More from the Mecklenburg County commissioners' retreat:
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Here at the Mecklenburg County commissioners' retreat – at the Lodge at the Ballantyne resort – the commissioners are spending most of the afternoon giving 10-minute talks on issues they'd like the board to take up later. Meaty, but not exactly earth-shaking news.
I ran into Andy Munn from the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition at Monday's City Council meeting, and he confirmed that due to the recession, which has hit real estate and development particularly hard, the REBIC lobbying organization has laid off staff, including Mary Thomsen, the former executive director, and staffer Tim Morgan. Developer and consultant Karla Knotts is acting executive director.
REBIC is funded by dues and donations from member companies and groups, such as the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association, Home Builders Association of Charlotte.
The REBIC home page also notes that City Council on Feb. 9 will make appointments to the Airport Advisory Committee (for a west Charlotte resident), the Keep Charlotte Beautiful committee and the Tree Advisory Commission. The link posted didn't work. Sorry. Check charmeck.org. (I'm at Mecklenburg County commissioners' retreat and they're going through the dismal projections for next year's budget and need to pay attention.)
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Monday, January 26, 2009
Workshop space for artists? (Not much natural light, unfortunately).
In my non-blogging, editorial board job, I write an op-ed column that runs Saturdays. This past Saturday's (link here) was about Obama's penmanship (sort of) and speculating whether having an African American in the White House who is unashamed to act intelligent might have a positive, peer-pressure kind of effect, especially but not exclusively, on African American youths.
Guess what? Here's a link to an NY Times piece on a study that found something very similar.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
During an e-mail exchange that included background data on some proposed changes from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg planning staff to the transit-oriented development requirements, I came across this. It's from an official with REBIC, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, which no one should be surprised to learn is opposing some of the changes and trying to get the staff to dial back on them.
I'm not passing judgment here on whether the proposals are good or bad. (Among the changes at issue are some involving parking requirements, and with transit-oriented development parking is a key issue, as you're dealing with conflicting needs: Trying to encourage people not to drive and trying to encourage walkable environments, yet also trying to help development projects offer enough parking so as not to lose potential tenants and customers.)
But the note sheds light on why some staff proposals seem to start out like icebergs and end up as a half-cup of lukewarm water, before the nondeveloper public gets much of a shot at them. The public hearing isn't until next week, and the developers' lobby has been working on this for weeks. One developer even pointed out: "Our best chance to influence is before the public hearing."
Here's what REBIC said:
"The public hearing is January 26th.
"The best way to affect [effect] a change is to get staff to see the 'error of their ways' prior to the public hearing. The staff responsible for this TA is John Howard and Laura Harmon.
"I will assemble a variety of comments & handle with John & Laura but it will be most effective if you could send your comments to them directly (changes of a few sentences of course). I always like to see how they respond to the various constituencies - to figure out what they are really trying to accomplish & what they are willing to bend the most on."
Now we live in a democracy, and all interest groups are welcome to weigh in to the process. Charlotte's development community is skilled at that, and some of nondeveloper groups are also skilled -- although they tend to have full-time jobs doing other things. The planning staff is diligent in trying to get public input for most of its proposed changes.
But too many things go on behind the curtain. That isn't good for public discourse.
And if public hearings are really just for show, can't they at least offer some popcorn and Cokes to the audience?
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Ahem, someone needs to get out more. Up in Greensboro, there's a discussion over whether the city should no longer be exempt from the law that allows protest petitions against proposed rezonings. The city council is to vote on Wednesday whether to ask the legislature to lift its exemption, so its citizens can file protest petitions as in most other N.C. cities.
One argument being raised against protest petitions is that they would strangle development. Whoever is saying this clearly has not been to Charlotte, where (until the recession slowed everything) it was quite clear that development here has been anything but strangled.
(What's a protest petition? When a rezoning is proposed, if enough adjoining property owners sign a protest petition, then the deciding body, e.g. Charlotte City Council, must pass the rezoning by a three-fourths vote. And the mayor gets to vote on protest-petition rezonings, unlike other rezonings.)
Friday, January 16, 2009
From the foot and bicycle traffic I've seen, the rail-side path along the new Lynx Blue Line is popular. It's a great way to walk or bicycle and avoid traffic. Too bad there might not be a similar path along its extension up to UNC Charlotte and beyond.
At a Tuesday night public meeting on plans for the extension, Charlotte Area Transit System and city planning department folks said it will be much harder to find money for, and build, a similar path. One key reason: The city owns the railbed from uptown south to Scaleybark -- where the path is. But heading northeast out of uptown, the rail right of way is owned by the N.C. Railroad, and CATS will lease space in the ROW. That section already carries freight as well as Amtrak passenger trains.
The bike/walking path was paid for mostly by city bond money for the so-called SCIP (South Corridor Improvement Project). The city hasn't yet prioritized its list of proposed NECI (North East Corridor Improvement, and they're calling it "nee-sie") -- and it's a bigger laundry list to start with. And a time of pinched local government budgets and tight credit all over the country.
Andy Mock of CATS tells me CDOT and the county park and rec department are working to see what can be done, perhaps with a walking/biking path that leaves the trackside and goes up North Tryon Street -- which the light rail will do, probably north of Old Concord Road.
If you think the city absolutely should put this project atop its NECI priority list, be sure to let your City Council representatives know.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
About four different readers pointed me to this intriguing blog posting at the New York Times by Allison Arieff, "What Will Save the Suburbs?"
I hope all our city council members, city staff, county commissioners, planning commissioners take time to read it. Arieff points out that unlike the development of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the postwar suburbia is going to be difficult to re-purpose (ugh, horrible word). Yet in Charlotte, you can still build a three-houses-per-acre single-family subdivision without any City Council rezoning needed -- auto-pilot growth .
Empty big-box stores are just one of the problems. (I wonder if the book she cites, Julia Christensen's "Big Box Reuse" mentions that one old K mart in Charlotte was reused as a charter school.)
The difficulty of re-purposing development that was badly designed to start with is one major hurdle for attracting any serious uptown retail: There simply aren't enough good sidewalk-front spaces clumped together to attract enough stores. After all, retail loves to be near other retail. (See "shopping centers.") If you don't understand what I mean about good sidewalk-front spaces, take a field trip to downtown Asheville.
Maybe this development downturn will inspire the city of Charlotte to finally look with purpose at the kind of by-right development (meaning no rezoning needed) it's allowing.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Let's see, Charlotte Transportation Director Jim Humphrey left in late 2007. So why did it take until 2009 for the city to name a replacement? Today City Manager Curt Walton announced he was promoting Interim Director Danny Pleasant, who came to CDOT as deputy director in 2002.
A good source tells me one reason for the delay was nervousness in the development community about Pleasant, whose initiatives in the department have pushed the envelope for good community design. Apparently City Manager Curt Walton was able to get the City Council members comfortable with Pleasant as CDOT director.
As deputy director, he oversaw transportation planning that is putting more emphasis on walkable streets, bicycling paths, connectivity. One of his responsibilities was the six-years-in-the-making effort to rewrite the design guidelines under which streets widths and sidewalk widths and other such essential rules are written. Those urban street design guidelines came under criticism from the development community who didn't like the requirements for wider planting strips, required street trees and shorter block lengths.
Pleasant has a master's in urban planning, is a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the American Institute of Certified Planners and a fellow of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.
Friday, January 09, 2009
Rick Cole writes that zoning codes are the problem, not the solution, in the effort to build and maintain great cities. He writes:
“The American Dream” of single-family tracts, shopping centers and business parks owes more to zoning mandates than to market economics. Zoning was imposed on the American landscape by an unholy alliance between Utopians preaching a “modern” way of life and hard-headed businessmen who profited from supplying that new model, including an auto industry steeped in the ideology that "What’s good for General Motors is good for America."
Cole is a former mayor of Pasadena, Calif., and now city manager in Ventura, Calif. Instead of zoning, he says, use "codes" -- something more and more municipalities are doing. Then he has a good analysis of the terminology of "form-based-codes" (a cumbersome term that addresses the how, but not the why you'd have one) vs. "smart codes" (a term that's been adopted by lots of developers whose projects were anything but smart).
A number of smaller municipalities in this region have adopted codes that are akin to the form-based code. Charlotte isn't one of them.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
There's plenty of chatter about whether federal economic stimulus money should go for transit, for road-building, for repairs or building new. But there's also a big push to target the about-to-be-written federal transportation bill. A coalition group called Transportation for America is warning: ''Now is not the time to squander money on projects or plans that do not help save Americans money, free us from oil dependence and create long-term jobs.'' Here's a link to a blog item on it from Smart Growth Online. It quotes an Associated Press article:
''Now is not the time to squander money on projects or plans that do not help save Americans money, free us from oil dependence and create long-term jobs,'' warns a diverse Transportation for America coalition of environmental, urban design, housing and other groups, launching a campaign to make sure the 2009 federal transportation bill allocates a fair share for mass transit and infrastructure repair instead of funding mostly new roads, reports Associated Press writer Sarah Karush. The effort [has been] joined by Pennsylvania and Virginia Democratic Governors Ed Rendell and Timothy M. Kaine, and former Maryland Democratic Governor Parris N. Glendening, now the Smart Growth Leadership Institute president.
''That's always difficult politically,'' said Governor Rendell about his state's fix-it-first approach, but recalling the deadly August 2007 collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis, he asked, ''How many more Minnesotas do we have to have as a country?''
Governor Kaine cited a decline in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and an increase in transit demand, telling the writer, ''The key is to provide choices, so you invest in everything.'' And Governor Glendening said, ''Make sure that infrastructure really builds for the future. That's about transit, that's about walkability, that's about 'fix it first.' "
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Commissioners Dan Murrey and Dumont Clarke now talking about promoting local food, and preserving farms.
James says the board (at its 5 p.m. pre-meeting meeting) voted to support recording in concept but to get more details from the staff. The Observer's April Bethea's article indicates a bit less certainty.
Now we're hearing Andy Zoutewelle, who chairs the Environmental Policy Coordinating Council, tell them what the council's focus areas of interest will be for 2009-10. Commissioner Neil Cooksey is fanning himself. Most of the others are looking down, possibly reading the report.
CATS honcho John Muth gave a presentation to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission on Monday, detailing the most recent projections for budget cuts by the Charlotte Area Transit System. Here's a link to a pdf version of his PowerPoint.
If you went to the December Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting (of course you did, and it was the highlight of your holiday season) you've already seen Muth's PowerPoint presentation. But for the rest of us it was a good summation of what they're looking at.
Note in particular the graph on slide 3, showing the old 10-year projections of transit sales tax income, and the new 10-year projection, based on the most recent few months. Ouch!
Note also, on slide 7, that CATS has submitted $295 million in requests for funding from the Obama stimulus bill. Muth pointed out it's highly unlikely CATS will get $295 million. But if you never ask ...
Monday, January 05, 2009
If you'll recall, on Dec. 16 in "What University City needs," I referred to a study by the UNC Charlotte Center for Real Estate about housing and real estate in the University City area. University City Partners commissioned the study.
I've finally got a link to the report, if you've got a yen to burrow in. Here's the link. The study says it "evaluates the need for greater diversity across product types in the University City housing market. It also explores ways to encourage the production of higher–end housing through collaboration between the public and private sectors."
Here's one interesting tidbit about what homebuyers are seeking: "Interestingly, proximity to UNC Charlotte was identified as an amenity only for employees of the university. Athletic, cultural, and educational opportunities available at the university were rarely cited on their own as important factors to homebuyers."
Also pay attention to the sections on pages 8 and 9 about knowledge-based workers, a.k.a. the creative class. They prefer mixed-use, urban neighborhoods over homogenous suburbia, and tend to shun newly developed mixed-use neighborhoods because they feel contrived and lack "authenticity."
That doesn't bode well for U.C.'s hopes to attract the creative class. The area is total suburbia. Even if its new development is on a more urban pattern -- stores and homes not separated, apartments aren't sequestered from single-family houses and everything is closer than in conventional suburbia -- it isn't going to be "organic" for decades.
Quick disclaimer: I haven't read the whole report. It IS a workday, after all, and my regular job (editorial board member, op-ed columnist, etc.) nips at my heels. But I wanted to offer the full report to those interested.
Aaron Houck, in the January Charlotte Viewpoint (online magazine) asks: Does rapid transit subsidize sprawl? He concludes it does, sort of. (Also in this issue, Mark Peres -- dubbed one of Seven to Watch by the Observer's Local Desk late last year-- muses about business ethics.)
I'll give you my thought on the matter later, but here's the headline: Whatever transit might be doing to subsidize sprawl, the outerbelt is doing to the 10th degree. Building the outerbelt AND building a transit system was a truly schizophrenic approach to transportation planning.