Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When planners gather ...

WILMINGTON – As soon as I get my sandwich at Pender's Cafe on Front Street I'll be heading to the large new-ish Wilmington Convention Center for a session on greenway planning at the annual convention of the N.C. Chapter of the American Planning Association. I'll be here until mid-day Thursday, blogging from some of the sessions. So check back in during the next two days.

For now, must chow down and then rush back to the center.

Greenways: Lessons from other cities (2:35 p.m.):

I'm now listening to planners from Wilmington describe their city's cross city trail - which will be 15 miles when complete, from downtown Wilmington east to Wrightsville Beach.  It's the only greenway in the city now, although a greenway plan is under way now to plan for more.

Wilmington greenway planners traveled to Greenville, S.C., to study that city's Swamp Rabbit trail, which when complete will run 17.5 miles from Greenville to Travellers Rest. Now it's about 13.5 miles. They found community advocacy was key in making that greenway happen. A regional advocacy group, Upstate Forever, pushed for trail acquisition and helped provide volunteers for cleaning up the abandoned rail bed the trail runs on.

The Swamp Rabbit Trail is sponsored in part by the Greenville Hospital, which dedicated $100,000 a year for 10 years, considering it a way to improve community health.

Some of the trail's innovative marketing ideas: Organizers now sell coordinates along the trail. If something special happened on the trail, you can buy a sponsorship for that spot. And when trail officials realized that restrooms and parking along the trail were sometimes hard to find, they partnered with businesses and institutions and now the interactive trail maps show where you can use a restroom or find a parking place.

Another tidbit: In North Carolina, a state law protects property owners along greenway trails from liability.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

If you ask the public, they might answer

(Update, 9/19/12 at 1 p.m.: A more complete version of this article, with photos, "Neighbors deliver earful on zoning ordinance," is now available at

You'd expect a room full of developers, developer consultants and lobbyists invited specifically to  bellyache Tuesday afternoon about Charlotte's zoning ordinance would have had plenty to say. And they did have comments. But it was the group who followed them, about two dozen neighborhood activists and non-developers at a later public comment session, who all but scorched the paint off the walls.

"My concern is that this whole process will turn the zoning ordinance over to the developers," said Bea Nance of the College Downs neighborhood in northeast Charlotte.

"We're no match for the developers with money," said John Wall of the Hidden Valley and North Tryon Street neighborhood.

"The problem is, there are no teeth in plans. They mean nothing," said Susan Lindsay of east Charlotte.

"Quite honestly, the staff doesn't support their own plans," said Cindy Schwartz of Dilworth. "We never see them oppose anything."

The two forums were held Tuesday ....

Monday, September 17, 2012

Funnertime in the city

From guerrilla urbanism such as Matt Tomasulo's Walk Raleigh project, to International PARK(ing) Day, in which people take over a parking place and transform it into an instant park, to this experiment at a London bus stop (be sure to click that link and watch the video; it's charming), the idea is clear: Make cities more fun.

Call it tactical urbanism, or guerrilla urbanism, or just call it a fad. But it's bringing a welcome touch of whimsy and creativity to the urban design field. Ideas are popping up all over the world, with help from social media.

So, has whimsy-challenged Charlotte gotten into the act?  If UNC Charlotte urban design student Keihly Moore gets here way, the city will. She's organizing a PARK(ing) Day event in Charlotte for Friday.  Disclosure: Keihly is my graduate assistant at, and is a master's student in urban design and architecture (dual degree) at UNC Charlotte. She also writes for the PlanCharlotte website.

With approval from the city's Department of Transportation, Keihly and collaborators with the UNC Charlotte School of Architecture and the Charlotte Urban Farm Project will take a few spots in South End on Camden Road near Park Avenue where the Food Truck Fridays event is held and convert them, temporarily, to a park. Here's her diagram.


She plans sidewalk-chalk activities, among other things. Read more about it by clicking on this link. It's all volunteer-led, with no budget to speak of. If you're interested in helping, you can email Keihly (it's pronounced KEE-lee.)

If you know of more tactical urbanism maybe we should call them Random Acts of Urbanism? let me know.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Europe's great untapped revenue source: property taxes

The piece I've been working on for most of the summer, about the financial health of cities, was accepted and published today by

Europe's Great Untapped Revenue Source: Property Taxes 

Its key point: Headlines about financial crisis focus on nations, but it's on city streets that the trauma plays out. And local government experts say for cities in the U.S. and Europe, things are going to get even worse before they get better. And in Europe, economists are urging more reliance on property taxes, which typically make up far less of a local government's revenue stream.

The article emerged from a conference in Paris sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University International  Urban Fellows Program.

Among the many lessons I learned there was this small observation: In Paris, when a regional planning agency offers a lunch to a visiting conference, it will include pate de foie gras. Not what you'd see at a Council of Governments or MPO meeting in the U.S., I think.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

N.C. court to counties: 'Raise taxes, already'

In August,the N.C. Supreme Court threw out Cabarrus County's adequate public facility ordinance. Here's the Charlotte Observer article on the ruling: "Ruling favors developers." You can download a copy of the ruling here, courtesy of Joe Padilla at the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (REBIC). 

The ruling is of interest, of course, but as a practical matter APFOs, as they are known, were already virtually dead in North Carolina, as Mae Israel wrote in June for the UNC Charlotte website I run, (See "With ordinances dead or in limbo, planners ponder next steps.")

Under APFOs,  the local government sometimes assessed a fee on development if, for instance, local schools were already overcrowded and the county did not have the money to build new ones, or the planned new schools weren't yet built. Or the developers would delay building until new schools opened.

Since the ordinances were invented as a way to help counties (and a few municipalities) find some money to pay for the schools, parks, etc., the question arises: How does a fast-growing county like Cabarrus pay for the services its thousands of new residents require? A number of studies have shown that typical suburban-style large-lot subdivisions don't generally bring in enough property tax revenue to pay for the services they use. (More expensive houses, obviously, produce more property tax revenue, and at some price point the housing will start to pay for itself.)

Taxpayers lose $4 billion on sports venues

One of many links someone shared with me last week during the DNC, when I was too busy hopping from event to event to sit reading links, is this from, which adds up some VERY BIG sums of what U.S. taxpayers really pay to subsidize sports stadiums and arenas: "In Stadium Building spree, U.S. Taxpayers Lose $4 Billion."

With groundbreaking Friday for the Charlotte Knights ballpark in uptown Charlotte, it's particularly timely reading. Bloomberg reporters looked primarily at tax-exempt muni-bonds issued for places including Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena, where the NBA Bobcats play.

The reporters write: "During the past decade, studies by Grant Long; Robert Baade of Lake Forest College near Chicago; Victor Matheson, an economist at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts; and others have found that stadiums are poor municipal investments. Nonetheless, political leaders are still willing to offer taxpayer-funded aid to team owners including muni-bond financing to lure or avoid losing a franchise and the civic pride and event-related jobs that go with it."

The link takes you to a 2006 article in Growth and Change: A Journal of Urban and Regional Policy, where the article abstract says: "The evidence presented here is that the presence of a new or renovated stadium has an uncertain impact on the levels of personal income and possibly a negative impact on local development relative to the region."