Friday, July 30, 2010

Remembering a designer who made a difference

Touring the soon-to-open greenway along Little Sugar Creek on Wednesday "Long-ignored creek debuts in starring role," (slideshow here) my guides pointed me to some carved inscriptions in the pavement at each end of the pedestrian bridge that allows people to walk from Harding Place over the creek to the greenway. They were put there by the folks at LandDesign, in memory of the late Brad Davis.

Brad was a champion for parks, as well as good design. I met him shortly after I started writing my columns on city matters, and I respected the care he put into his work and designs. He was a long-time member of the county's Park and Recreation Commission and helped found its nonprofit Partners for Parks. He died of cancer in 2007.

His colleagues at LandDesign, where he was a partner, donated money for a small memorial to him at the greenway. If you walk across the bridge you'll see his words. I particularly liked those on the Harding Place side:
"Attaining good design is a real struggle between the idea of creating great spaces and meeting the regulations for public health, safety and welfare. When in doubt, do great design."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why conservatives should love streetcars

"'For cities, conservatives' banner should read, 'Bring Back the Streetcars!' "

Read on. It's from an article in The American Conservative, "What's so conservative about federal highways?" by William S. Lind, director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and coauthor of Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation. Reader Mason Hicks, who grew up in Lancaster County, S.C., but now lives in Paris (France) shared it with me recently.

Lind's piece talks about the folly of a national transportation system that requires us to depend on foreign oil, and on only one transportation mode, and points out how it was government intervention in the marketplace (via billions spent on highways) that helped kill the passenger rail business.

And here's another provocative excerpt: "The greatest threat to a revival of attractive public transportation is not the libertarian transit critics. It is an unnecessary escalation of construction costs, usually driven by consultants who know nothing of rail and traction history, are often in cahoots with the suppliers, and gold-plate everything."

He writes of the importance of "avoiding the foxfire allure of high technology," and says, "All the technology needed to run electric railways, and run them fast, was in place 100 years ago. It was simple, rugged, dependable, and relatively cheap. In the 1930s, many of America’s passenger trains, running behind steam locomotives, were faster than they are now. (After World War II, the federal government slapped speed limits on them.)"

It's a provocative piece, especially in light of the Charlotte debate over whether the city should accept a $25 million Federal Transit Administration grant to help it start building a proposed streetcar line. Here's what the Charlotte Observer's editorial board said in today's newspaper:
"Think streetcar vote was hard? Just wait."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Weak mayor? Pat McCrory opines. In California.

Hmm. Ex-Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican who's almost certainly running for governor again in 2012, has written an opinion piece for, of all things, the Sacramento Bee:
"Strong mayor or not, it's still the bully pulpit."

It seems Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is pushing to turn the office, in California's capital city, into a full-time, strong mayor form of government. And the local paper there (a McClatchy Co. sister paper to the Obs) requested the opinion of another non-fulltime mayor.

For those of you not deeply into local politics, here's a primer on strong/weak mayor systems: In cities such as Charlotte that have a "council-manager" form of government, the mayor's doesn't hire or fire anyone or run any city departments. A professional city manager does that. The council makes the decisions such as policy, and hiring/firing the city manager. In Charlotte the mayor doesn't even have a vote on the council, except in a few instances (ties, rezonings with protest petitions, etc.) Charleston's Joe Riley, Boston's Tom Menino, Chicago's Richard Daley are all "strong mayors," – they function as the chief city administrator.

McCrory concludes: "Regardless of the powers to the mayor's office it will be the mayor who will get the blame or the credit for what happens in a city. Deserved or not."

There are pros and cons to each type of government. Strong mayors can be more effective in changing city policy – witness Daley's success at and worldwide acclaim for repositioning Chicago as a "green" city. City managers tend not to want to be strong enough leaders to get out in front of those who hire/fire them, which can lead to a sense that no one is leading the city – which was a recurring criticism during McCrory's tenure. And with the job being a (wink-wink) "part-time" one, the post is only going to attract people who are wealthy, retired, self-employed, have very understanding bosses or have a job or whose pay is so low the mayor's pay is a step up.

On the other hand, strong mayors can use their power to reward political allies and punish foes, even to a greater extent than "weak mayors." (They can all do that, believe me.) And an inept or crooked strong mayor can do a lot more damage than an inept or crooked weak mayor.

My conclusion is that I'd like a strong mayor system if we had a mayor I liked and I'd hate it if we had a mayor I didn't. And that's not really all that helpful.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Streetcar, more tree protection before City Council today

City Council members today get to deal with some controversial stuff. At tonight's 6:30 p.m. meeting they're to vote on whether to accept the $25 million federal grant to start building a streetcar line. At their 5 p.m. dinner meeting they'll hear a briefing on the controversial tree ordinance revisions, five years in the making. And at a 3:30 p.m. committee meeting, the panel will hear about the controversial urban street design guidelines, which have been in the works for eight years. (Memo to government staff: If you have the temerity to propose something developers don't like, be prepared to spend many, many years on it.)

For all you local government aficionados, here's a link to what the council will be asked to vote on for the streetcar. And here's a link to two pro-con pieces that ran Saturday on the Observer's op-ed page, from council members Edwin Peacock III (he's voting no, he says) and David Howard (why he'll vote yes). And here's what the Observer's editorial board said about the streetcar on July 18, in "Streetcar is sound strategy, not silly frill."

Tree ordinance: At its 5 p.m. dinner meeting the council's to be briefed on the proposed strengthening of the city's tree ordinance – the part of the ordinance that applies to commercial development, including multifamily housing, but not the part for single-family subdivisions. Just to show you how things work, here's a list of the members of the stakeholder committee that has been hashing out the tree ordinance for FIVE YEARS.

I've put in red the members who represent developers or businesses whose major clients are developers. (Granted, just because you get paid by developers, or are one, it doesn't mean you're not sometimes environmentally minded. But I'm just saying.) I'm not sure how to categorize Henry Wallace from Duke Power, a utility company. It's a subsidiary of Duke Energy, which also co-owns Crescent Resources, which was a major developer around here until it had to file for bankruptcy.

I've put in blue the members who are government staff, and therefore are expected to be responsive to ALL members of the public, i.e. not say things that may tick off developers.

In green are the stakeholder members who aren't affiliated with the real estate and development industry and aren't local government staff.

Don McSween (City Arborist), Mary Stauble (Mecklenburg County Solid Waste), Lisa Hagood (ESP Associates, Designer), Lee McLaren (DPR Associates, Subdivision Steering Committee), Henry Wallace (Duke Power, Utilities), Tim Morgan/Andy Munn (REBIC, Home Builders Association), Bob Miller (Camas Associates, Architect), John Porter (Charter Properties, Developer/ Charlotte Apartment Association), Chris Buchanan (Moore & Van Allen, Tree Advisory Committee), Rick Roti (Sierra Club), Christa Rodgers (Parks and Recreation).

Even more revealing is to check out the cost-benefit analysis subgroup, whose mission was to apply the proposed changes to some development sites to see how much they might add to the cost of development. (It's amazing anyone was left at the Crosland or Childress Klein offices while this group was meeting):

Jon Morris (Beacon Partners), Clifton Coble(Bissell Development), Chris Kirby (Carlson Real Estate), Tom Lannin(Chestnut Consulting), Tricia Noble (Childress Klein), Sue Freyler(Cole Jenest & Stone), Bill Daleure (Crosland), Mike Wiggins(Crosland),Scott Henson (Crosland), Steve Mauldin(Crosland), Ju-Ian Shen (Design Resource Group), Al Harris (LSG), Debra Glennon (LSG), Jay Banks(Kimley-Horn), Ed Schweitzer (Land Design), Jeff Orsborn (OSG), Kavita Gupta (Perkins and Will) ,Brandon Plunkett(The John R. McAdams Co), Brian Crutchfield (Timmons Group), Terry Brennan (Trinity Partners), Paul Devine (Childress Klein), Landon Wyatt (Childress Klein), David Haggart (Childress Klein),Chris Daly (Childress Klein),
Trey Dempsey (Lincoln Harris).

Does it make sense to have plenty of site-plan, run-the-numbers expertise on a cost-benefit analysis group? Of course. But if you've ever wondered why run-of-the-mill Charlotteans think the city's government processes are dominated by developers, that's why.

Street designs: At 3:30 p.m. today the council's Transportation and Planning Committee (David Howard, Patsy Kinsey, Warren Cooksey and Michael Barnes) hears presentations on the Urban Street Design Guidelines, and the Centers Corridors & Wedges Growth Framework. The committee is being asked to make a recommendation to the full council on the CC&W Framework. If you haven't heard much about it, you're not alone. It's not been getting many headlines. Probably because it doesn't really change things very much. Or if it does, I haven't been able to find that section in it.

The street design guidelines have been controversial. Developers (who'll have to pay to put more streets and sidewalks into their developments, which takes away from developable land) contend the street requirement will raise costs. They've also acquired a sudden concern for storm water runoff (a concern they didn't seem to feel very powerfully when the city and county were trying to adopt watershed protections and floodplain regulations in the 1990s) and they're noting that all those sidewalks and extra streets will create more impervious surfaces. As if all the rooftops and driveways and surface parking lots they're building don't.

Short block lengths are a huge help to people trying to get around the city on foot. The city's attempt to shrink the allowable block lengths in its new development is admirable. Further, the USDG policy that was adopted in 2007 already compromised the transportation experts' earlier proposal, after developers complained. Here's hoping the City Council, as it deals with the staff's current project to codify the policy into the local ordinances, doesn't force yet another "compromise" of the already compromised guidelines.

Here's a link to the PowerPoint presentations that show the Centers Corridors & Wedges Growth Framework, and to the Urban Street Design Guidelines.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Art, Avett Brothers and "Freemore West"

A quick update on last week's posting about the arts grants to Winston-Salem and Greensboro, "Winston-Salem gets artsy on its interstate." I wondered whether Charlotte had tried for any similar arts grants. I heard back from Robert Bush at the Arts & Science Council: "ASC applied to the NEA but didn’t make the cut."

He said the UNCC School of Art & Architecture was a partner along with Charlotte Center City Partners in the application. "Our application," Bush said in an e-mail, "was to support the Cultural Action Plan that we will be launching and specifically to support an international design competition for the Main Library/Spirit Square Block and the block immediately north on Tryon as a mixed use redevelopment project focused on innovation and creativity. "

Another public art tidbit: I'm just back from a couple of days of student/parent orientation at the University of Tar Heel, and I noticed on the wall in the Frank Porter Graham Student Union building, some clay disks that had a familiar look to them. Sure nuff, they're the work of Raleigh-based and UNC-educated artist Thomas Sayre, whose red-clay-colored disks on South Boulevard ("Furrow") have drawn plenty of attention (a lot of it negative). He's also the artist who crafted the so-called Onion Rings ("Grandiflora") at Wendover and Randolph, a work I have confessed to feeling fond of.

The Gaston Gazette tells us that the Gaston Parkway is likely to be delayed until 2015, because so many roads projects in the area are keeping contractors too busy to work on the parkway, too. Hmmm.

And a press release from the city of Charlotte's Neighborhood and business Services Department, about a celebration 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on Thursday at Wesley Village apartments (2715 Wet Stone Way, Charlotte, NC 28208), tells me that part o town has been "newly named and branded" as "Freemore West."

And if you're with me this far, here's a link to a cool video that NPR has posted to go with the Avett Brothers' Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise." It features an animated painting by Jason Ryan Mitcham. "The video shows the rise, fall and inevitable decay of rampant urban development," says NPR. Let's just say it's an artist's view, not a planner's.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

And commuter rail for North Mecklenburg lives?

Here's a business-focused wrap-up of reasons no one should count the proposed commuter rail line to North Mecklenburg as dead. Business Today online writes "Economic Development Prospects Put North Line Rail Back on Track." Although there's not much new news in it, it's a good wrap-up of why the North Line (a.k.a. the Red Line) remains an excellent plan, and one that the business community should get behind.

Now if they could just wire up some of that federal money for commuter rail .... That's been the sticky wicket all along. The Bush administration's transit-funding rules were written in such a way as to rule out virtually all proposed commuter rail transit, including this project. Those rules are changing. Stay tuned.

Winston-Salem gets artsy on its interstate

Cheers to our fellow N.C. cities, Wintson-Salem and Greensboro. Each won a six-figure grant from the Mayor's Institute on City Design.

The most exciting project is the one in Winston-Salem, which received $200,000. The Arts Council of Winston-Salem created a coalition among the N.C. Department of Transportation, the city, and the Chamber of Commerce to make sure urban designers and artists have a role in the NCDOT replacement of 11 bridges along Business I-40. The goal: Assemble artists and urban designers to create a master plan that provides guidelines for design, lighting, sound walls, and bridge abutments, as well as water features, public art, and festival space adjacent to the rights-of-way.

It would be great if Charlotte's Center City 2020 Vision Plan came up with a similar coalition, and went after similar money.

Greensboro's $100,000 grant to this project. The grant foes to Action Greensboro, a not-for-profit organization in the N.C. Piedmont that coordinates citizen initiatives on enhancing the Greensboro. Action Greensboro is funding public art for a renovation of an abandoned railroad. The art will include 12 decorative iron , through which will be seen two 60-foot graphic panels depicting parts of Greensboro's history.

The greenway encircling downtown Greensboro sounds like some Charlotte plans (remember the uptown loop greenway from the 2010 Uptown Plan, or the John Nolen greenway plan from early in the 20th century?) – as yet unfinished. Note the photo with the Greensboro plan, shows work by artist Jim Gallucci. Want to see some of his work in Charlotte? Visit the bridge over Briar Creek on Central Avenue.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Renewing the old urban-suburban battle

Professional contrarian Joel Kotkin had a piece last week in the Wall Street Journal, "The Myth of the Back-To-The-City Migration," that's gotten folks stirred up. (That link doesn't require a WSJ subscription). Here's his thesis in a nutshell: "The great migration back to the city hasn't occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased."

His thesis flies in the face of other analyses that show a decided uptick, compared with recent decades, in the proportion of people wanting to live in urban areas. As is always the case, some people take issue with either Kotkin's facts or his conclusions. Or both.

Here, for instance, is a two-part blog riposte that Bill Fulton wrote in 2007, in "It's Time to De-Kotkinize the Planning Debate." Fulton, a planner, publishes of the respected California Planning & Development Report, and is mayor of Ventura, Calif. He's quite complimentary of Kotkin's research for his books, but thinks the speeches play fast and loose with data.

And Sam Newberg (a.k.a. Joe Urban) offers this rejoinder, "Joel Kotkin Takes On Urbanists." In an e-mail to me, Newberg adds, " I like Joel Kotkin and most of his work. In this article - - I even found that he and Peter Calthorpe agree on the fundamental shape of regions, even if they disagree on the built form on the ground. The problem I have is that Joel Kotkin does us all a disservice by lumping the very widespread preference for mixed-use, walkable places with those who want a downtown high-rise condo – a big difference. We have not provided enough quality urban housing choices in this country – supply has not met demand. Federal policy, siloed decision-making, city zoning laws, lending practices, NIMBYs, and mechanisms for financing transportation and affordable housing are all to blame."

And if you've read this far, you're probably interested in Christopher B. Leinberger's blog posting, "Walking – Not Just for Cities Anymore," written after he debated Kotkin last week in New York. Leinberger is a developer and a visiting fellow at Brookings, who also writes for The Atlantic. He finds a surprising convergence in some of their thinking.

Leinberger and Newberg both finger one of the reasons that make me think Kotkin paints with too broad a brush. What's "urban"? What's "suburban"? That answer varies widely depending on geography, government and history. It's all in the eye of the beholder and means a lot of the statistical stuff being tossed around today is, in my eyes, squishy.

For instance, what parts of Charlotte are "urban"? I could give you a good argument that almost nothing in Charlotte is urban - not even uptown - if you envision urban as containing streets and where you can walk a few blocks down a sidewalk lined with storefronts and find dozens of stores selling goods you need for daily life (as well as interesting specialty stores), offices, apartments, nightlife, small industry, a variety of transportation options, schools and other public institutions. Dilworth, by that definition, is primarily suburban. In fact, it was designed as a turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb. It's within a mile of downtown, and it's slowly densifying, but is still predominantly single-family housing with reasonably big lawns. So is Dilworth "urban"? "Suburban"?

Is Davidson urban or suburban? What about Piper Glen? Davidson is not part of the city limits of Charlotte. But its older areas are denser, more walkable and have more urban fabric than the large-lot, single-family golf-course-focused subdivision of Piper Glen, which is within the city limits and therefore, in some definitions, urban instead of suburban.

Leinberger makes a good distinction. He writes, "Unfortunately, the concept of dividing the world into city versus suburbs is no longer so relevant. I have been dividing metropolitan places as either 'drivable sub-urban,' meaning low density, modular, and dependent upon the car/truck for most trips; or 'walkable urban,' meaning at least five times more dense and integrated and dependent upon many transportation modes (transit, biking, and, yes, cars and trucks)."

I think Kotkin is right in his generalized position that many people still prefer suburban-style living. But by that does he mean half-acre lots? Cul-de-sacs? Eastover and Myers Park, which are considered in-town but which have huge lots and a sprinkiling of cul-de-sacs? White picket fences and that fabulous federal subsidy we get for taking on a mortgage? Terms must be better defined. And just because plenty of people still prefer that way of life, does that mean other people who want another way of life shouldn't be offered it, especially if the other way of life takes a lot fewer tax dollars to support?

I've seen enough studies from people who make their living analyzing real estate markets to be convinced there remains an unmet market for more urban-style living - by which I mean walkable neighborhoods where you don't have to drive so far for everything, where single-family houses and shops are rigidly kept apart from apartments and condos - basically, the kinds of places where you never see a "berm" or a buffer. ( And everything I just wrote should be read with the proviso "When the real estate market comes back.")

Friday, July 02, 2010

Behind the fountain? A Scout story

I've been getting interesting comments all week about the "Walk This Way. If You Can" package from last Sunday's editorial page. One of the many interesting ones was an e-mail from Ivan Mothershead (he was a state rep back in the day) giving the history of the drinking fountain I featured in a photo:

"Thanks for the picture of the water fountain at Christ [Episcopal] Church. This fountain was paid for and installed by my son for his Eagle Scout project in August 2000. The church had nothing to do with the fountain, except for giving him permission to install it and paying for the water.

I am sure he'd love to get some credit for it!! Hint Hint! I cannot speak for the Methodist Church fountain [I referred in my article to another fountain at the Myers Park United Methodist Church parking lot at the Queens-Queens-Providence-Providence intersection, aka Q2P2] or how it got there, but Ivan and his friends spend two days digging out the red clay (six feet down) and installing the fountain. The cast iron fountain cost $3,000, he raised more than that to buy it, install it and give the balance to the church. If you are by it, note the marble stone in front. Someone steals the bowl we leave for the dogs.

You know great stories that would entertain your readers would be Eagle Scout projects in the county. There are a lot of neat projects that would amaze your readers. Hope the fountain is working OK!"

I'm glad to know its history, and I stopped on Thursday to admire the polished marble stone with "Charles Ivan Mothershead" engraved, as well as a Bible verse. And I'll say that for years I've admired – and sat upon – a bench installed in our neighborhood several decades ago by another Eagle Scout. The Scout projects have added some great amenities to the city.

One other note: More and more of those drinking fountains are being installed. It's a slow but steady increase. I regularly use one on Wendover, between Forest Drive and Forest Drive (don't ask!). I know of one or two on Queens Road/Queens Road West. I'm pretty there are others. It's a wonderful, generous and gracious city comfort for pedestrians and bicyclists in this often hot city. My thanks to those who've generously installed them.