Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Raleigh mayor takes on Wake schools flap

Today, I've got limited time so I'll share a couple of interesting links.

1. Raleigh's Mayor Charles Meeker is "quietly assembling a group of town mayors and 'high level' residents to scrutinize the student assignment plan currently being developed by the school board." The News & Observer's article is here. The situation is intriguing on a variety of levels.

A. Obviously, the fate of a city's school system has a huge impact on the city's overall economic and social well-being. Yet while our former mayor, Pat McCrory, was in office during years in which Charlotte's public schools were in intense reassignment and re-segregation turmoil, he said virtually nothing publicly. It was a certainly a smart political survival strategy for him -- CMS and race are both radioactive topics. But was it the best thing for the city?

B. Meeker's wife, Dr. Anne McLaurin, is on the school board. Yowie. Talk about power couples.

C. With Wake County schools threatened (by a controversial majority on the school board there) with the same re-segregation that has hit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Raleigh political establishment seems to be fighting back more strongly than Charlotte's did a decade ago. There were some key differences -- a court case that had to be complied with. But CMS went beyond what the court rulings required in dismantling racial integration in local schools. And of course, seeing what happened here could be fueling some of the Wake opposition to re-segregation.

D. CMS, meanwhile, is talking about closing up to 10 schools and reassigning students. Here's Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms' blog account of the details, which are sure to be controversial. This could have major implications for neighborhoods' stability and futures. Are city officials and county officials at the table with CMS as it comes up with its plans? I don't think so. They should be, and if they weren't invited, they should be knocking down Superintendent Peter Gorman's door.

2. In today's New York Times is an interesting piece on a ballot measure before Florida voters that would require voter approval on changes in state-mandated growth plans. The measure is fueled in part by deep anger over over-building and over-zoning. Good idea? Bad idea?

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Pimp My CATS" and other ideas

From TEDx Charlotte (see earlier post, "Are we Innovative yet?") :

The day kicked off with Tracy Russ and Quentin "Q" Talley. Russ was "Left Brain" and Q was "Right Brain." The idea, of course, is that you need both. They pitched 10 ideas at once wacky and thoughtful (left-right brain convergence maybe?)
1. Give every tree in Charlotte-Mecklenburg a name. This will help stop the loss of our tree canopy. So, "maple tree" becomes "Mary Dilworth." "When 'Mary Dilworth' croaks there are tears and people care," Russ pointed out.
2. Bring "art recess" into the workplace.
3. "Your Zip Code or mine?" Make friends with someone from a different neighborhood and visit each other's part of town.
4. "Bedsheets not spreadsheets." This is NOT what you're thinking. The idea is to collect, via a website, the hopes and wishes of people in the community. Then print them on blankets and give a blanket of hopes to every Charlotte newborn. (All together now: "Awwwww.")
5. "Pimp my CATS." The CATS here isn't the Charlotte Area Transit System but "Creative Access to Song. The idea is to put live music onto city buses. (Or should they charge more for musical ads?)
6. "Have a Poet in Chief for the city."
7. "Dais Divas" - As long as there's drama on our elected bodies, let's go for it. Get elected officials every year to get together and put on a musical. ( The "Glee" technique.)
8. Wisdom of the Elders. Return to the traditions of many cultures that respect and admire the elderly and use their wisdom. (I guess this means that a lot of people think anyone over 50 is irrelevant, since they're telling people NOT to treat them that way. Downer of the day.)
9. All high school graduates go to college.

The rest of the morning has been a mixed set of beautiful art, oddly didactic lectures, bizarre math/physics guy, and ended with the incomparable Tim Will of Foothills Connect.

I'm missing lunch now. More to come.

TEDx Charlotte - Are we innovative yet?

10 a.m. - Waiting for TEDx to start, in basement auditorium at Knight Theater, looking at psychedelic floral video displays in darkened auditorium. Architect Tom Low of the Charlotte Duany Plater-Zyberk Audience and founder of Civic by Design is pacing up front along with Manoj Kesavan, another local architect who's one of the TEDx Charlotte organizers. We're supposed to be learning about and experiencing innovative ideas, I think.

I should probably have read the material better. But this has been a week of 11- and 12-hour workdays. This morning before heading here I had to set out sprinklers for our newly re-seeded lawn, clean up last night's dirty kitchen, make breakfast, fix a torn hem on my slacks, emails a friend who's about to be unreachable, to set up the time and place for a lunch date, etc. etc. It reminds me of something I read recently, attributed to Jane Jacobs: An efficient city can't be an innovative city. I conclude this applies to personal lives, too. Too many tasks, duties and to-do-list work eats away at the time your brain needs to float free.

So I wonder: Have the past decades of workplace pressure for increased "productivity" – which means fewer workers, more work, faster work, longer workweeks, constant availability to the office – has all that had an effect on U.S. innovation?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Want your face on the side of a bus? Now it's possible

Advertising's coming back to Charlotte city buses. And it's coming to light rail cars – an option not available in 2001, when the governing body for the Charlotte Area Transit System voted to remove the ads from bus exteriors.

The Metropolitan Transit Commission's vote was about as split as it is possible for such a vote to be. Each municipality has one vote, as do the county and the N.C. Board of Transportation representative (currently developer John Collett). The first vote Wednesday night, on a motion to approve the new advertising , was 4-4, with Matthews Public Works Director Ralph Messera abstaining. Because of the tie, MTC chair and Mecklenburg County commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts declared the motion failed, until someone pointed out an "abstain" vote is counted as a yes. That made the vote 5-4.

Messera said he abstained because, while he believed Matthews Mayor James Taylor was in favor, he had not had a specific conversation to nail down how he wanted Matthews to vote.

Olaf Kinard of CATS said projections showed CATS would clear between $900,000 to $1 million a year over five years, taking into account its expenses for putting the advertising program into effect

Revenue from the county's half-cent sales tax for transit has been flat, while the system's 2030 plan for building more light rail, streetcar and possibly bus rapid transit corridors is based on a projection that shows those revenues steadily climbing. So the MTC has been pondering whether to look for more revenue opportunities.

Why vote against what, to some, would seem a no-brainer idea for more revenue? Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain said she worried about quality control for the ads. Others pointed out that CATS has spent the past 10 years positioning itself, to the public, as a clean and efficient bus and transit system. The image issue was a key reason the MTC abandoned ads on buses in 2001. "We're violating the brand we established 10 years ago," said Davidson Mayor John Woods.

Looking ahead, there's a decent possibility the MTC will go to voters in coming years for new taxes or other public revenue. It would be even harder for the MTC to ask for new public revenue if it were still rejecting a revenue stream that many in the public consider low-hanging fruit to be plucked.
Photo: Get ready for more advertising on CATS buses, such as this on promoting Charlotte Motor Speedway's October races. Credit: Charlotte Observer file photo

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Demolition, part two

My posting last week, about a very nice two-story home demolished ("What's the opposite of green? Maybe this"), has an update. Owner Max Redic says he'll be building a new house on the site.

Redic said his family had lived in the house 10 years, had been thinking for five years about rebuilding. The house had mold and a 25-year-old HVAC system, he said. They've temporarily moved to another site in Charlotte and yes, he said, they do have a building permit for the new house. (The demolition permit posted said "Total res demo - No Build Back.")

He said they recycled much of the building material, donated a good bit of the interior goods to Habitat for Humanity, and let the fire department use the house for training before the demolition.

And, he pointed out (as my blogpost had), it's his property to do with as he wishes. A bit of context: The lot is near a number of others where nice, but older, houses have been torn down and much larger new ones built -- some on spec by developers and some by homeowners.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A 'CATS' fight for transit money?

Looks as if the Charlotte Area Transit System may finally be getting some in-state competition for federal transit money for light-rail. The News & Observer of Raleigh reported Sunday ("Triangle Transit proposes 2 light-rail lines") that Triangle Transit, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill transit agency, is looking at two potential light rail routes. The TTA timetable has it applying to the Federal Transit Administration next summer and, in fall 2011, asking Triangle-area voters for a 1/2-cent sales tax to fund the transit plans.

"In a fall 2011 referendum, Triangle voters are expected to consider approving a half-cent sales tax - which would add 5 cents to every taxable $10 purchase - that would cover a large share of new bus and rail costs."

For now, the TTA has dropped its earlier idea of commuter rail to the Research Triangle Park. It's looking at light rail instead, because light rail – which is powered by overhead electric wires – need not run on a railroad right of way as it does in Charlotte, but can run in the streets as well, i..e., as a streetcar. (For terminology geeks, just fyi, "heavy rail" doesn't mean Amtrak-like passenger rail. It means a rail system powered by an electrified rail on the bottom, like subways, with the so-called "third rail," hence the allusions to a "third rail" that one must never touch without deadly effect.)

The N&O's Bruce Siceloff reports:
"So, at public meetings last week and this week, Triangle Transit officials and consultants are explaining that the first light-rail trains will not run through the region's suburban center. The two most promising corridors are about 20 miles apart in the western Triangle and Wake County:

- Northwest Cary through N.C. State University and downtown to Triangle Town Center in North Raleigh, 18 miles. It rates high in projected rider counts, job and housing density, development potential, and capital costs compared to the number of weekday transit trips.

- UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Alston Avenue in downtown Durham, 17 miles. It rates high in rider counts, low-income residents who are more likely to depend on transit, and capital and operating costs. This corridor is rated weak in housing density and development potential.

And don't read right over that part about "bus." A close relative of mine was trying to get to Chapel Hill from the Durham Amtrak station on Labor Day and realized, with some shock, that the TTA's Chapel Hill-Durham bus didn't run on the holiday. Better bus service in the Triangle would likely be welcomed by many.

TTA is also looking at "a limited kind of region-wide rail service that was not in the cards a few years ago. Commuter trains pulled by standard diesel locomotives are proposed to run from west Durham to the Wake-Johnston county line. These trains would operate on weekday rush hours, every 30 or 60 minutes, and make stops in RTP."

I was joking when I wrote that headline about a CATS fight. While CATS and every other transit agency in the country knows competition is tight for federal money, in the long run it's probably better for all N.C. cities to have multiple mass transit systems. That way the N.C. DOT, the legislature and all the entities holding the money bags – not to mention the voting (and riding) public – can get their heads around the concept that "transportation" means more than just private-auto transportation.

Anyway, the CATS fight currently is what's going on in the Mecklenburg County Metropolitan Transit Commission, between backers of the proposed commuter rail to North Mecklenburg and those of the being-built-but-rather-slower-than-planned extension of light rail to UNC Charlotte.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What's the opposite of 'green'? Maybe this?

(Update Sept. 21: See "Demolition, part two" for an update on the owner's plans to build a new house on the site.)

Some days I think I should have a contest for the Anti-green. This would probably win for the month. Maybe the year.

The attractive, two-story, 3,161-square-foot home, built in 1941 was assessed for tax purposes at $331,900 (the total parcel, including the land, is assessed at $778,800). I walked past it a few weeks ago and spotted the bulldozer.

When I walked past it today, here's what it looked like:

I don't know the owners' plans. The demo permit says: "Total res demo - No Build Back."

Demolition is extraordinarily wasteful, and not just of materials. As Time magazine has written: "It would take an average of 65 years for the reduced carbon emissions from a new energy efficient home to make up for the resources lost by demolishing the old one." And that's IF you build a new, green home.

This waste is unconscionable. Yet there's nothing to stop it other than owners' consciences. And many people don't know about, or don't care about, wasting resources.

This lot is next door to another vacant lot, where another large and attractive home was demolished by a builder several years ago, right before the housing market imploded.

In my opinion the city should stop allowing demolitions until there is a building permit in hand for whatever is going to replace it. Now THAT would be green. We'd have saved plenty of useful (and affordable) houses and buildings over the years if that policy had been in place.

Monday, September 13, 2010

From old Reid's to new farmers market

Charlotte City Council, at its dinner meeting before the regular council meeting that is happening in front of me now, heard a request for up to $1 million from Charlotte Center City Partners to do the construction work to turn the former Reid's Fine Foods grocery into an uptown farmers market.

Center City Partners, a nonprofit tax-funded group that represents uptown and South End, has sponsored an uptown market for 12 years, but it's outdoor at The Square, small and from what I can tell of the good sold, not what I'd consider "local" produce. CCCP has wanted a better site for a larger market.

I hate to do this to you, but all I've time for now is to copy/paste the CCCP press release, for those who want more details. The council is now starting to hear public comments on the proposed tougher tree ordinance and I need to listen to that.

On the market proposal, the council voted to sent it to the economic development committee for a recommendation. Council members Andy Dulin, Michael Barnes and Edwin Peacock III voted against sending it to committee.

Press release:
Charlotte Center City Partners is exploring the creation of a new public market in Uptown to be located in the former Reid’s Fine Foods space on the ground floor of the Seventh Street Station parking deck. Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS) has offered to invest in this new market because of the project’s potential benefits for the citizens of our region.

The proposed ‘City Market’, situated adjacent to the 7th Street light rail station, would feature high quality, unique products sold at reasonable prices. Produce and products from local farmers and vendors would support public health by providing year-round access to fresh foods. The vendor mix is proposed to be multicultural and represent Charlotte’s global melting pot as well as its Southern heritage. The market would include a cafĂ© and provide programming opportunities for the community to learn about healthy eating in a warm and inviting setting, surrounded by fresh foods.

“Our goal will be to provide a wide variety of produce, meat, fish, bakery and dairy products, and other raw and prepared food, brought to market in the center of the city by farmers, growers, producers and chefs,” said Michael Smith, President and CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners. “We want to create an environment that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of our citizens and fosters their interaction. We also want to strengthen the historic link and mutual dependency of our rural and urban communities.”

The market will take advantage of its Uptown location and the City’s unique assets including the light rail line, the new UNC Charlotte building and First Ward Park across the street as well as Johnson & Wales University.

Another objective will be to provide an incubator for small businesses, supported by the workforce development programs at CPCC. In time, this market will become a ‘must see’ destination and provide an authentic Charlotte experience for visitors. The hope is to achieve all this and, at the same time, make sure the market is operationally self-funded.

As founding sponsor, CHS would provide health and wellness programming for the market. “We want to invest in the City Market because it supports our mission of ‘Live Well Carolinas’ and our goal of prevention and wellness in the Charlotte community,” said CEO Michael Tarwater.

This concept is the result of years of research and exploration through a partnership with the City, County and Projects for Public Spaces (PPS). In a recently completed feasibility study report, PPS surveyed local market vendors and found a high-capacity, skilled set of vendors who know and understand retail marketing. The survey found that 75% of vendors have a strong interest in participating in a year-round indoor market and that 75% employ 0-3 full-time employees and more than 60% of vendors would be ready to sell in less than three months.

The City Market is proposed to be a stand-alone 501(c) 3 organization employing a Market Manager and Assistant Manager as well as custodial staff. The projected opening is Spring of 2011.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

How some Charlotte neighborhoods are going green

Seven Charlotte neighborhoods, ranging from a high-rise uptown condos to a suburban subdivision, have been selected to receive $80,000 in grants as part of the city's Neighborhood Energy Challenge Grant program. That program is one of 17 projects to be paid with a $6.5 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant the City of Charlotte won from the U.S. Department of Energy. The idea is to approach energy conservation efforts at a neighborhood level.

The neighborhoods are: The Avenue condos (210 N. Church St. uptown), the "EcoDistrict" (Villa Heights, Belmont, Optimist Park neighborhoods), Merry Oaks in east Charlotte, the NoDa neighborhood just northeast of uptown, Plaza-Midwood just east of uptown, Wilmore south of uptown and Spring Park in northeast Charlotte.

Daria K. Milburn, community energy conservation coordinator in the city's Neighborhood & Business Services department, says projects include bike rack installations, neighborhood light-bulb and shower-head swaps (where you turn in your old ones and get new ones that save electricity or water), promoting alternative transportation such as transit and bicycling. Spring Park is going to try to integrate solar power into street lighting. The Avenue will use different lighting in its parking garage to cut its electricity usage by about half. All their applications included education/awareness campaigns, she said.

Want to read more? Here's the memo on the project that went out to City Council members.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Dead Cities, Second Cities, and more

1. A Top Ten List to Avoid: Whew! It's a list I'm mightily glad Charlotte is not on: "America's Dead Cities," from the website 24/7 Wall St. This paragraph did have me a bit worried: "Most of America’s Ten Dead Cities were once major manufacturing hubs and others were important ports or financial services [my emphasis] centers. The downfall of one city, New Orleans, began in the 1970s, but was accelerated by Hurricane Katrina." Only two cities in the South or the Sun Belt make the list, one at No. 5 and one at No. 10. (That sentence is corrected from my earlier miscounting).

2. Second City News: Tuesday's big news, in urban circles, was the surprise announcement from Chicago's Mayor For Life Richard M. Daley that he isn't running again, having served since 1989. Here's the Chicago Tribune's story from yesterday. The election is next February. "Daley's decision sets off a major power scramble following more than 20 years of stifled political ambitions in city politics" the Tribune article notes. Here are some of today's links. And here's a conversation between the New York Times' Gail Collins and David Brooks about what it takes to be a good mayor. Brooks basically gushes ("He is arguably the most accomplished mayor in America today.")

Collins, with an aside about Pete Rose, says she gets nervous gushing about any public figure who is still alive. Here's her take on Rahm Emanuel's possible candidacy: "My reaction to the idea of Rahm Emanuel as mayor is pretty much the same as my attitude toward the abortive attempt to get Rudy Giuliani elected governor. I can’t say I can imagine it working out, but I definitely think you could sell tickets to watch."

3. Urbanism and Libartarianism: Here's an interesting website called "Market Urbanism: Urbanism for Capitalists/Capitalists for Urbanism." In "Why does the Infrastructurist hate libertarians so much, " Stephen Smith writes: "Among urban planners, libertarianism gets a pretty bad rap. Melissa Lafsky at the Infrastructurist goes so far as to call libertarianism “an enemy of infrastructure,” and dismisses entirely the idea that private industry can build infrastructure ..." writes Stephen Smith. He says, "Here at Market Urbanism we’re used to these sorts of attacks from the left, and we work tirelessly to disassociate ourselves (well, mostly) from Reason’s brand of (sub)urbanist libertarianism."

Smith fingers the Progressive Movement for the end of mass transit. I wouldn't go that far, because General Motors certainly helped. But I'm reading Roberta Brandes Gratz' "The Battle for Gotham," in which Gratz, a friend of the late Jane Jacobs, writes about how Robert Moses' style of punching freeways through the city and disregard for the small businesses and people he displaces led to the city's 1970s and 1980s crime and disinvestment.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Safer driving in Charlotte? Or just less driving?

The city of Charlotte's annual study of High Accident Locations found an overall drop of 26 percent in total number of collisions in the city for 2009, compared with 2008, with fatal collisions down 5 percent.

Are we safer drivers? Would that were so. The Charlotte Department of Transportation memo to the City Council says, "While the total numbers of collisions vary from year to year, CDOT attributes some reduction in collisions to reductions also seen in vehicle miles travelled. This is a trend occurring across the country."

The top two causes for accidents? Inattention (cited 22.4 percent of the time) and "Failure to Reduce Speed" (cited 18.9 percent of the time). Alcohol use is the cause of 1.67 percent of the accidents. So while I applaud the police efforts to keep people from drinking and driving, it would seem that a far more effective way to reduce accidents and their costs (in human deaths, injuries, lost productivity and costs to those involved) would be to crack down on speeding.

Of course, I suspect that, like many drivers, some police officers just don't think speeding is a very big deal. One example among many I've : The other night in the 35 mph section of Providence Road a patrol car blew past me. I sped up to see its speed: 55 mph. No siren, no blue lights, and a mile farther down the road (I had slowed back to the speed limit by then but a traffic light had slowed the cars ahead of me) the police car was just cruising along, not appearing to be heading to any crime scene.

Here's the most recent accident report. And here's a link to the previous year's report (on 2008 accidents).

Have a great Labor Day weekend, and drive safely.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Counties seek revenue. But not here.

Eleven N.C. counties will ask voters in November to let them impose a new, quarter-cent sales tax. The N.C. legislature in 2007 gave counties a blanket to add the tax if county voters OK'd it. In a 12th county, Watauga County (home of Boone) voters yesterday rejected the idea, apparently with some help from the John Locke Foundation.

While quarter-cent sales tax votes have had mixed results for the last three years, interestingly, seven of nine counties that have already voted this year passed it. (In addition to Watauga, Davie County voters in February, nixed it.) Here's a rundown from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.

The measures had a generally mixed record in 2007 and early in 2008. None of the ones on the ballot in November 2008 passed – remember, the financial world had just collapsed.

Harnett County (home to Lillington - corrected 1:51 p.m.) is even going for a third try this November. Well, hey, the third time (last May) was the charm for Onslow County (home to Jacksonville. N.C.).

The 2007 legislation also offered counties the option to impose a land transfer tax – paid when a home is sold – if voters OK it. Of course, the state's Realtors erupted like Mount St. Helens when that one passed the legislature. A number of counties put it on the ballot right away, without taking time to build community support. Not surprisingly, given the hot opposition from Realtors and developers, none of the land transfer tax measures to date has passed.

Mecklenburg hasn't opted to try either one, though it has eviscerated its public library system and its county park and recreation budget, and county cuts played a role (state budget cuts did, ) in massive public school teacher and staff layoffs this year and last. Whether the local pols disinclination to put either option on the ballot is a result of sticking a finger into the political winds, or sane tax policy, or is a response to pressure from Realtors, to whom our politicians pay close heed – I'll let you take your pick of those options.

In general, compared to property taxes, sales taxes go down easier with voters, although economists tend to point out that compared to property taxes they're more regressive and less stable. But usually you pay sales taxes in small amounts, so people don't notice them as much as those big propery tax bills.