Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Skywalkers, Luke or otherwise, and the problems they cause for cities

People fill a plaza at the Mint Museum in Uptown Charlotte. In many cities overstreet skywalks are blamed for taking too many people off the sidewalks.  Photo: John Chesser
Uptown Charlotte is not alone in having a series of overstreet walkways that keep pedestrians off the streets and in so doing, damage (by splitting up) the potential customer base for uptown retail.

As pointed out in this Associated Press article in Salon, "Cities face new urban problem: their own skywalks," points out, "a debate is growing over what to do with the cozy corridors, bridges and tunnels that have helped create urban ghost towns."

Cincinnati dismantled half of its system. Baltimore took down seven brideges. Other cities are questioning them.

Charlotte imported its idea from Minneapolis in the 1960s, when suburban expansion and white flight were in full flower. In the 1960s and '70s the city bus stops were along uptown sidewalks, so the sidewalks were crowded with bus riders, many of them people of color.  The overstreet walkways went from white-collar office to white-collar office. Hence an informal segregation took root.

Today of course you see people of all races both on the sidewalks and in the overstreet walkways. The Transportation Center is where people wait for the buses, in a covered facility with seating. And I must disclose that I, too, sometimes take the overstreet walkways when the weather is particularly nasty.

Many urban planners don't like the skywalks, but ... too bad! The city of Charlotte gave away the air rights over its public streets to the corporations building the office towers, which wanted to connect them to other towers or to parking decks. In general they have 99-year leases. For a brief time in the 1990s the city planning department tried to discourage new skywalks. But planners were no match for the pressure from the banks formerly known as First Union and NationsBank and others who were building tall towers.

So it appears we'll be skywalking in Charlotte for at least another half-century.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

About that greener-looking grass in S.C. roads program

In Charlotte, a lot of local officials in the transportation world have cast envious eyes over the state line into South Carolina, where counties can enact sales taxes specifically for road projects. (No, I don't know whether, for this program, "transportation" includes transit or bike-ped or only pavement for motor vehicles.) York County, just over the line south of Charlotte, almost 20 years ago was the first S.C. county to levy a one-penny sales tax on a program called "Pennies for Progress." Several other counties have adopted similar taxes with similar names.

Over the years, multiple Charlotte and N.C. business leaders or transportation honchos have said, in essence, "See, if only we could levy a small sales tax for roads we could do what York County does. They get millions to use on highways and roads, and it all works out great."

Well, maybe not so great.  Turns out there have been major cost overruns, or maybe lowball cost estimates, or both.  A citizen panel found cost overruns totaling more than $100 million and has just warned that unless the program improves it risks losing the fourth round of funding, which requires voter approval and which is set for 2017.  The three previous referendums were in 1997, 2003 and 2011.

Sometimes the green grass over on the other side of the line is a little ragged when you look at it up close.

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