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 PlanCharlotte.org: 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 Cititank.org. 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 Citiwire.net, 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?

From Wikipedia.com
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.