Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Pro Sports - Add Cricket to The List

The hot topic of U.S. pro sports these days is Major League Soccer (MLS), but there's another global sport moving into U.S. cities - cricket.  Yes, cricket.  The sport origin of the term "sticky wicket".

Many American's reactions to that may be "nothing but crickets", but expat Brits and Australians are likely disclaiming "Crikey!" (Australian for "surprise"), as are Americans originally from South Asia (Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka) and the Caribbean.  I'm a fan of the "British World" (tea, politeness, good desserts, and "colourful" language), so I was intrigued to read this in Construction Dive, a newsletter covering all things "built and developed".

There's two fascinating elements within this story.  First, there's the doubling of the number of people from India in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013 to 2.04 million people. I grew up in Augusta, Georgia, which even in the 1990s, had a large South Asian population due to employment at the state medical university.  My dad worked as a researcher at the university and several of his co-workers were Indian, so a group of them partnered on funding an early Indian restaurant.  For my sisters and I, that became our go-to spot for birthday dinners - we wanted saag paneer, not McDonald's or Captain D's. I'd bet there's spots in Augusta nowadays where you can watch cricket and get a great meal.

A second interesting element of this story is the stadiums are planned for mixed-use development. That's a smart way to leverage the pricey investment in a stadium ($70-125 million) while having active uses ($80-100 million) around the stadium year-round, cricket match or not.  The rendering below illustrates concepts planned for an Atlanta stadium (no specific site yet), so it will be interesting to see where it lands.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Zoning Hearings: As Civil as Cats vs. Dogs

Have you ever been to a planning/zoning meeting and wondered if someone could portray the things people say via cats?

A blogger in Austin did just that with "9 Things People Always Say at Zoning Hearings, Illustrated by Cats". (thanks to The Direct Transfer for featuring this!)

I'm working on a rezoning project right now that involves quite a few of these including:


I'm trying to help an infill developer build 4 townhouses and 1 single-family detached house on two separate corner lots.  That's five housing units that are walking distance to a historic downtown.  Nevermind the 50 and 100-unit subdivisions that are regularly gobbling up nearby countryside.


If these houses get "parked", the townhouses will each have a 2-car garage (2 cars x 4 units = 8 cars), plus a rear row of 4 guest parking spaces, so 12 cars in total.  And the single-family house on the opposite corner would have a 2-car garage, so a whopping 14 cars in total added to an existing city block.  Yes, that's 14 more vehicles moving about, but it's so much more than that:  it's new residents that can support downtown businesses and not necessarily have to drive for every trip they make.


This project's zoning currently only allows one minimum 10,000 SF lot - the site is 14,000 SF, which is a huge lot for being less than a 5 min. walk to a historic downtown.  A third-party property appraisal noted that the highest and best use of the property would be subdividing it for smaller single-family detached houses or townhouses, especially given the existing $16,000 worth of water/sewer taps on-site (previous commercial building site).

Neighbors are insistent on "one lot, one house", but the market will simply not support that at this time.  The real question for neighbors is, "How long can you tolerate this being a vacant, City-owned and non-tax generating lot?"  That's a question for City Council too.


"If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."  It's a harsh truth, but it's a truth nonetheless.  If the immediate neighborhood's going to remain viable and relevant to future generations (i.e. your Gen X and Millennial kids, plus you the Boomers as you retire/downsize), it's got to evolve with a range of housing options, which comes to the next point.


If you've only ever lived in a single-family detached (i.e. freestanding) house, that may very well be your worldview on housing.  And that's frankly what most Americans have been exposed to since World War II - a limited range of housing, usually in a spectrum of: grow up in single-family house, go off to college for a dorm or apartment, graduate from college and live in an apartment or rental house (uh oh, we'll get to that in minute), and buy your first house (Congrats, now you're a certified and acceptable adult!).

This current project also has nearby residents asking if new housing can be restricted to owner-occupied vs. rental housing.  Sorry folks, planning authority only regulates use, and in a lesser manner, form.  Housing tenure (i.e. ownership vs. rental) cannot and should not be regulated by government - it's a decision for one of two parties to make: 1) the developer can place Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CCRs) on the property; 2) a future Homeowner's Association (HOA) can make the call on owner-occupied vs. rental.

I had a planning grad school professor that swore by Barriers to Infill Development, and I'm now living his research.  Dr. Ferris, I'll throw my wallet on a table and see if that sways anyone, neighbor or City Council Member, to support the project.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Charlotte streetcar technology: 1915 vs. 2015

Charlotte's streetcars started July 14, 2015, 77 years since last running in 1938, and 2015's first streetcar/car crash occurred on July 18 - why?

That question's still up in the air with safety investigators, etc., but another question arising from this considers 1915 technology vs. 2015 technology.

Charlotte is currently running three Gomaco replica trolleys (leftover from South End Trolley days) which seem to have modern systems, at least based on a glance of the manufacturer's website.  The image below is a spec sheet on Charlotte's current Gomaco vehicles.

Still, the long-term plan is to run modern streetcar vehicles, which one assumes would have better braking/safety technology.  Siemens S70 rail vehicles have the ability to run on LRT tracks and be linked up for multiple-car sets (spec sheet images below).  Would these S70s, based on 2015 technology, perhaps be safer and more reliable than 1900s replica streetcars?  If the answer is ultimately "yes," then let's keep the nostalgia in a streetcar museum and the meaningful, safe, and modern transportation on the street.

Atlanta's new streetcar is running S70s which experienced crashes as well in May 2015, albeit with admitted human error, not technical issues.

Driver error aside (both streetcar operator and parked vehicle in the Atlanta example), costs are the ultimate constraint on transit operators like CATS.  Gomaco replica trolleys were estimated at $1 million or less/each in 2007, while Siemens S70s run around $4 million/each.

Would a $12 million investment in three modern streetcars to replace the Gomacos be worth it for transportation safety and reliability?  That's a question that may come up if crashes keep occurring.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A snapshot of Elizabeth/Plaza Midwood

What do a 1920 apartment building, an LGBT book/gift store, and a 2015 apartment building (The Gibson, 250 apts. under construction) have in common? They're all in this photo I took and they're a snapshot in time of July 18, 2015.  How this image will change in the future is an interesting question.

First off, this image is technically only showing Charlotte's Elizabeth neighborhood, but I captioned it Elizabeth/Plaza Midwood, as the stick-built frame rising above The White Rabbit is emblematic of changes in that more well-known neighborhood. (Sorry Elizabeth, as a relative Charlotte newcomer (moved here in 2012), it seems like Plaza Midwood and NoDa are more well-known - perhaps I'm wrong?)

I took this photo while sitting on the front porch of The Frock Shop, a vintage clothing store housed in a 1912 Craftsman Foursquare house on Central Avenue.  It was a hot Saturday night, with some merciful breezes, as I joined a PACKED house (inside and out) listening to Charlotte Storytellers' Story Slam.  I'll definitely keep an eye out for their next event, and am curious to see how the corner of Central Avenue, 10th Street and Louise Avenue changes over the months and years (NOTE: Street View image is from May 2014)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Memorial Stadium .. forgotten?

Major League Soccer (MLS) may consider an expansion team in Charlotte, but would this come at the expense of our historic built environment?

That's the impression given by a June 26 Charlotte Observer article discussing demolition of Charlotte's American Legion Memorial Stadium, begun in 1934 and completed in 1936 (Art Deco, Art Moderne architectural style period) by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  Like many venues of its time, it was built to honor and remember soldiers lost in World War I.

Since we're in 2015 and just over 100 years removed from World War I, does this give us license to demolish history?  A July 2 Charlotte Agenda headline noted "I will strap myselft to the gate of memorial stadium to prevent it from being torn down" and raised some good questions about alternate sites:

Why not look at sites on the west side, along Freedom Drive or Wilkinson Boulevard? Or, how about the old Eastland Mall site? There are options out there that could not only be more cost effective, but revitalize parts of the city.

Major League Soccer (MLS) stadiums don't have to be brand-new, as demonstrated by the creative reuse and updating of Portland, Oregon's Providence Park stadium.  Originally built in 1926 as Multnomah Stadium, its name evolved with ownership by an athletic club, a power company and a window manufacturer, but its core location and character remained constant.  Renovations to support MLS occurred in 2001 ($38.5 million) and 2009-2011 ($31 million), with the MLS Portland Timber being one of the league's most popular teams today.

Tearing down Charlotte's Memorial Stadium would erase a bit of history, but building upon and modifying the historic base would provide continuity in our built and social environment.  The site is also near Charlotte's newly developing CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar, so Memorial Stadium could benefit from transit proximity, just as Portland's Providence Park's MAX light rail station serves legions of Portland Timber fans.

Charlotte has the potential to have an East Coast counterpart to Portland's stadium, a stadium that balances the past and present, so let's shift our mindset from "demolishing/replacing" to "modifying/updating".  The end result will be a more interesting stadium gained through the honoring of history.

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 (www.strongtowns.org) 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".