Thursday, May 24, 2012

Whither crumbling Modernist plazas?

Minneapolis has its own version of Charlotte's Marshall Park, a vintage mid-century plaza of aging concrete that few love or visit. In Minneapolis it's Peavey Plaza. "Minneapolis Tussles Over a Faded Plaza," is the New York Times' article.

It's another example of the dilemma over how much unloved, unpopular mid-century Modernism should be preserved. Ardent historic preservationists point out that 50 years ago people were tearing down Victorian houses because they were so "ugly," only to wait a decade until people began to love them. Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Historic Landmarks Commission has posted a study of the city's post-World War II  buildings to recommend which were worth National Register designation. Note, Marshall Park is not on the list.

However, the Times article recounts, in 1999 the American Society of Landscape Architects recognized Peavey Plaza as one of the nation’s most significant examples of landscape architecture, along with Central Park in Manhattan and the Biltmore estate in North Carolina. (That, alone, may offer more insight into what's wrong with landscape architecture in America today than any other single piece of evidence.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Today's reads: Urban housing, post-crisis Charlotte, and a pox on high-rises

 Steve Mouzon of Original Green fires back at what he calls Skyscraper Fetish: the idea that to increase density in cities generally considered an environmentally desirable goal requires high-rise residential towers (examples of some in uptown Charlotte in photo, above).

In "Uninhabitable high-rises,"  he points out some of the problems: wind speeds grow with height, making cross-ventilation difficult. Glass curtain walls either cause immense glare, or must be so strongly sun-screened that it's tough for light to penetrate far inside. Operable windows are problematic in tall buildings. And this:"Elevator motors consume more energy than any other single piece of equipment in a high-rise building." 

Subdivisions go urban as housing market changes. USA Today's Haya El Nasser asks: "Why are the giants of the building industry, the creators for decades of massive communities of cookie-cutter homes, cul-de-sacs and McMansions in far-flung suburbs, doing an about-face? Why are they suddenly building smaller neighborhoods in and close to cities on land more likely to be near a train station than a pig farm?"

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

No more MUMPO. Get ready for ... MILUMPO?

The Charlotte-region transportation planning agency known as MUMPO (Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization) is almost certainly in for a name change.

That's because a large piece of Iredell County, including Statesville and Mooresville, plus a decent-sized chunk of Lincoln County are now part of what's known as Charlotte's "urbanized area."

I, personally, am hoping it will call itself MILUMPO. (Mecklenburg-Iredell-Lincoln-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization). Other waggish types, using the Catawba River basin as a unifying slogan, are musing about CRAMPO (as in, Catawba Regional Area MPO) or SCUMPO (Southern Catawba-Union MPO).

What is an MPO and why does it matter? See below. You may also wonder what is this "urbanized area" and why does it matter? The short answer is, "It's complicated."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Highways, canals and how we spend our money

ULI report predicts future U.S. freeways will be tolled. Above: I-77 and Brookshire Freeway. Photo: Nancy Pierce
With some 3,000 Urban Land Institute members at the nonprofit group's national conference in Charlotte this week, several ULI-related articles have come out taking a most rosy view of the Queen City. Links are below. 

And in a timely release, the Washington-based group of developers, planners, architects and others today issued its annual report on infrastructure, Infrastructure 2012: Spotlight on leadership. It describes the Triangle's transit situation, and makes some important points:

"Although governments may have greater success in finding efficiencies by doing more with less, the overall state of the nation’s infrastructure will continue to deteriorate unless the political will and funding to make the needed investments materializes"

"Unfortunately, the United States is one of the few major economic powers lacking a national infrastructure policy direction: initiatives are left to percolate from local and state levels, often competing for resources."

"Freeways have seen their day any new highway or added expressway lane will almost certainly be tolled."

On Page 43 is a wrap-up of the Triangle area's transit situation.  
And note the photo on Page 39, of Oklahoma City's Bricktown Canal. I ran into former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys at Tom Low's Civic By Design session Tuesday night I spoke to a small but enthusiastic group and Humphreys briefly described the capital city's new canals, filled with city water.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Weathering the downturn – or not?

For decades Charlotte was known as the metro region that simply shed recessions like water off a duck's back. But will the current downturn belie that reputation? That's the key question being explored today at a conference today that has drawn several dozen experts in regional resilience to Charlotte's Duke Mansion.

Obviously the answer to that can't be known just yet. But some interesting information has come out, particularly during a panel discussion I served on this morning. The group that came to Charlotte is the MacArthur Network on Building Resilient Regions, which has studied metro regions for years. They look at how metro regions react to major economic shocks. Are they resistent? Or do they bounce back, i.e., are they resilient? Or re they non-resistent? They studied the Charlotte region's response to previous economic downturns – finding the region either resistant or resilient. But their study ended before 2007. They haven't been back, and they wanted to get caught up on the situation here since the banking crisis.

One key stat we talked about: The metro region's (that is, the MSA's) percentage for employment in banking and finance is virtually unchanged now from what it was pre-2008. Another: The manufacturing sector in the region has gone from one-third of the employment in 1980 to, by 2005, less than 10 percent.

Another, from panelist John Connaughton, a UNC Charlotte economist: Since the downturn began, the U.S. has regained 40 percent of the jobs lost. North Carolina has regained only 25 percent of its lost jobs. The Charlotte MSA has regained 50 percent of its lost jobs. But, he pointed out, what Charlotte lost, when it lost the Wachovia headquarters when that bank was bought by Wells Fargo, was some high-paying jobs. The real issue, he said, is the loss of blue-collar jobs: manufacturing and construction jobs.

"Charlotte is a very diverse economy," he said. He predicted the metro region will spring back. "It will be the star that it was," he said.

The panel also talked, predictably, about the need for education. I mentioned the region's history in the past centuries of not valuing education, especially for low-income farm- and mill-workers. And this region remains comparatively poor in post-baccalaureate education and research universities. UNCC is on the road to creating a reputation for research, but as Hal Wolman, director of the George Washington Institute of Public Policy conceded, it does not now have a national reputation for research.

If cities are made more resilient to downturns by having strong education, government and health sectors, then Charlotte may be at risk. One out of three may not be enough.