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.