24 Solutions for Charlotte
Some are big, some are small. Some are serious, some not so much. All need fixing.
For separate, longer explorations from The Solutions Issue, read stories on the relationship between police and community, Charlotte from an immigrant's perspective, keeping housing affordable for the working class, access to high-quality preschool, and transportation.
Build that new library
No, wait, build that new knowledge hub
These aren’t actual renderings or plans, but simply working models that give some idea of what the Sixth and Tryon group envisions for the two blocks along Tryon Street between 6th and 8th streets.
The old man in the corner reading today’s newspapers. The homeless person at the computer cubicles scrolling through websites. The student thumbing through books. The woman upstairs searching for her family’s history. The library is a place that connects everyone.
It made sense, then, that when the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system started exploring renovation options for its aging downtown building, other groups wanted to be involved. Bank of America joined. The Charlotte Housing Authority joined. The Blumenthal, too. What’s coming together is a massive partnership and project called Sixth and Tryon that will transform two blocks in uptown, from East 6th Street to East 8th Street. The hope is to create a smaller version of Knowledge Quarter in London, which includes the British Library, the British Museum, the University of London, and the newspaper The Guardian, all in a one-mile radius.
In Charlotte, the project is still years away, if it happens at all. We think it should. Centers of reflection, thought, and inspiration are vital to a 21st century city.
In these plans, the new library would be narrower and taller—the current library stretches the length of a block—and would connect to McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square. The library itself would become smaller, by virtue of moving its storage to another building outside of uptown. Parking studies are underway, and Sixth and Tryon leaders hope to add two levels of underground parking in various locations along the two blocks. The project would also include more than 625 housing units, at least 20 percent of which would be affordable units for low-income residents; options for retail; offices for cultural institutions; and co-working spaces.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library CEO Lee Keesler and other members of the Sixth and Tryon group took trips to London and Boston to see how those cities have approached recent renovations and upgrades. Leaders in both places encouraged the Charlotte crowd to elevate the project from a library project to a civic project. The new Boston Public Library includes spaces for a café, a bookstore, and an on-air studio for the city’s public television station that faces the street. Officials there told Keesler that the average age of visitors dropped 10 to 15 years within the first 60 days of reopening last year.
County commissioners in June approved $65 million in public funding for the main library as part of the county’s capital improvement plan. The Sixth and Tryon team was in the process of selecting an architect this summer, with hopes of showing plans and renderings to the community by mid-2018.
Kessler thinks the project could be completed by the early 2020s. And if it’s done right, the library—that’s right, the library—would become a destination, a place for public conversations and meetings and concerts—a place, as it’s always been, for everyone. —M.G.
The staff at Lomax Farm jokes that the average farmers here are in their 30s, tan, and shirtless (“Farming is sexy,” Aaron Newton says). Perhaps that’s true on the farm, but the average age for a farmer in Mecklenburg County is older than 60.
How do we feed ourselves as farmers grow older?
It’s an unusually quiet Friday morning at Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm in Concord. The occasional sound of machines tilling up dirt rolls across the 30.6 acres of land owned by Cabarrus County. It is the day before market, and farmers brush shoulders as they work to rinse, pack, and refrigerate the organic vegetables ready for sale.
Many will return from local markets on Saturday without selling all of their goods. For a farmer just starting out, this could be the beginning of a financial downfall. At Lomax, a farm designed to help people take their first steps toward doing this for a living, it’s a learning experience, a lesson in the importance of finding a market for everything you grow.
According to a 2012 agricultural census, the average age of a farmer in Mecklenburg County is 60.8. That means not only are the people who grow our food aging out of the workforce, but younger generations are also losing sources of agricultural knowledge—and we’re losing the ability to feed our community quality, healthy produce.
“Right as we are retiring a lot of our farming population, we have a lot of younger people who would like to get into agriculture, but didn’t grow up on farms and don’t have access to land, let alone the knowledge base and the experience they need to be successful,” says Aaron Newton, who manages Lomax Farm for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, which began overseeing operations at Lomax in 2014. First-year farmers, for example, pay only $632.50 for their land and equipment use at Lomax, with an additional fee to use the tractor.
In 1950, a third of Americans grew up on a farm. Today, that number is less than two percent. Lomax Farm helps to fill that knowledge void.
Started by Cabarrus County and the Cooperative Extension Service, the agricultural outreach arm of North Carolina State University, the incubator farm looks to create a financially viable entry into farming. The program is in its eighth growing season, and its first farmers-in-training graduated to their own land last year. Applicants meet with Newton, and then he decides on who’ll advance to the next step: a 10-week class on organic vegetable production. Then, they’re placed with farming mentors to learn everything from business to growing. Farmers-in-training, or FITs, are given a small plot of land—usually about a quarter of an acre, but it can be more or less depending on experience—to start. This year, there are seven FITs with plots of land. As they prove they’re able to successfully grow and sell what they produce, Lomax staff gives them more space to farm. Eventually, when FITs have the relationships and skills in place to make a living on their own, they purchase their own land and can ease into independence.
According a City of Charlotte study, called Connect our Future, in 2015 Mecklenburg County residents spent $763 million on fruits and vegetables that could be grown here but were grown elsewhere. Although supply issues still need to be addressed—and Newton half-jokes that drones will take care of that soon—the deficit will continue to grow as farmers age.
In the next few years, Lomax plans to expand its outreach, in part to build an educational center for urban kids taking field trips to learn about farming and farmers. When the students visit, Newton asks them if they know what’s grown on the farm.
“Vegetables,” they say.
“And farmers. We grow farmers,” he adds. —K.W.
5 Ways to Improve the Arts Scene
1. Spread arts funding across arts groups of every size
The Arts & Science Council, a steward of public and private funding for cultural institutions, shifted its operating grants this year to better support smaller arts groups. Thirteen major arts organizations with operating budgets of more than $1 million a year went from getting 95 percent of the ASC grants to 91 percent. If the ASC makes even more dramatic moves next year, the arts ecosystem will be healthier and more diverse. Collaborations between larger and smaller organizations, meanwhile, could bring returns for both organizations. For instance, an arts nonprofit focused on youth education can staff a similar program at a museum. Of course, the larger groups must make up funds elsewhere, and with many of those organizations scheduled to launch major capital campaigns in the next few years, the city’s philanthropic community might be stretched thin.
2. Visual arts and theatrical spaces need to be live music venues, too
With independent music venues closing regularly in the past five years, it’s up to places such as Goodyear Arts and McColl Center to continue to supplement them. These hybrid spots and general artist residency programs can give local music a new home, while subverting the typically parasitic relationship between money-driven bars and artists. Spots such as Petra’s and Snug Harbor in Plaza Midwood have pivoted to investing in the arts scene by showing visual art and hosting poetry readings, while still showing local musicians. Also, arts institutions and groups that expand their residency programs to include musicians diversify their portfolios.
3. Finding mentors for future philanthropists could be the biggest investment in the future of our arts and culture scene
Charlotte’s millennial museum groups, such as Young Affiliates of the Mint and Bechtler Young Visionaries, now curate shows and pack galas. In the United Kingdom, Arts Council England has a program dedicated to raising a new generation of entrepreneurial arts fund-raisers. The program saw a 170 percent increase in revenue for its host groups in the first year.
4. Continue to encourage young artists
When school funding is slashed, arts programs often are the first things to go. One approach to solving this is to change how we approach grant-making. Groups such as the ASC, the North Carolina Arts Council, and Foundation For The Carolinas can make artist grants contingent on each recipient being a mentor for Charlotte youth.
5. Bring back, in full, tax incentives for the North Carolina film industry
The new state budget—which includes more than $30 million in film incentives—is progress, but not enough. If we can’t return to an incentive program with no cap—in 2012, the state gave $80 million in incentives—expanding the grant program has more than just an economic benefit. Just look at Georgia. The state’s new tax incentives have made it the top filming location in the country, ahead of California. It generated $9.5 billion in economic impact for the state, and, as a side benefit, helped turn its theater community into one of the strongest in the nation.—A.S.
Stop building space-hogging, ugly, aboveground parking decks
As Charlotte’s uptown grew in the 20th century, developers built high rises on Tryon Street and plopped city-block-sized parking decks behind them, on Church and College streets. Decades later, we’re dealing with the consequences. The concrete monstrosities eat up valuable—in both social and economic terms—real estate. Consider two South Tryon assets: The Green, where office workers stretch out in the sunshine with their lunches, and the Levine Center for the Arts. Both are built above parking decks. It costs about $10,000 more per parking space to build underground, but what uptown gains is worth far more. —A.R.
Put a big a sign at the intersection of 5th and McDowell that says, “Hey, dummy! You’re about to get on Independence Boulevard, and you can’t get off until Briar Creek! Two miles ahead!”
Because we’ve all done it.
The city of cankerworms: how we contribute to the icky nuisance, and what we can do about it
Each fall, millions of female moths climb up the trunks of the city’s trees, hunting the highest spots on which to lay their eggs. By spring, inch-long worms are dangling in our faces, making their way back down to do it all over again. Charlotte’s infestation, though rare for North Carolina, isn’t out of line: Cankerworms are native from Texas to Nova Scotia. But we’re hit hard because our canopy is made up largely of willow oaks—the cankerworms’ snack of choice.
Banding combats the problem—the sticky gum looped around tree trunks thwarts the worms’ ascent. But birds, beetles, and spiders all eat cankerworms, so taking steps to keep their populations healthy increases the worms’ predators. To do that, we need to diversify our landscapes—short trees, tall trees, shrubs, flowers—so the predators have places to live. Metallic, rainbow-colored beetles called Fiery Searchers, in particular, chase the worms up the trunks of trees to feed, but often get stuck in the goo themselves. To target the worms and avoid harming the beetles and other bugs, the city has used Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), a natural bacteria organic farmers have used for decades, to spray big trees, but you can find bottles at home improvement stores for the smaller ones. Spray in spring while the small caterpillars are feeding. —V.B.
Save a tree: Protect our precious canopy
Our trees need help. In 2014, we celebrated 47 percent coverage—among the top cities in the nation and well on our way to the 50 percent goal by 2050. But since then, our coveted canopy has faced challenges of age and development, says Dave Cable with TreesCharlotte, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the canopy. The decline is not for lack of effort. Since 2011, TreesCharlotte, in partnership with the city, has planted nearly 25,000 trees, hosted dozens of planting parties, and taught thousands about the importance of trees. But post-recession development has outpaced planting, Cable says.
Development, believe it or not, gave trees their big break here, as early 1900s landscape architects lined Myers Park and Dilworth with willow oaks. That generation of trees is now declining. What the city manages—street trees—accounts for only about 10 percent of our canopy, Cable says. The rest of the trees are in our yards and on other private property. So, what can we do? We need accurate studies, says Cable. This fall, the city will update aerial assessment and work to address target areas.
Good start. But education plays a role, too. Somewhere between 50 and 100 people move to Charlotte every day. What if, in their first water bill, they got a voucher for a free tree and an invitation to the next planting party? Crescent Communities now donates a tree for every apartment leased. Could hospitals plant a tree for every baby born, rooting natives to their hometown? Let’s get creative. In addition to yoga and running clubs at breweries, how about tree-planting parties with signature brews? “We have a great heritage of tree planting in Charlotte,” Cable says. “We’ve got to keep it going.” —V.B.
Checklist: How to win a James Beard Award in Charlotte
1. Make the best food in Charlotte.
2. Repeat step one every day, even when your B-team is working.
3. Accept that it’s not only the food that matters. Make your restaurant pretty.
4. Find front-of-house managers with big-city hospitality experience.
5. Hire a New York-based P.R. firm.
6. Make your servers study the faces of Beard Award committee members, and quiz them daily so they recognize when to panic.
7. If all else fails, move your restaurant to Charleston. 🙄 —K.W.
Share your coffee tables, people
You rush into a coffee shop on a deadline, needing caffeine, Wi-Fi, and a power outlet. But every table seems to be occupied by one person surely Googling himself. Coffee shops around the country now provide markers for you to let others know you’re willing to share. More shops should do that here, and if we all use them, we all benefit. —A.S.
Making development smarter
Tips from one of the city’s best architects
Along the rail trail at 1100 South, an apartment building at South Boulevard and Carson Street, you’ll find an empty, concrete room behind a locked glass door. A sign outside it reads “Active Use Area.” But the room is empty.
According to architect David Furman, the city required buildings to have an “active use area” along the Rail Trail—something that could become retail or community-driven space. Here, the rooms are empty but the sign complies with the requirement. Furman doesn’t just blame developers for these bland, massive apartment structures taking over some of the city’s best real estate. The architect and owner of Centro Cityworks blames his fellow architects, too. They should draw better plans initially, Furman says, to encourage developers to move forward with community-building additions such as visual interest along sidewalks and, ideally, retail space. Here, Furman shares some of the worst offenses committed by local apartment developers, and the solutions that should become policy. —K.W.
PROBLEM: Pedestrians walk along a terrible edge, with no visual interest and garage exhaust fans blowing on them as they pass by.
FURMAN’S SOLUTION: Post South End dealt with the garage podium edge by hiring an artist to create masonry sculptures, and added benches and landscaping. It’s still rather dead, but at least it’s interesting.
PROBLEM: Along this 1,600-foot piece of the Rail Trail, buildings are pushed directly to the edge of the trail—there’s no room for a buffer. Notice all the blinds are shut, because pedestrians walk within inches of bedrooms.
FURMAN’S SOLUTION: Push the building away from the Rail Trail to allow landscaping and front stoops, as done here. The trail is even customized to make the sidewalk more appealing.
PROBLEM: A massive sterile plaza with two-story garage edge. This could have been an active plaza with shops along the edge, across the street from a Lynx stop. Instead, it’s a sun-baked dead zone.
FURMAN’S SOLUTION: Ground-level retail creates a great pedestrian experience that’s alive and vibrant. These benefits pay off in the long run; more to do makes an area more attractive to residents.
The four-way stop: A guide to something that seems to confuse a lot of people here
1. Come to a complete stop.
2. If you get to the light or stop sign first, you can go. Please watch for pedestrians crossing.
3. If you arrive at the same time as another vehicle, the vehicle farthest to the right has the right of way. Again, please watch for pedestrians crossing.
4. Please don’t hit me! I’m trying to cross here. —A.S.
Unisex bathrooms everywhere: Look, we solved HB2!
In the end, all we really need is a toilet, some toilet paper, changing tables for babies, a sink and soap, and a way to dry our hands. If we can all promise to leave these items in an orderly fashion, just like we’re supposed to at home, we can flush this issue away. —A.S.
Vote ‘yes’ for the school bonds
This fall’s $922 million bond package would provide 10 new schools, seven replacement schools (for campuses built as early as 1954), and renovations at 12 others. Even after those projects are finished, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will have another billion dollars’ worth of capital needs in the next decade. Waiting isn’t an option. —A.R.
Advice from a small town: Create public Wi-Fi spaces
Small towns are fighting to be hip. They want to attract and keep young residents who, for the most part, are fleeing to the big cities. In some ways, the small towns are winning. In the city of Lexington, about 60 miles north of Charlotte, Mayor Newell Clark made free Wi-Fi downtown a campaign priority, and now, this small town beats Charlotte on technology. You can log on to a public Wi-Fi network while walking down Main Street, and the city recently added network access at the farmers’ market, so that vendors can reliably accept credit cards. Lexington is even considering bringing Wi-Fi to public parks. For a city such as Charlotte, Newell recommends starting small, maybe with a public park or a neighborhood such as NoDa, where there’s a lot of outdoor activity. And we should start soon. “The challenge is, (larger cities) are expected to be innovative, and you do not want to look like you are behind,” he says. “You want to be on the cutting edge of setting that example and leading things forward, and when you start having cities like Seattle, and they’ve been doing this for 20 years, San Francisco, they’ve been doing it for 20 plus years, and you’re not there yet, how do you remain relevant?” We endorse his plan, and believe Romare Bearden Park is a smart place to start. —K.W.
Fix the Nightmare Interchange at I-277, North Davidson, and East 12th Streets
It’s 5:20 on a Thursday evening, and a black Toyota straddles two lanes of East 12th Street in uptown. The car is nearly perpendicular to the traffic merging from the I-277 ramp, drivers slamming on their brakes as they swerve across three lanes to make a right turn onto North Davidson Street. Horns blow. Gestures fly. People narrowly avoid collisions every time the traffic light cycles. Welcome to the most jacked-up intersection in Charlotte. If you’ve driven on the northeast side of uptown at rush hour, you’ve encountered this disastrous interchange, home to halting traffic as exasperated drivers have about 100 feet to get off of 277, get onto 277, continue straight on 12th Street, turn right onto Davidson Street, or turn left onto Davidson Street. Short of blowing up the interstate and starting over—we asked the city and state transportation departments, and they said that wasn’t an option—perhaps the solution is this: Use your turn signal when you merge. —A.R.
In a city of millennials, make the elderly a priority
In 2015, the Mecklenburg County Health Report listed Alzheimer’s as the third-leading cause of death in the county. The ranking was alarming: Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.
Why is it more prevalent here? That’s one thing Southminster senior living community and UNC Charlotte hope to learn in the next year, through a joint project called Meck60+. UNCC’s gerontology program director Julian Montoro-Rodriguez and a team of community members, graduate students, and staff spent the summer fanning out around the county, asking people to participate in a survey that they’ll use to create a detailed profile of the aging population here. They’ve been intentional in their approach, hitting churches and community centers in all areas of town, to get input from all races and economic backgrounds. They hope to determine which issues are specific to the county, then provide recommendations to city and county leaders on what our priorities should be with regard to the elderly community.
In 2012, about nine percent of the county’s residents were 65 or older. By 2030, that figure will be 15 percent. They are encountering new stressors, too. For instance, North Carolina ranks sixth nationally among places where grandparents are raising grandchildren.
In a city that devotes plenty of energy to attracting young people, Montoro-Rodriguez believes that we should be at least equally concerned with caring for our aging population. “You want to help the grandchild or the child? You have to support the parents or the grandparents,” he says.
There’s evidence to back that up. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that nearly 450,000 people in North Carolina provided $6.2 billion worth of care for relatives with dementia in 2014. North Carolina has a state-funded program called Project C.A.R.E. (Caregiver Alternatives to Running on Empty), which provides relief and assistance for people who take care of relatives with dementia. Montoro-Rodriguez hopes that a study the scope of Meck60+, which Southminster’s Community Fund is supporting with nearly $200,000, might help bring more.
“They will invest if they have some more data that shows adult programs really work,” he says. “And they eventually save you some money, if you’re able to keep the people in their houses.” —M.G.
If you’re over 60 and would like to participate in the study, call 704-687-5369, or visit the Meck60+ page at gerontology.uncc.edu.
Get out and vote this year, and every year
Last year, with a presidential election on the ballot, 475,650 people in Mecklenburg County voted, a 67 percent turnout. Just one year earlier, in November 2015, with the races for mayor and City Council as the biggest choices, only 94,958 people here voted, a 14.76 percent turnout. That’s right, less than 15 percent of eligible voters chose the mayor and City Council that engaged in two years of battles with the legislature and oversaw the city’s response to the Keith Scott protests last September. You want to complain about the city’s problems? Vote. —M.G.
Make it easier and safer to walk—especially in neighborhoods on the west side
Traffic zips down four lanes of West Boulevard at 50 miles per hour, and sensing a break in the flow of cars, the gray-haired man hesitantly steps into the roadway. There are sidewalks on both sides of the asphalt, but the nearest crosswalk is more than a block away. So, plastic grocery bag in hand, he trots across the street. Up and down a two-mile stretch of West Boulevard, a dozen other people do the same thing. Charlotte’s dismal score on national walkability rankings, a 25.9, places it behind most American urban centers, and far behind the cities we like to imagine are our peers. The meaning of walkability changes depending on where you go: Some neighborhoods celebrate sidewalks as a nostalgic part of suburban Americana. Other communities need safe paths that actually go somewhere—the grocery store, a bus stop, parks—because walking is their residents’ most reliable form of transportation. —A.R.
Build a wall! Around the legislature!
It’s not just HB2. In the past decade, the General Assembly has attempted to wrestle away control of the airport, threatened to pull funding from Charlotte if it gives any hint of being a Sanctuary City, prohibited the city from setting a new minimum wage that might more closely reflect housing costs here, and publicly browbeaten city leaders as if they’re children instead of elected officials. Get off our damn lawn, Raleigh. —M.G.
And finally ...
Be good to people. Consider others, even the ones who don’t look like you, or sound like you, or live in your neighborhood.