Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tax code uber alles

A recent piece in Smithsonian magazine, The Death and Rebirth of the Mall, points to a 1996 article by Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, that I read almost 20 years ago. As always, Hanchett's thinking and research were impressive. But this article opened my eyes to a reality: Our cities and our neighborhoods are shaped less by city planners or the wishes of the people than by intricacies in tax laws and financing strategies.

It's like the time I realized (because David Walters told me) that the reason suburban sprawl didn't happen in Britain and Europe the way it does in the U.S. is because the laws there don't allow developers to build outside of the urban growth boundary. Until then I thought it was because Europeans were somehow more in tune with the beauties of nature and the importance of farms. Nope. It's what their laws say.

Hanchett's 1996 article, "U.S. Tax Policy and the Shopping-Center Boom," in the American Historical Review, describes how a small change in the U.S. tax code in 1954 – creating something called accelerated depreciation – "fundamentally altered the economics of real-estate development in the United States."

If you read the whole article you'll get a clear explanation of things like 200 percent declining balance and sum-of-the-years'-digits accelerated depreciation. If you're a real estate finance expert, you already know that stuff.  But here's the key information: This tax incentive applied fully only to new construction, not to renovating existing buildings.

"Suddenly, all over the United States, shopping plazas sprouted like well-fertilized weeds," Hanchett wrote. The

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Exurban living can exacerbate joblessness, study finds

The general belief that people living in American suburbs are better off economically than those in cities has been shaken in recent years, as desirable downtown neighborhoods have risen in price and have pushed poverty out into first- and second-ring suburbs. Here's another crack in that once monolithic belief.

Writer F. Kaid Benfield reports in Huffington Post on a new U.S. Census study that found recently laid-off workers who live far from job centers take longer to find replacement employment than do residents of neighborhoods more convenient to jobs by public transit or car.

The study itself is from the US Census bureau. Read it here. 

Benfield, who writes for the Natural Resources Defense Council, explains how exurban living can hurt, not help, household and government financial health:

"More hidden [than the problems of auto emissions contributing to carbon emissions], though, are the economic consequences of sprawl, such as rising costs for the construction and maintenance of extended infrastructure and the burdens of increased transportation costs on household budgets.

"More hidden still are the economic consequences of households being located at long distances, inadequately served by public transit, from job centers. For the employed, it means longer and more inconvenient commutes. But, for the unemployed, in too many cases it means you can't get to the job you need at all because you can't afford the costs of car ownership and inadequate public transit simply doesn't connect you to where you need to go."

Fact many Americans are unaware of: For the average U.S. household, the second-biggest chunk of the household budget, after housing, is not health care or food. It's transportation.

Benfield links to an article in The Economist about the jobs-housing spatial mismatch, which notes: "The typical American city dweller can reach just 30 percent of jobs in their city within 90 minutes on public transport. That is a recipe for unemployment."

Read Benfield's full article here.


Yet another way the feds promote sprawl

Another new subdivision for Union County, N.C., just south of Charlotte. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Feds promoting sprawl? That might surprise people who believe (wrongly, let me state) that the government is trying to push everyone, kicking and screaming, into high-rise apartments. But this article from Governing magazine last month shows that, in fact, the feds incentivize single-family housing at the expense of more dense development. The result is that some multifamily and mixed-use developments are pricier than they should be to buyers.

"Since its 1934 inception," writes Scott Beyer, "the FHA [Federal Housing Administration] has insured mortgages for more than 34 million properties, facilitating mass homeownership over several generations. But only 47,205 of these plans have been for multifamily projects. This is due to longtime provisions that make it harder for condos to get FHA certification. As late as 2012, 90 percent of a condo’s units had to be owner-occupied and only 25 percent of its space could be for businesses."

The FHA has eased that rule a bit in the past two years, Beyer reports, but even so: "These policies mean that, although practically every single-family home can be FHA-insured, only 10 percent of condo projects nationwide qualify. This makes condos less affordable, since prospective buyers seeking private financing without FHA backing face higher borrowing costs and typically must make 20 percent down payments rather than the 3.5 percent typically required of FHA-backed mortgages."

Click here to read his full report, "FHA Policies Discourage Density."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Transit chief: P3s help but won't solve transit funding woes

Sharon Road West station on Charlotte's light rail line. Photo: Nancy Pierce
The idea of using public-private partnerships to help fund transportation systems, including mass transit, is one of today's hottest topics in transportation policy circles. But the head of Atlanta's MARTA cautions that P3s, as they're known, aren't a silver bullet for transit systems.

Keith Parker, who headed Charlotte's transit system 2007-2009 and since 2012 has been MARTA CEO, was in town Tuesday, as a rail conference was kicking off. Parker spoke at a small event organized by the Transit Funding Working Group, a Metropolitan Transit Commission committee that's been pondering how CATS can move forward despite huge gaps between the 2030 plan and available money to built it out.

The working group has studied P3s, and a P3 conference was held here in March. In transportation, public-private partnerships are being used for bridges, tunnels, toll roads and High-Occupancy-Toll lanes such as the new HOT lane planned for Interstate 77 north of Charlotte. A private company, Cintra, has contracted with the N.C. Department of Transportation to build the lane and use the toll revenue to operate it. In Vancouver, a P3 built one of the region's rail lines.

P3s are touted as a way to get around a growing national problem of too many transportation needs and too little tax revenue to pay for them. With cars' gas mileage increasing, a decrease in driving among young people, and a national gas tax that's not been raised since 1993 and isn't indexed for inflation, trend lines for transportation funding are heading down.

In Atlanta, Parker has won praise for helping improve MARTA's relationships with the Georgia legislature and for bringing efficiencies to MARTA operations. And next week may see the first expansion of the system since it was launched 42 years ago in Fulton and DeKalb counties. A referendum is set for Nov. 4 in Clayton County, Ga., asking voters there whether to approve a 1-cent sales tax to expand MARTA into their county.

Parker, who described how MARTA is partnering with developers for transit-oriented developments on MARTA-owned land, cautioned the audience about the limitations of P3s, especially for transit programs. "They don't solve your revenue issues," he pointed out. And continuing revenues are needed, as well as capital expenses for building the transit lines and stations.

He quoted a popular misconception: "If you just go to the private sector they'll build all your trains for you."  That thinking? "It's just a myth," he said.

The Atlanta system is funded with a 1-cent sales tax in two counties. It receives no funding from the state of Georgia.  Mecklenburg County's system is funded with a half-cent sales tax in only one county.

For more on the recent transit funding challenges facing Charlotte, see "Mayor: Transit sales tax funding may be at risk" from

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Clearing the air on the Liz Hair Greenway

Liz Hair Greenway, near Carolinas Medical Center. Photo courtesy Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department
The cloud of cigarette smoke on the Liz Hair Greenway just below Carolinas Medical Center should be clearing up shortly. If you've walked or biked the narrow pavement of that greenway between Morehead Street and East Boulevard, you've probably gone past the smokers. They're mostly visitors or staff from the hospital, which forbids smoking on its property. The greenway is handy, and sometimes the hospital security guards even point it out to smokers.

But Tuesday, Mecklenburg County commissioners passed a new ordinance that makes most government buildings and most parks in Charlotte and Mecklenburg smoke-free. (In Charlotte, the Park and Recreation Department is a county, not a city, agency.)

As a compromise from the original proposal, six county-run golf courses and 18 parks that are considered "regional parks" are exempted. So you'll still have to choke on second-hand smoke in Freedom Park, Reedy Creek Park and other regional parks.  (A list of those parks is at the end of this post.)

The problem on the Liz Hair greenway stems from both the location of the hospital and the narrowness of the greenway between Morehead Street and East Boulevard. That section was built in 1988, back when many people here considered greenways risky spending. Today, it's one of the most popular greenways as it connects Freedom Park to the new, wider and more generously landscaped Little Sugar Creek Greenway near the Metropolitan development. It's narrow and crowded, and that means greenway pedestrians and cyclists are pretty much eyeball to eyeball, and lung to lung, with smokers.

An October 2012 article in the Charlotte Observer, by Michael Gordon, described the scene this way:

"For about 20 paces of shade beneath Medical Center Drive, Charlotte's health-conscious and not-so-muches squeeze into the same county-owned space. Neither is particularly happy with the arrangement. 'Generally, I hold my breath when I come through there,' says Collette Nagy, a Charlotte writer who biked under the bridge late Sunday morning, her dog Pepper riding in a knapsack on her back. 'But I feel sorry for them. I wish they'd get unhooked. I don't think verbal abuse will help.' "

Here's how Gordon described the scene: “At times, there's very little room for all the humanity to squeeze through. Around noon, about 10 smokers and their children were sitting or standing around the bridge, as a surge of greenway users – many with their children – dodged and weaved around them. There were near-collisions and some frowns. Even in the open air, the smoke under the bridge can be thick.”

The problem of smokers even drew a mention from a Portland, Ore., visitor, on the website Trip Advisor: “Hold your breath if you cruise past Carolina Medical Center at lunch time - the staff is out smoking on the greenway.”

Regional parks where smoking will still be allowed:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Detroit: 'Failed city' or urban upswing?

A lush urban garden in downtown Detroit.
DETROIT—Since I've been thinking of things in dualities (see "Two North Carolinas"), this trip to Detroit fits neatly into that pattern. As I was heading out of the office about 8 p.m. Monday, I ran into a high-ranking academic and civic leader returning from a reception on campus. (No, I'm not naming him because he had no idea I'd be writing about what he said.)

"What are you up to so late?" he asked. "I had things to finish 'cause I'm going out of town." "Where you going?" "Don't laugh cause I think it will be really interesting. I'm going to Detroit." "Wow, what a failed city."


That's one way to look at it, for sure. But there's another Detroit, the one where 50,000 residents took part in creating the Detroit Future City plan. The one where young entrepreneurs are creating a network of nonprofit and business startups and art projects. The one where a local foundation has brought 60 talented young innovators to town to work solving problems. Of the first class of 30, Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson told us, 28 are staying in Detroit.

Rapson was the kick-off speaker at the Meeting of the Minds conference. While part of his talk was about the way Kresge and other foundations have stepped in to get Detroit on the path to survival, he was also clear that financially the city is a mess. And the problems can't be solved simply by smarter city budgeting. There are insurmountable structural problems, having to do with the tax base and some specific-to-Michigan-state-constitution realities.

(Warning, myth-busting paragraph ahead.) In case you're thinking, right about now, well it's those lavish pensions, think again. Rapson said the average pension for city police and firefighters is $31,000 and the average pension for other city employees is $19,000. Drastic cuts to those were not an option, he said.

The hotel for the conference is just around the corner from the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. And a federal bankruptcy trial is going on this week, to determine the future of Detroit's finances.

Is Detroit a failed city? Or is it a city on the rebound? It'll take years, decades really, to learn the answer. My bet is on the rebound.  (More posts to come from Detroit, as I get time.)

Few sunbathers on a cool, cloudy September day at Detroit's Campus Martius park.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two North Carolinas

You hear not so infrequently that there are two North Carolinas. What those two North Carolinas are, though, is not necessarily precise. Is it Republican / Democrat? Rural / urban? Prosperity / poverty? Newcomer / old-timer?

Last Sunday I drove up to Pilot Mountain State Park for a day hike with a friend. I zipped north on Interstate 77 in my new blue Prius, exiting at N.C. 268 near Elkin and heading east. As I drove through a rural area of Yadkin and Surry counties, I was listening to WFAE, the Charlotte NPR station, particularly to a report on the fiscal problems of the Atlanta Symphony – you know, standard public radio fare.

But as I drove down into some low-lying areas, the signal faded and instead my radio was picking up a Sunday morning religious broadcast, quoting Bible scripture and urging prayer. Then I'd drive up a hill and NPR and its learned, muted voices would re-emerge from the radio. Religion. NPR. Religion. NPR.

As I looked out the car window, I could see the standard views of foothills Appalachia - some well-tended brick ranch

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The kind of problem a city is

This new piece by the Atlantic's writer Michael Mehaffy looks at the newest thinking about cities, and concludes, in essence, that Jane Jacobs was right. (see“5 Key Themes Emerging From the 'New Science of Cities.”)

Mehaffy writes: "In the past few years, a remarkable body of scientific research has begun to shed new light on the dynamic behavior of cities, carrying important implications for city-makers. Researchers at cutting-edge hubs of urban theory like the University College London and the Santa Fe Institute have been homing in on some key properties of urban systems—and contradicting much of today's orthodoxy."

The researchers, Mehaffy says, are finding that they're essentially proving the value of much of what urban writer Jane Jacobs (not a planner, not an architect, not an academician) explored in the 1950s 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A fish tale from the 'Wish I'd taken a photo' file

I spent a bit of time on Wednesday editing an article for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute website about a unique fish that’s been around since the Jurassic Period and swims in North Carolina waters and throughout the eastern United States. It’s called a bowfin.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website calls it the “disrespected living fossil.” It’s the lone survivor of a group of fish dating to the dinosaur era.

In the article I was editing, nature writer Crystal Cockman gives plenty of interesting info. Such as: The fish can – I am not making this up – breathe air, as it has both gills and a sort of lung.

My fish story is this: I caught one of these weird fish in south Arkansas when I was 12. We were visiting my grandparents in Smackover, Ark. – no I am not making up the name of that town, either – and were fishing in Smackover Creek.  We were using worms for bait, because that’s all we ever used, and bobbers and cane poles. I thought I must have hooked a large catfish, but a very feisty one. It fought like crazy and was fun to catch. When I

Thursday, August 28, 2014

'Do not try to design neighborhoods through a computer screen'

The photo at right arrived about 10 days ago from Davidson-based transportation planner John Cock.
Cock and I were among a group of fans of the late Warren Burgess, who died at age 56 in May 2005.

The plaque was installed a few weeks ago beside a bald cypress tree that had been planted in his honor in Davidson’s Roosevelt Wilson Park shortly after Burgess died.

Burgess – or Warren, as I’m more comfortable saying – was for more than 20 years an urban designer on the staff of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission. He was Davidson town planner from 2000 to 2003. To this day, he has a fan club of sorts, people like Cock and former Davidson planner Meredith Judy whom Warren mentored, as well as other urban designers and planners in the area, like David Walters, the just-retired head of UNC Charlotte’s Master of Urban Design program.

You may have noticed over the years that there are some occupations that lend themselves to memorial plaques,

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Here's one list Charlotte isn't on - and ought to be

Syracuse is yet another city where advocates are pushing to tear down a section of elevated interstate highway (in this case I-81) and turn it into a boulevard. “What we’ve done is take an incredibly important piece of this city off of the development map,” developer Robert Doucette tells Governing magazine. “This highway runs through the part of the city that should be some of the highest-producing parcels of land in the region.”  (See Why Would You Have a Highway Run Through a City?)

The article lists New Orleans, which got federal funds to study removing the Claiborne Expressway, Cleveland, New Haven and Detroit as either moving toward or studying urban highway removal. Among the comments, one mentions Buffalo as also discussing the fate of its skyway, which cuts through a waterfront area. (The whole comments section itself is an interesting pro-con discussion.)

The article notes that one factor in the teardown trend – or more accurately, the teardown wannabe trend – is the age of the highways. Most were built in the 1950s and 1960s and are aging out.  Charlotte’s uptown freeway loop

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Can a place progress from Dead-End-Ville to Connectivity City? It's tough reports that the town of Cornelius in north Mecklenburg is proposing connecting a neighborhood street, Floral Lane, to Statesville Road (U.S. 21).

One of the most politically fraught decisions any elected or government staff officials can make is to connect streets that used to be dead-ends. It's easy to understand why residents protest, as the Floral Lane residents are doing.

The first house I bought was on a dead-end block in Charlotte's Chantilly neighborhood, where my street ended at Briar Creek. I liked the lack of traffic on the street, with only residents and their guests traveling in front of the house. I felt my cats were safe to go outside there. People who live on cul-de-sacs have the same welcome lack of cars going past.

But when a whole city is overloaded with dead-ends and cul-de-sacs, that sends huge numbers of cars onto the few streets that do connect. The result: far more congestion than you'd otherwise have.

Consider Providence Road in south Charlotte. It's horrifically congested, especially the farther you get from uptown. One reason is that all the vehicles heading from south Charlotte towards uptown have to travel on comparatively few thoroughfares, because south of Myers Park and Eastover, the neighborhood streets don't connect to any other neighborhoods. If the same number of vehicles that clog Providence Road daily were spread through dozens of interconnected streets, rather than all jamming Providence Road, the congestion problem would ease considerably.

But how does a town or city progress from Dead-End-Ville to Connectivity City? That's the hard part. If you simply open one new street connection, that street will absorb far more than its share of the traffic. What to do?

I've said for years that Charlotte (and I'd add Cornelius and other cul-de-sac landscapes to this statement) needs to connect dozens and dozens more streets to each other. But whenever the city does that, it owes the residents of those streets the ability to co-exist with more traffic. That means building sidewalks, crosswalks - signalized if necessary - and installing traffic calming devices like humps or roundabouts.

Connect the streets, but build the necessary infrastructure so that people can live with the cars. It's not rocket science. It's just more expensive.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Foodies get their due, in new urban study

Foodies around the N.C. Piedmont visit downtown Shelby, for Alston Bridges Barbecue. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Foodies can take a bow. A new report released by Sasaki Associates says it found that 82 percent of city-dwellers appreciate their city’s culinary offerings, reports Anthony Flint for Almost half the respondents said a new restaurant is the top reason they'd explore different parts of their city. And the majority said they consider food and restaurants the most outstanding aspect of cities they love to visit.

Sasaki is a Boston-area architecture, planning and design firm. Its report was a survey of 1,000 people who live and work in Boston, Chicago, New York, Austin, San Francisco, and Washington. They were asked what they like and don’t like about the area where they live in terms of architecture, activities, parks and open space, and transportation.

Architects might not want to read this next paragraph:

When asked what kinds of buildings people admire as they’re walking down a downtown street, 57 percent said they stop to admire buildings that are historic. Only 19 percent admire buildings that are modern. And in a rebuff to the mine-is-bigger-than-yours tower developers, just 15 percent said they admire the tallest buildings. In addition, 54 percent of respondents said they agreed the city should invest in renovating historical buildings as a way to improve their city’s architectural character. Only 22 percent “would like more unusual architecture (get Frank Gehry on the phone!)” and only 17 percent said they’d like to see more skyscrapers and iconic buildings.

East Charlotte offers many ethnic options.
And Charlotte's stadium- and arena- and ballpark-besotted uptown boosters might be interested in this:  
When asked what would make them want to visit a new part of their city, participants overwhelmingly (46 percent) said “a new restaurant.” Just 16 percent said they would do so for a sports event.

Coincidentally, I've been having an email exchange with Nancy Plummer, one of the founders of the now-venerable Taste of the World festival in east Charlotte. You buy a ticket, board a bus and visit three or four of the ethnic eateries in and near Central Avenue. Next one is Oct. 2. To learn more, click here. Plummer and her colleagues on the Eastland Area Strategies Team founded the event in 2005, a time when many local residents were worried about the influx of immigrants into neighborhoods in east Charlotte, among other areas. To counteract the fears, Plummer and others decided to use food as a way to bring visitors to their part of the city. It worked remarkably well. The most recent tour sold out in 14 days.

People, cities and food. It must be a good recipe.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Proposed bill would hobble transit across North Carolina

A bill being considered in the N.C. General Assembly would bar N.C. counties from raising sales taxes to fund both education and public transportation. The taxes could fund one or the other, not both.

The bill - House Bill 1224 - acquired some surprise provisions in the last few days. One provision would kill the plan to ask Mecklenburg County voters in November to OK a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for teacher raises and offer a bit of help for arts organizations.

The bill would cap any county's local sales tax at 2.5 cents, and Mecklenburg is already at the cap. See "Senate bill would scuttle November sales tax referendum."

The effect on transit hasn't gotten much publicity in the Charlotte region, although it can't afford to build its long-planned transit system with only the half-cent transit sales tax it's had for 14 years. But in the Triangle, it's a different story. Transit advocates are worried. (Update July 25: The bill was amended to get rid of the either-or provision. It still would cap a county's sales taxes, effectively barring Mecklenburg from its planned sales tax referendum for teacher pay and creating a dilemma for Wake County. Here's a summary of the bill's process. It passed the N.C. Senate on July 24, and now sits in the N.C. House Finance Committee.)

Local transportation planner: Outerbelt warning was prescient

My posting Tuesday on the death of long-time Atlanta Regional Commission executive Harry West, "Atlanta's 'Mr. Region' (who warned against our outerbelt) has died" brought this memory from longtime local transportation planner Bill Coxe, Huntersville's transportation planner who previously the transportation planner for Mecklenburg County, back when there was enough unincorporated county land to make work for a county transportation planner.

Coxe wrote:

Saw your blog on Harry West’s passing. Had the following knee-jerk reaction:

As a transportation planner intimately involved with Charlotte's outerbelt since its original environmental study in 1979, I vividly remember Mr. West's comments at that conference. And time has proved him true. This billion-dollar infrastructure project causes the market to distribute land use in its wake. And since it turned land that had been used to row-crop food into land that is used to row-crop homes that are followed by row-cropped retail centers, it in turn demands more infrastructure investment. But the distances involved now make the cost of that provision daunting.

I also recall XX [Coxe named a local planner; I'm checking with that person to make sure Coxe's memory is accurate] making a presentation on his research that indicated outer loops did not bring more development to a metropolitan region, simply caused it to occur in a different fashion. Don’t know how you could ever prove or disprove this thesis.

Coincidentally, 1998 was also the year of the 2025 Transit/Land Use Plan, which recommended using rapid transit investment as a tool to engender a more compact and economically viable land use pattern.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Atlanta's 'Mr. Region' (who warned against our outerbelt) has died

2009 photo of unfinished I-485 at Old Statesville Road. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Sad news from the Saporta Report in Atlanta: Harry West, longtime (1973-2000) executive director of the 10-county Atlanta Regional Commission, died Monday morning, reports Maria Saporta.

West, writes Saporta, "probably did more than any other person in metro Atlanta to create a regional mindset." Read more about his role here.

I met West several times over the years, but his most memorable visit to Charlotte, at least in my memory, came in March of 1998. He spoke at a regional conference on the then-unfinished I-485 outerbelt loop. The conference was sponsored by the Centralina Council of Governments, the now defunct regional advocacy group Central Carolinas Choices and - perhaps amazingly - the Charlotte Chamber.

It was a time when some community leaders worried that building the outer loop would create so many miles of low-density sprawling development that Charlotte would go the way of Atlanta.

As I wrote in an April 11, 1998, column for the Charlotte Observer, West described what Atlanta's Perimeter Highway, I-285, had meant to the city and what Charlotte might learn from Atlanta's experience.

I-285 was finished in 1969, he recounted, and was intended to maintain a strong center city. Instead it attracted development, and what Atlanta got was sprawling growth "that doesn't allow you to do anything but use your car," as West put it.

Then came his advice: “If I thought you would listen to me,” he said, “I'd tell you not to build it.”

He didn't mean not to build any more streets or roads or highways. He meant not to focus our transportation plans

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Charlotte history, hiding behind a wall

Can you find the Jane Wilkes statue behind the brick wall along Morehead Street? (See below) Photo: Mary Newsom
One of the best statues I’ve ever seen sits atop Rome’s Gianicolo Hill. A series of Busts of Important Men lines an avenue, and there is the obligatory statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian hero of the Italian unification movement in the 19th century.

But a short walk away is another statue. It’s Anita Garibaldi. She is sidesaddle, atop a rearing horse, holding a small child in her left arm, close to her breast. With her right, she aims a pistol at the sky. What a woman!
Anita Garibaldi. Photo: "Blackcat" via Widkimedia Commons

Charlotte, in some ways being even more traditional than Rome, does not memorialize its women with statues. Heck, it barely memorialized anyone with statues – at least, not until the Trail of History project came along, since representational statuary today is about as fashionable among artists as bustles, spats and top hats. 

That’s a group of local donors and history buffs who are working to erect a series of statues of historic personages along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Their first was a monument to Capt. James Jack, who rode from Charlotte to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775 carrying (according to local legend) a copy of the May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Meck Dec skeptics say he only carried the Mecklenburg Resolves, adopted May 31, 1775. Whatever.  There’s a guy on a charging horse, in a pool of water across Kings Drive from Central Piedmont Community College.

Now Trail of History monument No. 2 is up, and by golly, it’s a woman: Jane

Friday, June 20, 2014

Watch Charlotte grow ... foot and bicycle traffic

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park is one of Chicago's treasured public spaces. Photo: Mary Newsom
CHICAGO – Can Charlotte ever become an authentically walkable and bikable city?

I’ve just spent three days at a conference encouraging cities to overcome obstacles that keep them from achieving that goal.

The conference was sponsored by a group called 8-80 Cities. The idea behind that name is that cities should be designed for kids of 8 as well as adults of 80. The first group can’t drive and must walk or bicycle; the 80-year-olds may have already lost or be about to lose the ability to drive from hearing, vision, mental acuity or other age-related factors.

As 8-80 Cities executive director Gil Penalosa put it, “We have to stop building cities as if everyone is 30 years old and athletic.”

The 8-80 Cities Forum conference was named “The doable city” to encourage participants to consider the art of the possible in their cities. Co-sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, most participants were from some of the 26 cities where Knight has a special relationship, among them Charlotte; Akron, Ohio; Detroit; Macon, Ga. ; Miami; Philadelphia; Saint Paul, Minn.; and San Jose, Calif. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation paid my travel expenses.)
Millennium Park's "Cloud Gate" offers dry space during a rain.

We were shown numerous examples of efforts in cities from as far away as Melbourne, Australia, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Bogota, Colombia, to as close as Raleigh – events and campaigns and years-long projects to bring more public spaces (read parks and greenways) to cities and to find ways to encourage residents to view their city streets as public spaces, too – which of course they are.

Here’s an apt metaphor: impatiens or orchids? The idea was to encourage activists and public officials at the conference not to try to cultivate orchids, exotic, beautiful and needing expert

Friday, June 6, 2014

Charlotte's lost old buildings may be costlier than we thought

Where a historic-district house once stood, in Dilworth
It's sadly coincidental that this week, I went out to snap a photo of the lot where a vintage 1920s house in Dilworth has been demolished, just a few days after I read this article in the New York Times. The Times piece, "Urban Renewal, No Bulldozer: San Francisco repurposes old for the future," describes how it's San Francisco's older buildings downtown that are luring the tech firms that so many cities – including Charlotte  hope to attract.

Charlotte's Dilworth neighborhood is a turn-of-the-last-century streetcar suburb built a mile from the city's uptown in an era when that was the edge of town. The section where the house was demolished is a local historic district. (This PlanCharlotte article describes growing discontent among some Dilworthians with the way that district has been managed over the past decade.)

In North Carolina, buildings in local historic districts can be demolished, as can local historic landmarks. The law says that if a city or county has a local historic district or landmarks ordinance, an appointed commission can delay

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What's been keeping me busy? Trash

Plastic debris fouls a bridge over the Catawba River. Photo: Nancy Pierce
What's been keeping me from blogging regularly these days? Trash.

To be more specific, I've become involved in a three-year project, through the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture, to highlight environmental issues in and around Charlotte. We call it KEEPING WATCH.

Year One, which we are in the middle of, is KEEPING WATCH on PLASTICS and focuses on plastics and recycling. We're working with a whole flock of community partners -- you can read the long and growing list at

If you missed it Sunday, here's a lengthy article in The Charlotte Observer that goes into much detail. "Debris to beauty: Keeping WATCH exhibitions reveal the beauty in discarded plastics" describes many of the arts-related events taking place this spring. Disclosure: The "Aurora Robson: Stayin Alive" exhibit at McColl Center for Visual Art was planned separately but the concept dovetails well with the overall theme. Robson's work will be on display through July 26.

We'll host a "Clean Martini night" June 13 at UNC Charlotte Center City, 6-9 p.m., with locally sourced drinks sponsored by Slow Food Charlotte, locally sourced nibbles, and a screening of the film "Growing Cities." It's free and open to the public.

Other pieces of the project have included articles at from local writer Mae Israel:

Finally, the Sustain Me Baby exhibit at the UNC Charlotte Center City gallery highlights recyclable plastics and the problem of plastics in the oceans. And Is This Yours takes art out of the gallery, with totems made of bales of recycled plastic, by Kurt Warnke, displayed in uptown Charlotte as well as placing recyclable vinyl stickers with photos by Nancy Pierce. all over town. 

Next year's KEEPING WATCH will be bigger and better. We'll focus on Charlotte's creeks, those maligned and mistreated urban streams that are finally being taken seriously as amenities. Well, some of them are... 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Can traffic deaths go the way of smallpox?

In the United States we have become desensitized to traffic deaths. That doesn't mean we don't mourn, of course, but it means we seem to have accepted them as just a normal part of living - much the way people used to accept death from smallpox or cholera. I've never understood why the continual stream of students killed driving to and from school is not cause for the sort of national campaigns that attended, for instance, the now-debunked idea that inoculations cause autism.

Isn't there a different way to view traffic safety? There is. A New York Times article this week described how Sweden is pushing to reduce the country's traffic deaths to as close to zero as they can get.

In "De Blasio Looks Toward Sweden for Road Safety," reporter Matt Flegenheimer describes how the Swedish Parliament adopted Vision Zero in 1997 as the national foundation for all its road safety operations. Since then the number of traffic fatalities in Sweden has been cut in half. The fatality rate in Stockholm, 1.1 deaths per 100,000, is less than one-third of New York City’s rate. The national rate in Sweden, 2.7 deaths per 100,000, is the world's lowest.

The article notes that in American states with Vision Zero policies, including Minnesota and Utah, fatality rates fell more than 25 percent more quickly than the national rate.

And, it says, Swedish authorities weren't keen on the value of education or enforcement on pedestrian safety. (In 2012, after two men were hit in two days at Stonewall and College streets in uptown Charlotte, and one died, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police began a brief campaign of ticketing jaywalkers, although the two men who were hit were crossing the street in crosswalks.)

Tree ordinance proposal raises alarms around N.C.

Photo: Nancy Pierce
Charlotte likes to boast of its tree canopy, so a proposal at the state level to gut N.C. cities' tree ordinances has gotten Charlotte City Council's attention. At the council' Environment Committee meeting on Wednesday, after a briefing about the measure, the committee referred the issue to another committee to devise a lobbying strategy with N.C. legislators. Here's the article I wrote yesterday after the meeting.

But if you'd like to burrow a bit deeper into the issue, here are links to news coverage from around the state:
 It's not entirely clear how the proposal emerged late in April from a state study panel, the Agriculture and Forestry Services Study Commission, its members appointed by the legislature and the governor.

But at one March meeting, the commission heard from an Iredell County nurseryman upset over municipal regulations in some cities over who pays for trees that get planted and aren't acceptable to local government officials. And some state legislators, as well as developer lobbying groups, have said for years that some cities over-reach in their ordinances affecting private property.

Here's a link to the agenda materials for the study commission's March 28 meeting, with a copy of a

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What does Anthony Foxx have to say about transportation funding?

Former Charlotte Mayor and current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx gave an interview to Yonah Freemark of the website The Transport Politic. As Freemark points out, despite Foxx saying things many transportation and transit fans agree with, the secretary didn't make any commitments to changing the way U.S. transportation is funded. As Freemark says: "At the heart of the problem, as we all know, is that the transportatoin user fee model (premised on fuel tax revenues) has collapsed and no one is willing to do much of anything about it."

Read the interview here:
"An interview with Secretary Foxx"

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Congestion worsening, so buy more asphalt?

A new report from a Washington think tank and transportation research group says 44 percent of Charlotte’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition, and increasing congestion is costing local drivers a work-week’s worth of delay. Read more at Eric Frazier's article here. And here's a link to the press release about the report.

The group is TRIP. But before you read it, check who's on the board of directors: construction companies, asphalt and cement executives, road builder associations, etc. Its website says the group "is sponsored by insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, distributors and suppliers, businesses involved in highway and transit engineering and construction, labor unions, and organizations concerned with an efficient and safe surface transportation network that promotes economic development and quality of life."

There is no denying that in many areas, especially high-growth suburban spots, traffic congestion is worsening. And no question that many roads and bridges need repairs, as do many city streets. This winter's cold-warm-cold spells has certainly not helped.

But to assess congestion and to think road-building is the only solution is simplistic, even for places that unlike