Sunday, September 30, 2007

Hope You Enjoyed Your Day

Yesterday was a good day for some people. Mr. Sun spent quality dad time with his boys, took a nap, and made some cute graphics about living in Greensboro. Ed Cone went shopping for consumer goods with his son, and got to make fun of Circuit City afterwards. On Facebook, one of my colleagues updated his status to "having the best day ever!"

Me, I spent the morning alternately feeling like I was going to throw up and shouting obscenities at myself, because we let my daughter run out of gas in our Prius, a block from home.

Did you know that if your Prius runs out of gas, and the big battery gets depleted from driving only on electric power, you have to get a new battery? And the battery costs $4000? And I don't have $4,000? And Sam is going to college next year, and Madeline the year after that?

So I spent the morning getting the car towed to the dealer, hoping against hope that all was well, and shouting the f-word (sometimes vivace, sometimes lento, always fortissimo) at myself all the way home from Rice Toyota.

The afternoon I spent in the 18" spidery crawlspace underneath my kitchen, feeling a lot like Charles Bronson's character in the Great Escape -- you know, the tunneler with claustrophobia.

I had discovered some serious decay caused by our house's previous owner building a deck attached to the rear of the house, which allowed moisture to penetrate and rot the support beams. All this had to be fixed by building a new concrete-block support pier and replacing the rotted beams, in a space accessible only by wiggling 25 feet over and under a century's worth of plumbing, electrical wires, and steel ducts. Lots of those white spider egg sacs this time of year. Thousands of them. They feel kind of tickly on your head and down the back of your neck and under your shirt.

Anyhow, I got the pier built, and took a call (while under the house) from the Toyota technician. All's well with the car (which I still like a lot, so please keep your schadenfreude to yourself, hybridophobes).

And I'm going to enjoy this afternoon by constructing and replacing beams with my new friends the spiders.

Enjoy your nap.

Update (Sunday, 7 pm): I emerge victorious over spiders and rot.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Romans Going Dutch

I thought only Amsterdam was known for its bicylces. But now, apparently, it's when in Rome, do as the Dutch do:

Although the city’s hills, old cobblestones and dense streets can make biking difficult for some, it’s now easier than ever to enjoy the sights from the perch of a bicycle seat. The number of bicycle lanes and rental shops and the indulgence of Rome’s otherwise aggressive drivers make biking in Rome convenient. Also, the municipal government occasionally bans private motor traffic in central Rome for a day, making the city a biker’s paradise. [Link]

Some Suburbs Ending Even Before The End Of Suburbia

The documentary The End of Suburbia predicts that high energy prices will soon make our modern suburbs unlivable, or at least transform them into something other than isolated havens for single-family homeowners.

According to the WSJ, it's already happening to some places, but not because of the price of gas.

In 2004, Mark Spector and his wife, Deanna, paid $350,000 for a six-bedroom house in Bridgewater, a new development in Wesley Chapel, Fla., about 25 miles north of Tampa. They moved into their home and looked forward to meeting their neighbors.

Then Florida's once-feverish housing market started to cool. Investors who'd bought a large percentage of the properties in Bridgewater found they couldn't flip them for a quick profit, and brought in tenants, instead. By last year, Mr. Spector estimates, close to half of the residents in the subdivision of 750-plus homes were renters.

The result, Mr. Spector says: overgrown lawns, drug deals in the park and loud parties in the "frat houses" down the street. "You'll see some driveways with a dozen cars parked in the driveway and on the grass," he says.
It's kind of surprising how fast and easily a "good" suburb can come down with the ailments of older, more urbanized neighborhoods, isn't it? And I love the response of the developer to neighbors' complaints:
"We have no evidence that leads us to believe that rentals are the cause of the homeowner concerns."
I've met a few landlords who talk like that. But it's really true that homeowners can cause as many neighborhood problems as renters. Or even more:
Denise Bower, of Community Management, Inc., which manages 122 developments around Portland, Ore., says renters are often more responsive to complaints because they know they run the risk of losing their leases if they don't. "I have more problems with owners, by far," Ms. Bower says. "They get stubborn."
Suburbia isn't really ending yet; suburbs and exurbs still account for the vast majority of growth in the U.S. But suburbia ain't what it used to be. There are now more poor people in the suburbs than in cities. If you're hoping that a suburban location will protect you from typical urban problems like poverty, crime, drugs, and declining property values, it looks like that bet just isn't as good as it used to be.

Focus, People

Large sections of Greensboro are under the control of roving thugs, and the Greensboro police are unable to provide basic protection to ordinary citizens there. Billy Jones blogs about this, and gets almost no comments.

City Council responds to the gang problem by stealing officers for a gang unit from other patrols. Shortly after that, when neighborhoods in the city's inner-ring neighborhoods report a stormburst of car break-ins, the response from the police department is, "we hope you can catch them in the act and call us, because we don't have staff to increase patrols." Gee, thanks.

At the same time, the city's enforcement of minimum housing laws is so ineffectual that the Greensboro Housing Coalition feels compelled to give a housing award to the landlord with the most housing violations in the city -- more than 30 --, because last year that landlord had 63 violations. Wow. Isn't that like giving a sobriety award to a drunk for cutting down to a six-pack a day?

These things being so, I find it pretty disappointing that Greensboro is currently obsessing over the termination of a police chief that happened almost two years ago, and which has zero chance of a resolution that will please aggrieved parties.

All reports agree that the GPD was dysfunctional before David Wray became chief, remained dysfunctional under him (and appears to have become more so), and probably remains so today.

Does anyone have a practical and concrete plan to ensure that the City of Greensboro can provide basic law enforcement and housing protection to its citizens?

Caveat: "fire Mitch Johnson" or "ban the Simkins PAC" are not practical proposals to solve these problems. A new city manager would face the same police and housing enforcement problems that Mitch inherited, and the Simkins PAC represents a permanent political constituency in Greensboro that will not go away.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Greensboro Cycling Survey

I got this message from a member of BIG, and I'm passing it along:

BIG (Bicycling in Greensboro) is a group of local cyclists that are trying to improve the cycling environment in Greensboro.

We need your help to identifywhat our priorities should be as we move forward. You can do this by taking a survey that has been put on the Internet for easy access. Go
here for the survey; it will only take a few minutes. We really want your input.

If you know anyonethat cycles in our area please forward this to them and encourage them to take the survey as well.

If you are not a member of BIG we would love for you to join us. Membership information can be found
here and an application here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Capitalist Preservationist

Jim Schlosser reports that John Lomax and three partners plan to renovate Greensboro's first Cadillac dealership:

John Lomax, who has rehabbed many downtown buildings, points to the [building's] expensive wainscoting around the showroom walls, white and black diamond floor tiles, skylights and other upscale touches that survive at 304 E. Market St. These features once told car buyers America's most classy automobile was sold here.
According to the article, Lomax has rehabbed 28 downtown buildings in the last 8 years. Two of his partners, Jay Jung and Daniel Craft, also have done adaptive re-use projects. That's an impressive record; Mr. Lomax and his partners are doing good work, and making money at it, which shows me that a lot of people are finding value in preservation these days.

Claudette Burroughs-White, RIP

Former District 2 councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White passed away over the weekend.

She was a fine, kind, and thoughtful person, and she worked hard to represent our district. She always answered calls and responded to her consitutents' needs. Though I knew her only a little, she habitually greeted me with a hug.

I'll miss her.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Heirloom Apple at the Curb Market: Magnum Bonum

Apples are starting to come in at the Curb Market, and this morning I picked up a bag of a very tasty heirloom apple: Malus (apple) Magnum Bonum (great good).

They're pretty small in size, which I like because my kids usually don't eat all of a big apple. It has a slightly rough, yellow and red skin, and firm white flesh. The taste has a nice balance between tartness and sweetness, with much more flavor intensity than you get in a Red Delicious or Fuji.

The vendor at the market grew them in southern Virginia. Here's what Big Red at Dave's Garden has to say about the Magnum Bonum:

Also known as Bonum, Maggie Bonum, Red Bonum. A long-time Southern favorite and one of the finest early fall apples available. It originated in 1828 in Davidson County, North Carolina when John Kinny planted seeds of the now extinct Hall apple. It was once a very popular commercial variety in Virginia grown for its fine flavor and the hardy and productive nature of the tree. Fruit size is medium or smaller. The yellow skin is mostly covered in light red and darker red streaks with numerous white dots over the surface. The fine-grained, aromatic white flesh is often stained with red near the outer skin. Ripens September to October and keeps fairly well if properly stored.
More information here about heirloom apples of Appalachia.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Architecture In The News!

Item! Local heartthrob-architect Steve Freyaldenhoven adorns the cover of 99 Blocks, Greensboro's newest publication for downtowners! Architecture-conscious women's knees weaken. Sorry ladies, Steve's taken by the lovely and talented Ginna Freyaldenhoven, also an architect, and is his business partner, too.

Their company, Teague Freyaldenhoven Freyaldenhoven, is designing the renovation of the Southeastern Building, and they're bringing it back to its original appearance. Nice work, Freyaldenhovens!

Item! Local builder turns green! Roy Carroll builds apartments that meet the "green building" standard of the National Association of Home Builders. "This is not a government mandate. It's market-driven," he says. The NAHB says the market for green buildings is "exploding."

Carroll's is the second major project to "go green" in the 'Boro , following the lead of Dennis Quaintance's Proximity Hotel -- the only hotel in the eastern US to be built according to the even more stringent LEED standard.

On the QT -- some folks have been quietly urging the developers of the proposed Murrow Station to build green, too. No response yet. Developing ....

Item! News and Record columnist Rosemary Roberts visits Seattle, likes its architecture, gets a bit confused! She wrote,

Seattle is rapidly becoming a city of acclaimed architecture. The Experience Museum ... was designed by Frank Gehry. If you're not familiar with Gehry's work, think of his signature building, the Opera House in Sydney, Australia.
No, don't think that! The Sydney Opera House was designed by Jørn Utzon! Quick, somebody buy Rosemary a ticket to Bilbao!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Good News for Friendly Avenue Architecture

From Greensboro's Treasured Places:

On September 10th, the Greensboro Zoning Commission unanimously approved the rezoning of the historic Albright House for office use, paving the way for preservation of the site as the headquarters for the Junior League of Greensboro. Final approval will be requested of City Council ....

The Starmount Company has owned the house for decades, and it has recently developed a plan to donate the house for charitable use. The surrounding wooded land and stream would be dedicated to the city and preserved for use as a passive park memorializing Blanche Sternberger Benjamin.

Although I don't think this part of town really needs another park, it's great news that the Albright house may remain intact and well-used.

Monday, September 10, 2007

How Gen X Likes To Live

Alert reader Jim Rosenberg sent a link to this story in the NYT Magazine about marketing lifestyles to young condo buyers:

"Gen Xers desire connectivity,” Stouffer says. “In these buildings, you are so close to your neighbors you often know them. You also get to know people in the public spaces in the building like the gym or the courtyard. It makes it easy to get acquainted.”
The story confirms what my informal surveys of my UNCG students tell me: they prefer to live in close-knit neighborhoods that emphasize community over privacy and exclusivity.
“The younger generation wants to play where they work and work where they play and do both in and around the places they live,” says Wendy Mendes, vice president of RTKL, a design firm that has helped develop condo complexes in Los Angeles, Austin, Miami and Dallas. “They desire physical spaces that allow social connections.” For Mendes, the strategy is to move community amenities from the rooftops or basements, where they are often underused, to the ground floor near the entryway. “The front-door area, which used to be a static place, has now become active,” she says. “It has wireless access and sometimes a coffee bar. In one project in Austin, we have the pool, club room, a TV viewing area and a fireplace all at lobby level. If you come to check your mailbox, you are in the social center of the building.”
The only Greensboro condo project that is aimed straight at the Gen Xers is Murrow Station, and that has yet to get off the ground. The big condo projects we've seen so far -- Bellemeade Village (on indefinite hold), Center Pointe (in progress), and Arbor House -- are aimed at a wealthy, middle-aged demographic, using typical suburban lures like granite counters, garden tubs, and pretty sunsets as selling points. Sales have reportedly been slow.

The 'Boro is awash in college students, whose attitude toward the city has been radically changed for the better by the revived downtown social scene and well-planned events like Get Down!Town. Maybe somebody could make good money by building a place where these kids would like to live.

A note to the marketers: pretty much every potential buyer in such a place has a Facebook, Friendster, or Myspace page. You'll attract customers if you set up a Facebook group for your project. Residents will sell units for you just by being networked with their friends who are still in college.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The End of Suburbia

So I finally got around to watching The End of Suburbia, a documentary whose thesis is that we've already reached or passed our peak oil producing years, and that the coming energy crunch is going to be very hard on everyone, but especially hard on SUV-driving, McMansion-living suburbanites. And it's going to happen in our generation.

I have no way to evaluate the oil-production predictions of the movie's talking heads. If they're right, my retirement portfolio is probably going to be toast. But my house in the center of Greensboro is probably going to be very valuable, so maybe I'll come out OK.

I think the movie's thesis would be more believable if it weren't so obvious that its principals despise suburbs and SUVs, and clearly desire their demise. And the repeated claim that suburbs have "failed to deliver their promise" is patently wrong. People keep moving to suburbs because they like them.

My favorite part of the movie came near the end, when urban designer Peter Calthorpe speculated on ways that suburbs could be retrofitted to accommodate a world of high energy prices. Shopping centers could become mixed-use, live-work villages, and some of the pavement of arterial roads could be reclaimed for sidewalks or businesses and residences.

If Kernersville is any indication, our suburbs may already be densifying, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see that trend continue. It's entirely reasonable to think that in 50 years, the Triad will be an archipelago of urban villages, with many more people either living at or near their place of work, or telecommuting (as my wife does), and depending on vehicles like this to get around:

Roads, Bike Lanes, Perfect Worlds, And Old Fashioned Politics

I belatedly noticed this post from Sam H at Piedmont Publius. Sam was responding to a post I wrote about biking in Greensboro, and he expresses his ambivalence toward bike paths. He likes to use them, but ...

What bothers me is the way city planners continually shove bike transportation down our throats as part of their perfect-world vision. If everyone could only ride their bikes everywhere, they believe, we would reduce our use of fossil fuels, the air would be cleaner and global warming would cease to exist. The world would be saved.

I don’t like perfect world visions, because there’s no such thing as a perfect world. The majority of Greensboro citizens either want better bicycle transportation or they don’t, and city planners should react accordingly. It’s a lot more simple than saving the world.
I think Sam is mistaken about the origin of Greensboro's very small number of bike lanes. The scuttlebutt I used to hear from city staff was that GDOT's transportation head, Jim Westmoreland -- himself an avid competitive cyclist -- was opposed to bike lanes, because he believed that they don't actually increase bike safety.

But GDOT held a number of public hearings when it started a review of its pedestrian transportation plans a couple of years ago, and the people who showed up at those meetings told GDOT very strongly that they wanted bike lanes.

At about the same time a bunch of Greensboro bike-lovers formed a lobbying group, BIG (Bicycling In Greensboro), that launched a PR campaign involving group bike rides, public meetings, letters to the editor, and guest op-eds in the local paper.

Their politicking paid off, and GDOI rewarded them with a few bike lanes in places that could easily accommodate them by simply repainting the roads and putting up a few signs. GDOT also published a map showing which existing streets are bike-friendly in our town, and which are not.

GDOT's new thoroughfare guidelines, which will come under public scrutiny in a year or so when the new Land Development Ordinance is up for adoption, make provisions for bike lanes where appropriate. But those guidelines did not come from transit utopians on city staff -- they are the product of tough committee-room skirmishes between bike/pedestrian advocates on the one hand and builders and developers on the other. Everyone involved in the process that I've heard from agrees that the result is a compromise that all parties can live with. Sounds like good city politics to me.

A lot of people presuppose that the older transportation model -- the one with multi lane, one-way streets with no sidewalks, crosswalks, or bike lanes -- is the result of "market forces" or is somehow more in line with libertarian-style individualism.

But every planning book I've read says that those whooshing thoroughfares are the offspring of mid century visionaries who were going to solve urban problems with efficient roads that would whisk happy suburbanites to and from their jobs in the gleaming center city.

Transportation decisions back in that day were much more top-down, and planners had a freer hand to ram their perfect-world visions down the public's throat. The result? High Point Road, Battleground Avenue, and their ilk The visionaries' vision failed, and now we're forced to go back and fix their mistakes. Whence comes the High Point Road corridor plan.
I'm a lot more comfortable with the kind of public input and give-and-take that goes into our newer transportation guidelines. Besides, I like to drive, walk, and ride my bike safely. And I've noticed that the new bike lanes on Spring Garden St. get heavy use, which shows to me that there was pent-up demand for them.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Farmers Appreciation Day at the Market (Video)

In spite of the drought, the produce is still plentiful at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market on Yanceyville Street. Today's turnout for Farmers Appreciation Day was the biggest I've seen.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Kernersville Steals A March

The town of Kernersville and a Winston-Salem developer are partnering to build the biggest mixed-use, neo-traditional enclave in the Triad. It's called Carrollton, and if the project and planned expansions to it reach fruition, it could become the biggest such development in North Carolina.

According to Jeff Hatling, Kernersville's Community Development Director, the project germinated from seeds planted in 2001, when Forsyth County adopted its long-range plan, Legacy. The plan proposes the development of nine "activity centers" throughout Forsyth, located at crucial transportation hubs, and earmarked for high-intensity residential and core business activity mixed together. The idea is to allow people to live near where they work, and to have easy access to transit. This kind of development is also called Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Greensboro's Comprehensive Plan proposes several activity centers, too.

At about the same time that Legacy was being worked up, the city of Kernersville went through a "visioning" process in which citizens agreed on what they wanted a future Kernersville to be like. According to Hatling, they decided that they wanted a "unique, high-quality community" with a "sense of place" and a "small town atmosphere." The city decided to pursue these goals by adopting a zoning overlay for several parts of town, that regulates roof forms, building forms, facade materials, architectural detailing, colors, signs, parking, sidewalks, and setbacks.

According to Hatling, the overlay districts were adopted with no opposition from the local development community. The reason, he said, was that local developers think that the overlay ordinance provides a safe environment that protects their investment.

Apparently this strategy is working, because PM Development looked at the activity center proposed for Kernersville, coupled with the town's zoning overlay, and saw not zoning obstacles to be fought, nor planners meddling with the market, but a business opportunity.

According to Paul Williams, an employee of PM, his company started pursuing the project several years ago, and it evolved from a plan for strictly residential housing to something bigger. His boss, Stuart Parks was attracted to the project, Williams said, because of his background in landscape architecture and urban planning. The first phase of the project will include a small, 7-acre commercial area along with housing. More commercial development is planned to be included as the housing is built out over the years.

According to an article in this morning's New & Record, Carrollton will have mixed housing types:

The developers' mandate from city planners is to make mixed housing the village's dominant feature. The village must also have lots of sidewalks, making it walkable; use classic building design elements found in this region; functional front porches; and short distances from building fronts to streets. [Link]

In fact, the town's overlay ordinance controls other architectural features such as roof pitches, window pane size, and trim elements.

On the national scene, there's nothing really out of the ordinary about all this. Cities and towns have been adopting a variety of overlays, fitted to their particular circumstances, in order to preserve or enhance existing neighborhoods, or to attract development.

And, contrary to a simplistic reading of free-market economics, it works. Greensboro's historic districts, which are highly regulated, have attracted millions in investment, and their real estate values have risen markedly faster than those in the city as a whole over the past two decades.

And the Southside development, which is regulated by a TND overlay, has seen fervid development and skyrocketing housing prices. Across North Carolina, other neotraditional developments like Meadowmont and Vermillion have been very successful, not only in terms of selling houses, but also in creating tight-knit communities where people live and work and in making efficient use of land and transportation resources.

But it hasn't happened in Greensboro yet. Starmount Co. had an opportunity to do something like this when it designed Reedy Fork Ranch a few years ago. But in the end, Starmount rejected the TND concept, electing instead to build on a mid-20th-century suburban model.

My prediction: if anything like this ever should come to Greensboro, it won't be done by any of our major old-line developers here in town. It will be done by someone young from out of town, who you've never heard of. He will be ridiculed as a nut by old-timers in the local real estate community, and then he will sell a lot of houses and commercial real estate and make a lot of money.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Me And That Tree

Jim Schlosser reported in this morning's paper that the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission denied First Presbyterian Church's request to cut down a tree in order to increase the number of spaces in a parking lot.

[C]ommission member David Wharton said, the panel "simply cannot buy the destruction of that tree."
Jim's story will likely provoke outrage in some quarters about regulatory overreach in the historic districts, but he left out one thing that I think is crucial to understanding why the Commission made its decision: the Historic District Guidelines. According to state law and city ordinance, it's the Commission's job to enforce them, whether we agree with them or not.

Here's the relevant guideline from the section about new parking areas (p. 30):
9. Incorporate existing large trees and shrubs into the landscaping for new parking areas when possible.
My judgement of First Presbyterian's parking plan was that incorporating the Willow Oak in question was certainly possible, even though it would reduce the amount of space for parking. Had the guidelines said "convenient" instead of "possible," I would probably have voted differently. But it would have been capricious and unfair for us to disregard our own guiding document in this or any other case.

First Presbyterian did a great job of working with the neighborhood and the Commission on the rest of the plan [link], which -- except for this one detail -- was outstanding. I hope they'll continue to do so on future projects.

Bedroom Sweet

I finally finished the bedroom renovation I started in July. It was a long haul. There were plenty of moments when one of those new Hovnanian tract houses looked pretty good to me -- everything plumb and square, and built by someone other than me!

But it came out well in the end, and apart from my time, it didn't cost very much. Maybe it will turn out to be a good investment if the housing market ever recovers. Right now, I'm relaxing on my bed and feeling some cool breezes through my beautifully restored double-hung windows.

Full disclosure: David Hoggard of Double Hung Window Restoration fixed two of my six window sashes; the rest I did myself.

Here's a video summary of the job.