Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Conservative Beauty

Rod Dreher comments at National Review's Corner:

Beauty has been clamorously present in the American Conservative Mind through its almost total absence. The tradition of regard for woodland and wildlife was present from the beginnings of the nation and continued through conservative exemplars such as the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who established the National Parks. Embarrassingly for conservatives (at least one hopes it is embarrassing), stewardship of the environment is now left mostly to liberal Democrats.

Well, almost. Millions of deer and duck hunters, and RV-ers at national parks, attest that the Lee Greenwood Republicans love natural beauty too, even if their Washington counterparts don't vote much for it.

I might also add that conservatives have pretty much abandoned the field when it comes to the beauty of cities, leaving urban planning almost entirely to left-leaning types. The recent conservative response has been Joel Kotkin and Robert Bruegmann saying "Laissez les exurbs rouler!" Really, guys -- do you think that's the best we can do?

I suppose the conservative aversion to urban design arose because the work of urban planning falls in mainly in the public sector, which has been terra non grata* to conservatives at least since Barry Goldwater.

But that's a big mistake for conservatives. It's not as if the public sector is someday going to wither away and Adam Smith's Invisible Hand is going to start building roads and public parks.

Beauty with a capital "B" has strong conservative credentials, going back at least as far as Plato.

*Pardon my marriage of terra incognita and persona non grata, which ought to add up to "disagreeable territory".

Home Again Home Again,

jiggety jog.

We're back from a lovely and warm (in every way) visit to my parents in Tucson. After a high of 80 degrees on Christmas day, Greensboro feels cold at a seasonal 40. Cold and cloudy. Sigh. Thanks for a great Christmas, Mom and Dad.

The flights on Southwest Airlines were fine. Although Southwest doesn't give seat assignments, we were able to find seats that suited all five of us. Passengers lined up cheerfully in their A, B, and C groups. All seats are comfortable leather. The employees are lively, helpful, and funny. As my dad pointed out, they seem a lot happier than some other airline employees.

The only dark cloud: the lady next to me sneezed into my water cup. And didn't even apologize!

Now, back to work.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!

Laurette, Sam, and I hiked the Telephone Line Trail today in Sabino Canyon, part of the Coronado National Forest. Absolutely beautiful.

I was a little warm in my long-sleeved T-shirt, and we we warned to keep an eye out for mountain lions. None were sighted, and we're now resting before tonight's carol service at my parents' Presbyterian church, then midnight mass.

A blessed Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Glenwood Rezoning

The Greensboro City Council this evening will consider whether to rezone four and half acres of the Glenwood neighborhood from RS-7 (single-family residential) to CD RM-18 (multifamily high-density residential).

If they do so, they will also have to amend the Comprehensive Plan's Generalized Future Land Use Map (GFLUM), which designates this area to remain low-density residential.

The city planning department has recommended in favor of both:

[The rezoning] meets Connections 2025 policies of promoting mixed income neighborhoods, promoting compact development, and promoting the diversification of new housing stock to meet the needs for suitable, affordable housing. However, there is a question about whether or not this proposed development will be compatible with its surroundings. The uses to the north, east and west of this site are single-family detached homes. The proposal is for multifamily dwellings that will be limited to two stories in height .... Staff has discussed, with the applicant, the possibility of increasing the landscape buffer (width and/or number of plantings) along the western line and reducing the density to try and make the development more compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. The applicantÂ’s attorney has indicated that added conditions would reduce the density to approximately 12 units per acre . . .
However, city staff also admit that consequences of the rezoning and amendment of the Comp Plan could be bad:
This amendment may encourage other similar amendments in the vicinity as we have had a couple recent amendments in this area already.
I've heard from some neighborhood residents who oppose the rezoning becausee of its incompatibility with the neighborhood character of Glenwood. As the Comp Plan itself says (p. 6-6)
. . . it is important that revitalization objectives be balanced with the need for neighborhood conservation. Infill development is not inherently "good" simply because it is infill and man, in fact, adversely affect the fabric of a neighborhood if the project is not compatible with its context. Rather, the successful infill project is one that complements and supports the character and appearance of the neighborhood that surrounds it.
From what I have heard, the proposed development doesn't sound like it's particularly compatible with its surroundings; in fact, the fact that the developer is offering additional screening seems to be a de facto admission that what's being proposed is incompatible.

The city council has yet to turn down a developer's request to amend the GFLUM portion of the Comp Plan. I hope they will take a very hard look at what's being proposed here. And if they determine that it's incompatible, I hope they'll suck in their guts, gird their loins, and say, "Sorry. We believe in the Comp Plan we voted for. Please bring us a proposal that conforms to it."

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Publicity Hounds

Just in case you don't feel that this blog is keeping you up to date on what the Whartons are doing, you can read our holiday schedule in the News & Record.

Claudia Wharton won't be in class Wednesday. "We do have plans. We're flying," said parent Laurette Wharton. "That can't be changed."

They are flying to Tucson, Arizona to visit family for the holidays.

But Claudia, 12, expects to be back in in time for the Jan. 2 make-up day at the Academy at Lincoln, where she is a sixth-grader. It was supposed to be a rest day before going back to school, Laurette Wharton said.

Oh, and in case you were thinking of dropping by in our absence, Hero and Trajan will be here with a house-sitter to give you a "dentate welcome."

VLogging update! Click Trajan below to see the dogs in action.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

More Thoughts on Rental Unit Inspections

Shortly after Roch Smith, Jr. posted his criticism of our city inspectors' practice of entering rental properties without the tenants' written permission, a flurry of e-mails went out on the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress listserv.

One was from an anonymous e-mailer, who used Roch's piece to blast members of the city council. He (or she) didn't respond to my request to identify him- or herself, but I'm guessing the person has a connection to the Greensboro Landlords Association, which has been a vehement critic of the city's RUCO regulations.

Another was from a local lawyer (and RUCO supporter), who cautioned GNC members against drawing hasty conclusions about the (un-) constitutionality of the city's inspections policy, and advised consulting a lawyer. [Insert lawyer joke here.]

Not being a lawyer, I really don't know whether it's constitutional for inspectors to enter a rental property without the tenant's permission in order to look for housing code violations on the part of the landlord.

David Boyd asks why the city doesn't just wait until properties become vacant to do an inspection. I think the answer to that is, that many bad landlords would simply fly under the city's radar and never report an unoccupied unit for inspection. The city has no way to get that information, and the units would never be inspected.

I still believe that the RUCO ordinance has great potential for improving Greensboro's rental housing stock. I also believe that RUCO can (and should) promote the interests of tenants, especially those who are renting from irresponsible or shoddy landlords. If the burden of requesting inspections falls entirely on tenants, then they could face retribution or eviction by an angry landlord.

Although the constitutional issue is significant, so far the constitutional complaints have emanated from landlords and from Roch. Even the blogger whom Roch cites in his article because his apartment was inspected didn't see fit to mention the incident on his blog.

So I believe that most tenants think their interests are being protected by RUCO.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bellemeade Village

Jim Schlosser covers the preview of the first phase of Bellemeade Village, which will be built a few blocks from where I live:

"This project won't be about just building condominiums,'' [Jim Jones] said, looking at an empty concrete lot that two years ago was filled with North State Chevrolet dealership cars."It's about creating a village and an experience that, before, you had to go to Charlotte, Atlanta or Washington to see.''
Mr. Jones is one of the owners of the old North State Chevrolet dealership where Bellemeade Village will be, and he describes himself as a car dealer turned developer.

I got to meet him at the preview party and I was impressed by how much he knows about what's going on in the neighborhoods (Fisher Park, Cedar Street, Aycock) near his project. He emphasized that the historic neighborhood setting of Bellemeade Village will be essential to its success.

He even gave my neighborhood some credit for laying some groundwork for his project by promoting mixed-use, infill urban development with our neighborhood plan.

I think that one of the major obstacles to Bellemeade Village's success is its street setting: it is almost completely surrounded by multi-lane, one-way streets, and therein lies a conflict: I have yet to meet an urban planner who doesn't love the idea of slowed traffic on two-way streets with plenty of on-street parking and walkable sidewalks. These are what make street life in an "urban village" possbile. But all of these things reduce traffic capacity.

And I have yet to meet a city transportation engineer who will eagerly reduce traffic capacity on any city street. It goes against their whole raison d’ĂȘtre: engineers plan and build streets to move cars, and if cars don't move, they get calls and complaints from drivers. Who can blame them?

For Bellemeade Village, and for projects like it (such as the Summit Avenue corridor project), necessary traffic calming won't happen unless the city council and / or influential city leaders explicitly direct transportation staff to "slow the flow" and nourish pedestrian life. The city will have to pay for the streetscape changes, too.

Paying transportation dollars for slower traffic? It kind of goes against conventional thinking. But can you name a great urban center that's easy to drive through?

Monday, December 12, 2005

I Went to the New Wal-Mart Supercenter on South Elm-Eugene

And I liked it.

The drive down there was nice, too, as GDOT has done some great work on S. Elm-Eugene through the Woodlea neighborhood, installing grassy medians and sidewalks on both sides of the street. It looks like there's a lot of middle-income housing being built in the area, so people will be able to walk to the Wal-Mart.

The store itself is set back from the road and has some landscaping between the road and the parking lot that make it seem less Wal-Mart-y. A brand new Lowe's hardware store is about to open up in the same complex.

I checked the grocery offerings carefully to see whether it carries the stuff we have to have. Good, fresh produce: check. Yoplait key lime yogurt: check. Bertolli bags o' frozen Italian stuff for teenagers who won't eat home-prepared Italian food: check. The only thing it lacked was the LaBrea breads that Harris Teeter carries. Claudia is a good-bread junkie. But we can always pick up a fresh loaf from Simple Kneads instead, since it's on the way home for us and we're friends with the owners.

Wal-Mart's wine selection is limited, but I was surprised to see that it carries North Carolina vintages: Hatteras Red (made from scuppernong grapes) and wine from the Biltmore Estate.

Maybe it's just because it's new, but this Wal-Mart seems nicer, brighter, and cleaner than Wal-Marts I remember. It also sports a dyed, polished concrete floor like the TajmaTeeter on Friendly Ave. used to have. I thought that floor was very cool, and was disappointed when it was covered over with vinyl tile.

Harris Teeter may have just lost a customer.

Roch on RUCO

Roch Smith, Jr. has done some great investigative journalism over at Greensboro101.com on the way Greensboro's rental housing inspection program, RUCO*, is being administered.

Along with a number of other members of the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, I spoke to the city council in favor of adopting RUCO because we thought it would improve the quality of low-income rental housing in Greensboro.

But Roch's article shows that city enforcement officers are inspecting apartments without the consent of the residents, and that's unconstituional.

*RUCO stands for "Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy," and the ordinance basically says that an apartment unit cannot be rented out unless the city has certified that it meets the city's minimum housing standard.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Smiths' Lighted Balls Spread

Our new neighbor Justin Smith brought with him a seasonal outdoor decorating tradition that his family started in Sunset Hills: four people on our block are now displaying holiday "Smith Balls." Sam and I put these up today:

Update: Here's a blog that will show you where you can see more "Smith Balls" and tell you how to make your own.

Friday, December 9, 2005

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Daughter Claudia (age 12) and I snuck out to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Her verdict: two thumbs up. I'll add my two to that and make it four.

I thought it was a delightful and satisfying adaptation of the book by C. S. Lewis. The leisurely pace at the beginning lets us get to know the four children, Lucy, Susan, Edmund, and Peter. While some people found them homely and boring, I was grateful that Disney found young actors who were true to their characters and were believable as ordinary, British children during the War years (that means no orthodonture). They aren't pretty in a Hollywood way.

And since one of the main ideas of the book, as I understand it, is to show relatively unexceptional children grappling with great moral issues like loyalty, courage, sacrifice, and forgiveness, these kids worked for me. The most engaging (and homeliest) of the four is Georgie Henley as Lucy, the youngest. Her eyes are a window onto wonder, love, joy, and pain.

But my guilty pleasure in this movie is Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch, Jadis. She delivers the role with a subtle and restrained sense of camp (though perhaps a bit less than Lewis originally wrote into the character), and with a truly outstanding wardrobe (no pun intended). If some are put off by the fact that the movie makes her an expert sword-handler with moves that Russell Crowe would envy -- well, this is 2005. Swinton fully communicates the Witch's sly delight in wickedness and cruelty.

Mr. Tumnus is sweetly and wistfully played by James McAvoy.

The digital effects and creatures were more than adequate, and sometimes quite good, especially the beavers, the centaurs, and the griffins. I found the battle scenes to be somewhat less busy, and therefore more satisfying, than those in the Lord of the Rings movies. And the Lion, Aslan, is animated beautifully and voiced well by Liam Neeson.

The theology of the books gets backpedaled a bit, however. The movie does not emphasize, as the book does, that Aslan can defeat the Witch because he knows the deep magic from before the dawn of time, which is a broad hint that he is not only one of Narnia's great powers, he is its creator. And Aslan gives considerably less moral instruction in the movie than he does in the book.

But in 21st century America, we don't really like someone telling us how to act -- even if he is the Creator.

Dada Spam

In my work inbox was this Dada-esque spam message (with a link to a commercial site), obviously included to get the message past the spam filters:

wits. I proved that, too, over the last twenty-odd years, incidentally. Alger Hiss did better with greeting cards. I havent time to reminisce. The information, please. Oh, yes, of course. ... Well, first the money was delivered to me on the corner of Commonwealth and Dartmouth, and naturally I wrote down the names and the specifics you gave me over the phone- Wrote down? asked Gates sharply. Burned as soon as Id committed them to memory-I did learn a few things from my difficulties. I reached the engineer at the telephone company, who was overjoyed with your-excuse me-my largess, and took his information to that repulsive private detective, a sleaze if I ever saw one, Randy, and considering his methods, someone who could really use my talents.
Yes, it's spam. But is it art?

Apparently not. I googled it, and it appears to be a quotation from a Robert Ludlum novel.

I think it works better out of context.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Le Courbusier's Revenge

The BBC was on my car radio as I drove home in the almost-freezing rain from a final exam tonight.

The story was part of a series on a kind of foreign exchange between Ibrahim (from Paris) and Arjmand (from Keighley, UK), who visited each other's countries, trying to figure out each others' countries delicate race relations. Tonight's episode had their joint commentary on conditions in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where the recent rioting was pretty bad.

The cause of the riots?

According to them, it was partly bad architecture.

The French suburb is home to huge, hulking, concrete housing projects, whose archictecture is sometimes characterised as "the New Brutalism," pioneered by Swiss-born architect Le Courbusier.

The boys commented, "They pack them in there like rats. Why wouldn't they riot?" Ibrahim and Arjmand seemed to prefer the 3-story flats with "gardens" (= yards, in American English) that are now the norm in UK public housing.

Design matters.

Dear Neighbors Blog

Donna Newton is one of the main drivers and hubs of Greensboro's neighborhood activist community. She runs the Greensboro Center for Neighborhood Information, she was (and is) instrumental in organizing the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, and if there's a neighborhood-related issue cooking in city government, Donna is there, working behind the scenes to make good things happen. I'll bet there isn't a city employee in the Melvin Municipal Office Building who doesn't know her.

She's just started a new blog, Dear Neighbors. It should be a great resource.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Condo Gap?

The nice Seattle woman who was asking me about real estate in Greensboro copied me on this e-mail to N&R writer Jim Schlosser (and gave me permission to post it):

I have been back and forth to Greensboro looking for luxury condos in downtown/urban area. The only ones were actually townhouses on Southeast/MLK with windows and rooms right on the street with cars driving by! I called the developers about the proposed Belleneade condos and 411 condos and none of them will have fireplaces! The porches/balconys are postage stamps. I looked at a Govenors Court unit and they had cement floors, no fireplaces, and the entry/front door is into the kitchen!

It seems that GSO has starter urban condos only, just a pile of stacked bricks after the surrounding trees and grass are razed. When boomers like me who have raised children move back to be near parents, we want all the luxuries of a home without the headaches. Seattle is full of lovely, spacious condos with views of the lake, mountains, etc. All luxury condos have elegant lobbys, fireplaces, views, terraces, varied floorplans, landscaped yards, formal entrances, etc.

I would gladly pay $400-500,000 for a Greensboro condo that met that standard. I was shocked to find such a charming downtown area bursting with potential growth and no place I would want to live! When I come back next month I will have to look for a house instead.

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Italianate Advertising

Here is a picture I took of the Tuscan countryside a couple of years ago:

It's beautiful, isn't it? Now here are some pictures of The Vineyards at Summerfield, NC, a new housing development:

The Vineyards at Summerfield is also nice, but in a very different kind of way.

So how in the world could anyone in her right mind write,

Inspired by the splendor of central Italy's glorious wine country, The Vineyards at Summerfield offers residents the grandeur of country living along with the conveniences of an urban location . . . . The Tuscan theme can be seen and felt throughout the community.

But Teresa Loflin ("Special to the News & Record") did write that in today's TriadHomes section of the News & Record, and every word of it is false, including and and the. And in addition to being false (and silly), it's puzzling.

Let's dispose of the false, silly parts first. (1) The grandeur of country living means Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, not Mr. Bank Vice-President in a subdivision of big houses on small lots. (2) The convenience of an urban location means you can walk to a restaurant, shop, or show -- not that you have a 30-minute commute down Battleground Avenue to get to work. (3) A Tuscan theme would seem to require some actual Tuscan architectural elements on the houses. But there are none, apparently, except for a terra-cotta roof on the clubhouse. Of course you can find those in Tucson, too -- so maybe if the Tuscan marketing doesn't work, the developer can try for a Southwest marketing campaign. (Or maybe he just got confused by the phonology of Tuscan / Tucson?)

Anyway, on to the puzzle. Houses in The Vineyards at Summerfield start at $500,000, which would indicate that the target buyers are not uneducated.

But what educated person is likely to be swayed in the slightest degree toward buying a house simply because a developer has slapped an ersatz Bella Tuscany marketing theme on what is a perfectly generic housing subdivision?

I mean really. My 16-year-old son Sam and his friend Neal burst out laughing when I showed them the N&R's photo of a row of tract mansions along an asphalt road, sporting the headline "Summerfield neighborhood provides Old-World elegance."

Better to name the subdivision after something you bulldozed to build it ("The Oaks at Summerfield"), or what your dog used to do there before you started building ("Bramble's Ramble"), or after the farmer who used to own the property ("Garrison's Glebe").

But let's leave Italy out of it, please.

Oireachtas! And Real Men of Genius.

All of my girls are in Dallas this weekend at the southern regional Irish Dance competition they call Oireachtas, hoping to qualify for "Worlds" -- the world competition in Ireland.

Yesterday Claudia's eight-hand reel finished sixth out of 16, and as of this writing they both have more figure and solo dances to perform. It's great that Maddie recovered in time to compete since both girls have logged hundreds of practice hours.

Laurette is also down there doing a solo dance of her own, managing wigs, dresses, makeup, hard shoes, soft shoes, socks, sock glue, and a couple of nervous and excited girls, all the while coping with a nausea-inducing migraine. I mean, what a woman.

Need I add that I am excessively proud of the women in my life? No, I probably don't need to, but there it is.

And Sam and I? How are we spending the weekend?

War of the Worlds on DVD. Trails End Popcorn. Tremors. Star Wars Battle Front II.

Plus we listened to all 32 "Real Men of Genius" Bud Light ads on Sam's iPod. All in one sitting, sharing the earbuds, laughing so hard we were spitting in each others faces.

If that's not male bonding, I don't know what is.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

I Need To Rethink My Business Model

The day before yesterday, I got an e-mail from a Seattle resident asking how to get in touch with downtown condominium developers Dawn Chaney and John Stratton because she'd read my posts about Vick Commons and Magnolia Court, is moving to Greensboro, and is interested in buying.

I gladly gave her the information, along with some information about a bungalow in my neighborhood that she's also interested in.

Yesterday, the Greensboro News & Record's front-page story by Marta Hummel, with full-color photos, was about downtown condominium development, covering a trend I've been commenting on and photographing for quite a while.

I finished my most recent condo post with this: "I think, a big, new chunk of the middle class doesn't like yardwork."

Marta Hummel's N&R lede was this: "For those hoping to ditch their lawn mower for a room with a view of a coffee shop, choices are expanding."

She didn't link to any of my posts from the N&R site, though.

So I'm thinking . . . real estate people and newspapers are making money from what I do here. But I'm not (unless you count the $15 or so I've made from Roch.)

P. S. Hoggard has a similar complaint.

UPDATE: The News & Record's editor John Robinson discusses this and other posts on his blog, with comments from some local media folks.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

How Old Is Sprawl?

Glenn Reynolds links to Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl : A Compact History, commenting, "A very interesting book, reporting that people have been worrying about "sprawl" for centuries, and that most efforts to reduce it make things worse . . ."

Amazon.com's book description also has this:

Robert Bruegmann calls [sprawl] a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, with benefits that urban planners have failed to recognize . . . Taking a long view of urban development, he demonstrates that sprawl is neither recent nor particularly American but as old as cities themselves, just as characteristic of ancient Rome and eighteenth-century Paris as it is of Atlanta or Los Angeles.
A few thoughts . . .

Frederick Law Olmsted, the 19th century's leading urban designer, thought that sprawl would be a great thing, and accurately (and optimistically) foresaw the explosive expansion of single-family residential suburbs in America. Like Bruegmann, Olmsted thought they were a democratizing and healthy development, because they provided light, air, and wholesome public places for Americans' moral development.

Olmsted did not, however, desire subdivisions lacking sidewalks, landscaped rights-of-way, large public parks, and greenways, and he did not foresee the rise of the automobile and its often desolating effects on urban spaces and design.

At any rate, the fact that Olmsted anticipated this kind of growth means that it did not then exist in the form that it does now, though some American cities were quite mature by the end of the 19th century.

As to Bruegmann's take on ancient Rome . . . I'm skeptical. The Roman upper classes certainly escaped to their rural villas whenever they could (you can read wonderful descriptions of some of the most lavish in Varro's De Agri Cultura), but I'm wary of drawing any facile analogies between ancient patterns of land use and what's going on now, if only because the Romans didn't have cars.

It's important to keep in mind that the kind of urban density which modern urban planners such as the New Urbanists promote is nothing like that which was found in ancient Rome, Victorian Liverpool, or modern Manhattan. Often it's only slightly more dense than the sort of suburbs Olmsted liked, and modern planners tend to encourage a mix of compatible uses (residences, small retail, offices) mainly to increase convenience and a sense of place for the people who live there.