News & Views » David Walters

California Dreaming

Frisco's problems could solve ours


The culture shock of returning to Charlotte after spending time in a foreign locale is always confusing. It's even more discombobulating when that "foreign" place is in the continental USA. My wife and I recently returned from San Francisco, where I presented a paper about New Urbanism in North Mecklenburg to the national conference of the American Planning Association, and we enjoyed a successful book signing for our recent book Design First.

I first visited the City By the Bay 20 years ago, with architecture students from Mississippi State University. I fell in love with it then, and that flame was rekindled by our recent visit. After 15 years in Charlotte, I sometimes fall prey to the fallacy that Charlotte is typical of America — bland, conservative, and excessively religious. It's good to be reminded that Charlotte represents only one kind of America, and that there are other, more progressive cultures flourishing in other parts of the country.

The times we weren't involved in the conference, we were out in the city, riding trains and streetcars, observing how people use transit, and studying new developments along the rail lines. Public transportation is an essential part of urban life in San Francisco. While the famed cable cars are used mostly (but not exclusively) by tourists, the streetcars, buses and BART trains are packed with all sorts of people, schoolkids, manual workers, office workers, executives, and retirees. People ride transit to and from school and work, to go shopping, visit friends, go to the airport, and for a host of other reasons. For San Franciscans, this is a natural way of life in the 21st century. The parochialism of transit critics in Charlotte, for whom such a concept is "un-American" and "socialistic," is convincingly refuted by the daily pattern of life in one of America's greatest cities.

However, despite the natural beauty of its landscape, and the cultured urbanity of its neighborhoods, all is not rosy in San Francisco. Cities are always in a constant state of evolution and change, and even positive changes bring unexpected troubles in their wake. In San Francisco's case, the one demographic group that's missing from the lively, prosperous urban scene is children.

While Charlotte's suburban sprawl causes huge problems with school overcrowding, San Francisco has the opposite problem. Whereas the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board plans to spend billions of taxpayers' dollars over the next decade to build 51 new schools just to keep pace with local demand, the New York Times reports that San Francisco officials are preparing to close schools because of an anticipated decline of 4,000 students over the next five years. Portland, Oregon, faces a similar problem, closing six schools to manage a drop of 10,000 students over the past decade. However, during that time, Portland increased its population by over 90,000 new residents.

These cities have become so successful, and so attractive to employers and homebuyers, that real estate has become real expensive. The median house price in San Francisco, for example, is $700,000, compared with just under $200,000 in Charlotte! The combination of denser housing in great urban neighborhoods with cool shops and restaurants, all served with state-of-the-art transit that renders car ownership optional, is such a compelling housing choice for an increasing number of Americans that demand is driving up prices to unprecedented levels that are unaffordable to families with school-age children. However, San Francisco and Portland's dilemma suggests a potential solution for Charlotte's school crisis.

The Queen City's massive school building program is necessary because most of this city's newcomers are families with kids who until recently have suffered from a limited choice of housing options: the suburbs or the suburbs. There are two things we can do to increase housing choices, reduce the load on the school system, and limit sprawl, all at the same time.

First, continued public investment in transit, and private investment in the new neighborhoods that develop around light rail stations, will expand the range of housing options currently existing in Charlotte. These new neighborhoods will naturally attract different types of newcomers, who, like their counterparts on the west coast, have fewer children, thus slowing the rate of increase in the school age population.

Second, these developments can also create communities that include homes to accommodate larger families, and provide well-planned parks and playgrounds nearby. This will allow an increasing number of middle-class families to choose a more urban lifestyle in locations that can be served by existing urban schools rather than new suburban ones. These new demographic patterns of lifestyle choice and homeownership could naturally reintegrate the school system, reduce the immense pressure on suburban schools and lighten the tax burden on our citizens.

This isn't a Californian dream. It could happen here in Charlotte. Do we have the vision to make it reality?

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