Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday reading, til Dec. 27

I'll be on vacation until Monday Dec. 27, so you'll have to make do. To keep you busy 'til then, here are a few links to interesting stories:

• Greensboro's Kristen Jeffers writes in about the distressing lack of black, female "urbanists." "When I look around," she writes, "I mostly see only one type of person associated with the urbanist label: young, white, and male. ... The word 'urban,' when it's associated with African-Americans, is often synonymous with housing projects, poverty, and the poisoned legacy of urban renewal. " She's an MPA student at UNC Greensboro concentrating in community and economic development. (Here's her blog, The Black Urbanist.)

The state of Oregon is considering a measure to ban single-use plastic checkout bags.

Fort Worth's City Council has pulled the plug on further study of a downtown streetcar. This appears to mean the city won't accept a $25 million federal grant. (Hey, wonder if any of that now-available streetcar money might float Charlotte's way?)

A study at University of California-Berkeley finds that at any given moment there are at least 500 million EMPTY parking spaces in the U.S. Says Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor and author of the book "The High Cost of Free Parking." "[Parking] is the single biggest land use in any city. It's kind of like dark matter in the universe, we know it's there, but we don't have any idea how much there is."

CNN puts Charlotte on the map. Literally. In a piece, "Can streetcars save America's cities?

Utah mom cited for neglect for letting her kid walk to school by himself. Note: The school system, in budget cuts, took away his school bus. Coming soon to a CMS school near you?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How's NCDOT doing in reducing emissions? Er ...

It's distressing to see North Carolina ranks a dismal 37 in a new report assessing whether state transportation policies support reduced motor-vehicle emissions, which cause pollution as well as affecting global climate change.

The report, released Tuesday, is "Getting Back on Track: Aligning State Transportation Policy with Climate Change Goals," from two environmentally oriented nonpartisan, nonprofits, the National Resources Defence Council and Smart Growth America. It focuses on transportation because it's the second largest emitter of climate-changing pollutants after power plants.

Although every president starting with George H.W. Bush has called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the report notes, nationwide emission rates have gone up 27 percent from 1990 to 2007. While more efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels could mean large GHG emissions reductions in coming years, the report says, a projected 50 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 2030 will undermine those savings. "Without bringing down transportation emissions, it will be impossible to achieve the reductions scientists have deemed necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change," the report says.

It looked at which states have adopted transportation policies and goals to help reduce GHG. No state got a higher grade than B-, most scored lower than D. Most states, it found, make decisions that will likely increase emissions.

The federal government did not get off unscathed. The report points out that while the feds require a 50 percent local match for public transit projects, highway and bridge projects usually get 80 percent federal money, with only a 20 percent local match. Also, a large proportion of federal aid funding is divvied up according to formulas based on VMT, fuel consumption and highway lane miles. States that work to reduce VMT and fuel consumption would be penalized when it comes to getting federal money.

California, Maryland and New Jersey topped the state rankings. All of North Carolina's neighbors scored better: South Carolina was No. 28, Virginia 12, Tennessee 25. At a telephone news conference Tuesday, NCDOT's Jim Westmoreland, the deputy secretary for transit, defended the state, saying, "We're a definite work in progress." He noted that projections are for VMT in North Carolina to double by 2030. That will make it even more important to promote mass transit and other travel modes. Westmoreland noted the state's high-speed passenger rail investments, and gave a shout-out to Charlotte's successful light rail line.

And he pointed out that the N.C. Board of Transportation in July 2009 adopted a Complete Streets Policy, which means it considers pedestrians and bicycles as well as motor vehicles in designing new projects.

All to the good. Let us hope the next such survey finds North Carolina pushing into the top 10, instead of trailing our fellow Carolina to the South.
Photo credit: 2002 Observer file photo of Charlotte skyline, by John D. Simmons

Monday, December 13, 2010

New property tax source for Mecklenburg?

As more local governments such as Mecklenburg County find themselves in intense revenue pain, more are looking to their well-funded nonprofit institutions, which don't pay property taxes. In programs called "payments in lieu of taxes," the nonprofits make voluntary contributions in recognition that they use local services but pay no property taxes.

A new report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy on "Payments in Lieu of Taxes" finds at least 117 municipalities in at least 18 states are using them. Large cities collecting PILOTs, as they're called, include Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The report notes that PILOTs aren't appropriate for all types of nonprofits. They're most appropriate, the report says, in local governments that rely heavily on property taxes, and for nonprofits owning large amounts of tax-exempt property and that provide modest benefits to local residents.

Some PILOT programs are done case by case, such as New Haven, Conn., and Yale University. Boston has a systematic PILOT program that creates more equity among the nonprofits.
The report notes that Duke University Medical Center in Durham pays a $300,000 fire service fee paid to the City of Durham.

In an era marked by teacher layoffs, library closings and cuts to important public health and educational services, is it time for Mecklenburg County to start talks with some of its larger and big-property-owning nonprofits?

Hyong Yi, the county's budget director, tells me Mecklenburg County isn't getting any payments of this sort from any nonprofits in the county and he didn't know of its being discussed locally. Nor is Charlotte budget director Ruffin Hall aware of any to the City of Charlotte.

Obviously, there are many sides to consider beyond simple tax revenue: How financially stable is the nonprofit? What services does it provide to the community that might make up for its lack of property tax payments? What services does it require from the community? Should a PILOT program apply to churches? What about nonprofit hospitals, such as Carolinas HealthCare System, which owns a ton of real estate, or Presbyterian Hospital? Several other states ended up in lengthy court battles over nonprofit hospital properties and whether they should be taxed.

The report's authors offer several cautions. A news release about the study says:

“PILOTs can provide crucial revenue for certain municipalities, and are one way to make nonprofits pay for the public services they consume,” said the report’s authors, Daphne A. Kenyon and Adam H. Langley. “However, PILOTs are often haphazard, secretive, and calculated in an ad hoc manner that results in widely varying payments among similar nonprofits. In addition, a municipality’s attempt to collect PILOTs can prompt a battle with nonprofits and lead to years of contentious, costly, and unproductive litigation.”

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Foxx's 3 C's - including consolidation

Mayor Anthony Foxx made a series of proposals, some of them sure to be controversial, in his State of the City speech this morning – his first since being sworn in as mayor last December. Among them:

• He reiterated his belief that city and county governments should ultimately consolidate. "It will never happen if we don't start now," he said.

• He'll convene a regional group early next year to develop a plan for bringing the region's fractured transportation planning organizations. Most metro regions have one regional transportation planning body. The Charlotte region has six, or if you count Hickory, seven. "The time has come," Foxx said, and said he wanted the regional group to come away with "concrete steps." He said: "The time has come."

• He wants to create a board of experts who'll take a comprehensive look at after-school programs and create a competitive grant-making process, akin to the federal Race to the Top for state school systems. The city still funds some after-school programs, but has cut its funding to others.

• Charlotte City Council, he said, should be prepared to support state legislative agendas of fellow elected bodies such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He endorsed raising the cap (now at 100) on the number of charter schools the state allows. And with CMS facing "staggering cuts," he said, the City Council shouldn't have reduced its funding for school resource officers and school crossing guards. (Here's reporter Steve Harrison's article on that.)

The city in the coming year should focus on what he called the 3 C's: Consolidation, Collaboration (i.e. regionally) and Children.

It was obviously not the sort of speech you'd have heard from former Mayor Pat McCrory, the seven-term Republican who shied away from speechifying about public schools in general and CMS in particular. (That may have made him the wiser politician, of course. CMS in general is a topic that gets many people's blood boiling, from both ends of the political spectrum.)

I saw no one in the crowd I recognized as a Republican, and plenty I recognized as Democrats, but of course people don't have to wear badges. So while Foxx offered congratulations to incoming N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, and incoming Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, both Republicans, and even threw them a political bone with the recommendation to lift the charter school cap, I wonder if that will do much for bipartisanship. "We look forward to working with you," Foxx said. Then he quipped, "And we desperately hope you (the legislature) won't take any of our money."

But Tillis wasn't there. Nor were any Republican elected officials.

Foxx ended his talk with a nice little vignette, asking the crowd to recall the cathedral builders of old. Some workers, he said, spent their whole lives just moving stones from one place to another, and never lived to see the cathedral they were building. As a city, he said, "If we don't move those stones to the proper place the cathedral will never get built."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

An urbanist's gift-book list has released its annual list of the Top 10 urban planning books. Take a look.
I haven't yet read and thus can't in all honesty recommend any of them but one - "What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs," a collection of essays by well-known urban writers looking at cities and the issues cities face. The idea was to put into practice Jacobs' technique of looking at the real world and how it functions instead of letting your view be clouded by insisting on applying theories, whether of planning of economics, regardless of whether the facts showed something different.

Mary Rowe's piece on getting to know Jacobs, who died in 2006 in her adopted home of Toronto, is filled with warmth and close-eyed observation.

Roberta Brandes Gratz writes, in vigorous prose, about the crucial importance to "green" building of preserving buildings instead of demolishing. Ans she quotes one of my favorite passages from Jacobs' masterwork, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" about how creative entrepreneurs and new business start-ups must have the inexpensive space that new buildings simply can't offer:

"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation – although these make fine ingredients – but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings. ... Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

I haven't finished the book; it's a good one to dip into when you need an urban-writing fix.

If you missed it, here's the 2010 Planetizen book list. I can recommend Anthony Flint's "Wrestling with Moses" as an exceptionally readable history/biography of New York's parks/highways/everything czar (and you thought Obama's czars had too much power?), and Jacobs and their struggles to shape New York. In addition, "The Smart Growth Manual" by Andres Duany and Jeff Speck is a readable little handbook with simple prescriptions, such as "Design public places around existing trees," and " Designate civic sites in each neighborhood." Under the heading, "Price parking according to its value," is this: "Of course there is never enough parking. If pizza were free, would there ever be enough pizza?"

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Walmart goes urban? Mayors rule? And buses return

While I was eating Thanksgiving turkey and then fighting (and losing) a cold/cough, the interesting links have stacked up in my inbox as thick as shoppers at the Apple store last weekend.

1. Here's a piece about Walmart's plans to – hold onto your reindeer antler-hat – build an urban-style store in Washington. It'll have five floors, with small-format retail lining the H Street sidewalk, Walmart behind, parking underground, and 315 apartments on the upper floors. The behemoth retailer plans several other DC stores, none as urban as that one.

I'll pause here to let SouthEnders brag about the Lowe's on South Boulevard, which wraps the back end of the big-box in condos, has small-scale retail on the street, and has rooftop parking. But that project, though hailed nationally, still has some weirdness, such as that very odd, one-story building at Iverson Way and South Boulevard. It appears to be empty. Is it a store? If so, for whom? And the big ole surface parking lot is still a big-ole surface parking lot, though a bit smaller than it would be without the rooftop parking. But even with those quibbles it's about a zillion times more urban than anything Walmart has done here.

2. Here's a look, pegged to the climate talks now under way in Cancun, at the role mayors expect to play in the fight against global climate change: "But as nations dither, hundreds of cities are pledging to rein in emissions, slash energy usage, and turn to renewable energy sources. Mayors say they see greater urgency than national leaders do." Which only makes sense. Mayors are the ones who have to deal most directly with so many problems that have little to do with partisan politics: how to fill potholes, cope with traffic, build/maintain parklands, etc. (And if you're among the declining number of climate-change deniers, you might ask yourself why you're choosing to disbelieve the vast majority of the world's climate scientists and instead prefer to believe partisan politicians, right-wing pundits and think-tanks underwritten by fossil-fuel companies. I mean, you're free to believe those sources. But, um, why?)

3. While most eyes have been focusing on either road-building, high-speed rail plans or urban mass transit proposals, the N.C. Department of Transportation has quietly expanded intercity bus service. In October it began running daily two routes connecting Charlotte (the uptown Greyhound station on West Trade) with Boone and with Fayetteville. The Mountaineer North/South leaves Appalachian State University at 9:15 a.m. daily, arrives in Charlotte at 12:50 p.m., stopping in Lenoir, Hickory, Lincolnton and Gastonia. The return bus leaves Charlotte at 6 p.m. The Fayetteville route (Queen City Connector) stops in Laurinburg, Rockingham, Wadesboro and Monroe. The return leaves Charlotte at 6 p.m.

Coach America operates the buses with NCDOT funds. Tickets are $8 to $20, depending. And yes, the buses have WiFi, NCDOT tells us. For ticket information, click here.

Buses aren't as beloved as trains, but they serve an important role in transportation. Just ask a college kid who's counting pennies, or an elderly grandparent who wants to come to Charlotte but doesn't want to drive in the big-city traffic.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What's ahead for uptown? A sneak peek

Here's a quick and non-specific glimpse of what'll be recommended in 2020 Plan for Charlotte's center city. Details will be fleshed out at a 5:30 p.m. public workshop today at the Charlotte Convention Center. All is part of the updating of Charlotte's uptown plan - the last big update was the 2010 Plan, so it's clearly time. Charlotte Center City Partners and the City of Charlotte planning department are shepherding the Center City 2020 Vision Plan.

With the help of some sources I've gotten some sense of what's to be unveiled tonight. Examples:
1. More higher education presence uptown. The consultants previously had talked about better links among UNC Charlotte, which has a new uptown building under construction; Johnson C. Smith University; Johnson & Wales University; Central Piedmont Community College; and various other higher ed institutions with operations in or near the center of the city. Blue-sky ideas mentioned previously: Maybe a joint student union for all the students? Beefed-up education opportunities in center city?
2. Solve the shopping problem. Just about everyone in the workshops wanted more shopping downtown. This is tricky for many, many reasons. I look forward to hearing more specifics from the consultants, because if this were easily solved it would have been solved by now.
3. A network of parks and green spaces. This was another popular item in public workshops. And it isn't just as easy as buying up an old parking lot somewhere, ripping out the concrete, planting grass and waiting (and waiting and waiting) for people to use it. Finding the public money, civic will and - crucial - the good design and strategic locations to create well-designed and sited green spaces will be harder than it sounds. And don't forget the "network" part. Again, I'll be eager to hear details.

Look for other strategies on cultural venues, the nexus of research-jobs-innovation, and closer attention to building neighborhood centers.

Disclosure: Observer publisher Ann Caulkins is a co-chair of the CCCP uptown plan effort. She doesn't know I'm writing this and hasn't told me what I should or shouldn't write, or even whether to write anything. You're getting my own thoughts on this topic.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Will spurned Wis., Ohio, rail money come to N.C.?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood dropped major hints today in Charlotte about more federal money coming to North Carolina’s high-speed rail plans, from funds to be reallocated away from Wisconsin and Ohio. LaHood and Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff were in town speaking to about a hundred local and regional politicians and transportation officials.

Both those Midwest states elected Republican governors this month who campaigned against high-speed rail projects in their states that had won big federal grants: $810 million to Wisconsin for Milwaukee-to-Madison, and $400 million to Ohio for the so-called 3Cs project: Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

“Some governors were elected who said maybe we don’t want to be in the high-speed rail business,” LaHood said. “We are going to reallocate some money from Ohio and Wisconsin.”
Because of North Carolina’s work already on high-speed rail (and its work on intercity passenger rail), he said, “We are going to be making some announcements about that. ... Because of the leadership of the state on high-speed rail, you all are going to be in the high-speed rail business.”

Wisconsin's Gov.-elect Scott Walker has recently been waffling on whether to give back the $810 million, suggesting maybe it could be used for other transportation needs. But Wednesday, speaking in Charlotte, LaHood was specific. "The money's going to be reallocated," he said. Firmly.

Turns out the question of reallocation came up Tuesday at a high-speed rail conference in Richmond. My colleague Jack Betts (see his This Old State blog) asked Patrick Simmons of the N.C. DOT’s rail division about the possibility. Simmons replied to Betts via e-mail: "If OH & WI do not follow through then I expect USDOT to allocate the monies where they can be put to work for the original program of investing in infrastructure, creating jobs, enhancing mobility and so on. From our years of work and previous investments NC is well-positioned to compete for these funds. Several other states will be competitive too."

(See below for more talk of reallocation, this time of streetcar money, possibly toward Charlotte.)

Other key points from the talk:

- LaHood's oft-mentioned use of the term “public-private partnerships.” Why? “There are not enough tax dollars to do all the things we want to do. We have to rely on the private sector.”

- Rogoff (right) heaped praise on Charlotte: "Charlotte has been one of our great success stories," he said. He mentioned not just the light rail but the city's partnership with the private sector (Bank of America) in building the Transportation Center on Fourth Street uptown. He pointed out Charlotte was one of only five cities to win an urban circulator grant for a streetcar and said the city's earlier work to lay the tracks [along Elizabeth Avenue] while pavement was already torn up for a street improvement “is visionary thinking.”

- Rogoff again: People try to pit transit versus highway. "I think it’s a false choice," he said. He pointed out 55 percent of all transit trips in America are on roads – by bus. "I need a good efficient road system."

More reallocation in the future?

This afternoon, amid a lengthy meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission about diminished transit revenues, Charlotte Area Transit System chief Carolyn Flowers mentioned that Charlotte was one of only five cities to get a streetcar grant in July. (LaHood mentioned the same). Charlotte, so far, is the only city still moving ahead on its streetcar, she said, and it's possible some of those federal funds might be reallocated.

FTA rules said construction must start within 18 months or the city will lose the money. Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Dallas-Fort Worth also received money for streetcars.

Photo credit: Ray LaHood in Charlotte. DAVIE HINSHAW / CHARLOTTE OBSERVER STAFF

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Art sprouts on doomed building

The long-lived but still-doomed Virginia Paper Co. building on West Third Street uptown sports new art on its boarded-up windows. It's the result of a collaboration among artists with ties to the McColl Center for Visual Arts, students at Hopewell High School, the Arts & Science Council and the Charlotte Knights.

Artist Annabel Manning, a former McColl Center artist-in-residence, worked with the students and their teacher, Ben Permeaux (a future McColl Center teacher-in-residence) on collages inspired by artist Romare Bearden, a Charlotte native and the namesake of Romare Bearden Park, which is to be built in Third Ward if/when the county parks department can find the money.

The students looked at Bearden's work, then used computer software to create their own, contemporary visions of what a Bearden collage might look like today. The vinyl panels were installed Monday on all the upper level of windows and all the windows facing Third Street. Each panel is the work of a different student.

The historic and architecturally significant building is owned by the county but has been leased for $1 a year (for up to 99 years) to the minor-league baseball team Charlotte Knights, which has planned to demolish to build a new uptown stadium. But with the economic crash, the Knights haven't moved forward with their plans. Under the lease agreement the county could void the lease if the Knights can't have their stadium ready to open by fall 2011 – which doesn't look likely. But so far the county hasn't opted to do so.

In my role as Observer editorial board member I've written before about the Knights' lack of upkeep of the building. Last summer a city building code inspection found the Knights weren't keeping the building up to code. It found trash, kudzu and standing water, as well as evidence vagrants had lived there. The new boarded-up windows resulted from that inspection.
And now, at least, some of those boarded-up windows have a more pleasing appearance. It's to the Knights' credit they've cooperated in the artistic endeavor.
Romare Bearden-inspired vinyl panels on the Virginia Paper Co. building (Nov. 15, 2010, photo by MELISSA SUE GERRITS/Charlotte Observer)
Broken windows mar historic building (Feb. 16, 2010, photo by MARY NEWSOM/Charlotte Observer)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Do cities matter? Whither the suburbs?

Do cities matter? Are the suburbs declining or healthy? I'm sharing a variety of links today that take differing looks at things. Note – I don't necessarily agree with everything written here, but found the articles of interest.

First, the Center for American Progress writes about "Trouble in the Suburbs: Poverty Rises in Areas Outside Cities." This is not unexpected: As center cities have gentrified, some of the low-income families who were displaced have moved farther out. And as jobs have moved to the suburbs, workers have followed, including those earning lower incomes. Then, the recession is forcing some middle-income families into the ranks of the poor.

The article links to a 2000 paper by the UNC Center for Community Capitalism, "Facing the New Suburban Housing Crunch," which found that the problem of finding affordable housing is not just a problem for the poor but is moving deeper into the middle class.

The article also links to this Brookings look at the new map of poverty in the U.S. It reports, "The number of poor people in large metro areas grew by 5.5 million from 1999 to 2009, and more than two-thirds of that growth occurred in suburbs." Last March Brookings had an interesting report, "Job Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty."

The natural order of land values would hold that being near the center would make land more valuable, hence most costly, hence center cities would be home to the wealthier people. That's the pattern in European cities, where the poor live in the suburbs. (The very rich have in-town homes and villas or chateaux in the country.) The U.S. has been different, due in part to federal involvement in housing programs dating to the mid-20th century, when federal loan programs specifically encouraged suburban housing and pretty much forbade federally backed loans in neighborhoods inhabited by black people or other ethnic groups. That had the effect of reserving the suburbs for white, middle-class homeowners. Of course, the disinclination of many white people to live next door to black people played a huge role, too. And large-lot, single-family zoning created large areas where only middle- or upper-income homeowners could afford to settle.

But the end of those discriminatory policies and the efforts of many cities to add more multifamily housing in the suburbs seems to be changing the U.S. suburban landscape as well.

In some ways, spreading low-income families through the suburbs is not a bad thing. As several of the articles point out, it means poverty is less concentrated. But social services and public transportation are not as readily accessible in the suburbs, where local governments may not be equipped to serve the poor the way city governments are. (This, of course, raises the question of what is "suburban"? In a city such as Charlotte, with liberal annexation laws, the city limits themselves take in plenty of "suburban" neighborhoods that, in other areas of the country, would be separate municipalities.)

Changing topics, here's a provocative piece from National Resources Defense Council blogger Kaid Benfield: " 'Cities' may not matter as much as we think - regions and neighborhoods are where things actually happen."

He starts off noting that, of course, cities do matter. He also notes the problem of city limit lines having little to do with the reality of a metro region's functioning. But, he says, not enough attention is being focused on the suburbs (he means separate municipalities). He writes: "Stormwater runoff per capita is much worse in suburban sprawl, as are emissions of all sorts (CO2 per capita from transportation). One can even make the case that we should be going easier on cities than on sprawling places: To paraphrase David Owen, why put skinny people on diets? My personal view is that our environmental framework absolutely should be tougher on sprawling places than urban ones, but that urban ones should also do their fair share to heal our ecosystems, through appropriate standards, safeguards and mitigation."

He continues: "Unfortunately, I think we remain relatively less attentive to the suburbs, largely because our crazy patchwork of municipalities makes them legally so diffuse and with very rare exceptions there simply is no regional authority to address them as a group."

Illustration from San Jose Mercury News/MCT

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

CCCP backs down from $1M market ask

Charlotte Center City Partners is backing off its request for up to $1 million in city funds to help upfit a former uptown store as a city market. Michael Smith, president of the uptown boosters' group, told me this afternoon they have "postponed" their return to the city's economic development committee to ask for the money.
Instead, he says, "We just want to be further down the road," with plans for upfitting the former Reid's Fine Foods store on Seventh Street at the Lynx light rail line (in photo, below right). The group will hear potential vendors at the market in a 4:30-6 p.m. session today, and then from the general public at a 6-7:30 p.m. public meeting and workshop tonight.

Afterward, Smith said, they'll use the information they hear to work with design firm Shook Kelly on what changes are needed to the building. (An interesting side note: When Seventh Street Station was originally being built the space that eventually became Reid's Fine Foods grocery was first designed to hold a city market.)

After coming up with the design plans – and here's the change of plans – "an organizing committee will be established to raise funds to build out the interior and exterior of the market by applying for grants from private entities, foundations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will match the private and in-kind dollars already raised," says a CCCP news release.

Whatever the gap is, between what's raised and what the upfit costs, will be what CCCP will ask the city for, Smith says.
That's a much smarter approach. I think a city market is a fine idea. But it was politically clumsy (some might say delusional, though I maybe wouldn't go that far) for CCCP to think City Council members, who got scorched earlier this year when they found $12 million to help launch a city streetcar project, would happily sprinkle $1 million big ones over a market.

As the Observer's editorial board said in a Sept. 15 editorial: "Could the market upfit happen for less than $1 million? Are other funding partners available? The city must explore those options before it plunks down a big chunk of the public's money. We'd hate to see the idea scrapped. That would be a lost opportunity. But $1 million from city taxpayers? That's going to take a lot of swallowing."
The new approach makes much more sense. The group's market consultant, David O'Neil, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture and big foundations are looking seriously at food issues and "food hubs." Further, he says, "You can spend a lot of money on these things [market buildings] and waste a lot of money."

Figure out how much you really need to do on the building – for which CCCP has procured a lease from owner Bank of America – then try to get private money and only then, if you need to, tap the public coffers. That said, it's absolutely appropriate if it's necessary for the city to kick in some money for a market. Ditto the county. Cities all over America have publicly built and- or publicly owned markets. Even little Asheboro, N.C., has a city-owned downtown market building, some Asheboro-based friends tell me. So does Hendersonville, among many other places. There's nothing odd or sinister about the idea, and a market is a great chance to help small entrepreneurs build small businesses.

But politically, right now, with schools being closed, yet more teacher layoffs looming, libraries and rec centers severely cut back, to cough up $1 million for an uptown market would go over about as well as the Ebola virus. Smart move, CCCP, to retrench and restrategize.
Photo credits: Tommie Hagood inspected produce in July at the Historic West End Market on Beatties Ford Road. DIEDRA LAIRD/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Friday, November 05, 2010

Will killing train kill jobs?

Here's a shirttail to my post on the future of high-speed trains. A company that opened in Milwaukee to manufacture and maintain high-speed train cars says if Wisconsin cancels its proposed high-speed rail project between Madison and Milwaukee, it will have to leave.

Talgo, the Spanish-owned company, is working on an order for Oregon trains. The piece in the Daily Reporter of Milwaukee says:

“We were hoping to stay in Wisconsin and we were expecting our business to grow,” said Nora Friend, a Talgo spokeswoman. “But once the order for the Oregon trains are done, we would have to shut down the facility. I don’t think that’s what the new governor wants.”

The trains to fulfill an order from Oregon are to be completed by the spring of 2012. Talgo recently hired 40 workers and expects to eventually employ 125, she said.

Gov.-elect Scott Walker has opposed the project, for which Wisconsin received an $810 million federal grant. On Wednesday the Wisconsin DOT suspended all work, although it has already signed an agreement with the federal government for use of the money. What happens next is not clear.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

High-speed rail plans still on track?

What do Tuesday's election results mean for passenger rail in North Carolina? The apparent Republican heir to the chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica of Miami, says he wants to re-examine President Obama's almost $10 billion in high-speed rail grants. He doesn't oppose high-speed rail, he told the AP, but disagrees with some of the states that won grants. Hmmm. In January Florida snagged $1.25 billion for a Tampa-to-Orlando (and eventually to Miami) line. But Mica thinks the Northeast is the only corridor that can support high-speed rail.

North Carolina won a $545 million federal grant. It was part of the stimulus package for "high-speed rail" projects, although in North Carolina's case, don't be imagining bullet trains. The state plans to use most of its half billion to upgrade the Raleigh-to-Charlotte route. It projects top speeds of 90 mph, eventually reducing the average Raleigh-Charlotte trip nearly an hour from the current 3 hours 10 minutes.

I checked in with Patrick Simmons who heads the rail division of the N.C. Department of Transportation. What does he foresee for North Carolina's high-speed passenger rail project with Republicans in charge of the U.S. House, not to mention both houses of the N.C. legislature?

Simmons said he expects additional scrutiny and questions, but that the funding the state has received is secure. The state is very close to signing an agreement with the feds, he said. "Short-term, I feel good," he said. Long-term? He expects the whole U.S. passenger rail program to be questioned at a national level.

A savvy observer might find reason for concern. After all: The Wisconsin DOT on Thursday told contractors to stop work on that state's Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail line, which had won $810 million in federal money. Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker has promised to cancel the project, although shortly before the election the current governor's administration and federal administrators signed an agreement to commit the state to spending all $810 million of federal stimulus money.

And in Ohio, the Republican governor-to-be, John Kasich, who defeated incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland, opposes to plans for faster train passenger service there - the 3Cs line connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. The Obama administration gave that project over $400 million this year.

What might it mean for North Carolina's passenger rail, I asked Simmons, that the legislature will be dominated by Republicans? He reminded me that the whole idea for the NCDOT's role in passenger rail came during the administration of Republican Gov. Jim Martin.

Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic has a good national analysis. The map is cool, too.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sustainability: Can Charlotte sustain enthusiasm?

What will the Charlotte region be like in 2030? "Charlotte 2030: A Sustainable Vision for our Region," released on Monday by the nonprofit Sustain Charlotte, paints an idealistic image of sustainability nirvana. It's a 16-page wish list put together after a gathering last spring, and includes envisioned goals in 10 different areas. Examples:

• "The region is a national leader for clean energy and green jobs,
which include research, design and manufacturing of innovative

• "Energy usage per person is reduced by at least 20% – or 1% per year."

• "Acres of parkland per person meets or exceeds the national average."

• "Economic growth is not viewed as dependent on infrastructure

• "New development takes place near existing development
or on previously developed sites (re-development)."

• "Buildings are designed for reconfiguration to accommodate
changing needs."

Now comes this pundit's commentary: Obviously our city, region, state and nation need to get a lot smarter about our energy use, develop new sources and learn to better conserve what we produce. We need to transition into a way of life that isn't so wasteful of our land, our resources and our public money. The Charlotte 2030 vision would be grand, if even half of it comes to pass.

But if I had $10 for every laudable "envision Charlotte" brochure or pamphlet or website produced in the past 20 years I'd be blogging at my leisure from the south of France between glasses of the local red while I live off my accumulated wealth. Will this effort be The One to succeed at changing the behavior of businesses and people? I confess to skepticism. I'm writing this on an election day when experts predict a takeover of Congress by a party that rejects the idea of carbon limits ("the energy tax"), vows to stymie the EPA at every turn and holds many members who cling to the notion that global climate change is a hoax perpetrated by all the world's climate scientists except a brave few. (I personally cannot envision a group of people less easily herded into a global hoax than a large collection of scientists and academics, many of whom relish bursting conventional wisdom bubbles and try their best at revisionist history.)

These are the people that a majority of voters are going to give our government to? This doesn't bode well for much action at the national level beyond continued mountaintop removal (see photo above), offshore oil spills, declining air and water quality.

So it will be up to cities, and a few states (but not likely North Carolina). Will Charlotte be one of the cities that rises to the occasion? Hard to say. Many of our elected officials are happy to be environmentally friendly until it means they actually have to displease any businesses or spend any government money on the notion.

But I'll end on a modestly cheerful note: Sustain Charlotte drew a crowd of about 60 to its launch at Trade and Tryon uptown, and is drawing on a lot of people relatively new to the region and enthusiastic about the mission. Plenty of things are happening at the small, local level regardless of what happens in Congress. And for now, that will have to suffice.

Photo: Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, victim of coal mining that removes the mountaintop. Credit - Observer file photo/AFP/Getty.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

'A citadel of bigotry and Babbitry'

My furlough week (no work, no pay) begins in a few hours, during which I'm not allowed to do anything that smacks of Observer work, so no Naked City postings (or comments moderated) until Monday Nov. 1. In other words, don't think I'm ignoring you because I don't like you. I'm ignoring you because federal law says I must.

Until then, have fun with this item from former Observer Forum editor Lew Powell, who's staying busy in retirement posting interesting tidbits from N.C. history at North Carolina Miscellany, a blog offered by the North Carolina Collection at UNC Chapel Hill's Wilson Library. Here's a great bit, "The Making of 'The Mind of the South,' " which includes a paragraph describing Charlotte that may sound familiar to many of you, even today. It was delivered by former Observer editorial page editor Ed Williams, and it refers to the writings of W.J. Cash, in H.L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine:

“Other articles in the Mercury would follow, including an indignant portrayal of Charlotte as a citadel of bigotry and Babbitry, besotted by Presbyterianism and in love with Duke Power Co., a city where life for many consisted of ‘a dreary ritual of the office, golf and the church’ that is ‘unbearably dull even for Presbyterians.’

If you explore the site you'll find a fabulous photo of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in their bathrobes, waving to a crowd from a train car in Salisbury in 1952.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This time, Atlanta gets streetcar bucks

The news emerged last week, and official word came today. Atlanta won a $47 million U.S. DOT grant to help it build a proposed $72 million streetcar line. Here's a link to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article with details. Salt Lake City also won a streetcar grant, for $26 million, and Los Angeles won $20 million for its Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic offers an analysis here. He notes that of the $600 million total in these so-called TIGER II grants most went to small-scale projects in small and mid-size cities for street improvements, building transit centers, and rehabilitating freight lines. Here's a link to the USDOT site where you can find the list of capital project grants and the list of planning grants.

Asheville won an $850,000 planning grant for its East Riverside Sustainable Multimodal Neighborhood plan. The project will "integrate existing master plans and revise codes and regulations (emphasis mine) to create sustainable development." For a bit more information, see Page 22 of the link for planning grants.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Lewis Mumford

John Clark (the longtime WDAV general manager and local arts leader who decamped in 2007 to Asheville but recently returned to Charlotte) sends along this reminder that Oct. 19 is the birthdate of Lewis Mumford, the New York-based writer on cities, born 1895, died in 1990.

Here are some of Mumford's observations:

• A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.

• Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.

• It has not been for nothing that the word has remained man's principal toy and tool: without the meanings and values it sustains, all man's other tools would be worthless.

• The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.

• Without fullness of experience, length of days is nothing. When fullness of life has been achieved, shortness of days is nothing. That is perhaps why the young have usually so little fear of death; they live by intensities that the elderly have forgotten.

• A man of courage never needs weapons, but he may need bail.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

CATS wants input; more of us recycle; read about a great NC street

(I'm cleaning out the old email inbox today)

CATS wants your ideas. The Charlotte Area Transit System is holding a series of forums this week and next to help it formulate ways to improve its bus service in Mecklenburg County and the region. Two meetings are tonight, 6-7:30 p.m., one at North Regional Library and one at Independence Regional Library. (Maybe if you live near there you can zip on down there tonight.) Thursday one will be at Arbor Glen Outreach Center (1520 Clanton Road). The last will be at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on Oct. 21 (next Thursday).

Recycling Rises: The City of Charlotte today sent word that recycling has risen since the debut of the green roll out bins. On any given day, approximately 53 percent of all households are setting recyclables out for collection. That compares to only 42 percent during a study in October 2009.

Also, the city reports collecting 37 percent pounds more recycling in August compared to August 2009, and 22 percent more in July compared to July 2009 (3,177 and 2,599 respectively); however, there was a 37% increase in tonnage collected in August 2010 when compared to August 2009 (3,338 and 2,426 respectively).

Still can't remember which week is your recycling week, now that it's collected only every other week? If so, you are not alone. Visit this web site for all kinds of useful information on recycling. Go to the GeoPortal where there's a bunch of interesting information, plug in your address and check on "services." You'll either be a "green" or "orange." Then visit here to see the calendar in color, or here for a black and white, printer-friendly version. We have a copy posted on the fridge. Or you can call 311. If you have the time to sit on hold ...

Great Street: We all know North Carolina has some of the world's great places, but the American Planning Association this year has dubbed New Bern's Middle Street one of its Great Places for 2010. Here's what the APA writes: "From a scenic waterfront to historic architecture, Middle Street encapsulates everything that makes New Bern special. The town's rich history — including colonial, Civil War, and early 20th century — is embodied in the street's beautifully restored homes, five churches, the early 20th century Blades Mansion, and vibrant commercial district. Access to the Trent River is just steps away. At the same time, the street is a cornerstone for the city as it works to reinvigorate its economy by capitalizing on its two greatest assets: its history and waterfront."

In 2009 Main Street in Greenville, S.C., won a similar honor.

Big Sweep Swept Up Big Trash: During Charlotte-Mecklenburg's annual creek- and lake-cleanup on Oct. 2, more than 500 people helped dredge up more than 8 tons of trash, mostly bottles, cans, food wrappers and other litter. They removed 707 bags of garbage and 27 tires. Also found:

• A dog house,
• A baby training
• A giant candy cane yard decoration.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

NY writer likes us! He really likes us!

Krista Terrell of the Arts & Science Council just sent along a note revealing that the New York Times' Frugal Traveler, Seth Kugel, spent a few days in Charlotte and blogs about it, "Making Pit Stops in Charlotte."

While he wrote a lot about the NASCAR Hall of Fame and that he enjoyed his visit there despite not being a NASCAR fan, he also praises the ASC's new public art tour and podcast, which is why Terrell was interested in sharing.

Here's Kugel's remark about NASCAR: "I know that Nascar is awesome in the same way I know that cricket and Tolstoy novels and contemporary dance are awesome. I personally can’t see the appeal, but enough reasonable people disagree with me that I believe in their awesomeness."

He's not exactly kind to the city's image elsewhere, though (the bold-facing here is mine): "The city — which has experienced rapid growth (with a population of over 700,000, double what it was in the mid-1980s) and at the same time maintained a relative lack of identity (banking center and airline hub, total snoozer) — intrigued me. Something had to be going on there, and I would find out what it was."

Here's Kugel's take on the public art tour:
"Uptown is one of those clean areas that people from grittier cities may at first perceive as sanitized and devoid of character, but the podcast will go a long way to dispel that, pointing out many works of public art, including the four statues that stand at the four corners of Trade and Tryon Streets. (Don’t miss the very odd bust of Alan Greenspan in the statue representing “Commerce”.)"

I wrote about the public art tour in a September op-ed, "The art of a city: more than mosaics."

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Transit, taxes and Tampa

This one is for transit and tax-policy wonks. It's a piece from Yonah Freemark, in The Transport Politic, about the problems many transit systems are facing with sinking revenues. "When the recession strikes, little maneuvering room for transit" He points out that one reason for the problem is over-reliance on a very volatile revenue stream: sales taxes.

Most cities have been especially affected by the recession because of their reliance on the sales tax to provide revenue. Of the recent referendums on transit expansion programs, almost all have involved a 1/2 cent or one cent increase in that tax; few cities have looked to other forms of revenue, like an income tax or a payroll tax. The consequences of this decision, however, have been devastating because sales tax revenues have fallen considerably as a result of the recession and the reduced standard of living experienced by the majority of Americans over the past few years. A more stable financing program for transit, using other forms of taxation, would ensure that planned projects actually get built.

If you want to get deep in the weeds of transit finance, follow the link on "financing program for transit," above. I haven't read it all the way through yet, but it looks at the New York and Paris transit systems and how they get and spend their money.

In other transit-related news, here's a piece about Charlotte that ran Sunday in Tampa, Fla., where voters next month will decide on – you guessed it, a sales tax – to pay for transit as well as roads and other transportation needs.

And here's a fun contrarian piece from the Market Urbanism blog, "The Great American Streetcar Myth," by Stephen Smith, who contends it wasn't General Motors and Standard Oil who killed off streetcars as much as the Progressive Era and New Deal planners and politicians. Fare-increase restrictions, labor union requirements, publicly paid street-paving and road-building all combined to finish off streetcars, he writes. It's an interesting perspective. Smith also points out:

"While the status quo’s more libertarian-minded backers will point to the gas tax as a user fee, the highway funds are hardly adequate to cover the true costs. Though state and federal governments do now cover most of the capital and operating costs of the highways, local roads are still paid for almost entirely out of general revenues. And when you consider the forgone taxes and opportunity costs, roads start to look severely underpriced – to say nothing of the last hundred years of subsidized road building (the mainstay of FDR’s WPA), eminent domain, anti-urban federal home tax breaks and lending programs, positive feedback loops, and density-limiting zoning and parking policies."

Monday, October 04, 2010

Looking at congestion a different way

A new report on urban traffic skewers methods used by the widely quoted Texas Transportation Institute. In traffic circles, this is huge. The TTI's Urban Mobility Report is frequently used by cities to justify huge expenditures for wider streets and intersections. But it is deeply flawed, says a new report, "Driven Apart," from the nonprofit group CEOs for Cities. It doesn't consider that in some cities you don't have to drive as far as in other cities. The more compact cities, where you don't have to spend as much time in traffic, actually can end up looking more congested, because of the TTI's formulas.
Follow the links above to read the report.

Also, Streetsblog New York City has a good, readable analysis of it here. It opens this way:

Imagine two drivers leaving downtown to head home. Each of them sits in traffic for the first ten miles of the commute but at that point, their paths diverge. The first one has reached home. The second has another twenty miles to drive, though luckily for her, the roads are clear and congestion doesn’t slow her down. Who’s got a better commute?
Shockingly, the standard method for measuring traffic congestion implies that the second driver has it better. The Texas Transportation Institute’s
Urban Mobility Report (UMR) only studies how congestion slows down drivers from hypothetical maximum speeds, completely ignoring how long it takes to actually get where you’re going. The result is an incessant call for more highway lanes from newspapers across the country.

"Driven Apart" shows how the key tool contained in the Urban Mobility Report – the Travel Time Index – penalizes cities with shorter travel distances and conceals the additional burden caused by longer trips in sprawling metropolitan areas. It also looks at the reliability and usefulness of the methodology used in the UMR and finds it doesn't accurately estimate travel speeds, exaggerates travel delays and overestimates the fuel consumption associated with urban travel.

The report essentially makes the point that longer commutes are the main cause of time in traffic, not congestion per se.

"In the best performing cities – those that have achieved the shortest peak hour travel distances – such as Chicago, Portland and Sacramento, the typical traveler spends 40 fewer hours per year in peak hour travel than the average American. In contrast, in the most sprawling metropolitan areas, such as Nashville, Indianapolis and Raleigh, the average resident spends as much as 240 hours per year in peak period travel because travel distances are so much greater. These data suggest that reducing average trip lengths is a key to reducing the burden of peak period travel. Over the past two decades, for example, Portland, Oregon, which has smart land use planning and has invested in alternative transportation, has seen its average trip lengths decline by 20 percent."

If you want to see the chart showing all the metro areas studied, see page 7 of this link.

On page 10 of that link is a section showing why the report's authors say the Texas Transportation Institute's Travel Time Index (the TTI's TTI?) is flawed. The index is the ratio of average peak hour travel times to average free flow travel times. Here's what it says, using Charlotte and Chicago as examples:

"Chicago has a TTI of 1.43 (the second highest overall, behind only Los Angeles), while Charlotte has a TTI of 1.25 (just about equal to the average for all large metropolitan areas). This would appear to indicate that urban travel conditions are far worse in Chicago. But the traffic delays in the two regions are almost identical (40 and 41 hours per year, or about 10 minutes per day). Chicago has average travel distances (for peak hour trips) of 13.5 miles, while Charlotte has average travel distances of 19 miles. Because they travel nearly 50 percent farther then their counterparts in Chicago, Charlotte travelers end up spending a lot more time in traffic, about 48 minutes per day, rather than 33 minutes per day."

But the TTI makes it look as if drivers in Chicago have it worse. But if you look at hours spent in traffic they have it much better. The gives a flawed view of reality, the report says.

In sum, says the report:
"The Urban Mobility Report’s key measure – the Travel Time Index – is a poor guide to policy, and its speed and fuel economy estimates are flawed. In the aggregate, the analysis appears to overstate the costs of traffic congestion three-fold and ignores the larger transportation costs associated with sprawl."

It points out, for example, "There are strong reasons to doubt the UMR claim that slower speeds associated with congestion wastes billions of gallons of fuel. The UMR estimates of fuel consumption are based on a 29-year-old study of low-speed driving using 1970s era General Motors cars, which is of questionable applicability to today’s vehicles and to highway speeds."

Photo caption: Raleigh-Cary traffic, from photographer Shawn Rocco, [Raleigh] News & Observer

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Raleigh mayor takes on Wake schools flap

Today, I've got limited time so I'll share a couple of interesting links.

1. Raleigh's Mayor Charles Meeker is "quietly assembling a group of town mayors and 'high level' residents to scrutinize the student assignment plan currently being developed by the school board." The News & Observer's article is here. The situation is intriguing on a variety of levels.

A. Obviously, the fate of a city's school system has a huge impact on the city's overall economic and social well-being. Yet while our former mayor, Pat McCrory, was in office during years in which Charlotte's public schools were in intense reassignment and re-segregation turmoil, he said virtually nothing publicly. It was a certainly a smart political survival strategy for him -- CMS and race are both radioactive topics. But was it the best thing for the city?

B. Meeker's wife, Dr. Anne McLaurin, is on the school board. Yowie. Talk about power couples.

C. With Wake County schools threatened (by a controversial majority on the school board there) with the same re-segregation that has hit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Raleigh political establishment seems to be fighting back more strongly than Charlotte's did a decade ago. There were some key differences -- a court case that had to be complied with. But CMS went beyond what the court rulings required in dismantling racial integration in local schools. And of course, seeing what happened here could be fueling some of the Wake opposition to re-segregation.

D. CMS, meanwhile, is talking about closing up to 10 schools and reassigning students. Here's Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms' blog account of the details, which are sure to be controversial. This could have major implications for neighborhoods' stability and futures. Are city officials and county officials at the table with CMS as it comes up with its plans? I don't think so. They should be, and if they weren't invited, they should be knocking down Superintendent Peter Gorman's door.

2. In today's New York Times is an interesting piece on a ballot measure before Florida voters that would require voter approval on changes in state-mandated growth plans. The measure is fueled in part by deep anger over over-building and over-zoning. Good idea? Bad idea?

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Pimp My CATS" and other ideas

From TEDx Charlotte (see earlier post, "Are we Innovative yet?") :

The day kicked off with Tracy Russ and Quentin "Q" Talley. Russ was "Left Brain" and Q was "Right Brain." The idea, of course, is that you need both. They pitched 10 ideas at once wacky and thoughtful (left-right brain convergence maybe?)
1. Give every tree in Charlotte-Mecklenburg a name. This will help stop the loss of our tree canopy. So, "maple tree" becomes "Mary Dilworth." "When 'Mary Dilworth' croaks there are tears and people care," Russ pointed out.
2. Bring "art recess" into the workplace.
3. "Your Zip Code or mine?" Make friends with someone from a different neighborhood and visit each other's part of town.
4. "Bedsheets not spreadsheets." This is NOT what you're thinking. The idea is to collect, via a website, the hopes and wishes of people in the community. Then print them on blankets and give a blanket of hopes to every Charlotte newborn. (All together now: "Awwwww.")
5. "Pimp my CATS." The CATS here isn't the Charlotte Area Transit System but "Creative Access to Song. The idea is to put live music onto city buses. (Or should they charge more for musical ads?)
6. "Have a Poet in Chief for the city."
7. "Dais Divas" - As long as there's drama on our elected bodies, let's go for it. Get elected officials every year to get together and put on a musical. ( The "Glee" technique.)
8. Wisdom of the Elders. Return to the traditions of many cultures that respect and admire the elderly and use their wisdom. (I guess this means that a lot of people think anyone over 50 is irrelevant, since they're telling people NOT to treat them that way. Downer of the day.)
9. All high school graduates go to college.

The rest of the morning has been a mixed set of beautiful art, oddly didactic lectures, bizarre math/physics guy, and ended with the incomparable Tim Will of Foothills Connect.

I'm missing lunch now. More to come.

TEDx Charlotte - Are we innovative yet?

10 a.m. - Waiting for TEDx to start, in basement auditorium at Knight Theater, looking at psychedelic floral video displays in darkened auditorium. Architect Tom Low of the Charlotte Duany Plater-Zyberk Audience and founder of Civic by Design is pacing up front along with Manoj Kesavan, another local architect who's one of the TEDx Charlotte organizers. We're supposed to be learning about and experiencing innovative ideas, I think.

I should probably have read the material better. But this has been a week of 11- and 12-hour workdays. This morning before heading here I had to set out sprinklers for our newly re-seeded lawn, clean up last night's dirty kitchen, make breakfast, fix a torn hem on my slacks, emails a friend who's about to be unreachable, to set up the time and place for a lunch date, etc. etc. It reminds me of something I read recently, attributed to Jane Jacobs: An efficient city can't be an innovative city. I conclude this applies to personal lives, too. Too many tasks, duties and to-do-list work eats away at the time your brain needs to float free.

So I wonder: Have the past decades of workplace pressure for increased "productivity" – which means fewer workers, more work, faster work, longer workweeks, constant availability to the office – has all that had an effect on U.S. innovation?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Want your face on the side of a bus? Now it's possible

Advertising's coming back to Charlotte city buses. And it's coming to light rail cars – an option not available in 2001, when the governing body for the Charlotte Area Transit System voted to remove the ads from bus exteriors.

The Metropolitan Transit Commission's vote was about as split as it is possible for such a vote to be. Each municipality has one vote, as do the county and the N.C. Board of Transportation representative (currently developer John Collett). The first vote Wednesday night, on a motion to approve the new advertising , was 4-4, with Matthews Public Works Director Ralph Messera abstaining. Because of the tie, MTC chair and Mecklenburg County commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts declared the motion failed, until someone pointed out an "abstain" vote is counted as a yes. That made the vote 5-4.

Messera said he abstained because, while he believed Matthews Mayor James Taylor was in favor, he had not had a specific conversation to nail down how he wanted Matthews to vote.

Olaf Kinard of CATS said projections showed CATS would clear between $900,000 to $1 million a year over five years, taking into account its expenses for putting the advertising program into effect

Revenue from the county's half-cent sales tax for transit has been flat, while the system's 2030 plan for building more light rail, streetcar and possibly bus rapid transit corridors is based on a projection that shows those revenues steadily climbing. So the MTC has been pondering whether to look for more revenue opportunities.

Why vote against what, to some, would seem a no-brainer idea for more revenue? Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain said she worried about quality control for the ads. Others pointed out that CATS has spent the past 10 years positioning itself, to the public, as a clean and efficient bus and transit system. The image issue was a key reason the MTC abandoned ads on buses in 2001. "We're violating the brand we established 10 years ago," said Davidson Mayor John Woods.

Looking ahead, there's a decent possibility the MTC will go to voters in coming years for new taxes or other public revenue. It would be even harder for the MTC to ask for new public revenue if it were still rejecting a revenue stream that many in the public consider low-hanging fruit to be plucked.
Photo: Get ready for more advertising on CATS buses, such as this on promoting Charlotte Motor Speedway's October races. Credit: Charlotte Observer file photo

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Demolition, part two

My posting last week, about a very nice two-story home demolished ("What's the opposite of green? Maybe this"), has an update. Owner Max Redic says he'll be building a new house on the site.

Redic said his family had lived in the house 10 years, had been thinking for five years about rebuilding. The house had mold and a 25-year-old HVAC system, he said. They've temporarily moved to another site in Charlotte and yes, he said, they do have a building permit for the new house. (The demolition permit posted said "Total res demo - No Build Back.")

He said they recycled much of the building material, donated a good bit of the interior goods to Habitat for Humanity, and let the fire department use the house for training before the demolition.

And, he pointed out (as my blogpost had), it's his property to do with as he wishes. A bit of context: The lot is near a number of others where nice, but older, houses have been torn down and much larger new ones built -- some on spec by developers and some by homeowners.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A 'CATS' fight for transit money?

Looks as if the Charlotte Area Transit System may finally be getting some in-state competition for federal transit money for light-rail. The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Sunday ("Triangle Transit proposes 2 light-rail lines") that Triangle Transit, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill transit agency, is looking at two potential light rail routes. The TTA timetable has it applying to the Federal Transit Administration next summer and, in fall 2011, asking Triangle-area voters for a 1/2-cent sales tax to fund the transit plans.

"In a fall 2011 referendum, Triangle voters are expected to consider approving a half-cent sales tax - which would add 5 cents to every taxable $10 purchase - that would cover a large share of new bus and rail costs."

For now, the TTA has dropped its earlier idea of commuter rail to the Research Triangle Park. It's looking at light rail instead, because light rail – which is powered by overhead electric wires – need not run on a railroad right of way as it does in Charlotte, but can run in the streets as well, i..e., as a streetcar. (For terminology geeks, just fyi, "heavy rail" doesn't mean Amtrak-like passenger rail. It means a rail system powered by an electrified rail on the bottom, like subways, with the so-called "third rail," hence the allusions to a "third rail" that one must never touch without deadly effect.)

The N&O's Bruce Siceloff reports:
"So, at public meetings last week and this week, Triangle Transit officials and consultants are explaining that the first light-rail trains will not run through the region's suburban center. The two most promising corridors are about 20 miles apart in the western Triangle and Wake County:

- Northwest Cary through N.C. State University and downtown to Triangle Town Center in North Raleigh, 18 miles. It rates high in projected rider counts, job and housing density, development potential, and capital costs compared to the number of weekday transit trips.

- UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Alston Avenue in downtown Durham, 17 miles. It rates high in rider counts, low-income residents who are more likely to depend on transit, and capital and operating costs. This corridor is rated weak in housing density and development potential.

And don't read right over that part about "bus." A close relative of mine was trying to get to Chapel Hill from the Durham Amtrak station on Labor Day and realized, with some shock, that the TTA's Chapel Hill-Durham bus didn't run on the holiday. Better bus service in the Triangle would likely be welcomed by many.

TTA is also looking at "a limited kind of region-wide rail service that was not in the cards a few years ago. Commuter trains pulled by standard diesel locomotives are proposed to run from west Durham to the Wake-Johnston county line. These trains would operate on weekday rush hours, every 30 or 60 minutes, and make stops in RTP."

I was joking when I wrote that headline about a CATS fight. While CATS and every other transit agency in the country knows competition is tight for federal money, in the long run it's probably better for all N.C. cities to have multiple mass transit systems. That way the N.C. DOT, the legislature and all the entities holding the money bags – not to mention the voting (and riding) public – can get their heads around the concept that "transportation" means more than just private-auto transportation.

Anyway, the CATS fight currently is what's going on in the Mecklenburg County Metropolitan Transit Commission, between backers of the proposed commuter rail to North Mecklenburg and those of the being-built-but-rather-slower-than-planned extension of light rail to UNC Charlotte.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What's the opposite of 'green'? Maybe this?

(Update Sept. 21: See "Demolition, part two" for an update on the owner's plans to build a new house on the site.)

Some days I think I should have a contest for the Anti-green. This would probably win for the month. Maybe the year.

The attractive, two-story, 3,161-square-foot home, built in 1941 was assessed for tax purposes at $331,900 (the total parcel, including the land, is assessed at $778,800). I walked past it a few weeks ago and spotted the bulldozer.

When I walked past it today, here's what it looked like:

I don't know the owners' plans. The demo permit says: "Total res demo - No Build Back."

Demolition is extraordinarily wasteful, and not just of materials. As Time magazine has written: "It would take an average of 65 years for the reduced carbon emissions from a new energy efficient home to make up for the resources lost by demolishing the old one." And that's IF you build a new, green home.

This waste is unconscionable. Yet there's nothing to stop it other than owners' consciences. And many people don't know about, or don't care about, wasting resources.

This lot is next door to another vacant lot, where another large and attractive home was demolished by a builder several years ago, right before the housing market imploded.

In my opinion the city should stop allowing demolitions until there is a building permit in hand for whatever is going to replace it. Now THAT would be green. We'd have saved plenty of useful (and affordable) houses and buildings over the years if that policy had been in place.

Monday, September 13, 2010

From old Reid's to new farmers market

Charlotte City Council, at its dinner meeting before the regular council meeting that is happening in front of me now, heard a request for up to $1 million from Charlotte Center City Partners to do the construction work to turn the former Reid's Fine Foods grocery into an uptown farmers market.

Center City Partners, a nonprofit tax-funded group that represents uptown and South End, has sponsored an uptown market for 12 years, but it's outdoor at The Square, small and from what I can tell of the good sold, not what I'd consider "local" produce. CCCP has wanted a better site for a larger market.

I hate to do this to you, but all I've time for now is to copy/paste the CCCP press release, for those who want more details. The council is now starting to hear public comments on the proposed tougher tree ordinance and I need to listen to that.

On the market proposal, the council voted to sent it to the economic development committee for a recommendation. Council members Andy Dulin, Michael Barnes and Edwin Peacock III voted against sending it to committee.

Press release:
Charlotte Center City Partners is exploring the creation of a new public market in Uptown to be located in the former Reid’s Fine Foods space on the ground floor of the Seventh Street Station parking deck. Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS) has offered to invest in this new market because of the project’s potential benefits for the citizens of our region.

The proposed ‘City Market’, situated adjacent to the 7th Street light rail station, would feature high quality, unique products sold at reasonable prices. Produce and products from local farmers and vendors would support public health by providing year-round access to fresh foods. The vendor mix is proposed to be multicultural and represent Charlotte’s global melting pot as well as its Southern heritage. The market would include a cafĂ© and provide programming opportunities for the community to learn about healthy eating in a warm and inviting setting, surrounded by fresh foods.

“Our goal will be to provide a wide variety of produce, meat, fish, bakery and dairy products, and other raw and prepared food, brought to market in the center of the city by farmers, growers, producers and chefs,” said Michael Smith, President and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. “We want to create an environment that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of our citizens and fosters their interaction. We also want to strengthen the historic link and mutual dependency of our rural and urban communities.”

The market will take advantage of its Uptown location and the City’s unique assets including the light rail line, the new UNC Charlotte building and First Ward Park across the street as well as Johnson & Wales University.

Another objective will be to provide an incubator for small businesses, supported by the workforce development programs at CPCC. In time, this market will become a ‘must see’ destination and provide an authentic Charlotte experience for visitors. The hope is to achieve all this and, at the same time, make sure the market is operationally self-funded.

As founding sponsor, CHS would provide health and wellness programming for the market. “We want to invest in the City Market because it supports our mission of ‘Live Well Carolinas’ and our goal of prevention and wellness in the Charlotte community,” said CEO Michael Tarwater.

This concept is the result of years of research and exploration through a partnership with the City, County and Projects for Public Spaces (PPS). In a recently completed feasibility study report, PPS surveyed local market vendors and found a high-capacity, skilled set of vendors who know and understand retail marketing. The survey found that 75% of vendors have a strong interest in participating in a year-round indoor market and that 75% employ 0-3 full-time employees and more than 60% of vendors would be ready to sell in less than three months.

The City Market is proposed to be a stand-alone 501(c) 3 organization employing a Market Manager and Assistant Manager as well as custodial staff. The projected opening is Spring of 2011.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

How some Charlotte neighborhoods are going green

Seven Charlotte neighborhoods, ranging from a high-rise uptown condos to a suburban subdivision, have been selected to receive $80,000 in grants as part of the city's Neighborhood Energy Challenge Grant program. That program is one of 17 projects to be paid with a $6.5 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant the City of Charlotte won from the U.S. Department of Energy. The idea is to approach energy conservation efforts at a neighborhood level.

The neighborhoods are: The Avenue condos (210 N. Church St. uptown), the "EcoDistrict" (Villa Heights, Belmont, Optimist Park neighborhoods), Merry Oaks in east Charlotte, the NoDa neighborhood just northeast of uptown, Plaza-Midwood just east of uptown, Wilmore south of uptown and Spring Park in northeast Charlotte.

Daria K. Milburn, community energy conservation coordinator in the city's Neighborhood & Business Services department, says projects include bike rack installations, neighborhood light-bulb and shower-head swaps (where you turn in your old ones and get new ones that save electricity or water), promoting alternative transportation such as transit and bicycling. Spring Park is going to try to integrate solar power into street lighting. The Avenue will use different lighting in its parking garage to cut its electricity usage by about half. All their applications included education/awareness campaigns, she said.

Want to read more? Here's the memo on the project that went out to City Council members.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Dead Cities, Second Cities, and more

1. A Top Ten List to Avoid: Whew! It's a list I'm mightily glad Charlotte is not on: "America's Dead Cities," from the website 24/7 Wall St. This paragraph did have me a bit worried: "Most of America’s Ten Dead Cities were once major manufacturing hubs and others were important ports or financial services [my emphasis] centers. The downfall of one city, New Orleans, began in the 1970s, but was accelerated by Hurricane Katrina." Only two cities in the South or the Sun Belt make the list, one at No. 5 and one at No. 10. (That sentence is corrected from my earlier miscounting).

2. Second City News: Tuesday's big news, in urban circles, was the surprise announcement from Chicago's Mayor For Life Richard M. Daley that he isn't running again, having served since 1989. Here's the Chicago Tribune's story from yesterday. The election is next February. "Daley's decision sets off a major power scramble following more than 20 years of stifled political ambitions in city politics" the Tribune article notes. Here are some of today's links. And here's a conversation between the New York Times' Gail Collins and David Brooks about what it takes to be a good mayor. Brooks basically gushes ("He is arguably the most accomplished mayor in America today.")

Collins, with an aside about Pete Rose, says she gets nervous gushing about any public figure who is still alive. Here's her take on Rahm Emanuel's possible candidacy: "My reaction to the idea of Rahm Emanuel as mayor is pretty much the same as my attitude toward the abortive attempt to get Rudy Giuliani elected governor. I can’t say I can imagine it working out, but I definitely think you could sell tickets to watch."

3. Urbanism and Libartarianism: Here's an interesting website called "Market Urbanism: Urbanism for Capitalists/Capitalists for Urbanism." In "Why does the Infrastructurist hate libertarians so much, " Stephen Smith writes: "Among urban planners, libertarianism gets a pretty bad rap. Melissa Lafsky at the Infrastructurist goes so far as to call libertarianism “an enemy of infrastructure,” and dismisses entirely the idea that private industry can build infrastructure ..." writes Stephen Smith. He says, "Here at Market Urbanism we’re used to these sorts of attacks from the left, and we work tirelessly to disassociate ourselves (well, mostly) from Reason’s brand of (sub)urbanist libertarianism."

Smith fingers the Progressive Movement for the end of mass transit. I wouldn't go that far, because General Motors certainly helped. But I'm reading Roberta Brandes Gratz' "The Battle for Gotham," in which Gratz, a friend of the late Jane Jacobs, writes about how Robert Moses' style of punching freeways through the city and disregard for the small businesses and people he displaces led to the city's 1970s and 1980s crime and disinvestment.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Safer driving in Charlotte? Or just less driving?

The city of Charlotte's annual study of High Accident Locations found an overall drop of 26 percent in total number of collisions in the city for 2009, compared with 2008, with fatal collisions down 5 percent.

Are we safer drivers? Would that were so. The Charlotte Department of Transportation memo to the City Council says, "While the total numbers of collisions vary from year to year, CDOT attributes some reduction in collisions to reductions also seen in vehicle miles travelled. This is a trend occurring across the country."

The top two causes for accidents? Inattention (cited 22.4 percent of the time) and "Failure to Reduce Speed" (cited 18.9 percent of the time). Alcohol use is the cause of 1.67 percent of the accidents. So while I applaud the police efforts to keep people from drinking and driving, it would seem that a far more effective way to reduce accidents and their costs (in human deaths, injuries, lost productivity and costs to those involved) would be to crack down on speeding.

Of course, I suspect that, like many drivers, some police officers just don't think speeding is a very big deal. One example among many I've : The other night in the 35 mph section of Providence Road a patrol car blew past me. I sped up to see its speed: 55 mph. No siren, no blue lights, and a mile farther down the road (I had slowed back to the speed limit by then but a traffic light had slowed the cars ahead of me) the police car was just cruising along, not appearing to be heading to any crime scene.

Here's the most recent accident report. And here's a link to the previous year's report (on 2008 accidents).

Have a great Labor Day weekend, and drive safely.