Back to the future

Clearing out one’s office can be both cathartic and instructive. After 21 years at the School of Architecture on the UNC Charlotte campus, my office is moving into UNCC’s new Center City Building downtown.

Predictably, I’ve thrown away reams of paper. But amid the inconsequential details of long-past events are some gems from the early 1990s, when ideas about cities that are now fairly mainstream were considered radical, silly or even un-American.

The ideas involve concepts of transit-oriented development, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods and higher density housing – all commonplace now in Charlotte. I was publicly vocal during the 1990s advocating those and other remedies for many of the suburban problems prevalent then – too much driving, too much pollution, too many subdivisions where walking was impossible or dangerous, too many uses separated by out-of-date zoning standards that forced us into our cars for every trip outside our home. These still sound familiar, don’t they? A real case of déjà-vu.

While we’ve made significant progress as a city and region in the past 10 or 15 years, in far too many instances the same problems still plague the area. But now they’re even more urgent.

They’re brought into vivid focus by more acute worries about energy prices and supplies, a depressed economy, more dramatic evidence of climate change and the desperate hardships of the foreclosure crisis. If we couldn’t solve those problems in a booming economy, how can we hope to in an era of gloomy economic forecasts and willful political dysfunction at many levels of government?

Because Charlotte and several other surrounding towns have made commendable progress in recent years in improving the design of parts of their communities, I had allowed myself to forget just how vehement and strident was the opposition by some politicians and city planners, many developers and a significant segment of the general public, and how personal were their attacks. “Elitist foreign socialism” might be the most polite way to sum up the attitudes of those who found those urban design and planning concepts objectionable for one reason or another. “Go home you American-hating liberal Limey” was a favorite, more vernacular response. I’ll leave the scatological and obscene variants (of which there were many) to your imagination.

Sifting through old newspaper clippings and letters on my office floor gave rise to conflicting emotions. On one hand, I felt good about how many people in our region have embraced urban ideas that once seemed strange to them but have turned out, instead, to be well grounded in history, theory and practice. That speaks of vision and hope for the future. On the downside, however, so much poor quality development has been built in Charlotte that in some ways our problems have worsened, despite progress in areas such as South End, SouthPark and uptown. (See photo, right.) It’s no surprise that market-driven development has largely concentrated its successes in areas of more wealthy demographics, leaving swaths of lower-income neighborhoods out in the cold.

The well-publicized example of the Windy Ridge subdivision in northwest Charlotte is a tragic case in point. (Here’s a piece about it from The Atlantic magazine, and another from Associated Press National writer Adam Geller.) Substandard “starter homes” have been clumped together in a location hostile to housing, surrounded by industrial sites and freight railroads. Laissez-faire planning policies, where good design had no place in planning practice, and a misplaced faith that the market could do no wrong combined to create a perfect storm, leaving behind broken hearts and broken homes.

In contrast to that facile trust in the marketplace, Windy Ridge is a stark illustration of complete market failure. It produced a deeply flawed product – badly designed housing in a poor location, financed by disastrous loan policies. Now, as city agencies, UNC Charlotte urban design professors and students, and nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity work to try to stabilize the foreclosure-ridden neighborhood, it’s clear there’s no way the private sector can solve the mess it largely created. That burden will likely fall on taxpayers.

Even if one repaired and upgraded all the houses, it’s still a lousy location: nowhere to walk to, no shops or schools in easy reach, no community services, almost no public transportation. Buying a house there would be a poor private investment, and the city with its shrinking finances doesn’t have the money needed to finance a major makeover. Weak public policy and short-term market greed combined to create an intractable problem, one repeated in other locations across the Charlotte landscape.

Will we learn that lesson? Or will we just repeat it when the economy brightens? Portents are not encouraging. Charlotte’s challenges are huge: political vacillation, weak municipal policy and public hostility to affordable housing – characterized by the sanctimonious hypocrisy in neighborhoods that fight to keep people who earn lower wages well away from their middle-class enclaves. (“Oh, I totally support affordable housing, but just not here!”) We must build more affordable housing, and it must be integrated into new and existing communities, not concentrated in a few areas.

My colleague Jose Gamez, who directs UNCC’s Design + Society Research Center, and I discussed those and many other concerns over Charlotte’s future growth patterns during a recent broadcast of Charlotte Talks  with host Mike Collins on local public radio, WFAE.  While much of our discussion focused on the market’s inability to solve problems of foreclosure neighborhoods such as Windy Ridge, we also discussed other important topics such as retrofitting the suburbs to deal with climate change and unpredictable energy costs, and how changing demographic profiles of Charlotte’s citizens will affect the form of the city.

We could only scratch the surface. As we search for solutions on the ground and in our urban design studios, I look forward to writing a series of essays in coming weeks examining these important challenges for the Charlotte region. Maybe I’ll start getting hate mail again!

– David Walters

Views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, its staff, or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.