Monday, March 30, 2009

McCrory's next project?

I hate to interrupt the great comment thread going on at "Developers bend city official's ear" but here goes:

Hizzoner Pat McCrory stopped by the paper today to talk about what he plans to do with his remaining eight months in office. Headlines: Economic development [recruit more companies to bring more jobs], city spending [try to cut what needs to be cut in the city budget], public safety [he's against crime and supports the police chief]. Motherhood and apple pie were probably on the list too.

But near the end of the conversation he talked about having recently gone to Atlanta for an event sponsored by Georgia Tech, to look at mega-regions. There's a lot of theorizing going on among people who study city and metro region growth that county and state lines are all but irrelevant if you look at how economies work. It's essentially the "Citistates" theory of folks such as Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson. Now folks are talking about mega-regions. One mega-region, dubbed "CharLanta," is the urbanized crescent running from Atlanta through Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., Charlotte, the N.C. Triad and on to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle area.

McCrory said he and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin agreed to try to get a project going, possibly with Georgia Tech and UNC Charlotte, to look at "the bigger picture vision thing."

Now I've not always agreed with McCrory, but in transportation, he's usually on target or pretty darn close, in terms of what's needed. And he's right about the need to look long-term and big picture.

One major need in the CharLanta corridor: Better passenger rail service. A significant attribute that sets apart the DC-to-Boston corridor is its clearly superior rail service. The whole Southeast region ought to get together and make the world's best pitch, to anyone in D.C. who will listen, that it's our turn for some of those rail dollars. After all, North Carolina got shafted in the federal transit-stimulus-divvying formula.

I don't know how McCrory plans to spend his time post-mayorship, but working to put a mega-region coalition together might well be a project in need of a champion.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Developers bend city official's ear

I wish I could tell you what was discussed at 7:45 a.m. today, when the Charlotte Chamber's Land Use committee (a committee of real estate, development and related business people) met with Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble. But I was told I wasn't welcome.

On the agenda, according to an e-mail last week from Natalie English, the Chamber's senior vice president for business and education advocacy: "Collin Brown [a lawyer] with K&L Gates will present specific examples of the cumulative impacts of the Post Construction Control Ordinance, the Urban Street Design Guidelines policy and the Proposed Amendment to the Tree Ordinance. Please plan to attend to participate in the discussion with Ron Kimble about how we might affect the impact these ordinances have on economic development, affordable housing and development in our community."

The post-construction controls ordinance is a water-quality protection measure. The urban street design guidelines (policy, but not embedded into ordinances yet) aim to make city streets walkable and would require more streets and more street trees, among other things. The proposed change to the tree ordinance would strengthen tree-save requirements for commercial property developers.

The Chamber, English told me last week -- when she was, in a very friendly and polite way telling me I couldn't come this morning -- is concerned that the proposed tree ordinance changes, on top of the post-construction controls ordinance and the street design guidelines, would "drastically impact the ability to grow the economy."

The Land Use committee chair, Karla Knotts, is also interim executive director of the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (REBIC). REBIC and some members of the Land Use committee had asked the Chamber to oppose the proposed tree ordinance changes.

Clearly, putting more requirements on developers will increase the costs of development and construction. That means what gets built would A) Cost more to buyers, OR B) Mean developers wouldn't offer as much money to buy land to start with. Both results have been known to occur, depending on the location, the market, etc. But regardless, the marginal difference in building cost isn't the villain in today's horrific real estate and building slowdown.

Nor would the real estate market here miraculously revive if only developers could offer product a bit more cheaply, with narrow sidewalks and no street trees, its runoff still allowed to pollute local creeks, and just as many trees being cut down as is allowed today.

Here's the painful reality, painful to everyone in this area, because none of us likes to see businesses hurting: The developers' potential customers are losing their jobs, health insurance, and even their homes to foreclosure, or they can't sell their existing homes. Financing agencies, including banks, are struggling to offer credit because the finance system is full of toxic loans. That's the problem developers are facing. It isn't the tree ordinance.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pols brave danger to walk down sidewalk

(CDOT staffers negotiate narrow, debris-filled sidewalk during Monday tour)

We all survived the walk down Woodlawn Road in mid-afternoon. We even managed to cross Woodlawn in safety after waiting several minutes for a gap in traffic. But ... there was an incident. More later.
Council members Anthony Foxx, Michael Barnes, Susan Burgess, Patsy Kinsey and Nancy Carter (all but Kinsey members of the Transportation Committee) went for a tour by the city's DOT staff to show some pedestrian issues. It's part of the Pedestrian Plan, which CDOT planners are drafting and hope to give to council for approval in the next few months.
A big issue is uncomfortable, uninviting back-of-curb sidewalks along major thoroughfares. So we all walked about a quarter mile up Woodlawn.
Here's a report on the "incident": Shortly after we start, near Preston Townhomes at Woodlawn and Scaleybark, a black Jeep Cherokee zips past (speed limit is 35 mph, but most drivers appear to be ignoring that) and someone inside chunks a drink cup out the window. It hits Foxx and splashes Kinsey. No harm done, though it was rattling.
Only Barnes, Kinsey and CDOT planner Dan Gallagher dashed across Woodlawn at Bayberry Drive in order to see the much nicer sidewalk built at the townhouse-style Oak Leaf development across the street. The rest of us had to wait to cross until a couple of school buses set a pick for us, essentially stopping the oncoming traffic so we could safely get to the other side.
The point CDOT was making was that developments such as Oak Leaf, which needed a rezoning, don't get that OK unless they fix the bad, back-of-curb sidewalks. Plus, many of the newer zoning categories require better sidewalks. But so-called "by-right" development -- in which the land already carries the zoning needed for the development -- doesn't have to do anything about sidewalks.
CDOT is offering for consideration the idea of changing local ordinances, so developments such as Preston Flats and Preston Townhomes would have to update bad sidewalks, the way Oak Leaf did. After all, as CDOT pedestrian advocate Vivian Coleman pointed out, Preston Flats had to do significant grading of the site, for the construction. Pouring a new sidewalk would not have been onerous. As it is, though, any sidewalk improvement would come out of city coffers.

Want more pedestrian info? See the CDOT page of links to pedestrian organizations, ordinances, etc.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Politicians risking lives? Stay tuned

At 3 p.m. today a bunch of Charlotte City Council members and assorted others (including yours truly) will possibly risk their lives by walking on one of those cruddy back-of-curb sidewalks along Woodlawn Road, where traffic whizzes by at 50 mph, inches from your body. And then we'll be invited -- try not to gasp in horror -- to cross the street. Note: Woodlawn has no lights or crosswalks between Scaleybark and South Boulevard, almost a full mile. So if you need to get to the other side, you just dash.

The purpose: Show the politicians how pedestrian-UN-friendly some of today's existing development standards are.

Let us all hope no elected officials get squashed like bugs on the street. As we have seen in recent months, filling seats of elected officials (e.g., county sheriff, school board) can be messy and ugly. We would just as soon not be put through that again this year.

Why do the sidewalks tour? CDOT is working on a Pedestrian Plan which it hopes to put to council for a vote later this year. The plan (in its current draft) would recommend studying changes to ordinances in order to require back-of-curb sidewalks be improved if there's a substantial development on a site, and that infill/teardown development be required to install sidewalks. There's probably going to be opposition from the developers' lobby. This is a way to help present the other side of the issue to the council members.

Small note: Technically the sidewalks on Woodlawn are not all back-of-curb. There's a minuscule planting strip of perhaps 12 inches weedy grass-like foliage.

I'll be taking photos. If anyone is turned into a grease spot on the pavement, don't say you weren't warned.

Friday, March 20, 2009

'First Garden' to sprout at White House

Alice Waters and other sustainable food advocates must have been persuasive. The Obamas are planning a veggie garden on the White House lawn, says the Washington Post.

Yes, it will include arugula. No, it isn't the first such garden. President John Adams, the first president to live in the White House, planted a garden. Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden during World War II. The last true farmer in the White House, Jimmy Carter, wouldn't plant a vegetable garden – not even a peanut patch.
The New York Times even shows a schematic of what will be planted in what patch in the garden.
But will we see the First Family out digging up wild onions and Bermuda grass or shoo-ing the First Squirrels away from the First Tomatoes? We await further developments.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lester Maddox lives on, in MARTA woes

(The late Lester Maddox, above)

The ghost of Lester Maddox -- the ax-handle-toting, proudly segregationist Georgia politician -- is with us still, in the form of a provision that's hamstringing MARTA's efforts to deal with the downturn in sales tax receipts due to the recession. (The photo above is Maddox in 2001.)
It seems that way back when MARTA was being formed, then-Lt. Gov. Maddox ensured that a provision in state law would prevent the subway-transit system from using more than 50 percent of its revenues for operations. MARTA wants the legislature to remove those restrictions.
Charlotte's transit system is in no way perfect, but we in the Queen City should thank our lucky stars the city didn't have to try to placate politicians who were quite as antediluvian as Lester Maddox. (Though to be fair to Georgia I could, of course, name some Charlotte names of folks who lacked only for ax handles ...)

Assessing Charlotte's transportation

(The city adopted a bicycle plan last year to help riders such as this)
This is for transportation policy wonks, among others. The city of Charlotte's transportation department has issued its yearly report on how the city is doing on its Transportation Action Plan. Here's a link, if you'd like to read it in full.
The good stuff: The city adopted a Bicycle Plan, and the light rail ridership substantially outstripped its projections.
But there's cause for concern: Despite new city policies, more attention to pedestrians and requirements for building more sidewalks, the percentage of city residents who live within a quarter mile of schools, parks and transit is lower now than in 2004. Of course, that may have as much to do with the lack of neighborhood parks and with school-siting decisions than with whether sidewalks are adequate.
Here are some "issues and challenges" identified in the report (their wording, not mine):
- The percentage of population within ¼ mile of schools, parks and transit is lower today than in 2004, making access by walking, bicycling, and short vehicle trips less viable.
- The percentage of multifamily units being approved in the wedges [not near the transit or major business corridors] is higher than the land use targets called for in the Centers, Corridors and Wedges growth framework.
- NCDOT’s project designs typically do not reflect Charlotte’s urban needs (for example Mallard Creek Extension).
- Gas tax revenues at the federal and state levels continue to decline, reducing the funds available for building and maintaining roads.
- ½-cent sales tax revenues for transit are lower than anticipated.
- Without a local dedicated transportation funding source, at levels consistent with the TAP, Charlotte will struggle to keep pace with continued growth and increased travel demand.
Here are some of the accomplishments the plan notes (again, their wording):
- Charlotte residents passed $160M+ in transportation bonds during 2008.
- Key road and intersection projects were advanced as depicted in Map 1.
- LYNX Blue Line averaged over 15,000 daily riders in its first year of service.
- The Committee of 21 [a local group] and the 21st Century Transportation Committee [a state group] convened and identified transportation revenue options to address transportation needs at the state and local levels.
- Both the Federal Highway Administration and the North Carolina American Planning Association honored the TAP as a model plan.
- Council adopted the City of Charlotte Bicycle Plan.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Politics vs. planning

I've had this bit in my notebook for a week, and finally have time to write about it:

Mayor Pat McCrory was right – but wrong – at last week's City Council meeting (March 9) when he badgered a planner about why planners removed a street connection from the Arrowood Transit Station Area plan.

He was right to question it and to say city planners should give their best professional planning judgment, not bow to political pressure. (At least, that's what I think he was trying to point out. And I must note that many elected officials get similarly huffy when planners act oblivious to political reality. But I digress...)

But McCrory shouldn't have hectored planner Alberto Gonzalez, who was presenting the plan.
In fact, Gonzalez ended up fainting or passing out – apparently because he hadn't eaten for some time – which made the scene even more dramatic.

The staff had originally proposed a street connection from Sharon Lakes Road to Hill Road. But neighbors in Starmount didn't like that idea. (See my Feb. 28 column, "Aiming at where the future will be," about connectivity.)

So, Gonzalez told the council, "We went back and took a closer look." And they deleted that street connection. Their thinking, he said, was that such connections are made when property is developed or redeveloped, and since the property in question was relatively newly developed, it wasn't realistic to think it would be redeveloped again any time in the near future.

McCrory wouldn't let him off the hook. He said, in essence, "Your job is to give us the planning perspective, not make judgments about what will or won't fly politically." So, he continued, was your recommendation during the public hearing incorrect? The poor planner was going to have to say, "Yes, we were wrong," or "Yes, we caved politically." I can't remember at what point he blacked out. It might have been right about then.

Warren Cooksey hopped into the discussion to note that the plan should probably have the connections that planners think are needed, because a redevelopment might occur even if it is, today, deemed unlikely, and you'd want that street connection to be in the plan.

The upshot: The City Council adopted the plan with only Cooksey voting against. The mayor doesn't have a vote on those matters. Here's a link that will let you look at the Draft Plan and the revisions. The original street connection proposed is on Page 13 of the Draft Plan.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Feeling parched?

A few years back I heard local Democrat-about-town David Erdman give a talk on Charlotte geography, which included this memorable nugget: southern Mecklenburg County is the hottest, driest part of the state. He had rainfall and temperature maps to prove the point.
I'm reminded of that, looking at the map accompanying this USA Today story that the first two months of 2009 are the driest on record in this country. (Figures that the year of horrible news would include a huge drought as well.) Note on the map how the only part of North Carolina in the red, "extreme drought" zone is -- surprise! -- not southern Mecklenburg. Looks more like Rutherford, Polk and Cleveland counties, where there are, indeed, farmers who need the rain instead of city- and suburban-dwellers who just want lawns.
Which brings me to my two points:
1. First, patronize local farmers because it's smarter, long-range, to ensure that we have a good food supply in this part of the country and don't have to depend on veggies trucked in from California and other faraway places. If you want to "save open space" and "preserve farmland" then for pete's sake, think about preserving farmers as well. Here's a link to a column I wrote on the topic in November.
2. And second, what's with watering the lawn all summer? It's a huge waste of a precious resource. If you have fescue grass -- which most people here do -- it naturally goes dormant in hot weather and will revive in the fall. Water it every 2 or 3 weeks to keep it from dying. If you see someone with a green lawn in July, you're looking at someone wasting our water.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Chamber stays home. What should they see?

As I wrote in the Saturday Observer, the Charlotte Chamber isn't going on an inter-city visit this year, opting to stay home and study what's here. I gave some suggestions for what they should do and see, such as have a locavore dinner and hear from artists and people with lots of piercings.

But what would you recommend they see? (And for the purposes of this blogposting, let's all assume those who wish to have already visited whatever topless bars they care to.) If you want to vote on the Chamber's online poll, here's a link.

Chatting with Chamber president Bob Morgan, I asked if he, too had observed more people uptown dressing more formally? Just in the past several months, it seems, I've seen more guys in suits and ties and fewer in khakis and knit shirts or jeans and sport shirts. Morgan said he'd noticed the same thing. We speculated people afraid of being laid off are dressing up more, and those already laid off are trying to look professional as they look for new work.

Then, he noted something else. In conversations he's hearing, he said, "It's no longer about work-life balance. It's now about 'work ethic.' "

Not unexpected, of course. When times get tough, companies want workers who'll put in long hours, not whine about pay/benefits and not have to deal with those pesky "family" problems such as sick kids or ailing parents.

Where are all the foreclosures?

A USA Today story last week uses data from RealtyTrac to show that more than half of the nation's foreclosures last year took place in just 35 counties, in about a dozen states. Outside those foreclosure hot spots, the article says, "the foreclosure wave was barely a ripple — at least until it started swamping major banks that had invested heavily in mortgages." Wachovia, it points out, was hammered by foreclosures in California and Florida. And we all know the rest.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Do gates really keep out crime?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Director Debra Campbell tells me city planners and the city-county police department will study crime rates in and around gated communities to see if the gates really do reduce crime. (So, will they also be looking at crimes such as tax fraud, insider trading or Ponzi scheming? If you've lost your retirement savings, you might consider those white-collar offenses worse than just simple auto break-ins.)

Campbell said at a recent City Council meeting that the city doesn't currently have a policy about gated developments, although its street connectivity policies would discourage them. Planners generally think gated subdivisions work against such things as a sense of community, social capital and mixed-income neighborhoods, in addition to bollixing up general traffic flow.

It's a welcome attempt. Gated developments derive much of their popularity from the general belief that they're safer. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. I know we have often vacationed at a gated beach community, in which there are gated developments inside the gated development. So, um, if you need those extra gates, does that mean the first set of gates doesn't work? Who, exactly, are you trying to keep out? If it's that journalistic riffraff, well, the gates aren't working.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Commuter rail: Finally?

A couple of rail-related news bits:

Item No. 1: Why hasn't much commuter rail been built in the country in recent years? The Bush administration's Federal Transit Administration had written some requirements for how to calculate such things as projected ridership when submitting requests for federal transit money. It's complicated, but the upshot was that the rules made it impossible for commuter rail -- which goes faster and has fewer stops than in-town light rail -- to compete for the limited federal transit dollars.

That's why the North Corridor transit line that the Charlotte Area Transit System wants to build had that "gap" in its funding plan -- it's the gap where federal funds might have gone, but weren't available. The Triangle Transit Authority in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill was stuck for the same reason.

Now comes word the FTA has rescinded those old parameters, CATS chief Keith Parker said late last week. He didn't know yet what the new parameters would be or whether new money would be available for commuter rail projects. But it's got to be good news for CATS and the many people who've been hoping to see a rail line from uptown Charlotte to Davidson and even beyond, if Iredell County would cough up some money (not to mention good news for the TTA and our fellow North Carolinians in the Triangle.)

Item No. 2: A new Elon University poll finds 77 percent of North Carolinians would like to see commuter rail developed in urban areas, and 69 percent support regional rail systems.

While 51 percent of North Carolinians oppose collecting tolls to fund
statewide transportation projects, 77 percent would like to see commuter
railways developed in urban areas and 69 percent of citizens support regional
rail systems. Sixty-seven percent of respondents support a state-wide bond
referendum to raise money for transportation projects, while 57 percent of
residents support giving local governments the option of using a half-cent sales
tax to finance local projects. Residents oppose a fee based on the number of
miles they drive annually (74%) and increasing the cost of the driver’s license
renewal fee (55%).

Monday, March 02, 2009

Poll: New roads don't top preference list

Interesting poll out from the National Association of Realtors and the advocacy group, Transportation for America, finds a majority of Americans believe upgrading and repairing existing roads and bridges and expanding transportation options (i.e. transit, bicycling and pedestrian options) should take precedence over building new roads.

A press release from the Realtors' association says: "When asked about approaches to addressing traffic, 47 percent preferred improving public transportation, 25 percent chose building communities that encourage people not to drive, and 20 percent preferred building new roads. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed believe the federal government is not devoting enough attention to trains and light rail systems, and three out of four favor improving intercity rail and transit."

You can download a PDF of the full report here.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Frank Gehry at 80

Big-name architect Frank Gehry turned 80 on Saturday, and the L.A. Times ran a profile and assessment of his work, from architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. (Gehry's Disney Hall in Los Angeles is at left, courtesy of the L.A. Times.)

The recession has hit his practice hard: Two major projects, Grand Avenue in Los Angeles and Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, have been put on hold, and Gehry has half the staff he did a year ago. Interestingly, the piece points out that the reputation of the once-hailed Gehry is shifting.

" ... The virtuosic approach to design that Gehry has embodied since his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opened to rapturous acclaim in 1997 faces an increasingly pointed critique within his profession."
And it has this interesting rumination about younger architects' view of Gehry' work and that of other celebrity architects:
"They are less interested in the bravura, photogenic icons that Gehry has lately produced – so-called signature buildings by a so-called starchitect – and more compelled by eco-friendly designs or anti-poverty efforts such as those aimed at providing affordable housing in rural areas. Other young architects are looking beyond the star model of architectural practice and toward communal, even anonymous, design initiatives."