Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Uff-Da! Twin Cities visit 'audacious' Charlotte

A large group of folks from Minneapolis-St. Paul were in town Sunday until Tuesday afternoon, on an inter-city Chamber visit. It's the sort of thing Charlotte civic and business leaders do every year, although this year they stayed home. Here's a link to the St. Paul Chamber's Web page, where you can see the agenda.

My friend Curtis Johnson, an educator and author of, among other things, the 2008 Citistates Report, was one of the group. He sent this e-mail report late Tuesday: "The delegation was duly stirred by its contact with Charlotte people. It prompted much discussion about whether Charlotte has audacity and MSP has ambivalence." He promises more info later.

Is Charlotte audacious? Are the Twin Cities ambivalent?

I sought the opinion of our departmental Minnesotan, editorial cartoonist Kevin Siers, who's from the Iron Range and lived in MSP for about 10 years.

"Audacious? If you mean Charlotte has more naked self-promotion, then yes," he said.
"They're [the Twin Cities] Midwestern, you know."

For the record, he points out that St. Paul and Minneapolis have distinctly differing personalities. SP is blue-collar, Catholic, and "has more interesting architecture." Minneapolis is Lutheran and "lots of steel and blue glass."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Listening to the 'political slime' alarm

I've interviewed a lot of politicians, and sometimes – not most of the time, but sometimes – you feel as if you want to take a shower afterward. The two who set off that slime-alarm bell most loudly? Jim Black and Mike Easley.

Black, the Matthews optometrist and former N.C. House speaker, is now in prison for a variety of election-related (and cash-in-envelopes-in-the-men's-room-at-the-Capital-Grille-related) behaviors. Former Gov. Mike Easley is being depicted by Observer and Raleigh News & Observer coverage, not to mention at this week's state elections board hearings, as extremely challenged in the ethics department.

From now on, I will listen to my instincts more often. There have been some other candidates over the years, some of them still in office, who set off that alarm. I'm not going to say who, because to accuse them of being crooks, without having evidence, would be libel. And it would be unfair, because there is the possibility my slime alarm isn't 100 percent accurate. (For the record, none of the City Council candidates or mayor candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot set off the slime alarm. I don't agree with some of them, but that's different.)
And don't get me started on the "crazy as a bedbug" alarm. That's an even longer list ...

Monday, October 26, 2009

'Firebird' has landed

A large white tent positioned in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art was my clue. I was heading back from the Starbux at The Square and spotted it. Hmmm. It's right where the Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture The Firebird is supposed to go. Being a snoopy journalist, I concluded it might well be a tent covering the sculpture itself.

I jaywalked across Tryon and noted that the yellow "keep out" plastic tape was down on the sidewalk side, i.e. public right of way, so I walked up and peeked through the openings in the tent. Saw a ga-zillion small mirrors.

The Firebird landed on Saturday, arriving in two pieces, on a truck. (The photo above was taken Saturday by Observer staff photog Yalonda M. James. The man depicted is Andreas Bechtler, whose art collection the museum will house.) It's now under a tent while it's being worked on by conservator Lech Juretko, who'll be cleaning it, replacing damaged tiles, etc. Official unveiling will be Nov. 3 - Election Day.

The Firebird is mirror mosaics over polyester, on steel innards. The late de saint Phalle (1930-2002) created it in 1991. Bechtler press info says it's 146 inches (12 feet) tall.
I think it is destined to become a Charlotte favorite. As such, it will need a name. Birdie? FB? Sparky?

Commuter rail - westward ho?

Commuter rail to ... I bet you're thinking, " ... to Davidson and North Mecklenburg." A rail line to the north is one of CATS' top priorities, to be built as soon as the feds cough up some money to build it.

In Gaston County, though, they're thinking commuter rail from Charlotte to Gastonia. The Gaston Gazette recently reported on the City of Gastonia's first estimates of what it would cost to build a commuter line on the old Piedmont & Northern railbed, which runs from Charlotte to Mount Holly and on to Gastonia: $265 million to $300 million.

Part of the route's right of way – between Mount Holly and Charlotte – is controlled by CSX and carries freight. The N.C. Rail Division of the N.C. DOT owns the 11.6 miles from Mount Holly to Gastonia, plus a 3-mile spur to Belmont. Here's a link to a map of the P&N line in Gaston County. And here's a link to the NCDOT's page showing the rail rights of way it owns. The P&N was built by tobacco and power company magnate James B. Duke, and carried passengers until 1951.

At the moment, of course, there's no state, federal or local funding for this rail project. And the Charlotte Area Transit System (aka CATS) doesn't have the P&N line as one of its five proposed transit corridors. It's just an idea – but one with support among some key Gaston County leaders, who see a stronger connection to Charlotte as a way to boost economic prospects in a county where unemployment last month was 13.3 percent.

Reminder of terminology: "Commuter rail" typically means a passenger train akin to the inter-city Amtrak service, although some commuter rail uses newer technology, and the cars are usually less comfy. Stations are relatively far apart compared with subway, streetcar, light rail service. But don't call it "heavy rail." That's a term for a system with a powerful electric rail down there with the tracks. It's the "third rail," the kind you should never, ever touch – hence the expression, "Social Security (or any other untouchable policy) is the third rail of American politics." Subways, not commuter trains, tend to be "heavy rail."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Progressive zoning plans - not here

The city of Miami last night adopted a zoning code overhaul, called Miami 21. Here's the Miami Herald article on it. Why should folks around here care? Here's why:

The new zoning overhaul is what's called a "form-based code." Raleigh is about to write one. Cabarrus County already has one. So does Davidson. Miami is the largest city, so far, to adopt one, but Denver is likely to adopt its own comprehensive form-based code in a matter of months, says blogger Mike Lydon. It's an approach to zoning that many progressive cities are taking on. Should Charlotte?

A form-based code bases rules that govern planning and zoning on buildings' form, not their use. In other words, what goes on inside a building (residence? office? store?) is less important than how the building fits in with what's around it.

For instance, it says parking lots have to be behind new buildings, and the buildings have to sit at the sidewalk – which makes walking down the sidewalk more attractive, thus encouraging people to walk instead of drive.

Form-based codes also generally use an approach with a weird-sounding name that makes plenty of sense – a "transect." It means you look at which areas are intensely urban, or completely rural, or somewhere in between and design things such as streets, sidewalks, even storm water management, based on how urban or suburban or rural an area is. It prevents, for instance, plopping a highway designed for intercity travel (think I-277) into a dense urban core. To move traffic there, it would say, use a high-capacity boulevard. (Think Champs-Elysee.)

Just as important, when adopted, a form based code is a plan with teeth. It overlays the city's expectations for urban density or suburban density or rural density onto the whole jurisdiction, complete with the zoning rules that govern those areas. So the "plan" isn't just a guideline but is a legal requirement. Imagine that!

One of the leaders of Miami's effort was the dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a luminary in the New Urbanism movement.

Here's a link to the Web site for the code itself. And if it rains today and you're looking for some meaty reading, here's the pdf for the code itself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Don't waste time seeking hubby in CLT, blog says

Faithful reader "Rebecca" shares a link to The Daily Beast's new city ranking, "Best (and Worst) Cities to Meet Men."

Our beloved Queen City ranked 26 out of 36. At least we beat San Jose.

"After New York City, Charlotte is the country's banking capital, making it the home to a number of young yuppies in training," quoth the Beast. "Though highly educated, the city has a serious shortage of available bachelors. You'd be better off hedging your bets on Wall Street."
The posting quotes the editor of Creative Loafing, Carlton Hargro: "The men say the women are difficult to date in the sense that people don’t go out as much, and the women say that the guys are in a perpetual state of adolescence and they’re just trying to get laid; they’re not interesting in wining and dining.” Maybe they shoulda asked our "Paid To Party" blogger Sarah Aarthun?

Quips Rebecca: "Apparently we are not only dumb but our men are cheap and immature." The Daily Beast, you'll recall, ranked Charlotte at No. 16 among what it deemed the smartest cities.

WashPost on the QC: 'Bust in Boomtown'

The Washington Post's Binyamin Appelbaum – whom you might remember as a business-staff reporter at the Observer until 2007 – weighs in today in the Post with a look at Charlotte: "The Bust Hits the Boomtown that Banks Built."

He writes that the opening of the cultural campus uptown "may be a last hurrah."

An excerpt:

"Few American cities prospered more over the past two decades than Charlotte, its growth propelled and gilded by Wachovia and its crosstown rival, Bank of America. Executives shoehorned gaudy mansions into old neighborhoods around downtown. Workers poured into vast subdivisions on the city's ever-expanding periphery. With coffers overflowing, giddy public officials spent tax dollars on a manmade river for whitewater rafting.

"Now Charlotte is suffering. Unemployment has spiked to 12 percent, well above the national average."

Appelbaum was one of the key investigators in the Observer's lengthy, multi-year look at mortgage fraud, foreclosures and Beazer Homes. Read the "Sold a Nightmare" series here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where developer money flows (updated)

At last week's East Charlotte candidate forum, one question the neighborhood group asked of all City Council candidates was whether they had received a campaign donation from REBIC, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, a powerful lobby of developers and real estate executives. (Technically the campaign donation is from its PAC known by SPAACE.)

Libertarian Travis Wheat, Democrat Darrin Rankin's wife (who was representing him) and Republicans Matthew Ridenhour and Jaye Rao reported no REBIC donations as of last week. Democrats Patrick Cannon and David Howard and Republicans Edwin Peacock III and Tariq Scott Bokhari all reported receiving a total of $1,000.

Despite the lack of REBIC money, Rankin's campaign spending reports show campaign contributions from uber-developer John Crosland ($1,000), uber-lobbyist Bailey Patrick Jr. ($100), developer Howard Bissell III (son of Howard "Smokey" Bissell).

Incumbent Democrat Susan Burgess bragged last week at the forum that she had never gotten a REBIC donation, which she attributed to her positions on environmental and other issues. But a close look at her campaign reports shows generous developer money flowing her way. Here's a sampling (all are developers unless otherwise noted): Clay Grubb $1,000, David Miller $1,000, Stoney Sellars $1,000, construction magnate Luther Cochrane $750, Smokey Bissell $500, real estate lawyer Collin Brown $500, John Crosland $500, Afshin Ghazi $500, David Haggard $500, Fred Klein $500, Al Levine $500, Daniel Levine $500, Todd Mansfield of Crosland $500, Pat Rodgers of Rodgers Builders $500, real estate lawyer Jeff Brown $400, lawyer Bailey Patrick $200, John Collett $250, Jim Dulin $250, David Furman $250, Peter Pappas $250, "unknown" with Childress Klein gave $250, Ned Curran $150.

Update, 3:55 p.m. Tuesday 10/20: Burgess has added a reply in the comments below. Also, be aware other City Council candidates also get developer money. This is NOT a complete list of any candidate's donors, but just for starters:

- Edwin Peacock III: $1,000 from John Crosland, $450 from Ghazi, and $1,000 each from Al and Daniel Levine.

- Patrick Cannon $1,000 from Crosland, $500 from Clay Grubb, $400 from Stoney Sellars.

- Tariq Bokhari reports $500 from Crosland, and $150 from lawyer Bailey Patrick.

- David Howard: $1,000 from Crosland.

- Andy Dulin (District 6): $500 from Crosland, plus $1,000 each from the Levines.

- Warren Cooksey (District 7): $250 from Crosland, $500 from Joel Randolph (in Sept. 2008).

Read all the donation reports for yourself: Here's a link. Be aware that the final reports aren't due until after the election. And it's sometimes instructive to see who chips in with donations after it's clear who'll be in office. Next campaign finance report due Oct. 26. Then nothing more is due until Jan. 29. It's remarkably handy for keeping the voting public from learning who might have tossed in a big bundle right before election day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Weirder Charlotte or Starchier Charlotte?

Uh oh. Trouble ahead for Tom Low's "Keep Charlotte Starched" (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) campaign. My colleague Jeff Elder reports from this weekend's Charlotte BarCamp 2 that folks in attendance wanted to start a Make Charlotte Weirder movement. (Of course, Little Shiva beat everyone to this, several years ago, with her site)

So, what will it be? Weirder Charlotte? Starched Charlotte? Do we burn the khakis or starch them? Wear jeans instead? Starched jeans?

Which city is starchier - Charlotte or Atlanta? Where does RDU fit in this spectrum? Weirder than Charlotte, more starched than Austin? My two-cents: We should try to shoot the moon (card-playing term, folks, not a NASA attempt) and aim for San Francisco-level weirdness. What with Wells and all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is landlord "compromise" in jeopardy?

Based on comments at Monday's City Council meeting and at the Tuesday City Council candidate forum in East Charlotte, I count at least five council members who have indicated they support a landlord registry program as originally proposed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department: All residential rental property owners would have to register and pay a small fee.

But the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition lobbied against that proposal, so the City Council committee studying the matter (Democrats Warren Turner and Patsy Kinsey, and Republicans Edwin Peacock and Andy Dulin) ordered a "compromise." The compromise would register only the worst of the landlords - worst being the ones at the top of the list for criminal activity, etc.

However, council members Turner, James Mitchell, Michael Barnes and Nancy Carter all said they support full registry, not partial. Anthony Foxx did not stake himself out Monday but asked a question in order to elicit the answer that full registration would noticeably reduce the registration fee, as it would be spread over a much larger number of landlords.

Kinsey, who is on the committee that coughed out the compromise, pointed out that the compromise was the only way to get the proposal out of committee, as they were stalemated.
Susan Burgess said at the forum Tuesday she supports full registration.

If Kinsey OR Foxx were to vote for full registration rather than partial, that measure would pass.

But, as Burgess said when I asked her Tuesday about it, 6-5 isn't a veto-proof vote. Would the mayor veto it? She said she didn't know.

For those who haven't checked in on this issue, the police want a way to get problem landlords to the table to talk with police about measures to reduce crime on their properties. Police also want a way to be able to find out who the property owners are. They say it can be difficult to find telephone numbers or responsive people with some out-of-town property owners. Neighborhood activists over the years say the same thing - some property owners really don't want to be found.

The question is whether it's worth the hassle of citywide registration to get to the comparatively few landlords causing problems. REBIC and the apartment association don't think it is. The police originally said it was. (The staff needed for the program would be funded with the fees.) When told to "compromise," of course, they dutifully complied.

Key fact: The matter comes before the council in November - after the election. So anything can happen.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Congestion is GOOD?

Provocative piece on Saturday in the Wall Street Journal by New Yorker writer David Owen, author of the new "Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability."

Here's his point, in a nutshell: Measures to ease traffic congestion are not good for the environment, because congestion is what makes people decide to opt for mass transit, which is decidedly better than driving.

He's right, of course, although his seeming prescription – just let them sit in traffic if they won't take the subway – seems a bit New York-o-centric. After all, in only a tiny handful of U.S. cities is taking mass transit much of an option. But there's much merit in the idea of figuring out how to funnel more money into transit revenue, through such ideas as bridge access fees (well, not in Charlotte) or congestion pricing scenarios.

A glimpse of progressive transportation

Parents, students walk to Olde Providence Elementary last Wednesday

After my Saturday column about kids and walking to school, I got a meaty e-mail from a reader who lived for many years in Oregon, but who has moved back to North Carolina. She loves it here, but longs for the more progressive planning and transportation options of her former city. She points out:

1. The Safe Routes to School bill passed in 2004 or 5, I think (we moved back to N.C. after 14 years in Lake Oswego, OR, so my memory may be failing me). This bill requires that cities, counties, and school districts all work together to provide safe walking or bike riding routes to school. Many cities/school districts now have route maps; the walking school bus you mentioned is a daily occurrence, and parents who no longer sit in long lines to drop off their children in the car have found that they get to work faster.
2. Every 5th grader in the state now receives bicycle safety training, originally started by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (of which I was a member). I participated in the “graduation,” and was still surprised to witness children giving their signals correctly, stopping at stop signs…and then turning without looking both ways! The trainer said that at this age, their brains cannot fully detect distance, and training in the 5th grade is the perfect starting point.
3. The Bicycle Bill passed in 1975 and requires that anytime a new roadway is built or reconfigured (not resurfaced), that 3-6 ft bike lanes must be added. It’s the law. Statewide.
[Note from Mary: In Charlotte the developers' lobby stoutly opposes city efforts to require bike lanes on collector streets, because of the "added cost" of bike lanes.]
4. “Cycle Oregon” is a yearly, quite expensive, bike tour covering different routes through Oregon. This ride is effectively changing the minds of the anti-cyclist, especially in rural areas because of the way Cycle Oregon has approached the ride. Simply, for each stopover in whatever small town they arrive, that town gets a pot of $$$$$ (comes out of the entry fee). Now towns vie to be a part of the ride and cyclists find tents, food, music, set up for them by the locals and motorists honking and waving, rather than trying to run them down.
5. Each city in the Portland metro region has a transportation advisory board (of which I was a member/chair for several years); and each city has to strive to meet alternative transportation goals set forth by law from the state, county, and METRO (regional government).
6. The Willamette Pedestrian (yes…I was also a member) Coalition is a nonprofit striving for safer walking access.
7. ACTS Oregon is the Alliance for Community Traffic Safety (of which I was a member representing my city), comprising police, fire, EMT, motorcycle, light rail, bus, truck, bicycle, pedestrian, disabled, “safe routes to school,” train, school, city, county, ODOT. Any group interested in moving people safely is welcome to join. In any given conference, members can participate in activities such as sitting in a big rig to understand where the blind spots are, taking a tour by bike in that town to check out their cycling infrastructure, hearing a talk by Southern Pacific on how to avoid train accidents, attending the awards given to police who go “above the call of duty,” etc. Bringing myriad groups together to discuss safety effectively put an end to bickering about whose safety is more important.

The attitude toward cyclists and pedestrians is not perfect in Oregon - do not think I’m talking alternative transportation utopia! There is still conflict. That said, in Portland alone, over 10,000 people/day cross the bridges (counters have been set up for years) on bike/foot to get in and out of the city, and road expansion has been minimized because they’ve added light rail, trolleys, sidewalks, and bike paths. The suburbs are even connected.

Personally, even though we lived in a suburb of Portland, we were able to live car-free for the 14 years there because I could plop my bike on the bus, ride the first leg (fairly dangerous stretch that now has a light rail line with bike access running alongside it—happened AFTER we left), get off the bus at the Sellwood Bridge and ride the rest of the way (2 miles) alongside the Willamette River on a dedicated bike/ped highway. Daily I passed fathers/mothers on their bikes with their children on bikes or carriers on the way to school/work. Those children were ALWAYS smiling!

Sorry to be so wordy; moving back to NC has been a blessing because both our families live here. I don’t miss the rain in Oregon, but I do miss the power that the public had to ensure that every man, woman, and child had safe access, whether they were in a car, on foot, on a bicycle, or in a boat! We also had to buy a car and I’ve gained 10 pounds since I stopped riding my bike everywhere!

Note: I’ve seen a lot of letters to the editor about light rail, cycling, etc., and have never wanted to respond because I’ll get told “move back to Oregon” by other readers. I don’t want to move back, but I would like to see the Charlotte metro region move into the future!

Keep up the discussion!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Challenges for 2020 Uptown

Let's get down to it. The Center City 2020 Vision Plan launches this month. There will be a public workshop Oct. 21, 5:30 p.m. at the Charlotte Convention Center.

The nonprofit Charlotte Center City Partners, the city and the county held a media event on Sept. 30, including a tour of neighborhoods in and around uptown that will be part of this study. The Observer's April Bethea wrote an article, and on Sunday the editorial board opined, with "New uptown plan to look beyond 'uptown.' "

CCCP, in particular, deserves credit for pushing this idea. Some of my sources tell me it's CCCP – not the city or county – providing the energy behind the 2020 Plan. CCCP President Michael Smith and his senior vice president of planning and development, Cheryl Myers, have a good grasp of the many issues involved.

So here's my two-cents worth on what I hope the 2020 Plan looks at:

• What's wrong with the sidewalk experience uptown? How can it be improved? What needs to change (UMUD standards, for instance) to ensure that we don't keep replicating the errors?
By "sidewalk experience" I don't mean just cracked pavers or crosswalks or utility poles blocking sidewalks on lesser streets. I mean whether it's interesting to walk down the sidewalk. Can you look into store windows? (We know the sad answer to that one, alas.)

Walk down East Trade Street from College to the Transportation Center and you'll see what I mean. Surely we can do better than EpiCentre loading docks and Ritz-Carlton driveways for what should be one of uptown’s premier streets.

Or walk along the "new" Brevard Street between the backside of the Convention Center and the backside of the NASCAR Hall of Fame complex. You'll see that from an urban design standpoint, "backside" is a most polite term. Can I say that the new buildings have created a sidewalk experience that sucks? How did that happen, with the city government's deep involvement in those projects? We do, in fact, employ urban designers. Were they listened to? Whatever happened to requiring street-level retail? This is not a block anyone should be proud of creating.

• Grapple with the pre-existing and outdated zoning categories. They’re what bring us new, suburban-style branch banks right across the street from the urban Metropolitan development in Midtown. They bring us the new, suburban-style Bojangles at Third and Charlottetowne Avenue, and the new, suburban-style Family Dollar at Five Points next to Johnson C. Smith University. It's fine to allow old, nonconforming buildings. But for heaven's sake, if new buildings are going up, can't you ensure that they're not the same old suburbia-in-the-wrong-place?
Two years ago, the city's planners were drowning in rezonings and didn't have time for this. Guess what? Now they do. And they aren't looking at this?
This is where Planning Director Debra Campbell could play an important leadership role.

• Related to the previous: How can the city help create true “centers” for neighborhoods – neighborhood centers where you can easily walk to stores, restaurants and offices? It's hard to explain this concept to people whose only frame of reference is shopping centers and subdivisions, but in older cities different neighborhoods have small "downtown"-like clusters of stores and other businesses. In Boston, the Brighton, Jamaica Plain and North End neighborhoods are good examples. Almost all that's left of what Charlotte used to have are the Plaza-Central and NoDa commercial areas, both compact and walkable.
The city is committed to a "centers and corridors" strategy. But so far it's concentrating on "corridors."
Some of the newer, mixed-use projects (e.g. the Metropolitan) are too much reminiscent of shopping centers rather than neighborhood centers. Part of it is weak project design, part of it is how developers have to put projects together to get financing (including locally owned retail makes it well nigh impossible for developers to get financing), and part of it, I fear, is that the idea of incremental, small-scale buildings owned by different owners has gone the way of the Edsel. Can we bring it back?

• Engage Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in this conversation. I mean, really engage. Few things can hurt a neighborhood on the brink faster than being assigned to a low-performing school – or revive one quicker than being reassigned to a popular, high-performing school. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools needs to be a full participant in this plan. Yes, school assignment can be nasty and politically radioactive. That's why they call it leadership.

• Why 2020? I want a plan that looks well beyond 10 years. This should be the 2050 Vision Plan. We've had more than enough short-term thinking. The quest for short-term profits at the expense of long-term financial stability is one of the things that drove the global economy into this horrible economic slump. Charlotte's center city planning should rise above that.

(A note of disclosure: Observer publisher Ann Caulkins is a co-chair of the CCCP planning effort. She hasn't told me to write this, or told me what to write. As of this moment she doesn't even know I'm writing this, much less know what I'm saying.)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Planners DO try to reduce paper

This just in: Planner Tom Drake, hearing about Stephen Overcash's lament about the 26 copies of each rezoning plan, tells me that the city Planning Department now lets you submit only 12 copies plus a CD. But you have to do that each time you submit a new plan for review.

That's only half the paper, which is something, I suppose. ...

Ahem, Charlotte: REDUCE, reuse, recycle?

Got an interesting e-mail from local architect Stephen Overcash of Overcash-Demmitt Architects, responding to my Saturday op-ed on Charlotte and recycling. He points out that there are other ways in which, in his opinion, the city's operations could be far "greener." Take, for instance, the dozens of very large paper plans you have to submit multiple times for every rezoning.

His note:

Hi, Mary:I enjoyed your article last weekend about the City of Charlotte not really being very green and I agree. I am an architect and am appalled at all the waste in the governmental system. There was a discussion over a year ago if the City should hire a Green Guru to help make recommendations, but the Mayor stated that he thought it wouldn't be prudent to incur that expense in the midst of a downturn in the economy. First of all, a good Guru will save the taxpayer his salary many times over in reduced costs. Second, I think with all the professionals that are unemployed, it would be a good time to "get a bargain."

I agree that we need better receptacles for recycling, but out of the three: reduce, reuse and recycle....recycling is a good, but distant third choice. The City of Charlotte should be striving to reduce.....

One example of my frustration: Every time I apply for a rezoning, I am told to submit 26 full-size sheets (sometimes the submittal is 2-3 sheets). Supposedly these are distributed around the various agencies that review them, but we only get comments from about 8 agencies. When I have repeatedly asked the Planning Department (and Debra Campbell directly), I am given some version of an answer that "that's the way it is," "that's the way it's always been done," etc.

When I asked her where the additional 20 sets go, she informed me that many departments, such as DOT, have several reviewers and they all need their own set. Planning is not amenable to a couple of sets to share and a PDF to review on the screen ... or better yet, just an electronic file where I don't have to drive the hard sets down. Once we receive comments, they request another 26 sets, for the second review. Once we are approved, they request a final 15 sets. Where is all this paper going? Why can't the City come into the 20th Century and only request an electronic file that would save storage space, additional files, air conditioning, on and on? (I pray that all the old sets of drawings are at least being recycled behind the scenes, but have been afraid to ask.)

I appreciate your articles trying to keep a little pressure on the Government.

Disgusted in Charlotte,

Stephen Overcash

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Smart city? Raleigh wins round 1

They may think they're so smart in the Capital City and the Bull City (aka RDU) but the QC has something up its sleeve. More on that below.

First, if you haven't seen this, it's a fun survey from the blog, The Daily Beast. Today even the august Observer editorial board weighed in.
The Daily Beast has ranked a bunch of cities as "America's Smartest Cities" and our Tar Heel colleague up I-85 snagged first place. Raleigh-Durham, says the Beast, "has just about every intangible useful in attracting and developing a smart populace: It’s a university hub, including two of the nation’s elite schools (Duke and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), and those schools led to one of the nation’s great technology incubators (Research Triangle). On top of that, Raleigh, as the state’s capital, attracts engaged political minds, as well." (You may insert favorite joke here about Raleigh politicians.)

Charlotte hit No. 16 – sort of, well, unremarkable. We were deemed less smart than Hartford-New Haven, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City (ouch). But we bested Hotlanta (No. 23) as well as No. 30, Grand Rapids-Kalamazoo-Battle Creek (but where's the sport in that?), and Greensboro and Jacksonville, Fla., tied for No. 37.

Here's what the editorial board had to say. One might say we were bemused, and noted the lack of mention of N.C. State.

But remember that hornets nest? The Queen City is a fighter. So if you are interested in seeing this region become smarter – catch up to Baltimore, anyone? – consider this Oct. 15 event: "A Smarter Charlotte."

A group of people put together by Mark Peres (above, right) of the online magazine Charlotte Viewpoint and Tom Low (right) of Civic by Design will host, "A Smarter Charlotte: Enhancing Our Community Intelligence for the 21st Century." It's 5:30-8:30 p.m. at the just-will-have-opened Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture at South Tryon and Stonewall streets. Tickets cost $20, which includes refreshments. For an agenda and to register, click here.

"Good things occur when good people convene in the right way," say the organizers.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Recycling, redux

If you didn't see my Saturday column on recycling in Charlotte, take a look here. And in a related matter, in a previous posting, I promised follow-up information on the new recycling bins, and whether we could recycle the old red ones.

Some answers, courtesy of Gerald Gorbey, deputy director of solid waste services for the City of Charlotte.

Can or will the city recycle the old red bins (which are No. 2 plastic)?

Gorbey: The city will not require that red bins be returned. Citizens will be allowed to use them for marshalling bins for their recyclables or for storage use, etc. If citizens prefer to throw their red bin away, the City will collect it and recycle it. The exact process for doing the bin pick-up has not been determined yet. The bin will be recycled either through the county’s material recycling center or through a contractual arrangement with the roll-out cart company that provides the new recycle carts.

What color will the new, rollout recycling bins be:


Any plans to begin recycling of compostables/kitchen scraps?

No plans are underway for providing this service.

And to repeat:

The new rollout recycling will be "single-stream" which means you don't have to sort it, just dump it all into the bin, which will have a lid to keep it dry and, in theory, keep out varmints. However, they are not raccoon- or possum-proof. Yes, I once encountered a possum that had crawled into our gray rollout bin. And another time, a trail of peanut shells led away from the bin, where I had tossed some stale peanuts after a trip to the circus.

As to whether we'll ever see the sort of easy recycling bins uptown that I mentioned in my column, well, who knows? City council member Edwin Peacock told me today that "phone calls have been made."

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Sound off on city's energy policy

A city press release informs us that Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents can submit ideas and suggestions online about how the city should spend $6.7 million, part of a federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant.

The grant is to invest in projects to reduce fossil fuel emissions and energy consumption and to create "green jobs" and renewable technologies.

To give your ideas or take the Community Input Survey, visit and click on City Energy Strategy. The survey ends at midnight Monday (Oct. 5).