Saturday, November 15th, 2008

Charlotte, Bruce Mau, and Other Miscellaneous Musings

I’ve repeatedly shown how the Midwest’s cities are getting smoked not just by the Seattle’s and Austin’s of this world, but by the oft derided sprawlburgs of the South. Atlanta has a heavy rail subway system and massive urban infill, including lots of in city high rises. Nashville has a small starter commuter rail line and a form based zoning ordinance. Charlotte is building tons of high rises downtown and has a light rail line. These cities see other places with nice stuff and say, “We want nice stuff too. We want to be in the top tier of American cities”. They are hungry. I think the bulk of Midwestern cities aren’t even aware of what’s going on out there, much less want a piece of it.

The Overhead Wire took a recent trip to Charlotte. To help show what they’ve got, here are a couple of pics he took.

Light rail with new transit oriented infill being built directly next to the tracks.

New streetcar tracks going in.

Ridership – on a Thursday midday – not rush hour.

Gasp! – They actually have a zoning classed called “TOD” – Transit Oriented Development.

I got to check out one other program at the Chicago Humanities Festival. This one was a Bruce Mau presentation on something called “The Chicago Project”. For those who you aren’t familiar with Bruce Mau, please check out my review of his book “Massive Change”. The Chicago project is his entry in the Burnham Centennial celebration. He’s trying to develop new and innovative ways to reinvent the city to face the urban and environmental challenge of the 21st century. This was a very exciting project to me because it hits head on the biggest problem facing the city. Namely, that Chicago is out of ideas, a topic I previously covered.

The first example idea they gave was interesting, but not without its downsides. They talked about erecting a sort of greenhouse canopy over the L tracks on the Jackson Park branch of the Green Line. This would create a protected environment for local agriculture, as well as provide a mutually beneficial heat exchange with the L station. The idea is to bring agriculture into the urban context, especially into an environment that is a “food desert” with high percentages of obese people, and utilize electric rail for distribution. It’s a very interesting and creative concept. The challenge is that surrounding the L with farm fields is like surrounding it with park and ride lots. You disengage the L from the urban context and reduce the ability of transit oriented neighborhood development to emerge. This might work on a small scale, however.

Also in Chicago, from the better late than never file, the city was named the eighth most important global city in the world by Foreign Policy magazine.

I also had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Modern Art Notes blogger Tyler Green at the Central Library in Indianapolis. This was part of the Spirit and Place Festival. The presentation was entitled “10 Things I Hate About Contemporary Art”. I was expecting a bit of bomb throwing, but Green was much more measured and laid back in tone. Perhaps too measured. His ten things were amusing, however, and ranged from Mary Cassatt to “political art” to the art of disgraced gay televangelist Ted Haggard. Nothing he said challenged any of the fundamental tenets of contemporary art, however. One thing of interest to the Midwestern city: he thinks the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City is the most successful new museum building in the United States.

Moving on, this week’s Indianapolis Business Journal runs a longish interview with new Convention and Visitor’s Bureau chief Don Welsh. The answers were all extremely positive for the city in my view. I was impressed. Highlights include:

  • A new aspiration level to compete with cities in a high size bracket. “We will be a city that can compete with Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle and Denver.” As I’ve long said, if you don’t have high ambition, you are sure never to get to the top.
  • Big plans to more than double convention business.
  • Rebranding the city. As I noted, “So Easy to Do So Much” is fine, but it says nothing at all about what Indy is about as a city and what’s more, it’s something most competitors would probably claim as well. His interim choice is “America’s Premier Convention and Sports City”, which is good as a statement of intent. Premier means first or best after all. And “sports” tells us something about Indy. I suggest that they continue digging deeper, however, and especially consult my post on “The Brand Promise of Indianapolis“. While it might not make a good marketing tagline, I think “Capital of the New Midwest” is the right aspiration.
  • Targeting medical and life sciences oriented events. This is strategic thinking in life sciences. Just as the city used the lure of non-profit orgs and events in the music and amateur sports business, there are intuitively great synergies with the life sciences effort. I believe that the city should try to focus on biomedical and infotech related events to the greatest extent possible to align the events strategy with the rest of the city’s economic strategy.
  • He thinks there will be an announcement of another 1,000 room hotel within give years.

The only thing I wanted from this was more. I would have liked to have heard plans about arts and cultural tourism, which absolutely must be boosted. Also, what he plans to do about the quality (as opposed to quantity) of the hotel rooms on offer. There is not a single hotel in downtown Indy I can unreservedly recommend to an upscale traveler. Even the Conrad, which has ok facilities, is dramatically below par in the service department. There is not a single boutique or design concept hotel in the city.

Staying in Indy, the Indianapolis Museum of Art got a nice mention in this month’s Surface magazine about its Art and Nature Park. There’s a nice rendering of the visitor’s center. Also, the IMA received a $2.6 million Lilly Endowment grant for its conservation department. This would ordinarily not rate mention here, but it highlights a point I’ve been making about strategy. In my previous posting I said I like to know people’s aspirations. At a recent lunch with IMA Director Max Anderson, I asked him what his aspiration was for the IMA. How can that museum carve out a place for itself on the international stage when it doesn’t have the compartive unlimited funds that other museum’s do, or a royal collection at its core? One of the things he said was that he wanted the museum to become known in the conservation field. A very good choice if you ask me. Now you see them acquiring the funding and specialized equipment needed to beef up that department. That’s the way to do it: strategy led development.

The new Indianapolis airport terminal opened this week, and the cutover went very smoothly, a big tribute to the airport staff given how horribly many of these moves are botched. At the dedication ceremony this week, Airport Authority Chairman Randall Tobias quoted Yours Truly’s blog review of the airport, which you can watch here should you so desire. You can see more airport coverage in an article from last March in the NYT, as well as one focused on security.

Which is more important in the new economy, jobs or people? Well, thinkers in this space don’t get any better than Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, whose findings suggest that it is labor supply that matters most.

Here’s a great streaming audio piece from Richard Longworth on globalization and the Midwest. If you think globalization isn’t relevant, think again. I’ve noticed that my globalization writings seem to attract the least interest, but I’m going to keep them up because everyone absolutely needs to be thinking about the implications for themselves and their city. Please be sure to skip the first 13 minutes of that audio program, which is random BS.

Why do many non-riders have a bad image of transit? Perhaps because of ads like this. Copied from Richard Layman’s blog.

It’s totally OT, but some guy tracked down the company behind those ubiquitious “Single?” yard signs referring you to web sites like

Chicago. The CTA base fare is increasing to $2.25 under the budget approved this week. The CTA is also cutting over 600 positions.

The Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch picks up on the transit funding theme from the recent election. Place like Seattle and California are voting to invest while Chicago does virtually nothing.

Local CEO’s warn Mayor Daley that huge layoffs are coming. There are also big worries about how travel cutbacks will affect the city.

Blair Kamin writes about Chicago’s skyline on hold.

The Tribune touts an undersubscribed program to pay for transit with pre-tax dollars.

Cincinnati. The Delta hub at CVG appears in danger in a post Delta-Northwest world. Delta will only say that they are positioning to keep it through 2009. Cincy is in an interesting position with both non-stop flights to Europe, but also America’s highest fares.

Hamilton County Commissioners gave their approval to the creation of a regional transit authority.

UncleRando puts together a sweet self-guided walking tour of downtown Cincinnati.

Columbus. The Columbus Foundation took in a record $119 million last year, bringing its assets to over $1 billion. This makes it one of the top ten community foundations in the country. They also give out donations of about $100 million annually.

Detroit. Like much of the rest of the city, the Detroit Institute of the Arts is in serious trouble.

Louisville. Local rail supporters are now looking at a commuter line to Ft. Knox.

A nice USA Today article that highlight’s Louisvilles art bike rack project.

A library expansion plan continues to move forward.

Milwaukee. The RTA voted 6-1 to ask the state to increase the sales tax to fund transit, including a new commuter rail line.

The Milwaukee County Board reverses course on privatization.

Pittsburgh. Jim Russell of Burgh Diaspora is now also blogging for New Geography. This debut is a compelling, as always, piece on the fallacy of brain drain.

Twin Cities. The final NTSB report on the I-35W bridge collapse blames gusset plate sizing, plus ancillary factors such as excessive construction equipment weight on the bridge.

Topics: Arts and Culture, Transportation
Cities: Charlotte, Chicago, Indianapolis

8 Responses to “Charlotte, Bruce Mau, and Other Miscellaneous Musings”

  1. Dave Reid says:

    The Milwaukee RTA vote was huge, as our mass transit system is a couple of years away from a major funding crisis and an this RTA would be the funding source for a proposed commuter rail line.

  2. thundermutt says:

    Minor point, but I think the Canterbury would qualify as a high-end independent or boutique hotel, as would the Malibu Suites (above the former Malibu on Maryland restaurant). Finally, it’s a bit quirky and definitely not five star, but there is the Fountainview Inn on the upper floors of the Fountain Square Theater building.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Dave, twill be interesting to see if Milwaukee pull off that commuter plan.

    thunder, I’ve never stayed at the Canterbury, but have recently been in the common areas and restaurants. They show clear signs of age and decay. That property needs millions in investments. The rates don’t suggest luxury either. Malibu Suites may indeed qualify, but that is only five units.

    The best all around hotel downtown, IMO, is the Homewood Suites on Meridian.

  4. Randy Simes says:

    Charlotte is great…don’t spread the word to too many people that I actually enjoy the city, but it’s nice. Charlotte kind of has a Midwestern feel and is doing some cool things like their light rail and transit oriented developments. Uptown is nice and if the area can come out alive from this financial crisis then they’ll be in pretty good shape. BTW, thanks for the shout out!

  5. CoryWilson says:

    Charlotte is such a model for the new growth cities. I know that Indy has been paying a lot of attention to what is happening down there.

    Two things that make Charlotte stand taller than Indy:

    1. BOA & Wachovia (or whatever it is called now). HUGE amounts of money to throw around.

    2. Northeast transplants working in banking that have moved to Charlotte and expect the same emenities.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    El Hoosier, thanks for the link.

    Cory, that may be true, but I refuse to use things like that as a crutch for failure. Charlotte doesn’t have the Lilly Endowment and isn’t the state capital, for example. Nor does it have the rich cultural legacy of most Midwestern cities. If Indy were kicking Charlotte’s butt, it would be easy to gin up reasons why. I think we all look for reasons why things ended up the way they did, and tend to locate them in outside forces rather than in ourselves, at least when there is a perceived failure. I don’t deny those advantage to Charlotte, and many others like climate. But I believe the Midwest can compete and thrive too.

  7. Randy Simes says:

    ^Wow…what an amazing comment, and I couldn’t agree more.

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