Wednesday, November 25, 2009

All politics is local - especially stimulus politics

A testy flappette erupted Monday night at the City Council meeting, involving the conjoined issues of federal stimulus money and the degree to which any district rep should go against the wishes of a fellow district rep on an issue in his own district.

The issue was whether to award a contract for $639,362 in stimulus bucks. The money will pay for fiber optic cables and cameras and other techno-equipment to let traffic lights on 13 miles of N.C. 51 (Pineville-Matthews Road) and about a mile of Providence Road south of N.C. 51 adjust their timing in response to traffic. I.e., better traffic flow, fewer backups at lights. Want more details? Here's a link to the agenda, see page 18.

As it happens, the project is almost entirely inside District 7, represented by Republican Warren Cooksey.

And for months, Cooksey has been pulling a Mark Sanford routine, although in his case it's not trysts with an Argentine soulmate or questionable use of funds, just Sanford's refusal of federal stimulus money for South Carolina. Cooksey's been voting against any measure that involves federal stimulus money. He opposes the stimulus spending because it raises the national deficit, because the president and Congress are Democrats (he doesn't say that, but you get the idea), yada yada. You know the arguments.

Meantime, just about every time you say hello to Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, he goes off about how the Democrats are horribly misspending all that stimulus money and how dumb they're being, etc. etc. I don't even talk to him that much and I've heard it at least a half-dozen times. He played that riff again Monday night. I imagine some council members might be a wee bit annoyed at the endless Demo-bashing.

In other words, partisan national politics is infesting council operations – no surprise, and not the first time.

This time, though, the partisan stuff got tangled in an existing, informal pattern among district reps that says you generally don't oppose another district rep's position on issues in his/her district. It's not a firm agreement, nor always followed. But you see it a lot in zoning cases, for instance. (For the record, I wish district reps would apply their own judgment to those zoning issues instead of letting the one person who's more apt to be swayed by shallow NIMBY concerns control the whole shebang. But that's a posting for another day.)

Monday night, some council members wondered aloud: If the district rep opposes this, why should we be for it? (Purely coincidentally all were Democrats).

Democrat Michael Barnes, District 4, said (I'm paraphrasing here), If a district rep doesn't believe in projects in his district, why should we support them?

Democratic at-large rep Susan Burgess pointed out for anyone watching on TV that she would support the spending to help traffic on N.C. 51, even though the district rep opposed it.

Then Republican at-large rep John Lassiter, who lives near N.C. 51, got surprisingly testy. It was as though he had been holding inside weeks worth of anger at Democratic council members. Trust me, the guy was angry. He said (again, I'm paraphrasing), I don't understand how you [i.e. the Democrats] would choose to vindictively punish the people in the district just because their rep is acting on his conscience.

In the end, the measure passed, but four district reps voted no: Barnes, District 3 Warren Turner, District 2 James Mitchell, and – no surprise – Warren Cooksey.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mayor Pat's last council meeting

We're in the middle of the Citizens Forum part of tonight's City Council meeting - when anyone can address the council. As the dinner meeting was breaking up about 6:45, Mayor Pat McCrory asked whether Martin Davis would be appearing.

Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the Republican primary, has a habit of appearing and trashing McCrory for being socialist, for his support of transit.

Told that Davis wasn't on the schedule tonight, McCrory, knowing this is his last business meeting as mayor, quipped that he might have finally told Davis what he thought of him.

But later he was clearly moved to tears when a group from the Greenville Community Historical thought Association [Greenville the neighborhood, not the cities in North or South Carolina] came to the lectern to present him with a plaque and certificate. As longtime neighborhood advocates and civic activists Thereasea Elder and Maxine Eaves spoke, McCrory's face was somber and he had to wipe his eyes.

7:29 PM - McCrory again mentions his regret that Martin Davis isn't here, and then several other old favorite council speakers, (Ballerina Man, Ben3, etc.) most notably, he said, "Helicopter Guy." That would be the famed "Rogue Helicopter"clip on YouTube. If you haven't seen it, have a look.

Mayor Pat on his last council meeting tonight

Tonight will be Pat McCrory's last real City Council meeting as mayor. Sure, he'll be there Dec. 7 for the new council swearing-in, but that's different. He's been Charlotte mayor longer than anyone - 14 years - and leaves a huge legacy, especially with the city's transportation and light rail system.

I caught up with him this morning to ask what he was thinking and feeling. Any big to-do planned?

No, he said. "I'm not big on goodbyes. I get too sentimental."

I asked, What are your thoughts? "A combination of sadness with being very proud. ... I'm a very sentimental guy so I don't like the last of anything." But, he said, "It's time to move on."

He talked a lot about a meeting last week in Greenville, S.C., with a coalition of mayors and academics and business people trying to raise awareness of the existence of an urban mega-region from Atlanta through Raleigh. He and retiring Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin are pushing the effort. The group hashed out a mission statement ("It was like making sausage.") They'll probably form a 501(c)3 nonprofit group.

And he raved about downtown Greenville, which has reclaimed the historic Reedy River Falls and built a public garden alongside it with a pedestrian suspension bridge over the river. "Just gorgeous!" McCrory said. "They let people swim in the river and play in the falls!" He told Greenville Mayor Knox White he was envious. But McCrory being McCrory, he added "He's envious of our light rail."

McCrory said he met with Mayor-elect Anthony Foxx last week and gave him advice about time-management, ethics, how best to spend his time with national groups, etc.

He intends to stay busy with initiatives such as the Mega-region initiative and with speeches all over the country about Charlotte's light rail line and the accompanying transit-oriented land use planning. He calls his presentation, "From Mayberry to Metropolis: Creating the Best of Both.," and says, "We're seen as a role model for how it's done."

He talked - again - about his dislike for the way the federal stimulus money is being spent, and his belief that the council's vote to pursue a planning and design study for a streetcar was misguided.

And you won't be surprised to hear that he figures he'll still be putting in a word here, a word there.

Keep an eye on McCrory. I expect he won't fade quietly into private life.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Less traffic downtown?

I'm working on non-blog matters today (I'm writing my regular Saturday oped column, this week about the Soul of the Community survey, and what people really want in order to feel loyalty to where they live. Read it Saturday at

So I'll just share this interesting info, which rolled into my e-mail inbox a few minutes ago. Weekday morning traffic in downtown Charlotte is down. It's from the city's Department of Transportation. In their words:

CDOT has released results of a traffic count study conducted in September 2009. The area examined was uptown Charlotte. Counts were collected during workdays from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m.

Analysis of the data indicates:

1. Counts of vehicles declined from 2006 to 2009 by over 6,000 cars (approximately 15%) to the volume last seen in 2005.
2. The average number of people in vehicles has remained fairly constant since 1997 at about 1.1.
3. While certainly the downturn in the economy has played a part in the change, the increased use of mass transit (CATS buses-local and Xpress and LYNX light rail) has contributed to less rush hour congestion as well.
4. Another contributing factor is the increase in uptown dwellers walking to work and school.
5. Many companies allow workers to telecommute.
6. Traffic counts were not conducted in 2007 and 2008 due to numerous large road construction projects in uptown.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What's happening to East Boulevard?

A neighborhood activist in Dilworth tipped me off to property that's changed hands along East Boulevard, at the corner of Garden Terrace and East, where East Boulevard Bar and Grill has lodged for decades. EBB&G is moving (has moved?) up the street.

Word on the street is that Carolinas Medical Center bought that property and has "plans." I know a meeting is planned in coming weeks between hospital officials and Dilworth neighborhood leaders.

This much I know to be true: Many Dilworthians worry about the hospital's continuing expansion. Yes, expanding is understandable for a large, urban medical center. But CMC's campus so far is a suburban office-park-style configuration: lots of surface parking lots, parking decks with no other uses, oversteet walkways, grass that isn't a public park where you can play Frisbee or have a picnic, etc. etc. Not suitable for an in-town neighborhood.

But even if new buildings are better designed, as I hope to see, CMC's campus is still a gigantic single-use footprint. In an urban setting, that's not a good thing.

The city's zoning standards allow suburban office-park parking and other suburban-style hospital uses in any neighborhood if the property is zoned for office or commercial, etc.

Some of this block is zoned multifamily, so maybe there will be a chance for neighborhood and/or planner input. Let us hope. But a scroll through the Carolinas HealthCare System's board of directors shows a lot of big names - the kinds that too often make elected officials bark prettily, lie down and roll over.

A check of online property records for parcels in the old EBB&G block (which includes the site of the former Chez Daniel restaurant, among other businesses) lists as owner Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, a well-connected law firm (Russell Robinson, Robert Sink, Richard Vinroot, etc.)

I checked with a helpful city planner, who knew of no conversations about development plans for the block.

In September, the Observer's Karen Garloch reported that CHS president and COO Joe Piemonte said the hospital system didn't have specific plans for its East Boulevard property. "We're kind of standing pat ... and monitoring very closely for maintenance. Some of those buildings need to be torn down," he said then.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Walking? Hazardous duty in Raleigh, Charlotte

This morning's topic: the hazards of walking in Charlotte. One recent horror story: On Election Day my husband and I walked to our polling place, and then to the cleaner's – which meant crossing the vast Providence Road-Sharon Amity/Sharon Lane intersection. Even after we waited for the crossing light, we couldn't set foot into the crosswalk for fear of becoming grease spots on the asphalt, as vehicle after vehicle sped around the generously curved corner, designed to make it easy to turn at 30 mph (and making it easier to destroy anyone on foot). Knowing state law gives pedestrians in a crosswalk the right of way, and thus my heirs might at least get a nice settlement, I ventured into the crosswalk. A monstrous black SUV nearly creamed me. The blond driver, on her cellphone, never even saw me.

When we made it across, then we had to cross the other street. This time, we edged into the crosswalk so drivers could see us, and stop for us. A driver wanting to turn right (into our path) kept edging forward. I made eye contact, which usually signals to drivers to stop. So far so good.

The light changed. We stepped farther into the crosswalk. Zoom! She drove right in front of us. I am here to recount this only because we are reasonably spry. My husband shouted at her so loudly she – get this – stops her car in the left lane of Providence Road and sits there for several minutes. Hmmm. Driver safety class needed?

Which brings me to this: Although most Charlotte drivers aren't thinking about pedestrians, we are NOT the most dangerous N.C. city for pedestrians in the state. Raleigh takes that ranking.
(Here's a link to the Triangle Biz Journal article on the same ranking.) The study, by an advocacy group, Transportation for America, used an index based on the number of pedestrian fatalities relative to the average amount of walking by residents. The deaths came from 2007-08 data; the walking stat was based on the percentage who walk to work in 2000. I.E., it's not a perfect measure - but it's probably relatively close in terms of rankings if not absolute numbers.

Orlando, Fla., was the most dangerous city for pedestrians, followed by Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla. Memphis, Tenn., was No. 5. Charlotte was No. 12 on the list. All are in the Sun Belt (well, Louisville maybe is borderline), until you get to No. 14 (Detroit) and then to No. 20 (Kansas City). Here's a direct link to the rankings. And here's one to the study, called Dangerous By Design. That reflects the reality that most Sun Belt cities grew during the 20th century, when pedestrians were discounted completely in street and highway designs.

Pedestrian safety starts with safe sidewalks, of course. But there's more. Traffic speed is a huge factor, and for the last half of the 20th century even in-town streets were designed for speed, not for pedestrians. Another factor is turning radius of corners. If they're wide, pedestrians are endangered by speeding cars turning. A huge factor is enforcement. Where police take pedestrian safety seriously, drivers get the message. I don't think Boston drivers are more courteous or innately kinder. Yet in Boston they stop for pedestrians. Police enforcement (and seeing other drivers do it) trains you. In Charlotte I've seen police cars almost mow down pedestrians uptown.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

WashPost notes Hickory's plight

Last month it was "bust in banktown" - Binya Appelbaum's Washington Post situationer about Charlotte.

Today, economic trauma in Hickory makes above-the-fold of the Post front page.
Here's a link to the story. For those of us in the Carolinas, it's an old story: Textiles and furniture jobs have been bleeding overseas for years. (But we were comforting ourselves with all those stable, high-paying bank jobs.)

Interesting that in the larger U.S. media centers the plight of the Carolinas is only now sinking in. Charlotte and North Carolina have done a good job of positioning themselves in recent decades as "recession-proof" – now that it's clear we're NOT recession-proof, perceptions have lagged reality. As they usually do.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

A better South - with higher taxes?

Reminder: I'm at the conference, "Setting An Agenda for a Better South," sponsored by the Center for a Better South, based in Charleston.

We've just taken about 30 minutes to do a budget-setting exercise, based on the S.C. state budget. The assignment: Decide which programs you might want to give more money, which ones less, find new revenue if you can.

The room is over-represented with Democats, so we all raised taxes - the S.C. cigarette tax is nation's lowest, 7-cents a pack, so we all raised that. I was tempted to defund the S.C. governor's office completely. (Gov. Sanford, hello?). But it would be wrong.

Instead I, and plenty of others, reduced some sales tax loopholes, such as removing the $300 cap on sales taxes for cars.

But now we're talking about how unrealistic the exercise is, since only two of us here are elected officials (and a third is hoping to become one), and noting also that we took 30 minutes, when really you'd want to learn a lot more about which programs really did what.

But the point we're supposed to notice, I think, is that tax structures are in need of reform (not to raise taxes so much as to make them more fair), and that you really have to think about targeting your new spending in the areas you think are important. Most states have tax structures designed in the pre-World War II era, we were told this morning.

Jay Barth of Hendrix College is pointing out that many states, also, need revisions to state constitutions. SC constitution, e.g., says students need "minimally adequate education" says Adolphus Belk of Winthrop College. Thank goodness for NC's "sound basic education" clause. Maybe Judge Manning (Leandro case) needs to start riding a circuit through the South?

More that's good/bad about the South

More goods/bads about the South as a region:

Fried Chicken
Livermush (OK, I confess, I didn't call that out. But I should)
Plenty of land and opportunity to learn from others' mistakes

Racial attitudes impede progress.
"Race" is still black and white, ignoring other ethnicities.
Retributive justice is expensive (we put a lot of people in jail)
Unusual resistance to change
Poor reputation, and we live up to it sometimes
Sahara of the Bozart
Patronizing attitude toward woman
Kudzu (OK, I added that one myself, too)

What's good/bad about the South?

We're calling out goods/bads about the South as a region:


Southerners are storytellers
Humor and style
Agrarian connection to land
Rich connection to history
Strong public college system
Natural resources, mountains-beach, etc.
Strong family connections
Personal relationships

Reseparation in schools
Lack of progressive infrastructure
Deeply ingrained acceptance of violence in all forms
Awareness of history begins in 1860, ends in 1865
Lack of technological infrastructure in rural areas
Low tax base
We're not embarrassed enough about poverty
Lack of commitment to K-12 education
Historical avoidance of talking about "the bad stuff"
General acceptance of low expectations - "Well, we're a poor state."
Lack of regional planning

How - whether? - to improve the South

I'm spending the day at a conference at Davidson College, "Setting an Agenda for a Better South" - more info to come. There's a conference blog at Conference organizer is the Center for a Better South, based in Charleston, a " pragmatic, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to developing progressive ideas, policies and information for thinking leaders who want to make a difference in the American South." (Follow on Twitter at #bettersouth.)

For now, if you didn't see it, note my regular Saturday op-ed column, "The big national story that wasn't."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

From 'can-do city' to 'city that learns'

Mark Peres of Charlotte Viewpoint online magazine calls it "A call to redefine the city." It's a paper, available here, looking at whether Charlotte can change its self-image from "a can-do city that gets things done through
public-private partnerships” to “a smart city that learns.” It's a call to invert the city's top-down model into a bottom-up one that engages a broad base of citizens in the city's success.

The paper is an outgrowth of an event Peres and Civic By Design's Tom Low put together in October to explore how Charlotte might "create greater capacity in the region to address existing and future systemic issues." Peres took the conversations that night and distilled them into some key findings (the following is his words, not mine):

• The narrative that Charlotte is “a can-do city that gets things done through public-private partnerships” is code for many for top-down-driven initiatives. The topdown nature of the city has led to great civic successes, but an unintended consequence is passivity in the general populace and distrust among many.

• The city rewards social conformity. There is a perceived divide between corporate executives and non-conformist creative citizens.

• We are consumers of received culture – not producers of original work. Our investments – theaters, museums, arenas – reinforce consumption. We have not similarly invested in assets that lead to innovation: e.g., medical and law schools, interdisciplinary education, an MFA program in fine art or design, artist incubators.

• There is not a shared vision of the region. Citizens in different neighborhoods and municipalities are not well-connected to each other – let alone to the world. There is not a regional identity or a cosmopolitan character. Racial, ethnic, and immigrant populations tends to self-segregate.

• Charlotte is often described as a young city, but it was settled in the late 1700s. It is only young in that it has just recently become nationally recognized as a banking center, and its skyline and suburbs have recently been built. It is immature in its development of economic diversification, social capital, urban design, transit, and ecological sensitivity.
The paper ends on an optimistic note, logging in some of the many community conversations and cross-boundary initiatives going on. "In a fundamental way, community creation is the work of the 21st century," Peres concludes.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Firebird: Will she survive skateboarders?

At the unveiling Tuesday afternoon of the late Niki de Saint Phalle's sculpture, “Le Grand Oiseau de Feu sur L'Arche” (“The Large Bird of Fire on the Arch”), amid the cheers and greetings and oohing and aahing, a small worry emerged among the spectators: "How are they going to control the vandalism? How will they keep the skateboarders from damaging it?"

I heard this from a high-ranking city staffer, and from the head of one of the city's major cultural organizations, and from other cultural arts types plus some regular folks.

So, taking the opportunity to horn in on colleague Larry Toppman's interview with John Boyer, president of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, I asked him The Skateboard Question. Boyer was unflappable. "Speaking as a skateboarder ... " he began. Turns out, as a California boy, he was a skateboarder. "The best of them know better," he said, "and so I'm just trusting they understand a good thing when they see it."

The "Firebird" sits (squats?) in a plaza in front of the Bechtler on South Tryon Street. It's a sparkling mosaic of glass bits, depicting a bird standing on a large parabolic arch. People were having photos taken standing between its legs. (In the photo above Andreas Bechtler, whose collection forms the museum, is second from left.) A small girl of about 3 was putting her face right up to it to see how the mirrors changed her view. As I stood admiring it, I noticed how the mirrors showed random spots in the scene behind me: Two or three images of City Council member Warren Cooksey looking cheerful, one of Charlotte Symphony President Jonathan Martin looking pensive, and multiple other shards of the scene.

Boyer wasn't at all disturbed by the hands on the glassy sculpture. "When I see those fingerprints on the mirror, that is a beautiful thing," he said.

I asked artist Linda Luise Brown if she knew why Saint Phalle used the arch form. Brown noted Saint Phalle's work had a strong feminist core.
I did more research. I believe it is safe to conclude the Firebird is a "she." One of Saint Phalle's most famous works was the 1966 Hon-En-Katedral ("She-A-Cathedral) in Sweden, where you entered the exhibit by walking between the legs of (i.e. through the vagina of) a reclining woman. Her early works of female forms, were called Nanas. She once said, "For me, they were the symbol of a cheerful, liberated woman. Today, after nearly twenty years, I see them differently. I see them as heralds of a new matriarchal era, which I believe is the only answer."

Tuesday afternoon, people were drawn to the passage between the Firebird's legs. "A new matriarchal era." On South Tryon Street, no less!