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

Monday, July 25, 2011

Cities and freeways: Carmageddon or Carmaheaven?

I've been blogless too long. (Didja miss me?) First up on my list of readable stories to share: The Carmageddon miracle.

Carmageddon was the feared massive traffic tie-up expected in Southern California when the 405 Freeway had to close down for the July 16-17 weekend. Guess what? No traffic problems. People stayed home. (Experts who have studied the phenomenon of induced traffic were probably not surprised.) The Los Angeles Times has a wrap-up here: " 'Carmageddon's' good karma." (Link thanks to And Planetizen's own Tim Halbur weighed in, noting that the whole episode illustrated the folly of depending too much on one transportation mode alone – automobiles.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, credited with coining the term "Carmageddon," dubbed what happened "Carmaheaven." The New York Times' Timothy Egan called the whole weekend an "urban epiphany."  His description: "No, the big lessons of Carmageddon are not about transportation. They are about something else, something less easily quantified. They are about the small salves in life that make a day easier, or even memorable. When millions of Angelenos decided to hold a block party, or go to the park, or ride a bike, or play soccer, or spend half a day at the farmers market, or take advantage of free admission at some museums, they found a city far removed from that awful commuter stress index."

And along those lines, this article, "Livable cities don't have freeways," refers to a Brown University study that found a city’s population can decrease 18 percent because of the building of a major highway. (See this interview with Brown's Nathaniel Baum-Snow.) That's one of the ways, notes conservative economist Edward Glaeser, that the government has disproportionately subsidized suburban sprawl.

Back to the Future?  UNC Charlotte urban design Professor David Walters has a piece on the website of the UNCC Urban Institute (disclosure: that's my new employer) looking at how, despite admirable progress in many ways, many of the development problems facing the Charlotte region in the 1990s are still with us. Maybe, Walters suggests, he'll start kicking up a fuss again and bring on more of that 1990s'-style hate mail.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Biking, in brief (briefs?)

I don't have time to post this but I can't resist. My friend and excellent writer Jay Walljasper envisions a future in which "Bikes will be 'incredibly sexy and utterly normal' "  His point is this:

"So how do we get more Americans to bike? The biggest obstacle right now is that people see bicyclists as an exotic species—macho, ultra-fit, almost entirely young, white and male, clad in Lycra or spandex, who ride like madmen all over city streets. Some of us admire them, some revile them, but most people can't imagine joining their ranks.

Yet, the reality is that most bikers today are ordinary people: office workers commuting, schoolkids going to piano practice or a soccer game, moms with a trailer on the back, grandparents getting exercise."

But -- and you have to follow the link to see the photo -- while riding on his bicycle to the July Fourth fireworks in Minneapolis he encountered an Underwear Bike Ride.

Now, I'm thinking about how incredibly hot it gets in Charlotte in the summertime.  Who'll dare to organize the Charlotte version of a bicycling in briefs event?

Friday, July 8, 2011

How friendly to pedestrians is your Charlotte 'hood?

SOURCE: Carlton Gideon, UNCC Urban Institute, City of Charlotte
One advantage of being surrounded by people who crunch data for fun (and for degrees, but not for profit, at least not at UNCC's Urban Institute), is that they'll just pop up with some cool factoids and maps.

Geography grad student Carlton Gideon from Wilmington just wandered in with this map showing which Charlotte neighborhoods are the most pedestrian-friendly. The measures used come from the City of Charlotte's 2010 Quality of Life Report, research for which was done by UNC Charlotte's Metropolitan Studies Group. The Pedestrian Friendliness Index was based on the total length of sidewalks in each NSA (neighborhood statistical area) compared to the total length of streets. The index ran from 1 to 2.  In the Quality of Life study, a 0 to 1 measure was Low pedestrian friendliness, 1.1 to 1.3 was Medium, and 1.4 and higher was High pedestrian friendliness.

The report doesn't tally up how many neighborhoods ranked "high" in pedestrian friendliness although my guess is: not many.

What Gideon did was show, on the colorful map atop this posting (click on it for a zoom view), the gradation of neighborhood friendliness.It's interesting to note, for instance, that one of the most pedestrian-friendly areas is a large suburban subdivision, Highland Creek. It's the big blue neighborhood in the northeast corner. The lighter blue neighborhood just south of it includes the University Place area. The UNCC campus area, alas, is the orange pie-shaped neighborhood just south of that. Plenty of sidewalks on campus, but the rest of the area is sadly lacking. Also interesting is the comparatively better rankings of neighborhoods in the farther fringes. Maybe, Gideon theorizes, they were built after the city began requiring sidewalks on both sides of streets in new subdivisions?

You can see below his color-coded pedestrian-friendliness map superimposed on a Google satellite view of the city, where you can zoom in or out. If that doesn't work for you, take this URL and paste it into the search window of Google maps:

View Larger Map

Monday, July 4, 2011

Taking issue with New Yorker's Lemann on cities, and other random links

It seems a healthy chunk of that segment of New-York news media that isn't picking through the compost heap of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's case remains obsessed with New Yorkers' love-hate relationship with bike lanes. John Cassidy of The New Yorker magazine a few months back ranted on a blog "Rational Irrationality," about the expanding lanes. Here, "R.A." of The Economist skewers Cassidy's economic arguments, in "Tragedies of the commons/The world is his parking spot.

Just last week (June 27), the New York Times ran an overview of the ways many European cities are trying to make driving and parking so uncomfortable that people choose to walk, bicycle or take transit.  Of course, this is a technique that needs to be imported to the U.S. with caution. Many U.S. cities, especially in the Sun Belt, make is all but impossible to walk, bicycle or take public transportation. And even in New York (see above) not all are thrilled with the idea that a bicycle lane might – gasp! – remove parking spots.

Also in the New Yorker (June 27 edition), Nicholas Lemann of the Columbia School of Journalism reviews a series of books dealing with cities, "Get Out of Town/Has the celebration of cities gone too far?"  (Subscription needed to read the full article.)

Lemann gives an overview of, among other things, the city-suburb wars, of Richard Florida's Creative Class theory,  of Edward Glaeser's new book, "Triumph of the City," and of "Aerotropolis," a new book written in part by UNC sociologist John Kasarda, who helped mastermind the still-underperforming Global TransPark in Kinston, N.C., though Lemann doesn't mention that infelicitous angle. As an aside, the state-funded creation of the TransPark, in a rural part of Eastern North Carolina, shows the degree to which Glaeser may be right about the importance of cities in generating wealth.

For a smart guy, Lemann is remarkably shallow in some of his analyses. For instance, he says Glaeser is not an admirer of Jane Jacobs.  To be sure, Glaeser (showing his own shallow analysis), contends that Jacobs' fights to save Greenwich Village turned the village into a low-density, high-priced haven for the wealthy, because the preservation prevented skyscrapers. (Here's my own take on Glaeser's book, a review of "Triumph of the City," for  Has Lemann read anything other than Jacobs' "Death and Life of Great American Cities"? Her next book, "The Economy of Cities," listed in Glaeser's bibliography, clearly prefigures much of Glaeser's own economic theory in "Triumph": that cities and the proximity they create allow innovation to happen.

Lemann concludes by saying that in 20th-century America, many more people found what they were seeking in American suburbs than in cities: "They tended their gardens, washed their cars, took their children to Little League games, went to PTA meetings and to religious services." Come again? Other than the part about gardens, is he saying city dwellers didn't do or value any of those things?  As an academic at Columbia University, surely he's heard of the work of Kenneth T. Jackson, an urban historian at Columbia, whose "Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States," explained how the federal government's policies starting in the 1920s subsidized suburban development and hindered development inside established cities. (Glaeser also makes this point, with some vigor.) In other words, we'll never know how many Americans would have moved to suburbia had the economic playing field been level.

Still up for more reading: The New York Times had an intriguing article Sunday, "Detroit Pushes Back with Young Muscles," about how Detroit – which many Americans associate with urban blight exponentially worse than any other U.S. city – has instead become a magnet for creative young entrepreneurs. In the past 10 years, "downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35, nearly 30 percent more than two-thirds of the nation’s 51 largest cities." And the long list of initiatives to attract and nurture entrepreneurs is impressive. Anyone taking notes at the Charlotte Chamber, and in city government here? 

Happy Fourth of July.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Even ugly parks find friends

Always, the more you learn about a place the more you realize your first impressions were off-kilter, or incomplete. The large park in downtown Sofia known as Bulgaria Square (or now, Youth Park), that I had supposed would be underused because of its unattractive design – the National Palace of Culture building in the middle of the park (see photo) is like a bad nightmare of Brasilia – was in fact well-peopled. Might it have had more visitors? Probably. But on the June evening I visited, it had a heckuva lot more people in it than many Charlotte parks would have. Being in the center of a large, high-density and walkable downtown does help a public space overcome bad design.

Bulgaria Square is the site for which a group of local architects, 2020 Sofia, have engaged a planner from New York's well-respected Project for Public Spaces in hopes of devising a plan for enlivening the park and – what I think may be even more important – for getting a lot of community involvement in helping plan and manage improvements. Here's an overhead view of the park, taken from the terrace of the Sky Plaza Restaurant on the top floor of the National Palace of Culture. (The restaurant itself seemed a relic of the 1980s – so dated as to almost be fashionable again. And the cream puff cake was outstanding!)
There's an ugly sort of monument, barely visible in the upper right part of the photo. PPS planner Elena Madison told the conference that at the PPS workshop on the park, some participants had suggested it become a site for rock-climbing. My Lonely Planet travel book noted that the "Monument to the Bulgarian State," built in 1981, has been walled off because it has been falling apart for years. The book recounts: " ' Be careful there,' one local warned. ' You can still get hurt by communist society!' "

Another piece of hideous Modernist-style design, the Tsar Boris Park, holds the controversial Monument to the Soviet Army, which had recently been – take your pick of terms here – defaced, vandalized or graced with guerrilla art. Here's a link to a photo and article. Someone with a good sense of humor sneaked in by night and painted the Soviet heroic figures in the colors of Superman, Santa Claus, the Joker, Ronald McDonald, etc.  Some people were outraged, in part because of a general lack of upkeep throughout Sofia has made graffiti both common and pernicious. Hooliganism. Vandalism.  Or maybe social commentary? You be the judge. Whatever the case, a private group cleaned the monument up within a few days, leading to grumbles about why no one could clean up all the graffiti just as quickly.

The park containing the defaced-then-cleaned monument seems to be a semi-formal skateboard park. There are skateboard amenities, and the afternoon I visited a reasonable number of kids looking to be ages 12-18ish, clambered on the monument and swigged from what looked, from a distance, to be a large plastic bottle of Sprite.

The conference was sponsored by the Johns Hopkins International Urban Fellows Association, and drew about three dozen planners, architects and academics from around Europe, plus New Zealand. The topic – management of public spaces in Sofia - is of course one without any simple answer or conclusion.  But, as I wrote, it's one that's by no means limited to former Communist nations in Eastern Europe.