Saturday, June 8, 2019

‘Charlotte doesn’t have a brand’? Here’s an idea


The famed Excelsior Club, possibly to be demolished, in keeping with local tradition. Photo courtesy Dan Morrill
Even in the chest-pumping venues of deep-booster Charlotte, an inkling of the problem sometimes creeps in. Janet LaBar, the new CEO of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance even said it out loud in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. “I think Charlotte doesn’t have a brand,” she told reporter Deon Roberts.

The comment came up today at a regular weekly rump session over eggs, biscuits, livermush and bacon with a group of mostly long-time Charlotte residents, several of them Charlotte natives. I recalled the one-time civic discussion of a possible monument at The Square, the symbolic heart of the city at Trade and Tryon uptown. There was a time when folks were trying to figure out what could be an image that would capture the city’s essence. The late Doug Marlette, then the Observer’s editorial cartoonist, proposed an Eternal Barbecue Pit. Of course, other N.C. barbecue fans noted that Charlotte was famed, not for barbecue, but for being a place without authentic N.C. barbecue joints. Whatever.

What got put up at The Square was four didactic, symbolic statues representing Commerce, Industry, Transportation, and The Future. Visiting poet Andrei Codrescu once described them on NPR as Socialist-Realist and noted that the gold nuggets pouring on a symbolic banker’s head looked like turds.

And there’s a nice old-fashioned-looking clock in a small park on one corner. That park is modeled on the terrain of the Pacific Northwest, or maybe it was the Appalachian mountains – neither of them exactly representative of Charlotte’s terrain. It was built after the city used eminent domain to take and demolish the only antebellum store buildings uptown, which were offering not a heavily symbolic statue but actual Commerce.

Which leads me to the idea our rump session this morning devised. Because when asked, what iconic image does “Charlotte” bring to mind, people said: There isn’t one because Charlotte tears everything down.

After discussion digressed for a short time into various houses folks had owned and raised kids in only to see new owners tear them down for bigger houses, the idea emerged organically. The iconic image of Charlotte is of buildings being torn down.

Hence this modest proposal: Create a monument to Charlotte that is a building. It might be a small model of a historic building that should have been preserved. Maybe the Hotel Charlotte. Maybe the Independence Building. Maybe the Masonic Temple. I hope the Excelsior Club does not join this list.

Then every year on the city’s birthday, the model building is demolished. A new one goes in its place. It will last one year, and then, with pomp and ritual, it too is demolished. And so on. Erasing the past, year after year after year.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Greening the greenway

 Trees about to be planted beside Briar Creek Greenway. Photo: Mary Newsom

I was walking a short new segment of greenway beside Briar Creek on a sunny day and, about a mile south of the Mint Museum Randolph, I spotted a mass of young trees in plastic pots.

Of course I had to inspect them. Each plant had a TreesCharlotte tag identifying the species. I had stumbled on a large planting project destined for later in the week for that section of the greenway.

This was a cheerful discovery. The greenway, built by the Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department, runs generally beside a stretch of Briar Creek, from the Mint Museum Randolph and its park downstream to Meadowbrook Road. That creek segment has just been re-engineered in a project by Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Storm Water Services. The project aims to improve water quality and mitigate flooding. But it left the creek banks bare.

Looking upstream along toward the Mint Museum Randolph, with the Eastover neighborhood at left. The Storm Water Services creek project left the Briar Creek banks bare. Photo: Mary Newsom
The planting is a partnership among TreesCharlotte, the Catawba Lands Conservancy,  which protects several dozen acres of wetlands woods through which the greenway runs, and Piedmont Natural Gas, which paid for the trees and which will help with tree stewardship.
TreesCharlotte’s goal is to protect and expand Charlotte’s tree canopy, which is diminishing because of development as well as the aging out of trees planted a century ago.

It was good to note that the more than 200 trees planted were almost all native species. Here’s a partial list, based on labels on the trees I saw:

Witch hazel blossoms in late winter.
Paw paw (Asimina triloba)
Little Gem magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Fringe tree, and spring fleecing fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
White oak (Quercus alba)
Burgundy hearts redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Oklahoma redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Overcup oak (Quercus lyrata)
Cherokee princess dogwood (Cornus florida)
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
Arnold promise witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis).

Of that list only the witch hazel (pictured at right) is a non-native. This particular variety is a cross between a Japanese and Chinese witch hazel. Other species to be planted include tulip poplar and black gum.

Why does it matter that they’re native species? Invasive plant species are a huge and growing threat to our environment and its biodiversity. They crowd out native species – think kudzu or wisteria – which alters food sources for wildlife, including insects. Among the major problem plants are privet, English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass and honeysuckle. (Learn more here and here.)

Piedmont Natural Gas’ participation is part of a required mitigation for environmental disruptions elsewhere.

Magnolia trees awaiting planting. Photo: Mary Newsom


Monday, March 11, 2019

Is the “economic development” tail wagging the transit dog?

Map from Charlotte Area Transit System shows current plan for the Silver Line light rail, which would be built after funding is found for it. A closer view of the west section of the route is below.
Some controversy continues over the decision by the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to route the proposed Silver Line light rail outside of the heart of uptown Charlotte, bypassing the most convenient transfer points with the existing Blue Line. )See “Five key takeaways from Charlotte’s newest transit plan”)

The Silver Line would run from Matthews, through uptown, out Wilkinson Boulevard to the airport and west to the Gaston County town of Belmont. One idea studied would have run it through uptown via a tunnel under Trade Street. That would add roughly $1 billion to construction costs. In my reporting, I referred to the tunnel idea as costing less to operate over time and shortening travel time considerably. But Brock LaForty, the Carolinas area manager for the consultant WSP, which CATS hired to study Silver Line routes, contacted me to make clear that WSP’s analysis found the tunnel route would save two minutes per trip, a difference he and CATS officials both called marginal, and he said WSP had not analyzed whether the tunnel would cost less to operate over time.

The statements about travel time and lower operating costs were the personal opinions of Ron Tober, a former CATS CEO with extensive transit planning and operating experience in multiple cities, who was working for WSP as a consultant on the project.

Tober’s remarks created a bit of a stir between WSP, CATS and Tober. Tober told me he was deliberate in speaking out about CATS’ decision to opt for a route bypassing the heart of uptown Charlotte and the Charlotte Transportation Center in favor of one farther north, along the side of the Brookshire Expressway. Tober said he recognized there might be blowback if he went public with his concerns. And there was. Tober was to have left WSP at the end of March. Instead, he left last week.

CATS Chief Executive John Lewis told Steve Harrison of WFAE, Charlotte’s public radio station, that the decision not to select the tunnel option was influenced by the city’s goals for economic development. “From a purely mobility standpoint, the tunnel was a great alternative for us,” Lewis told Harrison, but said CATS couldn’t look only at mobility. “Lewis said CATS is a part of the city of Charlotte and the city has other goals, like economic development. The area around I-277 is mostly empty today,” Harrison reported.

He quoted Lewis: “And being a part of the city, we had to look at it beyond just the mobility aspect of, how do we move people from one point to another” Lewis said. “There were the economic development goals, there was supporting affordable housing.”

Remember, Lewis works for City Manager Marcus Jones. And the City Council, as well as many others in the community, have deep and appropriate concerns about the city’s need for more affordable housing. Putting affordable housing along the city’s new light rail lines is a longtime – if under-realized – goal.

But look at the areas near the Brookshire and North Tryon Street where the Silver Line would go. The area is already redeveloping and gentrifying. Residents and small businesses in Belmont, Optimist Park, Druid Hills, Lockwood and the Greenville neighborhood are already worried about land prices zooming upward. (See “North End Is Hot, But Can It Handle Coming Change?”) It isn’t as if those areas will see no new development without the light rail. To contend the Silver Line is needed for “economic development” is – to put it diplomatically – misguided. Some might even say untethered from reality.

Plus, there is no funding to build the Silver Line. Today’s GOP leadership at federal and state levels are either virulently anti-transit or just not interested in spending more money on it. Any new taxes to support CATS and the Silver Line would need a state legislative OK and would presumably involve surrounding counties which have not in the past two decades offered to tax their own residents for transit. Do not hold your breath that anything will happen until well after 2020, and quite possibly 2030. In other words gentrification will have swallowed the area now being eyed as needing economic development long before the Silver Line gets built. A deep concern that development needs a boost is, to my eyes, misplaced.

Is this just the latest impatient development push from Charlotte’s uptown leaders, who have not in my 40 years of residence here ever met a glitzy development project they did not welcome? Are they embarrassed that North Tryon Street is not yet glossy enough? After all, there are two facilities for the homeless on North Tryon near where the Silver Line would run, and the area can look at bit down at the heels. Can’t have that, can we?

I’m not a transit analyst and not equipped to say whether long-term cost savings of the tunnel would make up for the extra cost to build it, or whether the inconvenience of the Silver Line bypassing the heart of uptown will be a serious impediment to ridership, or not. That deserves clear-eyed study. The local nonprofit Sustain Charlotte contended just that in comments to the Metropolitan Transit Commission. Assessing the way the route will affect real estate development deserves some clear thinking as well.

“Economic development” brings higher land prices to an area. That makes affordability even harder to provide. The city has not to date ensured that any affordable housing gets built near its existing light rail line. It hopes to rectify that, which is admirable and I wish them well. But so far those plans are embryonic, not a proven and successful strategy.

So do they want “economic development,” or do they want affordable housing? It is very hard to have both at the same time in one place, especially if that place is in an extremely hot development market, like Charlotte.

I’m left with this question: Should the city reject without further study what may be a better mobility option – which would benefit all transit riders – in hopes that its still elusive transit-oriented affordable housing wishes bear fruit?

A closer view of where the Silver Line would run through west Charlotte, across the Catawba River and into the town of Belmont. Map courtesy of CATS

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Five key takeaways from Charlotte’s newest transit plan

The chosen Silver Line route is shown in green, at right, along 11th Street. The blue line shows where the Trade Street tunnel would have run. Other options not chosen are a surface route along Trade Street (purple) and a route along the existing Blue Line.
No tunnel uptown. A light rail line crossing the Catawba River into Belmont. Finally light rail to Pineville?

When the Charlotte Area Transit System’s policy body on Wednesday unanimously adopted an update to its 2030 Transit System Plan, those optimistic visions became part of the official CATS planning process.

Note to readers: CATS doesn’t currently have money to build any of those things, estimated to cost $6 billion or more. Just so you know.

But here are some key takeaways from what the Metropolitan Transit Commission adopted.

1. No tunnel uptown. CATS hired consultants WSP (the former Parsons Brinckerhoff) to study a tricky issue – how would the proposed Silver Line (formerly known as the Southeast Corridor), get across all the freeways encircling uptown, then through uptown and head west on its route to Charlotte Douglas International Airport and over the Catawba River?

CATS’ existing light rail line, the Blue Line and Blue Line Extension, travel through uptown on a pre-existing rail corridor. The proposed Silver Line would not. It’s planned to run alongside Independence Boulevard and then head west, thereby adding the former West Corridor to the Silver Line. Any way you look at it, getting that sucker through uptown will mean complicated engineering and high costs.

One option WSP proposed was to tunnel under Trade Street to the existing Charlotte Transportation Center, a hub for most bus routes as well as a Blue Line light rail stop, and up West Trade Street to the not-yet-built Gateway Station, which would also hold a new Amtrak station. Gateway Station is also envisioned as the terminus for the long-proposed-but-still-distant Red Line commuter rail to north Mecklenburg. More about that later.

The MTC opted not for the tunnel but for a route running the Silver Line above ground, beside 11th Street, then alongside the existing Amtrak route beside Elmwood Cemetery, over to Gateway Station and then heading west to the airport. It’s less expensive to build, although the tunnel route would have cost less to operate, over time, the consultants said, and would have shortened Silver Line travel time considerably. (Update as if March 8: Brock LaForty, the Carolinas area manager for WSP, says the consultants’ analysis found the tunnel route would save two minutes per trip, a difference

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Hate tax revaluation time? Then let’s do it more often. Seriously.

Tear-downs that make way for large new houses, like these in the Cherry neighborhood, drive up property values of smaller, older houses nearby. Photo: Mary Newsom
It’s tax revaluation time! Are you excited? We aren’t either. Seeing your property value skyrocket is only fun if you are planning to sell it ASAP.  For most of us who aren’t real estate speculators, higher values don’t mean more money shoots into our bank accounts, because we can’t easily convert property into extra income unless we decide to raise goats, chickens or marijuana in the back yard.

Nevertheless, revaluations are an important equity tool. If you wait years to do them, you’re giving a tax benefit to wealthier property owners with rising values and giving a comparative tax penalty to properties whose values did not go up as much, or not at all.

If that sounds confusing, read on.

Mecklenburg County has been revaluing its property every seven or eight years. That means someone whose mansion was valued at (we’ll keep to round numbers here) $1 million at the last valuation has been paying taxes on that figure,

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

How did Charlotte’s big bike-ped trail run out of money?


Not for recreation only: The Little Sugar Creek Greenway beside Kings Drive in Midtown makes a convenient route for shoppers. The Cross-Charlotte Trail is envisioned as both recreation and transportation. Photo: Nancy Pierce

What should we make of the news this month that the proposed Cross-Charlotte Trail, a joint city-county project, is some $77 million short of the city money it needs to be finished?

That’s essentially what the Charlotte City Council was told Jan. 7 – that to complete the 26-mile bike-pedestrian trail across the county would require an estimated $77 million beyond the $38 million in city money previously allocated (and mostly spent).

Did costs balloon along the way? Why was the council seemingly blindsided? And what happens next?

Plenty of finger-pointing has ensued. City Manager Marcus Jones told the Charlotte Observer, “I’m going to own this.”

After talking with a variety of folks about the trial and its funding problem, my conclusions:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Time to have that uncomfortable talk. I mean about parking.

A Walmart in east Charlotte offers a gracious plenty of parking. Photo: Google Maps satellite view
It’s a question without easy answers. But that just makes it even more important to confront, and find a guiding strategy. It’s time for Charlotte to talk about parking.

Parking is both blessing and curse for any city built – as Charlotte mostly was – around private automobile use.

There’s a lot to curse. An admittedly incomplete list of problems parking lots cause would include the way they devour valuable land space that could hold housing, stores, workplaces, parks, community gardens, tree canopy, pretty much any use valued by city residents. (See below for a short list of what could go into one parking space.) They send storm water runoff cascading into local surface waters (i.e. creeks), polluting them and causing more frequent flooding onto the floodplains where foolish development was allowed. Remember Hurricane Florence in September? Get used to it, as climate change brings more heavy rainstorms. They add to the urban heat island effect, pushing the rising summer temperatures even higher. And the need to provide parking creates significant headaches for small businesses.

And finally this: With so much parking both “free” and available, we almost always hop into the car instead of asking, could we walk? Bicycle? Take a bus or light rail?

But parking lots can also be a blessing in a city built to make driving the automatic choice for almost all of us. For most residents here, any alternatives to private automobile travel – walking, bicycling, scootering, transit or ride-shares – aren’t available or competitive in terms of time, hassle and cost. And when we drive, we need temporary lodging for our vehicles.

I was reminded of this late last month. Rain was pelting the asphalt as I wheeled into what looked like the last available parking spot at Cotswold shopping center, then sloshed across the asphalt for last-minute Christmas shopping. I was glad to find even that terrible parking place.

But should two weeks in December really determine the size of parking lots year-round? It’s January now, and across