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?