Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Walmart goes urban? Mayors rule? And buses return

While I was eating Thanksgiving turkey and then fighting (and losing) a cold/cough, the interesting links have stacked up in my inbox as thick as shoppers at the Apple store last weekend.

1. Here's a piece about Walmart's plans to – hold onto your reindeer antler-hat – build an urban-style store in Washington. It'll have five floors, with small-format retail lining the H Street sidewalk, Walmart behind, parking underground, and 315 apartments on the upper floors. The behemoth retailer plans several other DC stores, none as urban as that one.

I'll pause here to let SouthEnders brag about the Lowe's on South Boulevard, which wraps the back end of the big-box in condos, has small-scale retail on the street, and has rooftop parking. But that project, though hailed nationally, still has some weirdness, such as that very odd, one-story building at Iverson Way and South Boulevard. It appears to be empty. Is it a store? If so, for whom? And the big ole surface parking lot is still a big-ole surface parking lot, though a bit smaller than it would be without the rooftop parking. But even with those quibbles it's about a zillion times more urban than anything Walmart has done here.

2. Here's a look, pegged to the climate talks now under way in Cancun, at the role mayors expect to play in the fight against global climate change: "But as nations dither, hundreds of cities are pledging to rein in emissions, slash energy usage, and turn to renewable energy sources. Mayors say they see greater urgency than national leaders do." Which only makes sense. Mayors are the ones who have to deal most directly with so many problems that have little to do with partisan politics: how to fill potholes, cope with traffic, build/maintain parklands, etc. (And if you're among the declining number of climate-change deniers, you might ask yourself why you're choosing to disbelieve the vast majority of the world's climate scientists and instead prefer to believe partisan politicians, right-wing pundits and think-tanks underwritten by fossil-fuel companies. I mean, you're free to believe those sources. But, um, why?)

3. While most eyes have been focusing on either road-building, high-speed rail plans or urban mass transit proposals, the N.C. Department of Transportation has quietly expanded intercity bus service. In October it began running daily two routes connecting Charlotte (the uptown Greyhound station on West Trade) with Boone and with Fayetteville. The Mountaineer North/South leaves Appalachian State University at 9:15 a.m. daily, arrives in Charlotte at 12:50 p.m., stopping in Lenoir, Hickory, Lincolnton and Gastonia. The return bus leaves Charlotte at 6 p.m. The Fayetteville route (Queen City Connector) stops in Laurinburg, Rockingham, Wadesboro and Monroe. The return leaves Charlotte at 6 p.m.

Coach America operates the buses with NCDOT funds. Tickets are $8 to $20, depending. And yes, the buses have WiFi, NCDOT tells us. For ticket information, click here.

Buses aren't as beloved as trains, but they serve an important role in transportation. Just ask a college kid who's counting pennies, or an elderly grandparent who wants to come to Charlotte but doesn't want to drive in the big-city traffic.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What's ahead for uptown? A sneak peek

Here's a quick and non-specific glimpse of what'll be recommended in 2020 Plan for Charlotte's center city. Details will be fleshed out at a 5:30 p.m. public workshop today at the Charlotte Convention Center. All is part of the updating of Charlotte's uptown plan - the last big update was the 2010 Plan, so it's clearly time. Charlotte Center City Partners and the City of Charlotte planning department are shepherding the Center City 2020 Vision Plan.

With the help of some sources I've gotten some sense of what's to be unveiled tonight. Examples:
1. More higher education presence uptown. The consultants previously had talked about better links among UNC Charlotte, which has a new uptown building under construction; Johnson C. Smith University; Johnson & Wales University; Central Piedmont Community College; and various other higher ed institutions with operations in or near the center of the city. Blue-sky ideas mentioned previously: Maybe a joint student union for all the students? Beefed-up education opportunities in center city?
2. Solve the shopping problem. Just about everyone in the workshops wanted more shopping downtown. This is tricky for many, many reasons. I look forward to hearing more specifics from the consultants, because if this were easily solved it would have been solved by now.
3. A network of parks and green spaces. This was another popular item in public workshops. And it isn't just as easy as buying up an old parking lot somewhere, ripping out the concrete, planting grass and waiting (and waiting and waiting) for people to use it. Finding the public money, civic will and - crucial - the good design and strategic locations to create well-designed and sited green spaces will be harder than it sounds. And don't forget the "network" part. Again, I'll be eager to hear details.

Look for other strategies on cultural venues, the nexus of research-jobs-innovation, and closer attention to building neighborhood centers.

Disclosure: Observer publisher Ann Caulkins is a co-chair of the CCCP uptown plan effort. She doesn't know I'm writing this and hasn't told me what I should or shouldn't write, or even whether to write anything. You're getting my own thoughts on this topic.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Will spurned Wis., Ohio, rail money come to N.C.?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood dropped major hints today in Charlotte about more federal money coming to North Carolina’s high-speed rail plans, from funds to be reallocated away from Wisconsin and Ohio. LaHood and Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff were in town speaking to about a hundred local and regional politicians and transportation officials.

Both those Midwest states elected Republican governors this month who campaigned against high-speed rail projects in their states that had won big federal grants: $810 million to Wisconsin for Milwaukee-to-Madison, and $400 million to Ohio for the so-called 3Cs project: Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

“Some governors were elected who said maybe we don’t want to be in the high-speed rail business,” LaHood said. “We are going to reallocate some money from Ohio and Wisconsin.”
Because of North Carolina’s work already on high-speed rail (and its work on intercity passenger rail), he said, “We are going to be making some announcements about that. ... Because of the leadership of the state on high-speed rail, you all are going to be in the high-speed rail business.”

Wisconsin's Gov.-elect Scott Walker has recently been waffling on whether to give back the $810 million, suggesting maybe it could be used for other transportation needs. But Wednesday, speaking in Charlotte, LaHood was specific. "The money's going to be reallocated," he said. Firmly.

Turns out the question of reallocation came up Tuesday at a high-speed rail conference in Richmond. My colleague Jack Betts (see his This Old State blog) asked Patrick Simmons of the N.C. DOT’s rail division about the possibility. Simmons replied to Betts via e-mail: "If OH & WI do not follow through then I expect USDOT to allocate the monies where they can be put to work for the original program of investing in infrastructure, creating jobs, enhancing mobility and so on. From our years of work and previous investments NC is well-positioned to compete for these funds. Several other states will be competitive too."

(See below for more talk of reallocation, this time of streetcar money, possibly toward Charlotte.)

Other key points from the talk:

- LaHood's oft-mentioned use of the term “public-private partnerships.” Why? “There are not enough tax dollars to do all the things we want to do. We have to rely on the private sector.”

- Rogoff (right) heaped praise on Charlotte: "Charlotte has been one of our great success stories," he said. He mentioned not just the light rail but the city's partnership with the private sector (Bank of America) in building the Transportation Center on Fourth Street uptown. He pointed out Charlotte was one of only five cities to win an urban circulator grant for a streetcar and said the city's earlier work to lay the tracks [along Elizabeth Avenue] while pavement was already torn up for a street improvement “is visionary thinking.”

- Rogoff again: People try to pit transit versus highway. "I think it’s a false choice," he said. He pointed out 55 percent of all transit trips in America are on roads – by bus. "I need a good efficient road system."

More reallocation in the future?

This afternoon, amid a lengthy meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission about diminished transit revenues, Charlotte Area Transit System chief Carolyn Flowers mentioned that Charlotte was one of only five cities to get a streetcar grant in July. (LaHood mentioned the same). Charlotte, so far, is the only city still moving ahead on its streetcar, she said, and it's possible some of those federal funds might be reallocated.

FTA rules said construction must start within 18 months or the city will lose the money. Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Dallas-Fort Worth also received money for streetcars.

Photo credit: Ray LaHood in Charlotte. DAVIE HINSHAW / CHARLOTTE OBSERVER STAFF

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Art sprouts on doomed building

The long-lived but still-doomed Virginia Paper Co. building on West Third Street uptown sports new art on its boarded-up windows. It's the result of a collaboration among artists with ties to the McColl Center for Visual Arts, students at Hopewell High School, the Arts & Science Council and the Charlotte Knights.

Artist Annabel Manning, a former McColl Center artist-in-residence, worked with the students and their teacher, Ben Permeaux (a future McColl Center teacher-in-residence) on collages inspired by artist Romare Bearden, a Charlotte native and the namesake of Romare Bearden Park, which is to be built in Third Ward if/when the county parks department can find the money.

The students looked at Bearden's work, then used computer software to create their own, contemporary visions of what a Bearden collage might look like today. The vinyl panels were installed Monday on all the upper level of windows and all the windows facing Third Street. Each panel is the work of a different student.

The historic and architecturally significant building is owned by the county but has been leased for $1 a year (for up to 99 years) to the minor-league baseball team Charlotte Knights, which has planned to demolish to build a new uptown stadium. But with the economic crash, the Knights haven't moved forward with their plans. Under the lease agreement the county could void the lease if the Knights can't have their stadium ready to open by fall 2011 – which doesn't look likely. But so far the county hasn't opted to do so.

In my role as Observer editorial board member I've written before about the Knights' lack of upkeep of the building. Last summer a city building code inspection found the Knights weren't keeping the building up to code. It found trash, kudzu and standing water, as well as evidence vagrants had lived there. The new boarded-up windows resulted from that inspection.
And now, at least, some of those boarded-up windows have a more pleasing appearance. It's to the Knights' credit they've cooperated in the artistic endeavor.
Romare Bearden-inspired vinyl panels on the Virginia Paper Co. building (Nov. 15, 2010, photo by MELISSA SUE GERRITS/Charlotte Observer)
Broken windows mar historic building (Feb. 16, 2010, photo by MARY NEWSOM/Charlotte Observer)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Do cities matter? Whither the suburbs?

Do cities matter? Are the suburbs declining or healthy? I'm sharing a variety of links today that take differing looks at things. Note – I don't necessarily agree with everything written here, but found the articles of interest.

First, the Center for American Progress writes about "Trouble in the Suburbs: Poverty Rises in Areas Outside Cities." This is not unexpected: As center cities have gentrified, some of the low-income families who were displaced have moved farther out. And as jobs have moved to the suburbs, workers have followed, including those earning lower incomes. Then, the recession is forcing some middle-income families into the ranks of the poor.

The article links to a 2000 paper by the UNC Center for Community Capitalism, "Facing the New Suburban Housing Crunch," which found that the problem of finding affordable housing is not just a problem for the poor but is moving deeper into the middle class.

The article also links to this Brookings look at the new map of poverty in the U.S. It reports, "The number of poor people in large metro areas grew by 5.5 million from 1999 to 2009, and more than two-thirds of that growth occurred in suburbs." Last March Brookings had an interesting report, "Job Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty."

The natural order of land values would hold that being near the center would make land more valuable, hence most costly, hence center cities would be home to the wealthier people. That's the pattern in European cities, where the poor live in the suburbs. (The very rich have in-town homes and villas or chateaux in the country.) The U.S. has been different, due in part to federal involvement in housing programs dating to the mid-20th century, when federal loan programs specifically encouraged suburban housing and pretty much forbade federally backed loans in neighborhoods inhabited by black people or other ethnic groups. That had the effect of reserving the suburbs for white, middle-class homeowners. Of course, the disinclination of many white people to live next door to black people played a huge role, too. And large-lot, single-family zoning created large areas where only middle- or upper-income homeowners could afford to settle.

But the end of those discriminatory policies and the efforts of many cities to add more multifamily housing in the suburbs seems to be changing the U.S. suburban landscape as well.

In some ways, spreading low-income families through the suburbs is not a bad thing. As several of the articles point out, it means poverty is less concentrated. But social services and public transportation are not as readily accessible in the suburbs, where local governments may not be equipped to serve the poor the way city governments are. (This, of course, raises the question of what is "suburban"? In a city such as Charlotte, with liberal annexation laws, the city limits themselves take in plenty of "suburban" neighborhoods that, in other areas of the country, would be separate municipalities.)

Changing topics, here's a provocative piece from National Resources Defense Council blogger Kaid Benfield: " 'Cities' may not matter as much as we think - regions and neighborhoods are where things actually happen."

He starts off noting that, of course, cities do matter. He also notes the problem of city limit lines having little to do with the reality of a metro region's functioning. But, he says, not enough attention is being focused on the suburbs (he means separate municipalities). He writes: "Stormwater runoff per capita is much worse in suburban sprawl, as are emissions of all sorts (CO2 per capita from transportation). One can even make the case that we should be going easier on cities than on sprawling places: To paraphrase David Owen, why put skinny people on diets? My personal view is that our environmental framework absolutely should be tougher on sprawling places than urban ones, but that urban ones should also do their fair share to heal our ecosystems, through appropriate standards, safeguards and mitigation."

He continues: "Unfortunately, I think we remain relatively less attentive to the suburbs, largely because our crazy patchwork of municipalities makes them legally so diffuse and with very rare exceptions there simply is no regional authority to address them as a group."

Illustration from San Jose Mercury News/MCT

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

CCCP backs down from $1M market ask

Charlotte Center City Partners is backing off its request for up to $1 million in city funds to help upfit a former uptown store as a city market. Michael Smith, president of the uptown boosters' group, told me this afternoon they have "postponed" their return to the city's economic development committee to ask for the money.
Instead, he says, "We just want to be further down the road," with plans for upfitting the former Reid's Fine Foods store on Seventh Street at the Lynx light rail line (in photo, below right). The group will hear potential vendors at the market in a 4:30-6 p.m. session today, and then from the general public at a 6-7:30 p.m. public meeting and workshop tonight.

Afterward, Smith said, they'll use the information they hear to work with design firm Shook Kelly on what changes are needed to the building. (An interesting side note: When Seventh Street Station was originally being built the space that eventually became Reid's Fine Foods grocery was first designed to hold a city market.)

After coming up with the design plans – and here's the change of plans – "an organizing committee will be established to raise funds to build out the interior and exterior of the market by applying for grants from private entities, foundations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will match the private and in-kind dollars already raised," says a CCCP news release.

Whatever the gap is, between what's raised and what the upfit costs, will be what CCCP will ask the city for, Smith says.
That's a much smarter approach. I think a city market is a fine idea. But it was politically clumsy (some might say delusional, though I maybe wouldn't go that far) for CCCP to think City Council members, who got scorched earlier this year when they found $12 million to help launch a city streetcar project, would happily sprinkle $1 million big ones over a market.

As the Observer's editorial board said in a Sept. 15 editorial: "Could the market upfit happen for less than $1 million? Are other funding partners available? The city must explore those options before it plunks down a big chunk of the public's money. We'd hate to see the idea scrapped. That would be a lost opportunity. But $1 million from city taxpayers? That's going to take a lot of swallowing."
The new approach makes much more sense. The group's market consultant, David O'Neil, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture and big foundations are looking seriously at food issues and "food hubs." Further, he says, "You can spend a lot of money on these things [market buildings] and waste a lot of money."

Figure out how much you really need to do on the building – for which CCCP has procured a lease from owner Bank of America – then try to get private money and only then, if you need to, tap the public coffers. That said, it's absolutely appropriate if it's necessary for the city to kick in some money for a market. Ditto the county. Cities all over America have publicly built and- or publicly owned markets. Even little Asheboro, N.C., has a city-owned downtown market building, some Asheboro-based friends tell me. So does Hendersonville, among many other places. There's nothing odd or sinister about the idea, and a market is a great chance to help small entrepreneurs build small businesses.

But politically, right now, with schools being closed, yet more teacher layoffs looming, libraries and rec centers severely cut back, to cough up $1 million for an uptown market would go over about as well as the Ebola virus. Smart move, CCCP, to retrench and restrategize.
Photo credits: Tommie Hagood inspected produce in July at the Historic West End Market on Beatties Ford Road. DIEDRA LAIRD/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Friday, November 05, 2010

Will killing train kill jobs?

Here's a shirttail to my post on the future of high-speed trains. A company that opened in Milwaukee to manufacture and maintain high-speed train cars says if Wisconsin cancels its proposed high-speed rail project between Madison and Milwaukee, it will have to leave.

Talgo, the Spanish-owned company, is working on an order for Oregon trains. The piece in the Daily Reporter of Milwaukee says:

“We were hoping to stay in Wisconsin and we were expecting our business to grow,” said Nora Friend, a Talgo spokeswoman. “But once the order for the Oregon trains are done, we would have to shut down the facility. I don’t think that’s what the new governor wants.”

The trains to fulfill an order from Oregon are to be completed by the spring of 2012. Talgo recently hired 40 workers and expects to eventually employ 125, she said.

Gov.-elect Scott Walker has opposed the project, for which Wisconsin received an $810 million federal grant. On Wednesday the Wisconsin DOT suspended all work, although it has already signed an agreement with the federal government for use of the money. What happens next is not clear.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

High-speed rail plans still on track?

What do Tuesday's election results mean for passenger rail in North Carolina? The apparent Republican heir to the chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica of Miami, says he wants to re-examine President Obama's almost $10 billion in high-speed rail grants. He doesn't oppose high-speed rail, he told the AP, but disagrees with some of the states that won grants. Hmmm. In January Florida snagged $1.25 billion for a Tampa-to-Orlando (and eventually to Miami) line. But Mica thinks the Northeast is the only corridor that can support high-speed rail.

North Carolina won a $545 million federal grant. It was part of the stimulus package for "high-speed rail" projects, although in North Carolina's case, don't be imagining bullet trains. The state plans to use most of its half billion to upgrade the Raleigh-to-Charlotte route. It projects top speeds of 90 mph, eventually reducing the average Raleigh-Charlotte trip nearly an hour from the current 3 hours 10 minutes.

I checked in with Patrick Simmons who heads the rail division of the N.C. Department of Transportation. What does he foresee for North Carolina's high-speed passenger rail project with Republicans in charge of the U.S. House, not to mention both houses of the N.C. legislature?

Simmons said he expects additional scrutiny and questions, but that the funding the state has received is secure. The state is very close to signing an agreement with the feds, he said. "Short-term, I feel good," he said. Long-term? He expects the whole U.S. passenger rail program to be questioned at a national level.

A savvy observer might find reason for concern. After all: The Wisconsin DOT on Thursday told contractors to stop work on that state's Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail line, which had won $810 million in federal money. Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker has promised to cancel the project, although shortly before the election the current governor's administration and federal administrators signed an agreement to commit the state to spending all $810 million of federal stimulus money.

And in Ohio, the Republican governor-to-be, John Kasich, who defeated incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland, opposes to plans for faster train passenger service there - the 3Cs line connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. The Obama administration gave that project over $400 million this year.

What might it mean for North Carolina's passenger rail, I asked Simmons, that the legislature will be dominated by Republicans? He reminded me that the whole idea for the NCDOT's role in passenger rail came during the administration of Republican Gov. Jim Martin.

Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic has a good national analysis. The map is cool, too.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sustainability: Can Charlotte sustain enthusiasm?

What will the Charlotte region be like in 2030? "Charlotte 2030: A Sustainable Vision for our Region," released on Monday by the nonprofit Sustain Charlotte, paints an idealistic image of sustainability nirvana. It's a 16-page wish list put together after a gathering last spring, and includes envisioned goals in 10 different areas. Examples:

• "The region is a national leader for clean energy and green jobs,
which include research, design and manufacturing of innovative

• "Energy usage per person is reduced by at least 20% – or 1% per year."

• "Acres of parkland per person meets or exceeds the national average."

• "Economic growth is not viewed as dependent on infrastructure

• "New development takes place near existing development
or on previously developed sites (re-development)."

• "Buildings are designed for reconfiguration to accommodate
changing needs."

Now comes this pundit's commentary: Obviously our city, region, state and nation need to get a lot smarter about our energy use, develop new sources and learn to better conserve what we produce. We need to transition into a way of life that isn't so wasteful of our land, our resources and our public money. The Charlotte 2030 vision would be grand, if even half of it comes to pass.

But if I had $10 for every laudable "envision Charlotte" brochure or pamphlet or website produced in the past 20 years I'd be blogging at my leisure from the south of France between glasses of the local red while I live off my accumulated wealth. Will this effort be The One to succeed at changing the behavior of businesses and people? I confess to skepticism. I'm writing this on an election day when experts predict a takeover of Congress by a party that rejects the idea of carbon limits ("the energy tax"), vows to stymie the EPA at every turn and holds many members who cling to the notion that global climate change is a hoax perpetrated by all the world's climate scientists except a brave few. (I personally cannot envision a group of people less easily herded into a global hoax than a large collection of scientists and academics, many of whom relish bursting conventional wisdom bubbles and try their best at revisionist history.)

These are the people that a majority of voters are going to give our government to? This doesn't bode well for much action at the national level beyond continued mountaintop removal (see photo above), offshore oil spills, declining air and water quality.

So it will be up to cities, and a few states (but not likely North Carolina). Will Charlotte be one of the cities that rises to the occasion? Hard to say. Many of our elected officials are happy to be environmentally friendly until it means they actually have to displease any businesses or spend any government money on the notion.

But I'll end on a modestly cheerful note: Sustain Charlotte drew a crowd of about 60 to its launch at Trade and Tryon uptown, and is drawing on a lot of people relatively new to the region and enthusiastic about the mission. Plenty of things are happening at the small, local level regardless of what happens in Congress. And for now, that will have to suffice.

Photo: Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, victim of coal mining that removes the mountaintop. Credit - Observer file photo/AFP/Getty.