Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Regenerating the center

In my first post, I noted that recent events/trends inspired me to start this blog.  Here are some things on my mind.

Other Cities

I'm a regular reader of Urbanophile, an Indianapolis-based blog that advocates for strong center-cities.  A post last month discussing transit for Indy made me think, "Hmm, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County mirrors these trends in some ways."
... for a place like Indianapolis, the real case for transit is strategic.  In a nutshell, the urban core of Indianapolis is collapsing because if offers an "urban lite" environment that is almost entirely automobile oriented and thus in direct competition with suburbs that are newer, of higher quality contemporary designs that meet the market demand of today and which have better public services and lower taxes to boot ... when you offer an older, inferior version of the same basic auto-oriented product as the suburbs, but with higher taxes, don't expect many takers. 
Aaron Renn, Urbanophile's author, is making the case for "product/brand differentiation."  In Charlotte, huge areas of the city have seen marked property value decreases (see map below).

Sure, part of this is probably due to the post-2008 recession/housing bubble, etc., but Charlotte also faces the potential liability of close-in neighborhoods (Plaza-Midwood, NoDa, Wilmore, Dilworth) and older suburbs (Madison Park, Merry Oaks, Oakhurst, Sheffield Park) being perceived as outdated, or at least not properly marketed/branded.  How can Charlotte strategically position and brand itself to say, "We're different from our surrounding suburban counties and that's a GOOD thing!"?  We can start by looking at increasing our transportation and housing options, which are often intertwined through transit oriented development (TOD), which the Charlotte Streetcar would help foster.

The Urbanophile's transit post also referred to a previous post, now four years old but HIGHLY relevant to all center-cities today - it's a lengthy but worthwhile read!  I'll expand on some of its ideas soon, but one that immediately caught my attention was the concept of pushing for "100 Monument Circles" (referring to an Indy neighborhood) - could Charlotte seek to regenerate parts of the city into more NoDas, Plaza-Midwoods, or South Ends?  The Charlotte Streetcar would help do that for portions of north/west and east Charlotte.

The Charlotte Streetcar

The proposed 10-mile streetcar line has been called a vehicle for growth/development (see BAE study), a reason for that State of NC to withhold funding for light-rail, and lots of other things good, bad or otherwise.  I think the streetcar's a good thing, as it literally ties together the Blue Line light-rail, planned Red Line commuter rail and relocated Amtrak/intercity bus station planned for Gateway Station.  The $500 million streetcar (existing Blue Line LRT was $463 million, Blue Line LRT extension is $1.2 billion) is a central element of CATS 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan and should not be scrapped amidst the City's other spending priorities (past and present listed below):
  • $125 million: Bank of America Stadium for Carolina Panthers
  • $8 million: New Charlotte Knights downtown stadium
  • $256 million: Time Warner Cable Arena
  • $200 million: NASCAR Hall of Fame
  • $158 million: new and renovated museums in downtown
Of course, the streetcar is part of a much larger issue for Charlotte.  Plan Charlotte's Mary Newsom noted this in "Growth challenge dwarfs the streetcar spat", with a cross-posting on her blog The Naked City. The following quotes are parsed from both articles.
... The way Charlotte grew until now is not the way the city will grow in the future. Annexation has all but ended. So how can we keep the city's property tax base healthy without easy population and territory growth? Since 2003, large parts of the city have shown property value decreases. 
Streetcar or no, Charlotte still faces the overall situation of trying to grow from within, with no annexation. And redeveloping and adding density in an already-built city is much tougher than building on a patch of woods or cow pasture outside town. “Density” may be beloved by urban designers, but to many people it sounds like a high-rise housing project with roaches and broken elevators. And faced with multistory buildings proposed next door, even the fairest-minded homeowners can transform into NIMBYs faster than a werewolf under a full moon. 
Is it really the only tool available for revitalization? Foxx and the streetcar supporters who argue it’s needed for revitalization might want to have Plans B and C in mind. Because the big problem – how the city will grow and stay healthy – is likely to be with us for decades. 
She hits upon a several great points, most notably about how the city needs to stabilize and enhance its property-tax base.  There's also the note about NIMBYs, which I'll get to in future posts.  The map below is the quickest, simplest story: the City (and County as a whole) needs more yellow (stable) and green (growing) areas than pink (declining). And for slight photo-jog on right side of text column, blame me, and Blogger, for wanting to show you a larger/legible image - layout and design will come with time.

The Suburbs

Another Plan Charlotte article, "Is the Charlotte region ready for another boom?" points to the need for Charlotte to attract population and investment.  I think I'm driving a long way when I go from Plaza-Midwood to Park Road Shopping Center (6.5 miles) .. then I look at a map like this and realize that sprawl is WAY outside of Charlotte/Mecklenburg County.  The decade from 2010 to 2020 will be a different one from 2000-2010 in many ways, but again, the trend for a successful Charlotte is to change pink to green.

Introducing: CityCentric Charlotte

If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.
General Eric Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U.S. Army
That's one of my favorite quotes, and it came to mind as recent events inspired me to start this blog. CityCentric Charlotte will advocate for and highlight the city's regeneration into a more livable urban place.  Why does Charlotte need to become more urban?  It needs to evolve to stay relevant in the 21st century amongst peer cities, and more immediately in relation to surrounding suburban counties (more on that shortly).

As this blog progresses,  I'll offer observations on urban planning, infill development, urban design, neighborhoods, and the many other dynamics that influence city life.  Blog posts/topics will range from the serious to the silly, with the common goal of being thought-provoking and conversation-starting.