Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Charlotte's guerrilla gardeners

Charlotte has a group of guerrilla gardeners, whose goal is “fighting filth with flowers. We adopt wasted urban land and plant fabulous gardens.”

The group has a Twitter account to spread the word about their efforts and to organize meetings to plant a little beauty in ugly areas of Charlotte.

The group also has plans for making seed bombs, globs of dirt packed with seeds that can be hurled or lobbed into waste areas and empty lots. (You can learn how to make your own seed bombs with a YouTube video here. For the South and Charlotte, our ubiquitous red clay would serve as a binding agent quite well.)

Since Merry Oaks has had a number of individual guerrilla gardeners over the years, here are a few unsolicited pieces of advice for members of this great new group:

  • Seek perennials and natives for areas that are likely to remain growing for several years. Your extra money spent will pay off over years. Many gardeners also often have extras to dig up and donate to others: “ditch lilies,” (common day lilies), or ground covers like “green-and-gold.” You want hardy, spreading plants, but beware plants that are way too invasive that can threaten other plants (honeysuckle or wisteria.) My back yard has some maturing money plant seeds that will be perfect for a donation for seed bombs shortly.
  • Beware schools and parks that could get mown down by workers who do not recognize your efforts at growing beauty. Many a heart has been broken by school volunteers over the years when trying to beautify an area, only to have their work trampled, bulldozed or sprayed with weed killer. If you suspect an area could face those kinds of challenges, use annuals or something cheap or free that won’t break your heart later.
  • Check with community-conscious businesses like Park Seed out of Greenwood, South Carolina. They’ve made donations to PTAs and other groups in the past. They might be willing to help the cause.
  • Be careful in “rescuing” plants from lots where houses have been torn down or moved. Check with owners to see whether they want their plants rescued. Obey property laws. And in some cases, plants, especially perennials, might be perfect to stay on the lot and beautify an empty space. Only move things if they are truly endangered.

Other ideas? Want to help?

The guerrilla gardeners meet next on Wednesday, at Amelie’s Bakery at 2424 N. Davidson St. in NoDa, to plant that evening. Follow them on Twitter as CLT_Guerrillas for details. (You don’t have to create a Twitter account to read what they’re doing.)

Photo information: Top photo by Dave Potts, showing the Guerrilla Gardeners efforts at 2700 Commonwealth Avenue. Bottom photo of money plant seed pods maturing in my back yard.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Holding property owners accountable for renters

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police representatives are pitching the idea of a new Charlotte city ordinance intended to help find absentee property owners and hold them accountable for actions of renters.

The initial plan requires property owners to register rental property with the police department, providing clear details on how the property owner can be reached if renters engage in illegal or disorderly activities.

The ordinance also allows the establishment of fees to pay for the registration costs and establishes a five-member unpaid board that reviews violations and has the power to revoke an owner's ability to rent property.

Police representatives are expecting strong opposition from property owners, and the ordinance review process will likely take several months, according to an email sent to community leaders from Ken Miller, deputy police chief. The first draft will be presented to a council committee on Thursday, May 21.

The ordinance could be welcome among some community leaders as a way to hold property owners accountable for criminal activity that happens on their property. A few questions, to generate discussion:

1. Why can't existing property records be used to find property owners instead of establishment of a separate registration process and database? Perhaps one answer: Often rental property is owned by absentee partnerships or companies where the tracing of responsibile parties is difficult. So would it be more efficient to fund or hire a forensic property tracker or enhance the existing property ownership database instead of creating a separate silo of information? Would it not be better long term for records at the city clerk's office to be made useful for this purpose and other purposes?
2. Will the fee for registration be so prohibitive that it penalizes small property owners in a bad economy who are just struggling to hold on to their properties instead of letting them lapse into foreclosure?
3. If determination of "disorderly" or "illegal" activities on a property happens before the renter goes to court and is convicted, is it right to penalize a property owner?
4. If it's difficult to staff unpaid city and county boards as it is, why establish another unpaid board to review complaints? Is there another way to use the time of existing city staff to handle the work, or is that a legal problem?
5. What are other cities and counties doing to control the problem of crime and disorder in rental properties with absentee owners who are difficult to reach? Has the proposed approach worked in other cities? Has it been challenged in courts elsewhere (leading to legal costs for cities)?

The proposed ordinance addresses a big problem in dealing with crime and safety in rental properties. Let's hope for a strong community discussion that leads to efficient, fair methods of fixing the problem.

First meeting details: Room 180 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. at noon on Thursday, May 21. Here's a map.

Full Google document of the draft ordinance.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Eastside Charlotte mayoral forum

More than 75 people showed up for a Charlotte mayoral candidates' forum Tuesday night at Windsor Park Elementary School to hear John Lassiter and Anthony Foxx discuss issues near and dear to the east side of Charlotte.

The forum was sponsored by Charlotte East Political Action Committee and was set up as a moderated Q&A with the candidates, with time for questions from the audience.
Foxx, a Democrat, and Lassiter, a Republican, are both at-large city council members and the leading candidates for Charlotte mayor. The winner will replace Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, who is the longest-serving mayor in Charlotte history, according to Wikipedia.

Fred Clasen-Kelly did a fine job of reporting the event at The Charlotte Observer, (temporary link) focusing on low-income housing questions.

The following are raw notes from the meeting. My background is as an editor and designer, so I can't do as fine of a job as Fred, but I offer these notes up to flesh out areas that Fred couldn't address because of time or space constraints. If there's anything I left out or portrayed wrongly, let me know in comments.

In addition, CLTBlog plans a streaming video online town hall with Foxx at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 17. Anyone can submit and vote on questions for that event by going to Google Moderator here.

The key topics (often overlapping) from Tuesday night:

Fixing Eastland Mall
Both candidates noted that zoning and overbuilding hurt the Eastland Mall and Albemarle Road areas. Both noted that the tough economy is making a fix difficult.
Lassiter: Plans for the mall land will succeed if zoning is mixed use. When the economy rebounds, the area will see folks coming in and buying up these properties. The city planning department will be key in making the rebound a success.
Foxx: Fixing Eastland will involve a number of efforts, including police, infrastructure and rebuilding trust between the neighborhoods and the city. "We cannot leave East Charlotte out."
One questioner pushed for housing on the property at a specific price point: $200,000 or so, not $110,000 to $150,000. Neither candidate promised such a price point in future zoning for the property. Lassiter noted that the east side faces a challenge because existing housing stock falls into a narrow price area, with no ability for residents to move up but stay within the area. Lassiter also said redevelopment of the 90-acre Eastland Mall site would not include subsidized housing.
Another questioner expressed concerns that existing city investment in a bus transit station at the mall site could impede future plans.
Foxx: "There have been alot of false starts." "I'm sorry that folks have felt the city hasn't been paying attention." "We need to rebuild that connection between the city of Charlotte and the east side."

Working for better public transit on the east side of Charlotte
Both candidates noted that the Independence Boulevard widening was a state project that failed to take local residents and business needs into consideration.
Foxx: "As mayor, I'd commit to taking a long hard look at rapid transit on Independence Boulevard." He also noted that he's pushing for a way that the city can move ahead with the trolley line from Beatties Ford Road all the way to Eastland Mall.
Lassiter: "The challenge of getting light rail money is meeting federal rules." He's also working for the trolley, trying to find a way to use mostly local money to fund the project.

Fixing Independence Boulevard

Foxx: Wants new money to pay for the finishing of I-485, preserving existing state money to finish Independence Boulevard. "The N.C. DOT has not historically been a good partner with us" for helping to support the businesses that depended on Independence Boulevard.
Lassiter: Independence Boulevard needs to be the back door for the neighborhoods, not the front door. "I think we can all agree that the state has made a mess of Independence Boulevard."

Maintaining safety and fighting crime
Both candidates acknowledge the strong work of the Charlotte police department (which had at least five representatives at the meeting) and that crime had gone down in the Eastway division. Both noted that the city would find responsible ways to pay for more police officers that would not raise taxes. Both pointed to fiscal responsibility from the city, contrasting it with financial difficulties the county faces.
Foxx: Went to Washington, D.C., on his own dime to talk with U.S. Senator Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., about federal support for fighting crime. He has also talked with the state Administrative Office of the Courts, and is working in the community at West Charlotte High School, his alma mater, to help show young people different, positive paths.
Lassiter: "We have to get chronic offenders off the streets." Lassiter noted he served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board for many years, working to support young people and schools.

Low-income housing

Foxx: Noted a story by Fred Clasen-Kelly in The Charlotte Observer in 2006 that said roughly four of every five Section 8 residents are clustered in 10 ZIP codes in the Charlotte area. "I want to see this city deal with affordable housing in a real way," he said. He mentioned an "incentivized inclusi0onary zoning" fix. If he were mayor, he would establish a task force to handle low-income housing questions.
Lassiter: "I believe the east side of Charlotte has given enough." However, he emphasized a market-based approach to handling housing price points.

Code enforcement
Eastside residents have wrestled with the problem of code enforcement people working day hours Monday through Friday, with no one to verify and follow up code violations such as parking cars and trucks on lawns on weekends and evenings. Lassiter addressed the issue, saying the city was looking at innovative solutions such as split shifts for code enforcement workers. Foxx agreed: "We've got to have weekend code enforcement," he said, and he noted that the city workers must deal with three computer systems to input and track data about violations, with no easy computer interaction with police computers. He said the city needed to increase our investment in technology to address the challenge.

Small-area plans

Susan Lindsay, a long-time neighborhood activist for the east side of Charlotte, questioned why the city had not gone forward with small-area plans for the Milton Road-Plaza area and the Eastway-Plaza areas. Both candidates said they would look into that, with Lassiter noting that the planning staff should have some excess capacity at the moment because of a lack of rezoning cases.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Visit Evergreen Nature Preserve

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Less than a mile away from Merry Oaks is Evergreen Nature Preserve, 80 acres of creek and woodlands hidden between Central Avenue and Independence Boulevard in East Charlotte.

People are celebrating International Migratory Bird Day there from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 9. Activities will include Birding 101, bird hikes, crafts, games and bird-related merchandise for sale.
Get directions here.

Then on Tuesday, May 12, at 6 p.m., the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation commissioners will consider the preserve's master plan for approval, at a meeting at the Mallard Creek Recreation Center, 2530 Johnston Oehler Road. Details: (704) 548-8234. The meeting is open to the public.
For photos, a PDF of the master plan and more information about the preserve, visit the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation site.
For photos of cedar waxwings and more from the preserve, check out birderbarden1 on Flickr.
(Hat tip: Nancy Pierce from the Merry Oaks neighborhood Google group).