Friday, November 30, 2012

Lost in Cary, an American suburb

I was amused recently by an article about the state's ├╝ber-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.