Friday, December 21, 2012

Who owns the street outside your house, and who gets to park there?

Parking. It's a dilemma for cities, towns and even hamlets. The more you make accommodations for drivers (that is, most adults) who need to park vehicles, the uglier and less functional you are likely to make your city.

Yes, you can find exceptions: Parking decks lined on all sides with stores or condos or offices. (Want examples? Visit the Gateway area of uptown along West Trade Street across from Johnson & Wales University.) But those projects are notably more expensive than your basic surface lot that slicks a coat of asphalt over the dirt. That's one reason a large chunk of uptown Charlotte, beyond the main corridors, is a dead-zone of surface parking lots. Fully one fifth of First Ward is covered with surface parking lots. In a city with some 75,000 uptown workers and limited transit service, people are going to drive. Just saying, "Don't drive," is not a helpful option.

On-street parking in College Downs will be restricted. Photo: Corbin Peters
As many have noted – with UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup maybe the most prominent among them – free parking isn't. Wal-Mart may be surrounded by acres of "free" asphalt for you and your Camry, but Wal-Mart has to pay for that land and for the paving and repaving. The parking cost is built in to the price of what you buy there. Even if you don't shop at Wal-Mart, you pay for their lot, because as a taxpayers you foot the bill for storm drainage systems and anti-pollution measures to accommodate the torrents of rainwater that run off, most of it carrying pollutants.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Region's planning footprint set to expand

How sane is transportation planning in the Charlotte region? Depends, I guess, on how you define sane. Plenty of sane people take part in the planning, of course.

But the organizing device, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a.k.a. MPO,) is not configured in any sane way. For instance, the MPO for Charlotte – you know, the city of 750,000 or so in the middle of the huge metro region – does not include Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln or York counties. It now includes only a portion of Union County and a teeny sliver of Iredell. This Charlotte-area MPO is known as MUMPO – the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization.

That's about to change, bringing a modest improvement. Based on the 2000 Census, the federal rules that define what can/should be in an MPO mean the Charlotte-area MPO must expand. It's all based on what's called an "urbanized area," which is a "metro region" which is not the same as the many, many other "metro regions" you may have heard of, such as the Centralina Council of Governments' region, the Charlotte Regional Partnership's region, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's region, etc.  (Want to see a mash-up map of all those regions laid atop each other? Try this link.) Note of clarification here, added at 2:44 p.m.: Unlike many metro regions, MUMPO plans ONLY transportation projects. It's a separate organization from the Council of Governments, which is ostensibly a regional planning group. Sort of. And of course, one of the first things you learn in Planning 101 is that land use planning and transportation planning are, or should be, joined at the hip. Whatever.

So I'm sitting at the policy-wonkish session of the Charlotte City Council's Transportation and Planning Committee, hearing a report on MPO expansion. Here's a link to download the proposed new map. Pictured above is a small version of the map.

The good news: Expanding the MPO is much smarter than not doing so. It's not expanded out to what it should be (for Pete's sake, why not include Cabarrus and Gaston?) but it's clearly better. After all, as MPO secretary Robert Cook just told the panel, Marshville is now considered part of the "urbanized area."  As is all of southern Iredell County, north to north of Interstate 40.

But will the name change?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Lost in Cary, an American suburb

I was amused recently by an article about the state's über-suburb, Cary “Lost in Cary? Officials hope to show the way.”  It seems people get lost there a lot.

If you’re not familiar with Cary, it’s a municipality just west of Raleigh. With 135,000 people, it’s now the state’s seventh largest municipality, bigger than the historic port city of Wilmington and furniture-famous High Point. But because Cary has grown so dramatically during the past few decades America's age of suburban-style growth it doesn’t really have what most of us would think of as a downtown.

Bing Maps view of Cary Town Hall in “downtown” Cary
 “We used to hear a lot of people say that they didn’t know Cary had a downtown, they didn’t know where it was, particularly from people who said they didn’t live in Cary,” the News & Observer article quotes Cary  Planning Manager Philip Smith as saying.

The article also says the town has set aside tens of millions of dollars to make its downtown a destination again, not just to west Cary but to the entire region. “The plan is to seed the old town heart with arts and cultural venues, a new reason to make a half-hour trip across Cary,” the article says.

It’s a dilemma for more places than just Cary. Cornelius and Huntersville, two robust Charlotte suburbs in northern Mecklenburg County that began their lives as hamlets along a railroad line and sprouted vast subdivisions and strip shopping centers, have each been trying to build something like a downtown for a couple of decades now.  The Charlotte suburb of Harrisburg, perched just over the Cabarrus County line from UNC Charlotte, took a stab at building a downtown-type center, too. Heres what the website I run,, reported earlier this year about Harrisburg's town center: “Harrisburg N.C.: In search of a town center.”

Can Cary figure out how to make different parts of the town look different enough so that people don’t get lost? Should it? I have my own ideas (you’ll not be surprised to learn!) but I wonder what others think. I should also note here that Cary has had a reputation among many of North Carolina’s planners as a well-planned municipality.

Read more here:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Rail matters: the South End lesson

A local television station yesterday did a short feature on the South End neighborhood in Charlotte. If you click here, you'll see my colleague Bill McCoy, the director emeritus of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, describe how the area has changed. As just about anyone i Charlotte could tell you, a huge transformative event was the launching of the city's first light rail line, the Lynx Blue Line, in 2007.

The Ashton apartments in South End. Photo: David Walters
Nov. 24 marks the five-year anniversary of that launch, so a little retrospective is fitting. But it's also important to know that South End was reviving before 1998, the year Mecklenburg County voters passed a half-cent sales tax for transit and we all knew, finally, that we'd get a light rail line. Three important lessons:

1. Zoning and design matter.  The city created transit-oriented development zoning categories to allow and encourage the form of development that best serves public mass transit: walkable and mixed-use, and denser than single-family-only residential or office-only or industrial-only. You'd think that would be a no-brainer, but many cities made the mistake of launching rail transit in 1980s and early 1990s yet did not change development codes. What they got was not much transit-friendly development.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Measuring the value of city development

How should we measure the return that the city (or the county) gets from different kinds of development? An Asheville developer/planner is turning the answer to that question on its ear, by looking at the numbers per-acre, instead of per-project.

He'll be in Charlotte on Tuesday (Nov. 13) giving a presentation that's open to the public. (For details, see below.)

Joe Minicozzi has been written about in (The Simple Math That Can Save Cities From Bankruptcy),  Planning Magazine (log-in required) (Sarasota's Smart Growth Dividend), and, among other venues. American Planning Association president Mitchell Silver is so keen on Minicozzi's approach that he's having staff at the Raleigh Planning Department, which Silver directs, work up Raleigh-based numbers.

I've blogged about him, too. (To read more: click here, and here.)

He's giving a presentation at Civic By Design, at 5:30 p.m. at the Levine Museum of the New South. Come hear how one mixed-use building in your downtown can be a much sounder investment for your municipal coffers, if you look at return on investment with a standardized measure, than even a luxury shopping mall on the edge of town. 

Minicozzi (left, photo courtesy of is a founding member of the Asheville Design Center, a nonprofit community design center dedicated to creating livable communities across all of Western North Carolina.  He received his Bachelor of Architecture from University of Miami and a Master's in Architecture and Urban Design from Harvard University. He is a principal of Urban3, LLC, and formerly the new projects director for Public Interest Projects, Inc. (PIP). He is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the International Association of Assessing Officials and the American Institute of Certified Planners. For more examples of his studies, please visit

Friday, November 9, 2012

What McCrory's win really means

Tuesday's gubernatorial election was a watershed for North Carolina, but for a reason that's gotten a lot less ink than the Red State-Blue State lines. For the first time in the history of this once-rural state, a big-city mayor moves into the Governor's Mansion. Pat McCrory's election may well mark North Carolina's transition from rural to urban.
To have elected the mayor of the state's biggest city whose whole political career has been in Charlotte city government is a huge transition. It's bigger, in my view, than the state switching from red to blue (in 2008) back to red in the presidential election, as N.C. this year went narrowly (by 96,600 votes) for Republican Mitt Romney.

McCrory will be North Carolina's first Republican governor since Jim Martin was elected in 1984 and only the third since since Reconstruction. And it's a big change, too, that for the first time since the 1880s, Republicans will hold the governorship and both chambers of the N.C. General Assembly. But for one party to control all three is not new; Democrats did that for decades. It's also noteworthy that McCrory is the first Charlottean elected governor since lawyer Cameron Morrison in 1920. Among a string of Charlotte mayors who tried for statewide office –  Eddie Knox, Harvey Gantt, Sue Myrick and Richard Vinroot only McCrory succeeded. "The curse is over," he joked election night. (Aside: Martin was a Davidson College professor and a Mecklenburg County commissioner but campaigned as, and governed as, a resident of "Lake Norman.")

Sitting around after midnight on election night, waiting for the Romney and Obama speeches, I started digging into N.C. history to see if I could find any mayor of a sizable city elected governor. The closest I found was Raleigh's Joseph Melville Broughton, governor 1941-45. In 1940, Raleigh had 47,000 people. That's not a big city. (Gregg Cherry, a former Gastonia mayor, was governor 1945-1949. Wikipedia tidbit: "It was joked  in Gastonia that he was the best lawyer in town when sober, and the second-best lawyer in town when drunk.") Otherwise, nada.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Transit? ‘It’s going to take decades and decades’

Streetcar in Portland, Ore. Can Charlotte's project find funding? (Photo: David Walters)
The big picture may have gotten buried Tuesday as Charlotte City Council members chewed over, and chewed and chewed, different alternative revenue strategies that might enable the city to build the second leg of its proposed streetcar.

Most of the discussion was about finding ways to pay for the streetcar project that weren't a simple, citywide property tax increase. But here's the big picture, as articulated by City Manager Curt Walton: "The Blue Line Extension is likely to be the last project of its kind."

That $1.1 billion project recently won federal funding for half its cost.

Don't expect Congress to continue to fund a public transit program that pays half the cost of building, Walton said. As for the other proposed 2030 Plan transit projects the Red Line commuter rail, the Silver Line corridor to the southeast, the West corridor  toward the airport, Walton said, "We're not going to get those anytime soon. It's going to take decades and decades and decades."

The first streetcar leg from Presbyterian Hospital to the Transportation Center on East Trade Street is being built with a $25 million federal grant and $12 million in city funds. The $119 million second leg from the Transportation Center to Johnson C. Smith University and from the hospital to Sunnyside Avenue near Central Avenue was a piece of a $926 million, eight-year Capital Improvement Plan that did not win council support in June. The whole CIP would have required a 3.6-cent increase in the city property tax.

Meeting for the second in a series of budget-specific sessions, the council spent most of two hours talking about different revenue tools for the streetcar. Although the streetcar project (from Beatties Ford Road at Interstate 85 to the former Eastland Mall site) is a part of the Metropolitan Transit Commission's 2030 transit plan, it's far down the list of projects, and the transit sales tax isn't bringing in enough revenue to let the MTC build any projects after the Blue Line Extension, due to start construction next year.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stand-alone Walgreens gets planners' thumbs up

A controversial Walgreens proposed for the Dilworth neighborhood won a key recommendation tonight from the Zoning Committee of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission.

Here's the article I wrote for Dilworth Walgreens wins key approval.

Monday, October 22, 2012

What's at core of the affordable housing problem?

I stumbled on this excellent piece "The Zen of Affordable Housing," by Dan Bertolet, a recovering electrical engineer, who blogs at In it, he tries to debunk some myths and expound on what he considers truths of cities, housing and the market. Example:

The urban density debate is over. An ever-growing mountain of density research unequivocally demonstrates the benefits associated with energy, greenhouse gas emissions, water, habitat, farmland, economics, human health and safety, etc. It’s not hyperbole to say that in America, our future prosperity will depend heavily on the densification of our urban areas. Accordingly, high-density housing should be recognized as a public benefit in itself. 

But his final point is one that, in my observation, is the core of the problem and gets overlooked by virtually all the interested parties in the affordability debate. It's all about income. If your income is too low, it's tough to afford a place to live: 

Income inequality is the core reason why housing affordability is such an intractable problem in the United States. In pretty much every other industrialized nation on earth, greater redistribution of wealth helps ease the problem of affordable housing. This includes social investments that significantly reduce other major household expenses, such as health care, education, childcare, and transportation, thereby freeing up more income to pay for housing. Here in the U.S, we will be beating our heads against the wall forever trying to provide enough affordable housing to make up for this underlying inequity.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Real estate data geeks, happy reading

The annual Emerging Trends in Real Estate Report is out for 2013, courtesy of the Urban Land Institute (no, it is NO relation to my employer, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute). Click here to download a PDF copy.

A few quickie highlights:  Among "Markets to Watch," Charlotte ranks No. 17, Raleigh No. 11. The top five, in order: San Francisco, New York,  San Jose, Austin, Houston. You'll find the remarks about Raleigh on Page 40, and Charlotte on Page 42.

The report praises Charlotte's "high quality of life, low cost of business and world-class international airport" and calls it "one of the stronger secondary markets to watch." However, it also notes that "some interviewees still have concerns: 'Charlotte is subject to what banks do,' and 'We see Charlotte as a risky metro in spite of a relatively strong economy, due to its dependence on two large banks.'

Overall, the report says, expect the continued "low-gear real estate recovery," and "modest gains." Don't be looking for quick wins, it cautions developers and investors.

Happy weekend reading. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

McCrory, Dalton talk transportation

Courtesy of Julie White at the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, here's an account of the transportation-related exchanges from Tuesday night's gubernatorial debate on UNC-TV, between Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Republican Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor:

To view the video, watch below or click here to visit the WRAL website.

Here's a lightly edited version of what White, director of the Mayors Coalition, sent via her regular email newsletter:

The N.C. Metropolitan Mayors were delighted last night with the inclusion of transportation-related questions in the televised gubernatorial debate last night. The Mayors Coalition had written the debate hosts citing the declining health of our state's transportation infrastructure and asked them to include questions about the candidate's vision for transportation investment in the future.
 Our coalition and our chairman received shout outs from McCrory last night during the debate. At 34 minutes into the debate, the candidates were asked how they would work with those across the aisle in a bipartisan manner. McCrory noted his success as mayor working with his bipartisan city council and his efforts working with then-Gov. Jim Hunt to implement a major transportation initiative that is a role model for the nation. He then cited his work to found the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition and cited it as a bipartisan group of mayors from the east, Piedmont and west working together and speaking with one voice. He noted that he was proud to be a founding member of the group. McCrory also gave a shout-out to the Metro Mayors Coalition chairman, Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who was in the audience.
At 13 minutes into the debate the candidates concurred in their thoughts that the state should continue the current cap on the gas tax. Dalton cited the fact that we are efficient with our transportation system through our state-maintained system of roads and said we don't need 100 smaller DOTs across the state.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Transformative transit, still on track

Mayor Anthony Foxx, (L-R) U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff before Tuesday ceremony

In reality, they signed the agreement 30 minutes before the public ceremony. I imagine no one wanted to take any chances with the legalities.

But at 10 a.m. today, with speeches and congratulations, dignitaries from Charlotte, Raleigh and Washington on Tuesday made formal the U.S. Federal Transit Administration's commitment of $580 million to help extend the Lynx Blue Line from Seventh Street uptown northeast to the UNC Charlotte campus. The signing of the full funding grant agreement, as it's called, is something of a formality, but its significance can hardly be overstated. FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff, in town for the event, predicted ridership on the Blue Line would double. I think that's underestimating it.

Mayor Anthony Foxx greets N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti
The 9.3-mile Blue Line Extension, when it opens in 2017, will connect the heart of a city of 750,000 to a campus of some 30,000 people. To compare, 30,000 is bigger than the city of Statesville and roughly the size of Monroe, Mooresville or Salisbury (all 33,000). And the university's plans call for continued growth. In other words, there is a huge destination at the end of the Blue Line Extension that dwarfs what lies at the southern end of the Blue Line: the town of Pineville (population 7,678). OK, to be fair there are a lot of people living near, but not in Pineville. Still, in my view the part of the city near the BLE terminus is larger and more robust.

In addition to the UNC Charlotte campus, the university city area holds a regional hospital (Carolinas Medical Center-University), as well as stores, houses, apartments and offices. It is a big enough destination that it has its own Charlotte Chamber chapter.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Republicans and cities: The sequel

The blogosphere has been buzzing over the "Republicans to cities: Drop Dead" theme that I wrote about last week in "Republicans and cities: Ill-starred romance?"

Curtis Johnson, president of the Citistates Group and former policy adviser and chief of staff to a Republican governor (OK, it was Minnesota), took up the topic for, in "A presidential proposition."

In it, he wishes he heard candidates talking about the importance of cities and metro regions to the national economy. "Metros host the nation’s treasure of cultural and recreational amenities. They are undeniably the economic engines that power ongoing (if a bit fragile today) prosperity of the whole country," he writes. Yet neither party is giving the full-throated support for urban areas that Johnson would like. He quips that a (Republican) friend "says ruefully that the Democrats don’t have very good answers, but the Republicans don’t even understand the questions."

And, he writes, "Having spent several years of my life working for a Republican governor, I cringe to see the way sensible economics has been chained up, locked out and hooted over by the reigning ideology of today’s leading Republicans."

Over at Next American City, Harry Moroz takes a more contrarian position, in ("The GOP really does have an urban agenda.") After offering some interesting charts showing which voters think city and suburban areas need more spending, he concludes that the Republican Party's platform does, in fact, address topics of great interest to urban voters, such as education reform and mass transit. It's just that the Republicans don't think the federal government should be the one spending the money, he writes.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Smells like train spirit

What just rolled into my email inbox is an invitation from the Charlotte Area Transit System to a "major transportation funding announcement" Tuesday morning. "Please join FTA [Federal Transit Administration] Administrator Peter Rogoff, Congressman Mel Watt, Mayor Anthony Foxx and CATS CEO Carolyn Flowers ... " it says.

The time: 10 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16
The place - and this is a big clue - "9th Street Trolley Station."

That's a station built for and used by Charlotte Trolley when the nonprofit was running its trolley service through uptown. But the trolley service is defunct (at least for now), and the station is empty. That would, however, be the first station of the new Blue Line Extension.

I've made a few calls, but so far to little effect, to try to get confirmation or denial of whether this is what it smells like. Olaf Kinard, CATS' marketing and communications director, would neither confirm nor deny anything. Mayor Anthony Foxx's press secretary, Al Killeffer, would say only, "Just come to the event."

Although most everyone in town has taken it for granted that the Blue Line Extension a.k.a. the Northeast Corridor, or, the light rail to UNC Charlotte would of course get built, a Full Funding Grant Agreement is essentially the signed agreement between the federal government and the local transit agency. While there are never any guarantees when it comes to federal funding, it's a lot harder for the state or the feds to decide not to pony up the money if the FFGA has been signed. (The FFGA with the state was already signed.) With the current anti-rail-transit sentiment among many in the congressional and state legislative leadership, getting this agreement signed and nailed down is major.

If, of course, that's what this is.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Republicans and cities: Ill-starred romance?

With a graphic that mimicked the famous 1975 New York Daily News headline: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD" the last Sunday's New York Times Review section had this headline: "REPUBLICANS TO CITIES: DROP DEAD." It topped an article headlined "How the GOP Became the Anti-Urban Party."

"The fact is that cities don’t count anymore — at least not in national Republican politics. The very word “city” went all but unheard at the Republican convention, held in the rudimentary city of Tampa, Fla.," wrote Kevin Baker, author of the "City of Fire" series of historical novels.

To be fair, he also notes this about the Democratic presidential campaign: "There wasn’t so much as a mention of cities in the debate on domestic issues the presidential candidates had last week. Nor did the Democrats have much to say about cities at their convention in Charlotte, N.C." At least he didn't call Charlotte a "rudimentary city."

Are Republicans anti-city? If so,why, and if not, why not? Not a few political observers have noted, for instance, that in North Carolina, Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, former mayor of Charlotte, is running ads that mention he was mayor but neglect to say he was mayor of Charlotte, the state's largest city. [Mike Collins, host of WFAE's "Charlotte Talks" radio show this morning asked McCrory about that, during an interview. McCrory said about half his ads mention Charlotte and said there isn't much time in some ads to say very much.]

Obviously, there is anti-Charlotte sentiment in some parts of North Carolina, and in my observation it's not so much a Republican-Democrat thing as a rural-urban thing and as Charlotte is blessed with a robust and bipartisan phalanx of boosters who display great zest for their city a "We don't like braggers" thing.

What should the candidates be saying about cities? Weigh in below, if you have thoughts.

(Note: I moderate comments for obscenity, insults, lack of civility, etc., but not for the opinions expressed. So if your comment doesn't instantly appear, please don't be discouraged. )

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

But what about those duplexes?

Before the city Zoning Committee deferred its decision on a controversial rezoning for a Walgreens in the Dilworth neighborhood, the panel – a subcommittee of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission – also postponed another controversial proposal.

City staff have proposed changing the Charlotte zoning ordinance, to allow duplexes on any property zoned for single-family residential. Some neighborhoods have protested, saying they worry that too many duplexes will bring rentals to otherwise stable neighborhoods and that single-family-home neighborhoods should stay that way. Want to read more on that? Click here: "Garage apartments now legal; duplex move stalls."

The duplex proposal is part of a larger city initiative to increase the amount of affordable housing throughout the city, rather than letting it cluster in a few parts of the city. Read more about that initiative here.

Walgreens and the 'urban' zoning that isn't

I'm sitting at the zoning committee of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission listening to the committee – an advisory body only – discuss whether to recommend a rezoning needed for a controversial, proposed stand-alone Walgreens pharmacy on the edge of the historic Dilworth neighborhood and abutting its historic district. (See "Dilworth wary of proposed Walgreens.")

There's a lot of discussion, led generally by planning commissioner Lucia Griffith, an architect, about the proposed drive-through window the Walgreens would build. An aside: The property is in a pedestrian overlay district, a zoning category intended to make a more pedestrian-friendly area. Drive-throughs, with driveways and vehicles going in and out, are generally accepted as not pedestrian-friendly. Yet they are allowed in this pedestrian district. Whatever. (Want to read the rezoning petition? Click here.)

But here's the larger issue that I don't hear anyone discussing. The property is now zoned for O-2, for office development, and is in a PED (the overlay) zoning.* That zoning would allow an office building, and if it was larger than 30,000 square feet it could include a small bit of retail, but it would take approximately 40,000* 80,000 square feet of office space to allow as much retail space as the Walgreens wants – 16,000 square feet. So in order to have a stand-alone, one-story Walgreens with a drive-through lane, the developers are asking for – wait for it – a more urban zoning category.

Yes, you read that right. The extremely suburban form of a stand-alone, one-story, drive-through pharmacy needs a zoning category called Mixed-Use-Development District, or MUDD. That whole zoning category was created to allow more urban-style development in the city.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When planners gather ...

WILMINGTON – As soon as I get my sandwich at Pender's Cafe on Front Street I'll be heading to the large new-ish Wilmington Convention Center for a session on greenway planning at the annual convention of the N.C. Chapter of the American Planning Association. I'll be here until mid-day Thursday, blogging from some of the sessions. So check back in during the next two days.

For now, must chow down and then rush back to the center.

Greenways: Lessons from other cities (2:35 p.m.):

I'm now listening to planners from Wilmington describe their city's cross city trail - which will be 15 miles when complete, from downtown Wilmington east to Wrightsville Beach.  It's the only greenway in the city now, although a greenway plan is under way now to plan for more.

Wilmington greenway planners traveled to Greenville, S.C., to study that city's Swamp Rabbit trail, which when complete will run 17.5 miles from Greenville to Travellers Rest. Now it's about 13.5 miles. They found community advocacy was key in making that greenway happen. A regional advocacy group, Upstate Forever, pushed for trail acquisition and helped provide volunteers for cleaning up the abandoned rail bed the trail runs on.

The Swamp Rabbit Trail is sponsored in part by the Greenville Hospital, which dedicated $100,000 a year for 10 years, considering it a way to improve community health.

Some of the trail's innovative marketing ideas: Organizers now sell coordinates along the trail. If something special happened on the trail, you can buy a sponsorship for that spot. And when trail officials realized that restrooms and parking along the trail were sometimes hard to find, they partnered with businesses and institutions and now the interactive trail maps show where you can use a restroom or find a parking place.

Another tidbit: In North Carolina, a state law protects property owners along greenway trails from liability.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

If you ask the public, they might answer

(Update, 9/19/12 at 1 p.m.: A more complete version of this article, with photos, "Neighbors deliver earful on zoning ordinance," is now available at

You'd expect a room full of developers, developer consultants and lobbyists invited specifically to  bellyache Tuesday afternoon about Charlotte's zoning ordinance would have had plenty to say. And they did have comments. But it was the group who followed them, about two dozen neighborhood activists and non-developers at a later public comment session, who all but scorched the paint off the walls.

"My concern is that this whole process will turn the zoning ordinance over to the developers," said Bea Nance of the College Downs neighborhood in northeast Charlotte.

"We're no match for the developers with money," said John Wall of the Hidden Valley and North Tryon Street neighborhood.

"The problem is, there are no teeth in plans. They mean nothing," said Susan Lindsay of east Charlotte.

"Quite honestly, the staff doesn't support their own plans," said Cindy Schwartz of Dilworth. "We never see them oppose anything."

The two forums were held Tuesday ....

Monday, September 17, 2012

Funnertime in the city

From guerrilla urbanism such as Matt Tomasulo's Walk Raleigh project, to International PARK(ing) Day, in which people take over a parking place and transform it into an instant park, to this experiment at a London bus stop (be sure to click that link and watch the video; it's charming), the idea is clear: Make cities more fun.

Call it tactical urbanism, or guerrilla urbanism, or just call it a fad. But it's bringing a welcome touch of whimsy and creativity to the urban design field. Ideas are popping up all over the world, with help from social media.

So, has whimsy-challenged Charlotte gotten into the act?  If UNC Charlotte urban design student Keihly Moore gets here way, the city will. She's organizing a PARK(ing) Day event in Charlotte for Friday.  Disclosure: Keihly is my graduate assistant at, and is a master's student in urban design and architecture (dual degree) at UNC Charlotte. She also writes for the PlanCharlotte website.

With approval from the city's Department of Transportation, Keihly and collaborators with the UNC Charlotte School of Architecture and the Charlotte Urban Farm Project will take a few spots in South End on Camden Road near Park Avenue where the Food Truck Fridays event is held and convert them, temporarily, to a park. Here's her diagram.


She plans sidewalk-chalk activities, among other things. Read more about it by clicking on this link. It's all volunteer-led, with no budget to speak of. If you're interested in helping, you can email Keihly (it's pronounced KEE-lee.)

If you know of more tactical urbanism maybe we should call them Random Acts of Urbanism? let me know.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Europe's great untapped revenue source: property taxes

The piece I've been working on for most of the summer, about the financial health of cities, was accepted and published today by

Europe's Great Untapped Revenue Source: Property Taxes 

Its key point: Headlines about financial crisis focus on nations, but it's on city streets that the trauma plays out. And local government experts say for cities in the U.S. and Europe, things are going to get even worse before they get better. And in Europe, economists are urging more reliance on property taxes, which typically make up far less of a local government's revenue stream.

The article emerged from a conference in Paris sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University International  Urban Fellows Program.

Among the many lessons I learned there was this small observation: In Paris, when a regional planning agency offers a lunch to a visiting conference, it will include pate de foie gras. Not what you'd see at a Council of Governments or MPO meeting in the U.S., I think.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

N.C. court to counties: 'Raise taxes, already'

In August,the N.C. Supreme Court threw out Cabarrus County's adequate public facility ordinance. Here's the Charlotte Observer article on the ruling: "Ruling favors developers." You can download a copy of the ruling here, courtesy of Joe Padilla at the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (REBIC). 

The ruling is of interest, of course, but as a practical matter APFOs, as they are known, were already virtually dead in North Carolina, as Mae Israel wrote in June for the UNC Charlotte website I run, (See "With ordinances dead or in limbo, planners ponder next steps.")

Under APFOs,  the local government sometimes assessed a fee on development if, for instance, local schools were already overcrowded and the county did not have the money to build new ones, or the planned new schools weren't yet built. Or the developers would delay building until new schools opened.

Since the ordinances were invented as a way to help counties (and a few municipalities) find some money to pay for the schools, parks, etc., the question arises: How does a fast-growing county like Cabarrus pay for the services its thousands of new residents require? A number of studies have shown that typical suburban-style large-lot subdivisions don't generally bring in enough property tax revenue to pay for the services they use. (More expensive houses, obviously, produce more property tax revenue, and at some price point the housing will start to pay for itself.)