Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Charlotte fantasies, past and future

UNC Charlotte design student presents plans imagining a transit-oriented neighborhood, North Park. Photo: Mary Newsom

It was 250 years ago this week, Dec. 3, 1768, that the City of Charlotte was officially born with an act by the royal governor of the colony of North Carolina. (Read that charter here.) Monday, the city celebrated in a ceremony uptown with a sound stage and music so extremely amplified that you couldn’t talk to anyone, with birthday cake and food trucks.

Jim Williams as Thomas Polk
It wasn’t a fancy, planned-for-two-years kind of celebration – no fireworks, parades with visiting dignitaries, planes flying banners overhead. But of course, officialdom in Charlotte for as long as I’ve lived here has been more interested in pushing future growth and prosperity than in examining and learning from the past.

That 1768 charter designated five white men to be “city directors,” and one of them, Thomas Polk, was loitering near the sound stage Monday, waiting for the noon speechifying. Polk, or really, local history enthusiast Jim Williams, was resplendent in a black tricorne hat, buff-colored waistcoat, and knee breeches and frock coat of the color that 200 years later would be known as Carolina Blue. Polk – the real one – was a shrewd fellow of Scots-Irish ancestry who before eventually moving on to Tennessee played a key role in the city’s first – but by no means last – spec development.

Polk and a few others, on their own dime, built a log courthouse where two trading paths intersected, in hopes of giving the young town a competitive edge to be designated the Mecklenburg County seat. Which would, of course, make their own property more valuable.

It worked.

And for a city on the make, what could be a more fitting foundational story?

WE MOVE FROM 1768 TO ... SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE

After the noontime birthday festivities that celebrated the past, I headed off to hear, instead, about an imagined future – one that would transform an unattractive, car- and truck-filled intersection into a neighborhood of shops, sidewalks, fruit trees and, of course, a brewery.

First-year Master of Urban Design students at UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts + Architecture were presenting their fall semester project: Envisioning a transit-oriented neighborhood near the Old Concord Road light rail stop. It’s just northeast of the Eastway Drive-North Tryon Street intersection, one of the city’s many areas built solely for the benefit of car and truck drivers.

The assignment from Professor Deb Ryan was to draw a plan for the area generally within a 10-minute walk from the station. After she assigned it, Ryan said, she learned that Mecklenburg County had bought a large chunk of the area – the almost-defunct old North Park Mall site, with its vast potholed asphalt parking lot and derelict empty spaces – and planned to turn it into community services offices.

Although such student plans are essentially just theoretical exercises of the imagination, the students opted to incorporate some of the county’s plans into their own – in hopes the county staff might see some ideas and cooperate in helping transform the whole area.

Cardboard model of the envisioned North Park neighborhood. Photo: Mary Newsom
The students offered a vision – and a nifty cardboard model arrayed on the floor – of a walkable neighborhood with plenty of trees, housing and offices set out along streets lined with stores. They envisioned an elementary school, a research campus outpost of UNC Charlotte, which is 4 miles to the north, and a generous helping of affordable housing.

“What we tried to do is push the idea of health and walkability,” Ryan told a small audience of community members and professional urban designers.

The area today has few attributes of walkability. Although it has some begrudging sidewalks, things are built far enough apart that walking isn’t attractive. The stores and restaurants are splayed out along busy thoroughfares with parking lots in front and between them. Many of the smaller streets don’t connect to anything. It’s hard to cross the busy streets. More walkable areas, by contrast, have nearby places you’d want to walk to, interesting shops and businesses set along the sidewalk, lots of connections, and plenty of residents close by so enough people are out and about to make the area feel safer.

As one student said,  “We had to kind of merge reality with fantasy.”

So they proposed, among other things:
  • 12 new connections for streets that, today, dead end.
  • Both a main street running through the area, and a perpendicular market street that would cross Eastway Drive.
  • A brewery in an old warehouse.
  • Flats, town homes, and single family houses
  • Mixed-use buildings with parking decks hidden on the inside, a form known as a "Texas doughnut."
  • Reconfiguring the Eastway-Tryon intersection to slow the cars bulleting from Eastway onto Tryon.

Possibly the most controversial proposal (or it would be, if this was truly being proposed rather than an in-class exercise) was to reduce by almost half the existing "park" land nearby. 

Those quotes are because the “park” – Eastway Park – is disconnected from everything around it. Its 90 acres are reached via a long driveway (lacking a sidewalk) off the busy Eastway Drive thoroughfare, with no crosswalk or pedestrian light to allow pedestrians to get there. The driveway leads to a grassy area with two soccer fields, a big surface parking lot and a disc golf course.

Although the park is directly next to the railroad, and only a short distance from the Old Concord road light rail station, you can’t walk between the station and the park, thanks to some fenced-off freight rail lines running directly beside the park.

In other words, Eastway Park is a design fail. In my few visits there, admittedly a highly random sample, it’s only lightly used unless there’s a ball game going on. The county park department plans to build a new recreation center there – although that won’t do anything to improve the park’s unwalkable, isolated site.

Hence the students’ idea to take some of the unused park land and built affordable housing there, to improve the “eyes on the park” for safety, and to give lower-income residents a way to easily access a rec center and park. They propose the same for the Hidden Valley Park in the nearby Hidden Valley neighborhood.

Farther down the fantasy end of the spectrum, although intriguing, was this idea: a series of “productive greenspaces” where trees and other food-producing plantings line streets and small parks. You could walk down a sidewalk and pick an apple. Or a peach, or maybe pawpaws.

Will any of it get built? There’s no way to know, because it’s currently just a gleam in the eyes of a group of graduate students. But as Thomas Polk might have advised back in 1768, when he was building a courthouse on spec with visions of town growth: Why not dream big?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Do women pay a transportation ‘pink tax’?

This is a quick note, following my previous post, “Cities for woman: Transit and gendered spaces,” which raised the question of whether city planners and designers take women’s experiences and needs sufficiently into account.

A survey from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management concluded that women in New York pay, on average $26 to $50 a month more for transportation due to concerns about harassment and safety.

According to an article in amNewYork, the survey took place during September and October and asked New Yorkers about travel habits. Read more here and here. Of the women who responded, 75 percent had experienced harassment or theft on public transportation, compared with 47 percent of male respondents.

And 29 percent of the female respondents, compared with 8 percent of men, said they avoided taking public transportation late at night because of “a perceived safety threat.” From that figure, the report authors estimated women’s higher transportation costs.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Cities for women? Transit and gendered spaces


Bus route changes that force longer walks, especially at night, can be particularly discouraging to female transit passengers. Photo: Charlotte Area Transit System bus, in 2010, by James Willamor via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently found myself listening in on a group call with Daphne Spain, author of Gendered Spaces (1992) and How Women Saved the City (2002). Spain, a sociologist at University of Virginia, studies and writes about ways women and men historically have been treated differently in both public and private spaces. And I now have two more books on my To Read list.

Spain talked about public transit, among other topics, and at one point noted India has created women-only trains because of the extreme harassment women there can experience.

As it happened, the conversation came a few days after I saw the viral video, “A Scary Time,” by Lynzy Lab. With more than 1.3 million views as of Nov. 5, the video from Lab, a dance lecturer at Texas State University, mocks some discussion that arose after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in Congress that men’s fear of being wrongly accused of sexual improprieties dwarfs the fears women live with over sexual assault, harassment and not being believed.

Accompanied by a ukulele, and ending with a plea to vote Nov. 6, Lab sings, in part:

“I can’t walk to my car late at night while on the phone / I can’t open up my windows when I’m home alone / I can’t go to the bar without a chaperone … / I can’t use public transportation after 7 p.m. / … And I can’t ever leave my drink unattended / But it sure is a scary time for boys … / I can’t live in an apartment if it’s on the first floor … / I can’t have another drink even if I want more … / I can’t jog around the city with headphones on my ears. … / And so on.

But back to Spain. She noted that women are more dependent on public transit than men. She also mentioned that if bus route planning took greater notice of women’s concerns that bus service would run later into the night to accommodate night-shift workers at places like hospitals. (This, obviously, applies to male night-shift workers, too. But women are disproportionately more likely to use transit, and more likely to live in poverty, meaning they can’t afford to own a car.)

This resonated loudly. The Charlotte Area Transit System recently redesigned some of its routes, to make them speedier and more convenient to more passengers. It’s adding more cross-town routes. Without a massive infusion of funding – not possible in an era when federal transit funds are shrinking and the transit-hostile N.C. state legislature must OK any new sales taxes for places like Charlotte – this means trade-offs are required. The route changes dropped some stops on neighborhood streets and moved them to thoroughfares. That means some riders must walk farther.

A Charlotte Observer article on the pluses and minuses of the changes has this passage, with echoes of Spain’s remarks:

One rider impacted by CATS’ changes is Alberta Alexander, who works nights at a restaurant. Her bus stop on a residential street near Tuckaseegee Road has been eliminated by the changes. 

“It’s my only transportation,” she said. “If I do not drive, and they’re changing these buses and changing these routes, I have no other option.”

Now, if she gets off work late, she’ll have to walk from Tuckaseegee to her house at night, instead of getting off much closer on State or Sumter streets.

“Before the changes, I had a bus stop in a 2-1/2 block radius,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to walk home.”

Men as well as women walking alone on a dark, deserted street are vulnerable to muggings, robberies, etc. But women, often less physically able to overpower any attacker, make easier targets. Plus they experience the additional fear of sexual assaults. Consider this, as reported in a Next City article, “Designing Designing Gender Into and Out of Public Space”: “A 2014 Hollaback!/Cornell University study found that 93.4 percent of women surveyed globally had experienced verbal or nonverbal street harassment in the last year, and more than half had been groped …”

This isn’t meant to say the CATS bus route changes were, on balance, a mistake. As CATS chief operations planning officer Larry Kopf told The Observer, while some riders might have a longer walk or lose a stop nearby, the majority will benefit from faster bus trips and more efficient routes.

But it’s important to ensure that the concerns of women – about walking to bus stops along well-lit, not deserted streets, for instance – are treated seriously when changes are proposed.

And this is not just an issue for CATS. The city of Charlotte should pay more attention to, and put more money into, making streets safer for all pedestrians, for the disabled, and for people riding bicycles (and today, scooters). Fewer than half the streets in Mecklenburg County have a sidewalk on even one side.
Charlotte has many streets without sidewalks, like this one in a neighborhood near SouthPark. That can make pedestrians, especially women,  feel unsafe, particularly in the dark. Photo: Mary Newsom
Building a well-used, safe transit system means more than better and more frequent routes. It requires more sidewalks, improved sidewalks, better street-lighting (with energy-efficient LED lights that point downward so as to avoid blinding glare), and requiring development that creates “eyes on the street,” to reduce deserted areas.

Daphne Spain, in the conversation last month, mentioned that she serves on the Albemarle County (Va.) planning commission. In her time on the commission, she noted she hasn’t worked with a single female developer. “The people building our cities,” she said, “are still men.”

MORE ABOUT CITY DESIGN AND GENDER:

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Waiting for the creek to rise


Now demolished, the Midtown Sundries building was in a floodplain and flooded regularly. Photo courtesy Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services.
Now and then, during extremely heavy rainstorms, my daughter and I used to hop in the car and drive about a quarter-mile away to see if what we call the Creek House was inundated.
The house was built in the 1990s on a you-can’t-believe-it’s-legal site: within about 6 feet from a small creek.

That creek (one of about 3,000 miles of creeks in Mecklenburg County) has the boring official name of Briar Creek Tributary #1 and is neither large nor impressive. Except during a heavy rain. Then it deepens and widens – muddy and dangerously fast-flowing.

At one point, when the Creek House was being built, it was so close to the creek there was a two-by-four propped between an exterior wall and the far side of the creek.

It was a shocking example of how slack Charlotte and Mecklenburg County environmental regulations were, even though they were in some significant ways stricter than the state’s. I sent a copy of the photo to a fellow I knew in the county water quality program; he used it in a slide show urging Charlotte-Mecklenburg elected officials to require undisturbed vegetative buffers beside creeks. I can’t claim that photo is what led the county commissioners to enact the buffer ordinance. But I hope it helped.

Tonight, in Charlotte, N.C., we’re awaiting what may be 10 inches or more of rain from what’s left of Hurricane (now

Monday, August 6, 2018

Should affordable housing be treated as basic city infrastructure?

Here's an interesting piece in The Washington Post today that should be provoking some discussion among people concerned with housing affordability: In expensive cities, rents fall for the rich but rise for the poor.

The conventional wisdom is that a housing oversupply will cause the costs to go down the famous law of supply and demand. If we just allow developers to build plenty of housing, rents will sink. But that appears not to be happening.

The article, which is pegged to information from Zillow, does not address Charlotte specifically. So while maybe the same is true here it′s also possible that given the growth pressures in this fast-growing city – named by Zillow as the nation's fourth-hottest housing market – the top rents here are staying high.

The most significant ponderable here, I think, is whether – if that old law of supply and demand appears not as reliable as we′ve been led to think – the free market on its own can provide enough housing at a price more city residents can afford. The City of Charlotte is helping with its housing trust fund, but it seems doubtful we can simply build our way out of the problem.

I was talking last week with a zoning and planning lobbyist in Charlotte – a guy whose planning background doesn′t stop him from generally hewing to a basic free-market approach. He said he′s starting to believe cities should consider housing affordability as part of the basic package of infrastructure the local government provides like streets, police and fire service, parks, public health services, etc. Maybe the city builds it, maybe it helps other people build it, maybe it helps people afford it, or maybe there′s another way to accomplish this, he said.

For a generally fiscally conservative guy to propose that speaks, I think, to the reality Charlotte and many other cities face: Too many residents don′t earn enough money to afford much of the available housing. And beliefs about how the marketplace can provide it may need some readjusting.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Want to know why Charlotte traffic is bad? One reason: You can’t get there from here

The lack of a connected street grid leads to congestion.
So there I was, heading to an 8:30 a.m. meeting near UNC Charlotte. Zipping up W.T. Harris Boulevard which I note is nothing like an tree-lined boulevard you might stroll down if you were a boulevardier I saw that ahead of me, traffic had stopped.

You expect it on some Charlotte streets Providence Road, for example, or I-77 at rush hour. But usually the drive up Harris Boulevard is smooth and, if not congestion-free, at least mildly and manageably congested. Not this day. My Google maps showed the section ahead as blood-colored, meaning extreme congestion. As I sat there, or crept forward, I watched the clock, fretting that I would be late for the meeting.

I cast about mentally for ways to get around the congestion. Being fully stopped, and not having reached the Old Concord Road interchange, I looked at the maps on my smart phone in search of escape routes.

There were none. My only realistic options were to get on Old Concord Road and drive far out of my way, braving either the morning university traffic or go even farther out of my way over to North Tryon Street with its multiple traffic lights, both options likely to make me arrive even later. (I screenshot the map at right about 10 minutes later.)