Sunday, June 19, 2011

A link for you

The new blog begins at:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The invisible city, and the visible journalism artifacts on my desk

I've written my farewell column for the Charlotte Observer, "My not-so-secret addition to news" and I'm packing up artifacts from a lengthy career in newspapers (the recycled paper bin is overflowing). But in a nostalgic way I'm enjoying finding some quotations and other snippets that remind me of why the job matters – or that make me chuckle.

For instance, I've always loved this quotation from Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities," sent to me courtesy of artist Linda Luise Brown:
"The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls."

This inspirational quote from artist Georgia O'Keefe:
“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.”

That quote lived on my cubicle wall for years, next to photographer Nancy Pierce's snapshot of roadkill (possum) she came across that – I am not making this up – had been painted with a double-yellow stripe by some not-so-observant road crews.

I found my notes from an Oct. 15, 2003, editorial board interview with then-candidate Kaye McGarry, who was running for an at-large seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board.  Someone (notes aren't clear) asked which of the sitting school board members she'd emulate if sh were elected.  McGarry answered: Molly Griffin and Lee Kindberg.

If you follow the school board you will understand that regardless of how you feel about her school board service, McGarry has not in any way resembled Molly Griffin or Lee Kindberg.

Of course, amid the very nice notes we all occasionally get from readers, you sometimes get emails like this one to me (from 2006): 
"let me say first and foremost that you are the signpost for stupidity...i can go further you ignorant slut.."  And the writer did, including phrases like .... "by the way i pray daily that williams [former Editorial Page Editor Ed Williams] will be called to a higher calling somewhere other than charlotte ....."

I found an old headline from The State in Columbia -
Death Toll 3.5 Million
In Fire At Cricket Farm

And, from the Testy Copy Editors website, this poem.:

Roving bands of youths
limped into port
after an intensive manhunt
by a disgruntled postal employee
in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood
of modest red-brick single-family homes
off tree-lined streets
in a shallow grave
in a densely wooded area
and were rushed to the hospital
in a firestorm of protest
by the Texas billionaire
and the slain civil rights leader
and the financially ailing tabloid.
In the hushed courtroom
the defendant showed no emotion
at the all-important loss column.

After Friday, I'll still be blogging but at a new site:   It's still under construction but should be operational by early next week.  See you at the new site.   

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Guerrilla tree planters, here's a project for you

(See note at end about where to find this blog after Friday.)

Today was a sunny morning, unseasonably cool for mid-June, and so I took my last 4-mile walk to my job at the Observer (Friday is my last day after 17 years on the editorial board). Only had one vehicle nearly hit me – a white SUV at Morehead and Kenilworth. At least I made him squeal his brakes.

I've chronicled some of my pedestrian adventures in my weekly op-ed columns, such as ("The foot challenge for Sun Belt cities" and "City walkability goal hits an icy patch" and "Walk this way. If you can."

This morning, I thought – not for the first time – about the possibility of a little guerrilla,  tree-planting campaign. I tend to think of this as I walk up South Tryon from Morehead Street to the Observer building at Stonewall Street.  The N.C.-owned right-of-way alongside the I-277 bridge, where those odd witch-hat/Klan-hood sculptures sit, is bare grass. It's a bleak trek across that bridge, let me tell you, and once you get past it, you sure could use some shade. What you get, though, is grass. And some "art."  (To be fair, the sculptures do offer a bit of shade at the right time of day.) But what about it? Someone want to sneak onto some of our fair city's spots-that-need-shade-trees and just plant some trees? Come December, if you see someone out there with a shovel and some oak or maple saplings, it might just be me.    
After June 17, if you want to read The Naked City blog, don't look for this URL ( because it will be disabled when I leave the Observer.  Instead, seek out Right now it's in the process of being designed (using the word "design" quite loosely). That's where you'll find me after my last day at The Charlotte Observer. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mime troupes a new secret weapon?

First, some personal news, if you'll indulge me:  After 17 years on the Charlotte Observer's editorial board I was among a small group of employees offered a buyout and I accepted it. My last day of work at the newspaper will be June 17.  That means this blog will vanish from the ether that day.

I intend to keep blogging, but I don't have a new site set up yet. Keep watching the blog before June 17 for more details about where you can find my work in the future. (And yes, I have some new job prospects but nothing to announce at this point.)

So that's why I've been digging through old files and various email folders tucked here and there.  And I've found some tidbits of things you'll enjoy.

I'll do anything, officer, just make the mimes go away ...: This article from a 2010 edition of City Journal (produced by the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute) discusses one of my favorite urban stories ever – how Bogotá, Colombia, used mimes to make people obey traffic laws.  The article tells "about former Bogotá, Colombia, mayor Antanas Mockus’s use of mimes to mock jaywalkers, reckless drivers, and other scofflaws. ... The mimes had a noticeable impact on compliance with traffic laws. The mayor reported that traffic fatalities fell by more than 50 percent between 1993 and 2003."  Want to see a photo of the mimes, and more about Mockus? (He also donned a Superman costume and acted as "Supercitizen,"  using humor to get residents laughing, but behaving better.)
I wonder if Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe has considered hiring a mime troupe to enforce (or scare) misbehaving youths at uptown's next street festival? Or would roving bands of chamber musicians serve as prevention? 

Maybe, sometimes, a pencil really isn't just a pencil: Another fun story: "Tall buildings, short architects" from Slate magazine last December.  From what we've seen in Charlotte, short bank CEOs also seem to have an affection for tall bank towers.  And those tall buildings that claim to be so green? Here's a look at evidence that after a certain point, those high-density towers are less environmentally sound than mid-rise buildings.

Monday, June 06, 2011

S.C. highway that was, then wasn't, and maybe is again

It was the highway that was, then wasn't, and now is again. The big story in Carolinas transportation planning in April was the Charleston (S.C.) County Council's rejection of a planned extension to Interstate 526.  It's notable whenever any elected officials – and especially those in reliably conservative South Carolina – say no to any highway.

But never count a highway out.  I-526 was revived with a new council vote last month that rescinded the vote to scrap it.  Its future remains unclear.  (Here's Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks on a mysterious pro-highway campaign.) Monday night, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley Jr. spoke to Charlotte City Council about historic preservation (talk about a day late and a dollar short, or maybe three decades late ...)  at the invitation of Mayor Anthony Foxx. Riley was gracious enough to let me buttonhole him about 526.  He has been a 526 supporter, and I wanted to hear why a guy who seems to understand good urbanism would want another big ole ugly interstate boring through his city. How, I asked him, could the city prevent the typical highway sprawl if this road gets built?

Riley contends the highway is needed because of the growth in motorists trying to get to and from Folly Beach and Seabrook and Kiawah islands at the far end of Johns Island. That sends too much traffic into the neighborhoods west of the Ashley River, he said. The highway will divert that beachbound traffic.

And to control the sprawl? Riley said the city and county had adopted a plan about 10 years ago to create an urban growth boundary. They downzoned a lot of land on Johns Island – even winning a landowner's federal lawsuit over the downzoning – and, at least inside the city limits, there aren't any more large commercially zoned tracts available. But, I persisted, land can be rezoned. It's not that hard. "A lot of blood was spilled," he said, over those downzonings. "The community's invested in this."

Additionally, plans are that the 526 extension won't be a typical interstate, but an at-grade, four-lane road with a tree-lined median and bike paths. It will have only two intersections, no cloverleafs, and, he said, "zero" development.

Although I'm of the belief that keeping sprawl development off a new highway is about as easy as turning lead into gold, I admit part of me thinks it would be interesting to see if this road can offer a model for a tamer way to build urban highways. It's what I (and many others) have said for years: Don't build highways inside cities. Build boulevards designed to move a lot of traffic but that add beauty, not ugliness. Cities need transportation connections, and that includes street networks. They don't need interstate highways gutting them.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A thumb in Newsweek's eye (and Scott Walker's too)

If you are more interested in urban wildlife and in a creative in-your-face video response to a newsmagazine insult than you are in transportation policy, you may skip directly to the end of this collection of links.

Rails No, Roads Yes Part: Remember Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? He's the one who became the hero/villain for, among other things, turning away $800 million in federal funds for a high-speed passenger rail project because it would have required the state to spend up to $8 million in yearly operating subsidies. Just to make sure that voters get the point that he believes Rail Bad-Roads Good, he has since proposed four dubious new highway projects that could end up costing Wisconsin taxpayers over $2 billion. The Wisconsin PIRG (Public Interest Research Group, a member of the U.S. PIRG coalition) has issued a report, "Building Boondoggles" that says that despite a $3.4 billion state budget budget shortfall, the Wisconsin governor has proposed a 13 percent increase in road project funds, with four large projects of dubious necessity. Read it for yourself at the link above.

Dylan and Infrastructure., in honor of  Bob Dylan's 70th birthday last Tuesday (Yeah I'm a week late. It was a busy week) put together its Top 10 Dylan infrastructure songs

Take that, you ignorant journos: Courtesy of colleague Tommy Tomlinson and his @tommytomlinson Twitter feed, here's a great video from Grand Rapids, Mich. –  the city's video response to being dubbed "a dying city" by Newsweek magazine. If you don't love it, you may have no heart.

Grin and bear it: There's been a boomlet of bear-sightings in the Carolinas in recent weeks, including a black bear that wandered onto the third hole at UNC's Finley Golf Course. Another was killed on a highway near Charlotte. Check out this video from the Greensboro News & Record, of what one resident found in his  back yard.  THIS JUST IN: A bear was shot and killed today at the Piedmont Triad International Airport. And the @GreensboroBear1 Twitter handle just switched to @GboroBearGhost.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pedestrians get better press

Pedestrians – and their safety – got national attention this week. And in the process, a redesigned Charlotte intersection got some national attention, too.

Tuesday, a national transportation advocacy group, Transportation for America (T4 America) released its report, "Dangerous by Design 2011," looking at what it called an epidemic of preventable pedestrian deaths. From 2000 to 2009, it said, 47,700 pedestrians were killed in this country – the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing roughly every month. More than 688,000 were injured. Nearly 12 percent of total traffic deaths are pedestrians, but, the report says, state departments of transportation have pretty  much ignored pedestrian safety if you look at how budgets are allocated. Only 1.5 percent of available federal money goes to projects to retrofit dangerous roads and streets or create safer alternatives.

The report uses a pedestrian danger index based on a variety of factors and ranks the U.S. metro areas. The most dangerous, in order: Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami-Fort Lauderdale (all in Florida), Riverside-San Bernardino Calif., Las Vegas, Memphis, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas-Forth Worth. All are Sun Belt cities, and all but Memphis saw major growth booms in the last half of the 20th century, when suburban-style development catered almost exclusively to automobiles. 

Atlanta was No. 11. Raleigh-Cary was No. 13. Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord hit No. 17.

Fully a third of Americans can't or don't drive, and for most, being able to walk places is important. They are our children, our young teens, our elderly and our disabled. The City of Charlotte has pushed hard, and admirably, in the past 10 years to make the city better and safer for pedestrians, by ordering sidewalks to be built in new subdivisions, building sidewalks where they're lacking in earlier developments, and retro-fitting intersections to add crosswalks and pedestrian refuges.  Here's to an even lower spot on the next ranking.

One of those retrofitted Charlotte intersections (at top) got national display at, with a Tuesday piece on "Morning Edition"  – "As America Ages, A Push To Make Street Safer."   The piece talked about efforts to improve safety for the elderly, both pedestrians and drivers.   Although Charlotte isn't mentioned in the piece, see that photo at the top? That's Rozzelles Ferry Road, redesigned by the city to add bike lanes, crosswalks and extended sidewalks.

Photo credit: NPR and National Complete Streets Coalition.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Council member says planning IS included

City Council member David Howard just phoned to comment on my previous post, "Charlotte's disappearing focus on planning." Howard chaired the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission before he was elected to an at-large Charlotte City Council seat.  He wants to make this point: The council committee, which he chairs, is still named Transportation and Planning. I've corrected the previous post to make that change.

The council's committees essentially divvy up the workload, vetting issues before they reach the full council. So his committee hears and gives preliminary approval to many – but not all – area plans, land use policy changes, etc.  The so-called focus areas are the issues the council makes its top priorities. He said planning has never been a council focus area, "because it's infused in everything."

Since I was fortunate enough to have the chairman of the Transportation and Planning committee on the horn, I asked him about another tidbit I had spotted while burrowing through Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton's proposed budget for the next fiscal year. This is on page 70. Deep in the text accompanying the summary of the Planning Department's accomplishments and focus, etc., under "Service Delivery Challenges," is this:

"One of Planning's challenges is updating this [zoning and development] ordinance so that it reflects desired community characteristics and recently adopted land use and urban design public policy. A more comprehensive update is necessary. This will require a tremendous amount of resources and technical expertise that Planning does not have available in-house and funding is not available. The impact of which will be the inability to fully implement adopted area plans and [not] achieving the highest quality development Planning can in our community." 

In other words – and if you follow my writing this will sound familiar because I have been beating this drum for years – the city-county zoning ordinance needs a top-to-bottom rewrite. The types of development it allows and in some cases requires can all too often completely undercut the city's adopted plans and policies.

I asked Howard about that. He said he had had conversations with Planning Director Debra Campbell about that issue while he was on the planning commission. I asked if the idea of a comprehensive re-do of the city's zoning ordinance had come up at the City Council level. "It hasn't come up to that level," he said.

As a postscript I'll note, just because Charlotte and Raleigh NEVER compete, that Raleigh has in the past few years finished a massive re-do of its comprehensive plan, adopted in 20090, and is embarked on the huge task of rewriting its whole zoning code so that it upholds the plans.  That process is in the public comment period.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Charlotte's disappearing focus on planning

So I'm poring through Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton's proposed budget today – I know you wish you could do the same, but sometimes they just pay us here at the paper to have fun like that – and I notice that the City Council's committees and their "focus areas" seem to have dropped a word from previous years. That word is "planning."

The committee formerly known as Transportation and Planning is now simply Transportation. Council member David Howard, who chairs the committee, says that while the official council "focus areas"  don't mention the word "planning," the committee name remains Transportation and Planning.  Before Mayor Anthony Foxx took office in 2009, there was a committee known as Economic Development and Planning.  When Foxx took office, it became Economic Development, and "Planning" was added to the title of the Transportation Committee, and there it remains.

Of course you can make the case that "planning" is embedded in many focus areas, such as environment, transportation, housing, etc. For the record, the focus areas are: Community Safety, Economic Development, Environment, Housing and Neighborhood Development and Transportation. Other committees are Budget, Government Affairs [no silly, this does not include Schwarzenegger, Edwards, et al] and Restructuring Government.

Pardon my bias here, but I want to stand up for the idea that planning, in and of itself, is important for a growing city such as Charlotte.

The City Council should make clear, as part of its focus areas, that planning is important. Aren't the city's plans a valued resource for the council and the whole community? If they aren't, why not, and what needs to happen to make them so? A comprehensive city plan, drawn up with massive public involvement, builds buy-in from the community toward a vision for the city's future, lays out a road map for policy changes that help get there, and builds buy-in as well for making those changes.

Planning should again become a visible part of the City Council's focus.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

U.S. lags other nations on infrastructure

While I was taking a few days off, an interesting report came out from the national Urban Land Institute  and Ernst & Young. "Infrastructure 2011: A strategic priority" details how the U.S. is falling farther and farther behind other countries. [Sorry, but it looks as if blogger is refusing to embed links today. Visit; the report is on its homepage.] It also analyzes Charlotte's situation (on Page 51), saying, "But the grand plan hit the skids in late 2010 when the regional transit agency tabled two projects — a BRT [bus rapid transit] corridor and a $450 million airport streetcar line — while sending two others, a $1.2 billion extension of the existing light-rail route and a new $375 million commuter-rail corridor, into underfunded limbo."

Looking globally, the report says that “Canada and Australia have leapfrogged the United States in confronting aging and crumbling networks, as well as employing public/private partnerships."  Here's a quote from from the Executive Summary: "The United States notably continues to lag its global competition – laboring without a national infrastructure plan, lacking political consensus, and contending with severe federal, state, and local budget deficits that limit options. Some metropolitan areas appear better positioned when they can forge plans and pool resources for new transit lines and road systems across multiple jurisdictions."

The Washington Post report on the study includes this tidbit: "The report envisions a time when, like Detroit, U.S. cities may opt to abandon services in some districts and when lightly used blacktopped rural roads would be allowed to return to nature."

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Business subsidy? NC-SC state line makes big difference

A reader's reaction to the Observer's Sunday editorial about's decision to scrap its planned S.C. distribution center, when the S.C. legislature nixed a five-year sales tax exemption, led me to discover this report that ranks states for their openness in publicly disclosing state subsidies for new businesses. (The chart you'll want to see is on p.7.)

The report from the nonprofit Good Jobs First grades North Carolina a C+ but ranks the Tar Heel state No. 3. South Carolina rates an F and is one of 14 states clumped at the bottom of the rankings. Is it something in that weird mustard-based barbecue sauce?

Monday, May 02, 2011

What's fastest-growing U.S. city? Hint: Southern, suburban

Bloomberg Businessweek crunched the numbers. It found a town that grew 838 percent between 1990 and 2010, going from 3,567 to 33,484 people. Since 2000 it grew 63.47 percent. 

If that sounds like Huntersville, or maybe Indian Trail, well it isn't. It's Olive Branch, Miss., about 20 miles south of Memphis. Here's the Memphis Commercial Appeal article. And here's the Businessweek article.

The analysis looked at year-over-year growth in households, 2000-10, and other factors, such as the 2010 average length of residence and the change in average household income from 2000 to 2010. But household growth was the dominant factor. The Businessweek article notes that it didn't go strictly by city or municipal boundary lines. By its measures, the fastest-growing city in North Carolina was Cary. The site notes that the Raleigh-Cary metro area was the fourth-fastest growing in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010.

And the fastest-growing city in South Carolina is Charlotte's just-over-the-line neighbor, Fort Mill.  

About cities, and New Orleans

David Simon, creator of "The Wire," has been giving a lot of interviews lately. In this one, with, he talks about the role of cities in U.S. society and politics.  Because this is a blog for a family newspaper, I've had to delete some expletives. He's talking about his latest HBO show, "Treme," set in New Orleans:
"This show, if we do it right, is an argument for the city. For the idea of American urbanity, for the melting pot, for the idea that our future can’t be separated from the fact that we are all going to be increasingly compacted into urban areas, though we’re different in race and culture and religion. And what we make of that will determine the American future.
I listened during the last election cycle to the rhetoric about small town values and where the real Americans live. I thought to myself, “I’ve never heard such b-------t in my life.” Rural America’s not coming back. That idea was lost with the Industrial Revolution. And yet with more than 80 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas, there are still demagogues who want to run down the idea of multiculturalism, of urbanity, being the only future we have. We either live or die based on how we live in cities, and our society is either going to be great or not based on how we perform as creatures of the city."
 And here, he talks about why New Orleans is unique among American cities:
 "... Corruption is endemic. Yet, people came home and they continue to come home. This city comes back because it's New Orleans.

The rest of America, with some small exceptions, has been bulldozed and rebuilt and then bulldozed and rebuilt again. Our places have become interchangeable. Here, everything from the architecture to the way in which people eat, the way in which they talk, the way in which they do business, the way in which they dance, the manner in which everything is set to a parade beat, they're all from here. There's no place like it.

What city has given the world more in terms of American culture than New Orleans? There is none. Not New York. Not L.A. Not Chicago. Not anywhere, in the sense that African American music has gone around the world twenty times over, and it's continuing to evolve. It is our greatest cultural export."

Friday, April 29, 2011

'Clock Tower of Babel' now fixed, now broken again

Here's an update on the piece I did Tuesday, which mentioned that the clock tower on the new Little Sugar Creek Greenway at Kings Drive and Morehead Street was not keeping the correct time.

It came in response to a question from Joe Mattiacci of Charlotte, who wrote to the Observer Forum, asking, "
Why do we need a huge clock tower on the new greenway at Kings Drive and Morehead anyway? Everybody in Charlotte seems to have their face in some sort of electronic device much of the day where the time is readily available."

And, he asked, "Why do we have a clock that hasn't kept the correct time since it was erected? Who is responsible for this episode of another public waste of money?"

Answers: It's not public money. The Rotary Club of Charlotte raised the money for the clock tower, which was designed by LandDesign. Gwen Cook, a planner with the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department, said a recent electrical storm had affected the clockworks (by the Verdin Company in Cincinnati, Ohio), which was working with the county department to fix the problem.

This morning, reported, "The clock is working correctly. It's a feature that we'll keep an eye on to be sure it's not affected by storms. There is good surge protection. ... [We] Will continue to monitor."

Oops. About 6:15 p.m. she emailed to say the clock was lagging again. She said Verdin is sending a service technician next week.

Photo credit: Mary Newsom.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grateful East Meck grad's gift keeps giving

I've just returned from one of those events that perks up not just your day, but your whole outlook. I am here to report something that many of you know, but that too many pundits, experts and so-called reformers seem not to: Urban public schools are not universally failing.

Further, if you want to promote strong teaching, consider putting this into your reformer toolkit: Support teachers, instead of attacking them.

The event was a fundraiser for East Mecklenburg High School's All-Star Teacher Initiative, part of the school's 60th anniversary this year. The initiative, funded by a half-million-dollar donation from a grateful 1973 graduate, Bob Silver (above, at top of tree), aims to attract, reward, train and retain excellent teachers.

If you don't know the story of East Meck and Bob Silver, here's the short version: Silver, after having made a lot of money on Wall Street and grateful for his high school education, called the school in 2005, telling then-principal Mark Nixon he wanted to make a donation. Nixon told him they sure could use a new overhead projector. No, Silver said, you don't understand.

He offered $500,000 – challenging the school to raise enough privately to match it. The school did, including raising $265,000 in one hour at a 2007 fundraiser luncheon.

East Meck, opened in 1950, today has 1,700 students, about 60 percent from low-income families. Principal Rick Parker read some demographics: 48 percent African-American, 26 percent Caucasian, 15 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian. A third are in the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program; 95 percent of graduates go to college.

The All-Star Teacher Initiative every year gives each teacher $200 or $300 for classroom supplies and equipment not provided by the school system. Cards on the luncheon tables highlighted some of what the money does: 60 teachers have taken Spanish so they can talk with non-English-speaking students and their parents. Teacher Robin Kolodziey wrote about ASTI helping buy "lab materials for our Enzyme lab, DNA extraction, Osmosis and Diffusion, and cell model building. All of these things used to come out of my family's finances! These things are fantastic!"

Teacher Connie Wood wrote, "You lift us up when it seems everyone else is putting us down. Thank you."

The school chorus sang, as did a gray-haired a capella trio, Class of 1953 – Sam Biggers, Charlie Crabtree, Verner Jordan, who got their start harmonizing in a school bathroom. A new Eagle mascot costume was unveiled to replace the bedraggled one. The crowd was clogged with alumni, including former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot ('58), Moira Quinn ('73), former City Council member Velva Woollen ('57), WCNC TV anchor Sonja Gantt ('83), and of course, Silver.

Why, I wondered, can't other schools do this? As ASTI coordinator Joan O'Brien will tell anyone, it doesn't require a half-million. This city, this country, are crawling with proud alumni from Charlotte's public schools. Wouldn't it be grand if foundations could be set up for ALL Charlotte-Mecklenburg public high schools, and then all the middle schools? (OK, I'll stop thinking big.)

None of this willing fundraising should get the county commissioners and the N.C. General Assembly off the hook for putting enough money into public education, even if it requires keeping a "temporary" sales tax, or asking property owners to pay a wee bit more.

But, as I wrote in 2009, "After all, plenty of local wealth routinely pours into the city's private schools. Charlotte Country Day holds, among other things, the Levine Center, Claudia Watkins Belk Hall, another Belk Hall, Gorelick Family Theater, Bruton Smith Athletic Center and Rea Hall. Charlotte Latin has Thies Auditorium, Belk Gymnasium and the Beck Student Activities Center. Among the buildings at Providence Day is the Dickson-Hemby Technology Center. I hope the example of Bob Silver ... will inspire many of the accomplished CMS alumni to try, in whatever way they can, to help their own alma maters."

Our public schools, many of them, are succeeding. They need our support now, more than ever.

For more information, contact Joan O'Brien -, or 980-343-6430, ext. 312. The East Meck High School Foundation website appears not to be functioning at the moment, but here's its address:

Photo: Students from East Meck's class of 1973 pose in a tree: (From left) Mike Kastan, Bob Silver, Bill Adams, Moria Quinn and (front) Mike Bennett. Photo courtesy East Mecklenburg High School.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's NOT a user fee, it's a gas tax. And other tidbits

Are we cutting our way to wealthy consumers living in filthy communities?

I'm clearing out the inbox after several days out of the office. Here's some of what I've found:

Cutting our way to filth:
Lanny Reavis of Gastonia sent along a quote from John W. Gardner, in response to my op-ed from last Thursday, "A bright city future dimmed by cuts." Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, was secretary of health, education and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. It's from Gardner's "The Recovery of Confidence" (1970):

"Tax reduction has an almost irresistible appeal to the politician, and it is no doubt also gratifying to the citizen. It means more dollars in his pocket, dollars that he can spend if inflation doesn't consume them first. But dollars in his pocket won't buy him clean streets or an adequate police force or good schools or clear air and water. Handing money back to the private sector in tax cuts and starving the public sector is a formula for producing richer and richer consumers in filthier and filthier communities. If we stick to that formula we shall end up in affluent misery."

Of course, to be balanced I must also report another email, either from Don Caudle (sorry, he didn't include where he lives) or from someone using his email: "Just what part of 'there is no money' do you liberals not understand...."

Gas tax = user fee? Think again:
Friend and fellow writer Alex Marshall sent a link to his recent piece in Governing magazine, in which he argues that the gas tax is NOT a user fee. And, he responds to a rail critic, Kenneth Orski, who wrote: “Pres. Eisenhower’s ambitious plan for the interstate highway system was placed on a sound fiscal basis by being backed by a user fee (a.k.a. the gas tax).” But high-speed rail, Orski said, “burdens the states with continued operating subsidies.”

Er, no, says Marshall. He writes, "President Eisenhower put the interstate highway system on a sound fiscal basis by burdening states with a continued operating subsidy for it in the form of the gas tax."

That Clock Tower of Babel:
Joe Mattiacci of Charlotte sent this query to the Observer Forum. He titled it, "Clock Tower of Babel":

"The first question one might ask is why do we need a huge clock tower on the new greenway at Kings Drive and Morehead anyway? Everybody in Charlotte seems to have their face in some sort of electronic device much of the day where the time is readily available.

"The second question would be why do we have a clock that hasn't kept
the correct time since it was erected? Who is responsible for this
episode of another public waste of money?"

The answer: You may not like it, or think it was necessary, but the clock was bought with private, not public money. The Rotary Club of Charlotte raised the money. Gwen Cook, a planner with the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department, explains: "The clockworks were provided by the Verdin Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, and paid for by the Charlotte Rotary Club, a gracious gift to the new greenway. Verdin has been in business for over a century."

She said the electrical problem with the clockworks began with an electrical storm a few weeks ago. They're working with the vendor to diagnose the exact problem, in order to fix it. The repair costs aren't on the taxpayers' dime.

And for those curious about why the clock tower looks as it does – I've heard some grousing by designer-types about the stonework, balustrades and urns – the designer was LandDesign, which designed that whole section of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.

Ride with (and lobby?) your mayor: Friday you can bike with Hizzoner and whichever other local celebs/pols decide to come along.
Arrive at 7:30 a.m. (no need to don spandex though you may if you wish) to ride from the lot behind the Dowd YMCA, 400 E. Morehead St., to a free breakfast at the plaza next to Two Wachovia Center uptown. It's all part of BIKE!Charlotte activities from April 29-May 15. For more information: Ken Tippette, or 704-336-2278, or Neal Boyd or 704-503-0138.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

20 cities to avoid - or not? has put together an interesting slide show of 20 cities you don't want to live in ... yet.
With each are a few paragraphs about that city's problems and its good points, too. Not surprisingly, Detroit tops the list. Flint, Mich., is on there, too. And Fresno and Stockton, Calif., as well as Jackson, Miss., Little Rock, Ark., and Birmingham, Ala.

But I started looking at the unemployment rates listed with each of the so-called loser cities – and I don't think they're loser cities, but certainly troubled ones in many cases. The Charlotte regional jobless rate tops those of Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis, and possibly even Detroit. The blurb just said Detroit is "above 10 percent." As is this region's jobless rate: 10.7 percent in February. Mecklenburg's rate in February was 10.2 percent. Hmmm - unemployment worse than Detroit? That would not be a Charlotte Chamber slogan you'll be seeing anytime soon. Though it does portend sinking pay and desperate workers, which might attract some jobs ...

Seriously, it's a quick and interesting snapshot – based on someone's set of criteria – of some cities. As the article quotes Bert Sperling of saying, in many cases young urban pioneers are moving back into the distressed cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans, attracted by the housing prices and urban opportunities.

(Naked City is taking another long weekend break. I'll be speaking Thursday in Beaufort, S.C., at 6:30 p.m. at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, 921 Ribault Road. The lecture's free and open to the public so if you're in that neighborhood, come on by. Sponsors are the Beaufort chapter of CNU Carolinas, the City of Beaufort, and Brown Design Studio.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why high-speed rail debate's a disaster, how to fix it

Bruce Babbitt, the former Interior Secretary (1993-2001) and Arizona governor 1978-87, thinks the national debate over President Obama's push for high-speed rail "has, to put it mildly, been a total disaster."

In terms of marketing, he told a group of journalists today, Obama goofed in comparing a new national high-speed rail initiative to the intercontinental railroad in the 19th century. That infrastructure initiative, Babbitt noted, is inextricably linked in history books with a huge corruption scandal, the Credit Mobilier. A much better comparison, Babbitt said, would have been the interstate highway system.

Today many people look back on the interstate highway-building project as if it was a unanimous hug-fest. In fact, Babbitt said, many governors opposed it when it was first proposed. They rejected the idea of a federal tax. Major businesses such as the concrete and steel industries didn't like the federalization. Eventually, though, after "protracted discussion," agreement was forged to raise the gas tax and create a trust fund – the product of "a lot of good, solid brokering."

Why not, he proposes, bring something of that process to a high-speed rail venture in the only region that, today, has a sound network of passenger rail – the Northeast? What about a regional compact for a regional gas (or other) tax, for regional high-speed rail? It might be a model for other regions. (Or not, as he pointed out.)

But he was also a bit pessimistic that seven regional governors could get together even on this kind of project. Someone asked why. "I was a governor," he replied.

The conference sponsors are the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Nieman Foundation, and Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

Larry Summers - Debt ceiling politics 'unconscionable'

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Turning the issue of raising the debt ceiling into a political tool is "simply unconscionable," economist and ex-Obama adviser Larry Summers said this morning.

Speaking at a forum for journalists at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy , Summers said using the debt ceiling issue for political reasons "is the moral and practical equivalent of inviting children to play in a room full of dynamite."

Summers, ex-president of Harvard, ex-Treasury secretary (1999-2001) and director of National Economic Council for the Obama administration, 2009-11, said the U.S. economy is coming back, noting how rarely you hear people talking about a double-dip recession anymore. Corporate profits are healthy, and so on and so on.

Most of his talk was about what it was like to be inside the Obama team after the 2008 election and early in 2009. Things were so bad that jobs were being lost at a faster rate per month than at any time since those statistics had been kept.

The basic economic theory that you learn in Econ 101, about markets and the way the economy works as an equilibrium (Demand up? Supply goes down. Supply up? Prices down; demand up. Etc.) is "basically right most of the time." But, he said, "two or three times a century a different dynamic takes hold." The self-equilibrating function gives way to an avalanche of de-stability, a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to a downward spiral. (Less consumer spending? Jobs go away. Fewer jobs? Less consumer spending. Etc.)

Obama decided that confidence could be the cheapest form of stimulus. He decided it was more important to boost confidence than exact "vengeance" (interesting word, especially from a guy like Summers) against the people who caused the problems, e.g. the banking, mortgage and financial industries.

Then began a fight over how best to use stimulus money. Summers described the tension between people wanting projects that could get done quickly and the visionary projects.

" 'Shovel-ready' is the great American lie," he said. Bureaucrats knew that projects always take longer than you want, he said, noting that the "Hoover Dam" opened in 1937. (Hoover lost the presidency in 1932.)

When the stimulus money arrived at state governments, he said, "It can only be described as a urinary Olympics between the governors and the mayors." The governors tended to think the mayors were "a bunch of useless slugs."

Summers essentially defended the decisions the Obama administration made - no surprise. And he said the lack of criminal prosecutions for the financiers who brought our whole economy down is likely because no crimes were committed. "Being stupid is not a crime," he said. "Lending money unwisely is not a crime."

He did make something of an exception for the former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, whom he noted was being criminally investigated, and then the investigation was dropped.

Next up to speak is ex-Mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty. The conference sponsors are the Lincoln Institute, the Nieman Foundation, and Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Atonement: Bringing Gumby back

If you read my Thursday op-ed, "Some good ideas, in need of patrons," you may have noticed the end section, about getting Gumby back.

The whole sordid episode involving New York sculptor Joel Shapiro – whose career in 1987 was just starting a sharp upward trajectory – was embarrassing at the time and helped firmly entrench a national image of Charlotte as a city of rubes and rednecks.

Our city art commission had chosen his proposal for a 22-foot bronze work, a collection of rectangles resembling a human in motion, for the front of the to-be-built (and now demolished) Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. But one art commission member, Robert Cheek – who later went to prison for cocaine trafficking – didn't like the choice. He helped whip up popular scorn. Either Cheek or deejays John Boy and Billy dubbed the figure "Gumby," after the green clay animated figure.

Ultimately the City Council, which in those days had final say on public art purchases, nixed it 7-4. History note: Voting against the work were Richard Vinroot (later to be mayor), Ann Hammond, Al Rousso, Ron Leeper, Roy Matthews, Gloria Fenning and Minette Trosch. Trosch said she feared repercussions on the public art program if they accepted the art. Voting for it were Cyndee Patterson, Pam Patterson, Charlie Dannelly and Velva Woollen.

Of course, the "Angels in America" spat 10 years later didn't help. Just as people elsewhere were starting to forget how many Charlotte folks were keen to make fun of art, we reminded them that many here were also so homophobic they'd kill funding to the arts because a theater group performed a work that depicted gay men.

Cut to 2011. I see the affection people have for Niki de Saint Phalle's "Firebird" – dubbed Disco Chicken by some – at the Bechtler. You can hardly go by (and since it's between my office and Amelie's coffee shop, I go by it a lot) without seeing someone photographing someone else at the Firebird. The temporary exhibition of large Saint Phalle works in the park across from the museum draws a steady stream of viewers, including children scampering through that huge skull. (Be sure to go inside, where it's mirrored and blue and serene.) The Bechtler, filled with modern art, is drawing great crowds.

I think Charlotte has matured. Finally.

The whole episode was painful for Shapiro. He later told the Observer's Richard Maschal it was "a low point" in his career. Shapiro was at that 1987 council meeting. Our old files have a photo from the meeting, with Shapiro looking on as a speaker holds a clumsy wooden contraption saying it was something he made in fifth grade. The photo caption doesn't say that the speaker was making fun of Shapiro's work, but that would certainly be my guess.

Seeing which way the vote would go, Shapiro left before it was taken and returned to New York. Today his work is in major museums all over the country, including the National Gallery and the N.C. Museum of Art. You can see it at Davidson College. You can see it in Greenville, S.C. But not in Charlotte.

So why don't we try to bring that Shapiro work back to where it should have been all along? Although it would have cost $400,000 in 1987, today his works can sell for seven-figure (corrected) sums. This would take patrons with significant money. Queens Table, where are you?

Would Shapiro consent to this? He might not. But maybe he'd see that this city has grown and changed. Sure, there are plenty of people (including some politicians) who think any sculpture other than soldiers on horseback is weird, or who look at a Picasso and say, "My fifth-grader could do that." But that's true in New York as well as Charlotte. The difference is that there are plenty of people here today with a much wider appreciation of art.

Plus, I think there's a reason the name "Gumby" stuck, even among Shapiro supporters who were angry and embarrassed about the whole thing. Even the tiny wooden model had life and spark, and so much personality it demanded a name. So Gumby it became, and Gumby is how it is remembered in local lore.

Now it's time to bring him home. After all, Disco Chicken needs a buddy.

Photo: 1987 Observer file photo of Joel Shapiro with a model of his proposed sculpture. Photo by Diedra Laird.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Our mayor in Spandex?

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, at his regular news briefing Thursday, mentioned that he's been teaching his kids, 6 and 4, to ride bikes and said he went out and bought himself a road bike, the kind with toe clips that he's still learning how to use.

The last few days, he said, "I've gone out at 5:30 in the morning and gone down to the Little Sugar Creek Greenway." He talked about wanting to make the city friendlier to bicycling.

All of which leaves the obvious question, which yours truly was the only journalist in the room willing to ask: "So, are you wearing Spandex?"

Foxx: "I'm not answering that."

Which I think means he must be.

So, dear readers, if anyone wants to volunteer to be a citizen journalist and go down on the greenway at – as my friend Brenda would say, "O-dark-thirty" – and try for a mayoral Spandex sighting, please let me know what you discover.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Devlopers, JCSU want city money for catalyst project

Should the city help Johnson C. Smith University and a private developer with a project on West Trade Street? The council will likely be deciding that question in coming weeks.

Monday night JCSU official Malcolm Graham – a former City Council member whose other hat is to be a state senator – and Mike Griffin of Griffin Brothers showed the council plans for Mosaic Village, which would be student housing subsidized by JCSU, with street-level retail and a parking deck. Griffin said the project has a $4 million financing gap. Coincidentally, that's almost exactly the cost of building the parking deck.

Graham and Griffin didn't ask the council for any specific help, or lay out a specific request. The matter goes to the council's Economic Development committee. Mayor Anthony Foxx noted that the city has a corridor revitalization strategy.

West Trade and Beatties Ford Road have languished as other neighborhoods near uptown began to blossom. But things are afoot. The Wesley Heights neighborhood nearby has had growing numbers of urban pioneers moving in. JCSU's president, Ron Carter, has made a point of trying to better link the school with both its immediate community and the larger Charlotte community. Take a drive up West Trade and you'll see an area ripe for fresh projects – which would raise the tax base and thus, help city and county finances over time. Would this one be the catalyst the area needs? Or money down a sinkhole? Or somewhere in between?

That's what the City Council will have to figure out. Despite the usual crowd of naysayers who object to almost all city spending beyond the bare basics, smart city investments can have a big payoff later. Example: When the city bought the unused rail corridor along South Boulevard. Now it's the Lynx light rail. South End has seen millions of dollars worth of private investment – new building, rehabs, new business. But as always, knowing which investments are "smart" will be tough part.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Road planning from the disco era - the rest of the story

In putting together my op-ed, "Road planning from the disco era," the limitations of space and time required me to leave out some juicy tidbits. You lucky blog readers now may read the rest of the story.

I wrote that the N.C. Turnpike Authority is required by the feds to analyze impacts/effects of the very roads that the authority is, by law, expected to build. The point here is that the legislature, for example with the 1989 Highway Trust Fund, decides to build roads well in advance of any detailed and painstaking analysis of whether the damage they'll do will be worse than their benefits. Today, significant questions have been raised about both Gaston County's Garden Parkway and the Monroe Bypass – the latter having been ordered up by legislature in 1989.

Let's let politicians, not planners, choose the routes. March 17 the General Assembly passed, and the next day the governor signed, a bill that in essence requires the N.C. Turnpike Authority to consider only one route – the most sprawl-inducing one – for the proposed Triangle Expressway Southeast Extension toll road, a link of Raleigh's I-540 outer loop. The bill, sponsored by Wake Sens. Dan Blue, D, and Sen. Richard Stevens, R, appears to box the turnpike authority into such a spot that it might not be able to meet federal law. The feds require analysis of several alternatives.

"We think that they've probably backed themselves into an untenable corner," says David Farren of the Southern Environmental Law Center. He adds, "What's most outrageous is just the idea of going as far out as you possibly can, which means the road is longer, the road is more expensive and it's more sprawl-inducing." The SELC has filed two lawsuits contesting what it says are improprieties and falsifications involving the federal impact study for the Monroe Bypass.

Why spend only $15 million when you can spend $800 million? Another tidbit that didn't make the column: The SELC found a 2007 NCDOT study showing that for $15 million, traffic flows on U.S. 74 in Union County could be improved significantly by changing lights, timing and intersections. The N.C. Turnpike Authority, engaged in studying the $800 million Monroe Bypass which aims to alleviate congestion on U.S. 74, didn't even know that study existed, Farren says.

The state doesn't do land use planning. And Richard Nixon wasn't a crook and Bill Clinton never had sex with that woman. When the state plans highways, it engages in land use planning. Next time the state agrees to spend your tax dollars to build a bypass for a city that hasn't had the sense to say no to congestion-causing highway sprawl development, the state should not pony up dime one until the local government enacts unambiguous land use and zoning ordinances that will prevent said sprawl, including single-family subdivisions, from the new bypass.

The chances of that happening? About like snowballs in hell.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Find the bad bridges in N.C., S.C.

If you get a shiver whenever you drive over the Yadkin River bridge on I-85 between Rowan and Davidson counties, you might find it instructive to spend a few minutes seeing how your county, and your state, compare nationally in a ranking of deficient highway bridges.

The nonprofit Transportation for America coalition has pulled together an online tool that lets you see state and county stats on highway bridges deemed deficient by the federal government. Here's the North Carolina page. The Tar Heel state ranks No. 14 in the percentage of deficient bridges, 13 percent.

Rockingham County, north of Greensboro, is the worst county, with 33.6 percent of its bridges rated deficient. In the Charlotte metro region, Cabarrus is worst - No. 4 in the state - with 25 percent.

South Carolina is right there with us, ranking No. 15, also with 13 percent of its bridges deficient. The three worst states, in order: Pennsylvania (26.5 percent), Oklahoma (22 percent), Iowa (21.7 percent).

It's hard to see how this isn't yet another problem confronting our national and state transportation policies, where (my opinion here) disproportionate money has been spent on building new highways with little regard for the costs of future maintenance.

The group's assessment of the roots of the problem: "Two key problems persist: while Congress has repeatedly declared bridge safety a national priority, existing federal programs don't ensure that aging bridges actually get fixed; and the current level of investment is nowhere near what is needed to keep up with our rapidly growing backlog of aging bridges. Did you know that states can transfer up to half of their federal money dedicated to bridge repair to other projects, no questions asked?"

Here's a link to the page describing what data was used.

And for the record, the NCDOT is working on rebuilding that Yadkin River bridge.

Photo credit: Yadkin River bridge, in 2007 Observer file photo

Monday, March 28, 2011

Highway tales from the crypt

It was like a quick, surprise trip to the mindset of the 1980s. Or maybe like one of those horror movies when something you thought was dead turns out to be twitching in the grave, still alive.

I dropped in on a group of regional elected officials and other civic-leader types who'd gathered Monday afternoon to talk about "next steps" for the worthy-but-unsexy goal of regional transportation planning, with the Centralina Council of Governments moderating a series of conversations by a study group.

It's one of those under-the-radar issues, boring but important if you think a metro region should act like, well, a metro region and not a bunch of unrelated local governments, especially when it's dealing with something as important – and as costly to the taxpayers – as transportation. As I've mentioned previously (some might even say ad nauseam), the Charlotte metro region has possibly the most fragmented transportation planning of any metro area in the country. Gaston County isn't in the same transportation planning group as Charlotte. Cabarrus County isn't either. Ditto York County, S.C., and ditto the whole Lake Norman area.

It was as the group was talking about the need to articulate a vision for the whole region, that the zombie idea arose from the crypt. Gaston County commissioner Joe Carpenter started talking about how it felt like, as Yogi Berra used to say, "deja vu all over again." He recalled the era from 1988 to 1992, when a regional coalition, the Carolinas Transportation Compact, pushed for – if you said mass transit, or farmland preservation you lose – for an outer-outerbelt highway around Charlotte.

Carpenter then unfurled a large map of the route of this mythical highway, long lusted after by suburban land developers.

Because why have only one outerbelt if you can have two? Haven't we all seen how well Charlotte's first outerbelt has relieved congestion, led to smoothly flowing traffic, trimmed the region's carbon footprint, helped create walkable neighborhoods and made transit easier to implement? Imagine the wonders if we could spread our Pineville- and Ballantyne-style development all over the region's farmland?

Then-state Sen. Jerry Blackmon had conceived of the idea of a 13-county outer-outerbelt, 30 to 50 miles from Charlotte, in the mid-1980s. Planning continued throughout the 1980s, out of the public eye although land speculators such as Robert Pittenger, later a state senator, bought land along its route. In 1993 its cost was estimated at $2 billion.

Although the Carolinas Transportation Compact backed it, there was a Carolinas Urban Coalition of nearby cities which opposed it, foreseeing that the sprawl it would engender would empty their struggling downtowns. "I find the idea inconceivable," said then-Charlotte City Council member Lynn Wheeler. "You could take gasoline and pour it on the city of Charlotte and the other cities and light a match. It would have the same effect."

The newly elected Gov. Jim Hunt was not a fan. "The outer-outerloop strikes me as just being a little farfetched," he said in early 1993. "I'd be very concerned about spending money on that." And after that, Observer articles on the outer-outerbelt dwindled. And in the intervening two decades thinking about urban transportation has changed dramatically. Highways have been shown not to relieve congestion, as hoped, but to create it. Willy-nilly suburban growth has been shown to be, in many cases, a net loss for local government revenues rather than the hoped-for boost.

As Carpenter (who's also a big backer of the dubious Garden Parkway through rural southern Gaston County) spoke, I noticed that the meeting's chair, Dennis Rash – a former N.C. transportation board member and a one-time key lieutenant to ex-Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. – wasn't saying much. I asked him later about the outer-outerbelt idea. Is that what we are to see from a group looking for regional transportation planning? He noted, drily, that the old outer-outerbelt idea had been conceived during a time when the federal government was paying for 90 percent of the cost of highway projects. Those days are gone, probably for good.

And that should be the fate, as well, of yet another outerbelt highway through the Piedmont around Charlotte. Please, no more rising from the crypt for this one.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I'm taking a week off

I'm on furlough the week of March 21-27, and no work is allowed. So I'll be taking it easy - sort of - and back on the blog Monday March 28. Happy spring, everyone.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

City pulls plug on proposed loud music measure

City Attorney Mac McCarley tells me the city staff is pulling the plug on a chunk of its proposal to change the city's noise ordinance. A new version will be offered Monday at the 3 p.m. public hearing that, McCarley says, aims for a balance that won't hurt performers and bars that aren't causing problems for neighbors.

The ordinance change has made a lot of musicians, bar owners and nightlife denizens angry, and McCarley said, they've been heard. (Read some of the Observer's coverage here -- Mark Washburn - "New noise rule is music to our ears" ; "Pub owners decry new noise limits" ; "Debate over outdoor music in Charlotte")

The proposed change to the ordinance would have barred "sound amplification equipment out of doors or directed out of doors" for live music or "other forms of entertainment" at a business if the amplifiers are less than 400 feet from residences. It would also bar amplified sound outdoors (note the outdoors, please. It doesn't apply to indoor music) at a business that's audible on residentially zoned property.

When I talked to McCarley about noon Friday, he said he and his staff were still working through exactly what they'd propose to the City Council but that it would be aimed at businesses that cause problems and try to protect those that don't.

How (not) to be a creative city

I was recently walking down the sidewalk beside the Lynx light rail, and I spotted some colorful banners alongside the tracks. They added a festive touch, I thought. Then I read them.

They said: "Create" and "Splurge" and "Thrive" and my favorite, "Groove." I found this interesting. It had the flowery fragrance of promotional marketing. I checked. Yep, the banners are part of a rebranding effort for South End.

Now I am not against promotional marketing. In an advertising-based industry, how could I be?

But somehow, being ordered to "Thrive" reminded me of a time, years ago, when the walls of the Observer building sprouted posters ordering us all to "Work Smarter." As if we would all slap our heads in recognition of our heretofore obvious stupidity and decide to mend our ways.

The promotional effort, courtesy of Charlotte Center City Partners, the nonprofit uptown advocacy group that also serves South End, partnered with a South End design/branding firm. They want to highlight "the brand attributes of the district" which they believe to be shopping (hence, "splurge"), residential ("thrive"), art galleries and creative businesses ("create"), and hospitality and nightlife ("groove").

I called three creative types from around town, plus my college-aged daughter and asked if anyone ever says "groove" any more. "I don't think so," said commercial film producer Peggie Porter. "I hear people say 'groovy' in a sort of ironic way."

"No one I know says groove," said the text my daughter sent from Chapel Hill.

Filmmaker Dorne Pentes, though, said he still sometimes hears people say "groove."

What about the rest of the banners and being ordered to "create"?

"I think that would be the least likely thing to make me feel creative," Porter said. "It sounds like Chamber of Commerce stuff to me," Pentes said.

As one branding/marketing expert told me (no name because this person needs business and can't afford to tick people off), "In the brand world, what things ARE is most important, not what you say they are. That's what we focus on with clients. Get them away from slogans."

Colorful banners? Nice touch. Sloganeering in a supposedly "artsy" part of the city? Not so creative.

A note about spacing: For some reason today refuses to put spaces between the paragraphs. I tried deleting the old spaces, putting in new "enter" lines, the works. No luck. Does anyone have any solutions for this?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Why DO conservatives hate trains?

Found while looking up something else: An interesting piece in, "Why do conservatives hate trains so much?"

Writer David Weigel dissects the opposition and notes it's more libertarian than conservative (other than a delusional George Will line about trains – "...the real reason for progressives' passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism." Whoa, George, you might wanna dial back the paranoia a tad.)

Libertarians, Weigel notes, don't have a problem with transportation. What they and some Republicans have a problem with is federal spending on transportation. But then, the article goes on to note, "Amtrak passengers pay more of the cost of their transportation than do drivers on the interstate. About 62 percent of Amtrak's operating expenses, according to the Department of Transportation, comes from fares. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the percentage of highway spending paid for by users—in the form of gas taxes and tolls—is headed below 50 percent."

Weigel goes on to quote other reasons some conservatives don't like rail transit, although little of what he reports as their reasons square with the reality that highways are just as expensive, just as prone to go over budget, just as heavily subsidized.

Ultimately, in my opinion (and Weigel gets at some of this) conservatives don't like rail because liberals do. Some people will do anything in order not to be in the same camp with people whose beliefs they disdain. This is not limited to politics, of course, and seems to be a general part of human nature. Have you ever been around UNC and Duke basketball fans? They make liberal-conservative spats look tame.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Old depot may yet escape bulldozer

Photo courtesy Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission

The historic passenger depot off Freedom Drive, the Thrift P&N station, may yet be saved from demolition. A complicated property deal is in the works, involving the depot's owner, CSX railway, as well as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission and the N.C. Department of Transportation.

As I first wrote in November (City may seek landmark demolition) the station dates to the Piedmont and Northern electric suburban rail system developed by power company and tobacco magnate James B. Duke and power company executive William States Lee (who ran the forerunner of Duke Energy). The railway opened in 1912; passenger service ended in 1951. The station, designed by prominent Charlotte architect C.C. Hook (he designed the Duke Mansion and old City Hall), is the last P&N passenger station in Mecklenburg County.

It's a designated landmark, but in North Carolina designated landmarks can be demolished if the owner desires. The old depot was caught up in the city's new, well-intentioned nonresidential building code, adopted last April and aimed at cleaning up dilapidated, blighted buildings. CSX hadn't kept the old depot in good repair, and after an inspection the city ordered repairs or demolition. CSX applied for a permit to demolish. The city-county landmarks commission has power to delay demolitions for a year and did so.

Walter Abernethy, the city's code enforcement manager, told the City Council on Monday that an agreement had been reached to save the depot. He might have been a wee bit prematurely optimistic. Dan Morrill, the consulting director for the landmarks commission, says that CSX has
has agreed to withdraw its demolition application for a year to let NCDOT and the landmarks commission try to put together this scenario:

• NCDOT acquires property nearby, across track. If it succeeds, NCDOT allows the depot to be moved onto that new site.
• CSX would then donate the station to the HLC. The HLC would move the station to the new site and restore it for an interim adaptive reuse. CSX might donate some money for the move and restoration, Morrill said.
• If and when NCDOT acquires the former P&N track for passenger use (it owns about 15 miles of the railway, some near uptown Charlotte but mostly in Gaston County where re-opening freight operations) then NCDOT would buy the station from the HLC for use as a passenger. But currently NCDOT has no plans for passenger rail along the line.

Obviously, the plan hinges on NCDOT acquiring land. But if all the pieces fall into place – still a big if – in a weird sort of irony the demolition threat may well end up having saved the old depot from what was starting to look like "demolition by neglect."

Monday, March 07, 2011

NCDOT chief: No more bypasses of bypasses

Don't expect the state to build your city a bypass to compensate for the existing bypass your local governments have glopped up, State Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said today. "Those days are gone," he said.

OK, he didn't say "glopped up." That's my description. Conti dropped by the Observer editorial board today in between local meetings in town – a business roundtable at UNC Charlotte, and he'll be at the 5 p.m. Charlotte City Council meeting for a discussion about recommendations for the Independence Boulevard project (also see this link, for more information).

He was being questioned about two toll road projects, the so-called Garden Parkway in Gaston County (See "Money-waster road will induce sprawl"), and the proposed Monroe Bypass. Both highways are needed, he said. That's his story and he's sticking to it, obviously. After all, the legislature has ordered them both, and Conti's job is to produce the roads he's charged with.

Neither of those highways, of course, is worth the taxpayer money that will be spent. But the Monroe bypass is at least an attempt, however uncreative, to ease a terribly unpleasant drive along U.S. 74 through Monroe and Union County.

The problem, of course, is that you can hardly go anywhere in North Carolina, or even in the country, and not find a state-taxpayer-built highway envisioned as a "bypass" that has become a traffic nightmare because the local government involved allowed extreme highway glop to be built along it. Even places as comparatively traffic free as Albemarle have clogged bypasses. Shelby wants a bypass of its bypass. They are all what former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has referred to as "corridors of crap."

So, I asked Conti, should the state's taxpayers reward those towns with another new bypass?

His reply: "Well, no."

"All of us would benefit from a much greater collaboration on those growth issues," he said. He said the DOT is trying to work to bring local governments more into transportation discussions.
"The days of just trying to continually build bypasses of bypasses, those days are gone," he said.

So Shelby, Albemarle, Asheboro, Ramseur and all the other N.C. towns that have allowed corridors of crap along your state highways, be forewarned.

The realist in me, though, requires me to mention this: If the legislature orders a highway to be built, as it did via the Highway Trust Fund of the late 1980s, there's not much a DOT secretary can do about it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Historic church gets saved on Seigle Ave.

It looks as if the Seigle Avenue Presbyterian Church sanctuary won't be demolished. Neighbors, church members and other interested parties found a local builder-developer who has contracted to buy the old church property. Monday night the Charlotte City Council granted a 90-day delay in the city's demolition order.

As I wrote in my Jan. 28 op-ed, "Once-loved sanctuary faces the end," the church may not be an architectural gem, but it and its congregation played a notable role in ongoing efforts here to create more racially integrated congregations. It was, I wrote, "a small congregation, racially integrated for more than 40 years. For decades that 1950 sanctuary was home to a group of African-American and white Christians puzzling their way through barriers of race, income, gender, class and other inequities – a journey so difficult that many other people and groups in Charlotte have not really begun it."

The congregation split over a variety of issues, with many long-time former members of both races joining Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church. The remaining Seigle members moved up the street to another building five years ago and put the old property on the market. But the real estate slowdown, the three buildings' bad condition and the lack of parking made it a difficult sale. The city's new building code for non-residential property, when applied to the church property, resulted in a demolition order. In January the City Council granted a 30-day demolition delay, after the church's real estate agent said he thought he had found a buyer.

Monday night, the buyer himself – Brandon Brown of Green City Development – told the City Council he would close on the property in about a week and asked for 150 days' delay in the demolition order so he could tear down the oldest building and start repairing the sanctuary and fellowship hall. He's also asking to buy 2 city-owned acres behind the church to use for more parking; those negotiations will be more complex and his purchase of the church isn't contingent upon that separate land purchase.

Brown said he'd like to turn the church sanctuary into a restaurant (he didn't use the example of Bonterra in Dilworth, but I will) and the fellowship hall into a coffee shop or office. The City Council gave him a 90-day extension of the demolition. Brown was good with that.

The city's nonresidential building code is well-intentioned but it's having the effect of threatening historic landmark buildings, as I wrote in November's "City May Seek Landmark Demolition." (The Seigle Avenue church building wasn't a landmark.)

Observer file photo below showing the front of the sanctuary was taken in 1993.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

'City-Suburban Smackdown' and other news

Cities v. Suburbs: The Carbon Smackdown: The in "New Study: Suburbs Can Pollute More Than Cities" reports on a new study that may set some conventional wisdom on its ear: "When blame is assigned for greenhouse gas emissions, big cities typically receive more of it than smaller cities and suburbs. But a new report in a recent issue from of Environment & Urbanization suggests casting a more nuanced net of responsibility. In fact, contrary to popular wisdom, cities can have a per capita rate of greenhouse gas emissions that’s astonishingly lower than rates in their surrounding suburbs."

Schoolyard Fight – Green V. Urban: This article from the Boston Globe, "Green Building," is making the rounds among landscape architects, urban designers and related folks. New Urbanist leader Andres Duany (a graduate of Princeton and Yale) is picking a fight with Harvard's Graduate School of Design. When Duany was in Charlotte earlier this month he told me one reason he was kicking up dust was to energize young New Urbanists. It's a movement, he said, that needs people with the energy to enjoy Sisyphean tasks.

Ex-mill town nurtures its downtown. Kannapolis, a one-time mill town built and dominated for decades by the Cannon family and Cannon Mills, was for years the largest unincorporated town in North Carolina. It finally incorporated in 1984. It's an interesting place, especially if you're keen on N.C. history, because many of the mill houses, built for the textile workers, still exist. So does the Williamsburg-style brick downtown.

Cannon Mills became Pillowtex, which abruptly closed in 2003, sending thousands out of work. The former Cannon Mills Plant No. 1 was demolished to make way for the still unfinished N.C. Research Campus. (I'm leaving out a lot. For more, see the N.C. Research Campus site here.)

Kannapolis is working on a new downtown plan. Here's a link to a draft of the plan. And here's an article from the Independent, by former Observerite Karen Cimino Wilson. A big problem: Since the huge mill closed the downtown stores have suffered. Among the proposals: Transforming Dale Earnhardt Boulevard/Loop Road from a suburban highway to an "urban boulevard." Building a City Market building. Creating better gateways to the downtown area.

K-12 Transportation Costs: Charles Marohn, New Urban Network writes about what he sees as school transportation policies that subsidize inefficient development patterns. In the New Urban Network, he writes: "Door-to-door transportation for K-12 students may seem to be a compassionate policy from a society that values both students and education. That may be the intent, but the transportation mandate ultimately takes money from classrooms to subsidize our inefficient, post-WW II development pattern. In the end, it also devalues traditional, neighborhood schools in favor of the remote, campus-style we now build."

Be forewarned. Marohn makes explicit that he's not considering the considerable issues of race and school integration: "Again, I'm not trying to get into a broader discussion on race. I'm not thinking that big," he cautions.

With Gov. Bev Perdue proposing making counties, not the state, responsible for buying school buses – one gigantic unfunded mandate – and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for all practical purposes resegregated anyway (I'm not supporting that, but acknowledging reality) it's past time for CMS and the city and county local governments to work together to make it easier for kids who do live within a mile of schools to be able to walk there safely. And for CATS and CMS to figure out better ways to collaborate. And for parents to stop being afraid that putting a 10-year-old on a city bus is a huge risk, when in fact the much bigger risk is putting a kid into a private auto. Remember, car wrecks are the leading cause of death for Americans ages 1-35.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Knoxville + Charlotte = Same league?

While folks in Charlotte are still elated over being selected for the 2012 Democratic National Convention, The Economist magazine has deftly slid a stiletto under the city's civic ribcage:

In its Feb. 10 issue, "Changing leagues: What landing the convention says about North Carolina’s biggest city," the writer quotes Charlotte Center City Partners' Michael Smith: "“We’re changing leagues.”

The magazine goes on to describe the city: "It has a couple of professional sports teams, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a sleek new light-rail system and a decent but hardly remarkable smattering of museums and theatres. It seems just one of several pleasant, medium-sized cities—such as Knoxville, Richmond and Norfolk—between Washington, DC, and Atlanta."

Keeping in mind that Charlotte's estimated 2006 population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau was 630,478, it's instructive to note that the Census Bureau also reports:

• Richmond's 2010 population at 204,000 and Norfolk's at 242,803.
• Knoxville? Its 2006 population estimate was 182,337.

All those years of spending, building, scrapping and clawing and climbing by the fingernails into the NBA and the NFL, building towering phallic bank and energy company skyscrapers to prove the city's virility, were they for nothing? Can it be possible that to the rest of the world, which now appears not to have been paying the least bit of attention, Charlotte is still considered a "pleasant medium-sized city," maybe about like Knoxville?

Ouch! Ooof! Uggghh! And grrrrr!!! You can hear the teeth grinding up and down Tryon Street.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Urban acupuncture and the American Dream

We now live in the Century of the City, so called because last year the global human population counter rolled over the 50 percent mark – More than half the world's people now live in urban areas.

But in the U.S., the 21st century will also have to be the Century of the Suburb – the re-imagined suburb. That's particularly true in Sun Belt cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta, Orlando, etc., where such a large proportion of land is given over to postwar suburban development. In coming years we'll have to decide how to, as Georgia Tech architect and author Ellen Dunham-Jones puts it, re-inhabit, retrofit and re-green those areas.

The imperatives are economic, environmental and demographic.

1. Carbon and greenhouse gases. If we're to avoid creating even more damaging and destructive changes in the world's climate (increasing droughts, floods, snow or burning heat, depending on where you are) for our kids and grandkids to deal with, then an excellent way to shrink U.S. production of greenhouse gases is to reduce how much people drive.

Even for people who insist on believing that all the world's climate scientists (who compete with one another and back-bite as avidly as any other professionals) have joined to perpetuate a worldwide hoax, there are other excellent reasons to reduce the U.S. driving habits: the cost to households and businesses of higher fuel prices, not to mention driving itself, with transportation taking an average 19 percent of U.S. household income; depending on other countries for our fuel; air pollution; the vast cost of building and maintaining roads and streets to accommodate ever-more driving.

2. Demographics. Population realities are converging to favor urban/multifamily/higher density development. Gen Y (aka the Millennials) have a clear preference, at least at this stage in their lives, for urban environments. Meantime, many aging boomers will be selling their houses and moving into condos or apartments. Many of them will also have to give up driving due to infirmity, illness or eyesight, so they'll be looking for neighborhoods where they can walk to stores and medical offices.

3. The emerging obesity epidemic. Driving more means exercising less. Human beings haven't suddenly lost their ability to have will power. We have structural issues that are making us fat. One of them is that we don't walk much anymore, because we have to drive.

4. Suburbs on the brink. Many of the postwar suburban neighborhoods (and by "suburban" I mean low-density, auto-oriented neighborhoods or towns carved up into single-use zones) are fading. To be sure, many thrive and will continue to, even as the market for single-family houses stagnates through oversupply (see item 2, above). But already, many cities including Charlotte are puzzling over fixes for dead or dying enclosed malls, derelict strip centers and big box stores, and neighborhoods with dwindling property values and rising crime and social problems.

I was privileged to spend Saturday moderating a conference in Raleigh, sponsored by the N.C. State College of Design, looking at the problem of, and opportunities for, inner-ring suburbs – which generally means those built in the late 1940s through the 1960s.

The clear consensus was that cities and metro areas will have to learn how to encourage more development closer to their core, and to build more transit lines. Some tidbits from some of the speakers:

• William Hudnut, former mayor of Indianapolis (he joked about "India-No-Place") gave a definition of "sustainable" that I liked: "Stuff that endures." He said the first-tier suburbs are "the place where blight can either be stopped or spread farther out." He used a term I love: "urban acupuncture," which he attributed to Brazil's Jaime Lerner, a former mayor (Curitiba) and state (Parana) governor. The idea is to be strategic with well-placed interventions that help heal the surrounding area.

"Progress is not always new," he reminded the crowd. Other advice: Eradicate ugliness, and "multiply picnics." Finally, he offered a pertinent quote from Ernest Hemingway that I intend to repeat often: "making strong the broken places."

• Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia, author of "Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities," showed how, when looked at based on 30-year amortization, streetcars are a cheaper form of mass transit than buses. "The cost of buying buses, this year, is cheaper," he said. But long-term, building and operating streetcars is cheaper for transit systems. He showed slides of old streetcar rails popping out of the pavement (no, he didn't have a photo of the one on North Tryon Street) "wanting so much to be used."

• Ellen Dunham-Jones of Georgia Tech, co-author of "Retrofitting Suburbia," noted that "nobody is plowing down existing neighborhoods" but instead there are opportunities to build infill, especially on what she called "underperforming asphalt." It requires creativity and innovative ways of developing, she said.

Wrap-up speaker Patrick Phillips, CEO of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, made the point that close-in neighborhoods can have a great appeal due to their proximity to employment centers and to transit options – unlike far-flung “exurbs,” he said, many of which are seeing high rates of foreclosures in the recession. And he used some research from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, looking at Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, that showed that when transportation costs are figured in, exurban areas that look most "affordable" are, in fact, the least affordable. (See "Penny Wise, Pound Fuelish.")

The wrapup? Marvin Malecha, dean of the NCSU College of Design, took aim at today's use of "the American Dream" to mean a house in the suburbs. Come on, he said, isn't there in fact a different dream that we all have? "The real American Dream," he said, "is that our children will be OK."