Thursday, September 4, 2014

A fish tale from the 'Wish I'd taken a photo' file

I spent a bit of time on Wednesday editing an article for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute website about a unique fish that’s been around since the Jurassic Period and swims in North Carolina waters and throughout the eastern United States. It’s called a bowfin.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website calls it the “disrespected living fossil.” It’s the lone survivor of a group of fish dating to the dinosaur era.

In the article I was editing, nature writer Crystal Cockman gives plenty of interesting info. Such as: The fish can – I am not making this up – breathe air, as it has both gills and a sort of lung.

My fish story is this: I caught one of these weird fish in south Arkansas when I was 12. We were visiting my grandparents in Smackover, Ark. – no I am not making up the name of that town, either – and were fishing in Smackover Creek.  We were using worms for bait, because that’s all we ever used, and bobbers and cane poles. I thought I must have hooked a large catfish, but a very feisty one. It fought like crazy and was fun to catch. When I

Thursday, August 28, 2014

'Do not try to design neighborhoods through a computer screen'

The photo at right arrived about 10 days ago from Davidson-based transportation planner John Cock.
Cock and I were among a group of fans of the late Warren Burgess, who died at age 56 in May 2005.

The plaque was installed a few weeks ago beside a bald cypress tree that had been planted in his honor in Davidson’s Roosevelt Wilson Park shortly after Burgess died.

Burgess – or Warren, as I’m more comfortable saying – was for more than 20 years an urban designer on the staff of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission. He was Davidson town planner from 2000 to 2003. To this day, he has a fan club of sorts, people like Cock and former Davidson planner Meredith Judy whom Warren mentored, as well as other urban designers and planners in the area, like David Walters, the just-retired head of UNC Charlotte’s Master of Urban Design program.

You may have noticed over the years that there are some occupations that lend themselves to memorial plaques,

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Here's one list Charlotte isn't on - and ought to be

Syracuse is yet another city where advocates are pushing to tear down a section of elevated interstate highway (in this case I-81) and turn it into a boulevard. “What we’ve done is take an incredibly important piece of this city off of the development map,” developer Robert Doucette tells Governing magazine. “This highway runs through the part of the city that should be some of the highest-producing parcels of land in the region.”  (See Why Would You Have a Highway Run Through a City?)

The article lists New Orleans, which got federal funds to study removing the Claiborne Expressway, Cleveland, New Haven and Detroit as either moving toward or studying urban highway removal. Among the comments, one mentions Buffalo as also discussing the fate of its skyway, which cuts through a waterfront area. (The whole comments section itself is an interesting pro-con discussion.)

The article notes that one factor in the teardown trend – or more accurately, the teardown wannabe trend – is the age of the highways. Most were built in the 1950s and 1960s and are aging out.  Charlotte’s uptown freeway loop

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Can a place progress from Dead-End-Ville to Connectivity City? It's tough reports that the town of Cornelius in north Mecklenburg is proposing connecting a neighborhood street, Floral Lane, to Statesville Road (U.S. 21).

One of the most politically fraught decisions any elected or government staff officials can make is to connect streets that used to be dead-ends. It's easy to understand why residents protest, as the Floral Lane residents are doing.

The first house I bought was on a dead-end block in Charlotte's Chantilly neighborhood, where my street ended at Briar Creek. I liked the lack of traffic on the street, with only residents and their guests traveling in front of the house. I felt my cats were safe to go outside there. People who live on cul-de-sacs have the same welcome lack of cars going past.

But when a whole city is overloaded with dead-ends and cul-de-sacs, that sends huge numbers of cars onto the few streets that do connect. The result: far more congestion than you'd otherwise have.

Consider Providence Road in south Charlotte. It's horrifically congested, especially the farther you get from uptown. One reason is that all the vehicles heading from south Charlotte towards uptown have to travel on comparatively few thoroughfares, because south of Myers Park and Eastover, the neighborhood streets don't connect to any other neighborhoods. If the same number of vehicles that clog Providence Road daily were spread through dozens of interconnected streets, rather than all jamming Providence Road, the congestion problem would ease considerably.

But how does a town or city progress from Dead-End-Ville to Connectivity City? That's the hard part. If you simply open one new street connection, that street will absorb far more than its share of the traffic. What to do?

I've said for years that Charlotte (and I'd add Cornelius and other cul-de-sac landscapes to this statement) needs to connect dozens and dozens more streets to each other. But whenever the city does that, it owes the residents of those streets the ability to co-exist with more traffic. That means building sidewalks, crosswalks - signalized if necessary - and installing traffic calming devices like humps or roundabouts.

Connect the streets, but build the necessary infrastructure so that people can live with the cars. It's not rocket science. It's just more expensive.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Foodies get their due, in new urban study

Foodies around the N.C. Piedmont visit downtown Shelby, for Alston Bridges Barbecue. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Foodies can take a bow. A new report released by Sasaki Associates says it found that 82 percent of city-dwellers appreciate their city’s culinary offerings, reports Anthony Flint for Almost half the respondents said a new restaurant is the top reason they'd explore different parts of their city. And the majority said they consider food and restaurants the most outstanding aspect of cities they love to visit.

Sasaki is a Boston-area architecture, planning and design firm. Its report was a survey of 1,000 people who live and work in Boston, Chicago, New York, Austin, San Francisco, and Washington. They were asked what they like and don’t like about the area where they live in terms of architecture, activities, parks and open space, and transportation.

Architects might not want to read this next paragraph:

When asked what kinds of buildings people admire as they’re walking down a downtown street, 57 percent said they stop to admire buildings that are historic. Only 19 percent admire buildings that are modern. And in a rebuff to the mine-is-bigger-than-yours tower developers, just 15 percent said they admire the tallest buildings. In addition, 54 percent of respondents said they agreed the city should invest in renovating historical buildings as a way to improve their city’s architectural character. Only 22 percent “would like more unusual architecture (get Frank Gehry on the phone!)” and only 17 percent said they’d like to see more skyscrapers and iconic buildings.

East Charlotte offers many ethnic options.
And Charlotte's stadium- and arena- and ballpark-besotted uptown boosters might be interested in this:  
When asked what would make them want to visit a new part of their city, participants overwhelmingly (46 percent) said “a new restaurant.” Just 16 percent said they would do so for a sports event.

Coincidentally, I've been having an email exchange with Nancy Plummer, one of the founders of the now-venerable Taste of the World festival in east Charlotte. You buy a ticket, board a bus and visit three or four of the ethnic eateries in and near Central Avenue. Next one is Oct. 2. To learn more, click here. Plummer and her colleagues on the Eastland Area Strategies Team founded the event in 2005, a time when many local residents were worried about the influx of immigrants into neighborhoods in east Charlotte, among other areas. To counteract the fears, Plummer and others decided to use food as a way to bring visitors to their part of the city. It worked remarkably well. The most recent tour sold out in 14 days.

People, cities and food. It must be a good recipe.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Proposed bill would hobble transit across North Carolina

A bill being considered in the N.C. General Assembly would bar N.C. counties from raising sales taxes to fund both education and public transportation. The taxes could fund one or the other, not both.

The bill - House Bill 1224 - acquired some surprise provisions in the last few days. One provision would kill the plan to ask Mecklenburg County voters in November to OK a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for teacher raises and offer a bit of help for arts organizations.

The bill would cap any county's local sales tax at 2.5 cents, and Mecklenburg is already at the cap. See "Senate bill would scuttle November sales tax referendum."

The effect on transit hasn't gotten much publicity in the Charlotte region, although it can't afford to build its long-planned transit system with only the half-cent transit sales tax it's had for 14 years. But in the Triangle, it's a different story. Transit advocates are worried. (Update July 25: The bill was amended to get rid of the either-or provision. It still would cap a county's sales taxes, effectively barring Mecklenburg from its planned sales tax referendum for teacher pay and creating a dilemma for Wake County. Here's a summary of the bill's process. It passed the N.C. Senate on July 24, and now sits in the N.C. House Finance Committee.)

Local transportation planner: Outerbelt warning was prescient

My posting Tuesday on the death of long-time Atlanta Regional Commission executive Harry West, "Atlanta's 'Mr. Region' (who warned against our outerbelt) has died" brought this memory from longtime local transportation planner Bill Coxe, Huntersville's transportation planner who previously the transportation planner for Mecklenburg County, back when there was enough unincorporated county land to make work for a county transportation planner.

Coxe wrote:

Saw your blog on Harry West’s passing. Had the following knee-jerk reaction:

As a transportation planner intimately involved with Charlotte's outerbelt since its original environmental study in 1979, I vividly remember Mr. West's comments at that conference. And time has proved him true. This billion-dollar infrastructure project causes the market to distribute land use in its wake. And since it turned land that had been used to row-crop food into land that is used to row-crop homes that are followed by row-cropped retail centers, it in turn demands more infrastructure investment. But the distances involved now make the cost of that provision daunting.

I also recall XX [Coxe named a local planner; I'm checking with that person to make sure Coxe's memory is accurate] making a presentation on his research that indicated outer loops did not bring more development to a metropolitan region, simply caused it to occur in a different fashion. Don’t know how you could ever prove or disprove this thesis.

Coincidentally, 1998 was also the year of the 2025 Transit/Land Use Plan, which recommended using rapid transit investment as a tool to engender a more compact and economically viable land use pattern.