Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday reading, til Dec. 27

I'll be on vacation until Monday Dec. 27, so you'll have to make do. To keep you busy 'til then, here are a few links to interesting stories:

• Greensboro's Kristen Jeffers writes in about the distressing lack of black, female "urbanists." "When I look around," she writes, "I mostly see only one type of person associated with the urbanist label: young, white, and male. ... The word 'urban,' when it's associated with African-Americans, is often synonymous with housing projects, poverty, and the poisoned legacy of urban renewal. " She's an MPA student at UNC Greensboro concentrating in community and economic development. (Here's her blog, The Black Urbanist.)

The state of Oregon is considering a measure to ban single-use plastic checkout bags.

Fort Worth's City Council has pulled the plug on further study of a downtown streetcar. This appears to mean the city won't accept a $25 million federal grant. (Hey, wonder if any of that now-available streetcar money might float Charlotte's way?)

A study at University of California-Berkeley finds that at any given moment there are at least 500 million EMPTY parking spaces in the U.S. Says Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor and author of the book "The High Cost of Free Parking." "[Parking] is the single biggest land use in any city. It's kind of like dark matter in the universe, we know it's there, but we don't have any idea how much there is."

CNN puts Charlotte on the map. Literally. In a piece, "Can streetcars save America's cities?

Utah mom cited for neglect for letting her kid walk to school by himself. Note: The school system, in budget cuts, took away his school bus. Coming soon to a CMS school near you?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How's NCDOT doing in reducing emissions? Er ...

It's distressing to see North Carolina ranks a dismal 37 in a new report assessing whether state transportation policies support reduced motor-vehicle emissions, which cause pollution as well as affecting global climate change.

The report, released Tuesday, is "Getting Back on Track: Aligning State Transportation Policy with Climate Change Goals," from two environmentally oriented nonpartisan, nonprofits, the National Resources Defence Council and Smart Growth America. It focuses on transportation because it's the second largest emitter of climate-changing pollutants after power plants.

Although every president starting with George H.W. Bush has called for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the report notes, nationwide emission rates have gone up 27 percent from 1990 to 2007. While more efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels could mean large GHG emissions reductions in coming years, the report says, a projected 50 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 2030 will undermine those savings. "Without bringing down transportation emissions, it will be impossible to achieve the reductions scientists have deemed necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change," the report says.

It looked at which states have adopted transportation policies and goals to help reduce GHG. No state got a higher grade than B-, most scored lower than D. Most states, it found, make decisions that will likely increase emissions.

The federal government did not get off unscathed. The report points out that while the feds require a 50 percent local match for public transit projects, highway and bridge projects usually get 80 percent federal money, with only a 20 percent local match. Also, a large proportion of federal aid funding is divvied up according to formulas based on VMT, fuel consumption and highway lane miles. States that work to reduce VMT and fuel consumption would be penalized when it comes to getting federal money.

California, Maryland and New Jersey topped the state rankings. All of North Carolina's neighbors scored better: South Carolina was No. 28, Virginia 12, Tennessee 25. At a telephone news conference Tuesday, NCDOT's Jim Westmoreland, the deputy secretary for transit, defended the state, saying, "We're a definite work in progress." He noted that projections are for VMT in North Carolina to double by 2030. That will make it even more important to promote mass transit and other travel modes. Westmoreland noted the state's high-speed passenger rail investments, and gave a shout-out to Charlotte's successful light rail line.

And he pointed out that the N.C. Board of Transportation in July 2009 adopted a Complete Streets Policy, which means it considers pedestrians and bicycles as well as motor vehicles in designing new projects.

All to the good. Let us hope the next such survey finds North Carolina pushing into the top 10, instead of trailing our fellow Carolina to the South.
Photo credit: 2002 Observer file photo of Charlotte skyline, by John D. Simmons

Monday, December 13, 2010

New property tax source for Mecklenburg?

As more local governments such as Mecklenburg County find themselves in intense revenue pain, more are looking to their well-funded nonprofit institutions, which don't pay property taxes. In programs called "payments in lieu of taxes," the nonprofits make voluntary contributions in recognition that they use local services but pay no property taxes.

A new report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy on "Payments in Lieu of Taxes" finds at least 117 municipalities in at least 18 states are using them. Large cities collecting PILOTs, as they're called, include Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The report notes that PILOTs aren't appropriate for all types of nonprofits. They're most appropriate, the report says, in local governments that rely heavily on property taxes, and for nonprofits owning large amounts of tax-exempt property and that provide modest benefits to local residents.

Some PILOT programs are done case by case, such as New Haven, Conn., and Yale University. Boston has a systematic PILOT program that creates more equity among the nonprofits.
The report notes that Duke University Medical Center in Durham pays a $300,000 fire service fee paid to the City of Durham.

In an era marked by teacher layoffs, library closings and cuts to important public health and educational services, is it time for Mecklenburg County to start talks with some of its larger and big-property-owning nonprofits?

Hyong Yi, the county's budget director, tells me Mecklenburg County isn't getting any payments of this sort from any nonprofits in the county and he didn't know of its being discussed locally. Nor is Charlotte budget director Ruffin Hall aware of any to the City of Charlotte.

Obviously, there are many sides to consider beyond simple tax revenue: How financially stable is the nonprofit? What services does it provide to the community that might make up for its lack of property tax payments? What services does it require from the community? Should a PILOT program apply to churches? What about nonprofit hospitals, such as Carolinas HealthCare System, which owns a ton of real estate, or Presbyterian Hospital? Several other states ended up in lengthy court battles over nonprofit hospital properties and whether they should be taxed.

The report's authors offer several cautions. A news release about the study says:

“PILOTs can provide crucial revenue for certain municipalities, and are one way to make nonprofits pay for the public services they consume,” said the report’s authors, Daphne A. Kenyon and Adam H. Langley. “However, PILOTs are often haphazard, secretive, and calculated in an ad hoc manner that results in widely varying payments among similar nonprofits. In addition, a municipality’s attempt to collect PILOTs can prompt a battle with nonprofits and lead to years of contentious, costly, and unproductive litigation.”

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Foxx's 3 C's - including consolidation

Mayor Anthony Foxx made a series of proposals, some of them sure to be controversial, in his State of the City speech this morning – his first since being sworn in as mayor last December. Among them:

• He reiterated his belief that city and county governments should ultimately consolidate. "It will never happen if we don't start now," he said.

• He'll convene a regional group early next year to develop a plan for bringing the region's fractured transportation planning organizations. Most metro regions have one regional transportation planning body. The Charlotte region has six, or if you count Hickory, seven. "The time has come," Foxx said, and said he wanted the regional group to come away with "concrete steps." He said: "The time has come."

• He wants to create a board of experts who'll take a comprehensive look at after-school programs and create a competitive grant-making process, akin to the federal Race to the Top for state school systems. The city still funds some after-school programs, but has cut its funding to others.

• Charlotte City Council, he said, should be prepared to support state legislative agendas of fellow elected bodies such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He endorsed raising the cap (now at 100) on the number of charter schools the state allows. And with CMS facing "staggering cuts," he said, the City Council shouldn't have reduced its funding for school resource officers and school crossing guards. (Here's reporter Steve Harrison's article on that.)

The city in the coming year should focus on what he called the 3 C's: Consolidation, Collaboration (i.e. regionally) and Children.

It was obviously not the sort of speech you'd have heard from former Mayor Pat McCrory, the seven-term Republican who shied away from speechifying about public schools in general and CMS in particular. (That may have made him the wiser politician, of course. CMS in general is a topic that gets many people's blood boiling, from both ends of the political spectrum.)

I saw no one in the crowd I recognized as a Republican, and plenty I recognized as Democrats, but of course people don't have to wear badges. So while Foxx offered congratulations to incoming N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, and incoming Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, both Republicans, and even threw them a political bone with the recommendation to lift the charter school cap, I wonder if that will do much for bipartisanship. "We look forward to working with you," Foxx said. Then he quipped, "And we desperately hope you (the legislature) won't take any of our money."

But Tillis wasn't there. Nor were any Republican elected officials.

Foxx ended his talk with a nice little vignette, asking the crowd to recall the cathedral builders of old. Some workers, he said, spent their whole lives just moving stones from one place to another, and never lived to see the cathedral they were building. As a city, he said, "If we don't move those stones to the proper place the cathedral will never get built."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

An urbanist's gift-book list has released its annual list of the Top 10 urban planning books. Take a look.
I haven't yet read and thus can't in all honesty recommend any of them but one - "What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs," a collection of essays by well-known urban writers looking at cities and the issues cities face. The idea was to put into practice Jacobs' technique of looking at the real world and how it functions instead of letting your view be clouded by insisting on applying theories, whether of planning of economics, regardless of whether the facts showed something different.

Mary Rowe's piece on getting to know Jacobs, who died in 2006 in her adopted home of Toronto, is filled with warmth and close-eyed observation.

Roberta Brandes Gratz writes, in vigorous prose, about the crucial importance to "green" building of preserving buildings instead of demolishing. Ans she quotes one of my favorite passages from Jacobs' masterwork, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" about how creative entrepreneurs and new business start-ups must have the inexpensive space that new buildings simply can't offer:

"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation – although these make fine ingredients – but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings. ... Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

I haven't finished the book; it's a good one to dip into when you need an urban-writing fix.

If you missed it, here's the 2010 Planetizen book list. I can recommend Anthony Flint's "Wrestling with Moses" as an exceptionally readable history/biography of New York's parks/highways/everything czar (and you thought Obama's czars had too much power?), and Jacobs and their struggles to shape New York. In addition, "The Smart Growth Manual" by Andres Duany and Jeff Speck is a readable little handbook with simple prescriptions, such as "Design public places around existing trees," and " Designate civic sites in each neighborhood." Under the heading, "Price parking according to its value," is this: "Of course there is never enough parking. If pizza were free, would there ever be enough pizza?"