Monday, December 12, 2016

The ever-present dilemma of paying for transit

The topic of transit – or the lack of it – arose during public hearings on the vast new River District development that won city approval last month. The almost 1,400-acre development will grow west of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in what today is a rural and thinly settled area.

The development is expected to generate 120,000 vehicle trips a day. That number got the attention of Charlotte City Council members, who talked about transit but did little beyond talk before approving the developers' rezoning request.  That's because the city's plans for transit to that part of town are, for now, vague and – like most of the 2030 Transit Plan beyond the Blue Line Extension – unfunded.

The city isn't allowed to impose impact fees without state legislative approval. And don't hold your breath for that. Further, state courts struck down some counties' attempts at adequate public facility ordinances – where developers either had to wait until local governments could afford to offer public facilities such as classrooms and police/fire service to serve the new development, or pay a fee to help the local government provide them.

So Charlotte can't do what Sacramento, Calif., is proposing: a transportation impact fee on most new construction to fund

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trees, grass, drought and the future

Can lush lawns be sustained with future droughts and water supply issues looming? Photo: Mary Newsom
Water and our supply of it is on my mind this week, as a smoky haze drifts around Charlotte, reminding us of the wildfires in the tinder-dry N.C. foothills and mountains west of the city. It’s been abnormally hot and dry  for months in the Appalachians and the Southeastern U.S. Two Western North Carolina counties are now in exceptional drought and seven others in "extreme drought." 

In the Charlotte region we’re currently in Drought Stage 1 (moderate drought, voluntary watering restrictions). Boat ramps at lakes Norman and Wylie just outside the city have been closed. Some of our shrubs are succumbing. And my guess is we’ll move into Stage 2 (severe drought) shortly after the start of December.

The city's water-sewer utility, Charlotte Water, has a keen interest in encouraging people to conserve water, and not just in a drought, although they tend to concentrate the mind, so to speak.

Taking the long view, Charlotte Water officials see that relentlessly sucking more water from the local reservoirs – Mountain Island Lake and Lake Norman – is not a strategy that can sustain the area's growing millions of residents in future decades. Further, towns and cities downstream of Charlotte use the same river (dammed decades ago into a series of lakes by what's now Duke Energy ) for their water supplies, so draining it is not an acceptable option.

So Charlotte Water officials are eyeing the area’s beloved lawns as a way to reduce water use. On an average day, the utility pumps 100 million gallons of treated water each day, says Jennifer Frost, public affairs manager at Charlotte Water. But during the summer that’s been from 130 to 135 million gallons a day – due to people irrigating lawns. “I think we hit 143 one day in August,” she said recently.

But Frost notes that suggesting people reduce the size of their lawns in favor of more drought-tolerant plantings hasn’t, in the past, been a winning message. So she hopes the utility can, instead, join with local efforts to encourage more tree planting and better care for existing trees.
“Inherent to growing a canopy is that reduction in turf grass,” Frost says. And, she says, “We will not get to the next level of water conservation without reducing the level of irrigation that we use.”

For the record, here are the requested water restrictions for Charlotte, for now:
  • Irrigate only on Tuesdays and Saturdays between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.
  • Limit landscape watering to 1 inch of water per week, including rain.
  • Conserve water indoors and outdoors.
  • Refrain from outdoor water use during the day (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to reduce evaporation losses.
  • Don't fill swimming pools, and top off full pools only on Thursdays and Sundays, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • Turn off water fountains and other decorative water features.
  • Use commercial car washes that recycle water, not your home hose.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Another Independence Boulevard – lost opportunity or potential future?

Bologna's Independence Boulevard on a Monday morning in October. Photo: Mary Newsom
On a recent trip to Italy, we stopped for a night in the northern city of Bologna, home to some famous pasta sauces, the world's first university and a basilica where, legend has it, a German priest was so disgusted by the church's opulence he went back to Germany and his name being Martin Luther
started the Reformation.

It's also home to an Independence boulevard.  I didn't capitalize "Boulevard" because the official name of the street is Via dell' Indipendenza. In any case, it's a powerful reminder that a busy city thoroughfare need not be ugly.

Photo: Mary Newsom
Under the arcade
I took these photos about 9 a.m. on a Monday, and I took them during breaks in traffic, so they don't accurately convey the traffic, although it's safe to say it's far less than Charlotte's Independence Boulevard, which carries more than 100,000 vehicles a day in places.

Our Indy Boulevard began life in the 1950s as a four-lane U.S. highway (U.S. 74) that sundered a white, working class neighborhood as well as the city's first municipal park and its rose garden. Today, Independence Boulevard in Charlotte is either a freeway-style highway lined with sound walls or, where the freeway hasn't been built yet, a seemingly endless strip of bleak, now-bedraggled highway commercial development that had its heyday in the 1970s and '80s.

But in Bologna, first settled about 1,000 BC, via dell' Indipendenza looks different. We arrived on a Sunday evening and the street was jammed with people, and no cars. The street and several others are pedestrianized from 8 a.m. Saturday to 10 p.m. Sunday.

The street itself, like many of the old streets in the city center, is lined with an arcade, which protects pedestrians in bad weather. Under the arcades, many with vaulted ceilings, the sidewalks are terrazzo tile, or something similar. No chewing-gum-stained concrete or crumbling asphalt.

Is there any hope for our Independence Boulevard? I confess to being a pessimist about that. Streets, I've observed, set a development pattern that's difficult to change unless the government decides to buy up all the land, tear everything down, and start over with new development. They have tried that before here, and urban renewal was a brutal disaster.

Charlotte's Independence Boulevard, 2014. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Monday, August 29, 2016

100 years of N.C. state parks, but never one for Mecklenburg

North Carolina's Mount Mitchell State Park turned 100 this year. Photo: By Two Hearted River - CC BY-SA 3.0,
The 2016 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of North Carolina's first state park scored a huge win last week with the announcement that 2,744 acres will be added to that first park, Mount Mitchell. That will more than double the park's size, and is a welcome tribute.

But if you visit the Find a Park website for the North Carolina State Parks Department, you may notice that unlike the Triangle, which boasts five, there is no state park or recreation area in Mecklenburg County, the state's most populous county and one of the larger ones in size as well (ranking 38 of 100).

But did you know a state park was once proposed for Mecklenburg County? The city-county 2005 plan, dated 1985, proposed a state park in the northeastern corner of the county, east of Davidson. It did not happen. Sadly, that area, which for two decades was protected by the town of Davidson's decision not to allow sewer service there, is now being proposed for sewer service, which likely means subdivisions, not rural farmland, will be the future.

If you're in Charlotte, especially in the part of town with the bulk of the population (south and southeast of uptown) you may note Google's assessment that it's 45 minutes from Charlotte to Crowders Mountain State Park in western Gaston County, but

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

In 1969 planners imagined Charlotte’s University City. Did their vision come true?

1969 University City Planning Concepts
This is part two of my "I Love Old Maps" series.  In addition to ferreting out that fun 1986 map of Charlotte, retiring UNC Charlotte Associate Provost Owen Furuseth also handed me a 1969 city plan for University City, the part of Charlotte that surrounds UNC Charlotte, where I work.

The plan was produced by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission -- "William McIntyre, Planning Director; Richard C. Hauersperger, Chief Planner; Gary L. Sieb, City Planner, and W. Earl Long, Planning Intern." The university, which now has 27,000 students, at the time had 2,350 students in nine buildings. The plan predicted that eventually the university would serve 15,000 students.

Its goals are laudable, if imprecise. "This report outlines the Planning Commission's concept of the kind of community University City might become if its development is fashioned to create an environment of quality." It lists some goals, among them:
  • "To create a community designed for the convenience of its people." Since the whole area can basically be navigated only by car once you leave the campus, I'd score that at a 3 on a scale of 10.
  • "To carefully fit the development of the community into the land so that it preserves the assets of the natural landscape." I'd score that about a 4 on a scale of 10. 
  • Other goals would get a higher score from me: Providing housing, developing public and private facilities, etc. Then this final one, which I'll let you score on your own:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Charlotte in the '80s

I love how old maps show what the mapmakers valued. 

I recently came across this map of Charlotte circa 1986. (You'll want to click it to zoom in.) It was among the things Owen Furuseth found as he cleaned out his office after almost 40 years at UNC Charlotte. Furuseth left June 30 as associate provost of Metropolitan Studies, the wing of UNCC academia under which nestles the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where I work.  Because Owen is a geographer and planner, he was keeping the map but he let me borrow it to copy the image.

The map’s credit line says “Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission 1986.” That probably helps explain why the route for the then-unbuilt I-485 is shown, although construction on the highway didn’t start until 1988, and the full outerbelt was not completed until 2015. Notice, also, how the I-485 route shown on the map is pretty much where it eventually was built. One small exception: The northern section is south of Eastfield Road, which is farther south than shown on the 1986 map.

Those of you who’ve been in Charlotte only a decade or so might get a chuckle out of seeing the “New Coliseum” west of I-77 off Tyvola Road. The “New Coliseum,” was just under construction in 1986, the year this map was made. After it was replaced in 2005 by the Time Warner Cable Arena uptown, the Tyvola coliseum was demolished in 2007 (see its implosion here).*

Note the prominence of Eastland. That was Eastland Mall.  It’s now a vacant city-owned plot of land, after the mall failed about a decade ago. 

Note city limits of Charlotte. “Rea Road Extension” south of N.C. 51, the huge chunk of south Charlotte south of N.C. 51, and UNCC and University Place were not inside the city in 1986. 

Finally, note the relative lack of prominence of “UNCC” compared to University Place, a shopping center and suburban-form mixed-use development north of the university. I wonder what that reveals about the university’s prominence in the minds of the city-county planners. I’ll leave that to your imagination. Today the university is almost 28,000 students, a campus surrounded by some of the most gawd-awful strip-shopping-center and big-box unwalkable and unbikeable suburbia that you can envision. 

* About that Coliseum implosion video.  I had never watched that until I dug up the link today. It made me cry.  At that just-opened venue in November 1988, I and 23,000 other people watched the old Charlotte Hornets – including Dell Curry, father of today’s more famous Curry – debut to a tuxedo-and-formal-gown wearing crowd, lose by 40 points. They got a standing ovation.  Less than 2 months later, on Dec. 23, Kurt Rambis’ last-second shot defeated Michael Jordon’s Chicago Bulls. (Read the Chicago Tribune story here.) The old Coliseum hosted 364 consecutive NBA-game sellouts. We loved the Hornets in those days. Loved Dell and Muggsy and for a time even loved George Shinn, though that came to a bad end. Our then toddler daughter loved Scott Burrell.  Look him up. He was a bouncy jumper.

The coliseum also hosted Frank Sinatra, Springsteen and Mother Teresa among other icons, and the 1994 Final Four, complete with then-President Bill Clinton, various and sundry FOBs (Friends of Bill), and an Arkansas victory.

The Coliseum was built in the wrong place and was poorly designed for what NBA arenas came to need just 10 years later. But it was fun while it lasted.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Do you live in the 'real' Charlotte?

Plaza Midwood, a neighborhood that is not south of Fairview. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Do you live in “the real Charlotte”? I was chatting with a guy at a recent party who opined that only the part of the city inside Route 4 is “the real Charlotte.” (Route 4 is the Woodlawn-Runnymede-Wendover-Eastway thoroughfare that’s approximately 4 miles from uptown Charlotte.)

Au contraire, I said, or words to that effect. Actually, I said, a more accurate boundary would be Fairview Road, as in “I try never to go south of Fairview,” an expression I hear now and again from certain friends and acquaintances whose lives, like that of the aforesaid guy at the party, focus more on the center of the city than the far-flung edges. (Happily, the shopping mecca of SouthPark perches on the north side of Fairview Road.)

But more to the point, huge expanses of this city are outside Route 4. A circle with a 4-mile radius covers about 50 square miles. The 2010 Census tells us Charlotte covers almost 298 square miles. So the “real Charlotte” would be one-sixth of the actual city. I don’t think that makes it real, although most of the city inside Route 4 dates to the era preceding the overwhelming suburban-style growth that started in the 1950s and exploded by the mid-1960s.

But he also had put his finger on a cultural/social reality that’s been building here over the past 15 or 20 years: A lot of residents in the older, inner neighborhoods have a completely different view of their city than people who live in the far-flung, newer

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Skywalkers, Luke or otherwise, and the problems they cause for cities

People fill a plaza at the Mint Museum in Uptown Charlotte. In many cities overstreet skywalks are blamed for taking too many people off the sidewalks.  Photo: John Chesser
Uptown Charlotte is not alone in having a series of overstreet walkways that keep pedestrians off the streets and in so doing, damage (by splitting up) the potential customer base for uptown retail.

As pointed out in this Associated Press article in Salon, "Cities face new urban problem: their own skywalks," points out, "a debate is growing over what to do with the cozy corridors, bridges and tunnels that have helped create urban ghost towns."

Cincinnati dismantled half of its system. Baltimore took down seven bridges. Other cities are questioning them.

Charlotte imported its idea from Minneapolis in the 1960s, when suburban expansion and white flight were in full flower. In the 1960s and '70s the city bus stops were along uptown sidewalks, so the sidewalks were crowded with bus riders, many of them people of color.  The overstreet walkways went from white-collar office to white-collar office. Hence an informal segregation took root.

Today of course you see people of all races both on the sidewalks and in the overstreet walkways. The Transportation Center is where people wait for the buses, in a covered facility with seating. And I must disclose that I, too, sometimes take the overstreet walkways when the weather is particularly nasty.

Many urban planners don't like the skywalks, but ... too bad! The city of Charlotte gave away the air rights over its public streets to the corporations building the office towers, which wanted to connect them to other towers or to parking decks. In general they have 99-year leases. For a brief time in the 1990s the city planning department tried to discourage new skywalks. But planners were no match for the pressure from the banks formerly known as First Union and NationsBank and others who were building tall towers.

So it appears we'll be skywalking in Charlotte for at least another half-century.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

About that greener-looking grass in S.C. roads program

In Charlotte, a lot of local officials in the transportation world have cast envious eyes over the state line into South Carolina, where counties can enact sales taxes specifically for road projects. (No, I don't know whether, for this program, "transportation" includes transit or bike-ped or only pavement for motor vehicles.) York County, just over the line south of Charlotte, almost 20 years ago was the first S.C. county to levy a one-penny sales tax on a program called "Pennies for Progress." Several other counties have adopted similar taxes with similar names.

Over the years, multiple Charlotte and N.C. business leaders or transportation honchos have said, in essence, "See, if only we could levy a small sales tax for roads we could do what York County does. They get millions to use on highways and roads, and it all works out great."

Well, maybe not so great.  Turns out there have been major cost overruns, or maybe lowball cost estimates, or both.  A citizen panel found cost overruns totaling more than $100 million and has just warned that unless the program improves it risks losing the fourth round of funding, which requires voter approval and which is set for 2017.  The three previous referendums were in 1997, 2003 and 2011.

Sometimes the green grass over on the other side of the line is a little ragged when you look at it up close.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Density and parking: W.W.J.J.(Jane Jacobs) D.?

View of proposed development from Caswell Road. Image from documents filed with City of Charlotte
I've spent the last few days re-reading parts of the writings of Jane Jacobs, in advance of a talk I'm giving Thursday in the NoDa neighborhood (6 p.m. at the Evening Muse, free and open to the public) as well as the 100th anniversary of her birth May 4, 1916. (See an inspiring list of Jane's 100th events at

So when I read about neighborhood opposition -- and more significant, opposition from District 1 City Council member Patsy Kinsey -- to a proposed development in the Elizabeth neighborhood on the basis of density and a worry about parking, I was primed to consult Jacobs' writing. WWJJD? What Would Jane Jacobs Do? Spoiler: I think she would be OK with the development but would be more worried about what she called "the self-destruction of diversity."

Ely Portillo's article in The Charlotte Observer lays out some of the opposition. The proposal (see the rezoning documents here) is for a 60-foot-high development of 123 apartments, with 15,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, at a triangular corner at East Seventh Street and North Caswell Road.

Portillo quotes neighborhood association member Melanie Sizemore saying that while developers and the neighborhood have worked together they haven't resolved all the issues. Two big sticking points: density and parking. They're afraid the number of proposed parking spots isn't generous enough and will mean congestion in the surrounding neighborhood.

Today, Charlotte Agenda writer Jason Thomas, referring to remarks at Monday's public hearing, opines that it shows "just how lost our City Council is." (See "The City Council is making baffling decisions on urban planning.") Thomas praises it as beautifully

Thursday, April 14, 2016

What's a city and what's a suburb, and what's their future?

Large totems mark the "center" of the Ballantyne development in south Charlotte. Photo: Google Street View
I've long been interested in how people use the terms "suburban" and "urban," because their definitions seem to wobble all over the map. Thanks to the state's formerly easy annexation law, the city I live in, Charlotte, has large areas well inside city limits places that in another metro area would be separate municipalities or unincorporated sprawl. People here call them "suburbs," though by some definitions they'd be "city," not "suburb."

But the issue of suburban vs. urban living is just as lively here as anywhere. So I've been interested to read two recent articles that tackle that broad topic, though in different ways.

First, Josh Stephens' review in the California Planning and Development Report of the latest Joel Kotkin book, The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, dissects, or at least tries to dissect, what Kotkin means by "the rest of us." Who is his "us"? And why does he assume that everyone who lives in a suburban-form landscape does so by choice, rather than because of housing affordability or job location or doubts about schools?  Hat tip to Planetizen for alerting me to this excellent piece, Fetishizing Families: Review of 'The Human City.'

Next is an analysis from Daniel Hertz in the sometimes wonderfully contrarian City Observatory, about DuPage County, Ill., just outside Chicago. In "A Mystery in the Suburbs," he looks at the county, where growth in recent decades has been of the ubiquitous automobile-centric, focused on highways pattern focusing on highways. Once robust, in recent years DuPage has seen some siphoning off of economic energy, as companies move back to downtown. 

This put me in mind of Ballantyne, a large suburban-style development at the far southern reaches of Charlotte city

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

'Why are all those new buildings so ugly?'

Apartments on South Boulevard greet the sidewalk with two floors of parking.  Photo: Tom Low, Civic by Design
The topic is an eye-catcher and, thank goodness, keeps catching eyes: Why do so many of the new apartment buildings going up in Charlotte's fast-redeveloping neighborhoods all look alike? And look, um, not all that attractive?

The latest chapter in this civic conversation came Tuesday, with a two-part punch. Three local architects were guests on "Charlotte Talks," an interview show on WFAE, Charlotte's local public radio station. Listen to the show here.

Tuesday evening Tom Low, one of the guests, held a public forum, "Bland Charlotte," at his monthly Civic By Design discussion group.

Low and others have written and spoken in recent months about their concern that speedy growth and development, especially in the South End area adjacent to the city's only light rail line, is sub-par in urban design and architecture., the publication I run at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, has run several  articles on the topic:
Ditto, other local media outlets:
Tuesday night, Low showed a series of depressing photos of apartment complexes, mostly but not exclusively in South