Thursday, November 29, 2007


The Greensboro Board of Adjustment yesterday upheld a ruling of the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission about the cutting of a tree in Fisher Park. I wrote about the HPC's vote here, and I should note that I made the motion on the HPC to deny the request to cut the tree. The N&R's Jim Schlosser writes,

The Greensboro Board of Adjustment sided with the Fisher Park Neighborhood Association on Monday by ruling the church must keep a willow oak in a new church parking lot planned along North Elm Street.
I wasn't at the BOA meeting (I was teaching my historical linguistics class), and I believe they made the correct ruling, but I'm going to pick a bone with Jim Schlosser.

The job of the BOA is not to re-hear cases de novo, and the Board does not have to agree with the original ruling in order to uphold it. The Board's job is to determine whether the original ruling of the HPC was made fairly and reasonably.

When the HPC ruled that the tree in question should be preserved, it was not siding with the Fisher Park neighborhood; it was applying what's written in the Historic Preservation Design Guidelines to a specific case. Nor was the BOA siding with anyone in this appeal -- it would be a gross dereliction of their duty for them to do so. The BOA simply found that the HPC had ruled within its authority in a fair hearing.

Portraying a case like this as an amusing feud between a neighborhood and a church, with various boards and commissions taking sides, makes for a lively story.

But it demeans the work of the board and commission volunteers, who take their duties seriously, and it deprives the public of accurate knowledge of how their city government works.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Family Friendly Cities

Joel Kotkin writes in the WSJ:

The family's enduring supremacy is also apparent in the attitudes of young people, the so-called millennials.

As Morley Winograd and Michael Hais suggest in their upcoming book, "Millennial Mainstream," this new generation is twice as numerous as Generation X, and far more family-oriented. They display markedly less proclivity for teen pregnancy, abortion and juvenile crime. They also tend to have more favorable relations with their parents, with half staying in daily touch and almost all in weekly contact.

The evidence thus suggests that the obsession with luring singles to cities is misplaced. Instead, suggests Paul Levy, president of Philadelphia's Center City district association, the emphasis should be on retaining young people as they grow up, marry, start families and continue to raise them.

Greensboro has always been good at the family-friendly part, and has recently gotten better at atracting and retaining young people. That sounds like a winning combination.

Projects in the works like the proposed downtown greenway and the nearby Haw River State Park, should help even more.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Ol' Black Friday Bait and Switch

For the first (and hopefully last) time in my life I got up early this morning to shop on Black Friday.

Office Depot had advertised a basic Lenovo laptop at a very low price. We've been keeping our eyes open for deals, since #1 son will need one next year at college. So I roused myself and him out of bed at 5:40 am, still heavy with sleep and semi-digested turkey. We arrived at Office Depot shortly after 6 am, found the laptop display, took the little paper slip from the plastic sleeve under the Lenovo, and went to the cashier.

"We're out of those," she said.

"Then you need to take the slips off the display," I said. I didn't bother to complain that their big sale items were all gone by 6:09 am. "How many of these did you have," I asked a guy on the way out.

"Maybe two."

I should have kept my vow not to shop at Office Depot any more. Or maybe just followed Laurie's advice.

Update: Joe Tech found something similar at Circuit City.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Maybe Next Year ...

We're roasting the traditional turkey for Thanksgiving this year. But maybe we'll try something different next year:

Via Althouse.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"The most amazing thing is that this started with 10 signs.”

Preservation Nation:

It was the last straw for neighbors like Tad Skelton, who had watched eight houses fall for new ones in one of the town’s two national historic districts. Skelton and others planted red plastic signs in their yards, protesting the teardown trend. Today 550 front yards in the town of 27,000 display the “Protect Historic Kirkwood” signs.
Something for the folks in Greensboro's Kirkwood to think about.

Fall Street Scene

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Happy Birthday Hero

I haven't done much dog blogging lately -- here's a pic of Hero our Belgian Malinois today, on her fourth birthday.

She has a very poor temperament -- skittish and mistrustful toward strangers, growls at guests, doesn't get along with other dogs (except for Trajan), nervous and hyperactive, needs a 3-mile run every day.

We love her to death.

Smart Growth and Traffic Safety

Todd Litman says that Smart Growth reduces traffic fatalities for drivers, pedestrians, bikers, and transit commuters:

Many families move to sprawled, automobile-dependent suburbs because they want a safe place to raise their children. They are mistaken. A smart growth community is actually a much safer and healthier place to live overall.

Most discussion of Smart Growth benefits focuses on infrastructure savings, environmental protection, increased accessibility and improved livability. One of the most important benefits, increased traffic safety, is often overlooked. In fact, traffic safety is one of the most important benefits of smart growth and smart growth is one of the most effective ways to reduce traffic risk.
Three of the top 10 most sprawled places studied were in North Carolina: Stokes County, Yadkin County, and Davie County, where you are about seven times more likely to die in a car crash than in New York County, New York.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Third Anniversary

I started this blog three years and 630 posts ago.

Still having fun. Thanks for reading.

Poetry Corner: Jimmy Carter via Sun, Too

Sun, Too, in the comments at Quantum of Wantum, is Muse-struck, and turns an authentically odious letter by Jimmy Carter into a masterpiece of modern poetry a la William Carlos Williams:

Lamentably, I killed your cat
while trying just to sting it.

It was crouched,
as usual,
under our bird feeders
& I fired from some distance with birdshot.

It may ease your grief somewhat to know
that the cat was buried properly with a prayer
and that I'll be glad to get you another
of your choice.
There's also a little Billy Collins in that "It may ease your grief somewhat to know."

Poets are everywhere!

Chevron CTO Says Peak Oil is Real

Don Paul, Chevron's CTO says that

The "geological endowment" of conventional oil--that is, the amount of oil in the Earth--once totaled about 3 trillion barrels, he said during a presentation at the Dow Jones Alternative Energy Innovations conference here. We've used about 1.1 trillion. Oil companies with current technologies can't get it all out of the ground, so maybe there is a trillion barrels left for human consumption....Thus, peak oil--the theory that we're about to get into declining numbers on conventional oil--is probably real. However, Paul said, "I don't think it has to be the catastrophe that other people have predicted because there are other ways to make fuel."

Paul is the first big oil industry representative I've heard say this.

One way to mitigate the increasing cost of energy is to build energy-efficient cities and towns that help people get around without depending so much on cars.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lawndale / Cornwallis Site Plan and Elevations

I got some photos of the sketch site plan that Tribek Properties submitted to the Greensboro Zoning Commission earlier this week for the Lawndale / Cornwallis intersection (see my previous post on this topic.) Their proposal was to rezone a block, which is currently Residential Single Family (RS-7), to Conditional District -- Planned Unit Development -- Infill. The Zoning Commission's vote was a tie, so the plan was automatically appealed may be appealed to City Council for a hearing and vote on December 18. (Update 11/17: A neighborhood informant tells me that Tribek now has formally appealed the decision.)

This case will give us a good idea of what kind of projects the newly-elected Council will likely approve or turn down.

The central feature of the plan is a large (14,800 sq. ft.) Walgreens that is situated in the center of the parking lot, with a corner-facing entrance as is typical of almost all new Walgreens.

The principal entrance to the parking lot is on Fairfield Avenue, which is now a residential street. A secondary entrance lets out onto Lawndale.

Edging the lot on Rosecrest and Fairfield are a series of 3-story condominiums, each with a front-facing 2-car garage on the ground floor:

The site plan shows no sidewalk on Cornwallis or Lawndale, a full sidewalk on Rosecrest, and a partial sidewalk on Fairfield. No pedestrian access to the Walgreens from the townhouses is shown, and the rear of the townhouses is divided from the Walgreen's by an 8-food masonry wall.

Pockets of green space are preserved between three of the townhouse buildings and on the corner of Rosecrest and Fairfield, where the designers have passed up the opportunity for a a signature corner entrance. (Compare the way the Hobbs building in Southside handled the corner, at left.)

A recent article in the Business Journal called this development "New Urbanist," and developer Bob Isner was quoted as calling it a "hybrid."

It is neither. The whole aim of New Urbanism is the integration of compatible uses with one another while creating a pleasant pedestrian environment and human-scaled public places -- sidewalks, pocket parks, small caf├ęs and shops -- that promote personal interaction.

This project is just a lazy and obtuse mash-up of incompatible suburban buildings types: not only are the uses not integrated with each other -- they are segregated by the physical features the designers have proposed. The Walgreens will be sitting in its pool of asphalt like every other Walgreens you've ever seen. The proposed townhouses are just slightly squished-together Reedy Fork Ranch facades (see left) whose garage entrances will form a blank wall at the sidewalk level. The green spaces can provide no opportunities for interaction; they are just empty space.

This project is "New Urban" only to the extent that Frankenstein's Monster is a human being.

City planning staff think that this development will pose a grave danger to the integrity of the Kirkwood neighborhood, and they're right.

If the Council approves this, Katie bar the door, and older neighborhoods, organize yourselves! Because no one else will be looking out for your interests.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Happy Trails

Bull City Rising is rooting for the completion of the American Tobacco Trail in Durham.

Hey, maybe we should do something like that here!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Lawndale / Cornwallis Zoning Denied ... For Now

The Greensboro Zoning Commission denied a request to rezone the block of residential property at Cornwallis and Lawndale that was previously discussed here, here, and here.

City zoning staff had recommended against the rezoning, saying (in part),

Though the proposal includes both residential and non-residential components it is unclear that these uses can be truly integrated either within the site or with the surrounding residential areas, which is a goal of mixed development. The Sketch Plan provided with this request notes a wall separating the drug store and associated townhomes as well as parking areas and a full point of access to the drug store directly adjacent to existing single family residences. Given the heavy concentration of commercial uses already present on Lawndale Drive and Battleground Avenue, and the location of this site at the edge of the larger Mixed Use Commercial area, new higher intensity commercial uses do not appear warranted. Rather residential development that provides transition between the solid commercial and established residential areas appears to be a better fit (emphasis mine).
The developer will almost certainly appeal this decision to the City Council, where it will be heard on Dec. 18.

Staff comments make a lot of sense to me. It's interesting that the developer is proposing a "mixed use" that isn't really mixed -- the drugstore is separated from the residential unit by a huge wall. It reminds me of the "mixed use" designation for the Shops and Friendly, which, as many have noted, is really a couple of strip malls set back-to-back with some condos proposed for a back corner of the site.

A paradox of the area along Lawndale is that there's already a lot of nearby residential property, and a lot of adjacent commercial services, but it's almost impossible for residents to walk to the commercial services. I once watched in terror as a mother with a baby in a stroller tried to cross Lawndale to get to Target. She made it, but just barely.

This developer's proposal seems to be inimical to the very idea behind mixed use development -- that is, an improved urban environment with better pedestrian amenities.

A Green Old Age

Walter Gallas writes about an unusual reason for a tear-down request in New Orleans:

This week I went to the New Orleans City Council to speak against a proposal to demolish an undamaged 1890’s Queen Anne style house on Henry Clay Street in the Audubon Park neighborhood so that the owners could build a new “green” house....

This urge to demolish is especially shocking given that its goal was supposedly sustainability, as it is a complete contradiction of what the green building movement envisions. It would be more responsible to apply green building principles to the current building–exploring ways to conserve energy, preserving its original materials, and ensuring that the building continues to exist for another 100 years. The resources contained in this house will be wasted and lost forever with its demolition.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Historic Computer Rehab

The machine on which I do most of my blogging is a nearly eight-year-old Gateway that was a real fire-breather when we bought it.

But its once incredibly huge 40-gig drive is full, and its CD-ROM drive died quite a while back. I was thinking of replacing it.

But the old CPU is still fine for the stuff I do -- word processing, web surfing, e-mail, blogging, and the occasional production on Windows Movie Maker. And the price of a good, new desktop just wasn't in the budget right now.

So I picked up a $25 read-write CD burner at Staples and a new 160 gig internal drive at Best Buy for less than $100. They were really easy to install; my old gateway had two open slots for additional internal drives.

The only tricky part was getting iTunes to find the 20 gigs of music I migrated to the new hard drive, and even that wasn't very hard.

If I had known it was this cheap and easy, I would have done it a couple of years ago.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Wanna Take A Ride In My Charger?

Benjamin Briggs and Ed Cone are covering the Lawdale-Cornwallis rezoning like syrup on pancakes, so I don't have much to add. Both have good photos of the stately corridor of willow oaks that would be lost.

A Walgreens + condos wouldn't add any value at that intersection, where -- do I need to say it? -- the transportation challenges are already immense.

I hear from city planning staff that big-name consultants have been brought in to try to make sense of the Battleground-Lawndale-Cornwallis nexus as it is now, and they've just thrown their hands up in despair. A drive-through pharmacy would only make things worse.

I kept hearing during the city council campaign that we need to be more business-friendly. But we don't need to be friendly to every business, unless they're going to be friendly to us.

Recruiting businesses is like searching for a spouse, and this Walgreens looks to me like the guy with the toothpick, pompadour, and cheap sunglasses who wants to take Greensboro for a ride in his primer-gray Charger.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Little More Urbanity, Please

Chicago architecture critic Blair Kamin has this advice for Greensboro's developers:

But if your building is third rate, then your company’s image will be third-rate. And if your city’s buildings are third-rate, then the image of your city will be third-rate. And if the image of your city is third rate, then how on Earth are you going to attract the most desirable people—“the creative class,” as Richard Florida calls them?

You won’t. You’ll be a provincial backwater. You won’t be fully equipped to move into the 21st Century. It’ll be as though as you were living without cell phones and Blackberries and computers. They’re all essential right? Well, good design is too...

My challenge to you--to the business leaders of Greensboro, to the political leaders and to the citizens--is to recognize that architecture matters and to act on that understand in fresh and creative ways. You’ve made a good start in reviving your downtown, but now it’s time to raise your game to the next level.
Benjamin Briggs has the whole story.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Progressive Developer

I caught a bit of WUNC's State of Things while on a noontime errand and got to hear Frank Stasio's interview with Raleigh's Smedes York, a real estate developer and former Raleigh mayor. I wish every developer in Greensboro could listen to it. Here's a link directly to the audio [link]; send it to anyone who might be interested.

York talks about his experience in bringing residential and mixed-use developments to downtown Raleigh, starting in the late 1970s after Raleigh adopted its comprehensive plan in 1979. He thinks the plan was instrumental in helping to guide Raleigh's development more rationally than has happened in Charlotte, where, he says, development is mostly driven by business interests.

I was intrigued by his assertion that Raleigh's growth has benefited from the variety of interest groups that participate in land use decisions, including businesses, neighborhoods, and minority groups. York said that this has forced Raleigh to learn how to reach consensus decisions.

Here in Greensboro, I've been very disappointed that our comprehensive plan has received almost no attention from the entire crop of city council hopefuls, because that plan contains real, practical guidelines about how Greensboro can manage its future infill growth while protecting established neighborhoods.

If we try to follow the plan, I think we'll end up with less traffic congestion, a cleaner environment, better neighborhoods, and a better quality of life. If we don't, we wont.

I think some in our development community -- Robbie Perkins comes to mind -- understand that it's possible to grow according to a comprehensive plan and still make money. Others viscerally oppose any sort of regulation and reflexively fight it. In my view, the latter group tends to dominate the development discourse in Greensboro.

Narrow Streets, Bikes, and Sidewalks

News & Record reader Troyce Hood worries about GDOT's new narrower standard width for residential streets

Did the City Council ever consider leaving the width as is and marking off designated bike lanes? How is this city ever going to be considered bicycle-friendly if it starts making the streets less wide? I have to believe that, as in most cases, it all comes down to dollars and not common sense.

While you're at it, did anyone ask fire and police how they like the idea of slimmer roads in residential neighborhoods? It must be exciting to try to get those big hook-and-ladder/pump trucks down slimmer streets for emergencies.

Perhaps the title of the article should have been, "Greensboro is slimming down streets while adding pounds to its residents."
GDOT gave a couple of presentations to the LDO committee on the new standards, and of course they did due diligence on the fire and police issue -- 26 feet is plenty wide enough for emergency access.

But one of the main reasons for narrowing the standard width was to encourage developers, who previously had been required to pay for 30' wide streets, to use some of that concrete to build sidewalks. Not that they are actually required to build sidewalks on both sides of the street, but "concrete ain't free," as the developers like to say, and I'm for anything that will encourage them to build in good pedestrian connectivity.

Since on-street parking (at least on one side) is usually the norm on residential streets, GDOT didn't see any advantage in keeping the streets wide and striping in bike lanes, and I agree. We're not talking about collector streets or thoroughfares here. As a bike commuter, I like riding the narrow, old streets of Fisher Park and College Hill, and I don't think bike lanes would improve their ridability.

The Willow Oaks development is one of the first to use the new 26' standard, and I think it's very walkable and bike-ridable. Here's a photo I took a while back of that streetscape: