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The Last of the Titans 

Queen Charlotte vacates her throne

It usually goes something like this. City Manager Pam Syfert drops a bomb on the city council -- like the light rail line has gone millions more over budget under her watch and that she's known about it for months but didn't bother to tell them.

Embarrassed city council members then catch hell from their constituents and make angry squawking sounds for the cameras. As usual, Mayor Pat McCrory pounds his fist and demands a report detailing how it happened.

It's all for show.

Syfert is more powerful than anyone on the council and all of them combined. The mayor never gets all the answers he demands because he and Syfert both know he's incapable of cobbling together the six votes it would take to fire her, and besides, he wouldn't dare. McCrory would be spanked by the corporate community.

Then Syfert -- or Queen Charlotte, as Creative Loafing has long called her -- carries on with what she was doing before she was so rudely interrupted, which was essentially whatever she damn-well pleased.

The latest fracas involved negotiations between city staff and developers, in which the two parties decided it would be a swell idea to practically give away city-owned land along the light rail line to the developers in exchange for them developing it. As usual, city council found out belatedly, in the middle of negotiations, and council members made their typical show of flipping out for the cameras.

Eight years ago, Syfert's staff assured then-council member Mike Jackson for the 50th time that if the mass transit tax passed, the city wouldn't have to subsidize development along the light rail line to make it work.

Of course, Syfert's staff also assured Jackson and sidekick council member Don Reid in 1998 that inflation had been figured in to the projected $1 billion cost of the mass transit plan. It wasn't, nor were a lot of other things, and the real cost of the mass transit plan is now somewhere around $9 billion. Ditto for the trolley line. Syfert's staff once beat me up pretty badly for an article I wrote suggesting the trolley could cost double the $9 million they projected. It actually cost closer to four times that figure.

For this and a lot more, some have bashed Syfert's mismanagement, but I've never bought that. After eight years of watching her operate, it's clear to me that Syfert says whatever is necessary to sell Uptown projects, knowing full well she has the stature to survive the fallout when the city council learns the truth.

Syfert has never let petty details or hacked-off council members stand in the way of her all-consuming drive to develop Uptown and expand its boundaries miles beyond the choke hold of the John Belk Freeway.

Next to former Bank of America chieftain Hugh McColl, I'd argue that no single individual has done more to change the face of Uptown than Syfert on a square-foot or a square-mile basis.

When Syfert assumed the city managerial throne in October 1996, light rail was essentially a dead concept, rejected by two previous committees that had studied it. Two years later, voters approved a tax for the mass transit plan Syfert carefully shepherded through the political process. Light rail and Syfert's trolley, which also ran down South Boulevard, would justify, both legally and publicly, the demolition and rebuilding of an entire decrepit corridor, and ultimately a huge expansion of Uptown in a new direction.

Under Syfert, the city has played a guiding role in millions of square feet of Uptown development and redevelopment, including the football stadium, the new Uptown arena, the mixed-use development at Midtown Square, the redevelopment of Elizabeth Avenue, the redevelopment of the old convention center site, the NASCAR museum, the new arts complex and myriad other projects.

Over the past decade, no one has done more to refocus the city's growth than Syfert. But that single-minded focus came at a price. Potholes dot Charlotte's roads, and traffic backs up at intersections in parts of town light rail will never serve. The waiting list for sidewalks in Charlotte's neighborhoods is decades long. Charlotte's crime rate arguably puts it in the bottom tier among the nation's cities and police still don't have the resources or manpower they need to combat gangs.

But Syfert's last decade in power arguably altered the face of the city in a way no one else can claim, and when she retires in June, as she announced she would last week, she'll leave the city's core looking dramatically different than she found it.

When local historians write the history of what I've long called the era of the titans -- the two decades during which a handful of strong corporate leaders like McColl, Ed Crutchfield and the super CEOs set Charlotte and its urban core on a world-class course -- Syfert likely won't merit more than a footnote, if she even gets that.

But make no mistake about it: Syfert is the last of the titans. When the latch clicks on the door to her office at the government center as she closes it for the last time, an era will quietly come to an end.

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