Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Can we recycle the recycling bin?

As of next summer the city of Charlotte is changing the way it collects recyclables. The red bins will give way to large rollout containers (an example is shown above) where you'll dump everything and roll it to the curb every other week. This will, in theory, inspire more people to recycle more things. (Clarification: You'll have a recycle rollout bin as well as a regular garbage rollout bin.)

Even if it doesn't, at least now you can roll it out instead of having to haul a bin loaded with newspapers, magazines, cans, glass, etc.

But what should the city do with the red plastic bins? I was talking today with council member Edwin Peacock III, who chairs the council's environment committee, and he said he'd be interested in hearing suggestions.
He noted his own family's red bin had been used for sledding and for washing a dog, as well as recycling. At our place we have three red bins (we read a lot of newspapers), and two are held together with duct tape, having had close encounters with various vehicles.

I vote for recycling the bins. But are they No. 1 or No. 2 plastic?
If not, maybe there's a public art project awaiting, involving a collage of red plastic shards ...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What doomed the Coffee Cup?

For those who don't always see the Saturday Charlotte Observer, here's a link to my regular weekly op-ed column. Today's topic: what really doomed the Coffee Cup restaurant, the building demolished on Thursday. "It was pricey dirt that killed the Cup."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Charlotte's energy strategy

Tuesday night, the public's invited to a meeting at Charlotte's city-county government center uptown to discuss and share ideas for the city's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy (Energy Strategy). The city got a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and if it can develop and submit an energy strategy in 120 days it will be eligible for the first half of more than $6.4 million in grant funding.

The public workshop starts at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers, then "idea sharing" in the lobby. If you can't make it you can watch it on TV on Channel 16 (if you have Time Warner Cable) or online at

Here's my 2-cents worth. If you have yours, go tell the folks next Tuesday:

1. Figure some sort of horrific punishment for office building managers who set the A/C too cold during the summer. Maybe chain them to large blocks of ice in January? Force them to pick cucumbers in 95-degree sunlight? Think of all the energy we'd save if indoor summertime temps were normal (75 or so) instead of 68. I went around with a thermometer earlier this summer and noted numerous uptown offices that were icy.

2. Change the tree ordinance to require large maturing shade trees (not teeny crape myrtles or narrow cypress trees) planted in all surface parking lots and located so that they provide shade for the parking places, especially in the afternoon. Hint from a long-time Southerner: If you can park in the shade, your car won't be 150 degrees when you get inside. The tree ordinance already requires trees, but apparently shade hasn't been much of a value, hence the shrubby little things you see.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Art comes to Central Ave.

My Twitter buddy @underoak (aka Merry Oaks resident and free-lance journalist and social media expert Andria Krewson) shares this photo of one of the murals going up along Central Avenue, part of the city-funded streetscape project. If you'd like to see sketches from the other artists selected for the series of murals on vinyl, visit the UnderOak blog.

Andria tells me the stencil-like bike wheels at the mural's bottom are the artist's nod to freelance photographer and avid biker Nancy Pierce, who lives in Merry Oaks, and other neighbor bikers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Growing church vs. historic bungalows

It was easily the most interesting of the rezoning cases the City Council heard last night – and the one that brings up the trickiest issue of the evening: What rules, if any, should the city have to limit institutions that encroach into neighborhoods? And how do you deal with big ugly surface parking lots? They're not pedestrian-friendly, nor do they contribute to the much-loved-by-planners "vibrant urban village." They're also polluters, due to polluted storm runoff.

A church in the Wilmore neighborhood wants to expand and build a large new building and a big surface parking lot on a street now holding several historic bungalows. (By "historic," here, I don't mean designated landmarks or in a designated historic district, simply a neighborhood that dates to the turn of the 19th-20th century and has an ambiance akin to Dilworth, Elizabeth and Wesley Heights.) The church has said it won't demolish the five houses but will move them to other property it owns.

The matter was a public hearing on zoning case 2008-158. The council vote should come next month.

Several things made this an interesting presentation. First, the council chamber was virtually filled with members of the church, Greater Galilee Baptist Church, whose current sanctuary (shown above, photo courtesy of the church) is on South Mint Street at West Park Avenue.

Second, one speaker in favor of rezoning had a great line: "We, as people, are in noncompliance. With Jesus."

Yet opponents had some good points: Why should a church be allowed to remove five houses and put up a surface parking lot? As neighbor Chip Cannon put it, this would be putting "a suburban mega-church in the center of a small-scale pedestrian neighborhood."

Some political realities are in order. This church is African American. Two at-large council members are running for mayor and both want African American votes (though black candidate Anthony Foxx has an edge there). Among nine at-large candidates (for four slots), three of the four Democrats are African American. Two at-large incumbents – Democrat Susan Burgess and Republican Edwin Peacock – will have to vote on this petition. Burgess, in particular, will want as many Democratic votes as she can get in November. If she faces black voters' triple-shotting for the three black at-large candidates, she'll have a problem.

Another political reality: No one wants to vote against a church, especially an obviously growing church. Maybe they'd do that in some other city in some other state, but in oh-so-Christian Charlotte? Not on your (eternal) life.

Yet another political reality: How fair would it be to crack down on an African American church when Carolinas Medical Center has been allowed to devour vast tracts of Dilworth with, near as I can tell, hardly a peep of protest from the city? And the affluent and predominantly white Myers Park United Methodist plopped a surface parking lot (nicely landscaped, though) at the prime corner of Providence-Providence-Queens-Queens. No one told them, "No." (Note to out-of-town readers: That intersection is for real. Don't even ask.)

Final political reality: I chanced to be sitting near Planning Director Debra Campbell and asked if there were any zoning standards that said you can't put in a parking lot, and she said, only in the UMUD (uptown) zoning. I asked if planners had considered cracking down on surface parking lots in other zoning categories. She just laughed – heartily, I must add – and said, "No way."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Corbu? Or You?

Yesterday I posed the question of who should be on the list of worst urbanists – spinning off's entertaining Top 100 Urbanists list.

The easy, cliched choice would be Le Corbusier, the brilliant but destructive architect whose vision for the city of the future was one of tall towers surrounded by large lawns and big highways. In other words, this guy invented Charlotte's suburban office park development Ballantyne, as well as this nation's many failed public housing towers. But Corbu was avant-garde and influential, and many others took up his theories. This was especially true in the U.S., where they dovetailed nicely with the auto and petroleum industries' push to get everyone into automobiles and driving a lot.

But thinking of Le Corbusier made me think of General Motors and its famous Futurama display at the 1939-40 New York Worlds Fair, depicted at right. Surely the automobile and petroleum industries – with their powerful influence on Congress and highway funding and with GM's purchase of many urban streetcar systems in order to dismantle them – did more to shape the nation's cities for the worse than any one architect could.

But then, of course, it's worth remembering that while Le Corbusier did influence huge numbers of architects in this country, Walter Gropius and his colleague Sigfried Giedion (who wrote "Space Time and Architecture") probably influenced more, during Gropius' many years at the Harvard School of Design. So maybe Gropius and Giedion should be on the list.
But again, wait. Architects challenge us to think. They may be wrong but who, really, decides what gets built? It's government that makes the rules that shape our cities. What about Herbert Hoover, who before he became president was Commerce Secretary and commissioned the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, which to this day underpins most land use ordinances in America and whose very foundation rests upon the theory that separating uses is the way to a safe and healthy city or town. As Jane Jacobs later showed us, it really isn't.

The federal government funded the interstate highway system, envisioned as a way to connect cities. But when it entered the city it caused open, ugly wounds to the urban fabric that continues to damage cities to this day.

It was the federal government whose rules for backing mortgage loans created the redlining that cut off access to credit for anyone who A) was black, or B) lived anywhere near black people, or C) was one of a variety of so-called undesirable ethnics, such as Mexican or Bohemian or D) lived anywhere near any of those so-called undesirable ethnics.

It was the federal government, again through its financing rules, that encouraged the sprawling, low-density suburban subdivision design that vanquished more urban dwelling forms.

Consider: The government is by the people, for the people and of the people. It's all of us. So maybe that worst urban thinker arrow should spin around and start pointing at all of us?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

But who oughtta be 'Worst Urbanist' ?

My colleague Jack Betts, who writes our This Old State blog, read the last post – Who tops 'Top Urbanist' list? – and suggested this, "Be fun sometime to do a list of the Ten Worst urban thinkers… There'd surely be some NC nominees." And he's surely right.

I saw that a commenter on my previous posting nominated Bissell Hayes to top the "sub-urbanism list." Right away, I started thinking about other Charlotteans (Bissell Hayes is a company, not a person, and now it's part of Cottingham-Chalk/Bissell-Hayes) who might be on that "worst urban thinkers" list.

Of course, A.G. Odell leaped to mind. He was a big proponent of uptown, to be sure, but his ideas for "improvement" were derivative of Robert Moses, or maybe Corbusier-esque. One reason downtown Charlotte has so many blocks and sectors that seem dead is that our civic leaders (Hugh McColl among them) kept following Odell's 1966 master plan for uptown development, when they shouldn't have. It tries to impose a single-use pattern, as in "here is your cultural district, there is your government district, here is your entertainment district" and so on. BAD idea.

At first I thought Henry Faison deserved a spot, for Eastland and other suburban shopping malls that wither, long after he's made his money and sold to others. But then, I thought, Faison isn't really an urban thinker, per se. He's just a developer doing what the city zoning and policies allow.

Here are Betts' suggestions:

• Whoever designed the Research Triangle Park – granted, it wasn't urban then but now it's an urban fortress, with concrete moat, in the midst of one the south's largest areas of urban academic sprawl.
• And how about whoever was mayor when the old Charlotte Coliseum was built way out yonder? [The first time that happened the mayor was Victor Shaw, but this being Charlotte he appointed a committee, headed by department store executive David Ovens, to work up a plan for a coliseum-auditorium project built in 1955 way out on Independence Boulevard. And the architect for both the old coliseum and Ovens auditorium? A.G. Odell. And while its location is horrible, and the big ugly parking lots are horrible, I do like the old Coliseum itself, with that great silver dome. And this being Charlotte, we did it again in the 1980s, when Harvey Gantt, an architect and planner was mayor. Built another coliseum way out on Tyvola Road./ mn]

• Or whoever was in charge of letting Raleigh's RBC Center get built in a place that makes visitors stand around in the parking lot after games or performances looking around in puzzlement: where are the bars, the pubs, the cafes, the restaurants, the museums? What were they thinking??????

• Or Tom White when he insisted the N.C. Museum of Art be built in an area where….(see RBC, above….) but at least there was a youth prison (Polk) handily right next door for the arts-and-petty theft crowd.

Who tops "Top Urbanist" list?

The votes are in and - no surprise - Jane Jacobs has topped the voting of the 100 Top Urban Thinkers. If you don't want to take the time to follow the link to all 100, here are the Top 10:
1. Jane Jacobs
2. Andres Duany
3. Christopher Alexander
4. Frederick Law Olmsted
5. Kevin A. Lynch
6. Daniel Burnham
7. Lewis Mumford
8. Leon Krier
9. William H. Whyte
10. Jan Gehl

Sad to say, Charlotte's Terry Shook dropped off the list during the voting. And am I being persnickety in wondering if there's a whiff of sexism in the No. 2 position for Andres Duany and his partner (and wife, and dean of the U. of Miami School of Architecture) Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk is way down at No. 24? Yes, Andres is the showman of the pair, no doubt. But still ...

Jane Jacobs' topping the list provides me with a chance to tout a new book about the Manhattan activist's battles with Robert Moses (who also made the list, but at No. 23, just below Baron Haussmann, who remade Paris in the 1800s). It's "Wrestling With Moses," by Anthony Flint. It's an excellent and readable account, and since biographies of Jacobs aren't plentiful it helps to fill some blanks in our understanding of her life and work. Here's a link to a long and excellent article about the book in The New Republic from Harvard's Ed Glaeser (who made Planetizen's list at No. 51).

Back to Jacobs being No. 1 - Here's one intriguing thought from Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura, Calif.:

"We're all better off for more attention being drawn to the work of Jane Jacobs -- not just 'Death and Life [of Great American Cities]' but her later work on economics and cities. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tony's book, I don't share his view that Jane Jacobs has won the legacy battle. The widespread embrace of her work is often shallow, and developers continue to push megadevelopments that look cute, but are barren monocultures that cannot replicate the 'complexity' she celebrated."

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

City weapon against big box blight advances

A Charlotte City Council committee today unanimously approved a proposed new code for nonresidential (i.e. commercial) buildings. This isn't a building code – those already exist. It's akin to a housing code, only it applies to buildings that aren't housing. I'll add a link soon as the city PR folks send me a pdf version. The draft ordinance isn't posted online.

It'll likely be up for final action on Sept. 28.

The issue is important for neighborhoods where retailers have left buildings behind and the buildings sit, empty, for months. (Take a look at the photo above, of the old Albemarle Road Upton's, built in 1978, photo taken in May.) Sometimes the vacancy occurs because a retail chain goes belly up; other times the company opens a new store, typically on a suburban greenfield site, and leaves the older building. Those vacant and decaying stores have the effect of signalling to other retailers: "Don't move here, retail doom awaits!" And the aura of decay can send a clear signal to other potential investors, too, of an area in decline.

The new code has been in the works since February 2008, when the council told staff to study and develop one. The council's Housing and neighborhood Development Committee has reviewed it three times: April, May and July, and a public hearing was Aug. 24.

To their credit, the city planners have begun pushing developers of new big box stores to agree to language in the rezoning agreement that puts some requirements on the retailer if the store goes vacant: keep up the building, help market it to new tenants, don't put a noncompete clause on the property. But that doesn't give the city any leverage against abandoned commercial properties built without any such requirements.

The city currently requires vacant nonresidential properties to be secure. The new code would extend to occupied buildings, and would require properties to be sanitary and safe, too. It would require property owners to maintain exterior walls, roofs, windows, etc. Broken windows and doors, holes in roofs and walls, garbage on the site and rodent or insect infestations would be potential violations. Near as I can tell, there's very little opposition to it from anywhere, so it should pass easily in a few weeks.

(And an aside, to forestall the inevitable suggestions that abandoned big box stores should be turned into public schools: School architects have studied that suggestion and concluded that state building requirements for schools make renovation of old big box stores more expensive than building from scratch. A charter school on North Tryon went into an abandoned K mart, but charter schools don't have to follow the same building rules as regular public schools. )

Friday, September 04, 2009

Coming Tuesday ...

Much good stuff to write this week, but I was buried with Charlotte City Council endorsement research and writing. I'll dive back into blogging after Labor Day. 'Til then have a good holiday, everyone.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Updating U-City transit, street projects

As I'm spending much of today interviewing City Council candidates and editing tomorrow's Viewpoint page, I'll just offer a couple of links to information available elsewhere.

First, here's an overview from University City Partners about the planning for the northeast light rail line. It's a good summation of some of the fine point design issues they're wrestling with, such as how to deal with the North Tryon Street, Harris Boulevard intersection. The next big public meetings on the plans:

• 6-8 p.m. Sept. 29 at Sugaw Creek Presbyterian Church at 101 W Sugar Creek Road

• 6-8 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Oasis Temple, 604 Doug Mayes Place in University Place

Also, thanks again to University City Partners, here's an overview of the planning for overhauling "the weave" – where N.C. 49 (North Tryon and University City Boulevard), U.S. 29 (North Tryon) and I-85 all come together.