Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ballantyne 'affordable housing'? It was there at the start

It turns out that affordable housing – a better term is "below market-rate housing" – was required to be built in Ballantyne as part of its rezoning request, which county commissioners approved in November 1991. This was more than just a verbal agreement from developer Johnny Harris. It was part of the legally enforceable zoning agreement. And the housing was built. (This relates to Tommy Tomlinson's column today, "Is public housing Ballantyne's IOU?", in which he notes that we taxpayers spent millions to create the highways that allowed Ballantyne to prosper.)

Planning consultant Walter Fields, who for many years was land development manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg planning staff, worked with the Harris family over a period of years, starting in the 1980s, about their development plans for what used to be called "The South Farm," a beautiful tract that was part of late Gov. Cameron Morrison's vast property holdings.

"There was definitely something in there [the rezoning agreement] and they definitely did it," he told me. He recalled it was small-lot, single family housing. And he pointed out one problem with those sorts of "affordable housing" provisions: Unless other mechanisms are in place the housing is below-market rate when it's first sold, but after than it sells for whatever anyone can sell it for. Which is why, let me note, there's still a need for below-market rate housing in the area.

Today, Ballantyne is awash with apartments, which Fields points out are another form of "affordable housing." He was approached, he says, by a lot of people for help in fighting the now-dropped proposal for subsidized apartments at Providence Road West and Johnston Road. "I turned them all down," he says. As a consultant he often advocates for multifamily.

And, he recalls, during negotiations with the city-county planning department over Ballantyne the planners were continually pushing the importance of a mix of housing types at Ballantyne.

But the project was controversial, not least because that was in the era when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was really trying to integrate its schools, because it was legally required to, part of a court order in effect. (Today, schools in the Ballantyne area are far less integrated than in much of the rest of the county; Hawk Ridge Elementary is 10 percent black; Community House Middle and Ardrey Kell High are 12 percent black.) Some school board members weren't happy about the prospect of a vast sea of white kids that they'd be required to bus long distances – or, conversely, having to bus another sea of nonwhite kids long distances. Of course, that problem got solved by the dissolving of the court order to integrate ...

This is from an article in October 1991, by the Observer's Liz Chandler:
"Louise Woods [who later served on the school board], representing a citizens group, urged commissioners to make Harris detail how many low- and moderate-income homes he will build.
"We request that the Ballantyne proposal include a section of affordable moderate- and low-income housing," Woods said in a letter signed by seven others.
Woods also said school and county officials should scrutinize Harris' plans to ensure Ballantyne is an integrated community. Neighboring subdivisions are predominantly white. The group is concerned about what they see is a trend resulting in long bus rides for black students brought in to achieve integration."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Suburb slums? (Shhhh, don't tell Ballantyne)

I caught an intriguing "Urban Vs. Suburban" discussion on WFAE's Charlotte Talks this morning, interviewing Christopher Leinberger, author of the March 2008 article in The Atlantic magazine, "The Next Slum?"

His article opened with an anecdote from the Windy Ridge subdivision in northwest Charlotte. (A Charlotte Observer article later, in January 2009, reported that half the homes in Windy Ridge had been through foreclosure. And six months after, in July 2009, another Observer article said it's one of the neighborhoods hit so badly by foreclosures that Habitat for Humanity is buying the houses, now costing less than what Habitat would spend building a new one, and will rehab them and sell them to Habitat-worthy families.)

Also on the show was Jen Pilla Taylor, who wrote a piece for the January edition of Charlotte magazine, "Tale of Two Cities" in which she writes about the growing divide between urban and suburban parts of Charlotte.

"Much of the time, the two worlds are largely indifferent toward one another," she wrote. "Much of the suburban set is apathetic about the city, with many suburbanites rarely if ever visiting uptown unless they work there. Urban dwellers see the 'burbs as too far away, too rural, too cookie-cutter. But tensions bubble up in public spats fought primarily by activists and elected officials."

But Leinberger, a planning professor at the University of Michigan as well as a real estate developer, talked about the market forces and trends that, he has predicted, will bludgeon property values for suburban and ex-urban houses – due to oversupply and to a growing preference for "walkable" neighborhoods. He said on WFAE that the federal bailout of suburban housing has been much larger than the bank or auto industry bailouts. Interesting way to look at it. (This may buttress his point: A November 2008 Observer story reported, "Because it has such a high concentration of foreclosures and subprime mortgages, Charlotte is in line to get $5.4 million [in federal money] to help stabilize its neighborhoods.)

More recently, MSN Real Estate took on the same topic, "Is your suburb the next slum?" a sort of "Leinberger Lite" that quoted Leinberger and some of the same data.

All the articles make clear that not all suburban neighborhoods are the same and that many are thriving and will continue to. Nor do they present every urban neighborhood as nirvana.

But the data show that the more walkable areas with neighborhood centers of stores and workplaces are more likely to do better in the future real estate market than those made up only of auto-oriented single-family housing.

I guess we won't know whose predictions are coming to pass until the local real estate market revives.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Your face on the side of a CATS bus?

Carolyn Flowers, CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, tells me today that she expects the issue of advertising on CATS vehicles to come up at the Wednesday meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission. Here's a link to the agenda.

Former CATS CEO Ron Tober nixed the advertising early on in his tenure. He told me he thought it was important, in launching a new transit service, for it to look professional and clean. And certainly, the Lynx Blue Line has been very successful. I am not sure how much of that is due to the lack of advertising placards and how much to other factors, though I suspect the latter.

That said, they should look into the advertising. With the half-cent transit sales tax revenues dropping to 2005 levels, I think they could trade off some pristine appearances in exchange for some cash. Flowers said the most recent estimate, at least a year old and done by the City of Charlotte, said ads could bring in from $590,000 to $2.6 million a year. (Transit sales tax revenues this year are projected at $57 million, with 2010-11 projections at $59.4 million.)

(Note: Flowers' father died today in California. She's traveling to the West Coast and expects to be gone several days.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

'Road hater'? Read the facts, please

To all the folks bent out of shape because I suggested that NC DOT might have fared better if it had pushed for stimulus money for the commuter rail line in Mecklenburg instead of to repair the Yadkin River bridge, please read what I wrote, both Thursday and Wednesday.

I never said the Yadkin bridge shouldn't be fixed. Indeed, I called it "sorely needed." I never said commuter rail was more important. I wrote that it might be possible the state would have gotten money for commuter rail had they pushed it instead of the bridge project - a strategic decision in the realm of competing for stimulus money.

In yesterday's piece I called the bridge project "sorely needed" and also said: "In any case, now that the state has learned the bridge repair project gets only $10 million in stimulus money, it's moving to start the repairs in a few months."

On Wednesday, I wrote: "The state does have $180 million money set aside for Phase 1 of the Yadkin bridge project. It can start work as early as June, he [Conti] said. That money will pay to replace and widen to eight lanes the I-85 bridge, the U.S. 29-70 bridge and reconstruct the N.C. 150 interchange. So I-85 will go from eight lanes to four, as it does now, then widen to eight again over the bridge."
That means, as I wrote, THE BRIDGE WORK IS STARTING. THE STATE HAS MONEY. Indeed, stimulus money is supposed to go to projects that won't get done otherwise. Is it possible that was another strike against the Yadkin bridge project?

It's one thing to be mad about a rickety bridge. I completely agree. But how about reading the facts BEFORE you start with the insults?

I've been contemplating shutting down comments completely, because so many people are such jerks that it seems to just bring out the hostility all around. Thoughts?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In hindsight, maybe bridge idea not so hot

Even hindsight isn't always 20-20 of course, but if you look at the breakdown of which transportation projects across the U.S. won pieces of that $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money, it's pretty clear the feds were favoring transit, rail and pedestrian projects. The top-ranked highway-only project was 10th on the list.

So did N.C. officials miscalculate by putting their big weight on repairing highway bridges over the Yadkin River, instead of making a big push for Mecklenburg County's languishing-for-lack-of-federal-money commuter rail line? Charlotte and CATs submitted the request, of course, but in order to be team players with N.C. DOT and the governor they weren't pulling out the big guns to lobby for it.

New York City's project to improve dowdy Penn Station (the "Moynihan Station, Phase 1") got $83 million. The "Tuscon Modern Streetcar" project won $63 million. A commuter rail project in Massachusetts ("the Fitchburg commuter rail extension and Wachusett station") won $55.5 million. The DC area got $58 million for bus enhancements, and Philadelphia got $54 million for pedestrian and bicycle improvements. A lot of the money went for freight rail improvements, too.

"Selected projects must foster job creation, show strong economic benefits, and promote communities that are safer, cleaner and more livable," the press release said. Later, it said the 22 so-called "livability projects" were "aimed at giving Americans more choices about how they travel and improving access to economic and housing opportunities in their communities."

I think North Carolina's Yadkin River bridge project, although a sorely needed repair job, failed to score on the "cleaner and more livable" factors. And I think it's quite possible the shovel-ready but fed-funding-lacking North Corridor commuter rail line to Davidson would have hit high marks for "cleaner and more livable," because of its obvious connection to more environmentally sound development, and for taking a load of traffic off I-77. It's an example of regional cooperation, too, with four municipalities (Charlotte, Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson) involved.

Conti demurred when I asked him to second-guess the request on Thursday. "It would have been just as hard to get any significant funding for the North Corridor," he said. I wonder.

In any case, now that the state has learned the bridge repair project gets only $10 million in stimulus money, it's moving to start the repairs in a few months.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NC wins "honorable mention" grant for Yadkin bridge

Might the N.C. DOT have made a bad call in applying for $300 million in stimulus money to rebuild the Yadkin River bridge on I-85, instead of using the opportunity to try to snag more mass transit money? DOT Secretary Gene Conti doesn't think so.

The grants - made public Wednesday - were part of the $1.5 billion in so-called TIGER Grant funding, for transportation projects, all part of the federal stimulus bill. North Carolina got $10 million for the Yadkin bridge project.

Here's a complete breakdown from the U.S. DOT.

I just hung up from a phone interview with Conti, who said in total, 10 projects from North Carolina were submitted, including a request from Charlotte and the Metropolitan Transit Commission to fund the proposed-but-got-no-money commuter rail line between downtown and Davidson. Conti said N.C. projects were worth $845 million. Across the country, he said, $57 billion worth of projects were requested.

Looking at the projects that got the big bucks – and it's worth remembering that when you're talking transportation projects, $1.5 billion really isn't very much to spread around the country – transit and multimodal and rail projects seem to have done better than highway projects. The organization Reconnecting America did a breakdown: highway projects received 23 percent of funding, while transit projects 26 percent, multimodal projects received 25 percent, rail projects won 19 percent and ports 7 percent.

Note that a $45 million streetcar project in New Orleans won – $45 million. A $58 million downtown streetcar project in Dallas, Texas, got $23 million. Tucson, Ariz., got $63 million for a $150 million, 4-mile streetcar line.

You'll see some language on the US DOT document, if you read it, about North Carolina being eligible for "optional innovative financing enhancements to support a direct loan for up to one-third of the project costs." I asked Conti what that meant. "That's a good question," he said ruefully. It means, he said, that N.C. could cash in the $10 million now for a $100 million loan. But without a revenue stream to repay the loan (such as a toll road might have) it's best to just take the cash, he said.

The state does have $180 million money set aside for Phase 1 of the Yadkin bridge project. It can start work as early as June, he said. That money will pay to replace and widen to eight lanes the I-85 bridge, the U.S. 29-70 bridge and reconstruct the N.C. 150 interchange. So I-85 will go from eight lanes to four, as it does now, then widen to eight again over the bridge.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A farmer praises the Thread Trail

The Observer News Enterprise in Newton (outside Hickory, in Catawba County) has an interesting interview with a farmer who's a fan of the planned Carolina Thread Trail.

Stanly Stewart, who's been a grain farmer for 35 years, says some farmers worry that a trail near or on their land would bring litter and vagrants.

But Stewart says, public trails aren't the big threat to farmers: "The major threat to farming is unbridled development,” he said. He's right. Suburban sprawl and even rural sprawl are eating away at this region's last farmland – ironic in an era when so many people are rediscovering the importance of locally grown foods and meat.

He has experience that proves his point. Stewart’s family owns land around Murray’s Mill, the article reports. It says, "They decided to build trails around the land for people to enjoy the property. Since the area was opened to the public, the amount of trash has greatly decreased. Stewart attributes the decrease to the public’s renewed interest in the land around the trails.
“When you light up an area, the dark goes away,” he said."

The Thread Trail is a plan for a connecting network of trails throughout the Charlotte region. Each community gets to plan where the trails would go. No land would be taken by eminent domain. In Charlotte, a small portion runs alongside Little Sugar Creek, through Freedom Park. Someday, if all goes well, you could walk from uptown Charlotte to South Carolina, or to Crowders and Kings Mountain.

Parking gives way to sidewalks (update)

Here's a city that's not afraid to try new things. San Francisco is taking away some parking spaces in order to have wider sidewalks. Here's a link to the full article, courtesy

Gee. In Charlotte we're still trying to get the city to allow MORE onstreet parking – as a way to slow traffic and avoid having to build surface lots or decks. They were on the right track but after 9/11 someone deep in the bowels of the CMGC decided Osama was planning to park a bomb-laden truck outside all the local banks, so a lot of the parking vanished. Interestingly, no such protection was afforded to the daily newspaper office (or the weekly ones for that matter) or multiple other businesses uptown.

Update, 5:35 p.m., from Charlotte Department of Transportation's Jim Kimbler: It turns out Charlotte is doing a small version of what SF is, along Fifth Street between North Tryon and Church streets. Kimbler told me via e-mail that the city is helping the retail property owner at the Ivey's building, Stefan Latorre, who plans to open the interior restaurant space onto Fifth. It would mean wider sidewalks and removing the on-street parking on that block.

"Both the widened sidewalks and the removal of parking are consistent with the Center City Transportation Street Enhancement Standards," Kimbler wrote. "We believe this will help activate this street with outdoor dining and more comfortable sidewalk space."

(And no, Mayor Gavin Newsom is no relation. But at least he spells his name right.)

City leaps to fix hazard

This updates my report Monday on the ugly post in the uptown sidewalk, mentioned in yesterday's blog posting about some pedestrian hazards I encountered uptown.

I just got e-mail from Tamara Blue, customer service manager of Charlotte Department of Transportation: "I wanted to let you know the post is being cut down as I type this. We very much appreciate you letting us know about this trip hazard. Unfortunately, we can’t be everywhere at all times and knowing citizens like you will let us know when there is a problem is a tremendous help."

Kudos to the city for solving a small but dangerous pedestrian hazard. Now if only they can figure out how to inspire folks to shovel their sidewalks after it snows, and to rake off the leaf piles ...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Walking uptown? Good luck

Without question downtown Charlotte is the most pedestrian-friendly neighborhood in town. But there are still some, ahem, issues. I spotted a few during a Sunday afternoon walk through downtown.

For instance, although the city code says property owners are supposed to keep the sidewalks in front of their property free of obstruction, on Sunday afternoon some spots that were in the shade were still filled with slushy ice, such as the spot in front of the restaurant Press on West Trade Street. No, it isn't fair that some people get the sun to do the work for them. Life isn't fair. Clear your sidewalks, please.

Unfortunately, the city doesn't do what many Northern cities do - you get a certain number of hours to clear your sidewalks of snow and then you're cited (in theory, at least). In recent snowy weekends I've noticed that hardly anyone seems to feel it's important to shovel the sidewalk in front of their home - not just uptown either. The result is dangerous ice and slush, and pedestrians having yet more difficulties getting around.

Charlotte has no staff or policies about enforcing the few ordinances it does have, such as keeping sidewalks clear of obstructions. A large pile of leaves was composting in the sidewalk in front of the County Services Center annex building on North College Street. (And since 2001 I've been watching some leaves actually turn into compostable soil on a sidewalk on Runnymede between Alexander Graham Middle School and Sharon Road. In addition, I noticed in fall 2008 that a section of sidewalk on Sharon Road, on the back end of a very exclusive and expensive property, was ankle deep in leaves - as though the property owner had no idea it was his/her responsibility to keep it clear.)

And finally, here's something you don't want to stumble over on a dark night uptown. Come on, guys, just get a hacksaw out and cut that one all the way to the pavement. It's on Fourth Street, just a few feet uphill from College.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Envisioning streetcar stops

What should the stops look like for the city's proposed streetcar project? You can weigh in next Thursday, Feb. 18, 6-8 p.m., at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Room 267.

A press release from the city and from the Charlotte Area Transportation System (CATS) quotes John Mryzgod, civil engineer with the city: “It is important we understand what the public would like to see because it gives us the tools to not only design a streetcar stop, but to design a stop that ties in with the fabric of the community.”

(Background: The CATS plan for transit for 2030 includes a streetcar. The city of Charlotte doesn't want to wait that long so it is going to try to build the streetcar without CATS funding. So far, it is working on planning and engineering but doesn't have construction money. It is, though, applying for a federal grant to build a 1.5-mile segment of the proposed 10-mile project.)

I will add my two-cents' worth here, instead of at the hearing:

• Why does a streetcar line need "stops" that must be "designed"? On other streetcar systems I've seen – most recently Toronto, but including Rome and New Orleans – you just got onto the streetcar in the street, as you would a bus. Obviously, thought must go into things such as where it stops, how to sell the tickets (or maybe just use machines that take money, as buses do?) and which stops will be busy enough so benches and shelter might be offered. Other than that, don't spend money on anything more than an easily spotted sign and the same amenities you'd offer at a bus stop.

The stations on the Lynx Line were way, way over-designed, IMHO, and more reminiscent of subway (aka "heavy rail") stops or commuter rail stations. Maybe CATS figured that in a city of transit newbies we'd need something prettier and more noticeable than just a spot to buy tickets and some shelter while we wait.

• That said, shade, shelter from the rain and a spot to sit would be welcome at the busier streetcar stops. So, too, would be system maps plus route and schedule information about the streetcar. The maps should show what major attractions are at each stop – the arena, the county courthouse, police station, Central Piedmont Community College, Presbyterian Hospital, Johnson C. Smith University, etc.

• And I will take this opportunity to lodge a gripe about something that's bugged me for years about CATS bus stops, although to be fair I'll note bus stops are much improved in recent years. But why not a shelter with a roof that shades you from the sun? Bus shelter roofs should be opaque, not tinted plastic. This is the South, for crying out loud. It gets mighty hot here. Shade is vital.
To learn more about the Charlotte Streetcar Project, please visit or try this link.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Without tax reform, is NC bond rating at risk?

State Treasurer Janet Cowell, speaking Wednesday night to the annual dinner for the Centralina (NOT Metrolina) Council of Governments, said something that perked up my ears considerably.
She said, in response to a question from Belmont Mayor Richard Boyce, asking what the role of the state treasurer is in comprehensive tax reform:

Cowell said that in talks with bond rating agencies N.C. officials were told that they want the state to reform its tax structure, so it's more stable. Without reform, she said, we could be put on a watch list. Cowell says she told this to N.C. Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe. "I don't think we have the luxury of doing nothing," she said.

Here's why this should be of interest to more than just tax policy geeks (I plead guilty to being one). The state's revenue system, which depends primarily on income taxes and sales taxes, was set up in the Depression. It doesn't recognize the many economic changes that have taken place in the 80 years since then - the loss of manufacturing, the rise in the service economy, the explosion of online commerce (most of it untaxed). The sales tax is among the most volatile of taxes, fluctuating greatly when times are good, or bad. Income taxes are less volatile but still show big dips and surges depending on the economy's strength. (Update: 4:45 PM - State Sen. Dan Clodfelter tells me that the problem in North Carolina is that income tax revenue is more volatile than sales tax. "The single most volatile, unpredictable, unreliable tax is the corporate income tax, and that fact has nothing to do with exemptions, loopholes, concessions, or anything of that ilk," he e-mailed me. He's a major mover pushing for tax reform and wants to do away with the corporate income tax.)

The state keeps going to those same buckets - sales taxes on goods, and income taxes. A tax reform proposal in the legislature would lower the general sales tax rate but extend the sale tax to some - not all - services. It would do other stuff, such as tinker with business privilege license taxes - which has alarmed the folks at the city of Charlotte, which gets about $16.6 million a year from that little revenue stream.

The upshot of all this is that many states have attempted comprehensive tax reform and few have succeeded. Every business with a loophole fights like mad to keep it. Because the reform would raise some taxes and lower others, some of the "I'm anti-tax" blowhards take up sloganeering against it on grounds that it raises taxes, carefully neglecting to mention that some taxes go down (like, say, the overall sales tax rate).

But for Cowell to weigh in with the specter of bond rating repercussions does imply that folks in the power offices in Raleigh are taking this reform effort seriously. Or at least, that they ought to.
(And if you're still with me here, you are clearly a tax policy geek, too, in which case you'll enjoy the latest State of the States 2010 report from the Pew Center on the States.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Another road diet, this one for South Tryon

This is a street project I can love. The city wants to widen the sidewalks on South Tryon Street over I-277, plus create bike lanes. The picture above is an artist's rendering of what it might look like, looking north toward the skyline. Note the lovely Charlotte Observer building at left, just over the bridge. Here's what it looks like now. The idea is to make South Tryon Street between Stonewall Street (the corner where the Observer office and the Gantt Center sit) and Carson Boulevard (the street formerly known as Independence Boulevard until I-277 was born) more suitable for pedestrians and bicyclists. If you want to hear more, there's a public meeting today at 5:30 p.m. at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, in room 280.

The city intends to start with a 90-demonstration project, starting March 15. They'll temporarily restripe the lanes on the pavement and put up bollards. Tryon will go from four lanes to three - two northbound and one southbound - between Stonewall and Carson. "It's going to require some signal phase tweaking" for the traffic light at Morehead and Tryon, says Jim Kimbler with the Charlotte Department of Transportation.

The goal is to turn the excessively wide four-lanes into three lanes with better sidewalks, especially over the bridge. Currently when you walk over the I-277 bridge you're on a 5-foot back-of-curb sidewalk looking down on traffic zooming below. It is not pleasant. And because I work at that spot I can report that traffic on Tryon is usually sparse. Jay-walking is routine, and easy.

Why a demonstration project? The bridge is state-owned, as is South Tryon south of Morehead, so the N.C. DOT has veto power, and it wants to make sure that the changes won't foul traffic or hurt the bridge. If the state agrees the "street diet" will work, then the city will move forward.

Tryon between Morehead and Carson isn't as wide as the section over I-277. Kimbler said the sidewalks there won't be widened right away, because the city hopes development in the near future will produce better sidewalks. Let us hope that is the case, or that the city will improve the sidewalks if no development ensues in a year or so. The photo here is what the sidewalk is like now. It is not a scene that makes your heart sing.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

1977 Charlotte plan - Back to the future?

From the files of things I found looking up other things:

I was leafing through the dusty old reports my former colleague Tom Bradbury bequeathed, in hopes of finding when Park Road was four-laned, before writing our editorial opinion in the trees vs. sidewalk flap. (I shall note that from what I can tell, most readers prefer the trees.)

The stack of old reports even includes the 1960 Wilbur Smith and Associates "Charlotte Metropolitan Area: A Master Highway Transportation Plan." Cool. Someday I'll read it more thoroughly.

But it was in the 1977 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Thoroughfare Plan, prepared by H.J. "Herman" Hoose, transportation planning coordinator, and W.E. McIntyre, director of the Planning Commission, that I found some interesting recommendations.

They're taken from the 1995 Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 1975. You be the judge of how well Charlotte-Mecklenburg followed those 1975 recommendations (bold-face emphasis mine, in case you are missing the sarcasm):

• To meet the needs of a diverse population, plan for different types and densities of housing in all areas of the community through carefully controlled implementation procedures.
• Plan for all types of services, commercial, governmental and other needs, through carefully controlled implementation procedures to minimize the impact on the land. These to be provided in convenient proximity to residential communities.
• Plan for a more efficient transportation system; for a more equal balance between auto travel and mass transit opportunities.
• Plan for more parks and open spaces to enhance the visual and physical environment of the community.
• Plan for high visual quality of suburban growth with higher density uses located and designed to support mass transit.

Hmmm. About those parks: I heard once that the City of Charlotte went for something like 75 years without buying land for a single park. Not until city and county park departments were combined in the 1990s were any new parks created inside the city. A shout-out to those decades of City Council members throughout the 20th century whose legacies include a sadly park-poor city.

A quick bit of research in the Observer's archives found this from a 1985 article by then-Observer reporter Mae Israel (who's moved back to Charlotte after years at the Washington Post, for those of you who remember her). The piece is about 1985 city candidates' support (or lack of it) for a 2005 plan.

"One policy in the 1995 Plan encouraged city council members to clip the spread of restaurants, car washes and convenience stores along busy streets by denying rezoning requests.
For the most part, they didn't do it. Albemarle Road in east Charlotte, for instance, now is lined with commercial development and choked by traffic. ... (Remember, this was written in 1985.)
"The plan's centerpiece policy called for encouraging metropolitan service centers, or urban villages, to slow suburban sprawl. Concentrating public services, homes and businesses was expected to ease traffic congestion and strain on utilities.
"Politicians never directed city staffers to develop strategies for starting such centers, and the sprawl continued, mostly in southeast Charlotte. "

Of course, I can't be too negative. After all, in 1994 (a short 19 years after the 1975 plan) Charlotte City Council adopted a "Centers and Corridors" concept - not an adopted plan, certainly nothing as specific as actual zoning standards. Since 2008, an effort to update that concept and create more specific policies has been ongoing on in the Planning Department. It hasn't been adopted yet.

I think it takes a heap of patience to be a city planner here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Revamp of transportation planning? (Or, toss the dwarfs?)

TRYON, N.C. - During council discussion about transportation, Mayor Anthony Foxx mentioned a key issue: Among the many challenges to finding federal funding for Charlotte-area transportation projects - streets, roads and mass transit alike - is that the feds are looking closely at how well a region is supporting regional transportation planning.

And the Charlotte region plans its transportation regionally about as well as I can dunk a basketball. Is there any other large metro region with more different "metropolitan planning organizations" - aka, the state-established way to plan transportation? Charlotte region transportation is split among 4 or 5 MPOs and two Rural Planning Organizations. Just one small example of the ridiculousity: The Lake Norman area is considered a Rural Planning Organization and not part of the Charlotte metro transportaton planning.

I've ranted about this previously. Small hope in the offing? At least the mayor and other transportation officials are talking about it. And MPOs must be reconstituted after every census. And NCDOT chief Gene Conti is actually paying attention to Charlotte. NCDOT now has a staffer with an office on the 8th floor of the Char-Meck Govt Center.

If you'd like to know a bit more about the unbelievable insanity of transportation planning in the greater Charlotte region, read this piece from early January - you have to go to the very end to read about what "sounds like a bizarre camaraderie of dwarfs: MUMPO, GUAMPO, CRMPO, GHMPO and RFATS (in the Disney version he'd be the chubby, clumsy one). Let us not forget LNRPO and RRRPO (the small but snarling pirate dwarf?)."

'Differences of opinion' on transit plans

TRYON, N.C. - After the lunch break at the City Council retreat (great blackberry cobbler! - and yes, the Observer journalists pay for their own lunch) talk has turned to transportation.

Hard to blog and take notes and listen simultaneously, but lotta talk about concern in North Meck and on the MTC about whether the North transit line should have been built ahead of the NE line and the streetcar. Of course, no MTC money is being used to build the city's streetcar project, but, as City Manager Curt Walton said, at the recent Metropolitan Transit Commission meeting, city officials showed CATS data to prove that no CATS/MTC money going to the streetcar, "But they didn't believe it." He also cited what he said was "a legitimate difference of opinion" about whether the Northeast line or the North line should be moving forward next.

What Walton didn't say, but that savvy transit officials would, is that the Bush administration's rules on how to rate transit projects' cost-efficiency meant the North corridor did not qualify for any federal money, and the NE corridor just squeaked in by the skin of its teeth. If someone is to be bludgeoned about why the North corridor is not being built, folks might want to be looking toward the Federal Transit Administration and the previous administration. ( Note: The Obama administration has announced that it's changing those rules on how to rate transit projects.)

And CDOT director Danny Pleasant just now made that point, as I was typing the above. Neither the North Corridor nor the streetcar qualified for fed transit funds under the old rules. But things are changing.

'I think that I shall never see ... '

(Something more interesting for you, while the council debates wording of its Focus Area Documents - "public" safety vs. "community" safety vs. "Focus Area Two"):

Those readers interested in the sidewalk v. trees issue from Park Road (story here, editorial here) might enjoy this 1952 exchange of letters between Ray Warren, executive director, Greensboro Housing Authority, and H.L. Medford, Greensboro director of public works.

In a March 18, 1952 letter, Warren asks that a huge oak tree on Florida Street not be removed for a sidewalk. His letter uses some effusive prose, ends with Joyce Kilmer's ode to trees: "I think that I shall never see," etc. etc.

Medford, in a March 21, 1952, response, uses even more florid prose ("The poet, drunk with the goodness of nature, nature as moulded by the hand of God with no adulterations of mimicing man ...") and concludes with a parody of the famous Kilmer poem:

I think that I shall never see
A tree where a tree shouldn't be;
A tree whose hungry roots are pressed
Into the sewer, choking its breast.
A tree that drops its leaves all day
and clogs all drains unless we pray,
A tree that may in summer tear
A block of street and cause grey hair
Its branches on the street are lain,
They must be removed in torrents of rain;
It heaves the walk day by day
An accident occurs: the City must pay!
Nobody loves a tree like me
but I like a tree where a tree should be.

And, Medford's letter concludes: "In other words, Ray, I still think the tree should be removed."

Two immediate observations:
1. I don't think city bureaucrats today write as well, or as poetically.
2. I'm glad municipal public works officials today aren't quite so anti-tree as to think none belong in a city!

How special interests affect city business

TRYON, N.C. - From Charlotte City Council retreat. They've just wrapped up discussion on the council-staff operating agreement. And Michael Barnes (District 4) brought up an interesting point: With all this talk about treating people with mutual respect and sharing information, etc., how do you account for the reality of special interest groups? (I'm paraphrasing there.)
"A lot of people are impacted by special interest groups and they don't tell us – staff and elected officials." Third-party groups will meet with staff, or elected officials, and then things change. "If you're not party to those third-party discussions, you don't know what's happening," Barnes said. "You don't know what the arrangements are between the special interest groups and staff or elected officials."
Ultimately, he said, that's the reality of politics.

He's hit on a key point – and one that hurts mutual trust. If a staffer has been browbeaten by developers (just to take an example), and dials back on a proposal how are elected officials to know? Or, for instance, if elected officials decide to throw some candy toward a civic group they favor, how is staff supposed to deal with that?

But after Barnes brought that up, the honorables just sort of said um, and ended that chapter of the retreat agenda.

Live, it's pols in Tryon (NC, not Street)

I checked in about 8:15 to the Charlotte City Council retreat in Tryon, N.C., where a "winter storm event" is scheduled to hit about midnight. So far, no word that the honorables plan anything other than to gut it out and then slide home on U.S. 74 and I-85 tomorrow afternoon.

This morning they're hashing out the "council/staff operating agreement" which, if you pay attention to issues as they move through the process, is actually rather significant. Maybe. Depends on whether they abide by what they come up with. It repeats the words "mutual respect" several times. As if, perhaps, staff has been feeling beat up on by some elected officials in the past? AND as if, perhaps, elected officials have felt as if staff was treating them like children in the past? (Those are my observations only. Nothing that direct has been said here.)

The issue of whether to include the word "risk" in the document vs. adding the word "creative" came up. CDOT head Danny Pleasant suggested that the document should pair creativity with "risk tolerance." I.e., creativity means you take some risks.

MORE to come, on the role of special interest groups.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

City Council, here we come

Heading out to Tryon, N.C., to attend the Charlotte City Council's annual retreat. Will be blogging and Tweeting (@marynewsom and, sometimes @nakedcityblog) if wireless connections are good. Stay tuned, starting Thursday ayem.