Tuesday, May 30, 2017

More parking? Less parking? The debate continues.

Tobe Holmes of University City Partners describes changes coming to the UNC Charlotte part of the city when a light rail extension opens early in 2018. In the background is a new parking deck with retail on the ground floor, built by the Charlotte Area Transit System. Photo: Mary Newsom 
In the playbook for transit-oriented development, as a city adds more transit service it needs less parking. Here's the reasoning: Building too much parking is an incentive to people to keep driving. Parking lots and decks create large, unfunded environmental and health costs, including but not limited to the heat island effect, water pollution from gallons of storm water runoff and the American obesity epidemic from too much driving.

As Charlotte’s Blue Line Extension light rail project nears completion (March 2018 is the projected opening), parking decks are rising along the line, including two huge decks near the UNC Charlotte campus where the line will end.  People who pay attention to such things ask whether we’re overbuilding parking. One recent example is this opinion piece from Charlotte Five – “It's insane to keep building huge parking decks along the light rail line.”

The piece responded to a previous article - “It would be insane for Charlotte to stop building parking for apartments — right now.”

Three thoughts about all that:

1. I think both arguments are right. We need less parking in the long run, but for now we continue to need parking. (There is a whole other topic to be addressed, not here and not today, on how to shrink the number of surface parking lots being built.)

2. In this case it’s not planners who should feel the most heat but lenders – who may not even know where Charlotte is and who won’t finance a project if the parking spots don’t fit their math formula. From what I see and hear most lenders don’t give a rip about good urbanism, diversity of uses, protecting surface waters, reducing obesity or any of that. They have their formula.

3. This is an opportunity for creative, innovative building design – a flexible parking desk structure that could adapt, as the city becomes easier to navigate without a car, into something else.

Here’s why we can't instantly get rid of parking, happy though I would be to be arguing the other side of this. Most of the acreage in Charlotte, like most Sun Belt cities, was built to make driving easy, not walking or biking or transit. In huge parts of the city only the brave, the masochistic or the desperate choose to walk or bike to destinations. Yes, a few older neighborhoods break that pattern – Dilworth, Plaza Midwood, NoDa, etc.  Most Charlotteans don't live there.

Consider: UNC Charlotte is nearing 30,000 students, plus 4,000-some faculty and staff.  We can all agree that encouraging more of them to use transit is ideal. With more people taking transit the campus can build fewer large expensive parking decks. But people live all over the city. Using transit to get to the campus is huge time investment requiring walking long distances to a bus, which may run only every 30 to 45 minutes, then riding to campus or to a light rail station. Only two bus routes serve the campus; one originates uptown, the other at SouthPark mall (that route will probably change as part of other transit changes to campus). Most people will not choose to invest 90 minutes or more for a trip they can drive in 20 to 30.

The city's bus service is better than in 1998, but nowhere near what it needs to be. The Charlotte Area Transit System is studying its bus routes, but is not well-funded enough to simultaneously build light rail and dramatically improve bus service.

Consider people living near the light rail. Some did opt to live there so they can take the rail to work. But people change jobs and the new one may not on an easy transit route. Jobs are spread all over the city, with only a sliver of them easily reachable by the lone light rail line. And people acquire roommates, partners and spouses whose jobs may not be transit-friendly. (See this 2014 piece, Car-free in Charlotte? It isn’t easy, by a writer who gave up on South End as too hard to manage without a car.)

So for the foreseeable future, driving is necessary even for those of us who wish we could drive less. That means parking is necessary. For now. No, we don't need as many spaces as lenders require to be built. We should figure out how to incentivize shared parking, and work to minimize surface lots. But still.

Yet couldn’t some of those ugly decks be repurposed in time? I’m not an engineer so maybe this is nuts, but I have to think that with innovative design and engineering, a parking deck could be designed to transition at a later time into residences or retail, with a much smaller share of parking.

As the city densifies and transit grows more robust – we can always hope! – we can get by with less parking. And those ugly decks could sprout other, more congenial uses.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Eviction, Charlotte-style

Amid much local conversation recently about economic mobility in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, not much publicity has been paid to evictions, although sometimes it seems as if every civic leader you talk to has read, and is raving about, Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted. (See the PlanCharlotte.org book review here. And yes, I'm among the chorus of fans of the book.)

But at today's Housing Affordability Symposium, I just heard some eye-popping numbers from Ted Fillette, a long-time attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina who has worked for decades on housing issues. Some of what Fillette said:

  • Every year more than 35,000 eviction cases are filed in Mecklenburg County.
  • Those cases are channeled through small claims court. Three courts run concurrently daily, five days a week and 50 weeks a year. Each magistrate (the judge for these cases) is assigned 30 to 120 cases per hour.

“What does it take to assume you only need 30 seconds or 60 seconds per case?” Fillette asked. “The presumption is people will not know their rights, can’t find the courthouse, or won’t have a defense.”

Speaking in the small auditorium where I'm sitting, Fillette describes the process: “What happens when 80 or 100 people show up, in a room about this size, and a magistrate calls 100 names per hour?”

If the tenant doesn’t hear his or her name the magistrate writes on a notepad to enter a judgment against the tenant. The tenants aren’t mailed the judgment. The first time many people learn a judgment has been entered against them is when they get a note from the sheriff, and the sheriff’s deputies show up. “They have five minutes to get the kids, pets, medicine, anything they can carry, then the house is locked up,” Fillette said. They have seven days to retrieve their belongings. If they have no place to move their things, the landlord can sell, destroy or throw away all their belongings.

“And there’s a record at the courthouse that stays there forever. ... It’s as much of a permanent scar as a criminal conviction.” Being evicted makes it difficult to ever rent again.

Fillette said that of the 35,000 eviction cases a year, his office will represent about 400 -- and win 95 percent of those cases. “It’s the ones we don’t see that matter.”

Of the people in eviction court, 95 percent are African-American women, or disabled or elderly, he said.

“What’s happening to African-American men in the criminal system is happening to African-American women in the court system.”

Monday, December 12, 2016

The ever-present dilemma of paying for transit

The topic of transit – or the lack of it – arose during public hearings on the vast new River District development that won city approval last month. The almost 1,400-acre development will grow west of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in what today is a rural and thinly settled area.

The development is expected to generate 120,000 vehicle trips a day. That number got the attention of Charlotte City Council members, who talked about transit but did little beyond talk before approving the developers' rezoning request.  That's because the city's plans for transit to that part of town are, for now, vague and – like most of the 2030 Transit Plan beyond the Blue Line Extension – unfunded.

The city isn't allowed to impose impact fees without state legislative approval. And don't hold your breath for that. Further, state courts struck down some counties' attempts at adequate public facility ordinances – where developers either had to wait until local governments could afford to offer public facilities such as classrooms and police/fire service to serve the new development, or pay a fee to help the local government provide them.

So Charlotte can't do what Sacramento, Calif., is proposing: a transportation impact fee on most new construction to fund

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trees, grass, drought and the future

Can lush lawns be sustained with future droughts and water supply issues looming? Photo: Mary Newsom
Water and our supply of it is on my mind this week, as a smoky haze drifts around Charlotte, reminding us of the wildfires in the tinder-dry N.C. foothills and mountains west of the city. It’s been abnormally hot and dry  for months in the Appalachians and the Southeastern U.S. Two Western North Carolina counties are now in exceptional drought and seven others in "extreme drought." 

In the Charlotte region we’re currently in Drought Stage 1 (moderate drought, voluntary watering restrictions). Boat ramps at lakes Norman and Wylie just outside the city have been closed. Some of our shrubs are succumbing. And my guess is we’ll move into Stage 2 (severe drought) shortly after the start of December.

The city's water-sewer utility, Charlotte Water, has a keen interest in encouraging people to conserve water, and not just in a drought, although they tend to concentrate the mind, so to speak.

Taking the long view, Charlotte Water officials see that relentlessly sucking more water from the local reservoirs – Mountain Island Lake and Lake Norman – is not a strategy that can sustain the area's growing millions of residents in future decades. Further, towns and cities downstream of Charlotte use the same river (dammed decades ago into a series of lakes by what's now Duke Energy ) for their water supplies, so draining it is not an acceptable option.

So Charlotte Water officials are eyeing the area’s beloved lawns as a way to reduce water use. On an average day, the utility pumps 100 million gallons of treated water each day, says Jennifer Frost, public affairs manager at Charlotte Water. But during the summer that’s been from 130 to 135 million gallons a day – due to people irrigating lawns. “I think we hit 143 one day in August,” she said recently.

But Frost notes that suggesting people reduce the size of their lawns in favor of more drought-tolerant plantings hasn’t, in the past, been a winning message. So she hopes the utility can, instead, join with local efforts to encourage more tree planting and better care for existing trees.
“Inherent to growing a canopy is that reduction in turf grass,” Frost says. And, she says, “We will not get to the next level of water conservation without reducing the level of irrigation that we use.”

For the record, here are the requested water restrictions for Charlotte, for now:
  • Irrigate only on Tuesdays and Saturdays between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.
  • Limit landscape watering to 1 inch of water per week, including rain.
  • Conserve water indoors and outdoors.
  • Refrain from outdoor water use during the day (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to reduce evaporation losses.
  • Don't fill swimming pools, and top off full pools only on Thursdays and Sundays, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • Turn off water fountains and other decorative water features.
  • Use commercial car washes that recycle water, not your home hose.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Another Independence Boulevard – lost opportunity or potential future?

Bologna's Independence Boulevard on a Monday morning in October. Photo: Mary Newsom
On a recent trip to Italy, we stopped for a night in the northern city of Bologna, home to some famous pasta sauces, the world's first university and a basilica where, legend has it, a German priest was so disgusted by the church's opulence he went back to Germany and his name being Martin Luther
started the Reformation.

It's also home to an Independence boulevard.  I didn't capitalize "Boulevard" because the official name of the street is Via dell' Indipendenza. In any case, it's a powerful reminder that a busy city thoroughfare need not be ugly.

Photo: Mary Newsom
Under the arcade
I took these photos about 9 a.m. on a Monday, and I took them during breaks in traffic, so they don't accurately convey the traffic, although it's safe to say it's far less than Charlotte's Independence Boulevard, which carries more than 100,000 vehicles a day in places.

Our Indy Boulevard began life in the 1950s as a four-lane U.S. highway (U.S. 74) that sundered a white, working class neighborhood as well as the city's first municipal park and its rose garden. Today, Independence Boulevard in Charlotte is either a freeway-style highway lined with sound walls or, where the freeway hasn't been built yet, a seemingly endless strip of bleak, now-bedraggled highway commercial development that had its heyday in the 1970s and '80s.

But in Bologna, first settled about 1,000 BC, via dell' Indipendenza looks different. We arrived on a Sunday evening and the street was jammed with people, and no cars. The street and several others are pedestrianized from 8 a.m. Saturday to 10 p.m. Sunday.

The street itself, like many of the old streets in the city center, is lined with an arcade, which protects pedestrians in bad weather. Under the arcades, many with vaulted ceilings, the sidewalks are terrazzo tile, or something similar. No chewing-gum-stained concrete or crumbling asphalt.

Is there any hope for our Independence Boulevard? I confess to being a pessimist about that. Streets, I've observed, set a development pattern that's difficult to change unless the government decides to buy up all the land, tear everything down, and start over with new development. They have tried that before here, and urban renewal was a brutal disaster.

Charlotte's Independence Boulevard, 2014. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Monday, August 29, 2016

100 years of N.C. state parks, but never one for Mecklenburg

North Carolina's Mount Mitchell State Park turned 100 this year. Photo: By Two Hearted River - CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16397075
The 2016 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of North Carolina's first state park scored a huge win last week with the announcement that 2,744 acres will be added to that first park, Mount Mitchell. That will more than double the park's size, and is a welcome tribute.

But if you visit the Find a Park website for the North Carolina State Parks Department, you may notice that unlike the Triangle, which boasts five, there is no state park or recreation area in Mecklenburg County, the state's most populous county and one of the larger ones in size as well (ranking 38 of 100).

But did you know a state park was once proposed for Mecklenburg County? The city-county 2005 plan, dated 1985, proposed a state park in the northeastern corner of the county, east of Davidson. It did not happen. Sadly, that area, which for two decades was protected by the town of Davidson's decision not to allow sewer service there, is now being proposed for sewer service, which likely means subdivisions, not rural farmland, will be the future.

If you're in Charlotte, especially in the part of town with the bulk of the population (south and southeast of uptown) you may note Google's assessment that it's 45 minutes from Charlotte to Crowders Mountain State Park in western Gaston County, but

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

In 1969 planners imagined Charlotte’s University City. Did their vision come true?

1969 University City Planning Concepts
This is part two of my "I Love Old Maps" series.  In addition to ferreting out that fun 1986 map of Charlotte, retiring UNC Charlotte Associate Provost Owen Furuseth also handed me a 1969 city plan for University City, the part of Charlotte that surrounds UNC Charlotte, where I work.

The plan was produced by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission -- "William McIntyre, Planning Director; Richard C. Hauersperger, Chief Planner; Gary L. Sieb, City Planner, and W. Earl Long, Planning Intern." The university, which now has 27,000 students, at the time had 2,350 students in nine buildings. The plan predicted that eventually the university would serve 15,000 students.

Its goals are laudable, if imprecise. "This report outlines the Planning Commission's concept of the kind of community University City might become if its development is fashioned to create an environment of quality." It lists some goals, among them:
  • "To create a community designed for the convenience of its people." Since the whole area can basically be navigated only by car once you leave the campus, I'd score that at a 3 on a scale of 10.
  • "To carefully fit the development of the community into the land so that it preserves the assets of the natural landscape." I'd score that about a 4 on a scale of 10. 
  • Other goals would get a higher score from me: Providing housing, developing public and private facilities, etc. Then this final one, which I'll let you score on your own: