Monday, August 30, 2010

Alvin Greene, for real

You can't just say no to the opportunity to sit down and talk with a guy who's made national news and been the butt of more than a few jokes, for being an oddball politician from a state that seems to get plenty of national attention for its oddball politicians' antics.

Yes, I spent about 30-40 minutes this afternoon in an interview with Alvin Greene, the guy who's running for U.S. Senate from South Carolina. Greene's an unemployed veteran who's never run for office before, and his win in the S.C. primary had everyone scratching their heads and looking for nefarious political pranks, etc. None, to date, has been found.

Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten and I had asked for some time with him while he was in Charlotte today appearing on the Keith Larson show on WBT Radio. (Be sure to watch the dancing video; Larson's spot on when he says Greene is dancing like a white guy at a wedding.)

You can see a short video clip of our interview, but it in no way captures the almost surreal nature of the event. Greene was accompanied by Dottie Maggart-Feldman of Oconee County, S.C., whose role was not entirely clarified to us despite our asking numerous questions. She is NOT his campaign manager, she said, and while she was trying to give us the name of the woman who is, Greene was telling us not to write down that person's name because tomorrow he was going to have a talk with her.

Maggart-Feldman has very black hair and looks to be in her late 50s, early 60s. She said she's never been a campaign manager, and, asked if she had done any previous political work, said she "had made some media buys for Sen. Thurmond." That would be Strom Thurmond, the late senator who started his career as a segregationist. When I said, incredulously, "Thurmond?" she said that had been in the 1970s. Neither she nor Greene was forthcoming about how or whether she was being paid. She's apparently his "handler" – when I remarked that his tie was Tar Heel blue, she said she had taken him shopping and helped him pick it out.

Some impressions: Greene's handshake is very weak. He's the kind of guy who, when you try to connect on a human level, gives you a blank look. His answers were repetitive, as if he'd memorized his talking points and wasn't going to stray, and indeed went back to them over and over, almost as a comfort object. "Jobs, education and justice," he said - a lot. "My opponent is offering nothing," he said - a lot. Some of his remarks sounded almost like a parody of what a Democratic candidate would say: Jobs, education, alternative energy, green jobs. We tried to ask questions to get at a sense of how much he, himself, knew about the issues. For instance, I asked about Iraq. He was in the Air Force when the U.S. invaded Iraq; did he think it was a good idea at the time? "It was not a good move," he said. "It doesn't look to have been a good move. ... All that was accomplished was the re-election of George Bush.

Not surprisingly, he wouldn't talk about the charges pending against him that accuse him of showing pornography on a computer to a University of South Carolina student, although Maggart-Feldman started talking about how the image on the computer screen was tiny and hard to see unless you were right up on it. Meanwhile, Greene kept saying, "There's a process," and she kept on spewing details.

During all of this we were being filmed by a couple of Los Angeles documentary filmmakers, who said they are shadowing Greene everywhere, even living at his house sometimes. (With Maggart-Feldman also living there it must get crowded sometimes.) No, they said, they don't have any funding for their film.

My conclusion is that Greene isn't the imbecile many people assume he is. He's no Einstein, but then, many people who run for office aren't. He clearly has difficulty relating to people on multiple levels, including reading their reactions. It looks as if he either doesn't understand or doesn't care when people make fun of him, as when Larson got him to dance to an Alvin Greene campaign rap tune. I asked him whether it bothered him when people are making fun of him, and he said, "I try to stay serious. This is a serious campaign. We're in serious times." And then, "My opponent is the joke."
Should he be elected? No way. And it's unlikely he will. But as I wrote in my Saturday op-ed, "Ballot eccentrics are a U.S. tradition," it's not as if he's the only oddball who's ever graced a ballot. And some of them do get elected.
Photo by Observer staff photographer Todd Sumlin: Alvin Greene talks to WBT Radio as Los Angeles documentary filmmakers accompany him on Charlotte interview Monday.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Watch Cabarrus sprawl! And Catawba too!

OK, I'll admit my bias. I thought Union County would be the biggest sprawl-zone in the Charlotte region. Turns out the honor may go to Lincoln County. (It depends on how you're measuring, of course.) Here's why I say that. As I was adding the link to my post about mountain development, I spotted something interesting on the UNCC Urban Institute website: an interactive set of maps of the counties in the Charlotte region that depict visually the development from 1976 to 2010, and projecting forward.

So I did some exploring. I started with Union County, home to Weddington, Marvin, Indian Trail and numerous other one-time crossroads just over the Mecklenburg line that have become full-fledged towns. Here's the link. (Click on the option for interactive map.) A county that in 1976 was almost completely undeveloped (shown in green) by 2010 was fully a third covered in development. From 1976 to 2006 its population increased 171 percent, but its land area that was developed increased 878 percent. What that means, of course, is that the land was developed in a low-density pattern. And here we go again, a tidbit for fiscal conservatives: Multiple studies show lower-density, spread-out development makes delivering of government services (police/fire protection, streets, water/sewer lines and so on) far more expensive per person than a more tightly knit developmental form – you know, the way things looked before about 1970.

But then I started looking at some of the other counties in the region. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a Mecklenburg interactive map. That one would have been eye-popping, I expect. (Update 1:55 p.m. Thursday: Thanks for the help, commenters. Here's the link to the Mecklenburg map, which was working when I checked it at 1:53 p.m. Thursday. And yep, it's eye-popping. Interesting also, besides seeing the green disappear, to see the "protected lands" increase.)

But of those I checked (Anson, Iredell, Lincoln, Catawba, Cabarrus and York) Catawba probably had the most visibly dramatic change. Cabarrus was dramatic as well.

But this Lincoln County stat blew me away: While its population increased 86.2 percent from 1976 to 2006 its developed land area increased by 1,450 percent.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sprawl on high: Losing N.C. mountain wilderness

If you love the North Carolina mountains – the rocky wilderness trails, shady streams, the waves of mountaintops fading into the horizon – you won't like what I'm about to tell you. On the other hand, if you like miles and miles of stripped-out highways lined with conveniences stores, gas stations, chain motels, chain restaurants and billboards, you may enjoy it:

A recent study has found that in 30 years – 1976 to 2006 – land development in the North Carolina mountains increased 568 percent – from 34,348 acres to 229,422 acres – while population increased only 42 percent.

This means the development grew even more thinly spread around the area than it was in 1976. The average number of developed acres per person, known as the "development footprint" went from 0.06 in 1976 to 0.30 in 2006.

Projections are that the number of developed acres will increase another 63 percent by 2030, while population will increase only 25 percent. So the development footprint will grow to 0.39 acres a person.

I know unemployment in the N.C. mountains has been a severe problem. My concern is that the form of development, not the fact of the development, is destroying a precious natural treasure. Plenty of other countries have figured out how to have both development and preserved natural areas. Too bad ours hasn't done that yet.

Read the full study at the newly launched, newly redesigned website for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. You can also read pieces by UNCC architecture professor David Walters, comparing Charlotte's transit options to those in Basel, Switzerland (er, we fall short), and a piece by now-retired Urban Institute director Bill McCoy on dynamic downtowns throughout the region.

Walters says, "Cities such as Basel are ... better positioned to respond effectively to future changes in lifestyle that may be occasioned by external factors such as climate change, volatile energy prices and diminishing oil supplies. Charlotte, by contrast, faces some daunting, self-imposed challenges as it struggles towards a more sustainable urban future."

McCoy concludes that downtown Charlotte puts downtown Atlanta to shame, and gives a rundown on changes in places such as Mooresville, a former mill town that now sees gallery crawls and wine-tastings in its downtown. He concludes: "The suburban big box retail option dealt a blow to our regional downtowns, but it was not a fatal blow. In fact, our towns have weathered that storm and have come back by emphasizing niche markets, micro-retail, festivals and celebrations, cultural events, music, residential opportunities, and other community building dynamics."

The mountain study come from a collaboration among researchers at the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at UNC Charlotte, RENCI at UNC Asheville, researchers from UNC Charlotte's Center for Applied Geographic Information Science (CAGIS), with funding from the City of Asheville, the U.S. Forest Service, and RENCI's home office in Chapel Hill.

(Photo above courtesy UNCC Urban Institute,

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Can you solve US energy crisis?

Now you can match wits with a computer to see if you can find the right energy mix for the country for 2050. It's an online game devised by a nonprofit effort called
The multi-media site is being put together by students at UNC Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, an effort that's part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. The Energy Cocktail game is particularly fun - you try to create the balance of energy sources that won't raise costs dramatically but that also meets the goal of decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.

The Balancing Act game is fun too, if you're a local government policy wonk. You pretend to be a city manager making decisions about everything from a new water park to a cattle ranch to a new shopping mall, trying to balance the need for economic development with the strains on local water sources and power plant capacity.

And be sure to watch the video from the Gulf coast town of Venice, La. I saw it last month when I was visiting campus as a parent of a soon-to-be UNC student and a UNC J-school alumna.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hey fellas, look out! I'm walking here!

What kind of drivers are most to be feared if you're a pedestrian in New York City? If you're thinking cabbies, think again. If you're about to cough up one of those hoary jokes about women drivers – don't. A New York Times article about a study from the New York City department of transportation tells us:

" ... In 80 percent of city accidents that resulted in a pedestrian’s death or serious injury, a male driver was behind the wheel. (Fifty-seven percent of New York City vehicles are registered to men.)"

The article notes that even though a lot of pedestrians are killed in New York traffic, "New York is now far safer to travel within than most other American cities, with half the per capita fatality rate of Atlanta, Detroit or Los Angeles. But New York still trails world capitals like Berlin, London, Paris and Tokyo, all of which are statistically safer."

The report itself lists a number of key findings. Here's one: "Traffic fatalities in 2009 were down by 35% from 2001." Here's another that made me chuckle: "Most New Yorkers do not know the city’s standard speed limit is 30 m.p.h." I think drivers the world over must be about the same. Everyone wants to go faster than the limit. For the record, Charlotte's standard speed limit is 35 m.p.h. unless otherwise posted.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The inequities of NCDOT board

Dear Gov. Perdue, House Speaker Hackney, Senate President Pro Tem (corrected, with apologies) Basnight:

Your state Board of Transportation is ridiculous. Got your attention? Good. Here's why I say that:

I just received an e-mailed press release from my friends at the N.C. Department of Transportation, about committee assignments for that august body, the N.C. Board of Transportation. I had lost track of who my local representatives on the board are, so I decided to check it out. I popped up the online roster for the state transportation board, a body that has major sway in allocating state transportation money. Guess what I see. Charlotte – by far the state's largest city and largest urban area – has only one member: Developer John Collett.

Of the 14 divisions, we in Division 10 (Mecklenburg, Anson, Stanly, Cabarrus and Union counties – population 1,374,357) have exactly the same number of NCDOT board members as Division 14 – Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Polk, Swain and Transylvania counties – population 338,405. Notice how that's a little more than a third of the population of Mecklenburg alone (913,639).

Now obviously Division 14 needs representation, too. I'm not saying it doesn't. Rural areas shouldn't be overlooked just because they're small. But that doesn't make it right, or smart, to overlook urban areas just because they're big.

So let's take a look at the at-large members of the board, who are supposed to represent various interests. Let's see, there's an at-large member for State Ports and Aviation Issues. So it makes sense for that rep to be Leigh McNairy (again, corrected, with apologies) from Kinston, right? Sure, Kinston has no port, but at least it's on the Neuse River, isn't it? Only thing is, the state's ports are in City and Wilmington, neither of which has a rep on the DOT board.

Is it because of Kinston's vast airport – the state's busiest, and US Airways' largest hub and all that? Oops, I forgot! That would be Charlotte. There's even a Ports Authority Inland Terminal in Charlotte, ahem.

(If you give up on that Kinston mystery, here's a clue. The state-funded Global TransPark – a yet-to-bear-fruit effort that attempted to revive all of Eastern North Carolina by building a big airfield – is in Kinston. Well, now there's a parts factory there, too. Whew. I was starting to get worried that that Kinston appointment didn't make any sense.)

There's an at-large member for "rural issues." The position appears to be unfilled. Hmm, I wonder who's the at-large member for "urban issues." Guess what. There isn't one. But don't cities have urban-style issues in much the way rural areas have rural-style issues? Don't they deserve some attention too? Gov. Perdue, please hop on this.

There's an at-large member for environmental issues. Good! That's forward thinking. That member is from Raleigh, Nina Szlosberg-Landis. So the cities in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) get two board slots, because the District 5 member, Chuck Watts, is from Durham.

There's an at-large member for government-related finance and accounting issues (huh?). He's Ronnie Wall from Burlington.

Aha. Here's an at-large member for mass transit. Since Charlotte has the only light rail transit system in the state, and is the only city with funding to build the state's only streetcar system, and has the largest bus system and the only dedicated sales tax for transit in the state, it makes all kinds of sense that the at-large member for transit is – Andrew Perkins, from Greensboro?

And that gives the cities in the Triad (Greenboro, Winston-Salem and High Point) two board members as well, since the District 9 member is Ralph Womble from Winston-Salem.

Throwing aside the ridiculous way in which the DOT districts are configured (dating to where the state prisons were located, and I am not making that up), it's fair for all sections of the state to have voices on the board. But it isn't fair for people in cities to be disproportionately voiceless.

Charlotte and the state's other cities are the economic engines of North Carolina. When they sink, the state's economy sinks. That should be reflected in all state policies, not just transportation. It simply makes no sense that they get disproportionately tiny attention when it comes to transportation representation, or any other forms of representation.

I'm guessing the legislature can change those silly DOT districts. But when it comes time to make appointments, Gov. Perdue, Rep. Hackney and Sen. Basnight, could you please notice that your largest city – you know, the one with the busiest airport, the biggest traffic problems, the biggest mass transit system – might need a little more representation on your state transportation board?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Planning commissioners get tough

Here's a heartening (well, sort of, as you'll see) little event that took place at a little-heralded government meeting this week. It involves planning commissioners pushing to get a better outcome on a proposed rezoning.

The rezoning in question involves a highly visible corner at East Boulevard and Scott Avenue, in the heart of the Dilworth neighborhood's commercial district. If you've lived in Charlotte for a long time, you'll remember it as the site of the still-missed Epicurean Restaurant, home of fabulous steaks and The World's Best Biscuits, small morsels of buttery heaven which perfectly trained waiters brought around to your table throughout the evening, so you ended up consuming several thousand calories in biscuits alone, along with your steak and potato.

The Epicurean closed about 12 years ago. The Castanas family that's owned the property since 1959 tried to redevelop the site in the late 1990s but couldn't get the financing, owner George Castanas told me on Wednesday.

They want to put a parking lot at that key intersection. (Actually, people have been parking there already, in violation of existing zoning, NS, which doesn't allow parking lots.) So they're seeking a rezoning. It's complicated, involving something called a "Pedscape Overlay" for East Boulevard. But the upshot is that the new zoning category they seek would require an improved, wider sidewalk along East. The owners want to keep the same old sidewalk, which a Charlotte DOT staffer estimated at 5 feet with a small planting strip, or none, depending on where you look.

The planning staff is OK with letting the rezoning go forward without an improved sidewalk. Indeed, because the rezoning would be to something called "optional" - B-1 (PED-O) instead of B-1 (PED) - the better sidewalk wouldn't, technically, required. The "optional" means you can do pretty much what you want as long as the city will let you get away with it. (Some optional options are more palatable than others, of course.)

Throwing aside the larger question of why you'd have a supposedly pedestrian-friendly zoning standard (i.e. PED) at one of the key intersections in the main commercial area of one of the city's most historic neighborhoods that allows a surface parking lot -- after all, can you say "pedscape"? - why didn't the planning staff at least push the owners to improve that bad sidewalk?

At Wednesday's meeting of the Zoning Committee (which is a sub-set of the appointed Planning Commission, the one that makes recommendations to the City Council on rezoning petitions) several commissioners began pushing the staff on this very question. Nina Lipton, Tracy Dodson, Greg Phipps and Claire Fallon all chimed in, diplomatically, of course, to suggest that something better for the public could be accomplished. The planners' point had been that the parking lot isn't likely to be the permanent development at that corner, so whatever happens now is likely just interim.

But commissioners Lipton and Fallon both questioned how long "interim" might be, since the lot's been sitting undeveloped for 12 years already.

With the property owner really wanting that parking lot, and really needing a rezoning to make the parking lot legal, the planners actually have some leverage in this case. Yet they didn't appear to have tried to use it.

In the end, the Zoning Committee voted to delay making their recommendation on the rezoning until September to give the property owner time to "work with the neighborhood" - i.e. the Dilworth community association - to come up with an idea that's closer to the spirit of the pedscape designs.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Streetcar planning (or not), the Texas way

Charlotte as a model of planning? When it comes to its new federal streetcar grant, if you compare the Queen City to Fort Worth, Texas, the QC looks positively Swiss in its efficiency.

Fort Worth was another of the cities to win a $25 million federal grant for a streetcar project, reports Yonah Freemark in his piece in The Transport Politic, "Fort Worth Wins Grant for Streetcar, But Whether It’s Ready Is Another Question." But Fort Worth doesn't even have a route chosen for its streetcar from among six it's studying. The city hasn't yet decided on how its share would be funded. And without a route chosen, the exact costs are difficult to project.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (disclosure, a fellow McClatchy Co. newspaper) editorialized that the city should leave the grant on the table. A local pro-transit blogger, Forthworthology, takes the editorial board to task for what it says are inaccuracies, such as saying the city's cost would be $26.8 million, when no reliable cost estimate can be made until a route is chosen.

In the Transport Politic piece Freemark writes, "Unlike the streetcar lines proposed for Charlotte and Cincinnati, which are basically ready for construction, Fort Worth’s line is under-planned. The fact that the city has yet to settle on a final alignment is problematic since it means that Washington is agreeing to finance a project that has yet to be fully defined. Is that sound policy?"

It's a good question. Many U.S. cities (including Winston-Salem and Columbia) are looking at launching streetcar projects. But until the Obama administration, streetcar projects were all but frozen out of any federal funding. That's one reason the Federal Transit Administration took unspent transit money and created the pool of streetcar. With so many cities that could use the money, why give a grant to one that doesn't seem ready?

An aside - I noticed reading the Star-Telegram editorial that the "Regional Transportation Council" has given money to the streetcar effort. Yet another metro region with a sane planning structure: The regional council of governments (known as a COG to planning technies), which does regionwide planning, is the same organization as the metropolitan planning organization (MPO), which does regional transportation planning. Well, duh.

Of course, in Charlotte we have four to six MPOs in our metro region, and they're all separate from the COGs. So our transportation planning is both fractured and disconnected from land use planning.

Insanity. It's one thing that helped give us a state-designed outerbelt in southern Mecklenburg designed with the state-held delusion that nearby land would remain rural.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A few small sidewalk victories

All but this section of Runnymede sidewalk (above) has been cleared off.

Some of you recall that a few weeks back I wrote an op-ed (with lots of photos) "Walk This Way. If You Can," about my experience walking to work, a 4.2-mile hike along Providence and Queens Roads and Morehead Street. I mentioned several spots where unkempt sidewalks would pose obstacles to anyone in a wheelchair (or on roller skates, or trying to walk two abreast, for that matter). The one that brought the most comment from readers was my mention of several sections of the sidewalk along Runnymede, between Sharon Road and Colony Road. I pass there regularly in the car and walk there occasionally, and the sidewalk has been covered in leaves, mud and crud for at least a decade.

Finally! All but a small section has been cleared. (see photo at right).

I don't know if it was publicity or whether the city's transportation department contacted the property owners, but several Saturdays ago I spotted a guy with a big broom sweeping off the muck. And the scraggly holly bushes planted at the edge of the sidewalk (their prickly leaves making for a tight squeeze past the hollies) have been cut down.

I had called 311 to report a couple of spots on Providence Road where, in one case, ivy and in another case, azaleas, had grown over the sidewalk leaving only a narrow passage. The city DOT is on the case. The ivy's been cut back. The azaleas remain in need of severe pruning.

For the record, I have nothing against hollies and azaleas. I have planted, fertilized and otherwise tended both in our own yard, and they are valuable living things. Just not planted next to a too-narrow sidewalk.

Unlike Charlotte, Durham nixes digital billboards

Just spotted this article in the Raleigh News & Observer - the Durham City Council has turned unanimous thumbs down on a proposal to allow digital billboards.

Interesting. Charlotte, of course, allows them, having voted 8-2 in 2007 (council members Michael Barnes and Warren Turner were the "no" votes) to loosen the city's already loose billboard standards to allow the large and distracting TV-screen like signs.

The article about Durham says Durham's "City/County Planning Department recommended against the change in a strongly worded presentation that raised concerns about digital signs as motorist distractions and costly litigation that could be invited by tampering with an ordinance the city has already spent more than $1 million defending against industry challenges."

Other cities that ban digital billboards include Chapel Hill, Morrisville, Cary and Raleigh.

Monday, August 02, 2010

How Charlotte competitor builds its streetcar

St. Louis, one of the four cities in the running with the QC for the probably-not-very-exciting 2012 Democratic National Convention, was also a recipient of one of those $25 million federal grants for a streetcar project. In "St. Louis’ Loop District Gets Endorsement from Feds with Grant for Streetcar," Yonah Freemark at gives more details about the project – the only one of nine cities whose streetcar projects got federal money this year that plans a project outside of its downtown.

Some interesting tidbits: St. Louis plans its project to use both overhead wires (like Charlotte) and battery power, which will let it run through some segments of the route without the wires. "This could make St. Louis the first city in the U.S. to experiment with this sort of alternative propulsion for rail vehicles," Freemark writes. Indeed, in talks about Charlotte's streetcar and the problem of how to deal with The Square (at Trade and Tryon in the heart of downtown) if the project's next phase is built, the idea of batteries has come up. Looks as if St. Louis will be the guinea pig on this technology.

Also interesting is the way it's being funded: In addition to the feds' $25 million grant, the project will get $6 million from the local Council of Government/MPO (Imagine this: In many, many metro regions the "regional planning" body and the "regional transportation planning" body are the same – duh!). Private money, estimated at $5 million to $8million, is expected from donors McCormack Baron Salazar, a national urban development firm with headquarters in St. Louis, which committed $2 million in tax credit equity, and the St. Louis Development Corp., which has pledged $3 million.

And, writes Freemark, "Operations will be covered by a transportation tax residents in the surrounding area approved by 97%. This strong show of local support, both financial and political, is likely one of the reasons St. Louis won the grant from the U.S. DOT over so many competitors." That tax is in the form of a 1-cent sales tax in a transportation development district.

Charlotte folks should be paying attention to several lessons here: Look to multiple revenue sources such as special districts and getting the private sector which will reap some benefits to pay in. But this part needs to be in neon, with flashing red arrows pointing to it: Combine the region's splintered MPOs (Metropolitan Planning Organizations for those of you not deeply into transportation policy) and the region's COG, so there's one regional planning agency doing the planning for the region.