Monday, January 31, 2011

When introverts hold office

I'm live-blogging from the Charlotte City Council's retreat. I'm also Tweeting, follow @marynewsom.

I caught some possibly significant discussion for a time this afternoon, post-lunch and before the current budget presentation. Facilitator Mike Whitehead pointed out that most of the council members are "sort of introverted," which means there's a tendency for less communication. "You flaming extroverts know who you are," he said, and laughter erupted from the table where Andy Dulin and James Mitchell are sitting. Those two are not what I'd peg as introverts.

Then Whitehead gave the formula he says is sometimes used in corporate America NC = MSU. That stands for "No communication? Then people make stuff up." The lesson, he said, is to communicate better with each other, so people know what's going on.

And, he said, you could communicate better with the media. (Colorful type font for emphasis is mine.) Answer questions and give data, he said, especially since a lot of the data is public record anyway.

But Mayor Anthony Foxx said he'd had experiences when C = MSU "and that's a problem" He has sometimes talked to council members ("and you know who you are") and then they tell reporters something else. Hmmm. So I think he just accused some council members of lying to the news media. If you're a journalist, let me note, the only thing surprising about all that is for the mayor to call it out publicly.

TARP saved our rears, economist says

I'm live-blogging the Charlotte City Council's retreat. Follow me, also, on Twitter @marynewsom. And see my previous post: "Charlotte's economy shows a lagging city."

At the Charlotte City Council retreat, council member James Mitchell asked the panel of economists' opinion of the stimulus spending.

UNCC economics professor John Connaughton said, "But for TARP we would all be selling pencils on the street corner." We were that close to collapse, he said.

He goes on to say that if the U.S. is to regain its economic standing, "It's not going to be in stealing manufacturing jobs from China." Instead, in his view, it's going to be in selling high-level services to the rest of the world, which makes an educated workforce even more important.

Charlotte's economy shows "a lagging city"

I'm live-blogging (and tweeting – and Tweeting, follow me @marynewsom) from the Charlotte City Council's yearly retreat. We're about to hear from three economist-types about the 2011-12 economic outlook.

Council members were 45 minutes late for this session, as they all went out to West Charlotte for the Project LIFT announcement.

12:09 p.m. - Wells vice president and economist Anika Khan predicts Charlotte won't recover the jobs we lost until 2014-15. Says unemployment won't get as low as 8 percent until 2012. She calls Charlotte "a lagging city."

12:15 p.m. Anika Khan says the local apartment market "starting to take off." "We have still a way to go with the Charlotte office market." Said retail still has an 11.3 percent vacancy rate.
She concludes, "Charlotte is positioned for growth. But it's going to be slow and very modest."

12:17 p.m. John Connaughton, UNC Charlotte econ prof and director of the UNCC Economic Forecast, opens by saying, "I'm far less optimistic." He points out that North Carolina lost 283,000 jobs since recession started. Last year, he said, NC added only 10,000 jobs. That leaves 273,000 to go. "You can do the math," he says, about how long it'll take to make up the jobs at that rate.

12:25 p.m. Connaughton predicts it will be 5-6 years before Charlotte gets back to the same level of employment the city had at the peak in December 2007. Many of the jobs lost are blue-collar jobs that aren't coming back, he said.
Also, there's a "new normal" and people aren't buying as much. Since 71 percent of the U.S. economy is personal consumption, he said, that means slower growth.
And "consumers are just not happy campers" he said. "Consumer confidence has been hammered." Consumers don't see job numbers that make them comfortable.

12:35 p.m. - Connaughton now talking about risk of double dip recession if oil prices go up much higher. For every 50 cents that gas prices go up, he says, it takes $150 billion out of U.S consumer pockets. He used to think the double-dip recession wasn't likely. Now he's not so sure.
He noted the huge cash reserves that banks are holding. "There's plenty of cash out there. It's just not getting into the hands of small businesses," he says. That's one thing that's a real killer," he said.

Connaughton also pointed out the need for North Carolina to restructure its tax policies. Property tax revenue will rise, but slowly, he said. But the state depends too heavily on the sales tax, which (see "new normal," above) is becoming a smaller and smaller share of economic growth.

12:50 p.m. - Matt Martin, senior vice president of the Federal Reserve in Richmond, is less pessimistic than Connaughton.
He says the construction jobs we saw at the peak aren't coming back. It was 6 percent of U.S. GDP at the peak, he said, which was high for historic norms. Now it's less than 3 percent.
And the lost manufacturing jobs won't come back, either, he said.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Historic streetcar - an expose of sorts

Historic streetcar rail exposed on North Tryon Street. Photos by Mary Newsom

This posting is an excuse to share some photos that history enthusiasts and rail-lovers might enjoy. Pavement flaws in North Tryon Street uptown have exposed the reality that the city's old streetcar tracks are still down there. Here's a hat tip to Les Epperson of the city's Special Services division, which cares for some key parts of uptown. When I was interviewing him about sidewalks and snow removal (see last Saturday's op-ed, "City walkability goal hits an icy patch"), he mentioned that streetcar rails were visible where the pavement was worn, in the 500 block of North Tryon. I took a walk last week and sure enough, in front of the First United Methodist Church, I spotted them.
The rails aren't in very good condition – not surprising for metal that's been paved over multiple times. Epperson said not all the rails remain; some have been removed for various street projects.

For the record, Charlotte's last streetcar was put out to pasture in 1938. Streetcar No. 85 was the centerpiece of a "Good-bye To Trolleys" celebration at The Square on March 14, 1938. That car ended up being found in a Huntersville pasture in the 1980s, restored and then it ran for about 10 years, operated by the nonprofit Charlotte Trolley, on what are now the light rail tracks down South Boulevard. It was put out to pasture again – this time to the CATS light rail barn – and awaits its next mission.

Charlotte, like many other U.S. cities, hopes to bring back streetcar service, but its plans don't include North Tryon Street. Still, I like to imagine someone jackhammering up the asphalt on North Tryon and Car 85 running on those old rails again. In reality, of course, the condition of the rail (see close-ups below) and the missing rails make that impossible.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Threats to historic buildings - from the government

The owner of the landmark P&N Railway Depot (above) wants to demolish it rather than meet city's code demands.

You may have read the op-ed I did in November ("City may seek landmark demolition"), pointing to an unintended consequence of the city's new non-residential building code – several demolition orders going out to designated historic landmarks that weren't in good repair.

Or maybe you caught the WFAE report last week on the Davis General Merchandise store, a century old historic landmark which has been ordered to make repairs, and whose aging outbuildings were ordered demolished if repairs weren't made.

Yes, this is yet another example of your city government and city elected officials being oblivious to the value of old buildings and historic buildings – and not just landmarks – when they adopt city policy. They're not necessarily hostile, just oblivious to the issue. Witness the happy ease with which planners and council members adopted zoning standards for transit-station areas that allow buildings so tall they'll alter the property value landscape, making smaller older buildings in places such as NoDa worth so little compared to the land they're on that owners won't even blink before razing them for towers.

As today's Observer editorial ("Historic landmarks? City turns blind eye") points out, City Council members say they didn't even discuss, when talking about the proposed ordinance last spring, what its effect might be on historic buildings. That's telling.

Walter Abernethy, the city's code enforcement director, says the issue did come up during stakeholder meetings before the ordinance was proposed. But the ordinance has little in it to protect landmark buildings.

Ted Alexander, with Preservation North Carolina, points out that PNC has covenants on the Davis store to protect it – though whether that could prevent demolition is, for now, an open question. (I've asked Ted but haven't heard back yet.) And it's important to remember that the city hasn't ordered demolition of the store and isn't pushing for it. It just wants repairs, which owner Silas Davis would have to pay for. Davis, when I talked to him Friday, was irate about the whole situation and said he didn't have the money for the repairs.

But as the editorial points out, it's the historic old Thrift depot that faces the more immediate threat. Its owner, CSX railway, would prefer not to spend what it would require to bring the building up to code. It's asking for a demolition permit. Because it's a landmark, the county historic landmarks commission can delay the demo for up to a year, but can't prevent demolition.

A few N.C. municipalities have gotten special legislation to let them absolutely forbid demolition in some selected cases. New Bern, for instance, can forbid demolition in its historic districts, although there are some procedural hoops everyone has to jump through.

Is the city's oblivion toward historic landmarks due in part to the governmental organization that has the landmarks commission lodged as part of the county government? Possibly. But notice that the Historic District Commission (not the same as the landmarks commission but with some similarities), is part of the city's planning department.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Parking lots as polluters

We know driving creates pollution: ozone, other toxic tailpipe emissions such as particulates, contaminated water that runs off streets, the heat island effect of the asphalted street and highway network, etc. etc. But until now, few people had studied the polluting effect of parking lots.

But Eric Jaffe, in The Infrastructurist, writes about new work from researchers at University of California at Berkeley that looks at energy and emissions related to America’s vast parking infrastructure. The researchers write,

"The environmental effects of parking are not just from encouraging the use of the automobile over public transit or walking and biking (thus favoring the often more energy-intensive and polluting mode), but also from the material and process requirements in direct, indirect, and supply chain activities related to building and maintaining the infrastructure."

There's no national inventory of how many parking spaces, lots, decks are out there – one academic who's studied parking compares it to the "dark matter" in the universe – but the researchers point to such things as the heat island effect, where pavement raises summer temperatures which requires more energy for air-conditioning, etc. They calculated that when parking spots are taken into account, an average car’s per-mile carbon emissions go up as much as 10 percent.

And as long as we're trashing parking places (which even die-hard environmentalists probably wish they could find as they circle, circle, circle the lot on the Saturday before Christmas) check out "Six Reasons Free Parking Is the Dumbest Thing You Didn't Know You Were Subsidizing," by Christopher Mims in The point is not that we shouldn't have parking, but that we should all be a lot more aware of the costs of building and providing it. Maybe we'd be more conservative in how we spend that money – if we realized we were spending it.

And for a parking-related footnote, here's a way Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools might bring in a bit more revenue so CMS won't have to cut a whopping $100 million from the budget and lay off 1,500 people including hundreds of teachers:

Charge high school students more money to park their cars. If CMS provides buses to the schools (which it does, except to magnet high schools) then families that opt to let kids drive can pay for the privilege. Wake County Schools charge $170 and they're raising the fee. CMS charges $25. Ahem.

Each parking space adds $2,500 to the cost of a high school, a CMS architect told me a few years ago. Yes, staffers need parking spaces, and some students probably do, too. But a lot of that money could be better spent.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More stick than carrot in Chapel Hill

I missed this when it happened, but last June, Chapel Hill adopted an ordinance requiring new development to include a small percentage of "affordable" units. Here's what was reported in the Triangle Land Use Newsletter from the law firm K&L Gates:

"On June 21, 2010, the Town of Chapel Hill replaced its affordable housing "expectation" [which applied only for rezonings] with an ordinance requiring that nearly all development that includes a residential component set aside a part of the development for affordable housing. The new ordinance takes effect on March 1, 2011.

"The new ordinance is a type of 'inclusionary zoning' ordinance, and applies to any new development, renovation, reconstruction, or change in use that results in five or more new dwelling units. The ordinance requires developers to set aside 10 to 15% of the new homes for affordable housing. In return, developers will be offered a bonus to allowed density or floor area for providing the required units and a waiver of some development fees."

The newsletter notes that a recent N.C. Court of Appeals ruling on Union County's adequate public facilities ordinance leaves the issue of a mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinance "unsettled."

Why bother with inclusionary zoning? Advocates, such as Charlotte's Mixed-Income Housing Coalition, say it helps spread affordable housing throughout the community, instead of having it all clustered in some parts of town. Or, more to the point, it means the few affluent neighborhoods that don't have any affordable housing would get a few units.

Opponents say it just raises the cost of all the other housing units. But Davidson officials report that it seems to have worked well there. (Back when developers were building housing, that is.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

HOT proposal for Indy Blvd should spark some heat

Forget putting light rail transit down the middle of Independence Boulevard, and instead put bus rapid transit on high-occupancy-vehicle lanes already planned. Send a streetcar down Monroe Road. And convince the state to move its Regional Farmers Market to some of the vacant properties on Independence.

Yep, I think the recommendations this morning from a panel from the nonprofit Urban Land Institute will prompt some talk.

"My eyes lit up at the options," was the reaction from Carolyn Flowers, chief of the Charlotte Area Transit System. Even before the panel presentation had wound down, she was emailing to see if a presentation could be made to the Metropolitan Transit Commission, CATS' governing body, next month.

Her eyes lit up because the transit recommendation for Independence would, in essence, mean the state builds that Indy Boulevard transit line, and all cash-strapped CATS would have to find is money to buy buses and other equipment and to pay drivers. The ULI panel recommendation would even mean cost savings for the N.C. Department of Transportation for its long-planned Independence Boulevard widening project.

That's because the current plans to widen Indy Boulevard – a project for which there is at present no money in the state's five-year plan, but which is likely to get funded at some point later – call for a 52-foot center section to be reserved for a future CATS transit project – maybe light rail (LRT), maybe bus rapid transit (BRT); the MTC still has to decide. If you eliminate that 52-foot section but still build the planned HOT/HOV lanes, you could run BRT or express buses in the HOT lanes (and remember T=toll=revenue stream), and still need a narrower overall corridor, i.e. less money needed to buy right-of-way.

NCDOT secretary Gene Conti was part of the panel, so I'm assuming he'd have scotched recommendations that were thoroughly unworkable from NCDOT's point of view.

But .....

East Charlotte residents have spent years pushing for light rail transit, not bus, along Independence. They know LRT in general attracts more development than bus transit, because the rail means the route won't get switched, unlike a less permanent bus route. How will this new idea go over with them? Will the suggested addition of a streetcar along Monroe Road be enough of an inducement?

Several ULI panel members, from cities such as Houston, Denver and New York, all sang variations on this theme: Putting light rail along a limited-access, high-speed and high-volume highway like Independence won't attract much development. That's been a lesson from Denver's light rail, which runs next to a freeway, they said. "Nodes [neighborhood centers] on high-speed corridors do not work," said Carlton Brown, an economic development expert with Full Spectrum, a development firm in New York and Jackson, Miss.

So, they say, plan to put rail along the smaller commercial corridors where it does have a chance to attract transit-oriented redevelopment: Central Avenue and Monroe Road. Of course, no one had concrete proposals for how to find revenue to build even the Central Avenue streetcar, much less adding another. Their suggestions: Get creative. Build in phases. Find a benefactor, like Bill Gates helping the Seattle-to-Tacoma line. That led to a quip from an elected official in the audience – whom I'll not name, and so this person owes me one – about the "Leon and Sandra Levine Line." After all, the Family Dollar headquarters is right on Monroe ...

I was sitting next to East Charlotte activist Susan Lindsay. Her immediate reaction was that she wanted to know more before coming to a conclusion about whether to support or oppose the suggestions. But since the MTC lacks money for any transit of any form down Independence – or for any streetcars, any West Charlotte transit, or even enough money to extend the one light rail line past UNC Charlotte – a proposal that might allow rapid transit there in our lifetimes could just win some support.

Note: The ULI panel's recommendations are simply that – ideas from a group of experts from around the country. They don't supersede any existing plans or change any priorities.

Photo: Streetcar in Portland, Ore.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seeking solutions to suburban problems

As cities and counties across North Carolina and the nation scour budgets for ways to trim spending and – at least one hopes – make more economically prudent decisions for the future, they should look hard at what last 50 years of spread-out, low-density, auto-focused development has cost them. And how to change those costly ways.

After all, it costs a municipality (and rate-payers) more to spread sewer lines across subdivisions with 2- or 3-houses per acre than across blocks with 20 or 30 dwellings per acre. It costs more to serve cul-de-sac neighborhoods with adequate fire and emergency services, because in order to meet acceptable arrive-by times in areas with disconnected streets, you need more stations and personnel. (Here's what I wrote in February 2009 about that point - "Sprawl's dipping into your pocketbook," and a Charlotte city study that illustrates that point.)

Large expanses of highway right-of-way mean large expanses of property off the tax rolls. Big surface parking lots are not the best way to get high-value property onto the tax rolls. And so on.

But we've built our suburban style, single-use neighborhoods with streets that don't connect and shopping centers you have to drive to. What do we do now?

That's the topic of an upcoming conference at N.C. State University in Raleigh on Feb. 12: "Sustainable Suburbs: Re-Imagining the Inner Ring." (Disclosure: I'll be moderating the conference.)

Here's my quick two-cents on the overall topic:

Cent No. 1: "Inner-ring suburbs" means different things to different people. Does it mean the first municipalities beyond the city limits of a major city, such as Mint Hill, Matthews, Pineville, etc., regardless of when they were formed and how they were built? Or does it mean neighborhoods built on a suburban template, even those within the limits of the major city, such as Charlotte's Merry Oaks, Chantilly, Sherwood Forest, even Myers Park? I hope we can define the terms before we end up talking at cross-purposes.

Cent No. 2: Many planners, designers and even transportation officials understand the need for connected, walkable streets, higher-density buildings, mixed uses and access to transit – things lacking in many neighborhoods built after World War II. . But in many instances that form of development still isn't happening (and wasn't, when the financial crisis put a stop to almost all development in these parts.) So it would seem that the major stumbling blocks aren't in planners' minds, but in other areas: policies and laws, financing practices, existing ordinances, politics, and even in Americans’ cultural expectations. Can those stumbling blocks be overcome?

Conference registration closes Feb. 7. Among the speakers will be:

William Hudnut III, ex-congressman, ex-16-term mayor of Indianapolis, author, Urban Land Institute fellow emeritus, clergyman and all-around knowledgeable fellow. Among his books: "Halfway to Everywhere: A portrait of America’s first tier suburbs."

Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of the award-winning "Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs." She'll talk about the problem of dead malls, vacant commercial strips, aging office parks and apartment complexes. Her book offers several dozen examples of suburban retrofit projects.

Patrick Phillips, CEO of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, who'll talk about what the financial crisis may mean for the prospect of building a more sustainable suburbia.

If you've read this far, you'll almost certainly be interested also in this early February Charlotte conference. The New Partners for Smart Growth conference, "Building Safe, Healthy and Livable Communities," will draw planners, designers, transportation and public health professionals, and others to the Westin Feb. 3-5. The website says scholarships are available, but deadline to apply is Jan. 14. It's sponsored by the Local Government Commission, a Sacramento-based nonprofit (and not the N.C. governmental agency).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sound off to NCDOT about biking, walking,

If you have thoughts - and I bet you do - about what the North Carolina Department of Transportation could do better to help bicyclists and pedestrians, here's a chance to give them your opinions.

Take a Bike-Ped survey for NCDOT. It's quick, and who knows, they may actually use it. Even if they don't, it might feel better to get stuff off your chest. Survey link sent courtesy of Dick Winters, the Safe Routes to Schools coordinator for Mecklenburg County Public Health.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Consolidation - promises kept?

Talk's on the upswing again, and not just in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, about trying to run local government more efficiently by consolidating. And at his media briefing today, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx gave yet another big plug to the idea, saying, "It's hard to shape community priorities when you have resources siloed."

A timely new piece on the website of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute takes a look at what happened in 18 other city-county consolidations. The big headline? No real efficiencies were proved.

I asked Foxx today if he'd read the report, and what he thought about its findings. He said that while he believed there would be cost savings if Charlotte and Mecklenburg County governments merged, "I don't think that is the only driver." He thinks local government should be structured differently.

The UNCC report is by the authors of a new book, "City-County Consolidation: Promises Made, Promises Kept?": Suzanne Leland, associate professor of political science at UNCC, and Kurt Thurmaier, director of the Division of Public Administration at Northern Illinois University.

Here's what they conclude:

Consolidation can improve economic development
"... Consolidated governments have performed more effectively in economic development than their comparison counties. ... This is one promise the majority of consolidated governments delivered on."

Consolidation does not necessarily lead to more efficient government

"Our study yields little systematic evidence that consolidated governments operate more efficiently than their comparison communities. While about half of the cases in our sample seem to have lower rates of expenditure growth ... the other half of the sample does not produce the same data."

Pro-Merger Campaigns delivered on most of their promises

In most cases (not all) they write, "the evidence is quite strong that the particular promises made to voters were kept, with very few exceptions."

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

High growth city = poorer city?

I came across an intriguing new study, courtesy of the HoustonTomorrow website, which headlined it, "Fast metro growth =lower incomes: Study links poverty, growth." The study itself, "Relationship between Growth and Prosperity in 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas," by consulting firm Fodor & Associates, looked at the fastest-growing and slowest-growing U.S. metro areas 2000-2009, and looked at per capita income, unemployment rate, and poverty rate. It found that faster growth rates were associated with lower incomes, greater income declines, and higher poverty rates.

Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord and Raleigh-Cary were among the fastest-growing metros the study looked at – no surprise. The report's writers say it throws some cold water on the often-stated belief on the part of many elected and business officials that growing fast is an automatic route to prosperity.

One caveat: In a quick skim of the report I didn't see enough data to tell me whether it had taken into account the fact that many of the fastest-growing cities in the South and the West were poorer to start with, and the slower-growing cities in the North and Midwest were places with higher pay (manufacturing, unions, etc.) but less economic growth, hence less population growth. In other words, does the study show causality or just correlation? If any academics or others have time to pore through the report and offer an analysis, it would be welcome.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A sidewalk legend that just won't die

Instead of posting this comment on the previous sidewalk piece, "Sidewalks: Fines? Red China? Remove fences?" I want to highlight it here, in hopes of killing some out-of-date misinformation that has a remarkable shelf life in local memory.

The fact that people continue to be confused about whether the city will repair a sidewalk or makes property owners pay for repairs is an indicator, I think, of how lame the city's overall sidewalk policies and advocacy have been. This shouldn't be read as an indictment of Charlotte Department of Transportation's pedestrian program manager, Vivian Coleman. [Note, 1:40 p.m. Jan. 5: Coleman has been promoted and is now Transportation Planner.] She has to swim upstream in a city of nonpedestrians and a city government that is only oh-so-slowly concluding pedestrians do, after all, deserve consideration. Indeed, CDOT may now be more enlightened on that matter than many other local agencies. (Can you say, "Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools"?)

Here's the comment, sent from "Bruce Keith" sent about 10 p.m. Monday (Jan. 3):
If a sidewalk fails or breaks and the homeowner doesn't pay to repair it, the city will pave it with Asphalt, even in Historic Districts. This fence most likely is in the right of way but the city should maintain ALL of its infrastructure and ENFORCE all of its ordinances. This fence should be moved or removed and the city should maintain the walk, as it is Public Property in a Public ROW [right-of-way].
Commenter Keith is about 10 years out of date on that repair issue. CDOT used to charge property owners part of repair costs and, if owners wouldn't pay, the patch was cheap asphalt. But it changed its sidewalk repair policy in 2001. "Just as CDOT repairs potholes for cars, broken sidewalks are repaired to maintain quality facilities for pedestrians," CDOT spokeswoman Linda Durrett wrote me in an e-mail.

Plenty of Charlotteans don't realize the repair policy changed, and many repeat that bit of lore, maybe because some of those old asphalt patches are still around? In any event, if you want to read more about sidewalk repair policies, here's a link.

You'll note I didn't address the issue of rights-of-way and whether the city can legally require people to clear off sidewalks in the city (or state) right-of-way. I'm still checking on the legal issues. The city also expects property owners to mow the grass in planting strips, an expectation that doesn't seem to bring out nearly the hostility as asking people to keep leaves, snow, ice, etc. off their sidewalks. Go figure.

And the comment about rollout trash bins? Yet another reason that those horrible back-of-curb sidewalks are and were an abomination. Thank goodness the city no longer allows them to be built that way. But if you're in an area that's stuck with them, you have little choice but to clog the sidewalks with them, and, if you're thoughtful, haul them back in as soon as you can.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Sidewalks: Fines? Red China? Remove fences?

A commenter to my previous post, who read the Sunday editorial "Urban streets will need urban sidewalks" correctly nailed it with his/her suspicion, based on the Runnymede Lane photo that ran with it, at left, that I was its author. (I'm among the four people at the Observer who write the unsigned editorials on behalf of the editorial board.) And he/she raises one of the trickiest issues that city transportation officials are going to have to confront: If you want to encourage people to walk, how can you ensure that sidewalks are kept clear? Read the comment in full, at the end of this.

Currently, property owners are expected to keep sidewalks clear. But the city's ordinances are murky about what the city can/can't order property owners to and it's generally silent on what punishment is allowed.

The commenter raises the specter of Red China and its cultural education camps. But rather than having an "education czar" (oops, those czars were in Russia, not China), he/she suggests the city should remove the fence shown in the photo. Er, wouldn't that be taking private property?

The commenter asks if I've ever called CDOT (Charlotte Department of Transportation) for enforcement. As a matter of fact I have called them about that messy stretch of sidewalk off and on for 10 years. After I wrote a June article about sidewalks ("Walk this way. If you can") with photos and called CDOT officials for information, the Runnymede sidewalk was finally cleared. I'm not sure whether CDOT contacted property owners or the publicity alerted them. But in the six months since then, the sidewalk has clogged again with leaves.

If you don't want an education czar, do you want to spend city taxpayer money on a fleet of clean-sidewalk enforcers? Hire people to monitor telephone or email complaints, dispatch inspectors and – if warranted – cite or otherwise notify property owners? And if you really want walkable sidewalks, should you wait for complaints or be pro-active in keeping them clear?

Currently, CDOT says it responds when people complain, but in my experience, my complaints haven't seemed to get much attention unless I put something in the newspaper with photos. I can't imagine they are hopping to it when people without access to printing presses or editorial pages complain.

But the underlying question is: Should the city beef up its attempts to keep sidewalks clear? And if the answer is "yes," (which is how I'd answer) what's the best way? Cite and fine property owners? Use city staff to clean sidewalks?

Here's the comment about sidewalks from the previous post :
I read the editorial in today’s (Jan. 2) Observer about urban sidewalks, to which Mary obviously contributed. (The photo of that leaf-cluttered Runnymede Lane sidewalk, which Mary has long bemoaned, gave it away). Frankly Mary, I agree with much of that editorial. I’m a retiree, live in a densely populated part of South Charlotte, and make good use of sidewalks as both pedestrian and bicyclist. My current sidewalk travel has been primarily for exercise, but given the ever-escalating cost of gasoline, I recently bought a small cart in which to haul groceries and other purchases behind my bike. I appreciate that our city provides an alternative that will keep me trim, save me some money, and help reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. But a sentence in that editorial has me puzzled. In mentioning that sidewalks outside of center city are often impassable, you or another editorialist ask “How can property owners be taught to keep them clean?” What!? Have the Red Chinese finally overrun this city? Will local government be expanded to add an education czar with the authority to haul affluent Runnymede residents off to a remote training camp in the mountains where they’ll be taught a lesson on how to rake leaves? I don’t think the Powell Bill, which helps fund sidewalk maintenance in Charlotte via taxed motor fuel, allows for that. In the case of Runnymede Lane, a better solution may be for the city to remove that tall, solid-wood fence shown in the editorial photo. It appears to be suspiciously close to the sidewalk, probably encroaching on city right-of-way. Have you ever called CDOT for enforcement? Fence removal will eliminate the “out-of-sight out-of-mind” strategy of the usually neat but sidewalk-hating Runnymedians. They – or their lawn service - will be out there with a leaf blower in a flash. Unfortunately, you can’t force folks to be thoughtful and responsible – unless you are part of the Red Chinese bureaucracy. In Charlotte, you have to hit them where they feel it – in their pocketbooks. Just call 311. And if the city doesn’t take care of the problem, the Observer should ask why we are paying bloated salaries and retirement benefits to government officials and not getting anything in return.