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 ( 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