Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why Charlotte needs that 'noose' study

As expected, the Charlotte City Council on Monday approved the measure to allow a study of the uptown loop and all its interchanges. As I wrote in Time to neuter that noose around uptown Charlotte? the idea to put a cap onto part of Interstate 277 (leaving the highway there, but creating usable space above it) has been proposed since at least 1997.

During discussions for the Center City 2020 Vision Plan, the idea was broached of converting the section of the loop at the north end of uptown into a boulevard, although the final plan only recommended further study.

I checked with Charlotte Department of Transportation's manager of planning and design, Norm Steinman, about the I-277/I-77 study. He pointed out that the study which might or might not end up making recommendations for a freeway cap or boulevardization is needed for a more essential reason. It's been at least 40 years since the I-277 loop was designed, with its early alignment concepts more than 50 years old. "Obviously," he said in an email, "a lot of growth has happened since then." The NCDOT and the Federal Highway Administration essentially have said no more changes can happen to any of the I-277 interchanges without a study.

"For the first time in 50 years we're taking a look at what should be done," Steinman told me.

I have in my possession a copy of the 1960 master highway transportation plan for the city of Charlotte, prepared by Wilbur Smith and Associates. It shows the route for I-77 and for a loop around uptown a lot like what eventually opened in the 1980s. (It also shows the Independence Boulevard Freeway, which remains unfinished. Gee.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The huge significance of the Red Line proposal

MOORESVILLE – "Revolutionary is not too strong a word for plans being laid out today to a room full of government officials, consultants and interested laypeople. We're at a "summit" to discuss ideas for reviving a long-stalled proposal to build a commuter rail line to Iredell County.

For starters, the plan involves regional cooperation. Second, the current public money crunch has forced a creative new way of thinking about transportation financing.

Even for a region that's had plenty of regional "discussions" for decades, what's being proposed is a major leap forward for working across county boundaries. The complicated proposal depends, in part, on seven governmental bodies agreeing to form a new legal entity, called a joint powers authority. Members would be Mecklenburg and Iredell counties, and Charlotte, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville.(The JPA wouldn't have taxing authority.)

Not since the great Mecklenburg annexation/spheres of influence agreements of the 1980s and the formation of the Mecklenburg-only Metropolitan Transit Commission in the 1990s have so many local governments been asked to come to a formal, legal agreement of this sort. And this time the agreement must cross county lines. That's a rare proposition around here, where crossing the county line can put you into a place with an entirely different political culture, and where most of the counties outside Mecklenburg harbor, if not fear, then at least wariness of Charlotte's behemoth footprint.

But if there's to be any hope of prudently guiding this huge and sprawling metro region away from financially unsupportable growth, it's going to have to come with a large dose of inter-county cooperation. The choices at hand are these: Cooperate, and continue to progress? Or maintain geographic silos and find the region bypassed by other, more cooperative metro regions?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Time to neuter that noose around uptown Charlotte?

Is Charlotte finally making a move toward taming the uptown noose I mean, the uptown loop? The freeway encircling uptown, made up of Interstate 277 and a section of Interstate 77, strangles uptown, eliminating easy pedestrian and bicycle connections and creating bottlenecks for traffic flow into and out of the center city.

It was Feb. 15, 1997, (but who's counting?) when I first heard the idea to cap the below-grade section of I-277 between South End and the south part of the center city. The idea keeps being proposed, and being dismissed as too expensive, or too difficult. But it's a great idea that deserves serious study.

Now, at last, something may be happening. The Charlotte City Council tonight is supposed to vote on an agreement with the N.C. Department of Transportation to launch a study of the whole uptown freeway loop. Here's a link to the city council agenda. Go to agenda page 19.

Despite misgivings, capping a freeway, or more precisely, sending it through a tunnel, is comparatively inexpensive and has been done in many other cities. It's neither revolutionary nor extreme.  It is NOT as expensive as digging a tunnel, a la Big Dig in Boston. The digging took place years ago, before I-277 opened in the 1980s.

Other cities are going further, pushing to turn old freeways into high-volume boulevards, which can move plenty of traffic but are designed so that shops, restaurants, housing and workplaces can grow along their sidewalks. The classic example of a high-volume boulevard is the Champs Elysees in Paris. Here's a list of other projects, some still in planning phases.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Charlotte transit plan makeover goes beyond cosmetic surgery

The stalled-for-years proposal to build a commuter rail line from downtown Charlotte north to the booming suburban towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville is getting a significant makeover, not just cosmetic surgery. The state and local officials involved are looking to find funding with freight-oriented development, a sort of cousin to the more widely recognized transit-oriented development (a.k.a. TOD).

The project has been stalled because it hasn't qualified for federal funding, which typically pays half the cost of a transit line. After years of patiently sitting by, towns in northern Mecklenburg County and Mooresville in Iredell County formed the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, which succeeded in kick-starting a fresh look at the so-called Red Line (which honors the Davidson College school color).

A Wednesday meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission heard a detailed presentation of the financing plans. I couldn't make it, but here are several looks at the presentation: The Charlotte Business Journal's Erik Spanberg "Red Line rolls toward 2012 vote"  and's Christina Ritchie Rogers' "Homeowners won't see tax hike in Red Line plans, consultants say."

Here's a link to the various presentations and handouts from the MTC meeting.

Nothing's been decided yet, of course. The Lake Norman Transportation Commission will hold a four-hour summit on the proposal Dec. 13 in Mooresville (10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Charles Mack Citizens Center, 215 N. Main St.).

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Did rogue columnist hit, or miss, in Charlotte critique?

Reading the happy Tweets out of Charlotte this afternoon, as the Chiquita headquarters announcement came through, I stumbled on a link from former Charlotte Observer business editor Jon Talton, who decamped years ago for Phoenix and Seattle. Talton always had an astute, if acerbic, analysis on Charlotte and its civic pride (or boosterism, take your pick).

After Talton (@jontalton) sent out this Tweet: "Chiquita: Say goodbye to world-class symphony, museums, architecture in . Say hello to Waffle House," he started getting some replies from Charlotteans who didn't like seeing their city reduced to a Waffle House stereotype.
"That's kind of a harsh statement. Have you actually been to Charlotte?!" asked one Charlottean. Talton, of course, had lived here for years, though he confessed he rarely went outside the uptown beltway, because that gave him the "fantods."  And his comeback to critics who said he was offending them and their city: "Oh, hell, I've been offending Charlotteans for years."
But Talton had an insightful, if gloomy, assessment of the relative merits of Chicago and Charlotte, in this 2009 piece, "Tales of Two Cities: What Chicago and Charlotte Say About The Future Of America."  It contains a wonderful quote from Pericles, “All good things come to the city because of the city’s greatness,” and one characterization I'd take issue with. The Bank of America Corporate Center was not built in "one of downtown's most blighted areas."
But is Talton too gloomy about the long-term prospects of Charlotte and other postwar, Sun Belt cities, built as though 1965 and its gas prices would last forever? I fear he's right. And I hope he's wrong.

What's up with the federal courthouse?

The majestic federal courthouse on West Trade Street, while stilled used by the federal courts, is owned by the City of Charlotte now. Monday night the City Council unanimously OK'd a change to the city's agreement with Queens University of Charlotte, which has an option to purchase the building.

The previous agreement was for Queens to use the building as a future law school.  Now that the for-profit Charlotte School of Law has opened, Queens requested a change in the agreement to give the school more leeway in what it could use the building for.

The Charles R. Jonas Federal building, built in 1917 and expanded in 1934, is not a local historic landmark although by most definitions of the term it should be, given its role in such historic federal cases as Judge James McMillan's Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 1971. And the building also holds the only remaining courtroom that looks and feels like a courtroom.  Whatever happens, let us hope Queens honors its history and ambiance.

The U.S. General Services Administration plans eventually (I am not holding my breath) to build a new courthouse at 500 E. Trade Street, over in the part of uptown that has been steadily deadened with courthouses, the Federal Reserve building, the government center and the jail. Not much room over there for many uses that will help create lively sidewalks along East Trade or Fourth or Third Streets, other than Occupy Charlotte at Old City Hall (which if you take the long view is temporary) and the occasionally excellent people-watching in front of the new Mecklenburg County Courthouse way down at McDowell and Fourth streets.

Monday, November 28, 2011

City panel endorses bike-share demo program for DNC

A Charlotte City Council committee today is expected to recommend whether the city should start work on launching a bike-sharing program for uptown, as a demonstration project during the Democratic National Convention in September 2012.

City Department of Transportation staffer Dan Gallagher was to give the Transportation and Planning Committee a presentation at its noon meeting today. Here's a link to Gallagher's PowerPoint presentation. City staffers are recommending that the city collaborate with partners on a demo project (estimated time to launch is six months) and spend the next eight months on a feasibility study to let the city transition to an ongoing bike share program, assuming the program is deemed feasible.

The council has been talking about this idea since at least August. Here's my August report. And here's the report from September, when it was on the committee's agenda, but the committee spent so much time discussing transportation funding that it had to postpone bike-sharing.
I'll update this when I get a report on what the committee opts to recommend to the full council.

Update: The committee voted to have staff proceed with planning for the demonstration project and continue to work on feasibility planning for an ongoing bike-share program. The other two options on the PowerPoint, involving longer-term studies, didn't win the committee's endorsement. Gallagher said the full council will be briefed on the bike-share proposals at a dinner meeting in the future.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Charlotte area snags $5 million regional grant

Rebecca Yarbrough of Centralina COG, with check
It was just a bit of horseplay at Monday morning's announcement that the 14-county Charlotte region won a $4.9 million federal grant for sustainability planning. But it was a metaphor for one of the historic hurdles that the initiative may at last be able to overcome.

As always a Big Fake Check was on display for photo opps, and after the ceremonial presentation, Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon made a jokingly fake attempt to stash the $5 million check in his coat pocket.  Martha Sue Hall, the Albemarle City Council member who chairs the Centralina Council of Governments, the lead agency that pulled together the grant application, wrestled the big check out of Cannon's grasp. Everyone laughed at the light moment.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why cities need Republicans

When a Wake County district school board election is being hailed nationally as evidence that the whole Tea Party movement is defunct, as in this not-at-all-objective piece from the Huffington Post, you know the hyperbole is hyper, indeed. Should the Charlotte City Council election be considered another piece of evidence that Republican power is withering nationally?

I am not at all sure it should be. Nevertheless, it's still worth pondering the implications of moderate Republican Edwin Peacock's loss in a Democratic sweep of all four at-large positions. In addition to Mayor Anthony Foxx, Democrats will have a 9-2 edge, with district representatives Andy Dulin (District 6) and Warren Cooksey (District 7) the council's only Republicans.

I sought the thoughts of a well-known local political observer, Bill McCoy, a political scientist who handily for me is the emeritus director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where I work. "I don’t remember anything like a 9-2 split on City Council," McCoy said.  "I was totally surprised that Peacock lost."

He went on to say this, about such a heavily Democratic council: "Although I might fall in the category of a yellow dog Democrat, I believe a balance among the parties is a good thing, particularly when the other party has a person like Peacock – a great role model for what a moderate Republican should be like."  Whether a "balance" has to be 6-5 or could be 7-4 or even 8-3 is debatable, he said, but 9-2 is beyond the pale for a "good balance."

Charlotte has become more Democratic-leaning in recent years, although Mecklenburg County commissioners are less so (5-4 Democrat-Republican). The legislative delegation is also mixed: 6-4 Democrat-Republican in the N.C. House, and 3-1 in the N.C. Senate, or 3-2 if you county Tommy Tucker, whose district is mostly in Union County.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Voters oust GOP, raise their own taxes

Durham County voters OK'd a transit tax Tuesday
Tuesday's municipal elections in Charlotte and across the state offered some unexpected results, especially if one considers that the state legislature is dominated by conservative, anti-tax Republicans. Voters in four N.C. counties voted to tax themselves, with Durham voters opting for two new taxes, one for transit.

In Charlotte, voters re-elected Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, over a conservative Republican and political newcomer, Scott Stone. That wasn't unexpected. But voters swept into office all four Democratic candidates for at-large City Council seats, ousting moderate incumbent Republican Edwin Peacock III  in favor of Claire Fallon, a planning commissioner and neighborhood activist, and Beth Pickering. Pickering had never run for office and just arrived in Charlotte five years ago from Denver, Colo.

That gives Democrats a 9-2 council majority, which I believe is more than at any time since the council went to districts in 1977. (Are any political historians out there to confirm or deny this?) The two lone Republicans, Andy Dulin and Warren Cooksey, didn't have Democratic opposition in their districts; Cooksey dispatched a Republican opponent in the primary.

But across the state, voters in four counties made a kind of history by agreeing to raise their own taxes, something that conventional political wisdom has said isn't likely during an economic downturn, or in a state that just last year sent to the General Assembly a slew of conservative Republicans.

A quick rundown:

Friday, November 4, 2011

The problem of pedestrian crossings

After a customer at an Elizabeth neighborhood bar was killed while crossing Seventh Street, the bar's owner is trying to begin a campaign to add safety measures to the street. (The Observer ran a moving article today on the life of the victim, an Air Force veteran who was engaged to marry.)

A safer Seventh Street is an excellent goal, but the problem is not just for one street in one neighborhood. In another accident late Tuesday, a 14-year-old boy was killed when several cars hit him as he crossed W.T. Harris Boulevard.

The city, to its credit, has been working hard to add sidewalks and tame traffic on many neighborhood streets and thoroughfares.  But those measures, by themselves, aren't all that's needed to make conditions comfortable and safe for people traveling on foot. Pedestrian crossings are essential. Charlotte doesn't have enough of them.

In my possession is the 2008 draft of the City of Charlotte's Pedestrian Plan. It remains unfinished, and thus unadopted. One of the most interesting maps in it shows the distances between signalized intersections (click here for a larger view. If the link doesn't work, we're working on that.). Segments greater than a half-mile (a 10-minute walk) are shown in purple, those greater than a quarter-mile (a five-minute walk) are in brown.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tell them where you really go

Where do you really travel, and how do you get there, and how long does it take? The collection of transportation planning groups in the Charlotte metro area (a group I like to call the Seven Dwarfs), is undertaking a survey to learn more.

I learned this tidbit in reading the Oct. 28 memo to Charlotte City Council from City Manager Curt Walton. (This is why the world needs journalists; someone has to read these things and sort the chaff from the wheat. Whether this survey is chaff or wheat remains to be discovered.)

The memo reports:

Over the next few months, a sample of residents of Mecklenburg, Gaston, Union, Cabarrus, Iredell, Rowan, Cleveland, Lincoln, and Stanly counties in North Carolina and residents of York and Lancaster counties in South Carolina will be contacted by phone to participate in the regional household travel survey.  ETC Institute, the firm conducting the random survey on behalf of the planning agencies, will be recruiting 4,000 households to participate based on geographic location, household income, and household size. 

Households participating in the survey will have each household member keep a travel diary for one day.  They will be asked to record the destination address, travel time, travel mode, and vehicle occupancy for their trips throughout the day.  The travel diary results will be used to understand travel patterns, and specifically, how, when, and where people travel.  All information collected is confidential and individual responses will not be released.

Wondering about the reference to Seven Dwarfs?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Charlotte Trolley to roll through new neighborhood?

The nonprofit Charlotte Trolley has won a $15,000 grant from Wells Fargo to work toward putting historic Car 85 back on track, this time through the Wesley Heights neighborhood just northwest of uptown.

The organization hopes to start another demonstration project, like the one along South Boulevard that in the 1990s ignited enthusiasm for light rail. This time, the route would be the rail line adjacent to the Stewart Creek Greenway, said Charlotte Trolley board president Greg Pappanastos. It was the site of an original line of the former Piedmont & Northern electrified passenger railroad. Charlotte Trolley is exploring how it could use that still-existing pathway.

Here's why Charlotte Trolley's role is more than just that of a bunch of history and rail buffs.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Suburbia, dissected

Jason Griffiths writes a short essay, "Colonial Vista," to the suburban Colonial-style house he found in a subdivision in Charlotte a style ubiquitous in these parts. It's part of his slide show on "Manifest Destiny: A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Suburban Housing" on the online forum, Places.

Griffiths is an assistant professor of architecture at the Design School at Arizona State University, hence the prominence of Arizona landscapes in his slide show. He was in Charlotte a few years back, he reports, to help review work at UNC Charlotte. (Want his book? Here's a link.)

The Colonial-style of housing, he notes, is perhaps more appropriate in North Carolina (which was, for a time, an actual colony) than other places, but, he points out the oddity that "the most abject facade of this building enjoys the most commanding view while the actual front elevation is stubbornly fixated by an abbreviated prospect of the road and the house opposite."

Friday, October 21, 2011

What do they (the creatives) really want?

What is that big armadillo-like edifice, and will it really attract the creative class to Kansas City, Mo.? Philip Langdon of the New Urban Network poses that question in his article, "Injecting spontaneity into urban development."

He writes: "I peered at The Atlantic’s photo of what Kansas City is building to lure the creatives, and thought for a moment I was viewing a gigantic armadillo. Oops, my mistake. The picture isn’t of an armadillo inflated to enormous size (though it certain looks like one). It’s the Kauffman Center, a $326 million performing arts facility [designed by architect Moshe Safdie] — purportedly a means for enticing talented young people to Missouri’s second-largest metropolis.

"Excuse me, but aren’t gigantic performing arts centers the sort of thing that cities were erecting thirty years ago? My understanding of the Richard Florida take on urban development is that bright young workers are less interested in vast cultural and entertainment institutions than in having access to stimulating everyday locales — places they can walk to from their workplaces or their homes."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A planning and 'public input' dilemma

Is it just me, or have others also been spotting an increasing trickle of  articles that might be viewed as anti-planning. Consider this one: "The false hope of comprehensive planning," from Michael Lewyn, an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fla., on the website.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

N.C.'s mayors: Who won, who's still campaigning?

Courtesy of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, here's the skinny on mayoral elections so far this fall in N.C. cities:

Election results are in.  Nancy McFarlane is the new mayor of Raleigh, and Raleigh voters passed bond referendums for transportation and housing.  Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht and Monroe Mayor Bobby Kilgore each won re-election.  Durham Mayor Bill Bell and Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne won their primaries.   Incumbent Greensboro Mayor Bill Knight will face off against City Council Member Robbie Perkins next month.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

N.C. a gas-tax donor state? No more

N.C policymakers for years complained justly that this is a net donor state when it comes to federal transportation taxes paid versus federal transportation money spent in the state.

A new analysis by the General Accounting Office of 2005-09, reported by Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, in “Can highway spending ever be fair?”  finds that, when looking at how much federal highway money each state gets, per dollar of gas-tax revenue that the state’s motorists pay, it turns out every state gets more federal highway aid than it is paying. Here's a link to the GAO report.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Carroll Gray to leave N.Meck transportation group tells us former Charlotte Chamber CEO Carroll Gray has told the Lake Norman Transportation Commission he'll leave the commission's executive director job at the end of this year. Gray, 71, of Cornelius helped launch and lead the regional lobbying group over the past three years. He told he has mixed emotions about the decision, “but I think it’s time to move on.”

Friday, October 7, 2011

What's that P in APA? Hint: Not 'process'

Journalists and planners share many interests – community wellbeing, policymaking and government, for instance – but here's one thing they don't share: A fascination with process. Most journalists I know get twitchy whenever people start talking about "the process" or about "creating a framework."

Huntersville mayor’s a winner

Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain won an award Thursday from the N.C. chapter of the American Planning Association for distinguished leadership by an elected official. The group held its annual statewide planning conference in Charlotte, Wednesday-Friday. Other awards for agencies in the greater Charlotte region:

Outstanding planning award for implementation (small community): Town of Davidson for its “Circles at 30” development at Exit 30 of Interstate 77.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Charlotte pedestrians - still waiting for that plan

Wilson has one. Durham has one. Charlotte doesn’t. Yet.

Those other N.C. cities have eclipsed the state’s largest metro in this way, at least: They’ve adopted pedestrian p.lans, both in 2006, to shape the way their communities plan for people on foot as well as planning for cars.  Charlotte’s proposed pedestrian plan has lagged for years, awaiting the city’s adoption of its Urban Street Design Guidelines which took more than eight years to adopt as policy and then to codify in city ordinances and then the re-adoption of its updated Transportation Action Plan.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Charlotte's transit plans due for a make-over?

It appears some basic assumptions about Charlotte's transit lines may be about to change.

One: The North Corridor transit line (formerly the Purple Line but now the Red Line) will be commuter rail on a little-used Norfolk Southern rail right-of-way leading from uptown to Mooresville in Iredell County.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Whatever do we do with Independence Boulevard?

Charlotte's "hell highway" is never referred to by that term at public meetings. But that's what it is. Tonight, the Metropolitan Transit Commission is chewing over some recommendations from a group of officials and citizens over what, really, needs to happen to the now-vintage plans for light rail down Independence.

New strategy for transit to North Meck

The Charlotte transit project getting the most attention the past four years has been extending the Lynx Blue Line from uptown to UNC Charlotte. But in recent months plenty of behind-the-curtains work has been focusing on the planned commuter rail line to north Mecklenburg. Tonight, the transit governing body heard about a significant shift in strategy for the Red Line.  The idea is to change the focus from "commuter rail" to "rail."

Friday, September 16, 2011

How voice mail and email fall short

All across America, offices have been carelessly casting one of the most valuable resources they have, and an irreplaceable service for their customers: employees like Joe Sovacool.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The fantasy land of transportation planning

The N.C. Department of Transportation is seeking people's opinions to help guide them in putting together a 2040 plan. They've launched an online survey, which you can weigh in on at this link.

I encourage you to take the survey, but if you do, you'll notice most of the questions require only one answer where several answers are needed. Example: For the question: "Which of the following is the most important to address the transportation needs of our changing population?" your choices are:
  •    Invest additional resources in public transportation (rail and buses).
  •    Expand roadways in North Carolina’s major cities.
  •    Encourage development with higher numbers of people per acre.
  •    Better coordinate transportation and land development.
  •    Other (please specify)
 You can choose only one. Which seems, to me, a bogus choice. Transportation and land use have to be coordinated or they are all but worthless. Additional resources must be invested in public transportation. And we all need to encourage development where more people live closer together the only way to make public transportation work. No one of those is more important than another.

Land use planning and transportation planning are as linked as conjoined twins. The state likes to say it doesn't do land use planning but that's a fig leaf of an excuse that doesn't hide the truth: Every time NCDOT makes a transportation decision, that decision affects land uses.

Accept that reality. Then accept the related reality that planning and transportation, to have validity, should be undertaken at a metro region level. Merge all the state-sanctioned transportation planning agencies in each of North Carolina's metro regions. Charlotte has four to seven, depending on what you count. (You gotta love their names, too: The MPOs are MUMPO, GUAMPO, CRMPO, GHMPO and RFATS. Lest you think that's not surreal enough, we also have two rural planning organizations, named LNRPO and the snarly sounding RRRPO.) We need just one, region-wide MPO.

If you're looking for true sanity, then (as I have often written before) merge all those metropolitan planning organizations (a.k.a. MPOs, which despite the name do only transportation planning) with the regional Councils of Government, which attempt a regional approach to land use planning although of course they aren't allowed to adopt zoning ordinances and thus have little clout. Has all this made Salvador Dali seem reasoned and predictable by comparison?

So have your say on the NCDOT survey.  But recognize that efforts at serious urban region planning are fantasy, until the state adopts a more realistic approach linking land use and transportation.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bike-sharing deferred, but tax talk moves forward

Did I mention that a Charlotte City Council committee scheduled to discuss a possible bike-sharing program this afternoon was also going to talk about "finding new revenues" for roads? I believe I did.  And you don't have to be a political science professor to know elected officials won't breeze quickly through any talk of new or higher taxes.

The result: Much information about higher registration fees, new sales taxes, new toll roads and even a vehicle-miles-traveled tax. (For details, see below.) The council's transportation and planning committee voted to refer the whole topic to the council's budget committee and to urge city staff to make sure the topic comes up during the council's retreat next winter.

But no bike-sharing discussion. The committee ran out of time. That discussion is now scheduled for the committee's Oct. 10 meeting.

For transportation policy geeks and tax policy geeks (I plead guilty), the how-to-fund-it-all discussion was meaty and even, well, sort of fun. The presentation from developer Ned Curran, who chaired a 2008-09 citizen group called the Committee of 21, is here. (For details, read that PowerPoint.)  In a nutshell, the Transportation Action Plan, adopted five years ago and due for an update, lays out a series of countywide transportation improvements. The Committee of 21 concluded the gap between identified road needs and known funding sources (federal, state and local) over 25 years is $12 billion. So ... how do you find that money?

Curran, CEO of the Bissell Cos., made clear that the committee's charge was to look specifically at roads, not at other transportation modes. They looked at 19 different revenue options, such as sales tax and gas tax increases, driveway taxes, impact fees, sin taxes and even parking surcharges. (The full list is on page 6 of the presentation on the committee agenda.) They assessed the options based on how related they were to driving, how much revenue they'd produce, how easy to implement and operate, political reality, etc.

The Roads Final Four:

  1. Doubling the $30 vehicle registration tax from $30 to $60 = $18 million a year.
  2. A half-cent Mecklenburg sales tax increase for roads = $81 million. Note, that estimate was before sales tax revenues plunged in 2009. A more recent estimate would be $55 million, Charlotte Department of Transportation chief Danny Pleasant said.
  3. Tolls on all existing interstates in the county = $52 million a year. This, obviously, depends on the toll assessed and what revenue-splitting agreements would be forged with the federal and state governments. 
  4. A vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax. Curran said this option has gotten plenty of national discussion and would likely have to take place nationally, but as federal and state gas tax revenues sink due to more efficient cars and and people driving less, the VMT tax will get more credence. Privacy concerns? "If any of us have our phones on in our car, we're being tracked anyway," Curran quipped.

As Curran and Pleasant discussed the toll roads situation, it got interesting. A multistate agreement is in the works, they said, with which other states would agree to help each other capture the cents-per-mile tolls if, say, a New York driver zipped through North Carolina on I-95 and didn't pay the tolls. New York would collect the money (how? that wasn't clear) and send it to N.C.  Meanwhile, North Carolina is one of several states applying for a program to inaugurate tolls on parts of I-95. With more tolls and more states cooperating – and with innovations such as a High Occupancy Toll lane being planned for I-77 in north Mecklenburg – pretty soon you've got a VMT anyway.

One doubter about all this: Council member Michael Barnes. "There has never been the political will among elected officials to deal with it [funding transportation]," he said. "I am tired of it." Count him among skeptics who think council members will, once again, after discussion fail to enact any specific measures to fund the city's plans for transportation.  

Bike-sharing in Charlotte - soon?

A Charlotte City Council committee today takes up the question of what should happen next if Charlotte is to have (or not) a bike-sharing program. It also takes up an even more hot-potato topic: How to pay for the city's road needs.

For those unfamiliar with the term bike-sharing, those programs have sprung up in cities all over the country, as well as in other countries. For a small fee – typically paid online – you can become a member or pay for a temporary membership. That gives you the ability to take a bicycle from a bike station, ride it for a certain number of hours and return it to another bike station

In its August meeting, the committee heard a presentation from Alta Bicycle Share, a consultant group that manages the Washington bike-sharing program known as Capital Bikeshare. (Photo courtesy of Capital Bikeshare, taken from the City of Charlotte's website.) 

If you click on the link in the first sentence of this item, you'll see that the committee agenda also holds a discussion on the sure-to-be-controversial topic of what revenue sources (read: tax or fee increase)
might be available to provide money for the Charlotte region's huge transportation needs. The agenda says "provide detailed information on a variety of potential transportation revenue sources."

The presentation will be a reprise of the recommendations from the Committee of 21, led by developer Ned Curran, which met in 2009 to look at the city's "road needs." It did not look at transit needs.  It did not look at "street" needs. None of which is to say that the city doesn't need some work on its roads. It does. But in Mary's Perfect World, we'd talk more about streets, which is what you have in a city, and less about "roads," which are what you have between cities. And we'd mostly talk about "transportation" needs, which means looking at driving, transit, bicycling and walking, i.e., the Big Picture. We need to serve all those transportation forms.

The Committee of 21 looked at a gigantic list of possible funding, including such  Big City ideas as charging a fee for driving into uptown. It rejected most of those. For instance, congestion pricing (the downtown fee) can work well where residents have plenty of good options for transportation other than driving. Charlotte is not one of those places.

Why is the Committee of 21 presenting a reprise? I asked committee chair David Howard that very thing when I chanced to run into him Saturday at the UNC Charlotte Student Union. (I was walking around campus for exercise; he was waiting for his daughter to finish an educational program on campus.) He said he asked for it to be put on the agenda, because it's a conversation the community needs to have.

The committee meets at 3:30 p.m. today in Room 280 of the Government Center.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

City pedaling and wilderness paddling

Bicycling and canoeing are kindred spirits in helping you explore your world, writes Joe Urban (a.k.a. Sam Newberg). In "Pedaling and Paddling in City and Wilderness," Newberg writes about his experience in a canoe in the northern Minnesota Boundary Waters and its perhaps not-obvious relationship to bicycling through a city: 
"Just as the paddle is an “extension of your arm” in a canoe, the bicycle is an extension of your feet, enabling harmony and oneness with the street and buildings around you. As well, a canoe can cut almost silently through water, and a bicycle slices a quiet path through urbanity."
 I shared the piece with a friend who's a retired UNC Charlotte professor who used to bicycle to campus from East Charlotte and who goes on wilderness canoeing trips each summer. He replied:
"The essay comparing canoeing and bicycling strikes a very strong chord with me.  I would rather paddle in the Boundary Waters than be anywhere else on earth, except bicycling to UNCC.  The two experiences are so similar in my basal reptilian brain that I dream about them as one thing: flying over the landscape a few feet above the surface with no visible means of support.  Jung would have fun with that."

Friday, September 2, 2011

At long, long last, a park for Romare Bearden

Bearden collage: Maudell Sleet's Magic Garden (1978)
It took years, multiple political strategies, a bond vote, patience, weathering a brutal and ongoing economic downturn, more patience, and – finally – a multimedia event under a tent on a hot asphalt parking lot. But Friday, ground was broken for a new park in uptown Charlotte: Romare Bearden Park.

It's notable for many reasons, including being the first significant honoring of  a major 20th-century artist, Bearden, who was born in Charlotte. It's also the first major public park built in the heart of uptown in years. I am not counting Polk Place at The Square because it's tiny and because I'm still hacked off that the city knocked down the oldest retail buildings downtown for a not-so-wonderful park modeled on what looks like the U.S. Northwest mountains. The late Al Rousso's fight against the city to save his store got him elected to City Council. But it didn't save his store. Nor am I counting The Green because it is private space. Lovely, but private. Just try standing and taking photos of the condos, and you may find yourself getting kicked out, as I hear happened to some architecture students.
 Romare Bearden Park is named for New York artist and Charlotte native Romare Bearden, born 100 years ago today about two blocks from the scene of Friday's ceremonies, in his great-grandparents' house at 401 S. Graham St. on the corner of what was then Second Street and is now Martin Luther King Boulevard. Bearden's parents moved North when he was a young boy, but he visited frequently and some of his later works evoke (and are named for) Mecklenburg County and the people he knew here, including Charlotte neighbor Maudell Sleet (above).

St. Michael's now-demolished church. Photo:
That "multimedia" part refers to the agenda for Friday's events. Of course you had politicians present and past, governmental officials and reading from ceremonial proclamations. But we were also treated to the choir from St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church – where Bearden was baptized. The church, founded in 1882, was formerly at South Mint and West Hill streets (where the Panthers' stadium now sits) and is the oldest traditionally African American Episcopal church in the state. (For more information about Charlotte in 1911, at the time of Bearden's birth, visit

After the pols came playwright/poet Ruth Sloane reading dramatic excerpts from her original play, "Romare Bearden 1911-1988," commissioned in 2003, and accompanied by flautist Michael Porter. Then we followed the Johnson C. Smith University drummers out to watch Mecklenburg county commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts knock out a section of the back wall of a row of buildings that until now had, miraculously, survived on Church Street between Third Street and MLK Boulevard.

I chanced to sit next to Charlotte developer David Furman, who recalled, "When we started marketing the TradeMark [condo tower on West Trade Street] we were marketing this park." That was six or seven years ago, he said. The park site was part of a multipart, still controversial land swap deal that was expected to bring a minor league baseball stadium uptown, to a neighboring and larger parcel that was the original site for this park. That deal has been mangled by the recession and long-running lawsuits.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

But, Mayor Pat, do you back light rail?

Photo of Third Street station courtesy Charlotte Area Transit System
(See update at end, 6:30 p.m.)
Ex-CATS chief Ron Tober sends along a link to a nice little video about the Lynx Blue Line and South End. It praises the way the light rail line brings neighborhoods together, helps people move about the city without cars and builds for the future.

The film (apparently made by Siemens, hence the talking heads from that company) quotes many Charlotte notables, including Charlotte Planning Director Debra Campbell, Duke Energy's North Carolina president Brett Carter, UNC Charlotte Dean of Arts + Architecture Ken Lambla, UNCC profs David Walters and Jose Gamez, Levine Museum historian Tom Hanchett ...

... and former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory.

This is worth pointing out because McCrory, a seven-term mayor who is all but certainly running again for N.C. governor in 2012, has been a strong transit supporter. He has a national reputation for being a strong transit supporter.  That much isn't really news for politics buffs.  But here's a new wrinkle. His Republican Party in North Carolina now appears dominated by anti-transit conservatives.

During the recent General Assembly session, state legislators from Mecklenburg County made several stabs at outright killing any more state funding (and thus, any more federal funding) for Charlotte's light rail system, as well as trying to off the state's long-planned high-speed passenger rail between Charlotte and Raleigh. Last spring, McCrory said he had made calls to Republican legislative leaders about transit, but wouldn't say what he talked about.

This all leaves Mayor Pat with a dilemma.  He can continue to tout his accomplishments as a moderate, pro-transit mayor, which will help him with independents and with any Democrats who have cooled on Gov. Bev Perdue. But that would definitely rile the people now in control of the state Republican Party, not to mention many legislators. Or he can play to his right and somehow distance himself from Charlotte's nationally praised light rail system, one of his most praiseworthy achievements.

I note that on this video, McCrory doesn't say anything that might be pulled out and used as a pro-transit film clip by enemies on the right, who kicked him around a lot when he was mayor, calling him a RINO (Republican in Name Only), or even a socialist, for supporting mass transit. On the film he says innocuous things,  that cities should look to the future, and this "infrastructure" is a good investment.

(Update and rewrite, 6:25 p.m.) McCrory just phoned me back and was pointed in saying he supports mass transit "where it works." If the transportation experts and federal funding formulas say it would work in a certain place, McCrory said, then he's for it. He said he just asks, "What will the numbers look like?"

This is all consistent with his remarks as mayor. But, I asked him, a lot of N.C. Republicans oppose mass transit, so how will he handle that in his campaign? "I'll handle it exactly the same way I handled it as mayor," he said. Some Republicans won't like his answers, he said, and neither will some Democrats.

I've been wondering how McCrory, who is a deft politician, will handle this GOP-hates-transit dilemma. He's on the record now at least with Naked City Blog on mass transit. It will be in interesting political show to see how his campaign plays out on this particular issue.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Time-traveling to a lost era in city history

I spent rather too much time yesterday looking through a new website that lets you view old maps of Charlotte a century ago, pegged to the 100th anniversary Friday of artist and native son Romare Bearden's birth. The site,, (put together via a partnership of the Levine Museum of the New South and UNC Chapel Hill) superimposes old photos and information about Bearden on an old Sanborn map. You can see old building outlines, where the streets used to be. (Note the small lot sizes, compared with today.).

I got interested, also, in the companion site, another collaboration by the Levine's historian, Tom Hanchett and UNC. It uses 1911 Sanborn maps and city directory information to show you, for instance, where people holding different jobs were listed as living. You can locate where the boarding houses were, by race, as well as attorneys, mill workers and "bag agents." The slider bar lets you superimpose an aerial photo of today's buildings atop the century-old maps.

Of course, using this site, I scrolled out to see my own neighborhood  –  a subdivision whose official plat name is Pharr Acres. I'd heard it was "old man Pharr's farm."  Yep, there on Providence Road, just south of  Briar Creek, is a dot labeled "W S Pharr." Into the late 1970s the large, old farmhouse house still stood. Like so much else on the map, it's gone now, with a cul-de-sac subdivision in its place.

The Bearden site also offers some opportunity to mourn, including for the segregated world into which he was born, and for the loss to this city of a talent like his, when his parents moved North in search of a better life. As Levine historian Hanchett says in his article for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's website (disclosure: my workplace) "Bearden’s 1911 birthplace: A fateful time for Charlotte," a city where downtown neighborhoods had been comparatively integrated was hardening into rigid segregation during the years before Bearden's birth. A new city park was closed to black residents. Black passengers were ordered into the back of streetcars.
But as you look through the Bearden locations and see photos of what's there today,  mourn this, as well:  Most of it is gone. The good, the bad, the spacious front porches, stores, churches almost everything. Including, in some cases, even streets  What you'll see in photos showing today's scenes in the places where Bearden and his family lived is not newer buildingsafter all, cities do evolve but surface parking areas, empty grass-covered lots. It's one thing when old buildings are lost but replaced by newer ones that also over time contribute something to the city's life and, then, its history. That is not what has happened here. We've just lost the reminders of the past, without gaining anything. At least this online exhibit can, if only virtually, restore something of what went before.

Photo: Artist Romare Bearden, born in Charlotte 100 years ago, moved to New York. His great-grandparents are shown in the photo next to him, on the porch of their Graham Street home in Charlotte.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A drive through the layers of a city

(A shopping cart, removed in recent days, at the desolate North Park Mall.)
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but when I took my new job at UNC Charlotte, the one thing I dreaded was my new drive to work. For more than two decades I’d commuted 4.2 miles to downtown from a neighborhood near Wendover Road along streets lined, for the most part, with half-century-old oaks. Depending on the hour and the traffic karma, it took as little as eight minutes up to (on rare occasions) 25.

My new drive is 12 miles, along streets decidedly unlike Providence and Queens roads and Morehead Street. Even apart from the extra time out of my day (it’s a 25- to 30-minute trip) and extra auto expenses to absorb, I was not looking forward to it. This new commute goes through neighborhoods that had little urban beauty even when new, and now are decidedly down-at-the-heels.

 But I was wrong.  What I lose in visual splendor is giving me a better-rounded view of the city.
The commute takes me through parts of Charlotte that of course I’ve seen before – I’m a journalist, remember – but never daily, or even weekly.  And an occasional cruise up Eastway Drive is not at all the same as seeing it daily, because it’s those routine views that inevitably shape our understanding of and expectations for, the places we inhabit – what urban design writer Kevin Lynch (who worked in Greensboro early in his career) described as “mental maps.”

Knowing, intellectually, that Providence Road runs through some of Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhoods isn’t the same as absorbing, every day for years, the sight of tree-shaded sidewalks, well-watered lawns and well-proportioned four-lane streets. For years I’d drive through neighborhoods built as early 20th-century streetcar suburbs. Now I see car-oriented suburbia, much of it tattered. But despite its lack of obvious beauty, it offers something just as interesting, which isn’t easily found in those more static neighborhoods: a quality of visible transition through time.

I drive north to where Wendover becomes Eastway, then all the way to North Tryon Street, finally turning onto University City Boulevard. Along the way, I notice massive oak trees which don’t get near the publicity of Myers Park’s but are just as impressive. A few years ago I spotted chickens in someone’s yard across the street from the Aztec Apartments, and enjoyed the sight. This was before the chic urban chicken craze hit the city. Now, though, while I have looked daily since late June, I have not seen a single fowl there. On Tuesday night, however, I did see, near the Kilborne intersection, a white rabbit hopping along the grassy verge.

I drive past strip shopping centers of various ages, in varying degrees of transition, decay and stability, and marvel at how Eastway Crossing at Central and Eastway has kept up its rental spaces over decades. How will it fare after its Wal-Mart closes, once the new store on Independence Boulevard a mile away opens?

Nation Square, a new strip center on North Tryon Street.
I notice that the view of  50-year-old Garinger High School, designed by renowned local Modernist architect A.G. Odell, is all but obliterated by mobile classrooms plopped out front. I have become familiar with the extremely rough Norfolk Southern Aberdeen, Carolina & Western railroad tracks between Sugar Creek Road and The Plaza, possibly the bumpiest on any major thoroughfare in the city. I eye taquerias, Latino grocery stores and African braid salons, and today I caught a glimpse, as I zipped past, of a small business near Shamrock whose sign read: Cambodian Video.

Once on North Tryon Street – which has been a designated light rail transit corridor for, oh, about 13 years – I
marvel daily at how much new retail development has gone up in recent years that’s not at all transit-friendly: Amid mobile-home graveyards and the vintage Holiday Motel sit numerous newly constructed small strip centers and even a fast-food joint with drive-through windows.
I stopped one recent morning at one of the newest strip centers, Nation Square, which houses a handful of businesses including Panaderia Odalys, a Mexican bakery. I sampled cookies with guava and other sweets and was surprised to learn that Odalys is a small chain, with outlets in, among other places, High Point, Asheboro and other nearby Carolinas cities. Who’d have thought?

One of the bleakest spots is North Park Mall, where Eastway ends at North Tryon. Those jutting sawtooth skylights on its roof evoke the old Richway store of the mall’s founding in the 1970s. Richway later became Target, which left the mall more than a decade ago. A Kroger Sav-On became a Bi-Lo and now sits empty. The mall is all but derelict, with weeds and pockmarks in its parking lot. Right next to it, a much newer strip center seems fully occupied with small businesses – braid shops, salons, etc.

Baked goods at Panaderia Odalys at Nation Square
The overall condition of that section of east and northeast Charlotte is of concern, naturally.  Some areas (that strip center on The Plaza at Eastway, for instance) all but shout “disinvestment.” But it’s the evidence of change – thriving ’60s and ’70s suburbia that has passed through down-at-the-heels and, in many places, into immigrant entrepreneurialism – that make this drive so much more interesting. With so many small-scale businesses, you see more evidence of changes than along the oh-so-sedate section of Providence Road lined with the big Myers Park churches or along Morehead Street, where most of what changes is Carolinas Medical Center consuming ever more land. It’s more intriguing to spot a new taqueria, an African grocery store or something called Cambodian Video.

My daily commute now shows me a living city, one changing visibly from decade to decade, its modest neighborhoods evolving with the outflows and inflows of different people from different places.  I compare that with uptown Charlotte; for all its wealth of nightclubs, restaurants, museums, sports arenas and people, uptown’s virtually all-new development has mostly obliterated evidence of the multi-layered past. Cities have memories, made visible in the layers of buildings, pavements and history. We all need to be able to see the evidence of what went before us, what James Howard Kunstler called chronological connectivity. In his 1996 book, Home From Nowhere: he wrote: “Connection with the past and the future is a pathway that literally charms us in the direction of sanity and grace.”

For me, it's the places where small stores go in and out of business, where new signs sprout in Spanish or Vietnamese or English, that are making it easier to sense the past as I travel toward the future.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bike-share idea moves forward in Charlotte

Charlotte City government officials will discuss whether to push ahead with what's now a fledgling idea for the city to launch a bike-sharing program, preferably in time for the Democratic National Committee in September 2012.

The City Council's Transportation and Planning Committee this afternoon (Monday, Aug 22) heard a presentation from Alison Cohen, president of Alta Bicycle Share, which operates the Washington, D.C., bike share program, Capital Bikeshare, launched in September 2010. Also at the meeting was John Cock of the affiliated Alta wing, Alta Planning + Design.

Bike-share programs let customers pay (via memberships, or kiosks) to rent bicycles temporarily from a system of stations around the city. In Washington, yearly membership is $75, which buys you an electronic key you insert to free the bike from its locked slot at the station. Day-pass users ($5) get an unlocking code to use.  The first 30 minutes of a ride have no other fee bu the longer the ride, the more it costs. 

It's important to have places for bicycle riders to ride, Cohen said. Washington went from 3 to 50 miles of bike lanes in the last 10 years and saw bicycle commuting rise 86 percent, 2000-2009. The average distance of a Capital Bikeshare ride is 1.2 miles, Cohen said. (Charlotte is up to 50 miles of lanes, city bicycle coordinator Ken Tippette said.)

Today's meeting had no specific proposal on the table for council members; it was an information session arranged by Tippette with the encouragement of City Council member Edwin Peacock III, who chairs the council's Environment Committee and who described his experience using Capital Bikeshare when he was in Washington recently for a National League of Cities meeting.

Cohen said the D.C. bike share program is the nation's largest to date, although New York City plans to launch one in 2012 with 10,000 bikes. Other cities with programs: Denver, Minneapolis, Boston – even Spartanburg, S.C., which has only two bike share stations according to Cohen. Also in the works are programs in Chattanooga, Tenn., San Antonio and Miami. And yes, you read that right. Spartanburg.

Council members David Howard, Patsy Kinsey and Nancy Carter had questions for Cohen and Cock, but no one pooh-poohed the idea. At the end of the meeting, Howard, who chairs the committee, asked Assistant City Manager Jim Schumacher to talk with City Manager Curt Walton about what, if anything, the city should try to do.

Reading the tea leaves, as we pundits try to do, I predict the city will explore some sort of small-scale bike sharing program limited to center city and possibly one or two nearby neighborhoods, and will look for private sponsors to help with costs. A year is a short time frame for setting up a full program, but with enough push it could be done. After all, if you were in Charlotte in 1994 for the Final Four you saw center city enthusiasts create a fake nightlife scene, setting up bars inside vacant buildings. It worked. Doubters saw the huge crowds of people willing to come uptown for a night out, and it helped spark more authentic night life uptown. Setting up a real, if small, bike share program might have the same kind of inspirational effect.

The council committee also, with little discussion, unanimously recommended approval of the Center City 2020 Vision Plan, which goes to the full council Sept. 12  Here's a link to the draft of the plan, and here's a link to some commentary from my UNC Charlotte colleague David Walters and me. Also, here's a previous Naked City Blog item from me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

If I'm nuts, then Joe Nocera is too

I couldn't help but laugh when I read New York Times' op-ed columnist Joe Nocera's piece on Monday, "What Is Business Waiting For?"  In it he suggests that U.S. business leaders should consider hiring more people because that, in the end, will help the economy and thus, their business. "If enough companies started hiring — while wrapping their actions in the mantle of patriotism — even Carl Icahn might have trouble complaining about it," Nocera writes.

I proposed a similar idea deep in a column I wrote last December for The Charlotte Observer, "Is the U.S. entering a 'hate the rich' era?"

I wrote: "If you're a 'rich person,' especially if you run a company, should you be worried? Who knows? The wealthy still seem to have Congress in their pocket. But maybe now is the time to start heading off rising animosity. I know that some wealthy people truly do care about their country and their community. So prove it: CEOs could decide it's an act of patriotism to start hiring workers. Why not challenge fellow CEOs to a patriotic campaign to fill jobs, akin to Warren Buffet's push to get billionaires to give half their wealth to charity?" 

The commentariat, both online and in my email inbox, beat me up severely for saying I hated the rich – even though I specifically said I didn't – and for being so ignorant about business as to suggest such a dumb thing. Maybe I was just too far ahead of the curve?

And speaking of hostility toward the rich, check out Pulitzer-winning Steven Pearlstein's "Blame for financial mess starts with the corporate lobby" from the Aug. 13 Washington Post. It's blistering.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Density pays off better than sprawl

A Colorado study for the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute by Asheville's Joe  Minicozzi concludes that across the board, downtown commercial and mixed-use buildings outperform their big-box counterparts when comparing tax revenues per-acre. The study looked at properties in and around Glenwood Springs, Colo. (Hat tip to for the link.) Minicozzi looked at both property tax and sales tax revenues.

I wrote a year ago about Minicozzi's analyses of property in Sarasota County, Fla., and Asheville. It's another way that public officials should think about "growth" as they decide which projects to approve and which ones not to. In that previous posting, Minicozzi added a reply to some of the commenters, saying:
"When we ran the model in Asheville, our numbers show that our downtown continually out performs suburban low-density time and time again. A conservative estimate on multi-family services of government (sewers, water, schools, etc.) shows the costs roughly to pencil out to $16k/unit in compact development vs. $28k for low density. The simple way of thinking about it is that mile of pipe picks up more people in compact development, than it does in the low density stuff."
I recall that about 10 years ago, the town of Pineville outside Charlotte, a place known regionally for extreme sprawl retail, opted to reject a Wal-Mart Supercenter after running the numbers and concluding it would cost the town more in police and other services than the town would recoup in property and sales taxes.

In checking out the Sonoran Institute website, I noted this article from the Bozeman, Mont., Daily Chronicle in which a Sonoran Institute official points out that impact fees were a vital tool for the city. "There simply is no substitute," he said. The article is about a spat among city officials and developers over the city's hefty impact fees, which the city charges to cover the cost of roads, water, sewer and fire protection. "For the average single family home, impact fees cost $11,516," it says. " In Missoula, it costs $3,638 in impact fees for the average home."

In most of North Carolina developers pay no impact fees. The N.C. legislature must approve any city or county's impact fees on a case-by-case basis and hasn't OK'd any in several decades. That's just food for thought for anyone paying property taxes.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The feel-good story that isn't

If you read the recent Charlotte Observer article, "All signs point to Peachtree Hills on the rebound," you read about much admirable work from the City of Charlotte and nonprofit groups. The city committed almost a half-million dollars to help the foreclosure- and crime-plagued subdivision.

According to reporters Kirstin Valle Pittman and Peter St. Onge, the city improved curbs and sidewalks, helped residents form a strong neighborhood group and helped win a $75,000 grant for a new playground. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have worked hard, too, and report crime down 70 percent over last year; residential break-ins are down 88 percent. And home values are rising. The average selling price this year is $77,300, up from $68,670 last year.  The nonprofit groups Self-Help and Habitat for Humanity are hard at work. Durham-based Self-Help has bought 33 Peachtree Hills homes, to refurbish and sell to buyers whom the group believes can avoid future foreclosures.  Habitat has built seven new homes and bought five foreclosure houses for resale.

It's a nice, feel-good story. Except.

Except that it exposes a huge flaw in the process by which development takes place in Charlotte. It makes you wonder: Why city officials in their right minds would vote to approve the building of mile after mile after mile of rock-bottom-cost subdivisions, right next to each, other across a large arc of west, north and east Charlotte? Having so much low-cost housing in close proximity made the whole area vulnerable to foreclosures and the attendant problems when the national blight of subprime lending, mortgage fraud, financial market misdeeds, and then unemployment hammered Charlotte.

A 2007 Charlotte Observer article ("New suburbs in fast decay") noted that from 1997 to 2007, starter homes (so-called because their low prices attract buyers just starting in home-ownership) accounted for one-half of all single-family homes built in Charlotte between I-85 and the northern city limits. They made up fully a third of all single-family homes in Charlotte built south of I-85. By late 2007 BEFORE the big crash in late 2008 the Observer's analysis found more than 50 neighborhoods with elevated foreclosure rates of 15 percent to 61 percent. Virtually all were new starter-home subdivisions.

Could it happen today? Have Charlotte's leaders from pols to planners learned from what happened during that decade from the late '90s until the crash, when that vast cluster of low-income housing spread  across the city's northern edge?

I fear that, yes, the same thing could happen today. Part of the reason is the way growth is managed (or not) in Charlotte; part of the reason is just the way land prices work. If the market magically revived (not likely for a while, to be sure), dozens more subdivision-building bottom-feeders could probably erect multiple subdivisions of the cheapest materials, in the worst places, all next to one another. In most cases no rezoning is needed, because most undeveloped property in Charlotte years ago was zoned for single-family subdivisions (R-3, R-4, etc.). An estimated 75 percent of the subdivisions built in Charlotte in those boom years needed no rezoning; elected officials had no chance to say yes or no. All the developers needed was to follow the city's subdivision ordinance and meet the standards in the zoning ordinance. Auto-pilot insta-growth.

As it happens, the developer of Peachtree Hills, built starting in 2003, did need a rezoning. Triven Properties got a rezoning from R-4 (four houses per acre) to R-6 (CD), almost exactly 10 years ago. The City Council on Sept. 17, 2001, voted unanimous approval for the rezoning.

So, what should change? It's not an easy question to answer. One reason is that low-cost new development  gravitates toward places where land costs are lower. Putting up more low-end development tends to create more of the same, just as putting up high-end development drives up land values. Should government intervene in this process, and if so, how best to do it?

And the problem isn't low-cost housing per se. It's the large-scale clustering of housing all aimed at the same income levelin typical suburban-sprawl layouts that force every resident to own a car and drive everywhere. In any event, elected officials aren't allowed to – and shouldn't – decide rezonings based on the price level of the proposed housing. And there IS a huge need in Charlotte for dwelling places that more people can afford. (I do keep wondering, though, why this problem isn't also being addressed at the wage-level end, instead of only at the housing-cost end. Low wages are the He Who Shall Not Be Named in Charlotte's whole community housing discussion.)

It seems to me any answer must come from multiple places: revamped subdivision and zoning ordinances, maybe removing the no-rezoning-needed incentive that exists now for sprawl development on greenfield sites and giving more incentive to the infill, mixed-use development that the city prefers but that today must jump though multiple hoops.

I'm not saying I know what the answer ought to be. But this I am sure of: More smart people in this city ought to be trying to find some answers and now, while development is slow and there's time to explore and, yes, while the sector of the development industry that depends on suburban-sprawl subdivisions is in a weakened condition, which levels the playing field with other development players.

It's admirable that so many people, with public and private dollars and unmeasurable volunteer time and energy, have tried to help Peachtree Hills and other such subdivisions, such as Windy Ridge, and that their efforts seem to be succeeding. But the true measure of success ought to be figuring out how to avoid building any more neighborhoods that will simply replicate the problems of Peachtree Hills.

Photo: Windy Ridge, another foreclosure-plagued Charlotte subdivision. (Photo: Keihly Moore / Liz Shockey, UNC Charlotte) 

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Envisioning a new downtown Charlotte

Lunching outdoors in the center of Charlotte. Photo: John Chesser, UNC Urban Institute

Baseball stadium - yes or no?

The new plan for downtown/uptown/center city Charlotte says yes. No surprise there: One group helping fund the plan is Charlotte Center City Partners, the nonprofit tax-funded downtown advocacy  group whose CEO, Michael Smith, was a key architect of the land swap that helped make the stadium plan work.  Or, at least, it worked on paper, until the 2008 recession meant most of the land swap's moving parts stalled out.

The plan also calls for a large new convention center expansion and new convention center hotel. Again, no surprise. The City of Charlotte is another funder of the plan.

And it calls for an uptown shopping center. Yet again, no shock. The idea of an uptown shopping center has been dangled by governments and developers for years, although one school of thought exists – expressed notably by architect/consultant Michael Gallis – that that ship sailed years ago, when the city OK'd a contentious rezoning to let SouthPark mall, some 5 miles south of the middle of town, expand to build a Nordstrom and Neiman-Marcus.

But, as I wrote in an op-ed for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, (picked up Sunday by the Charlotte Observer), building large-footprint "catalyst" projects works against what downtown Charlotte really needs now.  It needs what planners call "urban fabric," and what laymen would just say are interesting streets for window-shopping, walking and living. Can you get easily to stores that sell things you need and want? Does it have a lively feel to it, a sense of possibilities, encounters, discoveries?

Urban fabric, to be strong and endure, needs to be more like silk than burlap – fine threads pulled together, not big chunks of things that, once broken, unravel the whole fabric. It needs some large projects and buildings, to be sure, but it also needs the possibility of smaller things.

It's all but impossible now, though, for small-scale things to happen in downtown Charlotte. The small old buildings have mostly been demolished, for a variety of reasons which I won't go into now. (One lovely exception is Latta Arcade and Brevard Court, but they aren't large enough to make a difference, and they're inside a passageway, not along the sidewalk.) Downtown is a collection of too many big-footprint things too close together: NFL stadium, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Charlotte Convention Center, large office towers, multiple museums, two large libraries, a huge performing arts complex, etc.  No single one of those is a bad thing; many of them add to the city's quality of life. But they're too big to be that close to each other. And  too much of what lies in between has been demolished.

That's why downtown Charlotte has no hope in our lifetimes of resembling the beloved downtown Asheville, or to look at larger models, Back Bay Boston, Georgetown, San Francisco, New York (except for a few overdone big-block developments in Midtown) or most other loved and well-visited cities. Even downtown Raleigh – with its preserved buildings and revitalization that inches, block-by-block – has a better chance, long-term, of providing the true urban feel that distinguishes a city from a collection of development projects.

The new plan doesn't really address that problem with real solutions. It doesn't address the incongruity of recommending a new skyscraper at a redeveloped Charlotte Transportation Center and the impact that will have on land prices a block away, down a Brevard Street that it recommends as a "shopping and entertainment" street. I don't know how much of this is the fault of the consultants, or how much of it results from their having multiple bosses in this project, which include the city. Over the years the city's leaders have been sadly ignorant of how their decisions can undermine their own goals. Note how the city's approval of the multistory EpiCentre has effectively sucked a huge amount of the restaurant and bar market into one very big block. So much for that Brevard Street idea – one the city has been pitching for several years. (Compare the EpiCentre to Raleigh's Glenwood South area, where multiple blocks along Glenwood Avenue have been animated by similar restaurant/nightlife development.)

The plan has a lot of feel-good words like green, sustainable, diverse, welcoming, vibrant, etc.  It also has many good suggestions for projects that would help downtown Charlotte. It's welcome, and important, that the plan emphasizes that "center city" isn't just the land inside that horrible freeway noose, but that we all need to think of "center city" as, well, the center of the city, which includes a ring of excellent neighborhoods. It calls for capping part of the freeway for a park. It calls for much more emphasis on bicycling  – a City of Bikes. It pushes for better transit connections, stronger links among higher education institutions, and an Applied Innovation Corridor from South End up to UNC Charlotte.

Read the draft plan (warning, it's in multiple chapters that must be downloaded separately) at

Disclosure: I've only skimmed most of the full draft. I read thoroughly a synopsis CCCP provided for journalists and board members.)

If you've read this far, you're probably an urban design junkie and would enjoy seeing this online gallery I pulled together, of selections from the 1966 Odell Plan for central Charlotte. Take a look here if you get a kick out of Corbusier-like, mid-century Modernist city planning.(One drawing is reproduced below.)

For reasons I can't fathom, city officials still feel compelled to bend a knee to this plan. Why? It was a bad plan. It pushed for the highway- and auto-mobile-focused, single-use-zoning development that got downtown into this mess to start with.

Finally, my UNC Charlotte colleague David Walters, who heads the School of Architecture's Masters in Urban Design program,  has his own take on the proposed 2020 Plan. He calls it a failure of nerve.

1966 Odell plan looks up East Trade Street toward an envisioned new convention center and hotel