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

Friday, August 21, 2015

What in the world is wrong with North College Street?

Street view, from Google Maps, of North College at Eighth Street, which tops the city's high-accident list
This year's list of high-accident intersections in Charlotte is up, and guess what. Once again one-way streets uptown are atop the list. Here's the Charlotte Observer's article. Notice, in the photo, the pedestrian ambiance (or lack thereof) along North College Street at Eighth Street, the No. 1 high-accident intersection.

See complete 2015 list as well as previous years. Note: it's computer-generated and factors in the amount of traffic as well as the number and severity of accidents.


My observation this year is the same as two years ago, when I wrote about this report: One-way streets in and near uptown dominate the list. Is that a reason to switch more to two-way streets?

But Charlotte Department of Transportation officials disagreed with my thinking. Engineer Debbie Self, in charge of CDOT's traffic and pedestrian safety programs, pointed out in 2013 that of the 150 intersections in uptown Charlotte, the majority involve at least one one-way street and most are not on the high-accident list. About North College Street in particular, in 2013, Self wrote:

"College Street in the areas of 7th, 8th & 9th Streets has been on the HAL [high accident list] for many years. It’s been hard to pin point a single underlying cause. Angle crashes account for about half of the crashes at College and 7th, 8th and 9th. CDOT will likely consider reflective back plates at the signals as a mitigation given our successful reduction in crashes at 5th/Caldwell."   [CDOT had attributed the 2013 decline in accidents at Fifth and Caldwell to the installation of the back plates.]

A peek at recent years' high accident lists prompts these questions: Why keep this as a high-speed one-way street through the heart of your downtown?  And since its high-accident intersections have comparatively light traffic, what is going on?

Some observations: 

I walk along North College a lot, going to and from the UNC Charlotte Center City Building, and the rest of uptown. (At least, I did. Ninth and Eighth streets have been blocked for almost a year from construction of the light rail tracks.) So where are the cars involved in 2014 accidents coming from, especially at Eighth Street? My guess is they're going to and from surface parking lots near the rail line, which have not closed. If you're pulling in or out of a parking lot, you are not driving quickly. So it's likely some accidents are caused by speeding drivers on North College Street mixing with motorists turning into lots or onto Eighth Street.

North College is a major, one-way artery through uptown just one block from, and parallel to, the main uptown street, Tryon Street, where flocks of pedestrians, bus and delivery trucks as well as some timed-to-slow-you traffic lights combine to make speed impossible. But North College comes to us from the street-as-highway school of traffic design. Head north (the only direction you can) from the light at Seventh and you go down a slight hill, encouraging you to speed up. There is no light at Eighth Street, because it is a tiny little street -- actually I love its narrowness, which adds a sense of historical quaintness -- with little traffic. In a car one might just blow past it altogether. I imagine a lot of motorists do just that.

If you're on Ninth Street, it's hard to see what's coming on College. If you're tempted to turn right on red, ignoring the sign banning it, you might well get slammed into by a car zipping up College Street.

The No.3 high accident intersection is one block north, North College at Ninth Street. (Google Maps)
Meanwhile, with the opening of the UNC Charlotte building and growing numbers of uptown residents, plus more bars and nightlife, more people are walking even on this rather unpleasant street -- a street decidedly not designed for pedestrians.

Further, this area is only a block from two light rail stops (Seventh Street and the to-open-in-2017 Ninth Street). The area should be notably more pedestrian friendly. But with back-of-curb sidewalks, a lack of street trees for several blocks and surface parking lots way too prevalent, it isn't.

Solution? CDOT can't alter property lines or force land owners to stop tearing down older buildings and replacing them with surface parking lots or force them to develop the property if they don't want to. So CDOT is left with the standard toolkit for traffic-calming: traffic humps (not bumps, but humps you can glide over at 20 mph but not at 40), stop signs (ugh), traffic circles, more on-street parking. What about a bike lane? No, the cars will not be able to travel as fast. But this is one block off main street in a city of 800,000. Slower is OK.

Or, might I suggest, turning it back into a two-way street?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Cool 1945 map shows plenty of passenger rail into uptown Charlotte

In the category of "Found while looking up other stuff" I came across this amazing map of 1945 Charlotte, and all the passenger and freight rail lines that fed uptown. It's from a 1945 Chamber of Commerce brochure, and you can find it, too, on the website of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.

It's a little difficult to tell from the cute drawing how many of those rail lines carried passengers as well as freight, but the Piedmont and Northern to Gastonia was an electrified passenger rail - today we'd call it commuter rail.

The line is still used. It runs west and northwest from uptown Charlotte near the NFL stadium, through the Wesley Heights neighborhood, then crosses the Catawba River and goes through Mount Holly, Belmont and into Gastonia. The N.C. Department of Transportation owns much of the right-of-way, except for an important segment beyond Wesley Heights and the river, which is owned by CSX. (See final paragraph of this report.)

The old Southern Railway passenger terminal was on West Trade near what's now the Greyhound Bus station, but it was demolished years ago. The 1895 Seaboard Air Line depot, between North Tryon and North College streets - depicted on the 1945 map as S.A.L. RR now the Urban Ministry Center.

Rail junkies may enjoy this 2008 map of the N.C. rail lines, which lists ownership of the segments.