Monday, March 22, 2021

I guess we’e reimagining uptown Charlotte again

Image from draft of the 2040 Center City Vision Plan, of what might (in some distant future) be a large park where the Norfolk Southern rail yard is today, on North Tryon Street

A few thoughts follow, after I listened this morning as Michael Smith of Charlotte Center City Partners briefed the City Council’s Transportation, Planning and Environment Committee on the 2040 uptown plan, known as the All In 2040: Center City Vision Plan. (Watch the meeting here.) That plan will be part of the massive Charlotte Future: 2040 Comprehensive Plan. (See draft here.) The Center City plan is still being drafted with a final draft due in May.


I love the idea of a new Second Ward High School, as this plan proposes. This keeps being proposed by the city, and hasnt happened. Maybe the city council and the staffs from the city planning department and the Charlotte Department of Transportation should burrow into why. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has its own elected school board; do they favor this idea? If yes, maybe the problem is that the school board doesnt raise its own tax revenue; the board of county commissioners must fund school building construction.


The idea for a high school uptown is not new. I recall at one point – maybe 15 years ago? – the concept arose, paired with the proposal that the new high school be a magnet school with curriculum focusing on the arts, and banking/finance. It always made me chuckle to think about the students whod go there. I imagined a Venn diagram of that student body with no overlap whatsoever.


Another proposal Smith talked about, saying the idea was afloat in the community: a big park on the site of the Norfolk Southern rail yard on North Tryon Street. That would be awesome indeed. Heres a story I wrote about it in 2018 when some UNC Charlotte urban design students proposed it. But I didnt just chuckle. I guffawed at the idea that Norfolk

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Weedy obstruction gets whacked

Weeds that blocked the sidewalk have been removed. Now, anyone want to report that campaign sign illegally posted in the right-of-way? Photo: Mary Newsom
Here’s a quick update to “A good walk spoiled," about the problem of vegetation, leaves and mud obstructing sidewalks. (Headline: Report it to the city via 311, via the “CLT+” smartphone app, or online here – it’s considered a nuisance report).

After reporting it to 311 on Aug. 11, I got a call Monday, Aug. 17, from a city code enforcement inspector. He needed a specific address for the perennial problem on the Runnymede Lane sidewalk – he had to know which inspector’s territory it was in. Google Maps provided addresses for several houses that back onto Runnymede, whose owners may well not know they’re responsible for cleaning the sidewalk on the other side of a large stockade fence at the rear of their lots. It’s a spot where leaves, mud and other debris have stacked up for years.

So, hopeful sign!

Then I asked about the weeds invading the sidewalk on Providence Road where it crosses Briar Creek. The inspector told me that Duke Energy owns the property. He indicated that sometimes Duke is not speedy in getting things like this taken care of.

So I decided to appeal to the City Council member for that district - Tariq Bokhari. I emailed him about it, and got a nice reply from a staffer, who said she had reported it to Duke.

It was cleared out on Wednesday.

I can’t say for sure that getting an email from a City Council member lit a fire under the power company or whether they’d have gotten to it anyway.

But … good for Duke for clearing that sidewalk. The sidewalk is now passable, if not pretty, and you can even see the creek. (Its water this morning was reasonably clear.)

And in the future, let’s hope the city can make that sidewalk language in the city code less troublesome.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

A good walk spoiled

At least there’s a sidewalk. But shouldn’t walking be more comfortable than getting slapped in the face with overgrown weeds? Photo: Mary Newsom
It was a morning walk along pandemic-cleared Providence Road. That means the street was seeing dramatically fewer vehicles than the 32,000-some it normally carries. And for once the pandemic was helpful, because the sidewalk was so obstructed in several spots that a couple of times I had to walk in the right lane of Providence Road. During rush hour. I was briefly – only very briefly – thankful for Covid-19.

That morning walk in late July spotlighted an under-reported but notable flaw in the City of Charlotte’s management of pedestrian life. Yes, the city to its credit has more than 1,900 miles of sidewalks. And yes, the city long ago stopped charging property owners for sidewalk repairs.

But what about keeping sidewalks passable? That’s iffier territory. My experience along Providence shows why, too often, walking is uncomfortable. That’s one reason people with options will opt to drive. It matters. Unless we want to live with ever-growing traffic and ever-worsening climate change from burning fossil fuels, we should be encouraging more people to walk, not drive.

Providence is a major artery (it’s a state highway, N.C. 16), but for about 6 miles through the city it acts like a neighborhood street (not a “road.) It’s flanked by front lawns, homes, churches, stores, a park, etc., many of which

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Sun Belt cities are driving much of our urban growth. Let’s study them

Charlotte shares many urban problems with other boomimg Sun Belt cities. Photo: Daniel Weiss/Unsplash
This article has also been published by my former employer, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Read more of the institute’s offerings.

The U.S. population, like that in Charlotte, is growing, and much of the growth is in the cities of the Sun Belt. A new report from a Houston university research center says the country should be paying more attention to Sun Belt cities like Charlotte – treating them as a specific genre that needs its own body of research.

“Unfortunately, much of American urban policy is crafted – and, indeed, much urban policy research is conducted – with traditional Northeastern and Midwestern cities in mind,” says the report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

Released June 11, “The Urban Sun Belt: An Overview,” (download it here) lays out reasons why Sun Belt cities differ in key ways from other regions’ cities and deserve more attention – including the cities’ dramatic growth in recent decades.

Here’s one small example of why Sun Belt cities may need their own research: The term “Sun Belt” itself has no official definition. It was coined in 1969 by political analyst Kevin Phillips. So demographers and others must craft their own. For this report, the Kinder Institute defined the Sun Belt as spanning the continent from Los Angeles to Miami, below the 36’30º parallel. That takes in metro areas in North Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma but leaves out, for instance, California cities north of the Los Angeles metro area and Nevada cities north of Las Vegas. The report focuses on metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) of 1 million people or more.

And it concludes with an ominous analysis: Sun Belt cities may be particularly hamstrung, compared with older cities, in dealing with urban problems.

Chart: Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research

Why should the rest of the nation care? For one thing, more and more of the nation now lives in those Sun Belt cities. The report offers some astounding facts:

Between 2000 and 2016, the 22 Sun Belt metro areas with more than 1 million people accounted for

Thursday, June 11, 2020

After Covid-19, what happens to cities? What we know – or think we know

Uptown Charlotte’s Brevard Court, before Covid-19 shut down bars. Photo courtesy of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute
 After Covid-19, cities will change forever. Here’s a sampling of predictions I’m seeing:

People will avoid close physical encounters. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll flock to crowded bars and restaurants after weeks of lockdown.

Stores, bludgeoned by pandemic closings and high rents, will close. So will smaller, non-chain restaurants. Cities will become blander and more homogenized.

Or maybe this: For a while small businesses will die and renters will flee. But that will reduce demand, so landlords will lower rents. Newly cheap spaces will lure innovators and entrepreneurs, artists, restaurants and shops to formerly homogenous, high-dollar areas. Their return will reinvigorate neighborhoods once dominated by national chains and luxury homes.

People will move to small towns, smaller cities or suburbs because they’re afraid – even more than before – of urban density and urban protests. Or, maybe, they’ll move after enduring years of extreme housing costs.

At the same time, more workers will telecommute – willingly or not – and office real estate will go begging. That, too, will change property values in cities, and hurt stores and restaurants catering to office workers.

As more workers telecommute, rush-hour congestion will melt away. Or maybe, rush-hour congestion will spike as people who once commuted on transit will opt to drive to work. And as more people move to suburbs, traffic there will get worse.

Or maybe none of those things happen.

We who write about cities are quick to make predictions. Some will prove prescient. Some won’t. But nobody really knows. Cities aren’t all alike. New York’s texture, way of life and pandemic experience are not Charlotte’s, or

Friday, May 8, 2020

Anti-vaxxers. Boosterism beating science. Sound familiar?

Charlotte's first zoning map from 1947 shows development patterns that continue today almost 75 years later. Hanchett's book, with a new preface, describes how government actions like zoning shaped today's racial and economic segregation. Today's wealthiest area of south and southeast Charlotte appears here in green at the lower right corner, because the map is not oriented north-south.
“Today’s decisions, consciously or unconsciously, rest on the platform of the past.” 
–– Tom Hanchett, Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975, second edition

People who find history boring and irrelevant must have scars from repeatedly touching hot stoves. The past has lessons, if we’ll listen. This is about a couple of century-old events in my city, Charlotte.

My original plan here was to write about the second edition of historian Tom Hanchett’s Sorting out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. It’s a stunning book, one I regularly recommend when people ask what to read to learn about Charlotte. When I first read it in 1998, it was like having a light flick on in a darkened room; you see things you previously sensed only in shadowy outlines.

The meticulously researched look into how Charlotte’s neighborhoods went from racially diverse after the Civil War to strictly segregated told a story new to many of us – not the fact of segregation but how it happened across decades. He described how government – local, state and federal – was a key actor in creating and enforcing racial segregation. (To learn more about government’s role in U.S. housing segregation, see Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.)

Hanchett, the retired historian for the Levine Museum of the New South, today is historian-in-residence at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. His powerful new preface brings his work up to date and makes the point that since current inequities of wealth, well-being and education resulted from deliberate government action, then government action can help reverse them.

But … pandemic. Most Americans are now stuck at home, trying to stay 6 feet from anyone outside, many having lost jobs. We’re all viewing the world through a coronavirus lens and living through a history-making pandemic, the most serious since the 1918-19 flu, estimated to have killed at least 40 million people globally.

These days some politicians urge reopening stores and businesses, and not a few Americans agree, saying the cost to the

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

When North Charlotte turned into NoDa

The corner in NoDa where a scruffy deli-live music venue called Fat City once lived. Where the dumpster sits in this photo is where, 20 years ago, you would find bongo circles on Friday nights. Photo: Google Street View
Through a roundabout way, someone emailed me something I wrote in 2002 for The Charlotte Observer about the NoDa neighborhood. It seems, today, oddly prescient.

Almost two decades later, I can look at the neighborhood, which retains some of its original spirit, and at the column I wrote and see a description of organic, urban change, the kind where small investments create a diversity of uses, and where over time you see what Jane Jacobs called “the self-destruction of diversity,” or “the tendency for outstanding success in cities to destroy itself – purely as a result of being successful.”

I tried to add a link to the piece in the The Observer’s archives but a Google search didn’t turn up anything. So instead of helping my friends there with a few clicks, Ill make a pitch for daily metro newspapers, which are essential to understanding the place where you live and holding your government (which is, in reality, all of us) accountable. Heres how to subscribe. Better yet, buy an ad.

Feb . 22, 2002: Loving NoDa to death?

The first time I saw the NoDa arts district, it wasn’t NoDa and it wasnt artsy. It was the early 1980s, and I was looking for a bakery up on 36th Street that someone had recommended.

I found the bakery, just off North Davidson Street, in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood of emptied-out storefronts. Next door was an aging theater, which I think housed a church, though my memory on that point has dimmed.

The neighborhood was a memorable remnant of another time and an older Charlotte. It was obviously a mill neighborhood, with a nucleus of half-century-old store buildings and, lurking a block or so away, the hulks of a couple of brick mills. Surrounding it clustered small, almost identical wood-frame mill houses.

By the ’80s a ghost-town air was seeping into the mortar. Its businesses were fading; their location far from booming south Charlotte meant the aging buildings werent even being demolished but were settling into a twilight of abandonment.

As it happened, I knew that the little mill neighborhood had a name: North Charlotte. North Charlotte is singled out in The Observer’s stylebook, the official reference we use for capitalization, punctuation, spelling and other usage. North Charlotte merited its own entry because of its capital-N North, which recognized it as a distinct neighborhood, not just anything in the general northern part of town, which would be lower-case-n north Charlotte.

The cake I bought at the bakery wasnt all that great. But having discovered North Charlotte, I kept an eye on it over the years. I thought it had potential. It seems I was right.

Around 1985 an artist couple bought a dilapidated block of buildings on North Davidson and in 1990 opened the Center of the Earth Gallery. Other arts types followed, including former used-car salesman Terry Carano, who opened a populist gallery in a scruffy building across Davidson.

People in this buttoned-down, money-hungry banking city flooded North Charlotte for gallery crawls, concerts, coffee houses and off-the-wall theater. The place was unique in Charlotte: It was scruffy – the opposite of upscale – and it had a sense of place. You could find weird art, people playing bongos, vegetarian food and other deviant urban pursuits. People loved it.

After a few years, people started calling it NoDa, as in North Davidson. I guess they thought it would be hip, like SoHo in New York. Looking back, that might have been the clearest sign that North Charlotte’s authenticity was at risk.

NoDa is booming. Real estate signs uptown hype NoDa lofts. New restaurants and bars are open.

Last week came news of a development proposal. The scruffy building housing the un-slick Pat’s Time For One More bar and two weirdly populist galleries is to be demolished. In their place would go a well-designed three-story building with stores and condos.

As urban buildings go, this one will be better than about 98 percent of everything getting built in Charlotte. Yes, it will bring investment to the neighborhood. Yes, cities evolve, and this evolution is a sight better than what is evolving out on the outerbelt. And yes, amazingly, über-suburban developer Crosland will do this little urban infill.

But. But.

Can you tear down the blue-collar bar and the most avant-garde and wacko gallery and still hold on to what attracted the young, alternative thinkers to start with? The cheap gallery space and the bar serving truckers, punks and artists are an essential part – though not the only part – of the formula that turned North Charlotte into NoDa.

Can NoDa survive the loss? Maybe. I hope so.

But of course, that’s NoDa. I think North Charlotte may be gone for good.