Congress.

David Brooks' recent N.Y. Times piece, "I Dream of Denver," (it ran last Thursday in The Observer) provoked tons of discussion. Interestingly, in Brooks' speech in Raleigh on Feb. 10 he challenged the viability of the suburbs. "The era of go-go suburbia -- it's obviously over now," he said. People wanted the big house, the big yard, but found out there weren't enough social bonds, he said. Suburbia, he says, "ignored key parts of human nature."

But his column took a differnt tack. Here are a couple of responses, one from "Joe Urban," A.K.A. Sam Newberg in Minneapolis, one from Ben Fried on streetsblog.
Here's a link to the Pew Center report Brooks cites.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Helicopter guy rebuffed on rezoning

Quick update on the council action, regarding the proposed solar-energy building on Park Road, whose developer would be the fellow in the much-loved "rogue helicopter" video.

The council members set a new land speed record in turning it down 12-0. Because there was a protest petition in force by adjoining property owners, even the mayor got to help vote it down.

See the post below, or click here, for more information and the video.

Monday, February 23, 2009

But will solar palace have a helicopter pad?

Will the helicopter guy appear again before City Council? Tonight, the council is supposed to decide on a rezoning that's been getting a lot of, well, snickering in private. What people are saying, all off the record of course, is: "Watch the helicopters video." If you do a YouTube search on the petitioner's name, David Thompson, and "helicopters" you'll get a video of a City Council public hearing from Jan. 28, 2002.

I hear it's one of the "greatest hits" around City Hall.

(4:48 PM addendum: It's come to my attention that longtime devotees of this video might like to read the actual minutes from the council meeting where the helicopter guy appeared. Here's a link. Check Page 11. I also hear some Charlotte folks have memorized the guy's speech and recite it at parties.)

Here's a link to a story when the project was first proposed last summer. And here's a link to an artist's rendering of the finished project. The idea is for a 12-unit multifamily building that would maximize solar energy principles. The proposal "is consistent with adopted land use plans and policies," the planning staff analysis says. But they're recommending against an OK, because of "the 60-foot height and the architecture associated with the project."

It does bring up an interesting issue: If a project is consistent with the plans, should the council vote it down because it's ugly or because of any questions about the developer? I asked assistant city attorney Bob Hagemann, who said rezoning decisions are considered "legislative" and in such a decision they can "exercise their legislative judgment and discretion."
(One more thing, in this update. Some commenters think this posting is about solar energy or area plans. Um, folks, just watch the video. MN)

Here is the YouTube video. Note: The title isn't mine. It's from the video on

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sprawl's dipping into your pocketbook

People just don't realize how much extra tax money must be spent because of the sprawling development patterns, not just in Charlotte and North Carolina, but around the country. Consider connected streets, and their role in easing expenditures for roads and for emergency services.
It's clear that connecting streets – whether with a rigid grid or more curving street patterns such as Charlotte's John Nolen-designed Myers Park neighborhood – relieves thoroughfares of some portion of their traffic. Yes, each neighborhood street gets a bit more traffic. But if they're well-designed, narrow enough to discourage speeding, have adequate sidewalks, bike lanes and/or on-street parking (or all of the above) traffic moves slowly and poses little burden for residents.
Meanwhile, thoroughfares need not carry as much traffic (or be widened or resurfaced as often). When there's an accident or other problem on a thoroughfare, motorists have plenty of options for alternate routes.
Yes, it costs developers a bit more to build a street grid than a cul-de-sac subdivision, and the extra streets reduce the number of lots and buildings a developer can squeeze onto the land. But for taxpayers, it ought to be a no-brainer.
But connecting streets can have some other, unexpected benefits for municipal coffers. Here's an intriguing study from Charlotte’s transportation and fire department staff that finds fire station costs sharply lower in parts of town where streets connect.
The study analyzed eight stations and found those in connected neighborhoods can serve more square miles because they can reach more homes within acceptable response times. The Dilworth station can serve 14 square miles. The station in the cul-de-sac-laden Highland Creek area can cover only 8 square miles.
The study found the annualized per-household life cycle cost of the Dilworth station to be $159. The equivalent cost for the station in the Highland Creek area was $740 – almost five times more.
Charlotte Department of Transportation staff who worked on the study included Matt Magnasco, Steven Castongia and Katie Templeton. Fire Department staff included Benny Warwick and Rachel Pillar. Magnasco tells me it hasn't yet been published or peer-reviewed, but they're working to get it into shape for that. The PowerPoint presentation linked to above was for a Congress for the New Urbanism transportation conference in Charlotte last last year.

Obama's urban affairs guy

President Obama has finally chosen his long-promised director of urban affairs, a guy from the Bronx named Adolfo Carrión. Carrión is Bronx Borough president, has a master's in urban planning from Hunter College and was a minister and public school teacher before going to grad school. Born in Manhattan of Puerto Rican descent, he's president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. (Wonder if he knows Dan Ramirez, the ex-Mecklenburg County commissioner?)

This Washington Post story has Carrión saying what his focus will be: He wants cities to become economic centers that can pull the country out of a recession and improve American competitiveness in a global market, according to the Post.
Here's a quote, from a 2007 speech, reported in the New York Times Dec. 3, 2008:
• "We can't keep throwing money at a housing policy that concentrates poor families in massive housing projects and hopes for the best. We can't keep wishing kids into success by simply declaring that no child will be left behind. We must stop treating the poor as laboratory subjects that we tinker with in our pricey think tanks and universities."

Another New Yorker, Derek Douglas, was named special assistant to the president for urban affairs. Douglas was N.Y. Gov. David Paterson's counsel in Washington and director of his Washington office, overseeing federal policy development and advocacy on domestic, economic and urban policy issues for New York.
Good for Obama for recognizing that cities are -- shock! -- important to the health of the nation and that cities probably need some champions in high places. But why does it look as though Obama thinks New York is the only city that can provide that expertise? What about Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, et al?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Got vacancies? Try artists

It's a continuing problem in Charlotte: Neighborhood gentrification (e.g. NoDa), combined with relentless and wasteful demolition of old buildings shrinks the spaces for artists, even while the city's arts community is trying to grow. And while the role of the arts in redeveloping ailing neighborhoods gets much lip service, the city and its major NGOs (non-governmental organizations, for the non-wonks reading) haven't succeeded in doing much to help provide housing.

Here's a piece about a program run through the Boston Redevelopment Authority, that uses the affordable-housing requirement for large projects (and note that it's a REQUIREMENT) as well other city-offered incentives. (Interesting factoid: The BRA director is John Palmieri, who from 2002 to 2004 was the City of Charlotte's director of economic development.)

Note this line in the linked-to piece above: "Boston already requires that at least 15 percent of units in large new residential buildings be priced based on income limits."

Hmmm. The recently released "Housing Charlotte 2007 Implementation Committee" had a subcommittee to look at that kind of idea, called "inclusionary zoning," but the name of the subcommittee was "Incentive-Based Inclusionary Housing Policies." A mole on the committee tells me anytime anyone mentioned anything about "mandatory" they were reprimanded and told the recommendation would be for only "incentive-based" techniques (i.e. voluntary).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Kiosk sales at malls -- too aggressive?

In the category of not-earth-shaking but sorta interesting is this, which I learned while looking up other things:

You know those Dead Sea Salt kiosks at SouthPark (and probably other malls around here) where the young women practically tackle you to get you to try their lotion or whatever it is?
It seems they're controversial in the shopping mall biz, because A) they really tick off a lot of customers, but B) make lots of sales which makes landlords happy.
The Natick Collection outside Boston is one of several upscale shopping malls that have cracked down. Wish they'd do so here, as well.

CEOs competent? Read this.

I have to leap in, responding to the comment thread about empty cities.

To the commenter who speculated that CEOs' jobs should be the ones automated, you've got to love this Time magazine piece looking at scientific experiments that find that -- guess what? -- the people who are likely to be rated as competent sometimes aren't at all. What they are is talkers. A tidbit:

"Dominant individuals behaved in ways that made them appear competent," the researchers write, "above and beyond their actual competence." Troublingly, group members seemed only too willing to follow these underqualified bosses. An overwhelming 94% of the time, the teams used the first answer anyone shouted out — often giving only perfunctory consideration to others that were offered.

And yes, Ken Lewis is eligible for the $500,000 salary cap, say our banking experts. Most of the cap applies to companies that take bailout money going forward, but B of A is in a special category, they say.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Worried about nature-deprived kids?

Plenty of folks worry that today's children don't get to spend much time outdoors, and that such an existence harms their health, including physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually.

A group called N.C. CAN! (North Carolina Children and Nature) is holding its second annual gathering tomorrow, Feb. 18, at the N.C. Zoo.

The group is one of many inspired by Richard Louv's writings, "Leave No Child Inside," and his book "Last Child in the Woods," about what he dubs "nature-deficit disorder."

For more information about the gathering or N.C. CAN!, contact Kathy Bull at or 336-879-7286.

The emptiest N.C. city?

North Carolina's emptiest city, according to Forbes magazine, is:

A. Charlotte
B. Durham
C. Lenoir
D. Greensboro
D. This article in Forbes says it's Greensboro, which landed at No. 4 on its list of America's Emptiest Cities.
The ranking is based on fourth-quarter info from the Census Bureau, looking at rental and homeowner vacancies in the nation's 75 largest metropolitan statistical areas. The Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord MSA ranks No. 15, tied with Cincinnati.
Not surprisingly, Detroit ranks No. 2. But No. 1 this year is Las Vegas, the recently booming Western gambling mecca.
And Asheboro, home of the N.C. Zoo (see zoo lions depicted at right), hit Forbes' list of the Fastest-Dying Towns, landing at No. 4, behind Kokomo, Ind. That measure looked at income growth, the rate of domestic in-migration, the change in poverty and the percentage of the population with a bachelor's degree or higher for places 20,000 to 65,000 population. And there's no stimulus money available for zoos. They're among the things (swimming pools and aquariums are others) specifically ineligible for stimulus money. Geez.

But there's hope for other N.C. cities. Look for Ken Lewis, now that his pay is limited to $500K, to be house hunting in the Capital City, City of Oaks, our very own Raleigh, which hit No. 2 on Forbes' list of Best Cities to Live on $500,000.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

About that Home Depot Design Center

That Home Depot Design Center that's closing at the Metropolitan development near uptown? The graphic above probably explains all. It gives some international context on retail in America. (Courtesy of James Howard Kunstler, via Andres Duany, via Brenda who works at the Duany Plater-Zyberk office in Charlotte). If you can't read the fine print, the information is from "Shopping Centers Today."
And why do I fear there would be a similarly configured chart of "credit card debt per capita" or even "high-fructose corn syrup consumption per person"?
OK, back to work. Be sure to read tomorrow's Viewpoint Page in the Observer. I can't reveal yet what will be on it but it will have excellently written headlines. And a sublime Buzz. I hope.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

'Great State of Mecklenburg' – Not dead yet

Don't ever let people tell you the idea of the Great State of Mecklenburg is dead. If it was, it was just raised from the dead by Anita Brown-Graham of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State. In introducing state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, who's moderating a panel, she (of course!) said:

"He is from the Great State of Mecklenburg, then he moved to the Great State of North Carolina."

I spent the first 20 years of living in Charlotte just chuckling at the term. After all, Charlotteans do tend to be a bit more self-absorbed. But 20 years is enough. Now I think it's demeaning.

I mean, is any part of North Carolina more self-absorbed than the Triangle? In Charlotte, not being the state government center or higher education center, you ALWAYS have to think about what's happening in Raleigh. In Raleigh, unless you're thinking about finance, you may well never have a need to think about Charlotte.

N.C. – A metro state or a rural state?

Live-blogging again from "North Carolina: The Good Growth State," in Raleigh, N.C. State's Emerging Issues Forum. You can listen in here.

Brookings Institution's Bruce Katz is speaking now. He's not nearly as wittily satirical as N.Y. Times pundit David Brooks, who opened this morning with a great disquisition on "go-go suburbia." But it's stern good medicine for all N.C. policy- and law-makers to hear:

"There is no such thing as the North Carolina economy or the American economy."

Katz's key points:

  • Despite the economic trauma we're living through, the economic fundamentals haven't changed: The drivers of an economy are metro-region economies.
  • We have no national economy. We have a network of metro economies.
  • We don't have a national or state governance that recognizes that reality.
  • National and state policies reward wasteful forms of development and policies. (More later about his comments on roads spending.)
  • North Carolina is a metro state. It doesn't think of itself this way.
This is essential stuff for the state's leaders to hear. N.C. culture – once you get outside Charlotte – thinks of itself as a place of farms and small towns. The legislature and state government attitudes all accept this as truth. It's tradition, it's nostalgia and it distorts the way state resources and policies are used.

"I'm talking about a different way of thinking," Katz is saying, about economies and governance.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Duany: 'What do we do with this mess'?

The last of today's live blogging from the forum on North Carolina: Good Growth State, in Raleigh, put on by the N.C. State Institute for Emerging Issues. Disclosure: Not really live now, the forum's ended for the day and I lost my Internet connection about 3 p.m. ....

The day's last two speakers were Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance, a national group providing services to the nation's 1,500 land trusts, and New Urbanist architect/planner Andres Duany.

From Wentworth:

  • North Carolina leads the nation in loss of farmland and open space.
  • North Carolina's strongest draw for tourism is "scenery."
  • In the future, the best-paying jobs will go where the most talented people want to live.
  • The belief that new growth brings in enough revenue to pay for itself is "fool's gold."
Duany was trying to find silver linings in the bad economic situation. "So many certainties are broken," he said. "It's going to be a marvelous period for ideas."

He talked a lot about how to retrofit the post-1980s suburbs. "What do we do with this mess?" he asked. "They're going to be the albatross around our neck. Also the great possibility."
His pitch No. 1: Fill in the expanses of space at the fading malls with housing, offices, schools, churches, post offices, etc., and create town centers. They're all located at key intersections already, and so easier to serve with good bus or even rail transit service. Local governments should just grant the density needed to them, and allow as-of-right development (well, with a few rules), he said.
  • Another pitch: Add mixed use at the entrances to subdivisions. Buy about six houses and the big "entrance sign" areas to build some multistory, multi-use buildings.
  • No. 3: "You have to think of parking garages as 'infrastructure,' " he said, responding to the topic of the day. "I don't see what's so hard about that."

Good growth? Good grief!

More live blogging from the forum on North Carolina: Good Growth State, in Raleigh, put on by the N.C. State Institute for Emerging Issues.

At lunch we were to hear from N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue, on the topic "A New Vision for North Carolina." If I were an organizer of this forum I'd be livid. Turns out the guv's on vacation, and she sent in a video.

When they first put it up on the big screens, the sound wasn't working. We just saw Perdue's lips moving and her blue eyes sparkling and her expression one I might characterize as "caring engagement." Then they got the sound working. Here are some excerpts:

  • "It takes bold leadership in a time of challenge."
  • "We face all tasks head on."
  • And she said, we must "position ourselves for prosperity."
I think we'd have thought more of that speech if we hadn't been able to hear it.

What CATS chief learned from London

More live blogging from the forum on North Carolina: Good Growth State, in Raleigh, put on by the N.C. State Institute for Emerging Issues.

Spotted in the audience or lobby: Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, Charlotte DOT Chief Danny Pleasant, UNC Charlotte Urban Institute has several folks, including its director, Jeff Michael.

Keith Parker, CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, told me the biggest take-away for him, hearing the ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, came when Livingstone described how London added lots of bus service between 2000 and 2004 and was able to attract millions more transit riders. The city targeted the middle-income workers, to try to lure them out of their cars.

Parker's heading back to Charlotte to give a presentation to the City Council this evening about
whether the city can or should fast track the proposed streetcar project that would run from Beatties Ford Road to Eastland Mall.

London or N.C, what's the diff?

London's ex-Mayor Ken Livinstone, nearing the end of his address, talking a little about how people in Europe were watching the November elections last fall:

Most people there, he said, had never heard of North Carolina until it got publicity for: A) Its very close Obama-McCain race, and B) the Senate race, with the Elizabeth Dole ad using hinted-at atheism to attack Kay Hagan.

"I came out as an atheist at the age of 12. It's never done me any harm politically," Livingstone said. "In London, no one cares. If you get the buses running on time, they don't care what you're doing in bed." (Wikipedia tells us he's had several affairs – with women – and is a noted bon vivant. Also, it deadpans: "He is known for his enthusiasm for keeping and breeding newts.[11]" Presumably not of the Gingrich variety.)

Back to policy – A country can't borrow its way to prosperity, he said. You make money by making things and selling them, and shouldn't ever lose sight of that.

Live audio stream

Want to listen in to the discussion on whether N.C. is the Good Growth state?

The Emerging Issues Forum has both a live audio stream – here – and will have a virtual workshop 2-3 p.m. today. Also on the web site.

Right now CATS chief Keith Parker is introducing London ex-Mayor Ken Livingstone – Mr. Congestion Pricing Guru.

Lots of Big Names here: Ex State School Board Chairman and ex-Chapel Hill mayor Howard Lee just sat down next to me. He left though. Probably didn't want to be next to a blogger, and can't say as I blame him.

What, exactly, should US be stimulating?

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., at the N.C. State Emerging Issues Forum made cogent arguments for not just aiming for "shovel-ready" projects but "future ready" projects. He also pointed out (as if you hadn't heard) that the nation's infrastructure got graded mostly a D by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Where's the leadership for transformative projects, he asked, akin to the Erie Canal or the first transcontinental railroad, rural electrification or the interstate highway system?

For North Carolinians, two key points: He lavishly and extensively praised Charlotte's transit system, especially the way the city created incentives for transit-oriented development.

AND, he mentioned an idea from a Connecticut constituent: Build a high-speed transcontinental rail corridor from Long Beach, Calif., to Wilmington, N.C. That certainly got the attention of the North Carolinians in this room!

He pitched a major rail initiative – connecting the nation's major urban areas with high- or higher-speed rail – and let Detroit build the rail cars and buses the nation will need to refocus its transportation system to a more inclusive one – i.e., not just highways.

He pitched a National Infrastructure Bank, to create a new funding stream and competitive process. As it is, transportation in America is basically carried out by 50 states with 50 different plans.

In 2007, 10 billion trips were made on public transit. Yet the U.S. DOT pays for some 80 percent of new highway construction while less than half for new transit projects, and getting approval for new transit projects is "brutally different."

North Carolina: The Good Growth State?

Live from the Raleigh convention center: A two day forum sponsored by N.C. State about how North Carolina is dealing with growth.

First fun fact of the day: If they held another conference of this sort on Friday, in the same gigantic auditorium at the Raleigh Convention Center, and only let in people moved to the state this week, you could fill the room. (Assuming they wanted to attend, of course.)

Second fun fact of the day: They have these gizmos where you can vote and get instant results, and of the people here, a big plurality said they think North Carolina is on the right track for the future. Hmmmm. I voted no. Too pessimistic? Too much time spent in Charlotte and not enough elsewhere? Not enough caffeine yet?

Next up is Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who'll talk about the national infrastructure and – presumably – how much help it needs. Sen. Kay Hagan is introducing him – did you know he has 3- and 7-year-old kids at home? And does Hagan already have more visits back to NC than Elizabeth Dole did? (Oops, slipped into extreme snark mode.)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Granny flats, and granddaddy apartments

Here's a short bit, referring you to an article on the value of accessory apartments -- you know, those mother-in-law apartments, or garage apartments, or granny flats or carriage houses or whatever you want to call them.

A number of municipalities have relaxed their zoning rules to allow them as a way to get more affordable places to live tucked into existing neighborhoods. Since the single-family-home owner owns them, he or she can rent to whomever he wants. The rent helps the homeowner pay the mortgage, too.

Allowing more accessory apartments isn't a silver bullet for affordable housing, but every little bit helps.

Long ago, when I was a kid and we were living for several years in Lakeland, Fla., my parents rented a house with a garage apartment in the back. For a time a young teacher lived there. She belonged to a religious group that didn't believe in makeup. She had very long red hair and I remember thinking she was very very pale.

But most of the time my growing-senile grandfather lived in the apartment, before he decided he didn't want to live in a state that refused to let him renew his driver's license. So Granddaddy returned to his hometown of Wynne, Ark., where he knew everyone at the courthouse, and they gave him a license. It was a small town, and everyone in town knew that if old Mr. Newsom was out driving, just get off the road.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Land conservation: Recession brings opportunity

"Every golf shot makes somebody happy."

Dave Cable, executive director of the Catawba Lands Conservancy, noted Wednesday that this recession that's whipsawing real estate development has a small bright side. The so-called highest and best use of a lot of land around here has gone from residential development to speculative land holding. And no one knows when the market is coming back. So some developers decide they need to sell the land, fast.

"We literally have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for land conservation," he said.

Cable's remarks came at a Wednesday breakfast for corporate, foundation and government partners. The nonprofit, nonadvocacy land preservation group has preserved more than 8,000 acres from development in the Charlotte region.

"I get calls all the time from developers now," he said after the meeting. Potential conservation sites are being eyed in Union, Gaston and Mecklenburg County, he said. Not all offers are, or should be, accepted, of course. But the group has some 1,600 acres in the pipeline for possible conservation in 2009.

Monday, February 02, 2009

S.C: What NOT to do with stimulus $$

Want to know what not to do with your state's stimulus money request?

Friends of the Earth, with data from the Transportation for America Coalition has analyzed the requests from 19 states. While praising Georgia, Massachusetts and California, the report rips South Carolina:

"South Carolina’s DOT wish list is a perfect example of how not to spend stimulus money. The state has requested $3.24 billion from the stimulus package, with 99 percent designated for roads, 80 percent of which is allotted for new road construction. This despite the fact that South Carolina has an abnormally high percentage of bridges that are structurally deficient: 14 percent. And, although eight percent of South Carolinians use public transportation, which is relatively high, less than one percent of the state’s stimulus ask is designated for public transportation."

North Carolina doesn't come in for specific praise or criticism. But look at the last page, and compare its request to Massachusetts'. In Massachusetts, 47 percent of the request would go to public transportation. Its request for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, 2.9 percent, was highest of all public DOT requests. Only 29.7 percent of Massachusetts’ request is designated to roads and of that, 100 percent is for repair and maintenance (12 percent of bridges in the state are structurally deficient).

North Carolina, by contrast, would put 83 percent of its request into roads, only 34 percent of that for repairs. Only 10 percent of its request would go to transit and an embarrassingly small 0.4 percent for bike/pedestrian transportation.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the report notes, "building 10 miles of four-lane highway is like putting 46,700 Hummers on the road."

Another interesting fact: By eliminating one car and taking public transportation instead of driving, a typical two-adult, two-car household can reduce its global warming emissions by 30 percent. That comes from the American Public Transportation Association's testimony to Congress.

Charlotte's pavement worsens

Among the topics at its retreat on Thursday and Friday, the City Council is expected to hear a report about the condition of the city's pavement.

If you've driven on city streets you'll probably not be aghast to read that the pavement's getting worse. And the cost of repairs is rising. The City Council, in its wisdom and its zeal never ever to raise taxes for anything, including police officers, for years has skimped on street repair money, and it's coming back to haunt the city as the maintenance backlog just gets higher.

Further, as people drove less due to higher gasoline prices, the state's gas tax revenues went down and thus, the state money given to the city for its care of state-owned roads (e.g. Providence Road) went down.

The link above is to a PowerPoint presentation, so it's a bit terse in its descriptions. But note the slide about the cost of annexation versus the revenue from annexations. Worth pondering.
I think the city's been wise to continue annexing, because cities that can't annex become financially and geographically strangled. But the revenue figures do set you to thinking about the degree to which sprawling conventional subdivisions simply don't pay their full weight in property tax revenue -- especially when so many of the new subdivisions in the past decade were low-end starter-homes.
Let me just note that higher-density and mixed use developments bring in higher tax revenues than the 3-per-acre autopilot subdivision growth which the city essentially waved into existence for decades.
The bottom line is that if you want to develop land, you can automatically do precisely the stuff that doesn't bring the city enough revenue to pay for itself -- single-family conventional subdivisions. But if you want to do something that might bring in more tax revenue, you gotta jump through a bunch of hoops.