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And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

by Christa Wagner

July 4,2005

“Human industry has been in full swing for little over a century, yet it has brought about a decline in almost every ecosystem on the planet. Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.”   - William McDonough, architect and designer

In economics, we learn that efficiency is important. That’s why companies are always emphasizing the bottom line. When it comes to infrastructure, an important part of a company’s fixed costs, it would make sense to use the most efficient building techniques and design to save money over the building's life. Yet most companies shy away from these innovative practices because of presumed increases in upfront costs.

Then there’s the strategy of “build and run,” favored by such pitiless outfits as big-box retailers, which amounts to buying the right to build, conquer and leave the fallout to the vanquished.

I would never suggest that Charlotte runs the business of being a city the way a strip-mall promoter runs its operation. But there is a troubling similarity in Charlotte’s zeal for abandoning buildings before the end of their natural life (or designing them for short, undistinguished lives to begin with).

It’s puzzling how Charlotte can afford so much demolition and renovation. Consider several recent examples. Charlotte’s original coliseum was built on East Independence in 1955. In 1988, a new coliseum was built on Tyvola Road, with multiple lanes for shuttling traffic from centrally located neighborhoods where most people lived) to the middle of nowhere (that is, until the coliseum was built). Now a new arena, this one in the Center City, is scheduled for completion in 2006.

Charlotte’s first Convention Center, located Uptown, looked like a Soviet-era factory, lacking street-level windows, doors and a reason for remaining operational for more than a quarter of a century. A new Convention Center opened in 1995. The original Convention Center was demolished at 7:30 AM on Sunday, June 26th.

Then there was City Fair, an Uptown megaplex with retail and restaurants, which lasted less than five years.

Why Charlotte is so uninterested in building to last? Of course, I don’t have the answer. But my clever dad, who happens to be an architect, offered the following explanation. He cut to the chase: “A number of buildings constructed in recent decades, public and private, were banal,” he says. “While we don’t miss the buildings, we may miss their intended purposes.”

So, of course, we build them all over again.

And while one can imagine the incentive an architect might have to encourage tearing down and starting all over (more money), there is a greater incentive in building it right the first time (more legacy).

My dad agrees: “A well designed building is a building that is meant to be used for many generations,” he says. “When you look at the Charlotte Convention Center destroyed after 25 years, you need to start questioning the sustainability and longevity of our built environment.”

I’m questioning already. In my day job, I work for the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest grassroots environmental advocacy organization. Our local group of volunteers successfully encouraged the City of Charlotte to invest in hybrid-electric technology for its municipal fleet. We gained bi-partisan support on the City Council and delivered hundreds of signed “green fleet” petitions from constituents to City Hall.

And to answer every economist’s pressing concern, the City took this innovative step because it’s cost-effective. You know, efficient. Hybrid cars cost less at the pump and cost less to maintain. Charlotte plans to add 14 hybrids next year and looks forward to a decade of savings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention the benefits for air quality.

Hybrid cars are futuristic and cool. They use fewer raw materials, like oil; they’re economically stimulating because the demand for them is so high; they reduce global warming and therefore help protect the planet; and, because of the oil thing, hybrids could help defuse tense geo-political relationships.

Wow. If a well-designed car can do all of this, imagine what a well-designed basketball arena, or a convention center or a retail/restaurant megaplex, or a library or an office building or a Wal-Mart could do and mean.

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