Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sneak a peek at uptown plans

Here are some ideas to chew on:
- An "applied innovation corridor" stretching up North Tryon Street from uptown to UNC Charlotte, along the to-be-built light rail line.
- A "culinary corridor" from Johnson & Wales University to Central Piedmont Community College's new culinary building.
- Create a consortium of the higher education institutions in and near uptown, so they can pool their resources with shared facilities. CPCC, Johnson & Wales, Johnson C. Smith University, Queens University of Charlotte, even UNCC with its new uptown presence could all be players. (Sorry, Davidson College, you're just too far away.)
- With the growing numbers of college students, why not build a shared student union uptown?

That last idea came from a focus group for high school and college students.
The others came from Daniel Iacofano, one of the consultants for the ongoing Charlotte center city planning (public workshop tonight at 5:30 at the Convention Center.) I caught up with Iacofano this morning to hear where he and the consultants are headed in their thinking on the Charlotte Center City 2020 Plan.

He talked a lot about the economic underpinnings, and he offered some of the many ideas the California-based consulting group MIG (the I is for Iacofano) are tossing around. He'll talk about some of them tonight at the public workshop.

Cheryl Myers, the Charlotte Center City Partners senior veep of planning and development, said the consultants had gotten 80 ideas from Center City 2020 Plan working groups alone. (Disclosure: Observer publisher Ann Caulkins is a co-chair of the steering committee for the 2020 Plan. She doesn't know that I'm writing this, or what I'm writing. And I have been supportive of having uptown plans since I've been writing opinions for the Observer.)

Iacofano said the I-277 loop is "kind of a noose" around uptown.
I asked, "How do you tame the loop?"
Iacofano: "There's a menu of interventions." They could range from capping it - there are places where that could work - to simply enhancing the connectivity under and over it with better lighting, artwork, and so on. Other possibilities would be to put development closer to the highway, or to put things under the freeway overpasses.

Tonight, expect a lot of attention to the issue of creating "seams" rather than "dividers" between uptown and the neighborhoods that surround it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

N.C. adds Charlotte-Raleigh trains

Starting June 5 two more passenger trains will run between Charlotte and Raleigh, the N.C. Department of Transportation announced today. One will leave Charlotte at 12:30 p.m., arriving in Raleigh at 3:43 p.m. The other will leave Raleigh at 11:50 a.m., arriving in Charlotte at 3:02 p.m.

That will make a total of six trains between the two cities. The Carolinian, which leaves Charlotte at 7:30 a.m., continues past Raleigh to Selma, Wilson, Rocky Mount, Richmond, Washington and New York. The Piedmont, which leaves Raleigh at 6:50 a.m., arrives in Charlotte at 10:02 a.m., then heads back to Raleigh, leaving Charlotte at 5:15 p.m., arriving 8:28 p.m.

I spoke today with Patrick Simmons, director of the N.C. DOT's Rail Division, who mentioned that, among other things, they've been interested to see that students living in Raleigh are now commuting to college in the Triad on the daily trains. (The Greensboro stop is very near N.C. A&T State.) I also asked when we'd see a passenger train from Charlotte to the beach and the answer, in a nutshell and delivered much more diplomatically, was not in my lifetime.

No, it isn't high-speed. But I figure anything that can get some traffic off of I-85 and N.C. 49 is a good thing. See for schedules and train information and information on buying tickets.

Parking, planning and bypasses

Today's post is a grab bag of interesting items for your perusal.

1. Envisioning development, and making planning more accessible to citizens. The Town of Cary has created a Virtual Interactive Planner. Here's what Dan Matthys, communications and information planner with the town, had to say about why they did it:
Our development process is actually pretty complex, and it involves processes that have a lot of "it depends" and "maybes," and it wasn’t clear to our citizens when they had a chance to speak and when they didn’t have a chance, how long the process was or what the different steps are to that process. So the mayor asked us to develop something that would be more intuitive, and we decided we needed something fancier than some sort of PowerPoint decision-making tool.
Read more about it, on this story, "Making Planning More Accessible."
(Hat tip to for that one.)

2. Parking space census. The City of San Francisco is probably the first in the country to have actually counted ALL its parking spaces. Here's a piece on the effort. The magic number, it appears, is 442,541 spaces, 280,000 of which are on-street spaces. Its part of a federally funded parking management experiment ("SF's parking experiment to test Shoup's traffic theories") in which the city will experiment with dynamic parking demand management, intended to tell people where the parking spaces are at any given moment so they don't circle and circle, searching. The experiment is funded with a $19.8 million federal congestion mitigation grant.
Parking is a conundrum for most cities. "How we love/hate our parking lots" was my recent op-ed on the topic.

3. USA Today tells us "More cities ban digital billboards." Among U.S. cities that have banned the billboards: Durham; Knoxville, Tenn.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Dallas and Fort Worth and Houston, all in Texas.

And Charlotte? It had the chance to ban them several years ago and after a lengthy stakeholder process (see my stakeholder thoughts "Pulling back the stakeholder curtain" here) opted to allow them.

4. The South Tryon Street road diet experiment has begun ("Another road diet, this one for South Tryon"). I know this because it is right in front of The Observer building, and because I have walked to work twice since blogging about it and I can verify that the bollards are up, AND that Hill Street between South Tryon and Church Street is now two-way.

5. Your highway dollars at work. Ground was broken today on the Sanford bypass. Here's a photo of pols with gold shovels. Sanford is a town of about 27,000 people. The fact that our tax dollars are building it a bypass should raise many, many questions in your mind. The Good Roads State has become the State of Pointless Bypasses.

My theory: No city gets more than one bypass. (Monroe, Shelby et al have failed to control their land use development and have both clogged their bypasses - both of them U.S. 74, as it happens - and in so doing managed to all but gut their downtowns. They aren't the only towns that have done this, they're just two I'm familiar with. And both want new, bypass-bypasses.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

High water bills? Whose fault really?

Who's really overseeing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities?

Obviously, City Manager Curt Walton is the top boss. And the Charlotte City Council is Walton's boss.

But if you've followed city government very long you've noticed the elected officials tend to let CMUD (technically it's CMU) have its own way. That's because CMU is an "enterprise fund" - like the airport - and runs off its own revenues. Because council members don't have to raise taxes for CMU, they haven't given it much scrutiny. (Yes, I know that fees come out of people's pockets, too. But trust me, fee increases don't raise nearly the political wars that tax increases do.)

So who scrutinizes CMU? I took at look at the CMUD Advisory Committee? That's a seven-member committee (3 members appointed by the city, 3 by the county, 1 by the mayor). They are to "review and make recommendations to City Council" concerning: all water/sewer capital improvement programs, changes in policies for extending water/sewer service as well as proposed changes in how fees are determined, and pretty much anything else.

Why is this important? Many cities have used utilities as a way to strategically manage growth. It's less expensive, in the long run, not to have to build and maintain water/sewer lines over every square foot of land. But Charlotte's powerful developers have never wanted any land set aside from development. Shrinking the supply of land would raise the price of their raw material - undeveloped land. What better way to ensure that no land got set aside than to control the CMUD Advisory Committee?

Another reason it's important: It's in the best interests of this whole urban region to encourage more water conservation. What sucks up a disproportionate amount of unnecessary water use?Expansive suburban lawns. But suburban subdivision developers have little interest in not offering suburban lawns.

So who's on this board? It's required to have a real estate developer, a water and/or sewer contractor, a civil engineer, a financial expert, a representative from the non-Charlotte towns in the county, and a neighborhood leader.

I took a look at the board. It's revealing.

The chairman is James Merrifield, a developer with Merrifield Partners, formerly with Crosland. Last year he replaced former chairman Charles Teal, an owner of Saussy Burbank, a developer.

The two engineers are Robert Linkner with HDR and Erica Van Tassel with Kimley-Horn. The contractor is Marco Varela of CITI-LLC, a systems design company. Varela was mentioned in an Observer article in several years back (before his 2008 appointment) as selling wastewater treatment equipment to the city.

So far it's rather predictable. You'd want some civil engineering expertise, for sure, as well as developer expertise. Yet it's worth noting that engineering firms are generally hired by developers so they'd have little business reason to tick off potential clients by, say, pushing for using your utility department as part of a growth strategy that might involve setting some areas aside from development. Even if that would probably have been a lot more fiscally sound than stretching water-sewer pipes all over Mecklenburg County and asking all the rate-payers to fund those capital and operating costs.

But what about the people who are presumably supposed to add the non-developer points of view - the neighborhood leader, the towns representative?

The "neighborhood leader" turns out to be a Charlotte Chamber executive, Keva Walton. I suppose he lives in a neighborhood, but you wouldn't exactly expect him to be a voice in opposition to any business-developer interests.

And that towns representative? It's David Jarrett, vice president at Rhein Medall Interests, a Charlotte-based developer.

The end.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Atlanta hears Charlotte's footsteps gaining

Seems Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed a bit worried that Charlotte may be gaining on Hotlanta.

Reed apparently told the Hungry Club (a civic discussion group at the Butler Street YMCA) that Atlanta's in danger of falling behind Charlotte if the city and the State of Georgia don’t make strides on transportation, education, water and the arts. All this is from the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Jim Galloway and his blog.

Reed also noted that the N.C. Piedmont got some big chunks of federal high-speed rail money, and Atlanta didn't.

For more fun, read the comments on Galloway's blog, e.g.: "Not that Atlanta’s a model city, but I’ve been to Charlotte many times and it’s boring as hell. It may be on the rise, but there’s nothing interesting about Charlotte either historically or culturally."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On schools and cities

What follows is my Twitterstream from a panel discussion today at a luncheon put on by the nonprofit Teach for America. On the panel were Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp and moderator Mike Collins of WFAE's "Charlotte Talks" morning show.

It should give you a sense of the panel discussion, as well as a sense of what it's like to read an event being covered by Twitter. (Follow me on Twitter at @marynewsom.) Despite what you may hear, Twitter is not all about what you had for lunch today.

- At Teach for America lunch/panel talk w. Supt Gorman, Mayor Foxx & Wendy Kopp, TFA founder. Wanna know who's here? Stay tuned.
- Johnny & Deborah Harris, CMS' chmn Eric Davis, Tom Tate. Also Harvey Gantt, NC Sen Ruth Samuelson. UWay's Jane McIntyre. [Foundation for the Carolinas' Michael Marsicano and Laura Meyer, MeckEd's Kathy Ridge, POST's Claire Tate were also there, among others. The speakers started and I stopped tallying the crowd.]
- TFA Teacher Emily White [teaches 10th-grade English at Phillip O. Berry high school] tells moving tale of student w. drug mom who's teaching HER to read. She [White, not the druggie mom] gets standing ovation.
- Gorman: 60% of CMS kids who are below grade level are in 25% of CMS schools.
- Moderator Mike Collins asks the gutsy question - Was it like that before end of court-ordered integration?
- Gorman response to deseg question: "Ah-ah-ah-ah." When thru stuttering says "I wasn't here then." ...
- Gorman's recovery: something abt how it wasn't all that great for a lotta kids back then either. & "I totally dodged your question, Mike."
- Foxx gives shoutout to his 9th grade algebra teacher, David Butler (namesake of Butler Hi.) [Then I got a Twitter note from another West Charlotte alum, Decker Ngongang (@ngongang), saying "that was my Geometry teacher yr before he passed, push ups if you were late for class." No word on whether Decker, or Foxx, ever had to do push ups.]
- Foxx says need for strong schools is one reason he's asking #cltcc [Twitter lingo for Charlotte City Council] to look at city's housing locational policy.
- Foxx (Teach4America panel) says achievement "gets in the water in the school" & an important factor in success is when kids mentor others.
- Wendy Kopp, T4A founder: We need longer school day & flexibility for principals.
- Gorman: "staggering" amount of budget reductions will be on the table at sch bd bjt talks this afternoon. #cmsbrd [Twitter lingo for CMS school board]
- Gorman: Yes, there's resistance to T4A from some teachers and some principals.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why don't more women bicycle?

My recent recounting of the 4.2-mile, 80-minute walk to work ("A Morning Walk") brought a Twitter response from @JamesWillamor: You could make it in 15 to 20 minutes or so on a bicycle.

I tried to explain to him about the problems of riding on Providence Road, and the problems of having to wear office garb at the office and tried a delicate mention (especially difficult with the 140-character nature of Twitter) of the issue of profuse sweat from biking up that long long Morehead Street hill.

He persisted: Plenty of office garb on bicyclists in Europe and Asia. "Humidity," I replied. He said there's plenty of humidity in Japan and China.

But maybe there's more to my reluctance than the logistical problems of trying to bicycle in nice clothes, or in a disinclination to being killed by bicycling on Providence Road. (I have imagined elaborate and circuitous routes through the meandering heart of Myers Park but there's no way to avoid riding on some parts of Providence and either busy Morehead or busy Stonewall.)

Could my reluctance be, in part, because I'm female?

I got an e-mail today that originated with transportation planner John Cock (correction, no longer with The Lawrence Group, now with Alta Planning), notifying people of a free Webinar (register here) from the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals. The topic: "Writing Women Back Into Bicycling: Changing Transportation Culture to Encourage More Women to Cycle." The blurb: "Some say that transportation culture will change when more women are cycling. What's the key to making that change happen?"

Indeed, what would help me reconsider? My quick list:

First, safe bike lanes wide enough so I didn't feel I'd put my life in danger.

Second, a chain guard to keep the grease from getting onto my office clothes. Because who wants to have to carry good office garb in a backpack? That adds even more weight to a pack where you've already had to stash your office shoes. Plus in a pack, your good clothes would wrinkle.

Third, a good place to shower at the office. I can walk and still be presentable if it's not 80 degrees outside. No way I could bicycle without showering. (Technically, because of where I work, I could shower at the Dowd Y. But that's not a generic solution for all women.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lipstick on a 'snout house'?

You've heard of snout houses, I assume? Those are houses where the garage projects so far forward it overpowers the rest of the architecture. Developers like them because you can put a garage (a selling point) on a much smaller lot. Architects hate them, and planners tend to look askance at whole neighborhoods where it's easy to tell that the cars are happy but hard to tell whether any people live there. They're much more common in the lower end of the price spectrum for single-family housing, but you'll sometimes see very high-end snouts. I know of one that some neighbors have dubbed the "Taj Garage."

I've read articles about how in some neighborhoods, the garage-with-open-door has become a sort of front porch, where neighbors gather to drink beer, play cards, etc.

But what do you do when you have to keep the garage door shut? Private enterprise (European-style) to the rescue. Now you can buy a garage door photo tarp. The company, from Munich, Germany, is The garage door tarp pictured atop this blog would set you back 289 Euros (about $393).
For a chuckle of the day, check out their wares and imagine them decorating garages all over town.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A morning walk

I walked to work today.

Big deal, you say? Maybe so. But it didn't seem like such a big deal. It's 4.2 miles and took me 80 minutes. While walking I called a couple of friends to chat and told them what I was doing (to explain away the panting on the uphill parts). Both acted as if I was bonkers, and both offered to come get me if I needed help.

I didn't. I'm in decent walking shape – walk an hour a day most weekend days, and 30 minutes or so most weekdays – but this was, I admit, a bit daunting. I had to plan it out, choosing a day where I didn't need my car for work, with a good weather forecast, and then think seriously what to wear so I'd be comfortable yet not have to change clothes at work. I put my office shoes in my backpack.

I figure the walk only took about 30 minutes more than my usual morning routine. I typically walk 30 minutes anyway. The drive to work and walk from the parking lot take about 20. So it wasn't hugely time-consuming.

You see more when you walk, of course. I saw daffodils and crocuses and some fruit trees (cherry? plum?) blooming. I saw two places that were complete barriers to anyone wheelchair bound. They should be fixed.

One was the sidewalk in front of the shops at Morehead and McDowell. A utility pole narrows the sidewalk to about 18 inches. Anyone in a wheelchair coming from the south would be completely blocked and have to go in the street. The other was closer to the Y. Repair work at a corner (was it Myrtle?) blocked the sidewalk. I could walk around it, up a grassy hill where a path was being worn away into the grass. No one in a wheelchair could have done that.

I didn't get run over, though I had to make eye contact with motorists a lot and a couple of times realized that state law giving me the right of way in crosswalks was irrelevant, when drivers were complete unaware I existed because they never even looked. It felt like wearing Harry Potter's invisibility cloak.

I walked mostly along Morehead Street, Queens Road and Providence Road. It was rush hour so traffic was heavy. Almost every vehicle I saw carried only a driver and no passengers. Maybe 5 to 10 percent had a second person, typically a child. All this on a beautiful spring-like morning with a shining sun and temperatures climbing from the 40s into the 50s as I walked. I started to wonder why more people weren't walking. Yes, I admit it, the last 15 minutes were not so fun. I wasn't puffing but I was tired. My shirt got damp, especially under the backpack. But a few minutes at my desk revived me nicely.

And here's my reward. It's from a new book I've finished, called "Carjacked": "Just an hour of walking at a moderate pace burns 207 calories off the average woman and 244 calories off the average man."

No moral to this story, just sharing the experience, in hopes others might decide to give it a try someday, if they can.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The retail horror story we face

This country is facing a retail crash that will make the housing crash look small, says McDuffie "Mac" Nichols, who grew up in Charlotte and is a South Meck alum. He's talking to the N.C. State Urban Design conference in Raleigh.

"The credit crisis on housing is nothing compared to what's coming up this summer over commercial loans," he says. A slew of loans for commercial development are all coming due this summer. And the projects are failed. "Every mixed-use category is in distress," he said.

The underlying problem: The U.S. has built way, way more retail space than we need. In the U.S. we now have 20 square feet of retail space per person, he says. Compare that to Great Britain,with 2.5 square feet per person. That one drew audible gasps and an undercurrent of aghast comment from the crowd.

One-third of all enclosed shopping malls in this country are obsolete, he says. Nichols, who now lives in the Washington area, grew up in Charlotte and graduated from South Meck. (He's among the consultants the City of Charlotte has hired in recent years to study Eastland Mall.)

The challenge will be what in the world you do with all those dead retail sites - vast surface parking lots with a building in the middle. That will be one huge urban design challenge of the next decade.

Other needs he's citing for economically resilient cities:
- strong, high-quality public education.
- much better transit networks, which will reduce the cost of development if you don't have to spend so much for parking. (See my op-ed today on "How we love/hate our parking lots").

2:25 p.m - More from Mac Nichols (he's great): He advises designers/consultants to always say "Parking will be an issue," because A) They'll be right, and B) Everyone will be forewarned, because parking is going to be an issue everywhere, for a long time. But, he tells the crowd of designers, make parking work for you.

Don't overbuild just because someone loves an idea, he says.

"Economics is the foundation of design solutions." You've got to understand the underlying economics. Otherwise it's like designing a landscape without understanding the topography."

Charlottean gives his recipe for cities

City planning has a lot in common with brewing your beer at home, says McDuffie "Mac" Nichols, who grew up in Charlotte and is a South Meck alum. He's talking to the N.C. State Urban Design conference. In home-brewing, he says, you can exercise great creativity, but you're always bound to the unavoidable laws of chemistry.

The same's true with cities. You have to take into account the unavoidable laws of economics and how cities work.

How to create and maintain a city that's economically viable over time? It's not about get rich quick, he says. You need economic diversity. Example to avoid: Detroit. Diversify before things are gone. Cities that depend on "seasonalities" such as beach or ski resorts are vulnerable, too.

Nichols told me at a reception last night he's one of the consultants who has worked with the City of Charlotte to study the Eastland Mall situation (several years ago, before the city gave up its options to buy). I asked him whether there was any hope for decent retail in downtown Charlotte, where much of the existing retail space has been torn down, and the new spaces aren't adjacent to each other. (See "Charlotte's uptown shopping dilemma.") His reply: "Shook." They should just let Terry Shook [of Charlotte's Shook Kelley Design] draw it and then do what he draws, Nichols said.

Another retail tidbit: You need retail (i.e. stores) in any mixed-use project, but you shouldn't let it dictate the way the project grows and is built.

Destroying the 'Drive 'Til You Qualify' myth

RALEIGH – I’m blogging today from the N.C. State Urban Design Forum. Topic du jour: “Creating Value: Designing for Resilient Cities.”

9:55 a.m. HUD official Shelley Poticha just finished speaking. Her remarks have a clear bearing on the patterns of city growth all over the country. She spent several minutes destroying the "Drive 'Til You Qualify" myth – the real estate sales push to just get farther and farther out from a city until housing costs drop to where you can afford a mortgage.
But the current housing bust, she says, is showing the failure of that myth. There's a convergence of evidence that a host of problems – job loss, obesity, asthma, racial and economic segregation, loss of wildlife habitat, "our dangerous dependence on foreign oil" – all stem at heart from the "dangerous mismatch between where we live and where we work."

"All the evidence is now aligning to show this "Drive 'Til you Qualify" myth ... is one of the single most destructive decisions we ever made," she said.

10:55 a.m. – Something to think about. Speaker Jim Held of UrbanGreen, a real estate adviser and planner, talks about the need to think of cities not as a place but as systems. Systems regenerate and evolve. As with any living natural system, they need diversity and connectivity, among other things. He showed a subsidized housing project in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood with several hundred units. "Mono-cropping" has not led to a resilient neighborhood," he said. Plans now call for re-establishing the street grid of 100 years ago, before modernists in mid-century planned the disconnected street patterns.

AND - He talked about ways to nurture entrepreneurs - are you listing, Tom Flynn of the City of Charlotte? Flynn, of the city's Neighborhood and Business Services Department, has been tasked with seeing what more the city can do to help small businesses.

Here's one idea –food entrepreneurs. A nonprofit in San Francisco, La Cocina, aims (next part is from its Web site) "to cul­ti­vate low-income food entre­pre­neurs as they for­mal­ize and grow their busi­nesses by pro­vid­ing afford­able com­mer­cial kitchen space, industry-specific tech­ni­cal assis­tance and access to mar­ket oppor­tu­ni­ties."

With the huge and growing thirst for local foods in Charlotte, surely there's a way to help start-ups find commercial kitchens and find more markets.

The cost to live in exurbia

RALEIGH – 9:15 a.m. -- I’m blogging today from the N.C. State Urban Design Forum. Topic du jour: “Creating Value: Designing for Resilient Cities.”

Excellent quote, to start the day, from NCSU College of Design Dean Marvin Malecha: The design of a community begins with the measure of the first human step.

9:30 a.m. Now Shelley Poticha of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. She's been active in New Urban and transportation and other community design initiatives for years. (She's speaking via Skype.) She has offered some fascinating tidbits.

Costs in Raleigh-Durham to living on the exurban edge: She ran some numbers on the combined household costs of housing and transportation in this area. For people living in the core city, she said, combined household/transportation costs are about 34-38 percent of income. But here's the amazing fact. For people living on the farthest edges of Wake County, combined housing/transportation costs can be as high as 75 percent of household income.

Federal revolution, under the radar?: 9:45 a.m. – Poticha is describing what has been an amazing, under-the-radar transformation at the federal level, where Shaun Donovan at HUD, with help from Ron Sims (former county exec for King County, Wash., i.e. Seattle) and the EPA and US DOT are – get this – trying to work together to remove federal barriers that keep cities and states from smarter urban growth/planning, or what she described as formerly being "a backwater set of issues."

They're trying to change some of the dumb stuff that doesn't require legislation. An example she cited: Used to be that HUD protocols made it impossible to use federal housing money for developing on a brownfield (former industrial) site. They changed that. Now, if you can get the EPA certificate that your site is OK, then you can get HUD money.
Another example: Used to be if your apartment building qualified for Dept. of Energy weatherization money, then you had to fill out a whole other bunch of forms for HUD. Now, no extra HUD forms needed.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Extremely cool Charlotte urban video goes viral

Of course those you who you regularly attend the monthly Civic By Design meetings (second Tuesdays at the Levine Museum, 5:30 p.m.) already saw this months ago, but for those who haven't, there's an extremely cool video of Charlotte's urban history that's in the process of going viral online The last 3 minutes of it were featured on Huffington Post.

I've heard from a number of folks around the country asking about it. Rob Carter of Brooklyn was an artist in residence at the McColl Center for Visual Art in 2007, and made the video using Charlotte's history as its theme. Be sure to listen, not just watch. The sounds are important to the experience. For instance, Charlotteans will recognize the buzzing noise, as the crown is being kicked offscreen, as that of a hornets nest. Other viewers may not know that General Cornwallis, whose troops occupied the hamlet of Charlotte for a few months during fall 1780, referred to his hostile reception as a "hornets nest of rebellion."

Watching the NFL stadium fly in and land is fun, too. The stadium's design and suburban-office-park-esque setting in what should be urban territory downtown led some local urban designers (those not on the team's payroll, at least) to complain that it looked like a flying saucer had landed.

Happy viewing.

Here is a clip from the longer video linked above:

Metropolis by Rob Carter - Last 3 minutes from Rob Carter on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

REBIC's long list of 'No's'

Several months back I had coffee with the affable Andy Munn, policy director for the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, aka REBIC, the most influential local real estate and development lobbying group. I got the idea that the group, which in the past has had (my words here, not his) a "Just Say No" reputation among local government staffers and environmental and planning activists, might be trying to change its image a bit.

Fast forward to Monday night's City Council meeting ("Foxx: Be flexible with developers"), where REBIC members were out in force. Mayor Anthony Foxx had put onto the agenda a staff presentation about a cluster of new measures that REBIC doesn't like:
- the proposed (not yet adopted) stronger tree ordinance.
- the Urban Street Design Guidelines policy (not yet adopted into ordinances and thus, not required of developers, either)
- the post-construction controls ordinance (the only one developers currently must actually follow). Many big guns were in attendance: Bill Daleure of Crosland Inc., Ned Curran of the Bissell Companies, as well as Charlotte Chamber honcho Bob Morgan.

As the Observer editorial board opined this morning ("Don't let 'flexible' morph into 'gutting' ") just building cheap isn't always smart. When you add in the future costs to taxpayers to retrofit and expand your street network/restore polluted streams/mitigate flooding -- i.e. millions of dollars -- it makes the estimated increment of $1,900 to $2,900 to the cost of new housing (spread over a 30-year mortgage) seem a bit less of a problem.

That said, a city that didn't look seriously at the combined effects of its regulations on the costs of building would be irresponsible. The point is to look at the big picture and make intelligent choices, as best you can. Further, I hear developers of all types, not just the REBIC types, complain about bureaucratic nightmares dealing with multiple government agencies on complicated plans and technical issues. So complaints about lack of flexibility and/or inconsistencies resonate with me.

But here's a problem: Even when REBIC has legitimate points it's virtually impossible to sort them out from the cloud of anti-everything rhetoric it's been floating for something like 30 years.

I recall a famous scene when then-REBIC executive director Mark Cramer spoke at a City Council debate in 1998 over whether to require developers to build more sidewalks in new subdivisions. Of course REBIC opposed it, because it would force developers to spend more money on subdivisions. (Though I must say I doubt they had to shrink their profit margins.) Cramer, after listening to pleas for good sidewalks on behalf of children, the elderly and people in wheelchairs, noted that sidewalks are good things. But, he added: "You can have too much of a good thing.''

I think REBIC and its close relative, the Chamber's land use committee, would have more credibility in many of its complaints if it hadn’t, over the years, fought virtually every environmental and growth-management measure proposed by local governments, dating to before the term Smart Growth was even invented.

It's a long list. It includes: the city bicycle plan, the floodplain ordinance, the stream buffer ordinance, watershed ordinances, the aforementioned sidewalk requirements, a county farmland preservation measure, a pilot project in Huntersville to preserve rural land and efforts a few decades ago to channel the overdevelopment in South Charlotte into other areas by limiting where new sewer lines are built. (That last is a classic planning technique being used all over the country – but not in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Developer John Crosland Jr. simply got state government to give him permits for private sewer plants and kept on building subdivisions.)

Quite an impressive list of opposition, I'd say. And to be fair I will note that anyone is free to lobby any elected official on anything. When environmental regulations and planning initiatives are gutted or stalled for years, and when city staff is ordered to "compromise with developers" over already-compromised proposals – a tradition staffers hired from other metro areas have told me privately they're shocked to hear here – it's elected officials who do that, not REBIC.