The famed Excelsior Club, possibly to be demolished, in keeping with local tradition. Photo courtesy Dan Morrill
Even in the chest-pumping venues of deep-booster Charlotte, an inkling of the problem sometimes creeps in. Janet LaBar, the new CEO of the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance even said it out loud in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. “I think Charlotte doesn’t have a brand,” she told reporter Deon Roberts.
The comment came up today at a regular weekly rump session over eggs, biscuits, livermush and bacon with a group of mostly long-time Charlotte residents, several of them Charlotte natives. I recalled the one-time civic discussion of a possible monument at The Square, the symbolic heart of the city at Trade and Tryon uptown. There was a time when folks were trying to figure out what could be an image that would capture the city’s essence. The late Doug Marlette, then the Observer’s editorial cartoonist, proposed an Eternal Barbecue Pit. Of course, other N.C. barbecue fans noted that Charlotte was famed, not for barbecue, but for being a place without authentic N.C. barbecue joints. Whatever.
What got put up at The Square was four didactic, symbolic statues representing Commerce, Industry, Transportation, and The Future. Visiting poet Andrei Codrescu once described them on NPR as Socialist-Realist and noted that the gold nuggets pouring on a symbolic banker’s head looked like turds.
And there’s a nice old-fashioned-looking clock in a small park on one corner. That park is modeled on the terrain of the Pacific Northwest, or maybe it was the Appalachian mountains – neither of them exactly representative of Charlotte’s terrain. It was built after the city used eminent domain to take and demolish the only antebellum store buildings uptown, which were offering not a heavily symbolic statue but actual Commerce.
Which leads me to the idea our rump session this morning devised. Because when asked, what iconic image does “Charlotte” bring to mind, people said: There isn’t one because Charlotte tears everything down.
After discussion digressed for a short time into various houses folks had owned and raised kids in only to see new owners tear them down for bigger houses, the idea emerged organically. The iconic image of Charlotte is of buildings being torn down.
Hence this modest proposal: Create a monument to Charlotte that is a building. It might be a small model of a historic building that should have been preserved. Maybe the Hotel Charlotte. Maybe the Independence Building. Maybe the Masonic Temple. I hope the Excelsior Club does not join this list.
Then every year on the city’s birthday, the model building is demolished. A new one goes in its place. It will last one year, and then, with pomp and ritual, it too is demolished. And so on. Erasing the past, year after year after year.
Trees about to be planted beside Briar Creek Greenway. Photo: Mary Newsom
I was walking a short new segment of greenway beside Briar Creek on a sunny day and, about a mile south of the Mint Museum Randolph, I spotted a mass of young trees in plastic pots.
Of course I had to inspect them. Each plant had a TreesCharlotte tag identifying the species. I had stumbled on a large planting project destined for later in the week for that section of the greenway.
This was a cheerful discovery. The greenway, built by the Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department, runs generally beside a stretch of Briar Creek, from the Mint Museum Randolph and its park downstream to Meadowbrook Road. That creek segment has just been re-engineered in a project by Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Storm Water Services. The project aims to improve water quality and mitigate flooding. But it left the creek banks bare.
Looking upstream along toward the Mint Museum Randolph, with the Eastover neighborhood at left. The Storm Water Services creek project left the Briar Creek banks bare. Photo: Mary Newsom
The planting is a partnership among TreesCharlotte, the Catawba Lands Conservancy, which protects several dozen acres of wetlands woods through which the greenway runs, and Piedmont Natural Gas, which paid for the trees and which will help with tree stewardship. TreesCharlotte’s goal is to protect and expand Charlotte’s tree canopy, which is diminishing because of development as well as the aging out of trees planted a century ago.
It was good to note that the more than 200 trees planted were almost all native species. Here’s a partial list, based on labels on the trees I saw:
Witch hazel blossoms in late winter.
Paw paw (Asimina triloba) Little Gem magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) Fringe tree, and spring fleecing fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) White oak (Quercus alba) Burgundy hearts redbud (Cercis canadensis) Oklahoma redbud (Cercis canadensis) Overcup oak (Quercus lyrata) Cherokee princess dogwood (Cornus florida) Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) Arnold promise witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis).
Of that list only the witch hazel (pictured at right) is a non-native. This particular variety is a cross between a Japanese and Chinese witch hazel. Other species to be planted include tulip poplar and black gum.
Why does it matter that they’re native species? Invasive plant species are a huge and growing threat to our environment and its biodiversity. They crowd out native species – think kudzu or wisteria – which alters food sources for wildlife, including insects. Among the major problem plants are privet, English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass and honeysuckle. (Learn more here and here.)
Piedmont Natural Gas’ participation is part of a required mitigation for environmental disruptions elsewhere.
Magnolia trees awaiting planting. Photo: Mary Newsom
Map from Charlotte Area Transit System shows current plan for the Silver Line light rail, which would be built after funding is found for it. A closer view of the west section of the route is below.
Some controversy continues over the decision by the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) to route the proposed Silver Line light rail outside of the heart of uptown Charlotte, bypassing the most convenient transfer points with the existing Blue Line. )See “Five key takeaways from Charlotte’s newest transit plan”)
The Silver Line would run from Matthews, through uptown, out Wilkinson Boulevard to the airport and west to the Gaston County town of Belmont. One idea studied would have run it through uptown via a tunnel under Trade Street. That would add roughly $1 billion to construction costs. In my reporting, I referred to the tunnel idea as costing less to operate over time and shortening travel time considerably. But Brock LaForty, the Carolinas area manager for the consultant WSP, which CATS hired to study Silver Line routes, contacted me to make clear that WSP’s analysis found the tunnel route would save two minutes per trip, a difference he and CATS officials both called marginal, and he said WSP had not analyzed whether the tunnel would cost less to operate over time.
The statements about travel time and lower operating costs were the personal opinions of Ron Tober, a former CATS CEO with extensive transit planning and operating experience in multiple cities, who was working for WSP as a consultant on the project.
Tober’s remarks created a bit of a stir between WSP, CATS and Tober. Tober told me he was deliberate in speaking out about CATS’ decision to opt for a route bypassing the heart of uptown Charlotte and the Charlotte Transportation Center in favor of one farther north, along the side of the Brookshire Expressway. Tober said he recognized there might be blowback if he went public with his concerns. And there was. Tober was to have left WSP at the end of March. Instead, he left last week.
CATS Chief Executive John Lewis told Steve Harrison of WFAE, Charlotte’s public radio station, that the decision not to select the tunnel option was influenced by the city’s goals for economic development. “From a purely mobility standpoint, the tunnel was a great alternative for us,” Lewis told Harrison, but said CATS couldn’t look only at mobility. “Lewis said CATS is a part of the city of Charlotte and the city has other goals, like economic development. The area around I-277 is mostly empty today,” Harrison reported.
He quoted Lewis: “And being a part of the city, we had to look at it beyond just the mobility aspect of, how do we move people from one point to another” Lewis said. “There were the economic development goals, there was supporting affordable housing.”
Remember, Lewis works for City Manager Marcus Jones. And the City Council, as well as many others in the community, have deep and appropriate concerns about the city’s need for more affordable housing. Putting affordable housing along the city’s new light rail lines is a longtime – if under-realized – goal.
But look at the areas near the Brookshire and North Tryon Street where the Silver Line would go. The area is already redeveloping and gentrifying. Residents and small businesses in Belmont, Optimist Park, Druid Hills, Lockwood and the Greenville neighborhood are already worried about land prices zooming upward. (See “North End Is Hot, But Can It Handle Coming Change?”) It isn’t as if those areas will see no new development without the light rail. To say the Silver Line is needed for “economic development” is – to put it diplomatically – unrealistic. Some might even say untethered from reality.
Plus, there is no funding to build the Silver Line. Today’s GOP leadership at federal and state levels are either virulently anti-transit or just not interested in spending more money on it. Any new taxes to support CATS and the Silver Line would need a state legislative OK and would presumably involve surrounding counties which have not in the past two decades offered to tax their own residents for transit. Do not hold your breath that anything will happen until well after 2020, and quite possibly 2030. In other words gentrification will have swallowed the area now being eyed as needing economic development long before the Silver Line gets built. A deep concern that development needs a boost is, to my eyes, misplaced.
Is this just the latest impatient development push from Charlotte’s uptown leaders, who have not in my 40 years of residence here ever met a glitzy development project they did not welcome? Are they embarrassed that North Tryon Street is not yet glossy enough? After all, there are two facilities for the homeless on North Tryon near where the Silver Line would run, and the area can look at bit down at the heels. Can’t have that, can we?
I’m not a transit analyst and not equipped to say whether long-term cost savings of the tunnel would make up for the extra cost to build it, or whether the inconvenience of the Silver Line bypassing the heart of uptown will be a serious impediment to ridership, or not. That deserves clear-eyed study. Assessing the way the route will affect real estate development deserves some clear thinking as well.
“Economic development” brings higher land prices to an area. That makes affordability even harder to provide. The city has not to date ensured that any affordable housing gets built near its existing light rail line. It hopes to rectify that, which is admirable and I wish them well. But so far those plans are embryonic, not a proven and successful strategy.
So do they want “economic development,” or do they want affordable housing? It is very hard to have both at the same time in one place, especially if that place is in an extremely hot development market, like Charlotte.
I’m left with this question: Should the city reject without further study what may be a better mobility option – which would benefit all transit riders – in hopes that its elusive affordable housing wishes bear fruit?
A closer view of where the Silver Line would run through west Charlotte, across the Catawba River and into the town of Belmont. Map courtesy of CATS
The chosen Silver Line route is shown in green, at right, along 11th Street. The blue line shows where the Trade Street tunnel would have run. Other options not chosen are a surface route along Trade Street (purple) and a route along the existing Blue Line.
No tunnel uptown. A light rail line crossing the Catawba River into Belmont. Finally light rail to Pineville?
When the Charlotte Area Transit System’s policy body on Wednesday unanimously adopted an update to its 2030 Transit System Plan, those optimistic visions became part of the official CATS planning process.
Note to readers: CATS doesn’t currently have money to build any of those things, estimated to cost $6 billion or more. Just so you know.
1. No tunnel uptown. CATS hired consultants WSP (the former Parsons Brinckerhoff) to study a tricky issue – how would the proposed Silver Line (formerly known as the Southeast Corridor), get across all the freeways encircling uptown, then through uptown and head west on its route to Charlotte Douglas International Airport and over the Catawba River?
CATS’ existing light rail line, the Blue Line and Blue Line Extension, travel through uptown on a pre-existing rail corridor. The proposed Silver Line would not. It’s planned to run alongside Independence Boulevard and then head west, thereby adding the former West Corridor to the Silver Line. Any way you look at it, getting that sucker through uptown will mean complicated engineering and high costs.
One option WSP proposed was to tunnel under Trade Street to the existing Charlotte Transportation Center, a hub for most bus routes as well as a Blue Line light rail stop, and up West Trade Street to the not-yet-built Gateway Station, which would also hold a new Amtrak station. Gateway Station is also envisioned as the terminus for the long-proposed-but-still-distant Red Line commuter rail to north Mecklenburg. More about that later.
The MTC opted not for the tunnel but for a route running the Silver Line above ground, beside 11th Street, then alongside the existing Amtrak route beside Elmwood Cemetery, over to Gateway Station and then heading west to the airport. It’s less expensive to build, although the tunnel route would have cost less to operate, over time, the consultants said, and would have shortened Silver Line travel time considerably.
2. At long last, Pineville welcomes light rail. Ever wondered why the Lynx Blue Line ends where it does, just outside the south Mecklenburg municipality of Pineville? The stated reason from Pineville officials when the Blue Line was planned almost two decades ago was that the town didn’t want the high-density, transit-oriented development that would, rail boosters proclaimed, spring up all along the line. So the Blue Line ends at I-485, just outside Pineville.
“Saved us $30 million,” recalled Ron Tober, who was CATS CEO at the time and who happened to be sitting next to me Wednesday night.
For the record, to date no high-density, transit-oriented development has yet come anywhere near Pineville.
And on Oct. 9 of last year, the Town of Pineville adopted a resolution to support the prospect of CATS someday extending its light rail line to Pineville’s Carolina Place Mall and then to Ballantyne in far south Charlotte. “Pineville stakeholders now recognizes (sic) the need to extend the line into Pineville, the Ballantyne area and beyond to ... improve the accessibility of rapid transit and provide a faster link to and from other parts of the Greater Charlotte area ...” the resolution states.
3. Finally, light rail to the airport, and into Gaston County. Someday. The proposed transit corridor formerly known as the West Corridor, and (sort of) planned to be a streetcar is now officially part of the proposed Silver Line. It would be light rail along Wilkinson Boulevard past the airport, across the Catawba River and end in the Gaston County town of Belmont. This would be CATS’ first light rail venture across county lines. Further, an ongoing Regional Transit Study would evaluate light rail to downtown Gastonia.
Gastonia Mayor Walker Reid III on Wednesday presented a city proclamation supporting the idea of light rail to Gastonia. Politically, Gaston County has been deep red, with Republican county commissioners less than a decade ago complaining that greenways were, in essence, creeping socialism. So this is progress of a sort.
The West Corridor, now renamed part of the Silver Line, would run along Wilkinson Boulevard (the route shown in purple) and cross the Catawba River into Belmont in Gaston County.
4. Still no commuter rail to north Mecklenburg, for now. The updated plan calls for short-, medium- and long-term options heading north. Short-term would be enhanced express-lane bus service along I-77 to and from the north Mecklenburg towns, using the soon-to-open I-77 toll lanes. Medium term would be bus rapid transit from Gateway Station to Mooresville in southern Iredell County. This service would be all-day, including nights and weekends. Bus rapid transit (a.k.a. BRT) uses dedicated lanes so it’s faster than regular bus service.
Long-term, the plan would be to keep talking with Norfolk Southern about using its rarely used rail right-of-way from uptown Charlotte to Mooresville for rail transit – maybe commuter rail as was originally proposed.
5. Even some Union County enthusiasm. If Gaston County is red, then Union County is, if such a thing is possible, even deeper red. Nevertheless, the town of Stallings passed a resolution asking CATS to at least study the possibility of extending the Silver Line from Matthews into Union County and to a potential terminus in Stallings. So CATS will study that.
Remember, though, there’s no money for CATS to build any new light rail. And to date not one of the surrounding counties has proposed taxing its own residents, as Mecklenburg does with its half-cent sales tax for transit, to help build out the transit system.
Tear-downs that make way for large new houses, like these in the Cherry neighborhood, drive up property values of smaller, older houses nearby. Photo: Mary Newsom
It’s tax revaluation time! Are you excited? We aren’t either. Seeing your property value skyrocket is only fun if you are planning to sell it ASAP. For most of us who aren’t real estate speculators, higher values don’t mean more money shoots into our bank accounts, because we can’t easily convert property into extra income unless we decide to raise goats, chickens or marijuana in the back yard.
Nevertheless, revaluations are an important equity tool. If you wait years to do them, you’re giving a tax benefit to wealthier property owners with rising values and giving a comparative tax penalty to properties whose values did not go up as much, or not at all.
If that sounds confusing, read on.
Mecklenburg County has been revaluing its property every seven or eight years. That means someone whose mansion was valued at (we’ll keep to round numbers here) $1 million at the last valuation has been paying taxes on that figure, even though that same mansion is now valued at $3 million. So $2 million of its value has been, essentially, tax free for some of those eight years.
Now, consider someone whose house was worth $100,000 eight years ago and is now worth $150,000. Yes, they’ve gotten $50,000 in value tax free for some of those eight years. But ... compare that with $2 million.
Finally, someone whose property value went down has been paying taxes on a value that’s too high. For this particular revaluation there aren’t likely to be many who fit that description, since the 2011 revaluation came amid a deep real estate slump with hundreds of foreclosures, followed by recent years of dramatically higher land prices.
In 1990, then-Charlotte Observer reporters Liz Chandler and Foon Rhee did an exhaustive comparison of land sales prices versus assessed values from the previous revaluation in 1983. They wrote:
“Thousands of Mecklenburg County homeowners will pay more than their share of property taxes this year. And their extra taxes will allow tax benefits for a smaller group of homeowners – most with higher-priced homes. Property is being taxed unfairly because county officials are not keeping up-to-date tax values on homes, according to an Observer study of 3,425 home sales last year. That’s because the tax office only appraises property countywide once every four years.” [In recent years the county has revalued every seven or eight years.]
The reporters explained:
“If the tax burden was evenly spread this year – the last year before a new appraisal – all homeowners would pay taxes on 83 percent of the market value of their homes, the study indicates. But that isn’t the case. Areas where home values have risen sharply are likely to be taxed on less than 83 percent. And slower-growing, low- and middle-income areas are more likely to be taxed on more than 83 percent.”
The Observer research, comparing sales prices to assessed tax value, found that during those years county tax officials generally undervalued commercial property more than residential property. That means residential property owners were, in essence, subsidizing business properties. Commercial properties were, on average, assessed and taxed at 65 percent of their market value, the newspaper found, compared to an overall property valuation countywide of 79 percent of its market value. (County tax officials responded that commercial property was harder to assess.)
Some important caveats are needed:
One: A tax revaluation does not automatically mean everyone’s tax bill rises. Elected officials set a tax rate, and they can lower the rate so that, on average, no one’s bill goes up. But if your property is above or below the average, your tax bill would still change, going up or down, depending. If you’re a politician, you know rising property values will have many voters angry, even before the tax rate is set. So if they’re going to be angry regardless, it’s tempting to go ahead and bring in a bit more revenue by not setting a so-called “revenue-neutral” tax rate, since city and county needs are growing along with the population.
Two: According to analysis from Charlotte Observer writers Ely Portillo and Gavin Off, some of the highest percentage increases in value this year are in close-in, predominantly black areas: Grier Heights, Washington Heights, Druid Hills, Villa Heights and Belmont. “On average, property values in those neighborhoods increased by 126 to 156 percent. Many individual properties doubled or even tripled in value,” the Observer wrote.
That means “equity” in property assessments this year could look inequitable, if low-income and minority property owners are hit with proportionately higher tax values. (See Her home’s tax value nearly tripled.)
There is a better way. Revalue property more often. Every two years would be more equitable and prevent the heart-stopping (and for some people, budget-busting) increases that come from long delays between revaluations. Since 1983 the county has for a variety of reasons mostly deviated from its every-four-years revaluation goal, although they say they plan to resume it.
The 1990 Observer article found that across the country, many local governments revalue more often than every eight years. The reporters wrote:
“In Phoenix, Maricopa County tax assessor Ira Friedman, said: ‘If you have spiraling increases in values, it makes sense from an equity standpoint to revalue property every year. It’s commonly done nationwide. It’s really a simple system.’ ”
Not for recreation only: The Little Sugar Creek Greenway beside Kings Drive in Midtown makes a convenient route for shoppers. The Cross-Charlotte Trail is envisioned as both recreation and transportation. Photo: Nancy Pierce
What should we make of the news this month that the proposed Cross-Charlotte Trail, a joint city-county project, is some $77 million short of the city money it needs to be finished?
That’s essentially what the Charlotte City Council was told Jan. 7 – that to complete the 26-mile bike-pedestrian trail across the county would require an estimated $77 million beyond the $38 million in city money previously allocated (and mostly spent).
Did costs balloon along the way? Why was the council seemingly blindsided? And what happens next?
After talking with a variety of folks about the trial and its funding problem, my conclusions:
No. 1: Not enough people were paying enough attention to the original cost estimates for a trail through the heart of the city, or to how rising construction and land costs everywhere would inevitably drive up costs.
No. 2: City and county governments still work in separate silos. Early city estimates, dating to 2012, relied too heavily on what the county had spent to build greenways, apparently with city officials not realizing the county greenways generally only get built where land acquisition is free or cheap and where topography is not complex.
No. 3: The City Council wasn’t updated regularly enough, especially as land and construction costs began rising after 2012, as the city finally pulled out of the recession.
No. 4: Turnover in city leadership probably did not help.
How a city trail is related to the county’s greenway program Some background. One essential fact to understand is that Charlotte has no park and recreation department. In 1992, the Charlotte parks department was absorbed into the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department. Whether that was a good move is a topic for another day. The county park department plans, funds, builds and maintains greenways, which typically run beside creeks, in large part because land there tends not to be developed, or else a candidate for the county’s floodplain buyout or creek restoration programs. In other words, getting right-of-way hasn’t required a lot of county greenway money.
It also helps to know that in 2010, in the depths of the economic downturn here, the cash-strapped county slashed its park department budget by almost half. It has not restored staffing to 2010 levels, despite a county population increase from 2010 to 2017 of more than 157,000 people – larger than the entire population of Charleston, or Asheville.
The Toby Creek Greenway near UNC Charlotte is an already-open part of the Cross-Charlotte Trail. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Because the county’s greenway expenditures haven’t been robust, large gaps exist in the county greenway master plan. (See “The long, long path for one Charlotte greenway” about the Toby Creek Greenway.) In 1999 Mecklenburg County adopted a 10-year-master plan goal of 185 greenway miles. By 2008 only a cumulative total of 30 miles had been built. By 2018 the number had inched up to 47 miles of developed greenways. (For more on the slow rate of greenway building, see “Why does greenway vision remain unfulfilled?”
In 2012 the city – which considers greenways part of the transportation system but which hasn’t really built any – proposed helping the county build some of those unfinished miles of its greenway plan, generally along Little Sugar Creek, to create a 26-mile bike-pedestrian trail from the S.C. border near Pineville to the Cabarrus County line north of UNC Charlotte. It would be a $38 million project, the proposal said, paid through a series of bond issues. To date, three bond issues have funded $38 million.
Put together the puzzle pieces and what emerges is a picture of a project with too few people paying attention to its budget.
The city proposed the trail in 2012, says Charlotte Department of Transportation Director Liz Babson. But anyone who was following construction costs in Charlotte and familiar with the county’s greenway methods (with as little capital outlay as possible) should have known a construction estimate dating to 2012 might have a few problems. Further, the parts the city agreed to build are through much more intensely developed areas, and areas where no easy trail routes can be found.
Did city transportation staff know much about county greenways?
Further complicating that 2012 budget estimate from the Charlotte Department of Transportation is that they based it on the county’s per-mile greenway construction costs. Both Babson and former CDOT Director Danny Pleasant, now an assistant city manager, described that as one of the problems. Remember, the county was building on cheap or free land, and not where land or construction costs would be high. As Babson told me this week, “We had never built a trail before.” The city applied county per-mile construction estimates to greenway segments the county “had chosen not to build,” she said. “And now we know why.”
Changing faces among city staff and elected officials
In addition, city government was seeing plenty of turnover in high places. City Manager Curt Walton retired in 2012, as the Cross-Charlotte Trail plans were being hatched. Three more city managers have come since then: Ron Carlee (2013-2016), interim Ron Kimble (half of 2016), and Marcus Jones (December 2016-today). Department heads have changed as well. Today’s CDOT director, Babson, has been in that job only a year.
Little Sugar Creek Greenway at Parkwood Avenue. Photo: Nancy Pierce
Further, five more mayors have served since 2012. Anthony Foxx left in 2013 to become U.S. Transportation Secretary. Succeeding him were Patsy Kinsey, Patrick Cannon, Dan Clodfelter, Jennifer Roberts and now Mayor Vi Lyles. It probably didn't help that Cannon was indicted, resigned and pleaded guilty in 2014, creating months of upheaval in city government.
Even the 11-member City Council has seen unusually large turnover. Six of the 11 council members were new to the job in 2017.
Should City Council members have been so surprised?
It’s clear from their reactions that City Council members didn’t understand the scope of the funding shortfall.
You can’t help but wonder whether more robust cooperation across the city-county governments (can you say “tall silos”?) might have left council members more informed about the overall greenway program and its budget-constrained approach.
Hints were dropped here and there, but it’s hard to fault council members for not picking up on them. Several council members recall being told early in 2018 at a council retreat that the $38 million couldn’t fund the whole Cross-Charlotte Trail. But remember, six new council members were still in the drinking-from-a-firehose-of-information stage.
In addition, the 2016 Cross-Charlotte Trail Master Plan refers to the need for more money. “It is anticipated that resources in addition to the bond proceeds will be required to construct and maintain the trail,” it says. And, “We recommend that future bond allocations be considered as the primary funding opportunity to pay for large remaining gaps in costs.”
But come on. Those warnings are in the text on pages 149 and 150.
Babson conceded to me this week, “I don’t think we were in front of council as often as we needed to be.”
What happens next? City Manger Jones, in an interview with local NPR station WFAE, said, “The commitment is to finish the Cross Charlotte Trail in its original version.” He said he’s looking at options, including possibly using a portion of the city’s tourism tax funding to pay for some of the trail.
Another likely possibility is that as development occurs along the unfinished portions of the trail’s route, such as along the Blue Line Extension light rail, the city would work with developers and encourage them to build some segments or to dedicate land to the trail project, the way they’d get developers to build a sidewalk or pay for a traffic signal.
There could be more bond issues, since the city holds bond referendums every few years for other infrastructure projects such as street widening and intersection expansions. State or federal grant programs might help with some of the costs.
Council member Greg Phipps, a veteran of the council’s transportation and planning committee, predicted Monday the council would continue to support the trail. “The vision of the trail hasn’t changed. We’ve come this far. We have to find a way to complete this thing.”
Students use Torrence Creek Greenway in Huntersville as a transportation route on a Walk To School Day in 2015. Photo: Nancy Pierce
A Walmart in east Charlotte offers a gracious plenty of parking. Photo: Google Maps satellite view
It’s a question without easy answers. But that just makes it even more important to confront, and find a guiding strategy. It’s time for Charlotte to talk about parking.
Parking is both blessing and curse for any city built – as Charlotte mostly was – around private automobile use.
There’s a lot to curse. An admittedly incomplete list of problems parking lots cause would include the way they devour valuable land space that could hold housing, stores, workplaces, parks, community gardens, tree canopy, pretty much any use valued by city residents. (See below for a short list of what could go into one parking space.) They send storm water runoff cascading into local surface waters (i.e. creeks), polluting them and causing more frequent flooding onto the floodplains where foolish development was allowed. Remember Hurricane Florence in September? Get used to it, as climate change brings more heavy rainstorms. They add to the urban heat island effect, pushing the rising summer temperatures even higher. And the need to provide parking creates significant headaches for small businesses.
And finally this: With so much parking both “free” and available, we almost always hop into the car instead of asking, could we walk? Bicycle? Take a bus or light rail?
But parking lots can also be a blessing in a city built to make driving the automatic choice for almost all of us. For most residents here, any alternatives to private automobile travel – walking, bicycling, scootering, transit or ride-shares – aren’t available or competitive in terms of time, hassle and cost. And when we drive, we need temporary lodging for our vehicles.
I was reminded of this late last month. Rain was pelting the asphalt as I wheeled into what looked like the last available parking spot at Cotswold shopping center, then sloshed across the asphalt for last-minute Christmas shopping. I was glad to find even that terrible parking place.
But should two weeks in December really determine the size of parking lots year-round? It’s January now, and across most of Charlotte those huge lots at our shopping centers revert to their 50-other-weeks-a year condition: plenty of open, “free” spaces.
It’s time for Charlotte policy-makers to figure out how to get a handle on parking. How can we encourage smarter use of our land while admitting cars will be with us, even if, we hope, in smaller numbers? Can we acknowledge the social inequities embedded in our autopilot acquiescence to providing all the parking anyone needs for the Saturday before Christmas? Can we ask:
How much parking should be required? How much should be allowed?
Why isn’t more parking shared between day- and night-time uses, and how can the city encourage more sharing?
Why should churches, schools and other institutions get a free pass to expand surface parking lots into nearby neighborhoods almost without limit?
How in terms of parking regulations, do we treat places differently, since places in the city are different? Ballantyne is not NoDa, and University City is not Myers Park.
Can the city lead on this issue? Could it assist with financing private, shared parking decks, more space-efficient and environmentally prudent but more expensive to build?
Couldn’t some parking lot and meter revenue help fund something helpful?
City planners are rewriting ordinances governing development in light rail station areas, called Transit Oriented Development (TOD) zoning. They propose eliminating any required minimum number of parking spots except for restaurants within 200 feet of single-family homes. They believe (with reason) that providing easy, “free” parking close to light rail stops encourages people to drive when they could walk, cycle or take transit.
The problem, of course, is that not offering easy parking doesn’t stop people from driving in from areas where transit isn’t readily available and walking isn’t safe or efficient. Yes, I personally will sometimes drive 15 minutes to get to a light rail station where I can “park for free”* and then ride to South End or NoDa, but I am not a typical Charlottean. Example: For me to leave home and arrive at the Evening Muse in NoDa for an 8 p.m. event would be a one-hour transit trip, and that’s with a bus stop a quick, 5-minute walk from our house. Driving is 15-20 minutes.
Further, developers will tell you that lenders require a certain amount of parking, even if the city doesn’t. Yes, easing the TOD parking requirement may well be a smart thing, but it’s no silver bullet that kills the parking monster.
Just imagine what could go in one 220-square-foot parking space: room for 10 bicycles, space for lunch with 15 friends, 3 office work spaces, or one small studio in Paris. That fun factoid comes courtesy of author Taras Grescoe (@Grescoe on Twitter) and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York (@ITDP_HQ on Twitter).
So as Charlotte dives into a new comprehensive plan, Charlotte Future 2040, can we please take a harder look at parking? We’re going to need some of that space for other things.
* Why is “free” in quote marks? Because parking is never really free. The cost is embedded in rents you pay, the cost of goods you buy from merchants who must build those parking lots or pay the cost in their leases.
Planner and author Daniel Shoup studies parking and believes it’s been subsidized in a way that’s inequitable. “Wherever you go – a grocery store, say – a little bit of the money you pay for products is siphoned away to pay for parking," Shoup says (as quoted in this 2014 article in Vox). "My idea is simple: if somebody doesn't have a car, they shouldn't have to pay for parking.”
Shoup estimates the national tally for public subsidies for parking at $127 billion.
Apparently Google's Satellite View camera did not take the photo of this south Charlotte church lot on a Sunday morning.
UNC Charlotte design student presents plans imagining a transit-oriented neighborhood, North Park. Photo: Mary Newsom
It was 250 years ago this week, Dec. 3, 1768, that the City of Charlotte was officially born with an act by the royal governor of the colony of North Carolina. (Read that charter here.) Monday, the city celebrated in a ceremony uptown with a sound stage and music so extremely amplified that you couldn’t talk to anyone, with birthday cake and food trucks.
Jim Williams as Thomas Polk
It wasn’t a fancy, planned-for-two-years kind of celebration – no fireworks, parades with visiting dignitaries, planes flying banners overhead. But of course, officialdom in Charlotte for as long as I’ve lived here has been more interested in pushing future growth and prosperity than in examining and learning from the past.
That 1768 charter designated five white men to be “city directors,” and one of them, Thomas Polk, was loitering near the sound stage Monday, waiting for the noon speechifying. Polk, or really, local history enthusiast Jim Williams, was resplendent in a black tricorne hat, buff-colored waistcoat, and knee breeches and frock coat of the color that 200 years later would be known as Carolina Blue. Polk – the real one – was a shrewd fellow of Scots-Irish ancestry who before eventually moving on to Tennessee played a key role in the city’s first – but by no means last – spec development.
Polk and a few others, on their own dime, built a log courthouse where two trading paths intersected, in hopes of giving the young town a competitive edge to be designated the Mecklenburg County seat. Which would, of course, make their own property more valuable.
And for a city on the make, what could be a more fitting foundational story?
WE MOVE FROM 1768 TO ... SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE
After the noontime birthday festivities that celebrated the past, I headed off to hear, instead, about an imagined future – one that would transform an unattractive, car- and truck-filled intersection into a neighborhood of shops, sidewalks, fruit trees and, of course, a brewery.
First-year Master of Urban Design students at UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts + Architecture were presenting their fall semester project: Envisioning a transit-oriented neighborhood near the Old Concord Road light rail stop. It’s just northeast of the Eastway Drive-North Tryon Street intersection, one of the city’s many areas built solely for the benefit of car and truck drivers.
The assignment from Professor Deb Ryan was to draw a plan for the area generally within a 10-minute walk from the station. After she assigned it, Ryan said, she learned that Mecklenburg County had bought a large chunk of the area – the almost-defunct old North Park Mall site, with its vast potholed asphalt parking lot and derelict empty spaces – and planned to turn it into community services offices.
Although such student plans are essentially just theoretical exercises of the imagination, the students opted to incorporate some of the county’s plans into their own – in hopes the county staff might see some ideas and cooperate in helping transform the whole area.
Cardboard model of the envisioned North Park neighborhood. Photo: Mary Newsom
The students offered a vision – and a nifty cardboard model arrayed on the floor – of a walkable neighborhood with plenty of trees, housing and offices set out along streets lined with stores. They envisioned an elementary school, a research campus outpost of UNC Charlotte, which is 4 miles to the north, and a generous helping of affordable housing.
“What we tried to do is push the idea of health and walkability,” Ryan told a small audience of community members and professional urban designers.
The area today has few attributes of walkability. Although it has some begrudging sidewalks, things are built far enough apart that walking isn’t attractive. The stores and restaurants are splayed out along busy thoroughfares with parking lots in front and between them. Many of the smaller streets don’t connect to anything. It’s hard to cross the busy streets. More walkable areas, by contrast, have nearby places you’d want to walk to, interesting shops and businesses set along the sidewalk, lots of connections, and plenty of residents close by so enough people are out and about to make the area feel safer.
As one student said, “We had to kind of merge reality with fantasy.”
So they proposed, among other things:
12 new connections for streets that, today, dead end.
Both a main street running through the area, and a perpendicular market street that would cross Eastway Drive.
A brewery in an old warehouse.
Flats, town homes, and single family houses
Mixed-use buildings with parking decks hidden on the inside, a form known as a "Texas doughnut."
Reconfiguring the Eastway-Tryon intersection to slow the cars bulleting from Eastway onto Tryon.
Possibly the most controversial proposal (or it would be, if this was truly being proposed rather than an in-class exercise) was to reduce by almost half the existing "park" land nearby.
Those quotes are because the “park” – Eastway Park – is disconnected from everything around it. Its 90 acres are reached via a long driveway (lacking a sidewalk) off the busy Eastway Drive thoroughfare, with no crosswalk or pedestrian light to allow pedestrians to get there. The driveway leads to a grassy area with two soccer fields, a big surface parking lot and a disc golf course.
Although the park is directly next to the railroad, and only a short distance from the Old Concord road light rail station, you can’t walk between the station and the park, thanks to some fenced-off freight rail lines running directly beside the park.
In other words, Eastway Park is a design fail. In my few visits there, admittedly a highly random sample, it’s only lightly used unless there’s a ball game going on. The county park department plans to build a new recreation center there – although that won’t do anything to improve the park’s unwalkable, isolated site.
Hence the students’ idea to take some of the unused park land and built affordable housing there, to improve the “eyes on the park” for safety, and to give lower-income residents a way to easily access a rec center and park. They propose the same for the Hidden Valley Park in the nearby Hidden Valley neighborhood.
Farther down the fantasy end of the spectrum, although intriguing, was this idea: a series of “productive greenspaces” where trees and other food-producing plantings line streets and small parks. You could walk down a sidewalk and pick an apple. Or a peach, or maybe pawpaws.
Will any of it get built? There’s no way to know, because it’s currently just a gleam in the eyes of a group of graduate students. But as Thomas Polk might have advised back in 1768, when he was building a courthouse on spec with visions of town growth: Why not dream big?
According to an article in amNewYork, the survey took place during September and October and asked New Yorkers about travel habits. Read more here and here. Of the women who responded, 75 percent had experienced harassment or theft on public transportation, compared with 47 percent of male respondents.
And 29 percent of the female respondents, compared with 8 percent of men, said they avoided taking public transportation late at night because of “a perceived safety threat.” From that figure, the report authors estimated women’s higher transportation costs.
Bus route changes that force longer walks, especially at night, can be particularly discouraging to female transit passengers. Photo: Charlotte Area Transit System bus, in 2010, by James Willamor via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0
I recently found myself listening in on a group call with Daphne Spain, author of Gendered Spaces (1992) and How Women Saved the City (2002). Spain, a sociologist at University of Virginia, studies and writes about ways women and men historically have been treated differently in both public and private spaces. And I now have two more books on my To Read list.
Spain talked about public transit, among other topics, and at one point noted India has created women-only trains because of the extreme harassment women there can experience.
As it happened, the conversation came a few days after I saw the viral video, “A Scary Time,” by Lynzy Lab. With more than 1.3 million views as of Nov. 5, the video from Lab, a dance lecturer at Texas State University, mocks some discussion that arose after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in Congress that men’s fear of being wrongly accused of sexual improprieties dwarfs the fears women live with over sexual assault, harassment and not being believed.
Accompanied by a ukulele, and ending with a plea to vote Nov. 6, Lab sings, in part:
“I can’t walk to my car late at night while on the phone / I can’t open up my windows when I’m home alone / I can’t go to the bar without a chaperone … / I can’t use public transportation after 7 p.m. / … And I can’t ever leave my drink unattended / But it sure is a scary time for boys … / I can’t live in an apartment if it’s on the first floor … / I can’t have another drink even if I want more … / I can’t jog around the city with headphones on my ears. … / And so on.
But back to Spain. She noted that women are more dependent on public transit than men. She also mentioned that if bus route planning took greater notice of women’s concerns that bus service would run later into the night to accommodate night-shift workers at places like hospitals. (This, obviously, applies to male night-shift workers, too. But women are disproportionately more likely to use transit, and more likely to live in poverty, meaning they can’t afford to own a car.)
This resonated loudly. The Charlotte Area Transit System recently redesigned some of its routes, to make them speedier and more convenient to more passengers. It’s adding more cross-town routes. Without a massive infusion of funding – not possible in an era when federal transit funds are shrinking and the transit-hostile N.C. state legislature must OK any new sales taxes for places like Charlotte – this means trade-offs are required. The route changes dropped some stops on neighborhood streets and moved them to thoroughfares. That means some riders must walk farther.
One rider impacted by CATS’ changes is Alberta Alexander, who works nights at a restaurant. Her bus stop on a residential street near Tuckaseegee Road has been eliminated by the changes.
“It’s my only transportation,” she said. “If I do not drive, and they’re changing these buses and changing these routes, I have no other option.”
Now, if she gets off work late, she’ll have to walk from Tuckaseegee to her house at night, instead of getting off much closer on State or Sumter streets.
“Before the changes, I had a bus stop in a 2-1/2 block radius,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to walk home.”
Men as well as women walking alone on a dark, deserted street are vulnerable to muggings, robberies, etc. But women, often less physically able to overpower any attacker, make easier targets. Plus they experience the additional fear of sexual assaults. Consider this, as reported in a Next City article, “Designing Designing Gender Into and Out of Public Space”: “A 2014 Hollaback!/Cornell University study found that 93.4 percent of women surveyed globally had experienced verbal or nonverbal street harassment in the last year, and more than half had been groped …”
This isn’t meant to say the CATS bus route changes were, on balance, a mistake. As CATS chief operations planning officer Larry Kopf told The Observer, while some riders might have a longer walk or lose a stop nearby, the majority will benefit from faster bus trips and more efficient routes.
But it’s important to ensure that the concerns of women – about walking to bus stops along well-lit, not deserted streets, for instance – are treated seriously when changes are proposed.
And this is not just an issue for CATS. The city of Charlotte should pay more attention to, and put more money into, making streets safer for all pedestrians, for the disabled, and for people riding bicycles (and today, scooters). Fewer than half the streets in Mecklenburg County have a sidewalk on even one side.
Charlotte has many streets without sidewalks, like this one in a neighborhood near SouthPark. That can make pedestrians, especially women, feel unsafe, particularly in the dark. Photo: Mary Newsom
Building a well-used, safe transit system means more than better and more frequent routes. It requires more sidewalks, improved sidewalks, better street-lighting (with energy-efficient LED lights that point downward so as to avoid blinding glare), and requiring development that creates “eyes on the street,” to reduce deserted areas.
Daphne Spain, in the conversation last month, mentioned that she serves on the Albemarle County (Va.) planning commission. In her time on the commission, she noted she hasn’t worked with a single female developer. “The people building our cities,” she said, “are still men.”