Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Part 2a: DTD's Cavities

As promised from this post regarding the challenge of revitalizing downtown Dallas, I mentioned that there are several issues facing the City that residents, City staffers, and/or the cultural consciousness may or may not know, but the decision makers must have the will to address, i.e. these are the cavities to be rooted out, not merely glossed over with some veneers or else the city stagnates if not collapses:

(Probably not in order of importance, but certainly in the way I think of them. Now for caveats:

This is strictly from a physical standpoint. These are opportunity areas that if we fix, can go ahead and make the City more livable and place it where Dallasites either want to be or incorrectly already envision themselves, as a world class city. Downtown is the iconic element that everyone thinks of when they perceive any city. It has to be the successful shining star in order to define the place as an attractive destination drawing talent, commerce, industry, etc.

I will also not go into detail with things that have been done wrong in the past, i.e. issues of speculation that led to the tearing down of buildings, the construction of some of the hi-rises, etc. Once again, only issues that are fixable (and really not that difficult either).

These are also not meant to be site specific, but general plagues hindering the City, in particular downtown. I can address more site specific and/or project oriented ideas in a Part 3 - but whenever we do that they turn into projects other people get paid for like Main Street Gardens and the Woodall Rogers Park.

1) Highways - OK, so I said not that difficult and start out with the most difficult and this gets at the overall issue of interconnectivity or lack thereof. I think of City's as organisms, much the way a human is, or any fractal; infinitely complex shapes formed by a group of similar interconnected and communicative "cells" or "units": the human body or the way two or more properties react and interact with each other to form a greater whole than the sum of parts.

So I say get the wrecking balls out. The issues holding us back here are access to downtown from the suburbs and sunk costs. Which I guess could be considered the PROS. The CONS would be 1) despite the intention of connecting suburbanites to their offices, those offices have since left for greener pastures because highways have made downtown so intolerable to be in.

The lesson is that jobs (and pretty much everything else) wants to be close to housing. So we have to make downtown more amenable (and cost effective) for housing, i.e. more livable. We have to start thinking about downtown as something different than a 9-to-5 office park. It should be a unique neighborhood unto itself and unlike anything else in the city. The skyline shouldn't just be photographed at night while all the buildings are empty, but should be the "emerald city" the beacon calling us to exciting happenings below the 60-story silhouettes.

As soon as D2 (the second DART line is completed in 2014), there needs to be a serious debate about the purpose of the highways choking off downtown from its surroundings. Perhaps by then Dallas will be ready to follow the lead of San Francisco (Embarcadero), Milwaukee (Beer Line), and other cities that have either already torn down or are in planning stages of tearing down the elevated freeways severing (moreso than connecting) their respective downtowns.

Below is a rough adaptation of Vienna's Ringstrasse, which replaced (ironically enough) the city walls, overlayed on Downtown Dallas for a sense of scale. It essentially became an urban boulevard or greenway linking important civic and cultural functions. [I dunno say like, an arts district? a convention center? city hall? Oh wait, those are the Dallas landmarks that would be linked together.]

2) Parking - I don't want to waste my breath on each of the top ten plagues, but the next issue under car culture is parking. This is obvious by now, but it affects downtown in several forms and facets.

First, is that developers think they have to "build at market" rate, whatever that means. I know exactly what it means, but it also means that the market can fluctuate and they're really only following the dictates of a market report predicated on past projections. I'm living proof that owning a car isn't necessary (nor desired!) and the construction costs of 1 space per bedroom at 15-, 20-, or even $30,000 per space is a monstrous barrier to investment.

New residential building do not need to add parking with their (re)development. Nearly every garage in downtown is empty at night. The City of Portland thirty years ago ignited their downtown revitalization by constructing 4 large public parking garages, to which the spaces would be for lease. Thus, allowing future residential developers the freedom to not build (by code or by market demands) the parking load that a residential building requires, often upwards of 20% of total construction costs.

Lastly, is surface lots. They are everywhere as evidenced by this map. Many of which are owned by out-of-town ownership groups, but that is for a later topic. People don't feel safe in parking lots. Scary when they're empty and who knows who jump out from behind a full lot. So the natural response is to floodlight the sh!t out of them until they are even more intolerable to be near (let alone live near).

Some cities are aggressive in developing surface parking lots. Dallas is not one of those cities.

I conclude with this rhetorical question. Is parking cheap, easy, and ubiquitous in anywhere that is worth being?

3) One-Way Internal (to downtown) Roads - The racetracks. You have never been downtown if you haven't heard a valet revving engines and drag-racing down Elm, Commerce, or Jackson Streets (in fact, it was probably your new 3-series (link - click me) that the valet driver is going all Ferris Bueller's Day Off with).

Notice that I didn't say Main Street. They couldn't get away with driving fast on Main Street if they tried. It has on-street parking, is two-ways, and is too narrow (oh, and the valets themselves must hang out on them). Exactly the reasons why there is a four-block stretch of Main Street in Downtown that actually works.

We need livable streets. Complete Streets. The are escape routes out of downtown. Hardly the message we should be trying to send.

4) No Green, Only Gray - Aside from a few excrement filled (mostly dog - but I wouldn't put it past a few humans) patches of lawn, there is virtually no green space in Downtown Dallas. Hell, there are hardly even any trees to create some measure of shade or micro-climate apparently it was cheaper to build tunnels. And trees generate an ROI but we externalized those values long ago:

Over the course of 50 years, a single tree can generate $31,250 of oxygen, provide $62,000 worth of air pollution control, recycle $37,500 worth of water, and control $31,500 worth of soil erosion. (Arbor Day Foundation)

The Downtown Parks Plan attempts to remedy this, but I question its efficacy towards the larger role of parks that is needed here, i.e. leveraging investment. Yes, Dallas needs parks many of which are in the right places, but it also needs some gaps in the smile filled with other teeth rather than parsley.

Is merely filling every surface lot with a park going to accomplish that or can we shrink some of these to more urban-scaled "pocket sized" parks with new development adjacent?

5) Lack of Residential Opportunities i.e. Affordability - I believe the real estate market went swinging for a home run in Downtown, expecting uptown like returns. Except it isn't uptown. Uptown is the by-product of twenty-plus years of improvements to get it where it is today. Downtown merely has some office nearby as an amenity to being close to work. That isn't enough.

And by affordable, I don't mean the legal definition of affordable housing (although there should be ideally a 10% inclusionary housing measure with all new housing developments. It is better to sprinkle affordable units throughout rather than to isolate and essentially "warehouse".)

Several other issues listed here have alluded to ways of making development cheaper to cover the potential losses due to subsidized rents, but are they subsidized? Many of the "affordable" downtown units, listed for those "households" making under $38K/yr. still run at a similar price per foot basis as every other unit in downtown. Often somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.50-1.75 per sq.ft. They are simply smaller. These need to be larger units for families. They types of homeless that include families sleeping in cars, not the type of crazy single men we see downtown every day.

6-10 coming tomorrow.