Tuesday, December 24, 2013

North Carolina, land of lost opportunity?

As more researchers burrow in to the idea of economic mobility, the Equality of Opportunity Project (led by four economists, two from University of California-Berkeley and two from Harvard) has ranked the 100 largest U.S. cities on the economic mobility of children, looking specifically at the odds of a child reaching the top fifth income group if he or she started life in the bottom fifth. Here's a link to the rankings.

The big news for those of us in the Carolinas is that our two states are propping up the bottom of the list.

Four of the bottom five cities are in North Carolina. Another is Columbia, S.C. In order, starting at 100, are Memphis, Fayetteville (N.C.), Charlotte, Columbia, Atlanta, Greensboro, Detroit, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Columbus. Greenville (S.C.) is No. 11 from the bottom.

The study looked at "commuting zones" for cities, which is a different regional configuration than looking at Metropolitan Statistical Areas or just at city limits.

As this Salon.com article ("Class warfare in Dixieland") notes, the bottom of the list is dominated by Southern cities. It doesn't point out that all six of the Carolinas cities in the study are scraping the bottom of the list.

The big question - why? - is not addressed in the research. Theories abound, including in the Salon.com article. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

'Local food' for thought: How healthy is a commuter lifestyle?

I heard this morning that NPR has discovered "agriburbia." Here's a link to Luke Runyon's report on the phenomenon of developers building subdivisions centered not on golf courses, but on farms.

Of course, PlanCharlotte.org had an article on the phenomenon last April. Here's Corbin Peters' report on a hoped-for agriburbia development in Granite Quarry in Rowan County, "Putting a local food twist on suburbia."

But there's an interesting dilemma for developers and potential residents alike to ponder. Will the budding enthusiasm for "healthy living" on suburban farms take into account the growing body of research showing that long commutes by car can hurt people's health? As I sat listening to Runyon's report on WFAE, I was reading this report from the New York Times' Jane Brody in the morning Charlotte Observer: "Commuting takes a high toll on your health."

As Brody writes:
"A recent study of 4,297 Texans compared their health with the distances they commuted to and from work. It showed

Thursday, December 5, 2013

When planners insist, Walmart gets urban

Multistory Walmart in Washington, in a mixed-use building.

Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington -- and a keynote speaker here in June for the RealityCheck regional planning exercise -- sends along a photo of the new, urban-styled Walmart that opened Wednesday in Washington, on Seventh Street NW. "It shows what Wal-Mart can do, if you push them," he writes.

In a later email, he said, "Wal-Mart* wants to be in hot urban markets like DC because cities are the only place left in America with more spending power than stores." Because Walmart's intention to build in Washington was controversial, he wrote, "The City Planning office pushed hard for good urban design."

The huge retail chain has proposed six stores in D.C., McMahon writes. Two opened Wednesday. The other is on Georgia Avenue. A rendering is below. While the Seventh Street store has housing above the retail, the second one is single-use. but at least it's sitting on the sidewalk like a respectable city building, and has parking underground rather than splayed out on an asphalt parking lot.

Now, just to get you thinking, just below is the new(ish) Walmart that opened near UNC Charlotte on North Tryon

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A myriad of municipalities - the Gaston v. Union bakeoff

For years, as a public policy geek and former state editor, I've believed Union County, just southeast of Charlotte, has more municipalities than any other county in North Carolina. A frenzy of incorporations in the 1990s and early 2000s pushed Union ahead of Gaston County, which had held the record -- at least as far as we knew.

But after doing a bit of research (for something else) I have learned that we in the N.C. Piedmont cannot hold a candle to the coastal county of Brunswick. At least, not if the N.C. League of Municipalities website can be trusted.

Check this out:

Brunswick County has 19 incorporated municipalities, outstripping Union's paltry 15.

And Union has 15 only if you count Mint Hill, almost all of which is in Mecklenburg County. Robeson County has 15 municipalities, and though two (Maxton, Red Springs) are split across two counties, they are predominantly in Robeson.

Gaston has only 14, and that includes two municipalities straddling the county line: Kings Mountain believes itself to be

Friday, November 22, 2013

The power of metros to N.C.'s economy

Dan Barkin, a senior editor at Raleigh's News & Observer, on Wednesday posted an eye-opening statistic about North Carolina's economy on "The Editor's Blog," which he shares with other top editors at the N&O newsroom.

In "Metros dominate NC economy," he writes that the seven largest metro areas generate nearly 70 percent of the state's economy.  The Charlotte metro area alone is responsible for a quarter of the state's economy. The Triangle (Barkin added together Raleigh-Cary and Durham MSAs) tally 22 percent.  That means, he points out, that Charlotte and the Triangle are nearly half the state's economy.

A few things to note: First, the so-called urban/rural split in the state is a lot squishier than it may seem. Those "metro areas" (a.k.a. Metropolitan Statistical Areas) tend to include places that to most people would seem rural, and in some cases they're bizarrely drawn. Examples: Marshville in eastern Union County,or Cat Square in Lincoln County. The counties are in Charlotte's Metropolitan Statistical Area, but some of the smaller communities don't feel very

Monday, November 18, 2013

Triangle's transit tussle - and its 'expert' trio

And speaking of public transit, which I often find myself doing, Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council last Friday posted a good summation of the situation in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region, where two of the three counties have voted for a sales tax to start building a system of rail and bus lines throughout the region. But Wake County continues to balk.

And read on to learn about my research into a panel of three ostensibly unbiased "experts" that may have been a stacked deck.

First, here's a link to Perks' blog, "The Tussle over Transit in the Triangle." It's a good summation of the situation. Be aware that given Perks' job and beliefs, it's commentary, as opposed to a news article.

The situation: Wake County commissioners, dominated by Republicans, have stalled and stalled. Then they hired a three-person panel of "experts" to look at the local data and provide advice. One of the experts is Sam R. Staley, well known in planning circles as an anti-Smart Growth voice. He's a research fellow at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian public policy think tank. Among those on Reason's board of directors is David Koch, the billionaire oil industry mogul and conservative activist whose money in part has helped bankroll the Tea Party, among other political endeavors. But I digress.

Another of the three experts is Steve Polzin, director of the mobility research program at the Center for Urban ...

Charlotte council to vote on three preservation projects

The Cohen-Fumero house, designed by Charlotte architect Murray Whisnant
The Charlotte City Council at tonight's meeting is expected to vote on designating three buildings as historic landmarks. The first is the Cohen-Fumero House. Read more about it at the PlanCharlotte article, "Can Charlotte learn to love Modernist homes?

For Charlotte, it's an unusual selection:
  • First, it's in East Charlotte, not a part of the city that's been graced with many landmark buildings.
  • Second, it's a mid-century Modernist home, an architectural style that while attractive to a younger, hipper population around the country, doesn't get the love from the more traditionalist sectors in Charlotte, a city with a comparatively large bloc of traditionalist sectors.

But in its favor is this: Landmarking historic properties is easier in parts of the city that are not seeing intense development pressure. That's why so many historic properties in uptown were wiped away; the dirt under them was too valuable for new development.

Some personal disclosure here: I'm friends with the original owners, artists Herbert Cohen and Jose Fumero, who in the 1950s and 1960s hosted much of the Charlotte "Creative Class" in their living room for Sunday dinners. They've been together for something like 50 years, which in itself is worthy of note. And I'm friends with the architect who designed the house for them, Murray Whisnant. Whisnant, a Charlotte native who also designed the Rowe Arts Building at UNC Charlotte, has been a creative force in the city for decades. 

The other two properties are mills: The Defiance Sock Mill in the Third Ward neighborhood, and the Louise Mill, built in 1897 in the Belmont neighborhood.  Charlotte is (finally!) seeing an impressive collection of renovated and adaptively reused mills dating to its textile-industry past. Among the notable projects:
Atherton Mill in South End, Highland Mill in NoDa, the Charlotte Cotton Mill uptown, and Alpha Mill in uptown/Optimist Park. (I'm not sure where one neighborhood ends and the other begins.)

To see the reports on the historic properties on tonight's City Council agenda:
Click here for the Cohen Fumero House.
Click here for the Defiance Sock Mills.
Click here for the Louise Cotton Mill.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Least walkable city in U.S. is - wait a minute, that's us!

Uptown is one of Charlotte's most walkable areas, along with First and Fourth wards. Photo: Nancy Pierce
(Friday, Nov. 15: I've updated this with comments from Charlotte transportation officials. To see that expanded version, visit the article in PlanCharlotte.org: "Charlotte trails nation in walkability rankings.")

Want to guess the large U.S. city rated worst for walkability by Walk Score, the national rating system?

That would be the Queen City. Take a look at the 2014 report. New York rated No. 1, followed by San Francisco, Boston, Washington and Miami.

But what does this ranking measure? The Walk Score website says it "measures the walkability of any address using a patent-pending system. For each address, Walk Score analyzes hundreds of walking routes to nearby amenities. Points are awarded based on the distance to amenities in each category. Amenities within a 5-minute walk (.25 miles) are given maximum points. A decay function is used to give points to more distant amenities, with no points given after a 30-minute walk.
Walk Score also measures pedestrian friendliness by analyzing population density and road metrics such as block length and intersection density. Data sources include Google, Education.com, Open Street Map, the U.S. Census, Localeze, and places added by the Walk Score user community."

If I read that correctly, Walk Score doesn't measure the existence of sidewalks (although Charlotte wouldn't rank very high in that regard either). So this city's typical Sun Belt-all-spread-out, low-density development means anything you'd want to walk to is probably farther away than in a more densely developed area.

Charlotte also would ran low in block length and intersection density - which essentially measures how well networked the city is with plenty of streets and street corners.Many parts of Charlotte developed during the cul-de-sac era, when streets intentionally did not connect to anything.
Even uptown, which at least had a strong grid when it was laid out a couple of centuries ago, has seen many instances of streets being eliminated to accommodate large-footprint projects such as ballparks, stadiums, convention centers and parks.

I'm seeking comment from Charlotte Department of Transportation officials, but I doubt this ranking will surprise them. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Can light rail reshape this auto-oriented corridor?

I have auto-related uses on the mind this week, because at a 4:30 meeting today the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission is going to recommend yay or nay on a proposed auto mall (a collection of car lots from different dealerships) in the University City area. You can download the agenda for that meeting here.

(Update, 5:20 p.m.  The planning commission's zoning committee unanimously recommended that the site be rezoned for an auto mall. Two commissioners who had earlier expressed opposition to the rezoning, Tom Low and Deb Ryan, weren't at the meeting. The City Council makes the final decision.)

The city planning staff has switched from recommending against the rezoning to recommend for it, if some design and site plan issues are resolved. Interestingly, their issues earlier were not because it's for a large chunk of auto-oriented uses within a quarter mile of a planned light rail station area, where the overall city policy calls for transit-oriented (i.e. walkable, compact, mixed-use) development. Instead the staff focused on design issues. (See the commentary on PlanCharlotte.org, "Don't derail transit areas with an auto mall.")

Yesterday, I  had occasion to drive on North Tryon Street, from the UNC Charlotte Center City campus to the main campus on University City  Boulevard.  I decided to count the auto-oriented businesses on North Tryon Street up to the corner of U-City Boulevard.  I started at Atando Avenue (where the idea occurred to me), so the count starts there.  Want to guess? The answer is ....

Monday, October 28, 2013

Regional planning and sticker shock

Will stickers on a map matter? Photo: City of Charlotte
After suggesting in print that people should attend last Thursday's regional planning workshop, part of the CONNECT Our Future effort, it was only fitting that I, too, go. And a good time was had by all. Except ...

We were assigned tables as we went in, and I ended at a table with two other Marys - Mary Hopper, recently stepped down as director of University City partners and a former chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, and Mary Clayton, a transportation planner with Parsons Brinckerhoff. Also at the table were three UNC Charlotte urban design grad students, and a handful of other folks.  I am not sure that the table was representative of the population at large, but whatever. It was a good collection of people.

Our table moderator, Nadine Bennett, a planner with Centralina Council of Governments, which is administering the $5 million federal grant that funds CONNECT, asked us all to talk a bit about who we were and what we thought the region's biggest issues are. Just about everyone said "transportation." And just about everyone said, "We don't want to become another Atlanta."  One of the graduate students was, I am not making this up, from Atlanta, and she was particularly forceful on this point.

Bennett said that she had been the moderator for, I think, 17 different tables during a two-month series of workshops in 14 counties and at every one of those tables, people had said, "We don't want to become another Atlanta."

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What's up (or not) with a zoning ordinance re-do?

It's been almost three months since a consultants' report concluded the city's zoning ordinance is seriously in need of updating. (See my PlanCharlotte.org article, "Report: Charlotte ordinance confusing, lacks modern tools" from July.

What's happening next?  Planning Director Debra Campbell discussed that at an Oct. 7 meeting of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission, an appointed advisory board to the city's Planning Department and City Council. 

Campbell said the planning staff is discussing how to link the zoning ordinance assessment process with their planning process. The planners want to look at whether a revised zoning ordinance would mean revising the way plans are done, which today are the "Euclidian model," Campbell said. For non-planners, that means based on single-use zoning districts.  (The term "Euclidian zoning" isn't about Euclidian geometry, but is named for the 1926 Supreme Court case, Village of Euclid, Ohio, v. Ambler Realty Co., which ruled that land use zoning is constitutional. The Euclid zoning ordinance was based on single-use districts, a type of land use generally considered suburban or rural, not suitable for large cities.)
"Our plans are very use-based," Campbell said. "They're colors on a map." In other words, local plans tend to map large areas and, with color-coding, delineate land uses should go where. Instead, Campbell said, "I want them to focus on both use and character." Sometimes, she said, getting too deep into the planning process can seem dry and boring to the general public. "In general people want to be involved with what’s it going to look like, what’s it going to feel like?"

Laura Harmon, the department's director of development services, said the staff would have a better idea of how to link plans and the zoning ordinance "in the next month or two."

Said Campbell: "If there's a fatal flaw that I have, it's that I like to go slow ... I like to bring folks along with me."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lakeshore lessons for a city without a shore

A created wetland, part of the flood management program at Corktown Common Park. Photo: Waterfront Toronto
TORONTO – No, alas, I am not attending the Toronto International Film Festival. I'm here for a conference, Meeting of the Minds. (Follow on Twitter at #motm2013). Monday, a group of us toured a massive, years-in-the-making redevelopment project along Toronto's waterfront. It's called WATERFRONToronto.

But what might any of that mean for Charlotte? We are not a city perched on the edge of one of the Great Lakes (in this case, Lake Ontario). The only lakes nearby are artificial and nowhere near downtown. But it rains on Toronto the way it rains on Charlotte, and pavement sends pollutant-carrying water streaming downhill. Even if it isn't polluted (but it probably is) the stormwater can flood low-lying areas, including buildings in floodplains and storm sewers. In Charlotte we send our stormwater into our creeks.

So I was interested to see some of the ways the city is working not only to reclaim old, industrial areas that used to flank the lakeshore, but how it's trying to deal with the water that comes from the sky, and from flooded rivers.

Next to the lakeside, the new Sherbourne Common is a storm-water treatment plant, designed as a park with water-filled art.

Art at Sherbourne Commons uses the treated stormwater. Photo: Waterfront Toronto
The water that pours through its fountains is storm-water that's been purified. A grassy field treats the water. A splash park with jets of spurting water is designed to become an ice-skating rink in winter (this is Canada, after all.)

Farther east along the lakeshore is Corktown Common, a park built specifically to filter and store stormwater. It's planted with native plants, offers a playground and a splash-park for kids of all ages.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

In search of 'hipsturbias' yet to come

Downtown Waxhaw: A 'hipsturbia' of the future? Photo: Nancy Pierce
Just the term "hipsturbia" makes you want to hear more. It appears to have been coined in a New York Times article in February, "Creating Hipsturbia," which created serious buzz. It described a trend of formerly urban hipsters moving out to suburban towns because they couldn't afford housing in the city, but who didn't want to give up their trendy accouterments or shopping:

"As formerly boho environs of Brooklyn become unattainable due to creeping Manhattanization and seven-figure real estate prices, creative professionals of child-rearing age — the type of alt-culture-allegiant urbanites who once considered themselves too cool to ever leave the city — are starting to ponder the unthinkable: a move to the suburbs.

But only if they can bring a piece of the borough with them."
 I took part in some lively discussion Tuesday at a Civic By Design forum on whether Charlotte or its environs has any "hipsturbia" spots or even hipsturbia-in-waiting areas. As you would imagine, even trying to define the term (much less defining what's a hipster) was a discussion point.
  • Must places that attract hipsters be "gritty"?  
  • Does a place that planners would say is a walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhood (example: Baxter in Fort Mill, S.C.) lack hipster cred if it's all new?
  • What about some of the region's smaller towns with historic downtowns surrounded by standard suburbia, places like Belmont, Waxhaw, etc.? Does the presence of a traditional historic downtown overrule the dominance of suburbia?

Some of the comments:

Friday, August 9, 2013

Transportation officials dispute my one-way theory

When I wrote last month about the surprising (to me) prominence of one-way streets uptown on the city's High Accident List, aka HAL ("One-way to higher traffic accidents?") , I said I had asked for a response to my observation from Transportation Director Danny Pleasant. He responded today. Here's what he said: 

Mary – Sorry it took a while to respond. I was in one of your favorite cities, Boston, earlier this week. It could not have been more beautiful. I explored the city on foot along two incredibly vibrant one-way streets: Boylston and Newberry. I’m not sure it would be possible to create more robustness, regardless of whether the streets were one-way or two.

Here is information regarding Charlotte’s one-way streets, prepared by Debbie Self, a talented engineer in charge of CDOT’s traffic and pedestrian safety programs:

“It’s fair to say there is not a significant safety concern with one-way streets. In uptown, there are roughly 150 intersections (100 are signalized and 50 are unsignalized). Of that total, the majority of intersections involve at least 1 one-way street. So one could say most of the intersections in uptown that have one-way streets are not on the HAL. There are 15 uptown locations (defined as inside the I-277 loop) on the 2013 HAL.

Other noteworthy comments:
  • Uptown collisions tend to involve fewer injuries because the travel speeds are much lower. Injury rates are not reflected in the HAL.

  • A few of the Uptown locations rose to the top 10 based on more accurate traffic volume counts. The updated traffic counts were lower which resulted in a higher ranking on the HAL (the crashes by year remained about the same). Some of last year’s top 10 locations moved down because of higher volumes or a safety enhancement was completed.

  • 5th/Caldwell had fewer crashes in 2012 because CDOT installed reflective back plates on the traffic signals to address angle crashes.

  • College Street in the areas of 7th, 8th & 9th Streets has been on the HAL for many years. It’s been hard to pin point a single underlying cause. Angle crashes account for about half of the crashes at College and 7th, 8th and 9th. CDOT will likely consider reflective back plates at the signals as a mitigation given our successful reduction in crashes at 5th/Caldwell.

  • The HAL is published annually to raise awareness of intersections with an elevated crash rate. It is a tool to identify location that have potential opportunity for mitigation of crashes and/or reduction in the severity of crashes.
Distractions/not paying attention continue to be the highest contributing circumstance for all crashes. That’s true for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. We want to emphasize keeping your mind on the task at hand – walking, driving, or biking.”

Find answers behind candidate rhetoric

Campaign season is here. As always with local elections, voters must first try to sort out he candidates who know which end is up regarding local government, and only then dive into figuring out who they agree with on the issues.

This is not always easy. Read on for some helpful questions for Charlotteans.

(If you're wondering, in North Carolina municipal elections are in odd-numbered years. In Charlotte, the mayor and City Council members serve two-year terms and are elected in partisan elections. So you can hardly turn around between elections. This year we have a Sept. 10 primary, with the possibility of an Oct. 8 runoff election, and then a Nov. 5 election.) 

In an earlier life, I had the honor and duty as an editorial board member at the Charlotte Observer, of helping interview all the city and county candidates as part of the editorial endorsement process. You might be surprised to learn:

  1. How many candidates are crazy as loons. People who complain about editorial pages' so-called bias (hey, they are PAID to have opinions) sometimes concoct intricate conspiracy theories about some endorsements, when the truth is that you really don't want to endorse a nut bucket, yet you can't call someone a nut bucket without risking a libel suit. The good news is that usually the nut buckets don't make it through the primary. And in my experience, looniness crosses all party lines.
  2. How hard it is to get candidates to take a position. Sure, some will be forthright. But too many won't go beyond being in favor of low taxes, fighting crime and loving barbecue and sweet tea.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

When it comes to I-277 cap, bold Charlotte gets timid

I-77 is one side of the noose encircling uptown Charlotte.(Photo by Nancy Pierce)
If you think it's too bold, too "out there" - too gutsy - to seriously plan to put a roof atop part of the freeway encircling uptown Charlotte, consider what's up in St. Louis. As Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic Cities website describes in "Should We Be Thrilled Or Disappointed by St. Louis' New Highway Park?" other cities think freeway capping is too timid. (Charlotteans might note the appearance of former Mayor Anthony Foxx, as transportation secretary, at the groundbreaking in St. Louis.)

The article notes that the "Park over the Highway" (aka "the lid") is part of a $380 million project to connect the rest of downtown St. Louis to the Mississippi River, funded by a mixture of public money (federal grants and a voter-approved local sales tax) and private contributions (via the CityArchRiver foundation).

But in St. Louis, it seems, the local debate is not whether it's a waste of money to build a park downtown on top of a freeway, but on whether the freeway itself should just, well, go away, and turn into a boulevard.

"On the contrary, some local observers see the 'the lid' as a bandage for the urban interstate, when what's really needed is reconstructive surgery. Rather than toss a green carpet over I-70, they would prefer to knock down the highway completely and construct grade-level boulevards in its place — truly integrating city and riverfront." Indeed, as Jaffe reports, "Writing at Next City in April, city alderman Scott Ogilvie pointed out that nearly every public comment about the current 'Park over the Highway' project supported further study of the I-70 demolition."

What are we to make of this in the Queen City? We have a highway (Interstate 277, with a leg of I-77) that encircles our uptown, cutting it off from all the surrounding neighborhoods. This highway was planned in the 1950s! That was when Le Corbusier was envisioning cities of nothing but towers, lawns and highways (and apparently he never envisioned parking lots, but that's a topic for another day), and when Robert Moses was gutting New York neighborhoods for highways, until opposition finally stopped him. But here in the QC our highway didn't even get finished until the 1980s, by which time other cities were seriously questioning this technique of strangling their downtowns. And, yes, it gutted plenty of Charlotte neighborhoods as well, but they were mostly poor, so city fathers paid little heed to any protests they might have raised.

It was the mid- to late 1990s when I first heard the idea to cap a part of I-277, the part that's below grade from about Church Street to Caldwell or Davidson streets,  So ... why is St. Louis so far ahead of Charlotte on this endeavor?  OK, maybe it's that giant, extraordinary river just beyond their freeway. Nevertheless, it's past time for Charlotte to get its act in gear on this. We may not have the Mighty Mississippi and the Gateway Arch, but we have a wonderfully reviving uptown, surrounded by some great neighborhoods. We have Little Sugar Creek, and its greenway is pretty much blocked by the I-277-U.S. 74 spaghetti-bowl junction.  Is a cap better than boulevard-ization? I don't know, but I do know either would be better than what we have now. Since when has Charlotte become so timid?

Buggy whips still gone, but protest petitions survive

Bill that would limit N.C. cities' power to ban projecting garages passed the N.C. House but not the N.C. Senate. This street in Corpus Christi, Texas, features so-called "snout houses." Photo: Brett VA, Creative Commons
 It turns out protest petitions did NOT go the way of buggy whips, at least not in the just-ended session of the N.C. General Assembly.

Here's what I wrote last month: "Protest petitions going the way of buggy whips." But elected officials are nothing if not predictably unpredictable. As The Charlotte Observer's Jim Morrill wrote (while I was vacationing at the beach) : "Right to protest zoning changes survives N.C. Legislature."

The bill that contained the end of protest petitions also contained a variety of other regulatory changes. This one will be of particular concern to environmentalists: As the blog for the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition put it, "For the next year, local governments are prohibited from adopting any new environmental regulations that exceed state or federal law, unless they do by unanimous vote."  Here's a link to that REBIC blog item.

The not-loved-by-planners provision that would limit local government's ability to regulate the placement of doors, windows and other architectural elements for single-family housing and some multifamily - House Bill 150 - passed the N.C. House but didn't make it out of the Senate. REBIC notes this bill was its top priority.

Planners had deep concerns that it would ban them from regulating so-called snout houses, in which garages projecting from the front of houses can, in subdivisions of look-alike houses, create the visual image of a street of garages, rather than a street of houses. In addition, a growing number of communities have adopted form-based zoning codes (here's a link to the Form-Based Codes Institute) which worry less about density or the uses of buildings, giving developers far more flexibility, but which instead concentrate on how well buildings fit in with their surroundings. Architectural design elements play a larger role in a form-based code than in a conventional zoning ordinance.

For a pro-con package on House Bill 150, check out PlanCharlotte.org's articles from March: Bill to limit local zoning powers: two views.

Friday, July 26, 2013

One-way to higher traffic accidents?

I don't want this bit of city-traffic-related news to get lost in the recent deluge of news about Charlotte's airport. The numbers raise a question, in my mind at least, about the safety of one-way streets uptown.

Earlier this month Charlotte's Department of Transportation released its annual list of High Accident Locations. To see it, download it here. (Be sure to notice what it does and doesn't measure; for instance it doesn't measure traffic accidents on interstate highways.) The report drew a news article in  The Charlotte Observer, "Report: Charlotte traffic collisions down; fatalities up."

Here's what I noticed: Among the Top 10 high accident locations, seven were either uptown or nearby. Of those seven, all but one involved one-way streets. The only one of those seven that did not was East Seventh Street and Hawthorne Lane, in the Elizabeth neighborhood.

The city's top high accident location was Cambridge Commons Drive and Harrisburg Road (average daily traffic of 15,000), in east Charlotte near I-485, with a three-year total of 49 accidents and a crash rate (a formula taking into account the traffic volume - to know more download the report) of 2.98.

Other in-town streets:
2. North College Street and East Eighth Street.
3. North College Street and East Ninth Street.
5. Third-fourth Connector Street and East Fourth Street at Kings Drive.
7. East Seventh Street and Hawthorne Lane.
8. South Church Street and West Hill Street and the ramp to West Belk Freeway.
9. East Seventh and North College Street.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Protest petitions going the way of buggy whips

If you've paid attention to Charlotte planning and zoning matters you know the powerful role that protest petitions have played in stopping rezonings that neighbors oppose. The N.C. legislature is moving rapidly toward eliminating protest petitions.

It's part of a larger bill that would remove a number of local environmental regulations that are stronger than state regulations. The bill passed the N.C. House on Thursday. ("Bill eliminates protest-petition rights in zoning cases") It now goes back to the N.C. Senate, which passed it without the protest petition section.

Here's a synopsis of the action, from the blog of Charlotte's Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition. It notes how many local legislators in both parties voted for the bill, which would, among other things, scrap a key local storm-water pollution ordinance. "House passes landmark regulatory reform package."

The protest petition is a 90-year-old section of state law that has let adjoining property owners file official protests against proposed rezonings. If enough of these protests are deemed valid, then that rezoning can't pass without a three-quarters vote from the elected body which in Charlotte is the City Council. In development-happy Charlotte, the provision occasionally means the defeat of rezonings that would otherwise pass, although the council OKs the overwhelming majority of proposed rezonings.

Here's an editorial from the Greensboro News & Record about the bill: http://www.news-record.com/opinion/n_and_r_editorials/article_41619342-ea81-11e2-b870-0019bb30f31a.html

The editorial says: "... There was no chance for compromise, just a wholesale repeal with little warning.

"In principle, the action contradicts what the Republican legislature has done in regard to involuntary annexations. It has empowered affected residents to call for a referendum. This measure takes power from residents.

"But some developers don’t like protest petitions because it’s harder for them to advance projects that neighbors don’t want. They’re “costly and hinder development,” Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, said Thursday."

It's part of a bill that state planners are calling the "Billboards Forever" bill. Read this report from The Charlotte Observer's Jim Morrill: http://campaigntracker.blogspot.com/2013/07/surprises-not-surpising-near-sessions.html

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

By Jove, I think they've got it!

There, that wasn't so hard to figure out, was it?
Back in the winter, when the reverse-angle parking was installed in the Plaza-Central business district, which requires you to back in, and people weren't doing it right, I wondered if they'd ever figure it out. Here's a link to a WCNC-TV piece on motorists' inability to grasp the concept.

As this hilarious article from Charlotte magazine recounts, so many people were just not getting it that the city held a press conference and hired a guy to do a rap song, to demonstrate:

"This was a news conference, an honest-to-God news conference, in which Charlotte city officials demonstrated how to back into a parking spot. And they brought a rapper."

Last Saturday, my spouse and I decided we should visit the amazing new Harris Teeter grocery store at Central and The Plaza (It's two stories, y'all!) because we do lead rather boring lives. After we conquered the problem of how to find the second floor, and ascended and realized there's nothing there but tables where you can eat your Teeter Deli purchases, we bought a few necessaries and left.

On the way home, we drove past the formerly infamous reverse-angle parking. If Saturday is anything typical, I'm here to report that by cracky, people have figured it out.  Not a single car was parked front-end-in.

Way to go, PM-ers.   

Waxhaw: Once a small town, now it wonders what's next

Historic downtown Waxhaw. Photo: Nancy Pierce

WAXHAW – The question came from the back row of the small audience, during a presentation from planning consultants about the future for N.C. 16 as it bisects the fast-growing Union County town.

“If we do all this, will we still be considered a small town?”

Consultant Monica Holmes of Lawrence Group paused briefly before answering: “A very important part of this discussion is, ‘What does Waxhaw want to be?’ ”

Good question. Waxhaw – a railroad hamlet chartered in 1889 and named for the Indians who before the Europeans arrived gave their name to the region called “the Waxhaws” – is growing like kudzu. In 2000 it was the 42nd largest municipality in the Charlotte region, and by 2010 it was No. 25. Growth since then has already likely notched it up to No. 17 or 18.  And now it is studying how it could shape the growth along its main highway, growth that is all but promised to arrive in the next 20 years.

Read my article on Waxhaw looks to future for N.C. 16.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The 'powerful' (?) bike lobby

Below are more fun reads from my week (now ended) of doing the daily news headline roundups from around the Charlotte region for PlanCharlotte.org and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute homepage

Note, also, that as of today Chesser's Choices now has Chesser back at the helm, offering intriguing material from around the U.S. and globally.

The "all-powerful" bike lobby"? Politoco.com casts a dubious eye at the comments by Dorothy Rabinowitz, in her now-famous-across-the-Web rant against New York's fledgling bike share program, that there's an "all-powerful"  bike lobby.  There is a bike lobby, the article notes, but it's anything but all-powerful.

The same must be said of Charlotte. There is a bike lobby, or at least, some people who care a lot about bicycling, and their voices have been heard in the past decade. It's known as the Charlotte Area Bicycle Alliance. But if you've tried to ride your bike through the city you know this group is anything but all-powerful. Yes, there are more bike lanes and routes than previously. But Charlotte is nowhere near the state of, say, the Netherlands. Check out last week's New York Times article: The Dutch Prize Their Pedal Power, but a Sea of Bikes Swamps Their Capital.

That's the way the modern concrete crumbles

Here's yet another interesting piece I found last week while doing the daily news headline roundups from around the Charlotte region for PlanCharlotte.org and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute homepage. (Yes, we read the region's news and link to what's of note in terms of public policy and urban growth topics, so you won't have to. Wonky? Sure, and proud of it!)

The long-lost secret of Roman concrete's endurance: If you have ever seen crumbling concrete and said as I have trudging across the parts of the UNC Charlotte campus dating to the 1960s-1980s (see photo below) "Good grief, I've seen ancient Roman concrete in better shape than this!" the next article will open your eyes. I spotted it on the excellent Planetizen.com website, which links to the original article on Bloomberg Businessweek: Ancient Roman concrete is about to revolutionize modern architecture.  The Romans used lime and volcanic rock, and their process produces less carbon dioxide than today's process. 

Steps I walk on daily at UNC Charlotte. Photo: Mary Newsom

Monday, June 17, 2013

Urban wildlife: friend or foe? Plus, TOD sans T?

This week colleague John Chesser is vacationing so Im doing the daily news feed for our two online publications, PlanCharlotte.org and the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's homepage. Its a fun part of the job although somewhat relentless, like owning a dairy farm with cows that have to be milked every day, regardless.
Barred owl, urban wildlife. Photo: Liz Odum

But when you do the news feed you find dozens of interesting articles. John kept finding them and sending links around for us, in-house. So we created a special feed from him on the PlanCharlotte.org homepage, called Chesser's Choices:

Today, though, you get my picks at interesting articles: 

Valuing Urban Wildlife: Critical Partners in the Urban System or Scary, Disgusting Nuisances? A Columbia University scientist discusses the differing attitudes the public has toward nature in the city. Cute mammals elicit one reaction. Yucky insects? Not so much. As one of the articles headlines  puts it:Who would want to make a corridor for bees? 

Dead malls turned into data center? This article from TheAtlanticCities.com tells how a dying downtown shopping mall in downtown Buffalo (one described as a superblock eyesore) and one that appears to be not completely dead but mostly dead is bringing in rent by offering vacant retail spaces for a data storage center. (I would not recommend this for Charlottes completely dead Eastland Mall.) 

Some wildlife (cicada) elicits "yuck." Photo: Crystal Cockman
Do people who live in transit-oriented development drive less? Yes, but not for the reasons you think.  People living in TOD neighborhoods do, in fact, drive less. The mass transit is not the reason. A study Does TOD Need the T?  from Daniel G. Chatman of the University of California-Berkeley looked concludes that even without mass transit, people in TOD neighborhoods drive less. An article in the MinnPost reported: 

What he concluded from all this was that it wasnt so much the availability of transit that made people use cars less, but density itself. Higher density means lower on- and off-street parking availability, better bus service and more jobs, stores and people within walking distance. 

OK, putting on my pundit hat for a minute: A question for Charlotte, where traffic congestion continues to be a huge public concern, might be: Why not start requiring more in-town development to follow TOD principles? Today, the citys conventional, suburban-form development standards permeate its zoning ordinance. Developers who want to build TOD must pay, in time and money, for a rezoning. Otherwise, in many cases the standards that apply reflect planning values circa 1970. The city planning department has been engaged in an almost-year-long process to see whether its 20-year-old zoning ordinance needs an update.  I could have saved the city some money. Yes, it needs an update!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Getting creative with Blue Line Extension design

This is about something that was not the big headline from the Charlotte City Council tonight.

The big news, of course, was that the council passed a new budget that raises the city's property tax rate by a little more than 3 cents, from 43.7 cents per $100 assessed value to 46.86 cents, to pay for a huge bundle of building projects. Those projects include a cross-city bike/ped trail, renovating Bojangles Coliseum (the original 1950s Charlotte Coliseum on Independence Boulevard), building a new 911 call center, and so on. (Read more here. And here's a link to the city's budget department.)

But during the dinner meeting, the council heard a short presentation from a couple of planners about an idea to help the new light rail line look a little better than the first one, the Lynx Blue Line. "Some of the components of the Blue Line we wish that we could have done better," Planning Director Debra Campbell said. So for the Blue Line Extension, city planners and the Charlotte Area Transit System are looking to use some of the already budgeted art-in-transit funds to dress up a number of the walls, bridges and other light rail equipment whose design can range from boring to bleak.

Example of a standard wall finish (taken from tonight's slide presentation) is above, right.

Now, however, designs have been drawn for concrete for walls that is molded with a flowered pattern. Here's an example of a typical wall, and then the one CATS and the city hope to build, instead. (All images courtesy of the City of Charlotte.)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Streetcar wins key council vote

Amid poetry, passion and multiple standing ovations, the Charlotte City Council voted 7-4 Tuesday to move ahead with applying for a federal grant to extend the Charlotte streetcar route another 2.5 miles.

It was one of the best evenings of political theater I've watched in recent years. At-large council members Beth Pickering and later Patrick Cannon drew sustained applause from a street-car loving audience when Pickering and then Cannon announced in support of the proposal. Both had voted a year ago against including the streetcar expansion project in the city's long-range capital program.

But new City Manager Ron Carlee and his staff came back with a different proposal, which wouldn't put the streetcar into the city's capital program, and so wouldn't use property taxes to fund it.

In an election year, with Cannon already an announced mayoral candidate, the many passionate audience members from East and West Charlotte who spoke in favor of the streetcar might have had an effect. (Mattie Marshall quoted Langston Hughes: "What happens to a dream deferred?")

It's worth noting that Pickering, a Democrat, won her council seat in 2011 as a newcomer to local politics, coming in fourth for four at-large seats in a heavy Democratic turnout spurred by Mayor Anthony Foxx's re-election. For a Democrat without huge name recognition to anger the heavily Democratic West Charlotte AND the Democratic-leaning East Charlotte neighborhoods could be a huge political problem.

"All things considered, my No. 1 priority is to revitalize the East and West sides," Pickering said, as she announced her support. Because only one vote change was needed to switch last year's 6-5 vote against, her announcement meant the streetcar proposal would pass.

Amid sustained applause, the as-of-late seldom seen mayor walked into the chamber. Foxx, nominated to be U.S. Transportation secretary, has taken a low-profile role in recent weeks. (Question to ponder: Would he have joined the meeting if the streetcar vote were going the other way?)

Streetcar, trolley or light rail?

How many times do you hear people say they love the light rail line in Charlotte but they don't want a trolley. By which they mean a streetcar. If you know much about transit systems, that sentence may strike you as nonsense. A streetcar does not equal a trolley, although some streetcars may be trolleys. Trolleys typically run in the street, but not always.

Terminology is obscuring the public debate.

I'm sitting at Charlotte City Council meeting awaiting their votes on a couple of items: Whether to apply for a federal grant to extend the already-begun 1.5-mile streetcar project, and whether to spend almost $900,000 to demolish the now-city-owned Eastland Mall, a defunct regional shopping mall on Charlotte' East Side.

So I took advantage of the attendance of Ron Tober, former CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, former executive director of the nonprofit group Charlotte Trolley Inc., and current consultant with Parsons Brinckerhoff. He has worked on transit systems all over the country, from heavy rail (which does NOT mean intercity passenger rail; it means it has a third rail, which is electrified, as in subways, and deadly to touch, as in "Social Security is the third rail of American politics"), to light rail to commuter rail to streetcars to trolleys.

1. What is a "trolley"? 
Tober: The term trolley is used for a historic (or faux historic) car that runs on rails and is fed by an overhead electric wire.

2. Are streetcars and trolleys the same?
Tober: Not if they use modern cars. Trolleys can run in the street or on dedicated tracks.
In other words, streetcar systems such as Portland's or Seattle's are fed by overhead electric wires, but aren't "trolley" systems as the term is generally used in the transit-building world.

3. If the Lynx used old-timey-looking cars, would it then be a trolley?
Tober: Yes.

So there you are. To say Charlotte's proposed streetcars would "waddle" down the street is true only if the cars are unstable. Which the Federal Transit Administration won't allow.

To save money, for the early 1.5-mile streetcar starter project now under construction, the city plans to use the faux historic streetcars purchased originally to run on the Lynx tracks, part of the now-comatose Charlotte Trolley nonprofit group's pre-Lynx-line project that ran a historic and then the faux-historic cars along what's now the Lynx rails.

So you will see historic-ish cars running on overhead electric wires, along Elizabeth Avenue and East Trade Street. That will be both a streetcar and a trolley.

But when the envisioned modern cars arrive for the envisioned streetcar project -- whenever or if that happens -- it won't be a "trolley" line any more. It will be a modern streetcar.

Monday, May 13, 2013

New city manager, new streetcar plan?

Will a new name, a new tie-in to the county’s overall transit plan, and a new funding scheme using no property tax money mean a new outcome that puts an expanded streetcar project into the “yes” column with the Charlotte City Council? (see my article  at PlanCharlotte.org).

(Other news coverage from Erik Spanberg of the Charlotte Business Journal is here, and from the Charlotte Observer's Steve Harrison  here. For those of you who don't get the print edition, Harrison's article was splashed in a major way atop the front page.)

Among the many questions yet to be answered:

Changing minds? Will any of the six council members who last year opposed the streetcar change their minds, now that it's being paid for without property taxes and will, presumably, have the blessing of the Metropolitan Transit Commission? Council member Patrick Cannon, who is expected to run for mayor, told me those two things make it easier for him to support the streetcar.  Note, however, he did not give an unequivocal "Yes, I'll support it."

Thumb on scale at USDOT? Would having Mayor Anthony Foxx running the U.S. Department of Transportation (he's been nominated but not yet confirmed) increase the chances of the streetcar winning federal transit funding, from either the New Starts or the Small Starts pots of funds?

New name? As new (since April 1) City Manager Ron Carlee told the council Monday night, "The streetcar is not a toy...." By renaming it the CityLynx Gold Line the city hopes to make the point that it's just one part of the larger transit system strategy. Memo to city: The new name is TOO LONG.

Carlee, city staff, and the CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, Carolyn Flowers, teamed to give a presentation Monday night at the council’s dinner meeting, signaling a new approach to the controversial streetcar proposal. Last June, the council’s disagreements over the streetcar helped scuttle a larger proposal for a five-year capital projects plan.

Carlee said he thought the streetcar expansion project – adding 2.5 miles to an already-funded 1.5-mile streetcar “starter” project – would compete well for federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation.