Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Challenge of Downtown Dallas

From an old interview transcribed in full on New Urban News that has never left me since:
Cities and towns go through cycles, or different stages of a cycle. Some cities are in a “viability” cycle. They’re just trying to survive and create a sustainable economic base. Many of these issues are really regional in scope. A sustainable economic base, good infrastructure, and regional facilities are some of the issues. Other cities are in a “livability” cycle or a “memorability” cycle. Livability issues tend to revolve around how to make a city a good place to live: housing, schools, parks, and open space. Memorability issues tend to organize around how cities can do things in a way that is unique and idiosyncratic to the people and influences of that time and place.

Much unsuccessful planning in America has been due to using strategies that do not align with a city’s current phase of issues, often fighting the last war or the one that people wish to fight.

The interviewee referred to these stages as cyclical, which in some ways within the competitive nature of cities can be, but do you really see a place like Copenhagen falling from Memorable to something below livable any time soon? Furthermore, economic issues are certainly at play, but they can only be viewed along a much longer time line than pinpointing what stage a given City is at a fixed point, i.e. Detroit in 1920's "The Paris of the States" vs. today, where it is more like the Acropolis of the States.

Obviously, today Detroit is trying to stay viable after its auto industry has floundered helplessly despite all efforts otherwise. Dallas, on the other hand, is certainly viable from an economic standpoint as a banking and corporate center.

It is also livable in many places depending upon what you are looking for, but this continuum can also be pinpointed on certain places. Why else would 5 million people (and growing) be in the metroplex? In this case, I'm referring to Downtown Dallas. Once again, it is viable currently as an office park and a modicum of individuals like myself who choose to live near to where they work and want something a little different than the Ken and Barbie world of uptown (despite how nice the view might be).

As Heapes points out in the interview, during any planning or design process, one has to accurately assess where a City (or place) stands along this axis. Downtown Dallas in my estimation is in between Viability and Livability. No matter how positive I attempt to be, it is impossible for me to call it Livable currently, and it needs to be. I think all of the dark units in the Mercantile Complex illuminate that point for us.

I have been saying since I moved here in 2002 that developers were going after the wrong market in downtown. They were chasing uptown rents/demographics without all the twenty years of Livability creation that went into State Thomas, McKinney Avenue and CityPlace/West Village. But, as Alex Krieger recently said, vibrant, urban streets aren't populated by the patrons of the W hotel.

The mistake the City has made thus far in attempting to stimulate downtown is that it is trying to skip the hard part. Through big, high profile projects like the Arts District, the Calatrava Bridges, the Trinity River, and last and most certainly least the Convention Center Hotel, the City is trying to jump directly from Viability to Memorability.

It is easy to just throw money at a city in the form of glitzy projects. What is difficult is being honest with yourself and accurately addressing the critical issues preventing a City from becoming Livable. I question how honest Dallas is prepared to be with itself (and by "Dallas" I don't mean any particular group, class, or profession, but simply my perception of the collective consciousness).

[I like to equate that process of critical self analysis to that of a dentist drilling down to the heart of the problem (without novocaine) rather than simply applying a veneer.]

I've gotten into several arguments with people (on this blog no less) accusing me of "not supporting the arts." As I have tried to say, I do, but not at this time or to the extent or expense quite yet when it comes to their effectiveness at stimulating any sort of real revitalization of downtown. All efforts should be made to make Downtown Dallas LIVABLE first, and then the special projects can really have an impact (and a tax base to support them).

If for no other reason, do it for all those visitors they expect to the Arts District (for that proposed subterranean garage) and to save the Arts District itself. You really think Dallas Socialites will enjoy visiting the Arts District when Downtown Dallas is crime ridden, blighted, vacant, and covered in surface parking lots????

I think I'll create a "Part 2" addressing all the physical design issues hindering the Livability of Downtown Dallas.