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• Grapple with the pre-existing and outdated zoning categories.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.)


Anonymous said...

Actually what drove us into the current economic slump is the loose monetary policy of the FED. The gov't is the problem not the solution.

Stephen said...

Why don't you tell us more about CCP? What makes them "non-profit"? And how are they funded? How did they get into a position to decide policies that affect the entire city of Charlotte?

Oh and while you're at it, find out whose idea it was to put up "Uptown North" and "Uptown West" etc....signs all around. They don't make geographical sense, and we already had 4 wards to use as identifiers. How much did those signs cost and what purpose do they serve (besides confusing people)?

JDC said...

1. The United Way fiasco and now the Franklin Graham enrichment fund have taught us that “non-profit” doesn’t mean “low executive salaries”. And now CCCP execs hope to justify their existence by redefining the boundaries of center city. The problem, as it has always been, is that Charlotte is more than just the area within the innerbelt plus the 16 adjacent neighborhoods CCCP wants to add to the study. They need to expand about another 8-10 miles. Then they’ll have included in Charlotte what makes up Charlotte.

Alas, it seems someone has a good grasp on the taxpayers’ money and knows that including more ‘hoods will keep it coming. We should ask our mayoral and city council candidates if they support taxpayer funding of CCCP, and vote accordingly.

2. Didn’t someone a few weeks back point out in this blog the sidewalk folly? First, I can browse all I want to on the Internet. No need to pay $10 to park uptown and window shop. Second, if center city can’t offer anything unique to window shopping other than what suburban stores provide, why would anyone want to travel uptown when they could stay in their own hood?

On the other hand, if CCCP worked with the state and federal government to legalize prostitution and marijuana, a la Amsterdam, you’d have folks window-shopping and buying like white on rice. The other problem is that street-level retail in the old uptown or in the new fuller-figured version will always be more expensive than retail anywhere else in this city. If you want to draw folks uptown on a consistent basis, create a suitable free-market area for bartering-type enterprises that will draw the budget conscious to uptown.

3. I live in a Charlotte neighborhood center outside uptown and the Sweet 16 where I can easily walk to stores, restaurants and offices. But I guess the equivalent of 3-4 city blocks is too much exercise for the majority of residents, and until America gets over its love affair with fat, I doubt many people will want to move to U+16 where CCCP hopes to duplicate a Manhattan ambiance.

4. Re involving schools: Anyone who can afford to live in a gentrified U+16 won’t care about under-performing public schools. They’ll just send the kids to day schools in the burbs.

5. I’m writing to Ann Caulkins to ask her to chair a planning effort for my section of Charlotte. This will help validate my scheme and keep the Observer off my back.

Mary Newsom said...

Charlotte Center City Partners is a nonprofit group, funded by a special tax on uptown property owners. South End and the University City areas also have similar groups.

They're not setting policy. That's why the city and county are involved. The plan that would emerge - written by consultants - would go before the City Council and either be adopted or not adopted.

About the signs - It's evening so I can't double-check this, but I believe they're part of a city-funded effort to make it easier for visitors to find their way around uptown.

I agree they don't make geographic sense. Nothing in downtown Charlotte does, because the streets were laid out diagionally so that "North" Tryon runs northeast, for example.

Cato said...

I want a plan that looks well beyond 10 years. This should be the 2050 Vision Plan.

If you're looking out this far, to what extent are you taking into consideration the low fertility rates for uptown and nearby smart-growthy neighborhoods? And for that matter, not just Charlotte, but the entire urban renaissance that's been going on around the country.

Fertility is at replacement level when it averages @2.1 births per female. The educated, skilled populations that have been gentrifying urban areas aren't getting near that. My impression is that such couples with two kids are a bit unusual; couples with three or more are very much so. (Are the dwindling birth rates of high-density European countries, which much of the American planning community would like to emulate, instructive? If not, why not?)

In short, if the current generation of creative class urbanites isn't raising the next one, where will it come from? Economic mobility? Unlike when Jane Jacobs wrote about cities creating the middle class, today's urban areas instead appear to be competing for a shrinking pool of them.

Anonymous said...

I got a glimpse of a good downtown this summer - Minneapolis. Walk the streets of downtown Minneapolis and you can walk into a Nordstrom, Saks Off Fifth, Macy's and Target - all without entering an office building to find their front door. Target is the only one of those places I can afford to shop in, but I enjoyed looking around in the other stores also.

And this is the same city that has more than 80 blocks connected by skywalks, with tons of shopping in them also. Of course, we're much smarter than them. We know that overhead skyway shopping and street-front shopping are mutually exclusive. One cannot exist in the same city as the other.

Mary, I think the odds of this planning effort getting outdated rules and regulations fixed has about the same chance as paper reduction. In other words, somewhere between zero and none. No one dares mess with "that's the way it's always been done."

Anonymous said...

Ummm, Mary, about the schools. Many of us have argued for years that having schools be part of a neighborhood community is one of the main building blocks of that community. As I recall we were often called selfish, fearful of diversity, and white flighters. And of course we only cared about our own children--didn't care about every child (perhaps that's one reason assignment discussions have been so "toxic"--it was perfectly acceptable to dismiss suburbanites as being uncaring, selfish people). It's been interesting to see how quickly the conversation has changed now that the inner ring neighborhoods, rather than the farther out suburbs, are facing this issue--suddenly a lot more understanding of why people want schools close to home and want to stay with a school that is part of their community (I keep waiting for the Kevin Siers cartoon skewering a selfish MP student for wanting to stay at her school, like the one he drew of the Providence student who asked to do the same back in 2000. But I suspect that's not going to happen).

I totally agree with your thoughts on neighborhood centers. I think part of the problem is that Charlotte grew so darn fast that those centers, which in other cities gradually evolved, just didn't have time to happen here. Also the big push for "mixed use" communities led to a lot of those faux town centers (which are in reality shopping centers) being built. However, I guess they're better than the old strip centers.

JDC said...

Mary, are you claiming that we city-county taxpayers are not funding the 2020 plan, which CCCP proposed and is driving?

The Charlotte Business Journal’s Erik Spanberg wrote on September 29, 2009 “County and city government and Charlotte Center City Partners each pledged $250,000 toward the study. Michael Smith, the center city group’s top executive, hopes to bring the study in for less than that, but offers no estimates on the final cost.”

Strange you didn’t mention this.

Can businessmen in the 16 'hoods included in the plan expect to have their business property tax hiked in the future - as was the case in uptown - so CCCP can attempt to attract retail and whatever to those areas if the plan is adopted? Does the end justify the meands?

The bottom line is that taxpayers outside the expanded center city beltline will help subsidize a pie-in-the-sky plan that does not benefit them directly, or probably even indirectly, and for which there is no guarantee that it will ever be adopted or followed.

As proof of that, I point out the SouthPark 2000 Small Area Plan, which discouraged tall skyscrapers in existing single-family neighborhoods near the mall. Yet city council overwhelmingly approved a rezoning request in 2007to erect a 10-story mixed used condo in the Picardy neighborhood west of the mall.

In Charlotte, a plan isn’t worth the recycled paper on which it may be written.

As long as you endorse this waste of taxpayer money, why not propose a tax on Americans so NASA can draft a “purty” plan to show how the Moon might be developed by 2020?

Anonymous said...

CCCP has enlisted the California firm MIG as the main consultant on the 2020 plan. They've done about a dozen center city plans for municipalities from Ocala, Florida to Anchorage, Alaska, and places in between.

MIG's mission statement for one city plan - it may have been Denver's - was to create "PROSPEROUS, walkable, diverse, distinctive and green city centers".

So apparently they can control the economy and get Charlotte out of this recession, as well as perform all sorts of magic.

It would be interesting to see the results of MIG plans that were completed and adopted several years ago.

Surf's up dude!

Stephen said...

Thank you JDC for mentioning this:
The Charlotte Business Journal’s Erik Spanberg wrote on September 29, 2009 “County and city government and Charlotte Center City Partners each pledged $250,000 toward the study. Michael Smith, the center city group’s top executive, hopes to bring the study in for less than that, but offers no estimates on the final cost.”

Thats a lot of money from the city and county, not just "uptown property owners". Of course I already knew how they're funded. Regardless, they receive and spend public money, yet almost noone in Charlotte realizes this.

Also, they do decide policies. Mostly because whatever fearless leader Michael Smith says gets approved by City Council. I think they actually stand in the way of progress for Charlotte. Mary, I read your blog regularly and I frequently agree with you. But don't think they care about urban principles or sensible zoning requirements. They are developers, and ONLY concerned with money. How many of the projects CCP lauded have storefronts and pedestrian friendly design? Or a better question, how many of them are sitting there rotting unfinished, converted to rentals, or even unstarted?

They're free to hold meetings, pay for studies, and lobby as they wish but they should not receive any public funding. We'd be better off using that "special tax" to save up and start buying out surface lots and delinquent/absent landlords. Or better yet put it towards schools and public safety. But thats just crazy talk.

Stephen said...

Oh and about those stupid signs, I'm from Charlotte so I know how we're oriented diagonally. But the 4 wards already designated which part of the city you were in. Nobody would say "I live in Uptown North". They would say 4th Ward. Why not make fancy signs that say which ward? Its just another example of illogical decision by the powers-that-be.

Another example would be 2nd St, or excuse me "Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd". I have no problem with a street named after an honorable man; I think it should have been done 20 years ago. But why rename a NUMBERED street? Its bad enough that there is no intact grid, but to break up the numbering scheme? Come on. Not to mention it doesn't really qualify as a boulevard. I don't agree with them renaming Independence to Charlottetowne. Why couldn't that have become MLK? You have a street that needs renaming, and you have a name you want to put on a would've made sense.

Anonymous said...

My guess is that by expanding their definition of "center city" to include the immediately adjacent neighborhoods, CCCP hopes to get support for enticing upscale retailers away from SouthPark and into the redefined "uptown".

About the only type of retail that would be unique enough to draw the "prosperous" to uptown, and pricey enough to allow merchants to pay high rents, would be the high-end retailers found in the SouthPark area.

Then the areas around SP Mall would decline, and CCCP execs could justify their existence by proposing they head up a master plan to revitalize SouthPark.

What goes around comes around.

Anonymous said...

2020 This country will be a third world country if we continue the backward policies.

Anonymous said...

Bring back a Central High School to serve Uptown and in-town neigbhorhoods.

And yes, take some of the Myers Park areas closest to Uptown(Elizabeth, Dilworth) and combine them with NoDa, Midwood, 4th Ward and Wesley Heights.

fly_swatter said...

I've never seen a building in this era that does not have a service entrance for deliveries, maintenance vehicles, etc. Most uptown buildings are surrounded by public streets so a large structure is going to have a backside...on the street.

Second, the zoning code isn't that broken. Developers can opt of certain standards and Council can approve or deny the proposal. The Family Dollar on West Trade is a much better design with the current overlay zoning than it would have been with standard business zoning.

Charlotte is not small town Davidson or built out Boston.