Friday, July 31, 2009

What's wrong with Wright Avenue?

One more thing, before I head away for a week's furlough. (Look for Naked City to resume on Aug. 10):

City Council member Susan Burgess had a good quip at Monday's council transportation committee meeting. They were discussing Wright Avenue, a street where the houses were built and sold with Wright Avenue addresses (see photo above), but that block of Wright Avenue was never built before the developer defaulted. (See "The mysterious case of Charlotte's missing street.")
The city is trying to decide what it should do. Among the issues are public safety (can police and firefighters find houses with Wright Avenue addresses when there is no Wright Avenue in front of them?), cost, design of said street, who foots the bill and what kind of precedent to set for any future developers who similarly strand homeowners.
Among the options:

1. Build a street on the taxpayers' dime.

1.A. Build a street and follow the city's own connectivity rules and connect the new street to the rest of Wright Avenue. That will cost more, because it involves crossing a creek. This is the option the homeowners prefer, although it will destroy the trees and shrubs separating their property from the adjacent Charlotte Swim & Racquet Club surface parking lot.

1B. Build a street but make like a developer and jettison connectivity in order to save money, and thus build a cul-de-sac instead of crossing the creek. Again, the green buffer vanishes.

2. Enlarge the alley behind the homes to allow emergency vehicles access.

3. Build a sidewalk in front of the houses so the residents can walk to the corner of Lomax Avenue and leave the area in front of them green, like a small park. This is the option the swim club prefers.

No decisions were made. But council member Nancy Carter suggested an inexpensive step to help with the problem of police not being able to find the part of Wright Avenue that doesn't exist, or if it gets built, that doesn't connect to the rest of Wright Avenue: Consider renaming that part of the street.

Upon which, council member Susan Burgess muttered, "What about 'Wrong Avenue'?"

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Politics and East Charlotte

Several things were clear at the candidates' forum in East Charlotte on Tuesday night:

• Most of the candidates, Democrat and Republican alike, had figured out the P.C. answers for this crowd, for instance, "I support the streetcar."

• Democracy is thriving in the City Council races: 15 candidates (seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one Libertarian) are running for four at-large council seats. In three council districts (1, 2 and 5) Democratic incumbents have Democratic challengers.
• Few candidates were willing (or knowledgeable enough?) to offer truly specific proposals on such issues as how you'd bring more economic development to the area.

The forum Tuesday included all the at-large candidates except Republican Jerry Drye, and all the candidates for districts 1, 4, and 5 except District 4 candidate Gail Helms, a Republican.

Because of the huge line-up of at-large candidates, the format didn't allow much time for extensive answers, which in many ways was a blessing, though it left the audience with precious few specifics from candidates – not that many candidates typically offer them anyway.

Here's a brief rundown:

• All but Libertarian at-large candidate Travis Wheat said they supported a proposed building code ordinance for nonresidential buildings.

• None supported the idea of requiring affordable housing in all developments as a way to ensure that it's spread throughout the city. We have too much "affordable" housing already seemed to be the general sentiment.

• Everyone supported the proposed streetcar from Beatties Ford Road to Eastland Mall except Wheat, Bob Williams (D), Darrin Rankin (D), Craig Nannini (R) and Matthew Ridenhour (R).

• The proposed city landlord registry drew mixed responses with several candidates – Dave Howard (D), Edwin Peacock (R) and Jaye Rao (R) – saying "yes but with some work." Others favored it except for Nannini, Rankin, Ridenhour and Wheat.

• The most fireworks came not from candidates but from the heavens. A torrential thunderstorm briefly knocked out the lights in the Hickory Grove Recreation Center, drawing more gasps from the crowd than any of the politicans' remarks.

• Best slogan: Jaye Rao, trying to help people pronounce her name correctly (It rhymes with pow): "Vote now for Rao – like, wow!"

• Best schtick: Craig Nannini holding up a photo of his newborn son, who's now 11 weeks old, as a way to talk about what's important.

Update on majestic (or not) train station

In last night's post I noted a friend's complaint about upkeep at Charlotte's Amtrak station on North Tryon Street, but I wasn't sure who was responsible for maintenance. Got this response at 5:19 a.m. from Patrick Simmons, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation's Rail division:

Norfolk Southern owns the station and Amtrak is the responsible tenant. ... Thank you for sharing the rider/reader report. By copy of this e-mail I will pass it along to our Amtrak contacts and ask that they address the issues promptly. ... Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

And here's a note of clarification: The photo I used was of the historic old Seaboard Coast Line station. It's on North Tryon Street but closer to uptown than the not-so-majestic Amtrak building we now must use. I couldn't find an Observer file photo showing the current Amtrak station, which is not what you'd call photogenic. The historic old station is now used by the Urban Ministry Center.

I intended for the photo of the historic station to refer to the link I posted to an article about majestic train stations all over the country, many of them demolished years ago, like Charlotte's Southern Railway station on West Trade Street. I have a drawing over my desk from the late Jack Boyte depicting the old Southern terminal. I couldn't find a usable photo of it, either.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The majestic (or not) train station

A Raleigh friend called me the other day to tell about his experience driving to Charlotte recently to pick up a friend arriving on Amtrak from the south. The train, if it's on time, arrives here at 1:38 a.m. He was dismayed at the poor upkeep at the Amtrak station on North Tryon street.

(Above: Historic Seaboard station on North College, now owned by the Urban Ministry Center.)

He reports: Both the TVs on the wall in the waiting room were broken. (How hard is it, he asks, to get on a ladder and remove a broken TV?) There's a big sign, he said, but it wasn't lit. And there was no lighting in the parking lot. "I was just amazed," he reports. After all, it's a place hundreds of people go through every week. And given the schedule for the Crescent train (southbound arrives at 2:20 a.m. daily, northbound at 1:38 a.m.) that people will be arriving in the middle of the night.

Since it's after 5, I've not been able to ascertain who owns and operates the station, whether the N.C. DOT's rail division, or Amtrak, although I suspect it's NCDOT. I've e-mailed Patrick Simmons of the N.C. DOT rail division and will update this tomorrow when I hear back from him.

This observation about the bleak conditions at Charlotte's train station coincides with a recent piece in the Economist about the great passenger rail stations of the past – many of them, like Charlotte's, demolished in the last half of the 20th century. Follow the link to read it.

It's in the works for the state to build a new train station on West Trade Street uptown, near Johnson & Wales University, to be used by Amtrak and the proposed commuter rail to north Mecklenburg. Maybe the new station will be more like the grand terminals of old, and less like the squat, dilapidated Amtrak station we've had to use for almost 50 years now.

Interesting candidate forum last night in East Charlotte. I'll offer more thoughts tomorrow, when there's more time to write.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Is it Smart Growth or something else?

What does the term "Smart Growth" mean to you? It's one of those terms whose original meaning has been washed away under a deluge of rhetoric, obfuscation, bureaucratic co-option and developer-marketing brochures.

Two things reminded me of what we ought to be thinking about, if we're trying to grow in a smart way in this region.

Today, I ran across this article (link) from David Crossley of Houston Tomorrow about a Texas Smart Growth bill that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed. Crossley writes that Perry (and many large developers) prefer the status quo of land speculation and intense government subsidies of sprawl development. It's an interesting look at how another fast-growing Sun Belt state is dealing (or not dealing with) with its challenges.

That piggybacked on a discussion yesterday with Rebecca Yarbrough of the regional CONNECT effort (in which two Charlotte area Councils of Government and the Charlotte Regional Partnership are working on regional growth/environment initiatives). She was trying to describe what happens when incremental growth decisions add up to a larger, more costly future.
Imagine a Farmer Jones, she said. He's getting old and decides not to farm anymore. So he starts selling off his land, piecemeal, to developers. After all, his land is his version of a pension or a 401(k) – his retirement fund. He's perfectly free to make these decisions, of course. We all make decisions like that.

But as his land is developed over time into several subdivisions, those decisions have significant impacts on the taxpayers of his county. That's because government services to suburban subdivisions typically cost more than the government recoups in taxes. (Numerous studies bear this out, although obviously it isn't universally true. Very expensive or very dense mixed-use subdivisions would show different results.) The subdivisions also cost more than the services typically provided to farmland. So Farmer Jones' private and understandable decisions about retirement eventually add significant costs to his county government – and his county's taxpayers.

A smart county trying to make smart decisions about its growth would recognize that it needs to help the Farmer Joneses AND make growth decisions with more forethought than simply reacting to the ad hoc results of disconnected private decisions. That the challenge that many metro regions face.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

'Spoofer' hits homer with flea market pitch

"The Spoofer" maybe meant it tongue-in-cheek, but it's a great idea:

One of the comments on the "Recreating Rome" posting, (scroll down to after 11 PM July 6) about how to enliven the Fourth Street-Graham Street-West Trade Street vicinity uptown, came from someone calling herself/himself "The Spoofer," who said:

"The solution is rather simple: Get city council to declare that area a 24/7 flea market and yard sale mecca. Citizens should be told that the space around those streets would be available for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Residents would be allowed to bring their own card tables any time they wish, and sell all that junk that Charlotteans spend most Saturdays driving from neighborhood to neighborhood to buy. Voila! Instant retail in center city without spending millions of taxpayer monies to alter infrastructure or to subsidize businesses.
It could turn into another Anderson Jockey Lot, only bigger. And talk about activity! There’s nothing more active than a gigantic city yard sale district. Tourists would flock there for bargains.

"Those pocketing cash at the end of the day from their efforts would no doubt spend part of it on uptown attractions or dining, further boosting center cityism. The only drawback would be the futility of trying to impose a system of sales or use tax on the vendors so that government could grow bigger from the proceeds. Gee, maybe that’s not a drawback after all."

I think it's a fabulous idea. Michael Smith (CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners) , I hope you're reading. It's akin to architect Murray Whisnant's idea a few years back (in the pre-EpiCentre era) to take the old civic center building, knock out its side walls and turn it into "the agora" – a farmers and flea market for anyone who wanted to sell there.

Seriously, small-scale retail begets larger-scale retail. And I'd love it if I didn't have to drive all the way up to the Metrolina Expo for a good flea-market experience.

Kudos to The Spoofer. (But your idea to flood uptown – see comment at 8:36 PM – for a lake is somewhat less workable, dontcha think?)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Less highway, less congestion – no, really

Uptown thinking, Part 2:

Some counterintuitive thinking comes in this blog item (link) about three cities (Seoul, South Korea; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.) that tore down four mid-century freeways and found congestion didn't get worse.

I've heard one highly placed uptown executive muse privately about the prospect of tearing down the Interstate 277 loop that encircles (and isolates) uptown Charlotte and replacing it with a boulevard. I think it's a great – albeit very expensive – idea. (And of course you'd recycle the concrete.) Maybe it's a public-private partnership kind of proposition, as it would create more on-the-tax-rolls land for development. Witness the city/state deal reconfiguring the Brevard Street/I-277 interchange into a smaller ROW footprint and selling the land to private owners. A smaller I-277 footprint puts land back on the tax rolls. Just as important it removes those vastly overbuilt, Robert-Moses-woulda-loved-'em interchanges, designed for the middle of farmland, from the heart of the city's most pricey real estate.

If you agree, please make sure the idea emerges during the upcoming Center City 2020 Plan process. After all, it was a remark at a Center City 2010 public workshop by the late Dave Ritch – picked up and championed by then-City Council member Lynn Wheeler among others – that led to the uncapping of Little Sugar Creek and the greenway along Kings Drive. Ideas with champions really do make a difference sometimes.

Uptown thinking, Part 1 is yesterday's item (link) about Rome, the Pantheon, and Charlotte.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Recreating Rome in uptown Charlotte

This month's Civic By Design discussion will be an exercise in imagining how to enliven a dead zone. Last summer, the zone was the intersection of Kings Drive and Morehead Street. This month is the "seas of asphalt of our Center City around West Trade Street, Fourth Street, and Graham Street." Click here for a Google maps/street view – and you'll see why it's an appropriate spot to re-imagine.

I want to throw this topic open for discussion early, because I want to throw out an idea into the mix of ideas people inevitably will have. Last summer, as groups of people sat around tables with big maps of the Kings-Morehead area and little photos of buildings that we were supposed to arrange, it became obvious this was an exercise less of imagination than of fantasy. Further, it was a demonstration of how what people say they want sometimes is exactly what they shouldn't want.
Everyone always suggests that what is needed is a park and open space. Well, OK. But parks and open space aren't what make the Pantheon piazza so wonderful. If you think they will enliven uptown Charlotte here in 2009, you aren't paying attention to what's really on the ground in uptown.
What makes the Pantheon section of Rome wonderful are, of course, the magnificent Pantheon itself, and the art in the churches nearby, but more than that, it's the buildings and activities that surround the piazza and its fountain (with drinkable water – that might be a start!). A big stone piazza holding a fountain but with nothing around it would be about as lively as a parking lot with a fountain in the center.
Uptown Charlotte is dying from too much open space – in the form of parking lots and large corporate plazas and small corporate plazas and fountains out the wazoo. What do we need? Stores. On the street. Good old-fashioned window-shopping-inducing retail. And many of the retail spaces in most of the uptown buildings built since 1960 – what's the technical term? – suck.
Retail likes to be around other retail. (Note shopping malls. Note downtown Asheville, and Boston's Newbury Street and Madison Avenue and Strøget in Copenhagen.) Uptown is full of large projects (courthouses, government center, Federal Reserve, arena, stadium, convention center, transportation center, performing arts center, multiple churches, and office towers all in a relatively small area). Because they are large and typically dead along the sidewalks, they kill their area for retail. The retail space that remains is fragmented, and the bulk of it is invisible from the street.
It will be hard to spark retail synergy. So that's the major challenge for uptown Charlotte, and for enlivening any area, including the incredible dead zone we'll be looking at next Tuesday night.
While the Pantheon is probably my favorite building in all the world, I don't think we ought to put one uptown. At least, not in today's uptown. What we ought to import, instead, is the Caffe Tazza d'Oro, the Giolitti and Della Palma gelaterias, the caffe Sant'Eustachio, the arts supply shops, antique furniture shops, grocery stores, shoe stores, purse stores, jewelry stores and fashion boutiques that make up the Pantheon neighborhood.

Have your say:
Civic by Design: 5:30-6:30 p.m. Tuesday July 14, at the Levine Museum of the New South. If you RSVP by Friday to you can have gelato – alas, not from Rome.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A farmer considers freedom

I wasn't planning to write anything today – holiday and all, plus I wrote a column earlier on Beazer Homes – but my farmer friend Maria Fisher of Fisher Farms (the BEST tomatoes at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market) wrote a sparkling and moving essay about freedom and honor and stewardship of the land that is worth sharing. Happy Independence Day to all:

On the forth the blackberries are ripe, the tomatoes start to come in and for a day we go to the local fair and spend more money than I want to on short rides and sickening food.

September 12th, 2001 I went to the local t-shirt place and begged them for a flag - they were sold out and did not want to give me the one they had promised to someone else. I cried. I had lost a client in the Pentagon and was so sad that I had not taken time before to honor our country and that I had never said a proper thank you to a servicemen. They sold me the flag.

When I was teaching I had it hanging in my classroom. It is a HUGE flag. I have no place to hang it on my house - I have a little house. I will probably give it to my neighbor - she has a pole to hang it on. I will like to look at it while I am harvesting tomatoes.

We are funny about our country - no one is going to tell us what to do - we have to figure it out, figure it out, figure it out again. We have the right to PURSUE happiness - obviously, it is trite to remind anyone that we are not ENTITLED to it. We have an amazing government that most of us completely neglect at the local level and when things get out of hand - we still have the right to try to correct it and figure it out once again.

I heard the son of a farmer from another country tell me in person about their large production and how after 20 years of large production, crops went down. There was no cure and now today - there are not even birds and the land is used up. He was in his fifties when he told me this. Silent springs for the last 15 years. We as farmers, as caretakers of the land, working as much as anyone else, trying to "make it" - still need to be mindful that for all the freedom we are granted to pursue our happiness, that we are not entitled to it and that the land requires good care regardless and foremost before all else. If we as a nation continue to devalue each other and are left devaluing others - care of the land will most likely fall to the wayside and we will create silent springs. Bottom line.

Pursue wisely. Value now. Remember to THINK. OK - no more soap box - go find some fair and try not to eat too much. Happy Independence Day.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

West Va. an environmental leader?

At least, that's what I'm hearing. The state of West Virginia has adopted a set of Smart Growth-oriented storm water rules. Here's a link.

Lynn Richards of the EPA's Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation Smart Growth Program said in an e-mail that was forwarded to me, "This is really big news!"

Those readers with more expertise than I in such matters, please weigh in on what you see – good rules? unenforceable rules?

It appears part of a kind of underground movement to try to bring 21st-century and urban-oriented thinking to the unavoidable subject of storm water runoff and by extension, civil engineering.

Detention ponds and the BMPs (Best Management Practices) of the 20th century are generally anti-urban in their design. How do you marry good urban design with strong measures to prevent the water pollution caused by rain water than drains off pavement and fertilizer-laden lawns? Tom Low and his DPZ and other New Urbanist-oriented colleagues are making headway with their "Light Imprint" initiative.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Sane planning? Not for transportation

BRIDGEWATER, N.H. – Gather a bunch of people interested in urban regions – as opposed to just cities – and it's only a matter of minutes before the acronym MPO comes up, and the grumbling starts.

MPO means Metropolitan Planning Organization, and it's a federally mandated way to plan "transportation" "regionally."

Those quote marks are intentional.

To too many MPOs, "transportation" means only roads, and of the highway genre, not of the city street genre and certainly not transit or pedestrian or bicycle paths.
And for an alarming number of MPOs, including in the Charlotte region, the "regional" part is a farce. The metro area most people recognize as the Charlotte metro region is home to four separate MPOs, or five, depending on how you count. So transportation planning here is completely fragmented – and Charlotte gets shorted when dollars are divvied.

Further, the Mecklenburg-Union MPO, affectionately known as MUMPO, rates about a 3 on a scale of 10, if 10 is to be completely multimodal in focus, and 1 is all-roads-all-the-time.

At a conference among members of the Citistates Group's associates – an association of writers, thinkers, practitioners and government officials who share an interest in metro regions – I heard several MPO horror stories. Consider: In San Jose's region, the largest city in the region (San Jose) in effect has no voting representative on its MPO.

But here's what Tom Downs (former New Jersey transportation commissioner, former CEO of Amtrak, among other things) suggested: Too many MPOs are in violation of Title 23 of the U.S. Code (here's a Wikipedia link), particularly the part that says the MPO should cover the whole metro area:

"Each metropolitan planning area —
(A) shall encompass at least the existing urbanized area and the contiguous area expected to become urbanized within a 20-year forecast period for the transportation plan; and may encompass the entire metropolitan statistical area or consolidated metropolitan statistical area, as defined by the Bureau of the Census."

Ahem. Mecklenburg and Union counties are most decidedly not "the contiguous area expected to become urbanized within a 20-year forecast period for the transportation plan. " Can you say, "Cabarrus County" or "Mooresville" or "Belmont-Gastonia-Mount Holly" or "Rock Hill-Fort Mill"?

What is to be done? Downs noted that the law has a process for decertifying an MPO that isn't following the code. That's a big hammer to use.

The multiple MPOs and RPOs (R as in rural) in this region – MUMPO plus Gastonia, Cabarrus-Rowan, Greater Hickory and Rock Hill-Fort Mill, S.C., MPOs and the Lake Norman and Rocky River RPOs – have not tried to consolidate, although any rational person can see that's what should happen. Is it time for the hammer?