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.


Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

Hopefully they make it like the building across from it on East Blvd. Where 131 Main Restaurant is located. Underground parking with street-facing building fronts.

Or at least, surface parking on the interior of the lot that can be obscured from street view by future street-front commercial or residential structures.

Either way, any permanent parking arrangement should be compatible with prospective future development.

consultant said...

In a location like this, surface parking and storage facilities have become the "go-to" temporary development devices of the last 20 years.

Did the city stall the owner while waiting for more lucrative deals, like the one across the street?

The owner wants to make some cash while holding the property. If the city approves, hopefully the site will have sufficient lighting to keep it safe.

consultant said...

I returned to the hotel from a day of meetings. Had dinner. Turned on the tube while I checked email and twittered.

A Republican debate was on.

In a few short years, that vacant piece of land described in this post is going to hold tents, campers and people sleeping in their cars. No need to worry about future development.

As a nation, we are not remotely prepared for what's happening now and what's coming down the road.

The Republican candidates sound like a bunch of circus clowns trying out for their first road show. And they all have the same act.

1st Republican: I'll cut taxes.
2nd Republican: I'll cut taxes more.
3rd Republican: You're both a liar. No one can cut taxes like me (said with a smile).

Are the Republicans still a political party? Serious. Are they? They sound like accountants.

Don't get me wrong. The Democrats are mostly clueless. But the Republicans are dangerous. Seriously so.

My fear is we are in such bad shape that top down political parties might not, probably are not the solution for our immediate future. That could give way to mobocracy.

That's why the Tea Party, as disgusting and inept as their politics and strategy are, resonate with a lot of people on the right. In fits and starts they have done a back and forth over control from the Republican "party". The left has yet to field a new, emergent party that's broad, but focused enough to capture the rage of the left and center left.

People are mad on the right, left and center. Neither of the two dominant political parties has the courage, intellect or independence to face the truth and tell the public what's going on; and how we might get out of this mess.

Not that the people would want to hear it. We have become a bunch of obese, tattooed, drug sniffing, tv/cable watching, high school dropout, non reading, non writing, NASCAR watching, gambling, get something for nothing fools. But in fairness to "the people", this land of ours was set up by those amongst us who called themselves leaders. They said they were giving us a better life, our American way of life, and this is what "the people" got out of that deal. They are called consumers instead of citizens.

As a nation, we've been here before. But we've never been here the way we are now. 315+ million people and growing-rapidly, a failed state of 125+ million on our southern border engaged in a life or death internal drug war, collective debt that is unimaginable and will never be repaid by any of us, peak oil-soon to be peak a lot of things, and leaders in all fields and persuasions scared out of their wits.

What are we left with? The mob?

What an awful way for the American project to go.