Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Time-traveling to a lost era in city history

I spent rather too much time yesterday looking through a new website that lets you view old maps of Charlotte a century ago, pegged to the 100th anniversary Friday of artist and native son Romare Bearden's birth. The site,, (put together via a partnership of the Levine Museum of the New South and UNC Chapel Hill) superimposes old photos and information about Bearden on an old Sanborn map. You can see old building outlines, where the streets used to be. (Note the small lot sizes, compared with today.).

I got interested, also, in the companion site, another collaboration by the Levine's historian, Tom Hanchett and UNC. It uses 1911 Sanborn maps and city directory information to show you, for instance, where people holding different jobs were listed as living. You can locate where the boarding houses were, by race, as well as attorneys, mill workers and "bag agents." The slider bar lets you superimpose an aerial photo of today's buildings atop the century-old maps.

Of course, using this site, I scrolled out to see my own neighborhood  –  a subdivision whose official plat name is Pharr Acres. I'd heard it was "old man Pharr's farm."  Yep, there on Providence Road, just south of  Briar Creek, is a dot labeled "W S Pharr." Into the late 1970s the large, old farmhouse house still stood. Like so much else on the map, it's gone now, with a cul-de-sac subdivision in its place.

The Bearden site also offers some opportunity to mourn, including for the segregated world into which he was born, and for the loss to this city of a talent like his, when his parents moved North in search of a better life. As Levine historian Hanchett says in his article for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's website (disclosure: my workplace) "Bearden’s 1911 birthplace: A fateful time for Charlotte," a city where downtown neighborhoods had been comparatively integrated was hardening into rigid segregation during the years before Bearden's birth. A new city park was closed to black residents. Black passengers were ordered into the back of streetcars.
But as you look through the Bearden locations and see photos of what's there today,  mourn this, as well:  Most of it is gone. The good, the bad, the spacious front porches, stores, churches almost everything. Including, in some cases, even streets  What you'll see in photos showing today's scenes in the places where Bearden and his family lived is not newer buildingsafter all, cities do evolve but surface parking areas, empty grass-covered lots. It's one thing when old buildings are lost but replaced by newer ones that also over time contribute something to the city's life and, then, its history. That is not what has happened here. We've just lost the reminders of the past, without gaining anything. At least this online exhibit can, if only virtually, restore something of what went before.

Photo: Artist Romare Bearden, born in Charlotte 100 years ago, moved to New York. His great-grandparents are shown in the photo next to him, on the porch of their Graham Street home in Charlotte.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A drive through the layers of a city

(A shopping cart, removed in recent days, at the desolate North Park Mall.)
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but when I took my new job at UNC Charlotte, the one thing I dreaded was my new drive to work. For more than two decades I’d commuted 4.2 miles to downtown from a neighborhood near Wendover Road along streets lined, for the most part, with half-century-old oaks. Depending on the hour and the traffic karma, it took as little as eight minutes up to (on rare occasions) 25.

My new drive is 12 miles, along streets decidedly unlike Providence and Queens roads and Morehead Street. Even apart from the extra time out of my day (it’s a 25- to 30-minute trip) and extra auto expenses to absorb, I was not looking forward to it. This new commute goes through neighborhoods that had little urban beauty even when new, and now are decidedly down-at-the-heels.

 But I was wrong.  What I lose in visual splendor is giving me a better-rounded view of the city.
The commute takes me through parts of Charlotte that of course I’ve seen before – I’m a journalist, remember – but never daily, or even weekly.  And an occasional cruise up Eastway Drive is not at all the same as seeing it daily, because it’s those routine views that inevitably shape our understanding of and expectations for, the places we inhabit – what urban design writer Kevin Lynch (who worked in Greensboro early in his career) described as “mental maps.”

Knowing, intellectually, that Providence Road runs through some of Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhoods isn’t the same as absorbing, every day for years, the sight of tree-shaded sidewalks, well-watered lawns and well-proportioned four-lane streets. For years I’d drive through neighborhoods built as early 20th-century streetcar suburbs. Now I see car-oriented suburbia, much of it tattered. But despite its lack of obvious beauty, it offers something just as interesting, which isn’t easily found in those more static neighborhoods: a quality of visible transition through time.

I drive north to where Wendover becomes Eastway, then all the way to North Tryon Street, finally turning onto University City Boulevard. Along the way, I notice massive oak trees which don’t get near the publicity of Myers Park’s but are just as impressive. A few years ago I spotted chickens in someone’s yard across the street from the Aztec Apartments, and enjoyed the sight. This was before the chic urban chicken craze hit the city. Now, though, while I have looked daily since late June, I have not seen a single fowl there. On Tuesday night, however, I did see, near the Kilborne intersection, a white rabbit hopping along the grassy verge.

I drive past strip shopping centers of various ages, in varying degrees of transition, decay and stability, and marvel at how Eastway Crossing at Central and Eastway has kept up its rental spaces over decades. How will it fare after its Wal-Mart closes, once the new store on Independence Boulevard a mile away opens?

Nation Square, a new strip center on North Tryon Street.
I notice that the view of  50-year-old Garinger High School, designed by renowned local Modernist architect A.G. Odell, is all but obliterated by mobile classrooms plopped out front. I have become familiar with the extremely rough Norfolk Southern Aberdeen, Carolina & Western railroad tracks between Sugar Creek Road and The Plaza, possibly the bumpiest on any major thoroughfare in the city. I eye taquerias, Latino grocery stores and African braid salons, and today I caught a glimpse, as I zipped past, of a small business near Shamrock whose sign read: Cambodian Video.

Once on North Tryon Street – which has been a designated light rail transit corridor for, oh, about 13 years – I
marvel daily at how much new retail development has gone up in recent years that’s not at all transit-friendly: Amid mobile-home graveyards and the vintage Holiday Motel sit numerous newly constructed small strip centers and even a fast-food joint with drive-through windows.
I stopped one recent morning at one of the newest strip centers, Nation Square, which houses a handful of businesses including Panaderia Odalys, a Mexican bakery. I sampled cookies with guava and other sweets and was surprised to learn that Odalys is a small chain, with outlets in, among other places, High Point, Asheboro and other nearby Carolinas cities. Who’d have thought?

One of the bleakest spots is North Park Mall, where Eastway ends at North Tryon. Those jutting sawtooth skylights on its roof evoke the old Richway store of the mall’s founding in the 1970s. Richway later became Target, which left the mall more than a decade ago. A Kroger Sav-On became a Bi-Lo and now sits empty. The mall is all but derelict, with weeds and pockmarks in its parking lot. Right next to it, a much newer strip center seems fully occupied with small businesses – braid shops, salons, etc.

Baked goods at Panaderia Odalys at Nation Square
The overall condition of that section of east and northeast Charlotte is of concern, naturally.  Some areas (that strip center on The Plaza at Eastway, for instance) all but shout “disinvestment.” But it’s the evidence of change – thriving ’60s and ’70s suburbia that has passed through down-at-the-heels and, in many places, into immigrant entrepreneurialism – that make this drive so much more interesting. With so many small-scale businesses, you see more evidence of changes than along the oh-so-sedate section of Providence Road lined with the big Myers Park churches or along Morehead Street, where most of what changes is Carolinas Medical Center consuming ever more land. It’s more intriguing to spot a new taqueria, an African grocery store or something called Cambodian Video.

My daily commute now shows me a living city, one changing visibly from decade to decade, its modest neighborhoods evolving with the outflows and inflows of different people from different places.  I compare that with uptown Charlotte; for all its wealth of nightclubs, restaurants, museums, sports arenas and people, uptown’s virtually all-new development has mostly obliterated evidence of the multi-layered past. Cities have memories, made visible in the layers of buildings, pavements and history. We all need to be able to see the evidence of what went before us, what James Howard Kunstler called chronological connectivity. In his 1996 book, Home From Nowhere: he wrote: “Connection with the past and the future is a pathway that literally charms us in the direction of sanity and grace.”

For me, it's the places where small stores go in and out of business, where new signs sprout in Spanish or Vietnamese or English, that are making it easier to sense the past as I travel toward the future.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bike-share idea moves forward in Charlotte

Charlotte City government officials will discuss whether to push ahead with what's now a fledgling idea for the city to launch a bike-sharing program, preferably in time for the Democratic National Committee in September 2012.

The City Council's Transportation and Planning Committee this afternoon (Monday, Aug 22) heard a presentation from Alison Cohen, president of Alta Bicycle Share, which operates the Washington, D.C., bike share program, Capital Bikeshare, launched in September 2010. Also at the meeting was John Cock of the affiliated Alta wing, Alta Planning + Design.

Bike-share programs let customers pay (via memberships, or kiosks) to rent bicycles temporarily from a system of stations around the city. In Washington, yearly membership is $75, which buys you an electronic key you insert to free the bike from its locked slot at the station. Day-pass users ($5) get an unlocking code to use.  The first 30 minutes of a ride have no other fee bu the longer the ride, the more it costs. 

It's important to have places for bicycle riders to ride, Cohen said. Washington went from 3 to 50 miles of bike lanes in the last 10 years and saw bicycle commuting rise 86 percent, 2000-2009. The average distance of a Capital Bikeshare ride is 1.2 miles, Cohen said. (Charlotte is up to 50 miles of lanes, city bicycle coordinator Ken Tippette said.)

Today's meeting had no specific proposal on the table for council members; it was an information session arranged by Tippette with the encouragement of City Council member Edwin Peacock III, who chairs the council's Environment Committee and who described his experience using Capital Bikeshare when he was in Washington recently for a National League of Cities meeting.

Cohen said the D.C. bike share program is the nation's largest to date, although New York City plans to launch one in 2012 with 10,000 bikes. Other cities with programs: Denver, Minneapolis, Boston – even Spartanburg, S.C., which has only two bike share stations according to Cohen. Also in the works are programs in Chattanooga, Tenn., San Antonio and Miami. And yes, you read that right. Spartanburg.

Council members David Howard, Patsy Kinsey and Nancy Carter had questions for Cohen and Cock, but no one pooh-poohed the idea. At the end of the meeting, Howard, who chairs the committee, asked Assistant City Manager Jim Schumacher to talk with City Manager Curt Walton about what, if anything, the city should try to do.

Reading the tea leaves, as we pundits try to do, I predict the city will explore some sort of small-scale bike sharing program limited to center city and possibly one or two nearby neighborhoods, and will look for private sponsors to help with costs. A year is a short time frame for setting up a full program, but with enough push it could be done. After all, if you were in Charlotte in 1994 for the Final Four you saw center city enthusiasts create a fake nightlife scene, setting up bars inside vacant buildings. It worked. Doubters saw the huge crowds of people willing to come uptown for a night out, and it helped spark more authentic night life uptown. Setting up a real, if small, bike share program might have the same kind of inspirational effect.

The council committee also, with little discussion, unanimously recommended approval of the Center City 2020 Vision Plan, which goes to the full council Sept. 12  Here's a link to the draft of the plan, and here's a link to some commentary from my UNC Charlotte colleague David Walters and me. Also, here's a previous Naked City Blog item from me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

If I'm nuts, then Joe Nocera is too

I couldn't help but laugh when I read New York Times' op-ed columnist Joe Nocera's piece on Monday, "What Is Business Waiting For?"  In it he suggests that U.S. business leaders should consider hiring more people because that, in the end, will help the economy and thus, their business. "If enough companies started hiring — while wrapping their actions in the mantle of patriotism — even Carl Icahn might have trouble complaining about it," Nocera writes.

I proposed a similar idea deep in a column I wrote last December for The Charlotte Observer, "Is the U.S. entering a 'hate the rich' era?"

I wrote: "If you're a 'rich person,' especially if you run a company, should you be worried? Who knows? The wealthy still seem to have Congress in their pocket. But maybe now is the time to start heading off rising animosity. I know that some wealthy people truly do care about their country and their community. So prove it: CEOs could decide it's an act of patriotism to start hiring workers. Why not challenge fellow CEOs to a patriotic campaign to fill jobs, akin to Warren Buffet's push to get billionaires to give half their wealth to charity?" 

The commentariat, both online and in my email inbox, beat me up severely for saying I hated the rich – even though I specifically said I didn't – and for being so ignorant about business as to suggest such a dumb thing. Maybe I was just too far ahead of the curve?

And speaking of hostility toward the rich, check out Pulitzer-winning Steven Pearlstein's "Blame for financial mess starts with the corporate lobby" from the Aug. 13 Washington Post. It's blistering.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Density pays off better than sprawl

A Colorado study for the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute by Asheville's Joe  Minicozzi concludes that across the board, downtown commercial and mixed-use buildings outperform their big-box counterparts when comparing tax revenues per-acre. The study looked at properties in and around Glenwood Springs, Colo. (Hat tip to for the link.) Minicozzi looked at both property tax and sales tax revenues.

I wrote a year ago about Minicozzi's analyses of property in Sarasota County, Fla., and Asheville. It's another way that public officials should think about "growth" as they decide which projects to approve and which ones not to. In that previous posting, Minicozzi added a reply to some of the commenters, saying:
"When we ran the model in Asheville, our numbers show that our downtown continually out performs suburban low-density time and time again. A conservative estimate on multi-family services of government (sewers, water, schools, etc.) shows the costs roughly to pencil out to $16k/unit in compact development vs. $28k for low density. The simple way of thinking about it is that mile of pipe picks up more people in compact development, than it does in the low density stuff."
I recall that about 10 years ago, the town of Pineville outside Charlotte, a place known regionally for extreme sprawl retail, opted to reject a Wal-Mart Supercenter after running the numbers and concluding it would cost the town more in police and other services than the town would recoup in property and sales taxes.

In checking out the Sonoran Institute website, I noted this article from the Bozeman, Mont., Daily Chronicle in which a Sonoran Institute official points out that impact fees were a vital tool for the city. "There simply is no substitute," he said. The article is about a spat among city officials and developers over the city's hefty impact fees, which the city charges to cover the cost of roads, water, sewer and fire protection. "For the average single family home, impact fees cost $11,516," it says. " In Missoula, it costs $3,638 in impact fees for the average home."

In most of North Carolina developers pay no impact fees. The N.C. legislature must approve any city or county's impact fees on a case-by-case basis and hasn't OK'd any in several decades. That's just food for thought for anyone paying property taxes.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The feel-good story that isn't

If you read the recent Charlotte Observer article, "All signs point to Peachtree Hills on the rebound," you read about much admirable work from the City of Charlotte and nonprofit groups. The city committed almost a half-million dollars to help the foreclosure- and crime-plagued subdivision.

According to reporters Kirstin Valle Pittman and Peter St. Onge, the city improved curbs and sidewalks, helped residents form a strong neighborhood group and helped win a $75,000 grant for a new playground. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have worked hard, too, and report crime down 70 percent over last year; residential break-ins are down 88 percent. And home values are rising. The average selling price this year is $77,300, up from $68,670 last year.  The nonprofit groups Self-Help and Habitat for Humanity are hard at work. Durham-based Self-Help has bought 33 Peachtree Hills homes, to refurbish and sell to buyers whom the group believes can avoid future foreclosures.  Habitat has built seven new homes and bought five foreclosure houses for resale.

It's a nice, feel-good story. Except.

Except that it exposes a huge flaw in the process by which development takes place in Charlotte. It makes you wonder: Why city officials in their right minds would vote to approve the building of mile after mile after mile of rock-bottom-cost subdivisions, right next to each, other across a large arc of west, north and east Charlotte? Having so much low-cost housing in close proximity made the whole area vulnerable to foreclosures and the attendant problems when the national blight of subprime lending, mortgage fraud, financial market misdeeds, and then unemployment hammered Charlotte.

A 2007 Charlotte Observer article ("New suburbs in fast decay") noted that from 1997 to 2007, starter homes (so-called because their low prices attract buyers just starting in home-ownership) accounted for one-half of all single-family homes built in Charlotte between I-85 and the northern city limits. They made up fully a third of all single-family homes in Charlotte built south of I-85. By late 2007 BEFORE the big crash in late 2008 the Observer's analysis found more than 50 neighborhoods with elevated foreclosure rates of 15 percent to 61 percent. Virtually all were new starter-home subdivisions.

Could it happen today? Have Charlotte's leaders from pols to planners learned from what happened during that decade from the late '90s until the crash, when that vast cluster of low-income housing spread  across the city's northern edge?

I fear that, yes, the same thing could happen today. Part of the reason is the way growth is managed (or not) in Charlotte; part of the reason is just the way land prices work. If the market magically revived (not likely for a while, to be sure), dozens more subdivision-building bottom-feeders could probably erect multiple subdivisions of the cheapest materials, in the worst places, all next to one another. In most cases no rezoning is needed, because most undeveloped property in Charlotte years ago was zoned for single-family subdivisions (R-3, R-4, etc.). An estimated 75 percent of the subdivisions built in Charlotte in those boom years needed no rezoning; elected officials had no chance to say yes or no. All the developers needed was to follow the city's subdivision ordinance and meet the standards in the zoning ordinance. Auto-pilot insta-growth.

As it happens, the developer of Peachtree Hills, built starting in 2003, did need a rezoning. Triven Properties got a rezoning from R-4 (four houses per acre) to R-6 (CD), almost exactly 10 years ago. The City Council on Sept. 17, 2001, voted unanimous approval for the rezoning.

So, what should change? It's not an easy question to answer. One reason is that low-cost new development  gravitates toward places where land costs are lower. Putting up more low-end development tends to create more of the same, just as putting up high-end development drives up land values. Should government intervene in this process, and if so, how best to do it?

And the problem isn't low-cost housing per se. It's the large-scale clustering of housing all aimed at the same income levelin typical suburban-sprawl layouts that force every resident to own a car and drive everywhere. In any event, elected officials aren't allowed to – and shouldn't – decide rezonings based on the price level of the proposed housing. And there IS a huge need in Charlotte for dwelling places that more people can afford. (I do keep wondering, though, why this problem isn't also being addressed at the wage-level end, instead of only at the housing-cost end. Low wages are the He Who Shall Not Be Named in Charlotte's whole community housing discussion.)

It seems to me any answer must come from multiple places: revamped subdivision and zoning ordinances, maybe removing the no-rezoning-needed incentive that exists now for sprawl development on greenfield sites and giving more incentive to the infill, mixed-use development that the city prefers but that today must jump though multiple hoops.

I'm not saying I know what the answer ought to be. But this I am sure of: More smart people in this city ought to be trying to find some answers and now, while development is slow and there's time to explore and, yes, while the sector of the development industry that depends on suburban-sprawl subdivisions is in a weakened condition, which levels the playing field with other development players.

It's admirable that so many people, with public and private dollars and unmeasurable volunteer time and energy, have tried to help Peachtree Hills and other such subdivisions, such as Windy Ridge, and that their efforts seem to be succeeding. But the true measure of success ought to be figuring out how to avoid building any more neighborhoods that will simply replicate the problems of Peachtree Hills.

Photo: Windy Ridge, another foreclosure-plagued Charlotte subdivision. (Photo: Keihly Moore / Liz Shockey, UNC Charlotte)