Seven years of advocacy, and tomorrow the prize will be won if the Council of State votes to approve a lease giving the city of Raleigh constructive control of the 306-acre Dorothea Dix Hospital tract. The advocates, members of the allied groups called Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, Dix306 and the Dix Visionaries, are cautiously or incautiously optimistic about the vote. The dream of a great destination park up on Dix Hill, overlooking downtown Raleigh from the south, is within reach.
There's opposition to it on the political right from Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers-Art Pope group known to some as "Americans for the Prosperous." Conservatives are against a public good — what else is new? But unless something terrible happens overnight, says Dix306 leader Bill Padgett, a majority of the Council of State should vote to approve the lease.
So this afternoon, the Visionaries did what they could to hasten a positive vote. Greg Poole Jr., the first visionary and still their chair, pledged to raise $3 million for park planning once the lease is approved. The first $1 million will come from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation — Capitol Broadcasting money — thanks to his fellow visionary Jim Goodmon, Capitol Broadcasting's CEO, and his wife Barbara Goodmon, who is president of the foundation. The V's made the announcement at a press event held on the high ground of Dix Hill with the Raleigh skyline — thanks to a cloudless blue sky — shimmering in the background.
True, the skyline has just a few tall buildings to show so far. But Jay Spain, head of the Friends group, suggested that we think about what Raleigh's skyline will be — and what the city of Raleigh will be — in 100 years. Our decision to preserve Dix Hill as a park will be celebrated then and hailed as a wonderful gift from us to the future, Spain said, one that was vital to the great city Raleigh can and will be.
Goodmon made a similar point, recalling that when he started working at Capitol Broadcasting, the Raleigh-Durham TV market was 63rd in the country — not very big, in other words. Today, it's the 24th biggest. We've moved ahead of Charlotte. (!) "This is a big place," Goodmon said, "and it deserves big ideas."
The Dix Park vision, Goodmon added, is a very big idea — as big as any he can remember around here ... ever.
Poole acknowledged that the park movement began with the Friends and with Dix306, Padgett's group, and he came to it later. But not a lot later, and it must be said that when Poole signed on and started the Visionaries, he brought the business leadership of Raleigh into partnership with our civic and neighborhood leadership ... and even with that combination, it took seven years to reach the verge of success.
The park can be Raleigh and the state's jewel, Poole said. "North Carolina has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save this jewel."
For his part, Goodmon expressed confidence that the Council of State will come through and back the lease that Gov. Bev Perdue's staff negotiated with Raleigh. But that's just the first step, Goodmon said. The critical next step is putting together a great plan to get the park going over the next quarter-century. "Good results without good planning is good luck," he said, "and I don't believe in good luck."
Yes, planning is critical, for the next quarter-century and beyond. How the park will be run — by the city? A private nonprofit? A public authority? And what will be in it? Which buildings will be preserved and which ones removed? All these questions and many more must be answered. The park can be connected to downtown via an existing railroad corridor — who's going to do that and when?
It'll be nice to move on to these very interesting questions once the foundational one — will the park exist? — is answered. Seven years on, it's about to be.
On Friday, we reported the good news about Raleigh's Union Station, Phase 1: It's fully funded at $60 million. In the buildup to that announcement, I heard one other, discordant note. If and when Raleigh adds commuter-rail and high-speed rail service to the current, very limited repertoire of Amtrak trains running through town, the rail corridor coming into the Union Station complex will need to be widened.
Why? To make room for additional sets of tracks for the trains and for the platform that will service the high-speed line.
And what's in the way of widening the corridor? The warehouse buildings that the Triangle Transit Authority sold and Citrix, the software firm, plans to occupy as its new Raleigh headquarters.
The picture above, which I snapped one night last week when I was in the area, shows just how close to the Citrix buildings the train tracks already are. When I raised that issue with Paul Morris, deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation and DOT's point man on all things railroad, he confirmed that he's in talks with Citrix. "At some point in the future, we'll need to lop off the one bay that is closest to the tracks," Morris said.
"It won't come without a cost," Morris added.
In other words, because TTA sold the buildings to private owners, DOT will be forced to pay to get a slice of them taken off. DOT contributed 25 percent of the purchase price when TTA bought the buildings from Dillon Supply Company a decade ago, but it was never a co-owner, Morris said. Most of the money came from a federal grant.
When the TTA sold them for a reported $2 million, DOT received 25 percent of the sale price.
Morris said DOT was aware, prior to TTA's decision to sell the buildings, that the TTA was thinking of unloading them. DOT did not know of the talks with Citrix, and with the developers (Crown and Cherokee) who were offering to be the middlemen in the transaction, until the Indy and others reported on the deal in the spring.
The buildings in question are located west of West Street between West Morgan Street on the north and West Hargett Street on the south. (Union Station, Phase 1, is another block to the south.)
The decision to sell the buildings to private developers throws the TTA's own light-rail transit plans into confusion because, as things stand now, the light-rail line in downtown Raleigh is supposed to run on West Morgan Street. Until TTA sold off the buildings, it was thought that they'd be renovated to serve as the light-rail station and integrated into a grand Union Station scheme put together by the city in 2010. (Click on this link for background on all that.)
Instead, they were sold for use by Citrix, and are now more or less in the way of any connection between the new Amtrak/commuter rail/high-speed rail station that is Union Station, Phase 1 and a light-rail stop on West Morgan.
According to city and state transportation officials, the West Morgan Street route is now being reconsidered. It's possible the light-rail route will be pushed to West Hargett Street, an alignment the city rejected earlier because of elevation changes that would require a bridge — a bridge that would cut off one or more city streets when it came back to ground.
Light-rail is thought to be a long decade or even two away from happening in Raleigh.
On the other hand, commuter-rail trains (Amtrak-like service, but limited to a route using the existing rail corridor from Garner/Johnston County to Raleigh to Durham) could be a reality in less than a decade.
Meanwhile, DOT and its Virginia counterpart continue to plow ahead on plans for the Southeast High-Speed Rail service with the hope of obtaining a major federal grant in a second Obama Administration. "Best case" for launching high-speed rail in Raleigh, Morris guessed, is 7-10 years.
City Planning and Economic Development Director Mitchell Silver told me last week that he's asked the Citrix design team to create an "arcade" passageway so passengers can walk comfortably between the Amtrak/commuter rail station down at West Martin Street and a future light-rail station on West Morgan. Without some passageway, that's a 3 1/2-block trek on the sidewalk.
Morris, meanwhile, is suggesting that Citrix design its new headquarters so that the west edge can be taken off when the corridor is widened. DOT will pay for an easement. Failing that, it would be forced to condemn the entire property, either now — before the renovations - or later, when the Citrix complex would presumably be worth a good deal more.
One high-ranking DOT official told me privately that the TTA sale could end up costing the state $10 million.
$10 million? I asked Morris. "That's if we're forced into condemnation," he said. "The good news is, we're in talks with Citrix already."
The even better news, Morris added a bit later, is that Union Station is becoming a reality, moving the need for compatible building designs on adjacent properties out of the realm of the merely hypothetical. "We're in pretty good shape now because of it," he said.
I see that it was just 15 months ago — last June — when the state DOT made its first public pitch for turning the old Dillon Supply fabrication building, also known as the Viaduct Building, into a new Amtrak station for downtown Raleigh.
The Viaduct Building wasn't part of the city's grand Union Station scheme (for background, click on the link above), but it's turning out to be a great add-on — in City Hall-speak, it's now Union Station, Phase 1.
Meanwhile, the grand plan's been scaled back because of the Triangle Transit Authority's decision to sell one of the two other Dillon Supply buildings it purchased years ago.
That's the building fronting on the west side of West Street between West Morgan and West Hargett streets. It's the one ticketed for use by by Citrix, a software company.
TTA still owns the the building on the south side of West Hargett, in between the Citrix building and the Viaduct Building. And it owns the Viaduct Building, which it's contributing to the Union Station cause.
More on the situation with the Citrix building soon, but for now, here's today's good news as provided by the city's public information staff:
FULL FUNDING FOR RALEIGH’S
UNION STATION PROJECT IS ANNOUNCED
Mayor Nancy McFarlane welcomed Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo to Raleigh today for the announcement that the Union Station Project will receive the full $60 million in funding. The announcement was made at a morning press conference at the Viaduct Building, 510 West Martin Street Downtown.
The Mayor said that monies from the City, state and federal coffers and contributions from transit groups, totaling more than $60 million, have been committed to building Union Station and the supporting track work.
“The Union Station Project is a major step toward transforming Raleigh’s transportation network to that of a world-class, 21st-century city,” Mayor McFarlane said. “The partnerships that have made this project a reality are an example of governments working together to build an infrastructure that will promote economic development and the best quality of life for our citizens.”
Also speaking at the press conference, North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said hard work and tireless effort helped to secure the funding. “This is a clear cut example of how when local, state and federal groups work hand-in-hand, wonderful things can happen,” he said. “Congratulations to the City of Raleigh for having such vision.”
The $15.1 million from North Carolina’s $545 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) award will be used to help build Union Station. Additionally, $466,000 in federal dollars and a $250,000 match from the City and the state provide the final piece of funding.
The City is working with the Federal Railroad Administration, North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Triangle Transit Authority, which is providing its Downtown Viaduct facility worth approximately $1.4 million, for the building of the new Union Station. The City also has partnered with Norfolk Southern, Amtrak and the North Carolina Railroad Company.
The City of Raleigh began a study in September 2010 in search of a multimodal transportation center. A North Carolina Department of Transportation study concluded the project was feasible and calculated the cost to be approximately $60 million. In June of this year, a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant totaling $21 million was awarded to the Union Station project.
North Carolina Department of Transportation engineers anticipant the project design will begin in January, with construction starting in January of 2014. Construction of the new Raleigh Union Station project is expected to be completed in January 2017.
The existing Raleigh Transit Station served 192,000 passengers in 2011, which was a 17 percent increase over 2010. The station is serving a ridership which far exceeds its waiting area and parking capacity, preventing growth in passenger ridership and revenue across the state, according to North Carolina Department of Transportation officials.
[Update, 6/8, 2:30 pm. I've spoken to several city officials now, including Mayor Nancy McFarlane and Councilor Thomas Crowder. Nobody wants to say anything on the record about Citrix. That's all very hush-hush and a real estate deal still to be made. But as to whether TTA told the city that it was planning to sell the warehouse building in the first place, all said they think the answer is no.
McFarlane and Crowder said on the record that that they were not aware that the property was for sale. Both said further that they were weren't told when TTA received an offer nor were they told that TTA was advertising the property thereafter for the legally required 30 days — the upset-bid process — to see whether a better offer was available.
Councilor Russ Stephenson commented on the original post this morning, and I responded to him — as you can see below — with that same question. Did the Council not know that TTA was selling the property? When I called him, he was heading into a meeting,
but I'll be checking with him shortly ... just spoke with him: Stephenson didn't know anything about the sale of the building until Monday or Tuesday, when he found out about it in the course of conversation with a county economic development official involved in the Citrix incentives deal.]
The original post follows from yesterday at about 8 pm —
Does the Citrix announcement today mean the city's plan for a grand multi-modal transit station in the Warehouse District — a fabulous "Union Station" — is dead?
I'd say so.
R.I.P. one more attempt to build a great city in Raleigh. Or maybe there's a Plan B?
The upshot of the Citrix news, if what I'm hearing is correct, will be that a light-rail station on the west side of downtown, if and when it's built, would either be cut off from the other transit facilities (Amtrak, the commuter-rail service) two blocks away, or ...
... the light-rail stop will need to be put somewhere other than on West Morgan Street, where it's slated to be.
So dust off all those alt. light-rail routes and schemes (down West Hargett Street; over the Boylan Bridge; sweeping to the south where the Convention Center is) that were considered and rejected not long ago by the Raleigh City Council.
The Council decided on the West Morgan Street route for light-rail — and decided the station location — less than a year ago.
And it endorsed the Union Station plan, which is dated September 2010. You can read it:
But if I'm right about Citrix, those decisions will need to be revisited. Because Cintrix wants to be — will be — where the Union Station was going to be.
Through an intermediary, Citrix is apparently in the process of buying a portion of the Union Station site — specifically, one of the two big warehouse buildings that occupies the site — from Triangle Transit, which owns it. TTA General Manager David King confirmed that the building is up for sale.
Meanwhile Raleigh, with its glittering plan for a Union Station not old enough even to have dust on its shelf, is apparently uninterested in purchasing a building that's critical to making its plan a reality.
Ah, well. Maybe there's a Plan B?
None of this is official, and in fact the financial support that Raleigh's promised to Citrix is in return for jobs somewhere in the city, without any reference to where they should be.
That said, the evidence that Citrix is buying part of the Union Station site is compelling.
Yesterday, the social media were buzzing about a big deal coming soon to the Warehouse District.
Today, we have the announcement, by Mayor Nancy McFarlane and N.C. Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco, that Citrix Systems is looking to expand its operations in Raleigh. The state is kicking in money in the form of a Job Development Investment Grant. Raleigh's adding money from its incentives fund. The grants are tied to job creation targets. Citrix, the city says, will
... create 339 new, permanent, full-time positions with an average wage of $70,914. The new jobs are to be created over the next five years. In the same time frame, Citrix Systems will make a capital investment of between $11 million and $26 million in Downtown Raleigh to house the workforce of more than 450.
Citrix employs more than 100 people in Raleigh now in an office just outside the Beltline (in Laurel Hills). They want to move downtown into space suitable for 450 or more. Where could that be?
The exact location of the facility has not been disclosed. With a vacancy rate hovering around 10 percent, downtown Raleigh has few large blocks of vacant space available. Given the amount of money Citrix plans to invest in the new location, the company may be more likely to renovate an existing property rather than have a new building constructed.
When I heard that Citrix, notwithstanding the N&O report, has in fact fixed on one of the West Street buildings, I called David King. He didn't know anything about Citrix, he said. But yes, Triangle Transit received an unsolicited offer for one of the buildings a few months ago — the one which occupies almost all of the block between West Morgan and West Hargett Streets.
The only part of the block the building doesn't occupy is the little garage that fronts on West Morgan — the Men at Work garage — where the TTA's light-rail stop is supposed to go.
Anyway, according to King, Triangle Transit accepted the offer as an upset bid (a floor), advertised for buyers to beat it, and got no takers. So the building is ticketed for sale to the only bidder, which is a partnership of Cherokee Investment Partners and the Crown Company, King said. He said it's his understanding that they are acting on the part of a "tenant."
That would be Citrix, according to other sources.
The sale is subject to approval by the Federal Transportation Administration and the state, King said, because it was their money — or 75 percent of it — that TTA used to buy it. And if it's sold, they'll get 75 percent of the proceeds, and TTA only 25 percent.
King, for his part, said he was "never that excited" about the Union Station concept, and in any event the building they're selling isn't integral to his agency's plans today.
OK, but it sure was integral to Raleigh's.
Raleigh's been eyeing (with the state DOT) another of the warehouse buildings, the old Viaduct Building on the northwest side of the West Street-Martin Street intersection as a potential new home for Amtrak, of an Amtrak-like commuter-rail service that would operate between Durham and Garner, and for the Southeast High-Speed Rail service, should it ever materialize.
There's a second warehouse building on the north side of the Viaduct Building that TTA isn't selling and that is now being looked at, King said, as a potential bus station for the West Side. Stay tuned for news there.
It was that second building and the third one, the one Triangle Transit is selling, that were to be the raw material for the Union Station plan. It called for a two-blocks long grand concourse that would bring together all of the transportation elements, including Amtrak and commuter rail and high-speed rail and light-rail and bus, in one great hall.
The concourse was supposed to be multi-level, with stores and restaurants and perhaps some sort of people-mover — like they use in airports — to help folks get from one end of of Union Station to the other. Could there be offices in there too? Sure. Apartments above? Maybe.
I mean, read the Union Station plan. T'was something:
Raleigh Union Station will dramatically change the look and feel of the west side of downtown. Currently a low-density collection of warehouses and vacant land, Raleigh Union Station stands to change the economic development potential of the area and offers the following advantages:
• Increases transit use
• Establishes a transit identity
• Allows for future modes
• Ties together western edge of downtown
• Anchors the downtown circulator
• Creates a gateway destination
• Maximizes developable space/parcels
And from page 64 of the plan:
The general development concept for the project area is to develop the Triangle Transit owned properties (generally the two blocks bound by West Morgan Street, South West Street, West Martin Street and the rail tracks as well as a portion of the “Wye” interior) as a new Union Station that will provide multi-modal transit services and also include a significant amount of mixed-use development within the development on these properties. The strategy also seeks to surround Union Station with additional mixed use development of sufficient quantity to contribute significantly to the vitality and success of the station and the downtown as a whole.
Yes, It was all pretty conceptual — exception for the location. The location was critical.
But if Citrix buys the third warehouse building and cuts it off from the others, that will mean a passenger arriving, say, on the commuter-rail line from Garner and wanting to switch to the light-rail line to get over to the State Government complex, would be forced to go outdoors and walk around the Citrix building to make the connection.
Or is there another way? King thought there were options other than a concourse — "There's all sorts of ways," he said — to connect the light-rail station to the other rail and bus platforms without going through the building that his agency's put up for sale.
You could go around it on the sidewalk, he said. Or you could build a walkway over it. Or build a grand something or other out over the railroad tracks.
You could do a lot of things, I suppose. But the Union Station plan was a pretty good one when Raleigh Planning and Economic Development Director Mitchell Silver unveiled it. As he told WRAL:
"You want to have a grand waiting hall like other cities – Washington, New York," Silver said. "(It would move Raleigh) to the 21st century to have a grand space for passengers and (for) welcoming people into the city."
If that plan's dead, what's the new plan?
The Council, on a 6-2 vote Monday night, followed the Triangle Transit Authority's recommendation for the downtown alignment. Previously, the TTA had pledged to accept the Council's determination, whatever it was. Thus, the two go hand-in-hand to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), a body comprised of local officials from the eastern portion of the Triangle, including Raleigh.
CAMPO has the official last call, but with TTA and Raleigh in agreement, its vote becomes little more than a formality.
So what does last night's action mean? It means that the light-rail system, if it's built and if it includes a Wake County leg, will use the D6 alignment through downtown Raleigh, not one of the other downtown routes under consideration.
I was asked this morning: Does this mean the Council decided to build the D6 line?
Raleigh is not proposing to build anything. And the TTA, which is, has miles to go before its plans become reality.
What's happening is that the TTA is putting together a "locally preferred alternative" for light-rail service in Orange, Durham and Wake Counties. A "locally preferred alternative" is what the federal government wants to see when it receives an application for funds under its "New Starts" transit program. Of course, "New Starts" money is in short supply and there are many aspirants for it, so having a preferred alternative is a necessary element, but it guarantees nothing except the chance to get in line and start doing your environmental impact studies.
That said, Orange County and Durham County have known for some years where they wanted their portions of a regional light-rail system to go. The only tricky, still unresolved portions were in Wake County, specifically: (1) what route to take through downtown Raleigh, and (2) what route to take in the area of Triangle Town Center near I-540.
And only the downtown Raleigh question was really tricky. (At Triangle Town Center, the decision's all but made to run the rail line into the mall, which means it will need to cross over Capital Boulevard; the alternative is to stay on the west side of Capital Boulevard, where a rail corridor — but no mall — already exists.)
The map below shows some of the downtown routes that were studied (others, eliminated earlier, were omitted):
From the map, you can see that only the D5 route would've come into the actual downtown proper. The D2, D3 and D6 routes, on the other hand, skirt the downtown to the west, running up through the Glenwood South district.
D5 has all sorts of other problems with it, however, which caused the city's Passenger Rail Advisory Task Force, a Council-appointed group, to gin up its own last-minute, not-really-studied alternative, which it dubbed D6a. (For background, see our earlier post.)
The D6a idea was to use — like D6 — West Morgan Street, but instead of veering north on Harrington, keep on going right into the downtown. There, it would've linked up with the D5 loop around the Capitol district on Salisbury and Wilmington Streets..
The advantage of D6a: Goes to the downtown, baby.
The disadvantage: To get there, D6a would've needed to cross the ultra-busy S. Dawson and S. McDowell one-way thoroughfares (40-50,000 cars a day) at-grade. Both are state roads, and the state DOT was against having the light-rail cross them at-grade and very opposed to the idea that, if it did cross them, the trains should have priority over the cars.
The upshot, according to TTA and Raleigh's transit planning chief, Eric Lamb, was that even if DOT approved the at-grade crossings (unlikely), the trains would be forced to stop at Dawson and McDowell — red light — every time the lights turned green for the cars. Another disadvantage of D6a, Lamb said, was having light-rail trains stuck in traffic or, worse, hit by a car, on Salisbury and Wilmington.
The fact that D6 goes through the Glenwood South district has major advantages for Raleigh in terms of the development opportunities there. That it does not enter the downtown proper, though, is a big disadvantage for the light-rail system as a whole.
Councilors Russ Stephenson and Bonner Gaylord considered the latter a serious enough problem that they voted no, feeling D6a should be studied more closely before a final decision was made.. Gaylord said he liked D5 as an option also.
Councilor Thomas Crowder, on the other hand, argued that the this first light-rail line, including D6, can and must be augmented by downtown circulator buses, streetcars and additional light-rail lines in the future. In other words, it's not the end of the system, but rather the spine of a system that must evolve.
So, Crowder said, when you get off the light-rail line at the station stop on West Morgan Street, say, and you're six blocks from Fayetteville Street, you could hop on an R-Line bus or maybe a new streetcar. Yes, they'd have to stop for traffic at Dawson and McDowell. But when they stop, they won't be backing up an entire regional light-rail system.
Under D6, by the way, the West Morgan Street station is penciled in on the south side of the street between Boylan Avenue and Glenwood Avenue — very convenient to the Glenwood South district and to the Warehouse district, but a good six-block walk from Fayetteville Street.
There was talk of putting the station on West Morgan a couple of blocks further east at Harrington Street, which is where D6 would swing to the north. But it can't be done. The reason: The West Morgan bridge (over the freight rail corridor) is too high, and there isn't enough room between the top of the bridge and the intersection at Harrington to bring the rail cars down without creating a too-steep, and therefore dangerous drop.
With the West Morgan Station not that close to downtown, though, and another proposed station at Harrington and North Streets close to the state government complex but, again, not real near to what most people would call downtown Raleigh, that's all the more reason why a supporting network of R-Line buses, streetcars or equivalent will be needed to make the D6 alternative work well for the system as a whole.
No irony intended, I'm certain, when the ComeUnityNow folks billed their event in City Plaza tomorrow as "the hottest festival in town." it will be that, with temperatures forecast to go above 100 degrees. But it's Raleigh in July, so cool is not an option. And it's for a good cause — with proceeds going to people slammed by the April 16 tornado ...
The event is 10 am-10 pm on two blocks of Fayetteville Street and in City Plaza. Music, dancing, art. Two stages. Mostly free, but $10 VIP tickets will be sold to enter the area around the South Stage where the featured musical acts will perform. Donations for the cause will also be solicited. (There's a second VIP option, which is to buy a $20 card from 360Raleigh; it also entitles you to discounts at some Raleigh establishments.)
The key organizers of ComeUnityNow are volunteers — like Jim Bailey, executive director of BuildBridgesNow; Dan Nelson, founder of Streetlight Productions; and Mary Jane Clark, who needs no title — who put their heads together after the tornado and after the 2011 Raleigh Wide Open festival was cancelled by the City Council.
Try putting a street festival together in three months ... but they've done it with help from A-list sponsors like WRAL, Curtis Media Group (WPTF-680 etc.), the Raleigh Downtowner, and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, plus some help with the bands from Deep South Entertainment.
It'll be hot, no question. Dress light, bring sunscreen ... and a donation.
Tuesday night is "Public Night" at the Plug-In 2011 Conference & Exposition, the event at the Raleigh Convention Center for the EV — Electric Vehicles — industry. For $10, you can say you were there when your grandchildren ask, "Whatever happened to the gasoline-powered automobile?"
"Well, kids," you'll be able to say, "it was back in '11 when General Electric came out with an EV charging station in a box, and it sold at Lowe's for about $1,000.
"That's right, kids, one thousand dollars — it was the same year that the Republicans defaulted on the national debt, which as you know crashed our currency and forced the U.S. to begin using the Chinese yuan."
That's a joke :) — I hope.
But seriously, electric cars (you read it here first — first around here, anyway) could solve some big problems for the U.S., not to mention the world. Petroleum imports? Wars in the Middle East? Kiss them good-bye if we can run our cars on electricity, and the electricity comes from wind, solar and other renewable sources ... and we juice 'em up at night when power demands on the grid are low.
Electricity at current rates is far below gasoline — about 75 cents for the equivalent of a gallon's worth of power. Heck, put solar panels on your roof and a big battery in the garage and you'll really be happy motoring.
So the electric cars are here — the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and many more — but what's missing is the charging stations. Sure, in theory you can plug your EV into a wall socket, but that's the power equivalent of filling your swimming pool with a garden hose. What you need is one of those Level-2 chargers, which will fire up your dead EV battery in about four hours.
And folks, that's what GE's "WattStation" is. (It's the hanging unit on the left in the picture.)
The big announcement this afternoon was that GE is building the WattStation at its facility in Mebane, NC and will start selling them at Lowe's stores next month.
Lowe's stores in California, at first, then a national rollout.
Price: "About $1,000." These WattStation chargers hang on the wall, attached to a 240-volt outlet (like your dryer) or else hard-wired into your control panel.
(They're made in Mebane, and you're selling them first in California? I asked. Come back Wednesday, said the gang in the GE booth in unison, and we'll have an answer for you.)
Or, try my favorite product, the Plugless Power charger, a wireless Level-2 gizmo that shoots magnetic rays (I think that's what the guy said) from a pad on the floor of your garage into a module installed on your EV's chassis. Evatran, the company which makes them, is a spinoff from a company that makes transformers. It's looking for partners to test its product — at first, any company with Chevy Volts in its fleet.
Looking around the Plug-In 2011 show floor, charging stations for residential, office or retail-mall parking lot use are the next big thing, and the antidote to so-called "range anxiety." That is, will I be stranded if I'm driving around and my battery dies — how will I recharge it?
Answer: Most days, you won't have to until you get home; but on those days when you do, the electric utilities and local governments are putting in charging stations, as are malls, as are parking decks. And guess what?
AAA is also putting Level-2 and, for the few vehicles equipped to plug into them, Level-3 chargers onto its mobile rescue vehicles. Only a few so far, but AAA is committed, a spokesman said, to coming to your aid whatever size your battery problems come in. Right now, everybody's got a little battery and big ol' gas tank. In the future, big ol' batteries and little, if any, gas.
In this new venture, AAS is partnering with an outfit from California, Green Charge Networks. Its president, Ron Prosser, is in Raleigh showing off his own gear, including mobile charging stations equipped (some of them) with solar-panel arrays. He's looking for customers — say, a football stadium — that may need to charge lots of cars at the same time but intermittently.
The EV industry is in its infancy, Prosser said, with a lot of start-ups competing for the brass ring. Make that the gold ring — "It's a gold rush out there," a smiling Prosser told me.
That'd be sweet.
Public night Tuesday starts at 5:30. The exposition floor is open for a couple of hours, until 7:30, followed by a film, "Revenge of the Electric Car," and a panel discussion featuring Dan Neil, erstwhile writer for the N&O and later the Indy who went on to fame and a Pulitzer Prize for his nothing's-sacred style of auto journalism at The Los Angeles Times. I see he's now at The Wall Street Journal, working for Rupert Murdoch. (Don't hack me, Dan.)
I remember little SPARKcon when it was just a gleam in the eyes of Aly & Beth Khalifa and the rest of the Designbox gang. Goodness, gracious, now it's 5 years old and it's grown so much! It really is "igniting the creative hub of the South" — this part of the South, anyway — from the arts to music to fashion and design and, this year, a new CircusSPARK.
[A note: SPARKcon 2010 is the 5th annual. Upon consuming my fifth cup of coffee, I realize that the first one was in 2006, which would make 2010 its fourth birthday ... unless you count the year of planning that preceded the inaugural. In other words, 5th annual, and 4th or 5th birthday depending on your perspective.]
The SPARKcon website features an iPhone app and QR codes (if you have to ask ...) to help you navigate the literally hundreds of events in dozens of venues covering all of Fayetteville Street and some other downtown environs. It all unfolds this Thursday-to-Sunday, September 16-19. Here's a commercial to get you started, courtesy (to SPARKcon) of an N.C. State grad student named Chelsea Hedrick:
Our topic tonight: The public hearing Monday in Raleigh on the proposed Southeast High-Speed Rail (SEHSR) project. The hearing is at the Raleigh Convention Center, 7 p.m., preceded by an open house from 5-7 p.m. I recommend, if you're going — and you should go if the subject of Raleigh's transit future is of any interest to you — that you also take up Norfolk-Southern's offer of free food at their rail yard Saturday, 4-8 p.m. Read on for why I say that. The rail yard is at 1500 Carson Street. See also this position statement from the Downtown Living Advocates (DLA):
I could say there are a lot of moving parts to the question of Raleigh's transit future, but this is no laughing matter. The local transit system — Triangle Transit — was always comin' through the center of Raleigh (still is, if it ever comes), but the TTA never thought it needed to close the downtown streets for its trains to get through safely. That would defeat the purpose of transit, yes? Lights, action, crossing gates were though to be sufficient.
But suddenly, the long-planned, long-delayed, widely supported but never well-understood Southeast High-Speed Rail (SEHSR) project apparently is going to happen ... and it's going to come through the center of Raleigh as well. And because it's "high speed" — even though, in the center of Raleigh, it won't be moving any faster than the TTA transit trains would be moving — the SEHSR planners seem to have their heart set on closing West Jones Street right in the middle of the Glenwood South district.
Closing, as in: A big wall on both sides of the tracks to keep cars from crossing the tracks and pedestrians from crossing the tracks.
(And if a pedestrian bridge were to be built over the wall(s), as has been suggested, it would need to be at least 24 feet above any railroad car passing below. Picture that w-a-a-y up in the air the next time you're walking from Glenwood Avenue to the 42nd Street Oyster Bar.)
And closing Jones Street is best-case.
Only Jones Street would be closed, you see, if the SEHSR line uses the Norfolk-Southern rail corridor, which cuts through Glenwood South and then continues north out of Raleigh on the west side of Capital Boulevard. (By the Glenwood-Brooklyn neighborhood, in other words.)
But folks, Norfolk Southern is dead set against this system using its corridor. That's why they're having that picnic Saturday at their rail yard — see above — to feed us some hot dogs and impress upon us how much they don't want this thing in their way. And unless I'm missing something, N-S can probably veto this project if they dig their heels in deep enough.
Which means the SEHSR line may have to use the CSX Railroad corridor, which also cuts through Glenwood South (at one point, the N-S and CSX lines are right next to each other) but then runs out of Raleigh to the north on the east side of Capital Boulevard. (The tracks at Logan's Garden Supply — the old Seaboard Station — are in the CSX corridor.)
According to the state and city officials I've spoken with, CSX is amenable to having the high-speed rail line in its corridor (but it will want money — 'natch) and in fact the TTA line was always — and is still — slated to go in the CSX corridor, part of which the TTA purchased some years ago.
But if the CSX corridor is used for the SEHSR line — and if SEHSR's planners continue to insist that wherever its railroad tracks cross a street at grade, that street must be closed — then three streets would be closed to traffic: Jones Street; Harrington Street; and West Street.
Jones, Harrington and West streets, all closed? How would a car — or a pedestrian — get from the west side of downtown to downtown itself? Answer: Hillsborough Street or Peace Street.
The effect would be as if a highway came barreling through the downtown, cutting it apart.
And, like a highway, the SEHSR line is not taking the locals where they want to go in the Triangle. Its purpose is to take passengers to Washington, Charlotte and Atlanta at higher speeds than the slowpoke trains we have now.
The Downtown Living Advocates (name is self-explanatory) are out with a position on this question. Their answer: Use the N-S route and run the trains through Glenwood South below ground (in a tunnel) so the street doesn't have to be closed:
The DLA recommends:
• Downtown-wide quiet zones at all rail crossings
• Alternative transit alignment NC3, Norfolk Southern Tracks — see below
• Tunneling the tracks at Jones Street and parallel to Glenwood South, so as to permit
Jones Street to remain open
Given the present alternatives, the DLA strongly recommends that high speed passenger
trains follow the Norfolk Southern tracks north from Jones Street along the west side of
Capital Boulevard (alignment NC3), and is strongly opposed to the alternative that the
trains travel along the east side of Capital Boulevard, using the CSX tracks
Others in Raleigh will be there Monday to say that no streets need be closed for the high-speed rail line; instead — like the TTA's trains — the high-speed trains will be moving slowly as they approach, or leave, the Raleigh station. Closing gates would be sufficient. And a blast of the RR horn? The DLA folks don't want that.
Many moving parts. Monday.
Looking ahead to Tuesday and the mass march/rally at the State Capitol in favor of diversity in the Wake school system:
It's mid-July. The new school board majority has been in office for almost eight months, and a referendum on their actions to date is coming in November with elections for the Wake County Board of Commissioners. The (Republican) majority has thus far managed to scrap diversity as a policy goal, change a few school calendars and move some students around, notably the ones from Southeast Raleigh who were attending school in Garner but won't be henceforth. They won a recent showdown with Democratic Commissioner Stan Norwalk over where to put a new high school in the northeast quadrant of the county: Norwalk wanted it close to the hugely over-crowded Wakefield H.S.; the school board majority wanted it in Rolesville, i.e. not that close. The majority got their way on a 4-3 vote of the commissioners, with Democrat Lindy Brown deserting her party to side with the three Republican commissioners.
But the school board majority has made little (some might argue no) progress toward adopting a new student assignment policy and no progress on the issue of ED (economically disadvantaged) students and their lagging academic performance. The ED issue was a hobbyhorse whipped relentlessly by the majority (or, more accurately, by John Tedesco and Deborah Prickett, purportedly speaking for the majority) before and after their election wins last fall. Since then, it hasn't seemed to occupy much of the majority's time, however. Do they still contend that "neighborhood schools" will help kids living in high-poverty neighborhoods? Or was it always a fig leaf to cover their real agenda, which is neighborhood schools for their own suburban neighborhoods?
On the other side, the NAACP, the Great Schools in Wake coalition and a slew of other groups have come fiercely to the defense of diversity as a critical element in school excellence overall, but especially in any effort to help ED students and close the achievement gap between more- and less-affluent kids.
To Tedesco's stance that diversity didn't work because graduation rates for ED kids slipped over the past decade, diversity's supporters answered that he's got it exactly backwards: Rather, they say, as adherence to the county's diversity policy slipped over the past decade — the victim of Wake's unbridled growth — so too did the performance of ED kids. To put it another way, as the number of schools with high concentrations of ED kids grew from fewer than 10 to more than 50, the number of ED kids not graduating increased apace. High-poverty schools, usually also characterized by high-minority populations, yield terrible results for the kids forced to attend them, they believe.
Bottom line: Eight months in, the effort by the new board majority to seize the moral high ground by appearing, at least, to advocate for ED kids is fading.
Now, diversity's supporters have the high ground, and they'll try to hold it through November, starting with Tuesday's march. Organizers are talking about "thousands" turning out, a big word for an event on a steamy mid-July day. But the AME Zion convention is in town — that'll help.
A big turnout for the march could be the launch point for the fall campaign, but also for the more important campaign to raise ED achievement scores in Wake and fulfill the promise of socio-economic diversity AND school excellence.
The march is set to begin at 10 a.m. from the Raleigh Convention Center. Here's a promotional video posted by the NC NAACP: