Sunday, December 24, 2006

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Darkest Evening of the Year

Since it's the winter solstice and all, and we're missing the Sun, here's a little something to remind you of brighter days.

On Time and Under Budget

Results of latest renovation project (about which I complained here and here)





Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ave atque Vale, Sol

Mr. Sun is throwing in the blog towel.

I'm sad, because he's provided us with some great fun.

But I'm happy, too, because I'm sure he'll just reappear as someone even funnier.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Lighted Balls of Ridgeway

If you haven't driven down Ridgeway Ave. and Chapman St. to see the lighted Christmas balls hanging from their beautiful tree canopy, well, just do it.

Here's some video (via Quantum of Wantum).

Update: Lighted Christmas Balls blog.

Update II: Lighted Balls with Music! (also from Quantum of Wantum):

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reedy Fork Ranch Update

Reid Ewing of the National Center for Smart Growth left a comment on my review of Reedy Fork Ranch today that I think is worth a post of its own. Here it is:

Hi -I think your evaluation of Reedy Fork Ranch is on point. I have periodically given my grad students in urban planning the task of evaluating the Reedy Fork development. I did so again this semester while at Cal Poly, and found your blog while researching the status of the development.

I authored Best Development Practices for the American Planning Association and Urban Land Institute. The developer approached me originally with the idea of implementing Best Development Practices on his site. I was consulting with LDR International at the time, and passed the opportunity on to them.

The resulting plan was a major professional disappointment. What follows are excerpts from an email I wrote to the lead planner for LDR back in 2001. I have, for obvious reasons, left out more personal comments.

Such a wasted opportunity!

March 2, 2001

Sean -I have been debating how to respond to your belated letter, with completed site plan for Reedy Fork attached. To say that I am surprised and displeased with the process and product is an understatement. The developer approached me originally because he wanted a creative (non- formulaic) application of Best Development Practices to his site. He didn't want a New Urbanist plan necessarily, but rather a hybrid incorporating the best of contemporary and traditional features.

After one brief meeting at LDR, I hear nothing for seven months and then receive a finished site plan which, to my mind, falls substantially short of our original objectives. While I am not aware of the site constraints (having not been part of the planning team), I cannot believe that they are so severe as to have created this disjointed plan. On a midterm last week, I asked my students to evaluate the plan from the standpoint of Best Development Practices and Pedestrian- and Transit-Friendly Design, and even they (at their experience level), couldn't see any connection to the principles in those publications.

Reid Ewing
National Center for Smart Growth
University of Maryland

What Is Historic Preservation?

Diane Jakubsen of the N&R's real estate advertising section wrote today about a man who built a federal-style farmhouse out of bits of salvaged historic architecture.
Although it was built in the early 1990's, the Federal-style farmhouse looks as if it has sat on its four-acre patch of land for at least 100 years ... One other fact accounts for the authentic look of Figueroa's home. Not only is it an amalgam of countless vintage parts, the house itself is a reproduction of a 1790's house still standing in Johnson County.
At first this sounds like a preservationist's dream, right? Man with a passion for old architecture preserves countless pieces of history in a beautiful showcase.

At the risk of opening myself up to the charge of being both a snob and a hypocrite, let me say that what Figueroa has done isn't exactly historic preservation.

Benjamin Briggs of PGI likes to say "every building has a story to tell," and that's one of the main justifications for preserving old buildings. Historic buildings are a tangible record of their time and place, and are valuable insofar as they are actually intertwined with our history.

So, for instance, the JP building in downtown Greensboro is significant not only because of its architectural style and detailing, but also because it is a living record of Greensboro's economic boom in the early 20th century.

The houses in Greensboro's historic districts are significant not only because they're pretty, but also because actual Greensboro people lived in them and left traces of themselves and their way of life there.

World War Memorial Stadium is significant because it is a monument of Greensboro's 1920's-era patriotism and boosterism -- the First Horizon Park of its day, if you will.

What is the story of Figueroa's house, then? Each piece in it probably has a story, but taken all together they make a cacophony of stories. The story of the whole house is really the story of Figueroa, which is certainly an interesting one, but not yet an historic one, and the project as a whole shouldn't be confused with historic preservation.

In fact, what Figureroa has done is explicitly prohibited in Greensboro's historic districts. The manual for the districts says,
Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken.
So much for my snobbery ... on to my hypocrisy.

I'm nearing the end of a renovation of my dining room (got to get it done before the in-laws arrive on Tuesday), and yesterday I did the scariest part of it -- repairing the floor in a corner that went squish when you stepped on it.

I ripped out a couple square feet of the old heart pine flooring, got under the house with the black widow spiders and armadillo crickets, and nailed in some new ledger boards.

But where to find replacement flooring, as well as 1-inch thick quarter-round molding, which I also had to rip up along the baseboard? You can't buy that stuff at Home Depot; they just don't make it any more.

But you can find it at the Architectural Salvage of Greensboro, of course. ASG had exactly the salvaged pieces I needed, and it isn't the first time I've used them.

So am I doing the same thing as Figueroa? I don't think so, since I'm trying to maintain the integrity of a house that has already achieved historic significance, and using the principle of "replace like materials with like."

But I've done other things to my house that are more Figueroa-like, such as replacing the plain window casings in my kitchen with fancier fluted ones that I got from ASG. The fluted ones match the casings in the rest of my house and look nice. But if I had to do it over, I wouldn't do that again. Old-house kitchens were utilitarian places where the servants worked, and usually had no decoration. By dressing my kitchen windows up, I effectively silenced that part of my house's story.

At any rate, I don't want you to think that I'm criticizing Figueroa. I'm glad he saved all those architectural pieces and gave them a home. I just wanted to make it clear that there's a difference between what he's done and what the city is trying to accomplish in Greensboro's Historic District Program.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Grades Are In!

I've emerged from the bluebook mines. I posted final grades a 9:30 last night.

If anyone is curious how we professors go about grading exams and papers, here's an illustrated primer for beginners.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"It's Easier In The City"

Robert Toll, head of one of the country's biggest builders of suburban housing, says some interesting things in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription only) about his decision to start developing urban high-rises.

What do kids do in the burbs? You ride your bike until you can get your car. You've done the three movies at the plex. Now what? Having had five kids, I'm not sure that it's not more dangerous in the burbs than it is in the city because you are riding your bike in traffic. Or you are driving your car, which is even worse. You go down to the [convenience store] and smoke cigarettes, and the parents sit up with their arms wrapped around their knees, hoping that you come home.
Sounds a lot like my childhood (which was pretty nice, by the way). But Toll sees only 10-15% of traditional suburban home buyers moving to cities.

When the Journal asked him if it's easier to build in the suburbs or the city, he said,
It's easier in the city. The approval process is more professional in the city. The experts that you deal with are pretty much doing the assigned job, as opposed to the secret unassigned job to stop the growth, stop the sprawl [in the suburbs].
Toll's experience is in larger northeastern cities. I wonder whether the developer's experience is the same around here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Put Down That ...


Where can you see John Candy (as Yosh Schmenge from SCTV), Andrea Martin (as Edith Prickley from SCTV), New York Mets Keith Hernandez & Mookie Wilson, Jane Curtin (of SNL and Kate & Allie), Madeline Kahn, Joe Williams, Paul Reubens (as Pee Wee Herman), Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Wynton Marsalis, Celia Cruz, Ihtzak Perlman, Gordon Jackson & Jean Marsh (as Angus Hudson and Rose Buck of Upstairs Downstairs), Paul Simon, Jeremy Irons, Pete Seeger, Rhea Perlman and Danny Devito, and NY Giants Sean Landeta, Mark Ingram, Karl Nelson and Carl Banks, all singing the same song?


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Rosenberg's Loss Is My Gain

Jim Rosenberg has abandoned his long-time lover for another.


He doesn't realize that his first love has had a full-body makeover and has moved to a new neighborhood.

The new Wal-Mart at Pyramids Village is looking very good. Her skylights give her a natural-light freshness (unlike that tarty, neon-y Target). Her aisles are ample, with attractive dyed and polished concrete floors. Her parking lot is tidy.

Employees are keeping her merchandise in good order, and, unlike the Target where I have been going lately, her sales associates are plentiful, cheerful, and helpful. Yesterday, two young ladies helped me to find what I was looking for at Wal-Mart. Nice!

Not only that, but Wal-Mart had the 15-foot extension cords I needed yesterday. Target was sold out.

Eat your heart out, Jim. Wal-Mart and I will do just fine without you.

Update: Hoggard's fickle heart has also led him to the Scarlet Woman.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Working ...

Update: An anonymous commenter was astute enough to point out the true nature of my professional work by alluding to Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Thanks to YouTube, you can now see a sample of my classroom demeanor as dramatized by John Cleese. Unfortunately, I don't get to wear his cool outfit, or employ his method of punishment for unfinished assignments, articulated at about 2:10.

However, I must point out that "domum" is not locative, but is in fact accusative as the hapless insurgent blurts out.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Another Hot Keyboard Player

Confession: I really enjoy Lawrence Welk. He ran a very tight, polished band, and he really enjoyed what he did:

When I was a small child, we had an elderly babysitter (Mrs. Lidle) who always brought Tinker Toys, was very dour, allowed no deviations from good behavior by my brother and me, and watched Lawrence Welk. We hated her and Lawrence.

But I've found that I'm fascinated by the reruns of Welk's shows that have run on public TV. His performers are impeccably professional, his arrangements and bandleading are crisp, and the overall aesthetic of the performances is somehow mesmerizing to me.

I understand that for a lot of people there might be pleasure in Welk as camp (though he would be a definitely downmarket version of that).

For me, watching him gives me a feeling of connection to a generation that is passing, or has passed.


Booker T. Making People Sick?

The NYT says, "Green Onions Identified as Source of E. Coli Cases."

But these people seem to be feeling quite well:

Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Walking-In-The-Street Mystery Solved?

Jim Schlosser wrote an excellent story about retired African-American photographer Ben Poole and his experiences working in Greensboro during the Jim Crow era.

Poole has now donated thousands of his photos to the Greensboro Historical Museum, including a photographic record of Greensboro's east side "slums" before they were torn down during urban renewal in the early 1960s. That, to me, sounds like a treasure trove: I live adjacent to some of the neighborhoods that were destroyed, and will be fascinated to see what they looked like.

One such photo printed in this morning's N&R (but unfortunately not posted on their website) shows an old east Greensboro street scene that may solve what has been a longstanding mystery for me, namely, why so many African Americans walk in the street, even in neighborhoods (like mine) that have sidewalks.

The photo showed that in those neighborhoods, houses and shotgun shacks were built right up to the street. There were no sidewalks. The people in the photo were walking in the street because they had to.

I wonder whether that habit, acquired during Jim Crow, has been passed on to the present generation.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Return of the Granny Flat

From the NYT:

... [Northeastern] towns in need of inexpensive housing are turning to garage apartments, mother-in-law units and cottages in the backyard. The aim is to enable people who would otherwise be priced out of the housing market to live close to their jobs and relatives.
For a lot of people this makes more sense than living in an apartment complex, and it's a fairly painless way to add housing in existing neighborhoods. This is something the LDO citizens' advisory team definitely needs to look at for Greensboro.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Headline of the Day

"Russian Ex-Spy Lived in World of Deceptions."

Thanks for letting us know.

Mitch and David: Personal Impressions

I haven't had anything to say here about the controversy surrounding former police Chief David Wray's resignation, and the actions of city manager Mitch Johnson that led to it, because I didn't think I had any pertinent knowledge about the whole thing -- at least not any knowledge that everyone else didn't have. (Ed Cone has many links to coverage of this case.)

But yet another attack on Mitch Johnson's integrity in this morning's News & Record moves me to say something.

I've known Mitch socially for several years as a swim parent at Friendly Park Pool. He is a soft-spoken person, a regular dad and husband who enjoys spending time with his family -- just like nearly all the swim parents I know.

I also know him from many interactions with Greensboro city staff about neighborhood and historic preservation issues. In all those interactions, he has never been anything but friendly, strictly professional, straightforward, and honest, both when we agreed and when we disagreed.

He has a rather self-deprecating sense of humor. He came along with a bunch of us on a trip to Greenville, SC when he was still an assistant city manager being considered for the manager's post. He was friendly and talkative, and when he got the city manager's job a bit later, I commented to him that he must have been so cheery on the Greenville trip because he knew he was getting the job. He laughed and said, "Oh no. At that point I was sure I wasn't getting it, so I just wasn't worrying about it."

So when I hear people describe Mitch as "power-hungry" or "dishonest," I would laugh if it weren't so unfair to Mitch. He's a good man, and I believe he's doing a good job.

I also find it rather ironic that some Greensboro conservatives seem to have lined up against Mitch. When he was being considered for the city manager's job, a friend of mine on city staff admitted that Mitch was not their favorite candidate, although they had respect for his professionalism. "Too Republican," they said about him.

But my support for Mitch does not mean that I don't have real regret about what has happened to David Wray.

My first impressions of Chief Wray were extremely positive. He came to meetings of the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress, where he struck me as a man extraordinarily gifted at making personal connections with people across racial and socioeconomic lines. His ideas about community policing were exciting, and when people asked him hard questions, he gave honest answers in a sympathetic way, even when he knew that what he was saying was not what the questioner wanted to hear.

When the story first broke that Wray may have been mismanaging the police department, I was skeptical.

My impression of his basic character was confirmed a couple of days ago in a conversation I had on the front porch of Coffee at the Summit while waiting for a meeting. I was reading a copy of the Rhino Times, and an African-American woman who was also waiting there asked if I was reading Jerry Bledsoe's late installment on Wray. She told me she had known Wray for 8 years, considered him a friend, and did not believe he had a racist bone in his body. We agreed that Wray perhaps did not trust Lt. Hinson, but that whatever was going on in the Greensboro Police Department that led to the allegations against Wray, race was not the base issue.

One of the more distressing features of this controversy has been the willingness of some commenters in public forums to attack the character of people they don't know, as if somehow it isn't possible for good and well-intentioned people to make serious mistakes. But that happens all the time.

If you want my opinion, I think the evidence indicates that the main mistakes were Wray's, and it makes me pretty sad.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Greensboro's Center City Park: Outstanding!

I wasn’t able to attend the ribbon cutting of the new Center City Park this morning, but Hero and I walked down to visit late this afternoon.

First impression: Wow.

Even though I’ve been passing by this park for more than a year as it was under construction, actually going into the finished product was – for me, at least – exhilarating.

Granted, I probably have more than the usual amount of enthusiasm for public spaces, but the other people there seemed to be impressed, too. And quite a few people were still walking through, sitting, and enjoying it, hours after the opening celebration. This park is going to be a huge success, and the people from Action Greensboro did one hell of a job.

But you don’t have to just take my word for it. The Project for Public Spaces has a set of 10 principles for good parks. Let’s go through them and see how the new park measures up.

1. Image and Identity. "Historically, squares were the center of communities, and they traditionally helped shape the identity of entire cities. Sometimes a fountain was used to give the square a strong image: Think of the majestic Trevi Fountain in Rome ..."

It remains to be seen whether this park will help shape the identity of Greensboro. But it's placed right smack in the heart of downtown, and it incorporates some features that are meant to highlight Greensboro's history, such as the shuttle-and-loom-like roof of this pergola, echoing Greensboro's textile-industry roots, and granite-inscribed quotes from Greensboro native son O. Henry.

Plus it has a really outstanding set of fountains, whose alternating sprays were delighting everybody, especially the kids.

(There was one minor glitch with the fountains, though. At one point in the display, some of the water arcs over a sidewalk from one pool to another. Very cool! -- and very wet if you happen to be on that sidewalk when it happens. The park designers were trying to figure out some way to warn people about that when I was there.)

2. Attractions and Destinations. "Any great square has a variety of smaller "places" within it to appeal to various people. These can include outdoor cafés, fountains, sculpture, or a bandshell for performances. ... some of the best civic squares have numerous small attractions such as a vendor cart or playground that, when put together, draw people throughout the day."

I didn't count them up, but the Center City Park has a bunch of attractions in addition to the fountains. There are small sculptures for kids to play on, a bandshell for performances, the Cafe Europa across the street, many small gardens, and large and small lawns for play or for events.

3. Amenities. "A square should feature amenities that make it comfortable for people to use. A bench or waste receptacle in just the right location can make a big difference in how people choose to use a place ... Public art can be a great magnet for children of all ages to come together. Whether temporary or permanent, a good amenity will help establish a convivial setting for social interaction."

The amenities in this park are excellent: ample benches and low granite walls (which kids love to walk on), public art by local artist Jim Cooper ("libation") and by Seagrove artist Fred D. Johnston ("Bird", "Pitcher", and "Chicks"), lots of little nooks for sitting, sidewalks paved with attractive masonry, and small gardens.

4. Flexible Design. "The use of a square changes during the course of the day, week, and year. To respond to these natural fluctuations, flexibility needs to be built in. Instead of a permanent stage, for example, a retractable or temporary stage could be used. Likewise, it is important to have on-site storage for movable chairs, tables, umbrellas, and games so they can be used at a moment's notice."

Although the park does have a permanent stage, it also has plenty of flex space as well as storage. Time will tell us how well these are used.

5. Seasonal Strategy. "A successful square can't flourish with just one design or management strategy. Great squares ... change with the seasons. Skating rinks, outdoor cafés, markets, horticulture displays, art and sculpture help adapt our use of the space from one season to the next."

Since the Center City Park has only been open for less than a day, we'll have to see how seasonal plans develop.

6. Access. "To be successful, a square needs to be easy to get to. The best squares are always easily accessible by foot: Surrounding streets are narrow; crosswalks are well marked; lights are timed for pedestrians, not vehicles; traffic moves slowly; and transit stops are located nearby. A square surrounded by lanes of fast-moving traffic will be cut off from pedestrians and deprived of its most essential element: people."

Access to the park is very good, and traffic is well-regulated for pedestrian use, with clearly-marked (and new) street-print crosswalks leading to the park, and an excellent new streetscape and sidewalk along Elm Street. Access is also good for suburbanites who want to come to the park for special events, since several (maybe too many) parking garages rim the park.

Action Greensboro made an effort to dress up one of the parking garages with a painting of Nathanael Greene, and the architects did a good job of distracting attention away from another of the garages with the placement of the fountains.

7. The Inner Square & the Outer Square. "Visionary park planner Frederick Law Olmsted's idea of the "inner park" and the "outer park" is just as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago. The streets and sidewalks around a square greatly affect its accessibility and use, as do the buildings that surround it. Imagine a square fronted on each side by 15-foot blank walls -- that is the worst-case scenario for the outer square. Then imagine that same square situated next to a public library: the library doors open right onto the square; people sit outside and read on the steps; maybe the children's reading room has an outdoor space right on the square, or even a bookstore and cafe. An active, welcoming outer square is essential to the well-being of the inner square."

The Center City Park is right across Davie Street from the Greensboro Cultural Arts Center, the Cafe Europa, and the YWCA. It is also right across Elm Street from the under-construction Center Pointe tower (the old Wachovia building), which we hope will have retail or restaurants on its ground floor.

In this case, the "inner park" has helped to create some of its own "outer park," since it is doubtful that developer Ray Carroll would have undertaken the Center Pointe project unless the Center City Park had already been underway.

8. Reaching Out Like An Octopus. "Just as important as the edge of a square is the way that streets, sidewalks and ground floors of adjacent buildings lead into it. Like the tentacles of an octopus extending into the surrounding neighborhood, the influence of a good square (such as Union Square in New York) starts at least a block away. Vehicles slow down, walking becomes more enjoyable, and pedestrian traffic increases. Elements within the square are visible from a distance, and the ground floor activity of buildings entices pedestrians to move toward the square."

The park designers did a good job on the footprint of the park, and the City of Greensboro has pitched in with some public sidewalk improvements. Making elements of the park visible from a block away is a tough one, though, since the park is surrounded on all sides by high-rises.

9. The Central Role of Management. "The best places are ones that people return to time and time again. The only way to achieve this is through a management plan that understands and promotes ways of keeping the square safe and lively. For example, a good manager understands existing and potential users and gears events to both types of people. Good managers become so familiar with the patterns of how people use the park that waste receptacles get emptied at just the right time and refreshment stands are open when people most want them. Good managers create a feeling of comfort and safety in a square, fixing and maintaining it so that people feel assured that someone is in charge."

Too early to make a judgement on this one: time will tell whether this park will be well-managed. However, former Action Greensboro Executive Director Susan Schwartz (pictured below) did a fine job of shepherding this complex project to completion. If past performance is an indicator of the future, things should go well.

10. Diverse Funding Sources. "A well-managed square is generally beyond the scope of the average city parks or public works department, which is why partnerships have been established to operate most of the best squares in the United States. These partnerships seek to supplement what the city can provide with funding from diverse sources, including--but not limited to--rent from cafés, markets or other small commercial uses on the site; taxes on adjacent properties; film shoots; and benefit fundraisers."

The park is privately owned and will be maintained in partnership with the city, and my understanding is that the owners plan to rent the park for various kinds of events in order to keep revenue flowing in.

In short, Action Greensboro seems to have done everything in its power to make this park a good public space. I guess that shouldn't be surprising; they brought in the Project for Public Spaces as consultants early in the process, and hired designers who knew what they were doing.

Well done! I'm very grateful, and Greensboro should be, too.