Monday, June 22, 2009

Don't cry, I'll be back

Just an alert for whatever faithful readers are out there: I'm working on several other in-house duties this week and next and won't be posting to Naked City as often as usual. You may now begin your lamentations or celebrations accordingly.

Look for more regular Naked City blogging starting the first week in July.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Stumpf to Chamber: Banks 'don't build buildings'

This will be news to retired BofA CEO Hugh McColl, and his multiple lieutenants:

Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf (left, in file photo), speaking to the Charlotte Chamber's kickoff breakfast for its inter-city visit described the role of banks. "We don't build buildings," he said. " ... We listen to dreams." (His point, to be fair, is that banks finance what others do.) But in the QC, of course, we believe that banks do build buildings, and lots of them. Indeed, the breakfast was taking place on the 40th floor of a building that a predecessor of Stumpf's bank (First Union) built. (Technically, I suppose, Childress Klein built it.)
McColl is to speak today at a Chamber lunch, on "Vision for Center City." I expect he'll mention a few buildings that banks have built around here.
Stumpf again, talking about TARP: "It was not a bailout." Hmmmm.
Interesting tidbit: Stumpf says he grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota, one of 11 children. UPDATE 11:03 a.m.: Our own Observer Minnesotan, cartoonist Kevin Siers, says "Uff da!" His Google research turns up a hometown of Pierz, in Morrison County, in central Minnesota. I told him to the rest of the U.S. anything north of the Twin Cities is Northern Minnesota.
Spotted on Realtor Allen Tate's lapel: A green sticker with a circle around an I-485 logo, saying "CLOSE THE LOOP." Who wants to bet I'll see more of those?
UPDATE: 11:05 AM: Want to see Jim Rogers on the Colbert Report: Here's a link.
More later. Follow Tweets about the trip @nakedcityblog and at hashtag: #icv09

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Chamber: Don't blame us for Overstreet

Charlotte Chamber president Bob Morgan, on the eve of the Chamber's annual intercity trip (this year to – ta da! – Charlotte) called to report that an oft-repeated story that uptown's overstreet walkways emerged from a Chamber inter-visit to Minneapolis is, well, wrong.

Morgan said he, too, had repeated that story. But (because of a question from yours truly seeking other examples of Chamber-trip-inspired developments) he hauled out the entire list of Chamber intercity visits dating to 1956. The only Minneapolis trip was in 1993, two decades after the first overstreet walkway went up.

Photo: Skywalk under construction in 2001 photo

Why "blame" in that headline I wrote? (It's my word, not the Chamber's.) I'm among many who criticize the walkways for hurting the possiblities for uptown retail. They make it hard to find the stores, unless you know they're in there. And they make the street-level experience blander, because you can't window-shop because the stores are hidden. I'll be fair, now, and note that in cold, rainy weather they're very popular. Yes, I use them too, upon occasion, typically the "ice storm" occasion.

I dug into our electronic archives which date to 1985 and found a painful number of references – some written by me, others by esteemed Observer reporters such as Doug Smith, Jeff Elder and M.S. Van Hecke – to this mythological, walkway-inspiring Chamber trip to Minneapolis.

Morgan speculated that the walkways were inspired by Minneapolis, but not on an official Chamber inter-city visit.

He may well be right. Here's the earliest mention of them I found. (No, I didn't take time to visit our newsprint clips, fun though such visits can be.) This was written in a 1986 news article by Ted Mellnik who, then as well as now, is noted in our newsroom for his reportorial precision: "The Overstreet Mall was proposed in a 1971 center-city development plan by Vincent Ponte, who said it would create 'a city within a city.' Development was spurred in the mid-1970s when a group of Charlotte business and civic leaders visited Minneapolis, which has a walkway system."

Update: 6:45 p.m.: Got an e-mail from Carl Johnson who offers this info: "Mary, my recollection is the Gibson L. Smith, real estate man and civic leader (on council, I think, and ran for mayor but lost) deserves a lot of credit as a promoter (I say that in the neutral sense) for the overstreet walkways. Carl Johnson"

(I'll be going on as much of this week's Chamber "visit" as I can manage away from the job. So blog postings may be sparse. I'll try to Tweet @marynewsom or @nakedcityblog. The Chamber is asking all Twitter-users to use this hashtag: #icv09.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My picks for best places to stand in Charlotte

I asked your opinions - and thanks for sharing, everyone - but didn't give mine.

Yesterday I pointed to a list (link here to blog, and here to list) about the best places to stand in the U.S. and asked about Charlotte spots. But I didn't include any of my own choices. These things require pondering, you know.

I concur with those who mentioned Queens Road and the cathedral of oaks, and the magnificent corner of Kingston and Lyndhurst avenues (see photo above) in Dilworth. Indeed, I spotlighted both places in a piece I wrote some years back about Great Streets in Charlotte. Brevard Court uptown was another in that series.

My favorite spots to stand in Charlotte (for today, at least) are listed below. Note, I'm including only inside the city limits, so Crowders Mountain is out, as well as various funky downtowns in other municipalities like Matthews or Davidson. And ask me tomorrow and I may have a completely different list. NoDa on a gallery crawl night is great. Looking out from the 60th floor of the BofA Corporate Center is great – but not open to the public.

Here's my list:

3. In line at Price's Chicken Coop (at left) just after you've bought a quarter-dark dinner (or chicken livers) with tater tots and the hot grease is just starting to soak through the cardboard box.

2. The vaulted passage way alongside The Green uptown – one of the best designed spaces in the city. It just makes you feel grand to walk down it. The fans overhead are a nice touch for a hot climate.

1. Inside the First Presbyterian Church sanctuary on the Sunday before Christmas, with the old burnished wood, the royal blue carpets and cushions, as the brass and timpani and cymbals play and everyone is singing "Joy To The World."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Where's best place to stand in CLT?

Stumbled on this list of the Best Places To Stand in the US.

Oddly, it doesn't mention the old abandoned Upton's near Eastland Mall (above), or anything along Independence Boulevard. Not even a peep about Dee-Dee Harris' lingering grass-covered crater at Park and Quail Hollow roads.
Or sights from the observation decks atop the bank towers uptown. Oops. There ARE no observation towers. It doesn't add anything in Charlotte. Hmmm. If only we'd taken the late cartoonist Doug Marlette's advice and at The Square uptown, instead of those insipid statues, installed the Eternal Barbecue Pit.
My two-cents-worth: The list needs more attention to the North Carolina treasures. Cape Hatteras lighthouse comes in at No. 90. I'd rank it higher than – dare I say it? – Graceland. And definitely above the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, though I confess I haven't visited that one.
My favorite place to stand in North Carolina: Atop the Art Loeb Trail (the Tennant Mountain peak) near Shining Rock Wilderness, off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Brevard. If you want your heart to expand with gladness that you're alive, that would be the spot. Another fave is a view from a peak in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Homes built, but no street: Did city goof?

What do you do when the developer who built your house goes out of business before he builds the street your house is supposed to sit on?

A group of homeowners caught in this mess wants the city to help them get their street built. (It probably doesn't hurt their ability to get the city's attention that they've hired former Mayor Richard Vinroot to be their attorney.)

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble gave City Council a briefing Monday night. Some of the homeowners were in the audience. The street was to be an extension of Wright Avenue, which now dead-ends at a creek. The houses are near the Lomax Avenue entrance to the Charlotte Swim & Racquet Club off Sharon-Amity Road. Seven houses are built and have been sold. They have an alley in back, and they can roll their garbage bins to Lomax Avenue. The folks living there say their addresses are on Wright Avenue (the phonebook confirms this), and that GPS shows the street having been built. That tends to confuse the police and FedEx. They worry about whether emergency services could find them quickly in the event of a fire, crime or health problem.

But because the subdivision was laid out before the city's subdivision ordinance was adopted, Kimble said, it didn't fall under the ordinance's rules, and the builder, Mick El-Massri, didn't have to put up a street bond – to ensure the street got built. Now, the developer has defaulted and may be facing bankruptcy, Kimble said. (Locust Lumber Co. now owns some of the unsold property, but a court records search finds dozens of civil suits but no bankruptcy filing for the developer.) The houses are built – and there's no street.

A second clump of houses by the same developer, Mick El-Massri, sits on another section of unbuilt Wright Avenue off the dead end of Delane. Lisa Hunter, who's lived in one of the streetless houses for almost three years, said the developer had told her he was going to use the money from selling two of those empty houses to finally build their street. But the city wouldn't issue a certificate of occupancy – because there was no street built.

I went for a look after the council meeting. The situation is, truly, a mess. Multiple property owners are affected. The city's street policies call for Wright Avenue to connect over the creek, which will drive up the cost of building it. But the homeowners prefer that to a dead end, they say.

"It was in our contract that the road would be built within a year," Stacey Searson said. She and her husband Tom have been there about 2 1/2 years. "We thought we were legally protected."

City officials said they'll look into the quickest way to get the street built, and into preventing this situation from happening again. Indeed. Here's the scary part: Kimble said there are little infill lots all over the city that might fall into this same Catch 22.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Developer to chair planning commission

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission on Monday elected developer Stephen Rosenburgh succeed Dave Howard as chair, starting July 1.

Rosenburgh – president and CEO of US Land Investments, which does work throughout the Southeast United States – grew up in Toronto and lived there until moving to Charlotte 16 years ago. His company Web site says he founded Jordan Homes, and some of his projects included Carrington, The Greens at Birkdale, Legend Oaks and Stonebridge. He has also been on the N.C. Banking Commission.

I called Rosenburgh to set up an interview but he demurred. He said he doesn't want to talk about chairing the planning commission until Howard's term ends, and until he's had a chance to talk to Planning Director Debra Campbell and until after he returns from an August vacation.

The planning commission is a 14-member advisory body which, among other things, recommends to the City Council whether to approve or reject rezoning proposals. It has a history of being developer-friendly: Of its current members, at least eight work in real estate, development or construction. That may change as new appointees are named, but for at least the past 15 years typically half or more of its members have made their livelihoods working in real estate and development.

Howard, who is running for City Council this fall, is vice president for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, a nonprofit group that develops affordable housing, sometimes in partnership with other developers.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Slack DOT care may worsen flooding

Since we're expecting heavy rain, what are the chances Charlotte's streets will flood? Pretty high, especially since a good many storm drains on our streets have been clogged with debris since the last heavy rain – or even longer.

The photo above is a drain on a city-maintained street near where I live. It has been clogged with debris for weeks (maybe months, I only noticed it after the recent flooding). Its inability to drain is one reason a nearby low spot on Wendover Road collects water during heavy rains, often putting a lane on Wendover under water. And the drains along Wendover itself are, if anything, even more clogged.
I asked Charlotte DOT director Danny Pleasant recently about the clogged drains. He said his department clears them and to report clogged drains on the city's 311 phone line. (I confess I haven't called 311 about the drain in the photo; I wanted to see if it would get cleaned anyhow. It hasn't.) Update: I got a call about 4 p.m. from the city's solid waste services department. It cleans the tops of drains, and CDOT cleans the underneath and the catch basins. I suspect the drain in the photo above will be cleaned by tomorrow morning. We'll see.
But Wendover, Pleasant said, is state-"maintained" (quote marks mine). I wonder how many years it has been since the state has cleaned Wendover or its drains.
Note this photo of dirt in the Wendover gutters. The dirt is so deep the weeds are, in some spots, knee high. The state's road maintenance efforts are, well, the best word is slovenly. Is it this bad in other N.C. cities? Readers in Asheville, Greensboro, Raleigh, etc., are state-maintained roads in your city similarly clogged with years of dirt and debris?
I will note, however, that homeowners who aren't keen on flooded streets could always clean the storm drains in front of their houses and dig the dirt from the gutters.
Where does the dirt come from? Some of it's yard-care debris that's blown into the street (How about telling your landscapers to stop that?) and some is from construction sites, where contractors break the erosion laws and let soil run off into streets and creeks – the largest cause of water pollution. The gutter near the storm drain in the photo above is 3 inches deep in sandy sedimentation from two construction sites up the hill.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

This meeting is adjourned

You be the judge. Was Mayor Pat McCrory unnecessarily curt, or avoiding a politically sticky situation or just being time-efficient after a long meeting Monday night, when a delegation from the gay/lesbian alliance appeared before Charlotte City Council?

Here's the background: The council's 5 p.m. dinner meeting was to be followed by a Citizens Forum, a regular event where the council hears from the public but doesn't take action or engage in much discussion, though upon occasion a council member will ask questions or make comments. Only one speaker had signed up, a man from Durham.

He turned out to be Joshua Lee Weaver, accompanied by a dozen or so local folks from Charlotte's gay and lesbian community. He sought the council's approval of "A Resolution in Support of Civil Marriage for Same-Sex Couples." (He must have had Charlotte confused with Chapel Hill or something.) With his allotted 4 minutes at the microphone, he asked for their support and read the resolution.

When Weaver finished, Mayor McCrory said quickly: "Thank you very much. This meeting is adjourned." And council members began packing up. Weaver said something like, "Well, I was hoping for some feedback." McCrory said he appreciated him being here, but didn't comment on the substance of the proposal.

Afterward, Weaver said two municipalities had passed the resolution already – Chapel Hill and Carrboro – and Durham was considering it. He said other cities would be asked to pass it but wasn't sure which he'd approach next.

Observer reporter Julia Oliver asked McCrory after the meeting if he'd put the resolution on the agenda and McCrory said he wouldn't.

To be fair, McCrory and several council members afterward did go speak to Weaver afterward, and to some in the group accompanying him. I noticed Susan Burgess and Anthony Foxx, and there may have been others. Council member Andy Dulin sent a letter to the Observer today saying he doesn't support civil unions – "One man, one woman is what I believe" – and noting that none of the seven Democrats at the table said a word to Weaver. He's right. Of course, the mayor closed the meeting before anyone had time to say a peep.