Monday, October 31, 2005

Stupid Walnut

So I was jogging with Hero this morning; it was a perfect, cool fall day on the Lake Daniel trail.

All should have been well. After all, aren't I Mr. Pedestrian Greenway Promoter And Dog Blogger? This was heaven.

Hah. As Feste remarks, the Whirligig of time brings in its revenges.

About 200 yards down the trail, I hit the deck like a sack of potatoes, and I shouted (I'm a wimp) so loud that two Westerwood lady walkers ran to my rescue. They stood over me as I held my ankle and Hero ran nervous circles around us.

Did I mention I was wearing jogging tights? This embarrasses my 14-year-old daughter horribly. Excruciatingly. Even when I'm just wearing them around the house, she averts her eyes and begs her mother to do something about Dad.

Oh, and I was also wearing a Hannah Andersson cap. Well, it was cold, and I don't have much hair, and the kids won't wear it any more, and who's going to see it at 7:30 a.m. anyway?

So, there I was on the ground: middle-aged jogger, silly cap, tights, sprained ankle, panicked dog, concerned and slightly amused ladies watching.

Platonic Form of the Ridiculous: C'est moi.

All because I stepped on a stupid walnut, half-eaten, lying on the trail, left there by a stupid squirrel.

Next time I go out -- after I heal up -- I'm bringing Bito.

Boo Chain

A bag of Hallowe'en goodies appeared at my doorstep yesterday morning, anonymously deposited, along with a poem explaining that it was now my task to distribute two more such bags to neighbors.

The bag also held a "Boo" sign that I was to put on my door to indicated that I'd already been "Boo'ed."

Laurette and Claudia went out last night and prepared the bags.

I snuck out early this morning with bags in hand, and had a little trouble finding a house without a Boo on the front door, so I had a brisk little walk.

Nice idea. Have you heard of this before, or is it a new thing?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Eminent Domain, Embodied Energy, Sustainability, Design Standards

Preservation North Carolina held its annual conference in Gastonia and Shelby, NC this week, with a strong emphasis on the adaptive re-use of North Carolina's many disused mills.

I was only able to attend for one day of what looked like a great program, and only attended a session on Historic district Commissions run by Richard Dunker of the Institute of Government at UNC-CH, and a great lecture by Donovan Rypkema.

Here's the most interesting stuff I learned.

Most interesting public-policy fact: historic preservation & eminent domain

Municipalities in NC have the power under state law to use eminent domain in order to prevent historic buildings from being destroyed. So, for example, the city of Greensboro could buy the historic house on N. Elm Street that First Presbyterian Church plans to tear down in order to build a parking lot.

As if.

Most interesting idea: embodied energy

Rypkema briefly outlined the notion of "embodied energy" -- shorthand way of referring to all the energy that went into the making of a structure at all stages.

For example, an abandoned old mill has a tremendous amount of embodied energy, if you consider the energy that went into the making, transporting, and arrangement of the bricks; the growth, cutting, drying, transportation, and fitting of the timbers; the clearing and preparation of the site, the mining, transport, smelting, forging of metal pieces, etc. etc. etc.

Rypkema's point is that buildings -- even old ones -- are huge sinks of energy, and that's one reason it's often -- almost always -- more economical to rehabilitate them than it is to tear them down and rebuild them.

Contractors and builders will rarely admit this, however, because they can't make money from embodied energy: their profits depend upon the expenditure of more energy.

New buildings, Rypkema pointed out, are almost always constructed of materials such as plastic, steel, etc., that require more energy to manufacture than do their old-fashioned counterparts.

Window restorers like David Hoggard might want to use this concept in persuading people not to replace their old windows. Lots of people want to do so for environmental reasons; they don't want to waste energy in heating and cooling. David can now argue that (1) not only can he make their old windows weather-tight, but (2) they will be saving the considerably energy used in manufacturing / transporting new windows.

Best formulation: Sustainability

From Rypkema: "The ability to meet our own needs without prejudicing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

I like it because it makes clear that sustainable building and development isn't just for Birkenstock-wearing environmentalists.

Most surprising fact

North Carolina has over 60 cities that have historic preservation programs, and the number is growing. Richard Dunker says that he thinks the next big trend will be the adoption of design or appearance standards in cities. Many cities have already done so.

City council district 4 candidate Mike Barber might want to take note of this trend, since his campaign platform is based on getting rid of the minimal design and landscape standards that Greensboro now has.

I'm tempted to say that Mike's motto for Greensboro would be, "Come to Greensboro and build as ugly as you like!" but that would be a little unfair. I know Mike wants to make Greensboro "business friendly," and so do I.

Maybe the difference between us is that not only do I want Greensboro to be business-friendly, I also want businesses to be Greensboro-friendly, and I think we have the right and responsibility to ask -- even require -- that they do so.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Spitting Bullets

. . . would accurately describe the way my friends in Ardmore Park are feeling about the situation I described earlier in their neighborhood.

One correction I need to make to that earlier post, though: the Board of Adjustment didn't "shut down" the Cheap Seats restaurant; it simply directed the restaurant to function as a restaurant and stop functioning as a nightclub. That information comes from Bill Ruska, the city's chief zoning enforcement officer.

With that noted, here is a flyer I received from Laura Jackson, who is Ardmore Park's Community Crime Watch president:

Is a Southwest neighborhood Greensboro’s stepchild?

Look at the News & Record Section B today (10/25/05) pages B1 and B5 and answer this question: Is a Southwest neighborhood Greensboro’s stepchild?

My neighbors and I awoke on a clear, brisk autumn morning with the prospect of a beautiful day. The day quickly turned black as we read and were infuriated by the article “City board orders nightclub closed”. Given the following facts would the City (all departments, boards and City Council) please justify with valid, believable reasons why one neighborhood should be less worthy of positive remedial action than another would? Why should one neighborhood fight with ferocity for 5 years and receive only temporary help and another suffer a much briefer time and receive quick permanent relief?

1. Restaurant changed to a nightclub.
2. Late night crowds flood the neighborhood with cars.
3. Neighborhood is trashed by patrons.
4. Patrons relieve themselves in yards of homes.
5. Neighbors kept awake by noise until 2 or 3 a.m. weekend nights.
6. Establishment closer to residences than the prescribed 200 feet.
7. Establishment charges a cover charge.
8. Establishment clears furniture to create a dance floor.
9. Operator claims this is a restaurant and these are special events.
10. Operator unwilling to operate as licensed and permitted.

1. Northwest vs. southwest location.
2. Northwest property rented vs. southwest location owned by operator.
3. Man shot on northwest property vs. in southwest shootings were in the surrounding area and not on property.
4. Northwest establishment charged and penalized for overcrowding vs. the southwest establishment has not been caught in overcrowding despite ample reports from outside witnesses and testimony of patrons no longer willing to jeopardize themselves by going back to the establishment.

The answer should never be that it takes violence on property to warrant permanent action. The answer should never be that reports of overcrowding are only valid when reported by a patron inside the establishment. The answer should not be related to the location. he answer should not be related to how the property is owned. The answer should not be based upon the composition of the group of patrons. The answer should not be based on the type of entertainment offered.

Fact, the southwest establishment’s brick fence adjoins residential property that is less than 50 feet from the building itself. Therefore, the answer is the law/ordinance that has been violated should be uniformly enforced.

We remain five years and waiting in the southwest. Our patience is long exhausted. As of today’s news, we demand equal enforcement of laws and ordinances in this quadrant. We now expect comparable results much sooner rather than any later.

That's Ardmore Park's story, or at least Laura Jackson's version of it.

However, I also know that Bill Ruska, the man in charge of zoning enforcement, is a dedicated, honest, and meticulous public servant, who will no doubt have more to say about this situation.

For my part, I really hope that he will say, "I'm going to send a Notice of Violation to that club in Ardmore Park, and the neighbors there should and will get equal treatment under the law."

Not "Explosively Shallow"

This story about income and education was, I though, one of the most interesting N&R investigative pieces I've read recently. Go ahead and read it.

Does it strike you as "exploitative," "hyperbolic," "ineffective," "irresponsible," "despicable," or "explosively shallow"? (I'm not sure what to make of that last mixed metaphor, actually.) That's what guest commentator Lonnie Groendes called it in today's paper.

Groendes writes,

If there are parents, or a parent, a guardian, caregivers or a single caregiver, even a strong and reassuring role model in the child's home, who care enough to take the time and make the effort to track the child's progress in school; to stay in close touch with the school and teachers; to have the courage to discipline the child's schedule to do homework and special assignments, and monitor peer pressures -- that child is going to succeed in school and life regardless of the financial profile of "the family."
Yes, quite possibly, though I wonder what research Groendes has done to back up those assertions. However, Groendes seems totally oblivious to the fact that doing all of those things is much harder if you're poor.

If you're poor, you may be working two shifts and can't supervise your kids as well. You may not be able to schedule your time so as to meet with teachers or go to the PTA. You probably won't have as much time or energy to help your kids with their homework; and if you're not well-educated yourself, you might not be able to help them even if you did. If you're poor, you probably can't afford a math tutor for a kid who's struggling. You may not have the time or money to get your kids involved in organized sports like soccer or lacrosse, giving them the opportunity to network and socialize with a lot of other highly-motivated kids, from whom they are likely to absorb important habits of working and living. If you're poor, it might be harder to schedule transportation to enrichment activities like MathCounts or Battle of the Books or Model UN.

This is not to make excuses for the kind of bad decisions that help create family poverty, such as drug or alcohol abuse or having out-of-wedlock babies.

But it's just a plain fact, and plain common sense, that having money matters a hell of a lot when it comes to educating kids, and there's nothing exploitative or hysterical about pointing that out.

It Helps to Have Friends in High Places

I have some friends who live in Ardmore Park, a working-class neighborhood near the Greensboro Coliseum. They've been struggling for years to close a nightclub near their homes because of persistent problems with noise, fights, trash, and urinating in public.

But to no avail. Police officers won't write noise violation citations against the club, because they believe they'll be thrown out of court. They're probably right about that; the city's current noise ordinance is quite impotent.

And city zoning staff can't close the establishment down as an illegal club because the owners serve a little food late into the evening, thus making it a "restaurant."

So I'm wondering how my Ardmore Park friends are feeling about Matt Williams' story in today's News & Record, wherein we read that a very similar establishment called "Cheap Seats," causing very similar problems in a northwest Greensboro neighborhood, was speedily shut down last night by the city's Board of Adjustment.

Neighbors of Cheap Seats, like their counterparts in Ardmore Park, had been experiencing excessive noise, fights (even a shooting), trash, parking problems, and public urination.

But the Starmount Company, a profitable and influential local real estate firm, owns the property on which Cheap Seats operates, and went to bat for the neighbors before the Board of Adjustment. Starmount is now threatening to revoke Cheap Seats' lease.

Sandra Anderson, who is a member of the Board of Adjustment, who is also an at-large candidate for Greensboro's city council, and who is in need of votes in northwest Greensboro where Cheap Seats is located, because her nearest opponent, Florence Gatten, is polling strongly in that area, took the opportunity to chastise the owners of Cheap Seats:

"If they were serious about being an establishment, it seems they would work with their neighbors," she said.

It was a fortunate confluence of interests that helped out the neighborhood around Cheap Seats: it is positioned in a relatively affluent quadrant of the city, a powerful real estate firm took up its cause, and it just so happens that ruling in favor of the neighbors brightens the political prospects of a local politician.

No such confluence exists, however, for the residents of Ardmore Park.

I guess they'll just have to get used to people peeing in their yards.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

GDOT Softening on Bike Lanes? (or) Is Crunchy Culture Coming to Greensboro?

I dropped in on one of GDOT's pedestrian, bicycle, and greenway master plan workshops last week and was pleasantly surprised by the good turnout: there were about 40 people there (many more than attended the workshop that John Hammer covered in this week's Rhino Times).

That might not sound like a lot of people, but it's a lot more than I usually see at these kinds of local policy wonk-o-ramas -- more even than attended one presentation of Greensboro's Comprehensive Plan, which was a much bigger deal than this.

What was more surprising: the workshop was in Summerfield, a northwest exurb of Greensboro. I had expected folks from this part of the county to be dedicated car commuters -- but no. It turns out that lots of suburbanites in NW Guilford County want more sidewalks, trails, and bike lanes. In fact, they want bike lanes or trails from the city out to their suburbs and exurbs.

Sometimes it's fun to have one's expectations exploded.

The attendees were also asking for the kinds of things that usually get asked for at these affairs, like more and better pedestrian crossings and better sidewalk connectivity between neighborhoods, and they were busily marking up maps the city had provided for that purpose.

There were representatives there from UNCG's Student Government Association, too, lobbying for non-car connectors between Greensboro's many colleges and universities.

The most surprising thing I heard was that GDOT's higher-ups may be softening their previous hard stance against bike lanes. The word I've always heard from that quarter is, it ain't gonna happen.

But now GDOT staff are making noises that sound more like, maybe could happen in some places as a part of the overall pedestrian / greenway / bicycle master plan.

In some ways, I think the presence of bike lanes would change the semiotics (how's that for a fancy $2 word) of our streets as much as they could improve safety for bicyclists.

Bike lanes are communicative: their presence is a visible sign of public approval -- even encouragement -- of alternative kinds of transportation, and, consequently, of unconventional ways of living.

The presence of bike lanes in a town shows an institutional approval of a certain kind of cultural "crunchiness" that seems (to me) to be bound up with a bohemian and / or university town ethic and aesthetic.

And that would be a big change for Greensboro.

Getting the Lead Out of the Historic Districts?

My friend David Hoggard, who restores old double-hung windows for a living (and does a damned good job of it), thinks that a proposed new lead paint abatement law might put a dent in his business and run headlong into -- and right through -- Greensboro's historic district preservation guidelines.

Here's where they collide: sometimes you can't get enough of the leached-in lead out of old woodwork, especially windows, to satisfy federal guidelines, even if you strip it to the bare wood and repaint it well. At that point, you have to rip out the old, lead-laden windows and replace them.

But Greensboro's historic district design guidelines say "removal of historic materials shall be avoided."

Of course in such cases, the lead-abatement law wins. Kids' health trumps historic windows every time, and I can't imagine Greensboro's Historic District Commission thinking otherwise for even a second.

But I don't actually think the new law will result in the removal of many windows from houses in Greensboro's established historic districts.

That's because the point of contact between the lead-abatement law and historic houses is in the circulatory system of young children: the county will only come to check your house if high lead levels are detected in you toddler's blood.

But the small kids who live in Fisher Park, Aycock, and College Hill are very unlikely to have been munching lead paint chips, because their parents are mostly affluent preservationists who tend to keep their woodwork well maintained and keep their kids from eating it. The same goes for wealthier old neighborhoods like Sunset Hills, Westerwood, and Old Irving Park, which are chock full o' lead paint and perfectly healthy, non-brain-damaged kids.

The law probably will impact poorer neighborhoods built in the mid-20th century where homeowners and landlords aren't maintaining their woodwork as well, in homes where kids aren't being closely supervised.

And if the proposed law will help those kids, I'm for it.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Bito's Breakfast

I had thought that the hunting days of our 13-year-old cat Bito were over. It's been almost a year since we've found any half-eaten vermin under our bed (his favorite spot for dining on fresh meat).

So I was happy to see him enjoying a breakfast of Unwary Squirrel Tartare as I left for work this morning.

We need to savor these late-in-life victories -- like Nicklaus winning the '86 Masters.

Way to go, Bito. I know you enjoyed every bite.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Something for Us Preservationists to Chew On

This challenging thesis pops up in an article from the NY Times on the rebuilding of New Orleans:

For decades now, the architectural mainstream has accepted the premise that cities can exist in a fixed point in historical time. What results is a fairy tale version of history, and the consequences could be particularly harsh for New Orleans, which was well on its way to becoming a picture-postcard vision of the past before the hurricane struck. (Read the whole thing.)
To what extent is that also true of designated historic areas in cities all over the U.S. and Europe? And for my own neighborhood?

Is it possible that preservationists like me, in pursuit of preserving the authentic architecture of the past, might actually be creating an inauthentic present?

And if that's the case, what's the best way for us to proceed if we think that old architecture has an important contribution to make to modern life?

Udate: David Boyd sends another view from the WSJ's Opinion Journal. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Richard Moe says Hold Back Those Bulldozers.

Monday, October 17, 2005

I've Harnessed the Economic Power of the Blog!

Ross Meyers says Greensboro is "5 seconds behind the curve" because we haven't figured out a way to make money by blogging.

Hah. I've got that problem licked.

Yesterday evening I started a new blog, Dave's Tag Sale, which I intend to use for selling stuff I own but don't need any more.

I posted a photo and description of an antique dresser that I wanted to sell, and I displayed the photo and a link in the sidebar of this blog (A Little Urbanity) with the catchy, high-tech marketing phrases Urbane Shopping! and Visit Dave's Tag Sale!

Less than 24 hours later I was loading the dresser into a buyer's SUV with $400 in my pocket.

Needless to say, I'll be putting more items on display at Dave's Tag Sale very soon.

And with the $2.05 I've received from for advertising, I'll soon be filthy rich. Filthy, filthy rich, I tell you.

Now I'm 5 seconds ahead of the curve!

GDOT Mystery Solved

I received a very speedy and polite response from GDOT's Adam Fischer today regarding a parking mystery on Cypress Street.

It turns out that GDOT was in fact making an effort to be responsive to a resident's concern about a particular parking problem. Adam wrote me,

We were contacted by [a resident] several weeks ago about a concern with parking along Cypress Street.

Teachers were parking all day on the School side of Cypress Street and there were not enough spaces on the resident’s side of Cypress Street for parents to park to pick-up children/visit the School.

We decided to limit parking on the School side of Cypress to 2 hours from 9AM to 4PM so that teachers would not park there all day. The 2 hour time limit would allow for parents to park on the School side of the street in order to pick-up children/visit the School, and would free up parking spaces for residents on the other side of the street.
The problem of traffic during student pick-up times has been a cause of irritation in the neighborhood, and GDOT was trying to address that, and we appreciate it.

But when many residents are affected by a decision, it's my view that they need to be consulted before it is made.

To that end, Adam has asked the neighborhood association to look at a compromise recommendation at our next meeting. Which we will do.

Thanks for a quick response, Adam.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

NIM City

Keith Debbage and Russell Smith wrote in this morning's News & Record about the many newly incorporated municipalities (NIMs) in the Triad (another name for them is exurbs). We have gained 15 of them since 1990. They write,

Triad residents have effectively voted with their feet by relocating to NIMs that offer a reduced tax burden, a lower cost of living, cheaper housing costs and minimal governmental interference . . . . they provide good schools (even though many are grossly overcrowded), strong neighborhoods, open space and residential subdivisions where children can ride their bikes in the street without fear.
Sounds like Nirvana, doesn't is? And it mostly is for the people who live there. But it isn't good for everybody. They go on,

Substantial numbers of mostly affluent and highly skilled workers are opting to leave large, established cities for either private gated communities or newly formed government entities in the suburbs. Many of these folks are highly creative and talented and contribute significantly to the local labor market and tax base. Some policy makers have even suggested that the end result of such a brain-drain is that the larger cities of a region may be vulnerable to a declining tax base, deteriorating public schools and diminished public services if they are unable to consistently attract the most talented workers.
D'ya think? (Isn't that pretty much what happened to dozens of major cities in the 60s and 70s?)

Luckily, that doesn't seem to be happening (yet) to the Triad's cities, despite the rise of local NIMs.

But it might, unless our cities are able to find ways to make themselves attractive to those "highly creative and talented" people. Debbage and Smith finish,

. . . a key challenge for the Triad continues to remain getting all our community's oars to row in the same direction. The future health of the region depends on it, and a balkanized political landscape makes the challenge that much more rigorous.
But people leave the bigger cities precisely because they want to row their own boat, don't they?

Obviously, I'm a proponent of keeping more of us here in one big trireme, as a better way to promote not only our regional interests, but our well-being as members of a community.

If the smartest of us are scurrying off to private, semirural nirvanas while our cities become economic and social sinkholes, it's very unlikely that the Triad will be able to generate enough economic oomph to compete with the likes of Charlotte and the Triangle.

GDOT's Mysterious Ways

The Greensboro Department of Transportation has been doing some sidewalk repair on Cypress Street in my neighborhood. That's very much appreciated, because our sidewalks are well-used by dog walkers, baby strollers, exercisers, kids, etc.

For reasons entirely unknown, however, the unrestricted parking on that same street in front of Aycock Middle School has been suddenly changed to a 2-hour limit from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. None of the neighbors I contacted on Cypress Street had been consulted or informed -- it just happened.

One resident, who has already lost a driveway to GDOT when the city decided to widen Yanceyville Street, now cannot park his car all day across from his house -- something he needs to do on trash pickup days.

Other neighbors need the parking for daytime visitors.

No neighbors had ever expressed any problems about parking on Cypress to the neighborhood association. So the obvious question is, who made the change, and why?

One neighbor speculated,

It really looks like another boneheaded act by a mid-level minor functionary at city hall.
It does look that way, doesn't it? Because now, for residents to use the parking as they have in the past, they will have to try to convince the city to issue residents-only on-street parking stickers like those that are used in College Hill.

Now tell me, what exactly is the point of changing the parking on a street that had no parking problems in the first place, so that citizens are required to seek an even more bureaucratic solution to something that was itself a "solution" to a non-problem?

It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Mr. Sun Has Gone Too Far

I don't mind if you call me out, Mr. Sun. But when you go after my son -- watch out:

Solem stultum et morum nunc cano
Qui animo scribis insano.
Si liberum increpes
Sine mora invenies
Meum conditum pedem in ano.
Take that, you mewling facsimile of a psuedonymous humorist. Now beg for your translation.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Behind the Planning Curve

Big news on regional planning from this morning's News & Record:

GREENSBORO -- A "Heart of the Triad" development is moving forward with some financial help from the local business community.

A $400,000 study will be done by the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation [PART] to determine the best use of a 7,500-acre tract of largely undeveloped land in the center of the Triad.

People have been talking about the need for regional planning in the Triad for years, and UNCG urban geographer Keith Debbage recently made a powerful case for it in the News & Record -- so it's nice to see a plan finally get underway.

The unusual thing about this effort, however, is that it's being paid for partly by the business community. I guess business leaders finally just got tired of waiting for the politicians to get it going.

Greensboro Mayor Keith Holliday wasn't happy about the local Chambers of Commerce sticking their oar in.

PART already has a $200,000 commitment from the N.C. Department of Transportation for half the study's expenses.

"I've never seen a situation where a public body would create a public plan and not pay for it," Holliday said.

But if the Chambers of Commerce had the time and energy to rustle up $200,000 for planning, why couldn't the Greensboro City Council and the Guilford County Commissioners have been doing the same thing?

When it comes to planning, I think, those two bodies just don't get it.

That might be because they have traditionally close relationships with the local building industry (represented by the lobbying group TREBIC), which is reflexively averse to such planning.

TREBIC doesn't like governments telling it where and what to build. A sign of this is the steady stream of requests from local developers to amend Greensboro's Comprehensive Plan -- requests which the City Council nearly always grants.

But builders and realtors are not the only business in town. The Chambers of Commerce represent a broader base of economic interests, and they see strong economic advantages in good land-use planning.

So the Chambers of Commerce are leading the planning charge, while local governments are playing catch-up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Yom Kippur For Everybody

The sun is setting as I write this, and Yom Kippur is starting.

Ed Cone suggests we make it a national holiday -- or adopt a secular version of it, devoted to introspection and atonement.

I say to heck with the secular version. It's hard to make sense out of atonement in s secular context anyway.

Let's just have it as a national holiday, and let people deal with the religious implications as they will. We could all use a litle (a lot?) of sober introspection, atonement, renewal, and joy, which is what Ed says Yom Kippur is all about.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Dog Bites Man

From the Uninformative Headlines Department:

"Anthropologists Uncover Ancient Jawbone."

What'll be next? "Ford, Chrysler, GM Make Cars"?

Community Forums on Housing

From the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro:

The Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro invites the public to participate in two open community forums featuring a new comprehensive report on the state of housing in greater Greensboro.

Participants will have the opportunity to provide comment and to recommend priorities for the community. The report is commissioned by the Community Foundation and prepared by The Center to Create Housing Opportunities.

The two forums have distinct agendas, please plan to attend both. However, if your schedule does not allow, you are welcome to attend only one. There is no charge, but please register so that we may plan accordingly.

See you at the Forums!

Forum I:
The State of Housing in Greensboro

Wednesday, October 19th

7:30 a.m. Breakfast
8:00 a.m. Present Draft Report

Feedback in small groups
Whole group organizes and names priorities
10:30 a.m. Adjourn

Forum II: Direction and Focus

Thursday, Ocober 27th

7:30 a.m. Breakfast
8:00 a.m. Group Process: What strategies will be used to advance housing in Greensboro?
10:30 a.m. Adjourn

Empire Room at Elm Street Center
203 South Elm St.
Greensboro, NC

Contact for Registration:
Hope Brock
Fax: 336.378.0725
Phone: 336.379.9100

Holder on Housing and Crime

Ben Holder says, "I have been saying for years that the quality of housing has a direct connection to the crime rate," with observations about the state of code enforcement in Greensboro, especially as regards County Commissioner Skip Alston's Saint James apartment complex.

He's also got a copy of the inspection request for that property.

Greensboro's Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Greenway Master Plan Workshops

GDOT has a master plan that addresses concerns about sidewalks and bike traffic in Greensboro, which it's presenting in series of public workshops. GDOT is asking for public input.

Wednesday, October 12 from 5:30-7:30pm at Trotter Recreation Center ( 3906 Betula Street, 27407)

Thursday, October 13 from 5:30-7:30pm at the Barber Park Indoor Pavilion (1500 Dan’s Road, 27401)

Wednesday, October 19 from 5:30-7:30pm at Summerfield Elementary multi-purpose room (7515 Trainer Drive, Summerfield)

Thursday, October 20 from 5:30-7:30pm at Lawndale Baptist Church fellowship hall (3505 Lawndale Dr, 27408)
GDOT has been very busy building sidewalks lately, but there are plenty of spots where they're still lacking, such as on Fisher Avenue (pictured above).

Monday, October 10, 2005

Zoning Enforcement Update II: 351 Summit Avenue

I posted here and here about an illegal junkyard that has grown like a nasty, cancerous mole near my neighborhood. Here's what it looks like today, October 10, 2005:

Taking Anna's advice, on August 29th I wrote to the city's zoning enforcement chief, Bill Ruska, with my opinion that there was no way under the zoning ordinance that this junkyard could be made legal, since the ordinance specifies that no junked vehicles may be visible from any street, and even a 30-foot fence wouldn't hide them from the Fisher Avenue bridge (as the photo below shows).

I told him that I might post his response.

Bill wrote me back on September 8:

David, we are finally approaching a resolution of this matter. Mr. Gerald Petty who leases the property from Hugh Sarvis has a business license to operate an auto towing and storage service on this lot. Such a use is allowed in a GB zoning district subject to certain development standards. One of these standards is that no more than 20 vehicles may be stored on the premises at any one time. Also, the automotive storage area must be surrounded by a minimum 6-foot high opaque fence.

With the recent installation of the new opaque fencing, we feel that the intent of the development standard has been achieved. Ron Fields has been working with the Pettys to get the inoperable motor vehicles removed from the property. Ten inoperable vehicles have been identified as ones which must be removed from the property and the Pettys understand that the total number of vehicles must be reduced to 20. Ron will re-inspect the property no later than the end of October to insure that compliance with the ordinance has been achieved.

I was a little surprised at this answer, because earlier e-mails from a zoning enforcement officer indicated that the property was being used for the storage of junked vehicles -- but now the city considers it to be a "towing and storage service." The zoning standard for this kind of business does not require that the vehicles be totally screened, only that they be surrounded by a fence.

That is, the requirements for screening had been lowered by fiat.

However, as you can see from the photo, there are still plenty of inoperable (that is, "junked") vehicles on the property. Will they be removed by the end of October? Call me a cynical pessimist, but I very much doubt it.

Nor will anything much happen after that, I expect. A junkyard it was, a junkyard it remains, and a junkyard it probably will be for some time to come, whatever the city calls it.

Bill Ruska told me in a subsequent conversation that the city has only two zoning enforcement officers in the whole city to handle this kind of thing. That means there will be no aggressive enforcement of the ordinance in this case. One case he mentioned took ten years to resolve.

This is only one of countless such cases where frustrated property owners are unable to get relief from violators through city ordinance enforcement. Part of the problem is that the ordinances are often weak, and part of the problem is that enforcement of them is feebly supported by elected officials.

The result?

People who can afford it tend to leave older neighborhoods for places where they are protected by homeowners' associations and restrictive covenants, which are often more powerful and effective than the city at maintaining property standards.

People who can't afford to leave have their once-decent neighborhoods eroded by predatory landowners, weak enforcement, and the draining away of social capital.

That is, "For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath."

Nihil sub sole novum.

Sunday, October 9, 2005

We'll Find a House For You

Cobb, who participated in ConvergeSouth, had some nice things to say about my neighborhood:

I want to live in a neighborhood like Aycock. There are several like it in South Pasadena. It's the big house with the big trees and the big porch and the wide street with not much traffic. It's the warm glow of lights on in the evening in wide open windows. It's the free traffic of children and food from house to house and neighbor to neighbor. In all of us lurks the dream of the beloved community.
But he's not sure he really wants to live in a place like this. As a conservative, he observes,
In the big city, I can be conservative easily. That's because the alternative is so large and ungainly. But in the small town one needs to be liberal, because the narrow becomes stifling. The size of the diversity is smaller and therefore embedded with more meaning. A diversity of black and white means little in Los Angeles County. A diversity of black and white is a big deal in the town where the Woolworth Sit In took place.
He finishes with, "I've got a lot more thinking to do." I wish I'd had a chance to talk to him at the conference.

Read the whole thing. (Via Cone.)

Race, Wealth, Education, Housing

Matt Williams writes persuasively on the front page of the News & Record today that family wealth is a stronger predictor of Greensboro students' school performance than race.

It's a great story -- a better one than a recent NY Times story about income, race, and EOG tests in Wake County, NC that I referred to here and here. Matt did excellent independent research.

The fact that minorities have been scoring dramatically better over the past decade in Guilford County may mainly be due to the fact that African-Americans and Hispanics have been moving steadily into the middle and upper classes.

But the low-income neighborhoods they've been leaving behind remain sloughs of badly-educated kids. That's one reason I'm very interested in neighborhoods like Willow Oaks, where the planners have deliberately built low-income units amid middle- and upper-middle class houses.

The idea is to spread "cultural capital" or "social capital" into neighborhoods where it has been lacking or slowly draining away.

Will it work? I don't know. Is it worth a try? Absolutely.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

ConvergeSouth Impressions

Sam and I had a great weekend at ConvergeSouth. Thanks to the organizers (Sue, Ed, Jay, Ben) who made everything run smoothly, and the many participants who were lively, interesting, funny, kind, and provocative.

My personal highlights:

Learning about the subtly-textured moral, emotional, and political world of military bloggers in Iraq. The News & Record's Allison Perkins and military wife Christy Seals were humane and insightful, and were true to their experiences and emotions about war blogging: patriotism, pride, love for the soldiers, fear for their soldiers' well-being, doubt about U.S. policy. The Shu was informative about where to find military blogs.

Roch Smith, Jr. led a great session on blogs and local alternative media, and even talked about his own alt-media creation, (after we prodded him a little).

I got to participate as a panelist at a session moderated by John Robinson on "Blogging and Journalism." I talked too much about myself. If I had to do it over, I'd have shut up more and tried to make John talk about the ways blogging and journalism entwine and occasionally collide here in Greensboro.

And Sam was asked by the organizers to help out with a "how-to-blog" session for beginners -- Sam loved it, and of course his dad was pretty proud, too.

The blogger BBQ was a blast. Sam took photos, and Tom Lassiter has a 360-view (Quicktime required) of Hoggard's place just before everyone started showing up. I got a quick Swahili lesson from Ndesanjo Macha and met more bloggers than you can shake a stick at.

If you're interested in the Greensboro blogging community, watch Tom Lassiter's Quicktime video about it.

Thursday, October 6, 2005


Matt Gross, David Hoggard, Ben Hwang, Sam Wharton, and I converged this afternoon at Sam's Club to shop for the ConvergeSouth BBQ-for-bloggers party on Friday night.

Sue Polinsky and Ed Cone have been working like dogs to make this conference happen. There is going to be a lot of local and national blogging talent here; I'm really looking forward to it!

I was already signed up to attend, but got a last minute invitation yesterday from News & Record Editor John Robinson to fill in on the Blogging and Journalism panel.

I've been to Classics conventions, Linguistics conventions, and Humanities conventions -- this will be my first Blogger convention.

Should I wear a suit?

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Council Agrees

I flipped on the Channel 13 re-run of Tuesday's City Council meeting after my 7-10 p.m. class this evening and listened to councilmembers' comments about our trip to Greenville, SC.

All I can say is, oh my.

I heard Councilman Robbie Perkins saying it is time downtown Greensboro considered instituting design standards, and recommended that we emulate the meticulous attention to detail in streetscaping that we saw in Greenville. He especially liked their "pocket parks" and crypto-parking schemes, and spoke in favor of issuing bonds to finance "public-private partnerships" without referenda. Perkins said it was important for elected officials to be willing to take some criticism in order to push these efforts forward.

Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson seconded all of what Perkins said, adding that she particularly enjoyed Greenville's commitment to public art and innovative retail.

Councilwoman Bellamy-Small said she would like to ensure that housing downtown would be available to people with a range of incomes, and praised the many water features in downtown Greenville.

Mayor Holliday, the fourth and final Greenville day-tripper on the council, said he thought everyone who visited Greenville felt very positive and had a "can-do" attitude about Greensboro's future.

So I guess all the answers to the questions in my earlier post about Greenville would be lots of "yeses" and a few "maybes."

And that ain't bad. Not bad at all.

Now, to bed. I have an 8 a.m. meeting in less than 6 hours. Ugh.

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

No, Really Infra-Size Me!

My earlier infra-sizing post was about shrinking houses.

But now that I've read this . . . ugh.

I'm going for a jog with the dog.

Monday, October 3, 2005

The Road to Greenville

Action Greensboro loaded a couple of buses full of city & county political leaders, high-ranking city staff members, business movers & shakers, press people, philanthropists, and a couple of ne'er-do-wells (me and Hoggard), and hauled us all down to Greenville, SC last week for a look at that town's successful downtown revitalization.

First things first: thank you to the gracious people at Action Greensboro for an enlightening and entertaining trip, and to the many people in Greenville who educated and entertained us.

Here follows an account of what I saw.

Greenville is a small town of about 54,000 that has a big-town downtown. Downtown Greenville has 80 restaurants, a luxurious downtown hotel, a sports arena, a concert hall, a beautiful downtown park, and a booming downtown residential real estate market.

The question on everybody's mind was, how did they do it? We got the answers in increments.

When we reached Greenville, we were treated to a short, guided bus tour of the downtown area, with commentary on my bus supplied by Greenville's young and articulate director of economic development, Nancy Whitworth. She emphasized 3 things that have been key to Greenville's success:

(1) Greenville's Mayor Knox White takes a keen interest in the details of urban planning. She noted, for example, the mayor's enthusiasm for "sidewalk lawns" -- the little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street -- because they make pedestrians feel safe and comfortable while waking on busy streets. She said that the city council, too, is "open to new ideas about urban planning and design."
(2) Greenville has adopted design standards for downtown development and has preservation standards for the historic districts adjacent to downtown. Whitworth attributed the attractive appearance of new condominiums and businesses to these standards, and noted that all new construction -- "even if you want to change a sign" -- must be approved by the Design and Preservation Commission, which is similar to Greensboro's Historic Preservation Commission.
(3) Greenville has entered into many "public-private partnerships" (about which more below) to spur development. One of these is a new baseball stadium downtown, which is currently under construction, and which apparently was the object of considerable controversy (imagine that!).

After the tour, we heard a presentation from Mayor Knox White himself in Greenville's 70s-modern icky council chamber. (The original Romanesque revival city hall was torn down).

Mayor White said that Greenville's downtown renaissance began in 1971 when the city hired a San Francisco landscape designer to plan a streetscape for Main Street, and that efforts have been ongoing since then. The mature trees planted in the early 70s give Main St. much of its current appeal.

The mayor said that the biggest turning point in the downtown's success was the outstanding restoration of the 1920s-era Poinsett Hotel. "Don't doubt the power of historic preservation as an economic development tool, or as a political tool," he said. "We really got everybody on board when they saw how beautiful the Poinsett was, especially the older folks."

I took the walking tour led by Robert Benedict, who is both a real estate developer and the chair of Greenville's Design and Preservation Commission. After a lunch at the charmingly restored Mary's Restaurant,

he showed us some of the more successful historic rehab projects in Greenville, including a downtown park,

the Poinsett Hotel,

and a restored mill that serves as restaurant and office space.

(Note the new condominiums to the left, with their parking garage behind the building facade.)

Greenville has a good stock of historic downtown buildings, some of which are being put to good use, but some of which are also vacant and uncared-for. On the whole, I think Greensboro's inventory of reasonably well-maintained historic buildings is as good or better -- though we do lack the Poinsett.

After the walking tour, we got a briefing on the public subsidies that helped make all this happen in Greenville.
"Public-private partnerships" was the watchword and mantra of how Greenville government has pushed downtown growth forward. The city has used a number of innovative ways to boost investment.
For example, in order to entice developers to build this building,

the city offered to build and maintain a parking garage beneath it for its tenants and for the public. The city owns the land; the developer owns the "air rights" -- whatever they build on top of the garage.
Greenville seems to have built such crypto-parking decks (I call them that because they always hide the parking behind a residential or retail facade) for a number of projects; for other undertakings, such as their downtown baseball stadium, the city donated the land or offered other incentives to private investors.
Greenville government has taken financial risks and incurred debt to an extent that widened the eyes of Greensboro Interim City Manager Mitch Johnson and his retired boss Ed Kitchen, who, at one point in the presentation, exchanged looks of amazed incredulity.
But Greenville has not done this without an overall urban plan that is well understood by city elected leaders and staff.
"Build anchors" was the advice given several times. And so Greenville did. They have invested in major attractions like the Peace Center concert hall, the Poinsett Hotel, the Bi-Lo Center, and the West End Market, all in walking distance from one another. They have connected them with high-quality pedestrian corridors that display fine brickwork, landscaping, pleasant little corners to sit and rest, and a generous scattering of public art.
Most impressive to me, the city has been fearless in pushing major anchors like their baseball stadium and the West End Market into truly blighted areas where private developers had feared to tread, hoping to draw them out of their comfort zone. It's working.
"Distribute parking" was the other main piece of advice from Greenville's leaders. The city deliberately did not place big parking decks right next to their anchors in order to generate pedestrian traffic -- and business -- for restaurants and downtown retail.
Can Greensboro get to Greenville in terms of downtown development? That will depend on the answers to these questions:
Will Greensboro find the economic and political value in historic preservation that Greenville has found? Will there arise in Greensboro a new class of developer-preservationists a la Robert Benedict who will bring to preservation an entrepreneurial spirit that will spur both civic pride and investment?
Will Greensboro's elected officials develop a heretofore unaccustomed, top-to-bottom interest in urban planning, and a resolve to devise a cohesive and detailed development plan for downtown, with well-placed anchors and first-quality pedestrian amenities? Will they stick to this plan over a period of a decade or more and dedicate themselves to persuading the public of its value? Will they commit public resources to it?
Will Greensboro enter into "public-private partnerships" in order to facilitate the construction of major anchors downtown? Will elected officials have the political will to get out in front of the private sector and place those anchors in areas that really need them, like South Elm St.?
I'll let you answer the questions.

Infra-Size Me!

The size of new American homes has apparently leveled off after rapid growth in the 90's, with the average house coming in at about 2,400 square feet.

The NY Times reports that, when asked the question, "For the same amount of money, which of the following would you choose: a bigger house with fewer amenities, or a smaller house with high quality products and amenities?" 63% of respondents in 2004 said they'd take the smaller house.

That's a huge shift from 2001, when 51% said they'd take the bigger house.

Lots of reasons for the shift are offered: rising heating & cooling costs, the high cost of furnishing a very large house, a growing perception that very big houses are evidence of greed and/or lack of taste (they're sometimes derisively called "plywood palazzos"), and a realization that unused space is just . . . space.

The idea of the "not so big house" has always appealed to me; I guess I'm fascinated with technologies and ways of doing things that are minimalist and efficient-- it's not a political stance so much as it is an aesthetic temperament in my case.

One other interesting bit from the article: apparently some of the new, smaller houses are reaching back to modernist sensibilities, using lots of glass and integrating them into their settings. Hah! Can't wait to hear a new house described as "modernist revival."

Read the whole article, and don't forget to watch the audio slide show.