Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Has Charlotte single-family home market revived?

Tree down at site of old Charlotte Coliseum, once slated for mixed-use development. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Mecklenburg Times reporter Tony Brown pored through five years' worth of housing permit records and concluded that July 2012, with 283 single-family housing permits, was the best July for home construction in Mecklenburg County since 2008. Maybe, he suggests, the housing bust has ended.

Construction of single-family homes is almost back to 2008 levels, when 304 similar permits were issued, Brown reports.

His article, "Residential revelry,"  is behind a pay wall, so only Mecklenburg Times subscribers can read it.

It will be interesting to see how development in the county and nearby areas plays out in coming years. Plenty of academics and others have analyzed the housing market and concluded that the country is overbuilt with single-family housing, given demographic trends (aging boomers, for instance) and modern lifestyle preferences. Will Gen Y-ers opt for suburban tract houses as they move into their 30s and 40s and start to have children? Or will they decide they can still have the urban lifestyles they're seeking now and raise children in the city?

Will planners and elected officials allow an overbuilt single-family home market to get even more over-built, as they did for a couple of decades worth of commercial space, with the carcasses of failed stores hurting multiple thoroughfares and neighborhoods in Charlotte? Or is Charlotte a healthy enough market that housing won't be overbuilt?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New lawsuit against Gaston toll road

Two Charlotte area environmental groups, assisted by the Southern Environmental Law Center, today sued challenging the proposed Garden Parkway toll road that would cut across southern Gaston County.

Clean Air Carolina and the Catawba Riverkeeper contend that the 22-mile highway would destroy homes and communities, pollute the Catawba River basin and add to air pollution. Read Clean Air Carolina's press release here.

The group says, "In their complaint, conservation groups allege many of the same concerns that were raised in the recent victory challenging the Monroe Bypass." In May, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rebuked the N.C. Turnpike Authority, finding it had erred in its environmental review and misrepresented key facts. "The conservation groups allege that many of the same flaws infect the analysis for the Garden Parkway," the CAC press release says.

And in today's Charlotte Observer (read the article here), attorney Kym Hunter of the SELC, says, “We think (the Garden Parkway study) is worse than Monroe.”

Here's a 2011 piece I wrote while at The Charlotte Observer about the Garden Parkway and the Monroe Bypass:  "Road planning from the disco era." The link to the Observer piece must have died but thanks to the Yadkin Riverkeeper for re-running the article. And if you're really really interested, here's an Observer-sponsored blogpost I did on the same topic: "Road planning from the disco era - the rest of the story."  

(Editor's note: Those articles are the opinions of the Observer associate editor, a post I held at the time, and are not necessarily the opinions of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Images of near-dead suburbia

Some of you may be shocked to learn this, but the Naked City Blog is only a small part of my job. I'm the director of the new website, part of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. The site's goal, since its launch a few months back, is to cover, in a journalistic way, events and trends in growth, planning, environmental and urban issues from the greater Charlotte region.

Castlebrooke in Kannapolis, about 20 miles northeast of Charlotte
Yesterday PlanCharlotte and the UNCC Urban Institute posted a series of what I think are stunning images by local photographer Nancy Pierce, of a sampling of abandoned subdivisions in the region. They are haunting, depicting nature reclaiming street drains, kudzu climbing over roll-over curbs, a swimming pool in the middle of a scraped-earth lot, subdivision entry gates looking like ancient medieval ruins.

Some of the developments remain stalled, or maybe dead. The top photo is from Apple Creek in Gastonia and Gaston County, about 20 miles west of Charlotte. The one at the end of this is from the site of the former Charlotte Coliseum, where City Park was to have been a large mixed-use development of homes, offices, stores and a hotel. (A proposal to build apartments there is now in the works, the article says.)

Others, too, such as Castlebrooke (shown directly above), may be stirring to life again. As planner Kris Krider of Kannapolis tells PlanCharlotte writer Josh McCann, in retrospect, it might not have been wise for Kannapolis to annex land so far from its core, because that can strain the city’s police force and require new fire stations and water and sewer infrastructure. But the city has already made those investments, and so it needs houses to materialize, to generate revenue to cover costs.

But the photo series and the article, together, should serve as a caution to government leaders as well as private businesses. Is all growth "good" regardless or where or what it is? Can we ever knit these developments into a town or a city, or will they remain isolated pods in remote areas? Or will the kudzu overtake them in the end?

Where Charlotteans once went to see Charlotte Hornets Dell Curry and Muggsy Bogues in action
Click here for article.
Click here for photo gallery. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fads and the city

Uptown Charlotte skyline. Photo: John Chesser
An excellent package of articles is running in the Charlotte Observer, examining how much taxpayer money the city spends on its convention center (up to $30 million a year), questioning whether the payoff justifies the expense. Here's a link to Sunday's article: "Selling Charlotte: Convention business requires millions from taxpayers." Look for another piece Tuesday, examining why the city for years hasn't questioned the assumption that conventions do, indeed, help the city's overall tourism climate. (Update 8/21/2012: Here's a link to the Tuesday article in the Observer, which looks at the apparently overblown estimates of local spending by conventioneers: "Visitor spending more fiction than fact.") And I might note, here, that the tourism industry is not known for high-paying jobs, either. Here's the link to an Observer article today exploring job-creation and wages: "Far fewer jobs than promised."

Currently the city and the city's Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority spend as much as $30 million a year for construction debt, operating losses and convention subsidies for the convention center. The Observer's editorial board today says it's time to "Consider being unconventional," i.e. to discuss whether to end the "arms race" of convention centers.

The discussion was needed years ago. The nation is overbuilt with convention centers, all chasing too few conventions to fill the available space. Charlotte's CRVA is mostly funded with the "prepared foods tax," a special 1 percent sales tax  paid every time you eat out or even buy a sandwich or roasted chicken at a grocery store deli. Here are some projects $30 million might pay for if spent differently: a center city park, expanding the greenway trail system, streetcars, reviving the historic Charlotte Trolley rides, restoring the Carolina Theatre or many other tourism-related projects.

The whole question of what, really, works in invigorating a downtown is one more cities should ask. I've watched, sometimes with amusement and sometimes with angst, as Charlotte pursued various fad-of-the-moment projects to try to pump life into what was, by the 1980s, a downtown (here, we call it "uptown") that emptied after office hours.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

NCDOT moves ahead with new uptown train station. But ...

After years of planning, the N.C. Department of Transportation and the City of Charlotte are officially seeking developers for the proposed new passenger rail station in uptown Charlotte. They're issuing a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), with proposals due Sept. 21.

If you're an interested developer, click here for more information.

"This RFQ is the next step in selecting a master developer for the project," says the NCDOT press release issued Thursday morning. What's being called the Charlotte Gateway Station is envisioned as a central hub for Amtrak, Charlotte Area Transit System bus and streetcar service, the long-proposed-but-still-unfunded Red Line commuter rail project to north Mecklenburg County, Greyhound Bus service and the county greenway system.

Unfortunately for the Red Line and possibly for the streetcar, Mayor Anthony Foxx said in an interview Wednesday that, when it comes to any transit services beyond the Blue Line, "We're stuck." (More from that Q-and-A format interview will be posted at as soon as I can type up the transcript.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Atlanta's future? Tied up in knots

With Tuesday's defeat of a proposed 1-cent sales tax for regional transportation needs, including both transit and highway improvements, the outlook for the huge metro region's future looks grim.

This gloomy analysis from Streetsblog describes a state Department of Transportation mired in debt, one that ranks 49th nationally in per capita transportation spending.

The defeat of what was called T-SPLOST (might that name have been a factor in the loss? It sounds like something splatting on a hard floor), also means the ambitious greenway-around-the-city called the Beltline has no major funding source.

My analysis-from-a-distance: The package had too much packed into it, was too large a sum ($7 billion) for these financially hurting times, and by trying to please both city-dwelling transit-lovers and suburban- and exurban-dwelling motorists it was vulnerable to pleasing neither. Note, also, that this vote was not only in Atlanta, but in all the state's metro regions. Other measures, crafted by elected officials in other regions, passed in three of seven regions: Augusta, Columbus and a central-south Georgia region. Note, also, that voters inside the restrictive-annexation-law-strangled city of Atlanta passed the measure. Was messy politics involved? You betcha.