Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Robert Goulet, RIP

Robert Goulet died yesterday at age 73 of a rare lung ailment.

When I was very small, my parents played records of hit Broadway shows on our old stereo a lot, so Robert Goulet's voice in Camelot is one of the first I remember. I still think "If Ever I Would Leave You" is one of the most romantic songs ever recorded.

Here he is in a medley of early 60's Broadway songs with Barbara Cook, who I will always remember as Marian the librarian in The Music Man.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mansions vs. McMansions

Greensboro's Treasured Places reports that the Irving Park neighborhood is thinking about adopting an NCO -- not a non-commissioned officer, but a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay. They'd be the first neighborhood to do so since the city council passed the ordinance enabling the overlays.

NCOs allow old neighborhoods to craft their own development guidelines, including street setbacks, building forms, and building materials. The goal in Irving Park would be to stop tear-downs and the building of bulky contemporary houses on small lots.

If that's what Irving Park wants, I'm all for it: that neighborhood is stunningly beautiful and worth protecting. You don't have to live there (and few of us can afford to) in order to enjoy a jog or a bike ride through it and appreciate its many architectural and landscaping wonders. It's kind of like an architectural park for the whole city. (Bless those developers in the 1920s for building sidewalks!)

It will be interesting to see how the neighborhood debate plays out. One assumes that Irving Park, being our most prestigious neighborhood, is probably a stronghold of market-based, laissez-faire, anti-regulatory capitalists. Will those folks oppose regulation when it stands to protect their property values?

We'll see. Just remember Wharton's Land Use Axiom #1: Land use makes hypocrites of us all.

The Downside of Democracy

Fec does some potential voter interviews in Greensboro's District 5.

They call to mind H. L. Mencken's famous definition of democracy:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Another Vinyl Hater

Barbara Campagna goes on an anti-vinyl tirade:

“No vinyl” I said. “But vinyl lasts longer and doesn’t need any maintenance,” he responded. Why does this misperception continue in the general public and bleed over into those of us who should know better? As Mike Jackson (Chief Architect of the Illinois SHPO’s office) says, “No Maintenance required” really means “can’t be repaired” - so they end up in the landfill much sooner than say a wood window which can be repaired and repaired and repaired, or recycled. Vinyl can’t be repaired, and it can’t be recycled. So, maybe you don’t need to repaint it every 1o years, but within 20 years you will need to buy new windows yet again, and the heavy imprint on the environment starts all over.

To quote my colleague Patrice’s recent “White Paper on Sustainability”: There is a common perception that windows are a major source of heat loss and gain. Yet retaining historic windows is often more environmentally friendly than replacement with new thermally resistant windows. Government data suggests that windows are responsible for only 10% of air infiltration in the average home. Furthermore, a 1996 study finds that the performance of updated historic windows is in fact comparable to new windows. Window retention also preserves embodied energy, and reduces demand for environmentally costly new windows, typically constructed of vinyl or aluminum… There is the widespread perception that air leakage through windows is responsible for the majority of heat gain or loss in historic buildings. Yet information from the U.S. Department of Energy indicates that windows are responsible for only 10% of air escape in the average American home. Floors, ceiling and walls are responsible for 31% of heat loss and gain, while ducts and fireplaces are each responsible for about 15% of heat loss and gain.

Besides, vinyl windows are just ugly as hell.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Joe Wilson Gets Specific

In answer to my earlier question, candidate Joe Wilson writes in the comments on his blog,

David, one thing that comes to mind is engineered standards. We often see projects of the same relative size and scope differ greatly in their engineering. For example one site may have a pile of rock in the bottom of a retention pond called a “baffle” and the other may require a series of earthen baffles and a skimmer for the same size pond in the same area. This is because different engineers use different methods. Anyway the point I am trying to make is the city should standardize engineering requirements to simplify the TRC Technical Review Committee process.

Once you get a plat map of your site submitted to the city it goes into “TRC” and 13 different heads of departments look it over and return comments and your engineer makes the changes required by the comments,it is then resubmitted for more comments and changes up to 3 times until it is finally approved. Then you have to have 5 people sign off on the thing and finally it gets approved. The current contact person who is Jimmy Person usually takes it to the city clerk for recordation within a week. My last plat map took 101 days to approve and record.

So the addition of one person attached to the executive department is going to speed this up how? let’s say on average they look at 15 new plans a month, So now as it stands developers and their engineers have 13 points of contact, so getting an answer is pretty quick. The new position the “Special Assistant to the City Manager” has to contact as many as 13 people about as many as 15 plans and then report to the engineers to solve the problem. How does one person do the work of 13 people more efficiently than they can do it themselves? I bet he or she will be expensive.

I understand that the job is only supposed to deal with problems that arise but I just illustrated that every plan submitted has re-writes and changes that have to be communicated, I just think it’s a needless addition of more bureaucracy and not too mention that the person in this position will come into contact with every developer in the city one on one as a City representative. in a position of power. Once again they’ve created the possibility a person of influence entering politics with a lot of support from developers. When will we ever learn that perception is reality in the mind of the public. I have lots more to say just not lots of time right now. let me hear from you.

That's plenty specific! I'm going to forward this to city manager Mitch Johnson and see if he'd like to respond.

I'm less concerned that the liaison would enter politics as the cat's paw of developers than that the liaison would become a lackey for development interests working for the city.

But what part of the current process, that's admittedly very complicted, could be or should be eliminated?

What Red Tape? Be Specific, Please

Red tape and city rules and regulations are convenient dogs to kick at election time (or should I say, goats to scape?).

Candidate Mike Barber got the nod from the N&R partly for his stance against "red tape," and on his blog, candidate Joe Wilson criticises city manager Mitch Johnson for adding a staff member whose job is to help developers through the approval process. Joe thinks the city should simplify city regulations instead.

I want to know exactly what red tape these candidates (and others) want to cut. Because regulations that look like pointless nuisances to developers often look like necessary protections to property owners and neighborhoods. I want the candidates to quote chapter and verse in the city's ordinances.

I wrote in a comment at Joe Wilson's blog,

Joe, when you say you want to make the process simpler, do you have any particular ordinances or codes in mind? Which ones trip people up most? I hear lots of candidates say they want the city to be more “business-friendly,” but I’ve never heard any specifics on which ordinances or procedures they want to change.
I ask this because I’m on the citizens advisory team for rewriting the city’s development ordinance, and if you have any specific ideas, this is the time to get them on the table.
As of this writing, Mr. Wilson hadn't yet responded.Mr. Wilson responds in the comments.

Wilson confuses me, too, because in another post on his blog, writing from the point of view of a neighbor, he blasts the city for not regulating the cutting of trees. In that post he also criticizes "overzealous" city employees, but don't you think that if a city employee had prevented the tree-cutting that Wilson laments, the developer who wanted to cut them would have complained about meddling city employees?

Unless I hear very specific deregulation proposals from the candidates, I'm going to assume that calls for eliminating "red tape" are at best just political posturing, or at worst, a call to give developers free rein to build what they want, wherever they want it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Urban Planning By Blog

Robert Goodspeed:

[Robert Fishman] argues the tradition has not been a story of centralized, rational planning, coordinated through governmental agencies. In his view,the great planning accomplishments of American history were instead the product of a great “urban conversation” where elites and common citizens alike engaged in an “intense and impassioned” discussion of urban and regional strategies. Fueled by the selfish interests of both the actors and the cities themselves, this urban conversation is the true source of the power in directing the development of our cities. Indeed, history shows Americans have invested heavily in common infrastructure in the past, building freeways and transit, urban parks, train stations, ballparks, and convention centers.

We are living through remarkable times, when the very medium of our urban conversation is being transformed. No longer are our major urban newspapers the exclusive forum for the civic minded. Newspaper circulation and readership has declined, niche publications catering to various interests and languages have sprung up. The most potent tool of this revolution - the internet - has exploded in influence and scope over the past decade. At a fundamental level, it has empowered every organization and every individual to communicate directly with any other person on the planet.

As we might expect, this has changed the nature of the urban conversation fundamentally. No longer does it take place through several well-known forums, today it happens on websites, over neighborhood email lists, in blog comments, on message boards, or through email threads among co-workers or friends. While there is much disorienting about this brave new world, it has empowered citizens to seek direct information from the government
There's a lot of that happening right here in Greensboro -- some of it right here on this blog.

Local Architecture Lacking

According to Benjamin Briggs,

[B]oth of [Raleigh and Charlotte] are far ahead of Greensboro in understanding the power of architecture and good design. Raleigh has developed an appreciation of architecture in being the home of the NCSU School of Design since 1948. Charlotte was hit over the head with the importance of good design with architect Robert A. M. Stern’s 1986 proclamation that Queen City was “the ugliest collection of third-rate buildings in America.” Through the years, the press in both cities has cultivated a population that has an appreciation of architecture and design. In contrast, the Greensboro News and Record has provided little coverage on design issues, focusing instead on historic preservation (and often on the conflicts therein).

It's Not The Water ... It's The Government

Bull City Rising admires Greensboro's new downtown streetscapes:

Driving through Southside on Saturday morning, the streets and alleyways were full of couples and singletons out walking the dog or enjoying the early part of the day from their porches.

But the renewal doesn't end at the few city blocks of Southside; it extends down Martin Luther King, Jr. Parkway all the way to I-40, with a massive streetscape project having added sidewalks, attractive lighting and what appears to be landscaping along the boulevard... transforming, in the process, what clearly was once a run-down street into a much attractive drive, and from the looks of it helping to draw in renewal and revitalization to some of the houses....

Heading over to N.C. A&T from downtown, I was impressed to see still more streetscape beautification, with landscaped medians, attractive signage, and good lighting. Sure enough, upon approaching the college, attractive, modernized campus-oriented retail appeared along Market right next to the campus....

[H]ow has Greensboro pulled off its redevelopment so well while Durham is just starting? Its tax levels are about the same (though as a larger city, it does have a larger base from which to draw.) Is its local government simply more capable at executing on change, on operating functionally?

Whatever the explanation, there is something in the water in the Triad, and it ain't lead.
It's not the water; it is city government in Greensboro.

The projects that BCR mentions (Southside, East Market St. Corridor) emanated from Greensboro's Housing and Community Development department, whose talented planners -- Andy Scott, Sue Schwartz, Dan Curry, and others -- not only had the imagination to envision these projects, they had the skills to get other city departments (planning, transportation), city political leaders, and voters on board.

And there's more to come from this crew on South Elm Street. Greensboro is very lucky to have these people working for us.

Via Cone.

GSO Housing Web Video

The Greensboro Housing Coalition has produced a mini-documentary on affordable housing. It gives you a pretty good idea of how minimum housing enforcement works in Greensboro.

The GHC has a lot to be proud of, and Greensboro should be very grateful for their work.

Via Chosen Fast.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mellowing On Mellow Mushroom

I got a couple of responses to what I wrote about the Mellow Mushroom coming to South Elm:

Ed Cone wrote that "Greensboro is not Mayberry." Irrefutable!

I've got no problem with downtown Greensboro growing and changing, though you might not get that message from my post. To clarify: my worry is that South Elm's distinctive, local flavor will be lost to architectural and commercial generica.

So I was really happy to get an e-mail from the Mellow Mushroom's owner, Jim Waters. He wrote,

The store in Greensboro will take into consideration (and respect) the character of the neighborhood and hopefully expand on it. It will have a completely different look than the WS store. When the time comes I'll send you a rendering of the Greensboro store and would welcome your comments. I'll be shocked if we bring a chain feel to the area; that is not why we are heading there.

In the meantime, keep us (and the rest of Downtown Greensboro) on our toes!


We have a vision for 609 S. Elm that I hope comes together will blow people away. We are looking for a "bohemian cathedral" feel that will take advantage of all the windows on the south side of the building. We'll see what this all means when we get there.

For what it is worth, we do our fair share to support local art and music and often lay low, take our punches on any dissent and then see if the views change once we deliver our product.

Those are heartening words, because South Elm is already an architectural treasure.

Mr. Waters sent some photos of the Mellow Mushroom in Winston-Salem:

To me, The sleek, almost retro- modernism of the WS store looks appropriate for its context. It will be interesting to see what the Greensboro store will look like.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Wish I'd Said That

Glenn Reynolds writes, "the political rewards for fixing old stuff are far inferior to the political rewards for building new stuff -- even if the old stuff is stuff we need, and the new stuff is showy pork."

So right. His post is about "big" infrastructure like bridges and dams, but the same principle applies to neighborhoods.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Rent-Leveling the Playing Field

LTE writer Michael Silverman suggests that Greensboro establish a rent-levelling board to handle landlord-tenant disputes:

The board members consisted of three landlords, three tenants and three homeowners all appointed by the city council. The board also maintained an attorney. We met monthly in town hall, and after each meeting the public was invited to bring concerns before the board stemming from either tenant or landlord issues. The board heard all parties and made a legal binding decision either for or against the landlord or tenant involved. For the many apartment complexes within Greensboro, it would be a service to the thousands of residents if such a board were implemented in Greensboro.
I'd never heard of rent-leveling boards before, and my intensive research indicates that they're all in New Jersey.

I think it would be a good thing if renter-landlord problems could be brought into a hearing where tenants and landlords would have to show their faces to deal with disputes. As Greensboro rental law now stands, many landlords are able to maintain substandard property for years on end with few bad consequences for themselves, and landlords have almost no recourse against deadbeat or destructive tenants.

But the rent-leveling boards of New Jersey seem to have been established to handle rent increases in rent-controlled properties, and we don't have rent control here in North Carolina. I imagine that the Devil will be buying a polar fleece anorak from REI before rent control comes here. And I'm pretty sure that the city would need an enabling law from the NC state legislature before it could establish another quasi-judicial board.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Haw River Memories

When I die, I want my ashes to be scattered in the Haw River.

(Photo by Dave Horne)

In the first years of our marriage, Laurette and I rented an old post-and-beam farmhouse that stood on 1,100 acres in Chatham County. You could only get to it by a mile-long logging track that meandered between low rocky forested hills and along a creek. The place was wooded with beech, poplar, pine, oak, and understory dogwoods whose white blossoms glowed out of the spring twilights. Our teenage children were babies then -- two of them were born while we lived there -- and we had two young dogs who are now long dead.

If you followed the logging track past the farmhouse -- it was called Way Station Farm, and had once been a stage stop on the way to Pittsboro -- the track led down to the banks of the Haw, eventually fading off into the undergrowth. I followed it through the brush a few times to find the stone foundations and ruined chimneys of houses that had once been like the one we lived in.

In the four years we were there, I think we walked down that track almost every day, winter and summer, our shepherds making wide circles around us through the woods, our children usually in backpacks and the baby jogger. When we reached the river, the dogs would have a swim, and the kids would throw sticks for them into the water. Sam caught his first fish there, a small greenish catfish. We threw it back.

In spring and summer the ticks were ferocious, and we spent part of most evenings pulling ticks off the dogs with tweezers and dropping them into a small glass of rubbing alcohol. We checked the kids and ourselves, marking the day of every tick bite on the calendar in case of Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

But there were no mosquitoes, probably because every standing pool rippled with tadpoles that ate the larvae. What few survived the tadpoles were taken by the dragonflies that patrolled our yard, or by the quiet bats at dusk.

One spring the jungle of wisteria that was choking to death a nearby stand of loblolly pines bloomed so intensely that if you stood in the middle of it you could hardly take a breath, the sweetness was so overpowering. The bees and other insects were intent on the nectar, so that you could stand in the swarm without them paying you any attention.

In high summer the fireflies would settle in the trees after their dipping twilight mating flights and just pulse, their yellow glow contrasting with the thick icy white of the Milky Way. Late at night the whippoorwills would wake us up with their loud, repeating cries. In winter, you could often see the barred owl who lived nearby, and through the bare trees there were always a couple of turkey vultures circling in the pale sky.

Wouldn't it be a terrible waste if a place such as this were clearcut for a gated suburb? Don't you think places like this should be preserved for generations to enjoy?

I do. That's why I support Citizens for Haw River State Park.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Good Charlotte

"Greensboro is by and large a nice, well-run place to live," wrote a local blogger recently, and I was inclined to agree until I rode around looking for houses that Project Homestead had built.

Yesterday's tour gave me a very biased sample, but I saw that Greensboro has a lot of stressed neighborhoods with boarded-up houses like these. I was afraid to get out of my car to take these pictures. [NB: these houses were not built by Project Homestead. Read the link above to find out about the condition of PH houses.]

The city does a lot to provide basic housing in these neighborhoods, and has done some great infrastructure and planning projects like the East Market Street corridor.

But what does the city do to promote the community health of existing neighborhoods that don't need infrastructure repairs as much as help to make sure that lots are not overgrown, trash is picked up, and their streets are reasonably safe? With all the recent publicity about gangs in the city and the need for a comprehensive approach to them, this would seem to be a pressing issue.

What we have here in Greensboro is a single part-time employee who runs the Neighborhood Information Center out of the Glenwood Library. That person, Donna Newton, has been indefatigable in working with neighborhoods and the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress (an all-volunteer organization) to help with basic problems like crime, housing inspections, and getting appropriate city services.

But there's only one of Donna, and she works more than full time at her half-time position. We need much more.

In this respect, Charlotte has our butt kicked. For 12 years, Charlotte has run an annual neighborhood symposium. It provides leadership training for neighborhood organizations. It offers matching grants of up to $25,000 for neighborhood improvement projects, including planning. It works with neighborhood organizations to help enforce basic quality of life ordinances. It has a vision of what a model neighborhood is.

Greensboro needs a central clearinghouse and dedicated staff for neighborhood services, backed up by a firm commitment from all departments to enforce housing, zoning, trash, and transportation ordinances. It also needs a firm commitment from city council to provide the staff to enforce basic ordinances.

I propose selling off the Bryan Park golf course and transferring its annual budget to pay for these needed services. Seriously.

[Special note to RGW: I don't hate golf or golfers! I just think that this course belongs in the private sector.]

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Project Homestead: The Inside Story You Haven't Heard

If you asked an average Joe Greensboro about Project Homestead, I think you’d get a story that goes something like this:

Project Homestead was a nonprofit homebuilder in Greensboro that received millions of dollars in handouts from the city to build low-income housing. But Project Homestead’s late leader, the Rev. Michael King, squandered a lot of that money on cruises, personal expenses, and illicit land deals for his family and cronies. Even worse, Project Homestead’s houses were shoddily built. All this happened because city staff wasn’t paying close enough attention to the non-profit’s activities. After Project Homestead went bankrupt and Rev. King took his own life, the local DA investigated the mess, chose not to prosecute anyone, and then refused to release his report.
Unfortunately, some of that narrative is true, and the more sensational parts of it were well-covered in the N&R. Oddly, the normally muckraking Rhino Times left the story alone. (Correction: according to an e-mail Rhino editor John Hammer sent me, the RT ran many Project Homestead stories. Unfortunately, none of them are available at the RT website, whose archives don't go back past 2005.)

I got curious about how Project Homestead actually worked with the city. How much money did Project Homestead receive from the city, and on what terms? How much was squandered, and how much actually helped low-income people get into decent housing? How much money went to homeowners? What was the quality of the housing, and is anyone looking after it now? I suppose these questions are too boring to get much newspaper coverage, but I think they’re important for evaluating the whole Project Homestead affair.

I asked Andy Scott, head of the city’s housing and community development (HCD) department how much the city spent on Project Homestead, and he was kind enough to put together a report and to meet with me to explain it. Here’s what I found out.

Total funds to Project Homestead from the city between 1990-2003 were $17,600,734. About $16 million of that went directly to property owners in the form of lots donated by the city, second mortgages to homeowners, and loans to Project Homestead in partnership with other developers who specialized in building and managing low- to moderate-income apartments.

None of the mortgages were in the sub-prime category that is currently scaring the pants off the U.S. real estate industry. Project Homestead vetted its mortgagees carefully enough that the default rate on their mortgages is about 2-3%, while the default rate for adjustable rate sub-prime mortgages lately runs between 7 and 14.5%. According to Andy, the loans produce $500,000 to $750,000 a year in income to the city.

You can do the numbers yourself: over the life of those loans, the city will eventually get back its $16 million investment and more.

What about the allegedly shoddy units? When complaints started popping up in the newspaper, HCD worked closely with the city inspections department to address the problems. The city eventually identified 57 out of 625 single- and multi-family Project Homestead units that needed some repairs. Andy described the majority of the problems as either cosmetic or due to normal wear and tear or deferred maintenance.

Five houses had serious problems related to their foundations. The houses’ insurer, Nationwide, refused to repair any of them. (Nationwide wasn't on their side.) The city eventually paid about $200,000 to fix all problems for all 57 units. I guess you can look at that expenditure either as a waste of taxpayer money or as the city protecting its investment in the houses, depending on how demagogic you’re feeling.

Here’s a photo of one of the houses that needed minor repairs:

From the street, it looks like a pretty good house. I picked it at random off the list Andy gave me.

All told, fewer than 10% of Project Homestead units had minor problems, and fewer than 1% had serious problems. I don’t know the industry standard for this kind of thing, but Project Homestead’s complaint rate seems better than what people are saying about houses built by K. Hovnanian Homes, one of the country’s biggest for-profit homebuiliders.

What about that lax staff oversight? If you read the N&R’s coverage carefully, you find that staff raised concerns quite early about the way Project Homestead was doing some things. In particular, Project Homestead didn’t seem to be giving as much “instant equity” to homeowners from the donated lots as other low-income homebuilders were. HCD produced a report and a plan to address the problem, and gave it to city council in early 1997. Council took no action. Staff members who raised red flags to the council include Andy Scott, then-city manager Ed Kitchen, and assistant city manager Ben Brown.

HCD staff have always done regular on-site inspections and audits of the multifamily properties that were built and managed by Project Homestead and its partners. Andy provided me with a stack of recent audit memos that address occupancy rates, renter qualifications, monthly rents, and the physical condition of the buildings and grounds (which are also covered under the city’s minimum housing ordinance). The memos are boring to read, but they paint a clear picture: city staff holds property managers to a very high standard as a condition of receiving city loans.

Here's a photo of the L. Richardson Hospital in East Greensboro -- an historic building which Project Homestead and its partners recycled as an apartment building:

And here's another aparatment building that Project Homestead built:

Over the years, the city also contracted with Project Homestead to provide homeownership counseling, homeowner preparation, and project planning. The city paid to rehab the Project Homestead headquarters on MLK Drive (which the city now owns, I think) and provided some other rehab loan funds. All of these expenditures were audited, and totaled about $730,000.

Unusual grants to Project Homestead were for the Cumberland Shopping Center, a Job Training Center, and the Dudley-Lee Center upfit, all together totaling about $831,000. If I recall correctly, these grants were requested by Rev. King outside of normal channels, were not recommended by staff, but were generally approved by city council, with councilwoman Sandy Carmany often the only dissenting vote.

The primary responsibility for keeping track of Project Homestead’s finances lay with the Project Homestead board of directors, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the board failed miserably in its duty to keep an eye on what Rev. King was doing. However, since the Project Homestead meltdown, the city has begun requiring mandatory, annual training for all non-profit boards that do business with the city – no exceptions allowed. Two board members, one of them an officer, have to participate.

This kind of board failure is actually pretty common, unfortunately. Maybe you remember what happened a while back with the United Way, and more recently with the Smithsonian Institution. When people are in constantly in control of a lot of other people's money, it's hard for them not to take some of it.

You can draw your own moral from this story. My view is that Project Homestead did a tremendous amount of good for the city, building better houses for low-income homeowners than the market would have provided, bringing a lot of economically marginalized people into the financial mainstream, strengthening the fabric of many neighborhoods, and just giving thousands of people decent places to live.

In a worst-case scenario – say Project Homestead squandered $500,000 of city money – we paid a 3% toll to human sin and folly. More than we’d like to pay, for sure, but hardly more than one would expect in this world.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Social Science of Science

John Tierney has a fascinating article about opinion "cascades" among hard scientists. He writes about a small group of eminent scientists who dared to buck a powerful consensus on a scientific subject that is deeply entwined with U.S. government public policy:

But the report’s authors were promptly excoriated on Capitol Hill and in the news media for denying a danger that had already been proclaimed ....

The scientists, despite their impressive credentials, were accused of bias because some of them had done research financed by ... industry. And so the informational cascade morphed into what the economist Timur Kuran calls a reputational cascade, in which it becomes a career risk for dissidents to question the popular wisdom ....

[A prominent senator] subsequently asked [one of the scientists] at a hearing to reconcile his skepticism with a survey showing that the ... recommendations were endorsed by 92 percent of [leading experts].

“Senator ... I recognize the disadvantage of being in the minority,” Dr. Ahrens replied. Then he pointed out that most of the [experts] in the survey were relying on secondhand knowledge because they didn’t work in this field themselves.

“This is a matter,” he continued, “of such enormous social [and] economic ... importance that it must be evaluated with our eyes completely open. Thus I would hate to see this issue settled by anything that smacks of a Gallup poll.” Or a cascade.
The scientific issue that Tierney writes about is the effects of dietary fat on mortality (apparently there's no scientific correlation between the two), but the parallels with current debates about global warming are striking.

Not that I'm exactly a global-warming skeptic. Having no knowledge whatsoever about climate science, I'm pretty much stuck with relying on the scientists to be good scientists. And Tierney's article shows very clearly that scientists are as liable to form opinion "cascades" as anyone else.

So I get a little twitchy when I hear people say stuff like "the debate is over" about climate science. In real science, the debate is never over. There's always something new to be learned, and every great scientific paradigm should have its opportunity to be tested and overturned.

Good scientists should welcome that kind of criticism and scrutiny, or else they may someday find themselves playing the Inquisition to some other scientist's Galileo.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Mellow Mushroom Can't Be As Mellow As Two Art Chicks


Jogging down South Elm Street the other day, I was thinking how it still has the ambiance of an old-fashioned, small-town downtown, with some distinctive Greensboro touches. Old guys hanging out in front of Coe Grocery. Kindley's used office furniture. Two Art Chicks.

Enter Mellow Mushroom, exit Two Art Chicks.

The chainification of downtown Greensboro has begun. It will be good for property and business owners, bad for downtown Greensboro's being someplace, instead of anyplace or everyplace.

Two Art Chicks has been an ideal downtown citizen, not only providing gallery space for local artists, but also meeting room for neighborhood redevelopment confabs. (It looks like it might now be a victim of its own public-spiritedness.)

But the hard truth is that most people care a lot more about good pizza than they do about picturesque charm or local art.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The End of Walmartia?

Today's Wall Street Journal has a long article (subscription required) sounding the death-knell of the Wal-Mart Era.

Today ... Wal-Mart's influence over the retail universe is slipping. In fact, the industry's titan is scrambling to keep up with swifter rivals that are redefining the business all around it. It can still disrupt prices, as it did last year by cutting some generic prescriptions to $4. But success is no longer guaranteed.

Rival retailers lured Americans away from Wal-Mart's low-price promise by offering greater convenience, more selection, higher quality, or better service. Amid the country's growing affluence, Wal-Mart has struggled to overhaul its down-market, politically incorrect image while other discounters pitched themselves as more upscale and more palatable alternatives. The Internet has changed shoppers' preferences and eroded the commanding influence Wal-Mart had over its suppliers.

As a result, American shoppers are increasingly looking for qualities that Wal-Mart has trouble providing.
I seem to be late to the party. I started shopping at Wal-Mart only last year, when it built a store at the abandoned Carolina Circle Mall property.

I suppose I should hate Wal-Mart, as even the Journal admits that it helped erode Main Street America, and it doesn't pay its employees very well (but neither does Target, I hear).

But I really like going to the Cone Boulevard Wal-Mart, for a lot of reasons. Price is one of them; we buy packaged staples and dairy there for the prices and buy meat, eggs, and produce from the Farmers' Market for the quality.

But price isn't the only thing. The Cone store is like a party, even if you're there at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night. And the shoppers there make me feel a little better about my side of town, which is usually in the news only for crime, drugs, and prostitution. The people I see at Wal-Mart look like happy families -- for some reason, group shopping is the norm -- who are enjoying each other and buying stuff they need at low prices. It seems to make them feel good, and their presence shows me that even the "bad" side of town is mostly populated by nice, good people.

I think a lot of these people are inhabitants of John Edwards's "Other America," and this Wal-Mart is their town square. No other retailer or grocer was willing to build a store for them: not Target, not Costco, not Harris-Teeter, not even Food Lion.

So hate Wal-Mart if you like, but stop by the store on Cone sometime and ask the people who work and shop there if they'd like to see their Wal-Mart go away. I think I know what they'll tell you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Hot Child(ren) In The City

Lots of informed discussion going on at Asymmetrical Information about carbon footprints, heat islands, kids, city government, and suburbs. Libertarian city-dweller Megan McArdle says,

Dense cities are a tax on having children, but that's not an inherent quality of cities. If we had taller buildings next to spots of green space, you could have more residential space and a convenient play space, and built-in play spaces for your children. If you had school choice, you could solve many of the fears about the urban school system that lead affluent families to flee the city. If the tax system weren't set up so that localities bear the responsibility for caring for the indigent, you wouldn't have affluent families moving out to get away from the tax burden. A dense city is in many places a better place to raise a child than a suburb: you spend a lot fewer years shuttling the kids around, and there are many more options and activities for them than for suburban children. But current political culture makes them child-unfriendly....

City dwellers are far too self-satisfied with their allegedly low-carbon lifestyle, too willing to impose carbon taxes in the belief it won't affect them much. It is especially irritating to hear people who take multiple annual long-haul flights complain about SUV drivers, but the general phenomenon is broader than that. I expect that in the event a carbon tax is enacted, I will see a lot of my costs go up--as they should, to the extent that I am exporting my carbon emissions elsewhere. But nonetheless, I don't think they'll go up as much as those of people in suburban homes, because heating, cooling, and driving to those homes really is simply massively less efficient than doing the same thing in an urban area.
A couple of questions come to mind: will refusing to care for the indigent actually make cities more attractive to the affluent? I doubt that the indigent will go away, so won't withdrawing services mean lower taxes + more street people?

No argument with Ms. McArdle's criticism of self-satisfied city dwellers who sneer at SUV drivers while taking long-haul flights, but don't suburbanites take long flights, too?

In the end, though, she seems to agree with James Kunstler that higher energy prices are going to hurt suburbs more than cities.