Monday, August 20, 2012

Fads and the city

Uptown Charlotte skyline. Photo: John Chesser
An excellent package of articles is running in the Charlotte Observer, examining how much taxpayer money the city spends on its convention center (up to $30 million a year), questioning whether the payoff justifies the expense. Here's a link to Sunday's article: "Selling Charlotte: Convention business requires millions from taxpayers." Look for another piece Tuesday, examining why the city for years hasn't questioned the assumption that conventions do, indeed, help the city's overall tourism climate. (Update 8/21/2012: Here's a link to the Tuesday article in the Observer, which looks at the apparently overblown estimates of local spending by conventioneers: "Visitor spending more fiction than fact.") And I might note, here, that the tourism industry is not known for high-paying jobs, either. Here's the link to an Observer article today exploring job-creation and wages: "Far fewer jobs than promised."

Currently the city and the city's Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority spend as much as $30 million a year for construction debt, operating losses and convention subsidies for the convention center. The Observer's editorial board today says it's time to "Consider being unconventional," i.e. to discuss whether to end the "arms race" of convention centers.

The discussion was needed years ago. The nation is overbuilt with convention centers, all chasing too few conventions to fill the available space. Charlotte's CRVA is mostly funded with the "prepared foods tax," a special 1 percent sales tax  paid every time you eat out or even buy a sandwich or roasted chicken at a grocery store deli. Here are some projects $30 million might pay for if spent differently: a center city park, expanding the greenway trail system, streetcars, reviving the historic Charlotte Trolley rides, restoring the Carolina Theatre or many other tourism-related projects.

The whole question of what, really, works in invigorating a downtown is one more cities should ask. I've watched, sometimes with amusement and sometimes with angst, as Charlotte pursued various fad-of-the-moment projects to try to pump life into what was, by the 1980s, a downtown (here, we call it "uptown") that emptied after office hours.

Yes, those efforts were important and valuable, and it's to the credit of the city's so-called "uptown boosters" that they didn't give up on the vision of having a center city that was a real center of activity.
But ... but ...

Having that goal plus having deep-pocketed uptown boosters with easy access to elected officials in a place with a certain lack of self-confidence in Charlotte's inherent charms has made this city an easy mark for the fad-of-the-moment, regardless of whether the resulting projects were in fact, good medicine for what was ailing the city at the time or thoughtfully designed to endure.

A few examples:

1. Cityfair. Where the Hearst Building sits today used to sit for what seemed like about 20 minutes a festival marketplace named Cityfair, built in the era of Harborplace and Faneuil Hall. The fact that Charlotte had no harborside or historic market halls did not deter the fad-of-the-moment gang. Cityfair opened in October 1988 and closed by fall 1991; it reopened for a few years then died for good. The city lost $4 million in the end. Cityfair's flaws were many: Its design was vintage suburban shopping mall, not fit for an urban streetscape. Its food court was popular but, set on the ground floor, it sent little traffic into shops on higher floors. Cityfair arrived just as Belk closed its uptown store, so hoped-for foot traffic from an overstreet hamster tunnel never materialized. Category: "Fail."

2. The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. This public-private partnership has added a quality to uptown that was badly needed when the Charlotte Symphony was playing out at Ovens Auditorium on Independence Boulevard. Although I have griped over the years about its hamster-tunnel-to-the-parking-deck design and the suburban-shopping-mall-design of the nearby Founders Hall, its category overall: Winner .

3. NASCAR Hall of Fame. Overblown projections, a deal negotiated amid machismo hype, and a design that pretends it is a space ship, not an integrated part of a city. Category: May come to define "Fad-of-the-Moment Fail."

4. Tryon Street Mall. You don't even know what this is, do you? Those odd looking bus shelters and fancy pavers along Tryon Street were part of a "streetscape" design the city undertook in the early 1980s, back when the national fad-of-the-moment was the idea that fancy pavement would make people come to uptown. No, really, they believed that. The shelters, which did not even keep bus riders dry, cost as much as $80,000 each. The artfully designed newspaper racks never got used by actual newspapers. The fancy pavers in the street cracked and were replaced by concrete faux-brick pavers. Yet the street trees and the wide sidewalks have blessed Tryon Street ever since. So this fad ended up having a legacy that people take for granted today, even if they're still scoffing at those silly $80K bus shelters. Category: A fad with unexpected positive benefits despite itself.

5. The aquarium. At least we did not build one. Aquariums were all the rage about 15 years ago, after Chattanooga, Atlanta and Charleston built theirs. Discovery Place (itself a child of the 1970s fad for children's science museums, and not a "fail") wanted to freshen the uptown science scene. I always thought we had enough sharks already along Tryon Street. Category: Potential fail averted.

Today's fads: Streetcars. Bike-share programs. Even larger convention centers, and convention hotels.
Which will succeed, and which will fail? I'd bet on the first two to be winners. The last one? Not so much.


consultant said...

Tampa gets the conventions with strip clubs.

misswhit said...

Citizens have been routinely bashed by your former employer for opposing tax increases. Our mayor is also disdainful of those who are wary of more taxes. Looking at the cost of the failures as well as the things throughout the city that have gone untended while uptown got its various baubles, you would think that the anti tax increase folks would be applauded for their prudence!

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