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's articles from March: Bill to limit local zoning powers: two views.