In business there is an adage, some raise it to the level of a commandment, to “know what you don’t know.” Or in other words look for the gaps in your knowledge and own up to them. One of the great attractions of government work seems to be, on one hand, never having to say “I don’t know” and on the other keeping you true objectives well-hidden.
Several different land-use issues in Charlotte illustrate these tendencies. One is the absolute certitude that redevelopment of the old Charlottetown Mall site on the edge of uptown requires a public subsidy and must include certain type of stores. Another is worry that Harris-Teeter is building too many stores too close together. Finally, there is the certitude exhibited by city planners that wider sidewalks are needed in Charlotte.
In the case of the $116 million plan for Charlottetown there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work. Both the city and county telegraphed a willingness help pay for the re-development of the site. Not surprisingly, developers then made a subsidy an absolute pre-condition of any new project on the site. Further, the city planners made clear a preference for a certain kind of re-development, one that would not need a big surface parking lot and would incorporate faux main street features like on-street parking and other be “transit friendly.”
But built into that approach are at least two instances of trying to know what you don’t know. One, that market forces alone would not make the site attractive for re-development and two, that a certain type and kind of retail will be successful there regardless of market demand for it. In truth, what is going on here is that local officials favor a specific kind of development on the site and are willing to spend $12.3 million in taxpayer money to get it. As such, the necessity of a public subsidy or the ultimate viability of the project does not count for much. Known or unknown, maybe it just does not matter.
Ditto the question of how many Teeters are too many. It would be much more direct to simply say that some neighboring property owners around the Ardrey Kell Road site do not like the idea of another grocery store close by, and they are exerting political pressure to that end. It is certainly not the case that government officials can have some special insight into retail tends many years into the future.
Odder still is the notion that widening sidewalks from four-feet to five-feet will coax Charlotteans to use them more. How do we know that? Have you ever heard someone say, “Well, I would walk, but the sidewalk is too narrow?” Further, if sidewalks are now mostly abandoned in the city, it is surely not because they are overcrowded. And suggestions that wider sidewalks would be utilized by cyclists overlooks the matter of bikes, as vehicles, belong on roadways. Isn’t that what all the bike lanes around town are for?
On the face of it, the five-foot sidewalk fails the is-this-nuts test. But what if we do not know the whole story behind the idea, what is it that we do not know? Perhaps it is that wider sidewalks are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. What if the actual goal it to shrink lot sizes, increase residential density, and increase the cost of housing? Ah, now things are starting to make sense, at least for Charlotte.
Remember, knowledge is power. And you if you don’t have knowledge, raw power is a nice substitute.