Monday, August 31, 2009

No more 'roads' talk, OK?

I found out earlier today that my Saturday oped on "roads" vs "transportation" is getting picked up by - Maybe that'll make the comments section a bit more, er, balanced.

Other tidbits:

NYTimes looks at LEED buildings and finds not all of them are all that "green." I've been hearing for some time about dissatisfaction with LEED ratings.

• New blog, "The Avenue" is a collaboration between the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and The New Republic magazine. It's about "policies and places in America today" and "will explore what it means to be a metropolitan nation." declares North Carolina one of the most tax-friendly states for retirees. Check it out.

• My buddy Joe Urban (aka Sam Newberg of Minneapolis) writes about Charlotte and its light rail for Urban Land Magazine. Check it out.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Who's the anonymous symphony lover?

I'm just back from the noon rally at Trade and Tryon for the Charlotte Symphony, which was fun in a too-much-sun, humid sweat kind of way. Especially since I not only got to hear some professional musicians play, but I got to hear former Gov. Jim Martin play the tuba. Who can't love that?

For the record, he played "Asleep in the Deep" on an instrument he said he borrowed from the Salvation Army. It did indeed have a beat up, well-used look to it. I missed his performance before the official rally started, but he was nice enough to play when I asked him, afterward.

The snoopy journalist in me, of course, required that I ask around about to try to get some clues to the identity of the anonymous donor who just gave the symphony a $500,000 challenge grant. The symphony has until Dec. 31 to raise its matching money, although I was told the challenge grant will be given out in increments, as the matching money is raised.

Meg Whalen, the symphony's public relations director, told me no one at the symphony knows the donor's identity except the CSO executive director, Jonathan Martin, and board chair Pat Rodgers. But, Whalen said, the donor intends to remain anonymous forever. So we're left to speculate about local philanthropists. Leon and Sandra Levine might be atop the list, except they apparently have been busy wiring up a $1 million challenge grant to the United Way of Central Carolinas, announced this morning. And they've already been generous to the symphony, with a $25,000 grant in May.

The symphony has to give its financial turnaround plan to the Arts & Science Council on Sept. 2. If the ASC doesn't like the plan, the symphony gets only a $150,000 in ASC funding, down from $1.9 million last year. If the ASC approves, the symphony gets $900,000.

I'm obviously cheering the symphony on. I'd hate to see Charlotte become one of the largest cities in America without a symphony. Here's a column I wrote on that topic a couple of weeks ago.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Kids, cities, diversity and social trust

Update on Thursday, Aug. 27: I have a request from reporter Ann Doss Helms: She's trying to find parents of kids who'd be switched from the Myers Park High School attendance zone to East Mecklenburg. Would the person who left the comment on that effect - or anyone else in that category - please contact her at or at 704-358-5033? She wants to hear from people on all sides of the issue.

The comment thread about Best Cities for Kids took an interesting turn last night and this morning. Take a look (link).

Several commenters made the valid point that the U.S. News & World Report rankings appeared to favor relatively affluent, mostly white suburban-ish areas with well-funded schools and low crime. "White flight" someone said, shouldn't be rewarded.

Indeed, I believe a community with many different ethnicities is a lot more interesting, and I agree that the rankings look as if they hadn't taken into account the reality that an affluent suburb is probably going to compare well for schools and crime stats. One commenter said, "Diversity is a city like Charlotte that has a 33% black population, a large Hispanic population, and a large white population. That in itself presents quite a challenge."

Then faithful reader/commenter "Cato" brought up Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor. His recent studies have shown that as ethnic diversity in an area rises, social trust goes down. This is true, he says, for all races and ethnicities. I've heard him lecture on this phenomenon several times, and each time he said he didn't like getting those results and kept double-checking his data and coming up with the same result.

So whoever thinks Cato is misquoting Putnam is off-base.

But I think Cato, too, is off-base in saying, "Why is this [less social trust] a desirable trait in a city? Especially if you get more crime and worse schools in the bargain? Or is it that the intangible benefits of white liberal self-congratulation are enough to coutnerbalance it?"

Putnam thinks it's a good idea to be aware of the tendency toward lower social trust and figure out how to counteract it. To say, "Especially if you get more crime and worse schools in the bargain," seems to me to ignore some realities:

One: Bernie and his hedge fund ilk as well as all the toxic loan purveyors and mortgage fraud perps have proved there's plenty of crime in rich areas too, and it's certainly not "victimless." It's not someone taking your CD player. They're taking your investments, or driving up your taxes by not paying theirs, or destroying the companies in which you own stock. I'd rather have my car stolen than the worth of my 401(k).

Two: Poverty correlates with higher crime, no question. Yet to say that you get "more crime" when a city area is more ethnically and economically integrated might really mean "more crime where I live in what used to be an all white, all middle-class area." The crime is already there, and many low-income people suffer horribly from it.

Three: "Worse schools." Again, the kids with the bad teachers, crappy home lives and falling down schools are already out there, so racial and ethnic and economic mixing doesn't cause those problems, but rather brings them to the attention of people heretofore not having to deal with them.

White flight – or to be more accurate, wealthy and "bright" flight – makes public schools worse, as parents with time, means and enthusiasm to help the schools disappear from the support base. That leaves schools with disproportionately more kids from bad situations, and fewer parents able and willing to fight for better resources. So more of the parents who care about their kids' school then leave, which causes a downward spiral. But it isn't as if racial/ethnic diversity by itself "causes" bad schools, rather the effects of people fleeing the effects of poverty can cause schools to start spiralling downward.

But Cato's right in saying that an economically and ethnically integrated city will indeed have to deal with those problems more than a bedroom community of affluent educated residents.

And for the record, I'm a proud parent of a high school senior who's been at CMS since kindergarten and has top-notch schooling at Charlotte's racially and ethnically diverse public schools. Many CMS schools are excellent, safe and well-run. And yes, some aren't. But just because you see some brown faces doesn't automatically mean the school's a bad place for your child.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Best cities for kids

Now this is a list I wish Charlotte were on:

U.S. News & World Report's list of the 10 best U.S. cities and towns in which to grow up (link here) does not, sadly, include Charlotte. Here are the criteria the magazine said it used:

"First off, you'd probably want a low crime rate. A strong school system would also be key. From there, you'd need lots of other children, expansive green spaces to play in, and plenty of nearby family events. Toss in an abundance of artistic and recreational activities, and all of a sudden you've got one heck of a place to grow up."

Obviously, different people value different things. I might have put a bit more weight on the attributes of a large city, which can offer plenty of things to do without having to drive everywhere. San Jose, Boston and Denver are on the list. Public school problems probably kept New York and Washington off the list (I'm speculating, I don't have inside info). Green space probably hurt Atlanta and Charlotte. Crime probably hurt Charlotte – the city has had, comparatively speaking, a high crime rate for decades.

It's hard to tell if the list is in order of No. 1 to No. 10, but here are the cities, in order:
1. Virginia Beach, Va.
2. Madison, Ala. (a bedroom suburb of Huntsville)
3. San Jose, Calif.
4. Overland Park, Kan. (outside Kansas City, Mo.)
5. Boston
6. Denver
7. Rochester, Minn.
8. Cedar Rapids, Iowa
9. Plano, Texas
10. Edison, N.J.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

They'll choose next CATS chief

Who'll choose next CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System) chief? The four-member selection panel will consist of Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton, County Manager Harry Jones, , Matthews Town Manager Hazen Blodgett and Davidson Mayor John Woods (named by Charlotte Mayor and Metropolitan Transit Commission chair Pat McCrory).

According to a memo from Jones:

"The four members of the selection panel have conferred and agreed to move forward with the recruitment process as follows. Advertisements will be posted electronically with all national transit-related organizations, with a closing date of September 25, 2009. A profile of the Chief Transit Official position, updated during the 2007 recruitment process, will be subjected to a series of focus groups for input. The profile also will be posted on the city/county website for additional public input. The process is designed to name a new CATS CEO by November 30, 2009."

Jones' memo also notes that in 2015 Charlotte will host the national convention of the National Association of Counties. Hmmmm. Whole lotta politicians will be treading our sidewalks. (Lock up the silverware?) But Charlotte hosted the event in 2000 and no mass outbreaks of oratory or political skullduggery were reported.

Charlotte architect one of 'Greatest Urban Thinkers'

The late Jane Jacobs leads the vote so far with at least 660, but Lewis Mumford (270) and Kevin A. Lynch (281) are virtually neck and neck. The horse race? An online contest by the Web site for Greatest Urban Thinker. Here's a link.

I was cheered to see Charlotte architect Terry Shook (below) on the list, though rather far down it, with 7 votes last I looked. S.C.-based developer Vince Graham is also on the list, with 5 votes.

It's an interesting list and provocative intellectual exercise, because you have to ponder whether some of the anti-urbanists, such as New York's Robert Moses and Le Corbusier, were more influential than urbanists such as Mumford and Jacobs.

The Planetizen gang decided to leave a bit muddy the issue of whether "influential" should mean "brilliant thinker about cities" or "had the biggest impact." Here's what they say:

"What about Le Corbusier, who remains an influential figure in architecture but has been labeled Enemy Number One by urban planners? Like Time Magazine, we've left the definition deliberately vague to encompass those who've had the most influence on the way we think about cities and/or how cities are shaped, for better or for worse. "

I e-mailed Shook (a UNC Charlotte alum) to alert him to his appearance in company of Mumford, Lynch, Daniel Burnham and other Big Names. He replied: " Really? ... Any idea on how I got on there?" (Which I'm pretty sure means he wasn't voting for himself ... )

You can vote for up to 15. Have at it.
One last note: If you're interested in reading about how Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses fought one another in New York over a series of urban redevelopment projects (Jacobs won the battles) look for "Wrestling With Moses," by Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. I've read it; it's well-researched, well-written and quite entertaining.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Transit update from the Triangle

Interesting e-mail exchange a few days ago with Brad Schulz, communications officer for Triangle Transit, about what happens next in the places that won permission from the General Assembly to hold votes on adding a sales tax for transit. Schulz was a longtime broadcast journalist in Charlotte, mostly for WBT radio, who left to work for CATS 2000-2003 and joined Triangle Transit in the Research Triangle Park in 2003.

The new law says large counties can put a half-cent sales tax to a vote of the people; smaller ones get the option for a vote on a quarter-cent sales tax. County commissioners would have to decide to put the issue on the county ballot. And I haven't met a politician yet who thinks this year is a good one to take such a question before the voters – especially after the legislature recently popped a 1-cent sales tax increase on us to balance the state budget. But longer term, who knows?

Schulz wrote me, "It’ll be up to commissioners in Wake, Orange and Durham counties to call for a referend(um) (a) when they feel the time is right economically and when each county has a transit plan they feel adequate to answer future needs. ... Triangle Transit is assisting the counties with financial modeling right now on what sales taxes could be raised with a ½ cent and what the counties could provide in ramped-up bus service (much like CATS did) as it planned for light rail.

"The sales taxes would go for bus and rail improvements in the 2015-2025-2030 time frame for construction/completion (remember if you’re going in the federal queue [for funding] it usually takes 10-12 years from plan/design/construct/opening.

"BTW… it doesn’t take all three counties moving in tandem to begin bus and rail improvements. If one or two said yes and the other/others said no, we could still move forward with planning for that county.

But, one caveat is that all of the county plans should also fold into a rational regional transit plan that would one day allow us to connect Chapel Hill with North Raleigh with 51 miles of rail. Light rail is the preferred mode, instead of the diesel units we looked at before, for energy/fossil fuel/environmental-sustainability reasons.

A 29-member citizens commission reported out last spring that the region should be ready to go it alone if there were no federal funds available. The bill as passed ... would allow for 25% state funding – with that precedent set by NCDOT with the CATS Lynx South Corridor Project.

" ... Chances are that the Chambers (of Commerce) would be leading the charge for the ½ cent sales tax along with the business community. BTW… the owners and tenants association of the Research Triangle Park also agreed to raise their taxes in the park to help pay for transit improvements. "

'Kudzu Jesus' - De-Vine?

I was all set to write about the plans for a transit-tax referendum in the Triangle (stay tuned, I'll get to that later today) when, upon researching the News & Observer's stories on transit I found, instead, the story about Raleigh's Kudzu Jesus.

What can I say? It's August. We live in Kudzu Country, the South. Here's a link to the article, and you can check out the photo, by reporter Josh Shaffer, above.

It's a spot where the kudzu has climbed across a wire. Says reporter Shaffer, "From the rear, he looks like Christ the Redeemer, the 100-foot statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro from a pointed mountaintop." It's just off Raleigh's Boylan Avenue bridge.

Random act of nature? A message from on high? Your call.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Let's talk window shopping

The Caldwell Street item sparked some interesting back-and-forth (here's a link) about whether one-way or two-way makes much of a difference for pedestrian comfort.

One commenter points out that the newly reconfigured intersection of Stonewall and Caldwell is so wide that it isn't pedestrian friendly (or bicycle friendly or even motorist friendly) at all. Others say sidewalk width and street-level retail are more important.
Here's my take: They're all important.

If the sidewalk is narrow (one commenter mentions Seventh Street uptown between Seventh Street Station parking deck and Tryon) pedestrians will be turned off.

If there's nothing interesting to look at – that is, if you're walking on a wide sidewalk but you're going past a vacant corporate plaza, a surface parking lot, a parking deck, a blank office wall, or even windows into office buildings – pedestrians will be turned off.

And if the cars are zooming past, as they tend to do on one – way streets when the lights are timed to let you cruise at 35 and hit them all green – then pedestrians will be turned off.

So reverting one-way to two-way is a good first step but if it's the only step it may be a waste of time. I continue to maintain that street-level retail shopping (or as the late jeweler and City Council member Al Rousso used to cry, "Window-shopping! We need window-shopping!") is what's key for uptown, and it's going to be incredibly difficult to achieve because:

• We've spent two decades demolishing storefront buildings until the few that remain are too far from each other to create any retail synergy.

• The city's uptown zoning still allows new development without street-front retail. It requires ground-floor retail, not street-front. Thus we get Founder's Hall and the shops inside office towers. To window-shop requires leaving the sidewalks and streets entirely. Unless you're in an urban scene as dense with stores and lively sidewalks as, say, New York or Paris, that's anti-urban.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

This Monday: Caldwell goes two-way

More back to the future: Several uptown streets are being converted from one-way to two-way.

This is, by and large, a good thing. One-way streets encourage driving fast, which is fine for highways but inside cities is A) More dangerous for pedestrians, B) More dangerous for drivers and C) Makes city streets feel like roads instead of city streets.

Below is a snippet from last week's memo to City Council, saying that Caldwell Street, from Fourth Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (formerly Second Street) switches to two-way traffic by noon Monday.

Brevard Street is due for similar treatment, from Stonewall to Trade streets. Update: the section of Brevard from Stonewall to MLK Boulevard will convert in May 2010, and the segment from MLK to Trade will switch in 2011 – some right-of-way issues will delay that segment, says CDOT Chief Danny Pleasant.

Here's the memo:

Beginning Monday, August 17, traffic patterns will change on South Caldwell Street between Fourth Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Starting at 9:00 a.m., crews will begin changing Caldwell Street from a one-way street to a two-way street. The conversion is expected to be complete by noon.
This conversion to two-way traffic is part of the Center City Transportation Plan adopted by the City Council in 2006, and has been implemented as part of the interchange and street modifications associated with the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Later phases will also convert Brevard Street between Stonewall and Trade to two-way traffic. The changes will improve traffic circulation in the area and improve accessibility and safety for pedestrians.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bigger than Charlotte, bigger than Atlanta ...


If you haven't heard the term before, you'll be hearing it more. I wrote about the idea briefly last March. (Link is here.)

Yesterday and today a group of mayors – including Charlotte's Pat McCrory and Atlanta's Shirley Franklin – plus academics, business executives and others from the Char-Lanta corridor gathered to talk about whether this giant region should start looking at itself as one connected whole, rather than disconnected municipalities and states. Not surprisingly, they agreed to keep talking.

Mega-region is a somewhat new term for the idea that U.S. metro areas are clumped in larger multi-state regions, each operating in many ways as one economic entity, and that addressing environmental, transportation and economic issues requires looking beyond municipal and state boundaries. The so-called Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion stretches from Birmingham to Raleigh (I-20 and I-85 are key connecting threads) and, they say, should be viewed as one large urban region.

Mayors at this meeting were McCrory, Franklin, Jennie Stultz of Gastonia and Robert Reichert of Macon.

Several action items emerged from the meetings (journalists were not allowed in to cover the discussion sessions):

1. The mayors agreed to short-term lobbying to press Washington for money for high-speed rail through the corridor as well as money to replace the Yadkin River bridge on I-85.

2. They'll meet again in October, probably in Greenville-Spartanburg.

3. They'll launch scenario planning to try to glimpse what the megaregion would look like with or without a large-scale regional vision.

4. They'll look to UNC Charlotte, Clemson and Georgia Tech to help develop an organizational structure to keep the group intact.

Look for more coverage from the Observer's Bruce Henderson, but here are a few quick tidbits from a noon press conference today:

- The day's best quote came from Catherine Ross of Georgia Tech's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development and author of "Megaregions: Planning for Global Competitiveness." Ross was one of the architects of the event. "My grandma said, 'You have to put it on the ground where the chickens can get it.' " In other words, it's a complicated concept and to help people understand it you have to put it out for them so they can start to learn it.

- Mayor Robert Reichert of Macon declared with enthusiasm: "You're catching a glimpse of the future." He noted, however, that "if you think Atlanta and Charlotte are gonna have a lovefest and not compete from now on ... " well, he said, that won't happen. But cooperation and competition can co-exist.

Several times, the mayors said that in their view, mayors are better positioned than governors to work together on such urban issues. In an interview Tuesday, Georgia Tech's Harry West said, "Georgia's governor right now is like a one-armed paper hanger." In other words, busy with multiple priorities.

Interested in learning more? Here are some links:
- Georgia Tech's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development's megaregions research page.
-Urban Land Magazine's "Think Global, Act Megaregional" (July 2006) by William Hudnut.
- "Think Locally, Act Regionally" from the Brookings Institution.

Monday, August 10, 2009

About that 'new' transit tax ...

You'll remember the taken-out-of-context flap earlier this year about whether the N.C. legislature should add Mecklenburg to a bill that would let all the other N.C. counties ask their voters whether they wanted to levy a small sales tax to support transit.

Plenty of local blowhards both in local news media and elsewhere acted as if the request to be included was the same as actually imposing a higher tax. That, of course, was either deliberate mischaracterization or, to be kinder, incredibly sloppy reporting. The bill lets voters (in other counties) decide whether to tax themselves.

Anyway, it seems the bill (House Bill 148, which does not include Mecklenburg) is about to pass the legislature (it's on tonight's calendar), giving counties in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) and the Triad (Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem) a go-ahead, if they wish, to seek voter approval for a half-cent sales tax for transit systems there. All other counties (except Mecklenburg) can seek voter OK for a quarter-cent sales tax increase.

This is mostly good news, although transit supporters in Mecklenburg had wanted to be included. They wanted to have a tool in the toolkit of transit-funding options so they wouldn't have to expend the time and effort to do what Mecklenburg did in the 1990s: get a special, local bill giving us the authority for a 1998 transit tax referendum. Mecklenburgers still could seek such a special bill from the General Assembly if they wanted to.

The good news is that surrounding counties such as Cabarrus and Iredell are now free to seek local taxing approval if they want to extend the proposed Northeast or North transit corridors beyond Mecklenburg's borders.

Here's a summary from Boyd Cauble, the executive assistant to City Manager Curt Walton, sent to City Council last Friday. (I tried for a link to his memo but couldn't manage it. If anyone can find the thing online, please share the link.)

Intermodal Transit Tax
The House passed a transit funding bill (H148) in April and some questioned whether the bill would be approved by the Senate. Last Wednesday, the Senate voted 37-9 to allow the Triad and the Triangle to have the ½ cent sales tax authority for transit which Mecklenburg currently has. Additionally, H148 allows every other county in N.C., except Mecklenburg, to levy a ¼ cent tax for transit upon voter approval.

The Triangle area did an excellent job of soliciting support from over 100 separate groups and a cross section of bipartisan support in the legislature. Prior to the Senate vote, Senator [Malcolm] Graham and Senator [Charlie] Dannelly [both Mecklenburg Democrats] explored ways to honor the MTC [Metropolitan Transit Commission] and City Council’s request to include Mecklenburg in H148. Unfortunately, adding an additional taxing authority in the bill would have been considered a "material amendment" requiring five additional days for approval. The amendment alternative was abandoned because it would have jeopardized the bill’s passage this session.

Not joining the other 99 counties in getting additional voter authority to fund future transit is very disappointing, but it is comforting to know that now Cabarrus, Iredell, and other adjoining counties have the authority to fund extensions of Mecklenburg’s transit corridors.
Representative [Becky] Carney [Mecklenburg Democrat], H148 primary sponsor, said she has the support of her colleagues to push for Mecklenburg inclusion for additional funding in the future, if local transit supporters and elected officials get behind the movement.