Opinion Columns & Blogs

November 15, 2008

Where the sidewalks ought not to end

“Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow.”

“Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow.”

– Jane Jacobs

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Two ways of looking at a sidewalk:

A slab of concrete. Impervious surface. Another line item in the cost of development.

One thread in a large, vital network. Connective tissue. Where neighbors meet. Where kids learn to ride bikes. A spot for lemonade stands. A weapon in the wars on air pollution and obesity. Part of a public transit system.

Ten years ago – after a huge battle that saw business titans John Crosland Jr. and Hugh McColl Jr. lobbying City Council (on opposite sides) and that ended with a mayoral veto (upheld) – the council voted to start requiring sidewalks on both sides of all streets in new subdivisions.

Last month, in an e-mail to the City Council's Transportation Committee, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition, which fought the sidewalk requirements 10 years ago, re-opened the question of whether sidewalks are needed on both sides of residential streets.

REBIC's Andy Munn sent the e-mail Oct. 24. It asks about maintenance and repair costs and says, “Within most neighborhoods, traffic is generally light and calm and pedestrians can cross the street with relative ease.” Then, it asks, in a struggling economy with declining city revenues, has it considered requiring sidewalks on only one side of streets in new residential neighborhoods?

Munn says sidewalk requirements are on an ever-growing list of developer requirements that drive up housing costs. “It's death by a thousand cuts,” he told me. “These ordinances are crafted in silos.”

He's right, of course, that environmental, sidewalk, safety and other policies make building more expensive for developers. He and other developers are also right when they say that providing affordable housing is a major issue in Charlotte.

But the better approach is not to look only at the cheapest way to build homes and public spaces, but to find how best to enable people to afford places to live. That means looking at the whole situation, not discrete parts.

Wage levels play a role. So do job availability and education. Is it better for households, long-term, to live in cheaply built houses that quickly need repairs, or to build a system of public transit and sidewalks so families can get by with fewer cars?

Of course, mortgages aren't calculated this way, but if you could take the expense of owning a car and a 20-mile commute and convert it to monthly mortgage payments, you could afford at least $25,000 more for a home. What's a better way to make housing affordable?

In 1998, after that huge political battle, then-county commissioner Tom Bush called it “a major change of cardinal proportions” in the relationship between politicians and the powerful developers' lobby, which took on a high-profile fight – and lost.

I asked council member Anthony Foxx, who chairs the Transportation Committee, what he thought would happen with REBIC's e-mail. “I don't think it's going to go anywhere,” he said. “We're kicking ourselves for not having put sidewalks on both sides in older neighborhoods.”

Friday I caught up with Mayor Pat McCrory as he was dismantling his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign office. He hadn't heard of REBIC's request. “I've got a lot of war wounds on that one,” he said, remembering his fight for sidewalks. “They were wise not to send it to me.”

The city learned, he said, if you build neighborhoods right, they'll have more long-term value. “We shouldn't revisit it,” he said.

There are two ways of looking at sidewalks. One is the concrete view. The other sees something much more than a strip of concrete. Charlotte is a city. Cities need sidewalks. That's about as clear a view as anyone needs.

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