Friday, February 20, 2009

OpEd to the DMN

We'll see if it gets published:

It is true that it is a sad time for the economy and all of us these days, but I see reason for optimism around the corner. It’s just going to take some introspection, some creative thinking, and good old fashioned elbow grease.

As an urban design professional in Dallas, I get a chance to interact daily with business leaders from architects to brokers, developers and lenders; all of whom are feeling the pinch in the current economic stasis. It seems that the prevailing opinion is that if we wait awhile, everything will spring back to “normal” like previous burst bubbles that DFW has endured in the last thirty years.

And why not, there are merely going by experience and it is true that Dallas is one of the ‘boomier’ and ‘bustiest’ [sic] cities that I have known. I like to joke that this trend is represented by the current iteration of the city skyline, with high highs, low lows, and very little in between.

I am writing to tell you that we will come out the other side completely different. I expect a tidal shift on the scale of the industrial revolution driven by necessity and changing demographics. The magnitude of the tectonic shift is evidenced by the current intensity of the growing pains.

The last 80 years have been a great ride for this country, but what has made it great is our ability to adapt to changing times. The growth witnessed during this period was one based entirely on cheap energy, sun baked for millennia and fossilized underground and the real estate development directly associated with it.

However, we know that we can not grow outwardly forever given the finite nature of this energy source. And perhaps more importantly, based on the recent Pew Research Center study, we don’t even like the end results of this development: Americans are unhappy with their cities.

We need to recalibrate our thinking from quantitative growth to a model of qualitative growth, improving what we already have. What this means for Dallas is that we must begin to focus on quality of life improvements, reinvestment in the core (the “face” of any city), selective infill in and around downtown and within walkable distances from transit.

The market is there. The two largest population bubbles in American history, the Baby Boomers and the Millennials (approximately ranging in ages from 8-30) are both looking for quality in-town housing and interesting urban places.

Boomers are retiring and desire the type of freedom found in ideal “retirement communities” like the Upper East Side or Key West rather than being “warehoused” in an actual retirement village. Millennials want to escape similar confines of suburbia for more authentic and diverse (yet affordable) experiences and ways of life.

I often say that cities progress from being Viable to Livable and finally to Memorable. To the City’s credit, they are undergoing several projects that would register as “memorable,” in some cases admirably so, but we still have not yet achieved livability (the hard part) in downtown (and this coming from a downtown resident).

At RTKL, we are working to develop a multi-family prototype geared to the needs of Millennials. It generally consists of smaller units, but more embellished common areas and amenities to accommodate their highly social nature and attract talented college graduates to Dallas.

A focus on urban infill housing and creating a more livable city will provide the foundation for getting out of this rut. The will is there, even if it is subcutaneous, but we also need leadership to guide us there through the darkness.