Friday, February 20, 2015

The "Wow" Factor vs. Small is Beautiful

Does sound economic development rest on big projects that deliver a "Wow" Factor?  Or are smaller, more incremental projects a better long-term solution for cities? These are questions being asked in Charlotte regarding the Bojangles Colesium and the former Eastland Mall site.  And as Charlotte City Council member John Autry noted, "I've had it up to here with 'Wow'!", noting an interest in more balanced approaches to growth and development.

As a citizen and a city planner in 2015, I'm partial to smaller, incremental initiatives, as three recent observations have echoed my thinking.

Make some 'small plans'

In a blog post titled, "The Burham backlash: Make some 'small plans" Mary Newsome, contrasts 20th century urban planner Daniel Burnham, who created the 1909 Plan of Chicago, with Jaime Lerner, a Brazilian urban planner and former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil.

Burnham advised, "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."  This was stated in the context of early 1900s Chicago, where machine politics and Boards of Trade made decision-making on this scale possible.

Decades later and a continent away, Jamie Lerner held three mayoral terms in Curitiba from the 1970s to the 1990s.  His popularity was driven by his incremental and practical approaches to urban issues. Problem: Got a city approaching 2 million people and no money for a subway? Solution: Build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for a fraction of the cost of subway construction.

Pro sports - an economic touchdown?

Planner and NFL fan Bill Adams in San Diego points out "Five reasons losing an NFL football team is good for a city".  My summary and Charlotte relevance of his points are as follows.

1) Keeping public assets and funds: Charlotte pays dearly for sports. The NFL's Carolina Panthers got $87.5 million for six years, with an option of $50 million more for four additional years (the $87.5 million is $75 million up-front for stadium renovations, $12.5 million for stadium maintenance and traffic control over 10 years). At 10 years, that's over $13.5 million per year. What if even a fraction of this funding (3% hotel tax, 1% prepared food and beverage tax) went toward public assets like crosswalks, sidewalks, parks, schools, and transit? Charlotte's 800,000 residents might find the alternatives more relevant to their everyday lives.

2) More support for college football programs: UNC-Charlotte's new $45 million football stadium, plus those of Davidson College, Johnson C. Smith University, and others surely have fan bases that could grow.  Bill Adams poses an interesting scenario: colleges in cities with no competing NFL team have higher sports attendance, and subsequently draw more students, tuition, jobs, and regional economic benefit than NFL teams.

3) Better use of the land: The sheer size of an NFL stadium, plus parking tends to lay down a monolithic development footprint.  This is less an issue in suburban edge locations (think the Patriots' Gillette Stadium (formerly Foxboro) or the Redskins FedEx Field) than in-town locations. Is Charlotte's northwest corner of Uptown a lively mix of uses, or a boring, empty part of town outside of game/event days?  These are things to consider with an NFL stadium.

4) Avoiding the blighting effect of stadiums: As noted above, NFL football stadiums have HUGE development footprints, and when located in downtowns, historic buildings are often demolished and city blocks fragmented/consolidated for a lowest/least land use: parking.  

5) Grab-bag of benefits: Bill Adams' last point brings up the basic issue of "opportunity cost".  Given all the time, money, and energy that goes into NFL stadiums and teams, how else could those resources be spent and directed?  What would 80,000 people doing a one-day street-litter cleanup and sweep of area streams look like? That's my own shameless plug for Keep America Beautiful's Great American Cleanup, of which I'm hoping a fraction of Charlotte's citizens will participate in.

Design Quick, Fail Fast

A recent CityLab article highlights how New Haven, Conn. is pursuing this philosophy in redesigning their streets and public places for Complete Streets - places that serve more than just automobiles.

What's really encouraging is that it's the GOVERNMENT, the Director of the city's Dept. of Transportation, Traffic, and Parking, who's spearheading this!  They're doing projects that cost $80,000, not $8 million, in an effort to quickly and affordably assess what works and what fails in retrofitting their streets for PEOPLE ("pedestrians", "walkability" - these words ultimately mean people, see Seattle (and below) for interesting take on language and definitions).

The work of Charles Marohn, a engineer, and Strong Towns ( also strongly echoes these ideas. Imagine an engineer who thinks about project costs (especially operations and maintenance costs) and people as end-users - he's that guy!

Shine vs. Substance

We don't always need "magpie infrastructure" (named for the bird that's often drawn to things that are more shine than substance).  It's okay to have big goals and aspirations, but sound economic development often involves finding many silver pellets/BBs (mixed-use, flex-space) rather than one silver bullet (a movie studio complex). And when we're low on or out of money, it's definitely time to think.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Good urban design foils crook

Yesterday, I saw the photo below via the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Twitter feed and my first city-planning-geek thought was, "Hooray for urban-scale building setbacks! If this was on a highway or in a suburb, the driver would have more time and space to correct/overcorrect back into a travel lane."  Good urban design can indeed function as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).

This relatively new building in Charlotte's NoDa (North Davidson) neighborhood took some damage from the robber's car, but with some repair, it will continue to provide a great example of urban housing options.

Hooray for shallow urban setbacks and great street walls*!

*Buildings built to the sidewalk define a street and create a "street wall".  A continuous street wall with windows and doors create a better urban experience via walkability and more "eyes on the street".

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Duplexes don't have to be ugly - lessons on housing choices

History can provide design inspiration for today, and that's what the town of Badin, NC demonstrates in its interesting mix of housing types.  The terms "single-family" and "multi-family" tend to get people thinking of housing as a dichotomy of single-family/owners vs. multi-family/renters, but there's a wide spectrum of housing design types that can accommodate a mix of owners and renters, often in the same space. In fact, a current term for this concept is Middle Housing (see image below).
Credit: Opticos Design
I saw a mix of housing types when I visited Badin (pop. 1,974) on a recent day trip to Morrow Mountain State Park, which backs up to the Yadkin River and the Uwharrie Mountains, 50 miles east of Charlotte.  My wife's grandmother grew up outside of town, as her father worked for the Aluminum Company of America, ALCOA, which continued developing Badin as a company town in 1915.  Badin's most commonly associated with ALCOA, but the town was actually started in 1913 by L'Aluminium Francais, a French aluminium company that redirected its funding to the World War I homefront, leaving Badin up for grabs.

ALCOA took over, further developing the factory and town, with a peak population of 5,000 in 1926, when automobile ownership allowed more population dispersion including my wife's grandmother's "home place." (below)  Being a city boy, I learned this term from my wife, as it encompasses both a house and nearby fields, barns, and pump houses.  Although ALCOA's operations ceased in 2007, Badin's built environment still remains a valuable asset.

Grandmother Coxie's Home Place
One of the first things I noticed in town was its simple, yet well-designed duplexes (below). These homes have a common party wall on smaller lots, but are nonetheless quite livable with landscaping and a front porch.

Here's another example of the same basic duplex design, with each side having evolved over time - the home on the left kept its porch, while the home on the right finished theirs out as a front room (below).  Design evolves over time, yet the basic form of the homes have remained the same since their construction.

These reminded me of houses I've seen in Dundalk, MD, another company town built before World War I for Bethlehem Steel, just east of Baltimore.  Yorkship Village (Camden, NJ area) is another World War I shipworker town built in a similar style and one that I'm curious to see in-person. Since the original parts of Dundalk were built in the English Garden City style, the duplexes below reflect this.

Another street in Badin (below) shows how four distinct rowhouses don't have to be monotonous or overwhelming in scale to nearby duplexes and free-standing houses.  In fact, a similar pattern shows up in Dundalk, with six homes in a row (further below).

In looking at again at a duplex in Badin, this one (below) shows the softening effect of landscaping.  People often object to the way new housing and neighborhoods look, notably in the starkness of new buildings and streets imposed on a newly developed landscape.  Older places like Badin and Dundalk demonstrate that even utilitarian company towns can take on elements of history and beauty as street trees and other elements of urban landscaping are given time to develop.

These historic housing types provide inspiration for many issues that we face today including questions of affordable housing, housing density to support transit and nearby retail, and the issue of housing choices. Not everyone needs a free-standing home, and not everyone needs a high-rise apartment, so there's certainly a huge range of housing types, demonstrated by history, that we can pick from to meet a range of needs.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pedestrian retrofit in Concord, NC

I recently visited Concord, NC, a city of 80,000 just northeast of Charlotte, and came across what I consider to be a pretty innovative pedestrian retrofit of an existing bridge (see images below). Given, it's not an ideal pedestrian setting, but it's certainly a meaningful design modification in recognition of existing pedestrian traffic.  Flex-poles are often used on bicycle cycle tracks, so their application here was a quick, cost-effective way of creating pedestrian space between two newer sidewalk links.

The bridge and street were likely built when this southwestern corner of Concord was the semi-rural edge of town, a basic 2-lane farm-to-market road.  Add several decades of urban growth and you eventually have residential neighborhoods on either side of the bridge.  North of the bridge, much of the Logan neighborhood was originally built for textile mill workers, and like many Piedmont mill villages, development standards were pretty basic and often excluded sidewalks in the early 1900s.  With a push for sidewalks and Complete Streets starting in the 1990s and continuing now, the images below are the result.

The sidewalks are newer, with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) sidewalk ramps to transition pedestrians from the bridge/street pavement to the sidewalks.  Once the bridge reaches the end of its design life, building a bridge with a sidewalk will make sense.  In the meantime, this is a clever design solution to fill the sidewalk gap until the bridge needs replacing.

Lincoln St. SW, looking north

Overview of sidewalk gap, Lincoln St./Rutherford St. SW, Concord, NC

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Davidson, NC - Small in Size, Big on Design

I visited Davidson, North Carolina last week and found the 5-square mile/11,000 person town to be big on design.  Like other nearby towns and cities in northern Mecklenburg County, the Town's had a form-based code (FBC) since 2001 and its principles are shaping the built environment from downtown Davidson to its newer growth areas.

On a design-related note, I was intrigued by the Town's use of RED recycling bins (blue is a more standard color) and black trash bins (black is indeed a standard trash color).  Red and black are Davidson College's colors, so it makes sense that the color-scheme shows local college/town pride.  Still, if the Town ever takes on curbside composting, would bins be green, like systems in San Francisco or Seattle?  Customization vs. standardization - it can be a struggle.

Trash bins aside, the Town also has an interesting variety of architectural styles.  In a neighborhood just south of downtown, homes take on all kinds of forms/influences.  This newer home (below) has some Victorian influences, with gothic arched-windows, a bay window, and some board-and-batten siding thrown in for variety.

Nearby, another home (again, the materials/construction seem newer) embodies the Open Gable Cottage style, popular in the early 1900s, and still a classic design that works well in 2014 (below).

On another nearby street, this home (below) reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School of Design homes in Chicago (which I've still yet to see personally).  This home definitely takes influences from historical precedents.

While these homes are in more established neighborhoods, Davidson also has a Village Infill area just south of its downtown that's seeing new construction activity.  The map below highlights three interesting streets and projects in this area.  A new home at the end of James Alexander Way (red circle on map, house photo below) demonstrates that garages don't have to equate to "snout houses," as this one's recessed a bit, with the front porch meeting the street first.

The blue-highlighted area of the map (see map above) contains a mix of rowhouses and narrow-lot detached houses served by an alley.  Alleys are interesting because even though they're generally pretty utilitarian (i.e. space for garage access, trash pick-up, utility locations), they can also take on unexpected uses.  Got a deck balcony over your garage?  Put a kid's swing on it! (below)  Who says you have to have a yard to raise kids?

Here's a front view of these same houses with the kids'-swings alley.  Plus, there are brick rowhouses immediately north of these with a nice shared garden space (see images below).

And across the street, there's yet more variety in housing types, with an interesting street wall created by the mix of housing types (see images below).

Another variation of rowhouses are located just south of this street (area highlighted in yellow, map below), with foundations ready for more rowhouses within walking distance of downtown (see images below).

Davidson's doing infill development, but I was also curious to see its new development areas as well.  One area that really stood out on the map was Davidson Pointe, a lakefront neighborhood located in both the Town of Davidson and Iredell County, North Carolina (see map below, neighborhood higlighted in red).  The majority of the Town of Davidson is in Mecklenburg County, but this literal and figurative peninsula of the town extends into the next county. Kannapolis, North Carolina's another nearby town that straddles two counties, so it's not unheard of.  Still, I would guess that might make things complicated, both on the front-end of permitting/planning the neighborhood, and in the long-run for residents (taxes, services, etc.)

As for what's the on the ground, the homes are laid out in a tidy Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) pattern, with classic architectural features and alley-accessed garages for most houses (see images below).

My only criticism of this neighborhood concerns street naming/addressing: in this small of an area, I'm not sure why the street names are changing so often at intersections (see below).  Call me a traditionalist, or even KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), but people have an easier time navigating a street network when the same physical street retains its name until a logical/identifiable terminus.  And that's just for a 10-year old trying to find his friend's birthday party, let alone the fire department responding to a call!

Addressing pet-peeves aside, I enjoyed the visit to Davidson and am curious to follow development projects there, especially if the CATS Red Line commuter rail line ever gets sorted out (another blog post coming soon on that).

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Views from above Atlanta to Salt Lake City

I'm attending a conference in Salt Lake City, so I thought I'd share some images from the trip here.

After departing Atlanta, I soon saw the mighty Mississippi River, with oxbow lakes remaining from previous bends of the river (below).

Next, we passed over the gently undulating Ozark Mountains (below).

I knew we'd crossed the Mississippi and were approaching the 100th meridian, the line of longitude that divides irrigated land from "the wet East" (below).

The further west we fly, the contrast between "wet" and dry became increasingly stark.. Here's a cool view of a town defined by hydrological boundaries (below)! See the river course?

I knew we'd hit the Front Range of the Rockies when snow appeared (below)!

We then passed from Colorado into south central Utah (I hear an Ice Cube joke somewhere) and passed over amazing amounts of more snow (below)!

As we descended into Salt Lake City, I saw some interesting juxtapositions of urban and natural systems. The new subdivisions next to perfectly circular irrigated fields were especially thought-provoking - if they have to irrigate alfalfa, how much water's needle for lawns and swimming pools? (below)

And of course, how could you miss this Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) anchored by a church (below).

Finally, there's the view from the hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, a surreal mix of skyscrapers and mountains, looking west (first image below) and east toward the Wasatch Range (second image).

Friday, May 2, 2014

East and West Charlotte: Just as Important as South End or Uptown

This is a short-notice posting, but it's too important not to share. (just got the info from a neighbor)

Cities thrive or take a dive based on their neighborhoods, which is why an advocacy group for West and East Charlotte is holding its first meeting tomorrow:
Saturday May 3, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 610 E. 7th St., Charlotte (Carole Hoefener Community Center).

Communities United for Action is the group that started after conversations between John Autry, Charlotte City Councilmember (District 5, East Charlotte), and Aaron McKeithan, Historic West End Partners.  The idea for the group began in 2013 when Charlotte's CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar was under City Council consideration.

The streetcar line is promised as a tool for economic development and transportation from the Rosa Parks Transit Center (West Charlotte) to the Eastland Mall site (East Charlotte), and is part of a larger discussion of Charlotte's "Wedge of Wealth" (South Charlotte) bearing a larger tax burden than the "Crescent of Poverty" (West and East Charlotte).  Admittedly, these are sweeping terms, but they get the basic idea across that West and East Charlotte need revitalization, both for their neighborhoods' own sake, and for the larger city's quality of life and fiscal health.

Come out to the meeting and learn about efforts to improve West and East Charlotte, as their health is critical to all of Charlotte.