Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Density and parking: W.W.J.J.(Jane Jacobs) D.?

View of proposed development from Caswell Road. Image from documents filed with City of Charlotte
I've spent the last few days re-reading parts of the writings of Jane Jacobs, in advance of a talk I'm giving Thursday in the NoDa neighborhood (6 p.m. at the Evening Muse, free and open to the public) as well as the 100th anniversary of her birth May 4, 1916. (See an inspiring list of Jane's 100th events at janes100th.org.)

So when I read about neighborhood opposition -- and more significant, opposition from District 1 City Council member Patsy Kinsey -- to a proposed development in the Elizabeth neighborhood on the basis of density and a worry about parking, I was primed to consult Jacobs' writing. WWJJD? What Would Jane Jacobs Do? Spoiler: I think she would be OK with the development but would be more worried about what she called "the self-destruction of diversity."

Ely Portillo's article in The Charlotte Observer lays out some of the opposition. The proposal (see the rezoning documents here) is for a 60-foot-high development of 123 apartments, with 15,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, at a triangular corner at East Seventh Street and North Caswell Road.

Portillo quotes neighborhood association member Melanie Sizemore saying that while developers and the neighborhood have worked together they haven't resolved all the issues. Two big sticking points: density and parking. They're afraid the number of proposed parking spots isn't generous enough and will mean congestion in the surrounding neighborhood.

Today, Charlotte Agenda writer Jason Thomas, referring to remarks at Monday's public hearing, opines that it shows "just how lost our City Council is." (See "The City Council is making baffling decisions on urban planning.") Thomas praises it as beautifully

Thursday, April 14, 2016

What's a city and what's a suburb, and what's their future?

Large totems mark the "center" of the Ballantyne development in south Charlotte. Photo: Google Street View
I've long been interested in how people use the terms "suburban" and "urban," because their definitions seem to wobble all over the map. Thanks to the state's formerly easy annexation law, the city I live in, Charlotte, has large areas well inside city limits places that in another metro area would be separate municipalities or unincorporated sprawl. People here call them "suburbs," though by some definitions they'd be "city," not "suburb."

But the issue of suburban vs. urban living is just as lively here as anywhere. So I've been interested to read two recent articles that tackle that broad topic, though in different ways.

First, Josh Stephens' review in the California Planning and Development Report of the latest Joel Kotkin book, The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, dissects, or at least tries to dissect, what Kotkin means by "the rest of us." Who is his "us"? And why does he assume that everyone who lives in a suburban-form landscape does so by choice, rather than because of housing affordability or job location or doubts about schools?  Hat tip to Planetizen for alerting me to this excellent piece, Fetishizing Families: Review of 'The Human City.'

Next is an analysis from Daniel Hertz in the sometimes wonderfully contrarian City Observatory, about DuPage County, Ill., just outside Chicago. In "A Mystery in the Suburbs," he looks at the county, where growth in recent decades has been of the ubiquitous automobile-centric, focused on highways pattern focusing on highways. Once robust, in recent years DuPage has seen some siphoning off of economic energy, as companies move back to downtown. 

This put me in mind of Ballantyne, a large suburban-style development at the far southern reaches of Charlotte city

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

'Why are all those new buildings so ugly?'

Apartments on South Boulevard greet the sidewalk with two floors of parking.  Photo: Tom Low, Civic by Design
The topic is an eye-catcher and, thank goodness, keeps catching eyes: Why do so many of the new apartment buildings going up in Charlotte's fast-redeveloping neighborhoods all look alike? And look, um, not all that attractive?

The latest chapter in this civic conversation came Tuesday, with a two-part punch. Three local architects were guests on "Charlotte Talks," an interview show on WFAE, Charlotte's local public radio station. Listen to the show here.

Tuesday evening Tom Low, one of the guests, held a public forum, "Bland Charlotte," at his monthly Civic By Design discussion group.

Low and others have written and spoken in recent months about their concern that speedy growth and development, especially in the South End area adjacent to the city's only light rail line, is sub-par in urban design and architecture.

PlanCharlotte.org, the publication I run at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, has run several  articles on the topic:
Ditto, other local media outlets:
Tuesday night, Low showed a series of depressing photos of apartment complexes, mostly but not exclusively in South

Monday, December 7, 2015

Can Charlotte become more walkable and bikeable? The conversation continues


AARP volunteers get ready to begin a walkability audit uptown with guest speaker Gil Penalosa of 8-80 Cities in October.  Photo: Juan Ossa
It isn’t every day in Charlotte that within five hours you hear the World Health Organization invoked in conversation about planning and livability. But as a Charlotte discussion continues about whether the city needs to purposefully shift its primary emphasis away from motorists and toward to bicycles, pedestrians and transit, the “livability” term just keeps coming up.

Monday morning, I learned that the Town of Matthews in southern Mecklenburg County is the first, and to date only, municipality in North Carolina to sign on as an AARP Age Friendly Community.

That AARP initiative, as it turns out, is an affiliate of the WHO’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program, a global effort dating to 2006 to help cities prepare for both increasing urbanization and for an aging population, as the huge Baby Boom generation hits retirement age.
Michael Olender, the Charlotte-based associate state director for AARP, says he’s in conversations with the Charlotte mayor’s office about whether Charlotte should also seek to join.

What does “age-friendly community” have to do with walkability and livability? Simply this: As planners and policymakers focus on the wishes and needs of the huge Millennial generation, Olender says, not much attention is being paid to the needs of what the older generation wants. But, he says, “What Boomers want mirrors very closely what Millennials want. They want to walk. They want good public transit.”

Fast-forward a few hours. I’m at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission’s monthly work session. Planning commissioner Deb Ryan, an associate professor of urban design at UNC Charlotte, is giving a short presentation on the role of livability and public health in city planning. She pointedly did not call it “sustainability.”

“ ‘Sustainability’ means everything and nothing,” Ryan said. Instead, she talked about becoming a “livable city.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

One N.C. city aims to protect older buildings with a height limit. (Hint: Not Charlotte)

Tall new buildings surround Romare Bearden Park in uptown Charlotte. Photo: Nancy Pierce
As discussion in Charlotte continues on how to protect the unique character of some older neighborhoods from intense development pressure, [Can Plaza Midwood save the places that matter?] one N.C. city is using a tool that's been available all along. That city is Raleigh. [With height caps, Raleigh hopes to protect historic buildings]

It's not a tool beloved by people who make money from building tall buildings. By limiting the heights of buildings, the city is, at heart, limiting the profitability of any development on that dirt. Note that overall, Raleigh wants to encourage tall buildings downtown, and density.  But with a cluster of 19 old, iconic buildings along its main downtown street, Raleigh wants to add a level of protection.

Most of the buildings that will get the height limits are on the National Register of Historic Places and Raleigh historic landmarks.  Under state and federal law, neither of those designations can prevent a building from demolition.

Charlotte also has height restrictions in some of its zoning categories, especially the transit-oriented and mixed-use development districts. But those height limits are so tall that they don't, effectively, deter demolitions of older buildings, and there is an "optional" zoning that lets the city OK pretty much anything if the developer can make a good case for it.) Of course, the single-use-only districts have de facto height limits as well.  (My graduate student, Jacob Schmidt, recently analyzed the proportion of mixed-use vs .single-use zoning inside Charlotte city limits. More than 90 percent of the land area is zoned for single-uses.)

But if you own a property in uptown Charlotte zoned UMUD (uptown mixed use district) you can build as tall a building as the FAA will allow. That's right -- the only limits on height are based on whether airplanes might run into the towers. The

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Why I 'cheated' at the light, while cycling"

Keihy Moore on her bicycle. Photo: Keihly Moore
 Got this email from my friend Keihly Moore (one of the key architects behind some of Charlotte's Park(ing) Day events in previous years). After getting her dual degree in architecture and urban design from UNC Charlotte she's now working in Boston.

Anyone who knows her knows she's a dedicated and avid bicyclist. She even rode to work during the extremely deep snows in Boston last winter, getting featured in an article by the Boston Globe. (See "Employees get creative to reach work.")

Her note highlights one of many challenges cyclists face when riding in traffic. Though she's a careful, law-abiding cyclist, she realized that in some situations, it felt safer to violate the traffic signal. What do you think?:

Bike lanes and sharrows can't solve the traffic light issue.
"I rode a different route in today because I had to drop my car off at an auto-body place. Most of the way in on the new route had bike lanes (thank God) but traffic was still moving 40+ mph, when it wasn't stop and go – mostly stop. I'm not the cyclist that runs red lights. I follow the rules. But this morning, with aggravated, distracted, grumpy drivers surrounding me, all I wanted to do was to get out in front of them, away from them. And I realized it's because cyclists have the odds stacked against us. The rules are not set up for us. Admittedly, today, I stopped at all the lights, but I left sooner than the other cars on three lights because I wanted to get out in front – and it worked. I was still safe, but I left the exhaust, anger, and dirt behind me.

It seems to me cyclists should have advance green lights (like pedestrians do). It's safer for everyone, and cyclists are more visible.

I still hate it when other cyclists are dangerous and run red lights, weaving in and out of traffic. But I think there is a certain threshold where it is OK to get out in front before the light changes.

So I never thought I'd say I liked beating those lights, but I felt it was necessary for my safety and sanity.
Thoughts? Glad I wasn't hit this morning,
Keihly

Better signaling and separated lanes, of course, could help prevent this kind of dilemma. But most U.S. cities, Charlotte included, are a long way from being able to offer those things. In the meantime, what's a careful cyclist to do?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Park(ing) Day blues spark a contrarian proposal

Park(ing) Day in Charlotte in September 2012, next to a food truck round-up event. Photo: Keihly Moore
I missed this year’s Park(ing) Day event in Charlotte because I work on a campus 12 miles from uptown and because Park(ing) Day takes place only on the officially approved sites on Charlotte’s main uptown street. (So much for guerrilla urbanism.)

And to be honest, I didn’t really miss it. But it wasn’t until I read this Next City piece by Josh Cohen,“Stop Building Mediocre Parklets, Start Building Pavement Parks,” that I realized my own dissatisfaction with how Park(ing) Day has evolved in my city. Cohen critiques the way Seattle’s parklet movement has turned into seating areas for nearby businesses. Since I’m not in Seattle, that’s not my issue. My frustration is different, because my city is different.

Don’t misunderstand. PlanCharlotte.org, the online publication I oversee, has been a champion of Charlotte Park(ing) Day events since my then-graduate assistant Keihly Moore organized one in 2012 on Camden Road in South End. The following year – also spearheaded by Keihly, who again rounded up plenty of partners – it was on North Davidson Street in NoDa.

Each of those events took an on-street parking place in a gritty neighborhood and converted it into a small park-for-a-day. Last year and this year the event took place on Tryon Street with a long list of collaborators that included Charlotte Center City Partners, the uptown advocacy and marketing group.

The whole idea behind Park(ing) Day is to transform a parking spot into a small park for a day, to show how places for people matter more than places for cars. It’s a way to make people think about the tyranny of parking in America and how our cities deserve more than huge expanses of asphalt. The message is particularly needed in Sun Belt cities like Charlotte, which are so thoroughly car-focused that the whole city gets a pitiful little Walk Score of 24.

In Charlotte the car rules every street and road and stroad (look it up). Except one: Tryon Street. Tryon Street uptown is the one street where pedestrians rule. Yes, there’s traffic, but it’s slowed by inconveniently timed traffic lights, service trucks, parallel parking and huge clumps of pedestrians. The Walk Score along North Tryon Street is an admirable 95.

Not only that, but Tryon Street is already studded with numerous benches for sitting, plenty of street trees, and a variety of parks (The Green, Polk Park), parklets (at Sixth and North Tryon) and plazas with seating and tables. Does Tryon Street need parklets? What Tryon Street needs is stores and window-shopping (a topic for another day).

The places that need parklets are the innumerable parking lots uptown and the hideous parking decks