Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What the Downtown Plan Should Be; Won't

The Downtown Dallas 360 Plan is the right action at the right time, moving in the right direction, so why is it wrong?

Downtown 360 is a good news plan and one of good intentions - so what's the big problemo, man?

A good group was hired and from the first presentation (once they quoted Mumford and Whyte), I was aware of their competence. Unfortunately, competence does not overcome embedded political realities and either ignorance of, or the infacility to address, the biggest issue.

While still in the early, feel good stages of the plan, thus far they have covered most of the appropriate topics (except for an effective and believable strategy for the tunnels) which, like many urban realities, are predominantly symptomatic of deeper issues. The presentations are heavy on application of the complete streets initiative and context sensitive design (which I cannot stress the importance of enough). This alone would be a huge victory for Downtown Dallas.

It's the 2009 urban planning playbook, so why am I still frustrated?

Well, that is exactly the problem. It is hampered by its own intentions, an unfortunately (and possibly necessarily) narrow in its scope and its goals. Even if it does everything it possibly can, it will ideally improve the local street system, hopefully incent some new development, etc., but will still fall short of Dallas' full potential. A narrow scope leads to narrow results. Exactly the right results, but not broad enough for fundamental and actual change for the competition of 21st century cities.

My point? Once this is wrapped up, implemented in downtown, in ten years or so when its efficacy can properly be evaluated, I will tell you where we will have to look for new answers; where we can mine for new economic and community growth. It is right in front of our collective nose.


Once again, the biggest problem is the inner ring highway loop. I feel certain that the design/planning team's hands are tied and if they tried anything like this they would be laughed out of the building and summarily dismissed from the project...

...which is why I can state it here.

Hell, they even discussed it with diagrams - but with no solutions or ideas, potentially showing their reticence to bring up what could be controversial. The first presentation showed some simple decoration under the overpasses. The world has already tried that solution and it was not enough to rectify the damage done.

The second presentation included the following graphics, which I thought were great:

Highways as barriers, disconnecting the local street grid...

(from the Downtown 360 plan)

Here is the next level, blacking out the primary arterials that have the same effect, limiting pedestrian connectivity, and street level complexity. I would have included Elm and Commerce, which have the same barrier effect or as I call it negative magnetism, but I suppose that would be so much black on the graphic as to make it illegible.

(from the Downtown 360 plan)

Comparing and contrasting the urban fabric and local street framework. One could call this an abstract representation of urban complexity, where density of network = complexity which means urbanity, and urbanity means induced value. Notice that Paris is not full of surface parking lots.

(from the Downtown 360 plan)

Of course, while effective, I prefer graphics that are much more rhetorically dramatic in their semiotic intent = RED!

...graphics highlighting and illustrating the effect, which is more tangible to the lay person - in this case, undeveloped or underperforming properties:

(My graphics)

(My graphics)

(My graphics)

I suppose you have already found the irony here, that I'm now griping about the solutions to my own complaints. The joke is on me. Because, many of the efforts designed to revitalize downtown Dallas over the last (pick one) 10, 20, 50 years have had the opposite effect, and were quite dramatic in their delivery, the solution has to be equally as ambitious and dramatic to counteract the effects; focused with proper urban design and economic development understanding and principles at work.

Meaning this is small scale and incremental effort, while positive, is short-term and needs an overarching, broader vision that is enormous in its impact, yet very simple at its core: incremental and continual reduction in the role of highways in the everyday lives of Dallas citizens and their negative impact on neighborhoods, communities, and businesses.

So why is this the solution? Dallas, as it has been shown, is a city of great ambition. It sets high goals and largely achieves them. However, ambition is a big gun wielded. One often pointed in the wrong direction - sometimes even with the toe on the trigger.

The primary weakness of this idea is the same as those incremental solutions
  1. On the surface, the result seems subtractive and one that undermines the environs that entire generations have known.
  2. There is not a single flashy image that one could print on the cover of the DMN to sell the idea, but it is absolutely the one that will have an impact so vast that it will support and enhance all the singular efforts like the Arts District.
Both are overly simplistic views which brings me to the point of this blog in its current iteration, which is to raise awareness and understanding for what makes for more livable, and in turn, how it creates for a more economically successful place, and the causal relationship between the former and the latter rather than vice versa.

The original intent was of Eisenhower’s interstate system was to connect economies, City to City, forming an interconnected constellation across this, and many other countries. All good. Except, because that government spending created positive benefit, it seemed like the solution to any downturn in the economy. When applied too liberally, it becomes deductive of the economy, a barrier, rather than a connector as I described.

And connections are what makes the world go round, it is why we're on Facebook and Twitter. It is why it is cheaper to walk to the store; why when local businesses can compete on a level playing field we prefer them to build a relationship with the staff or owner. It is simply the distance between us and what we need or want.

The solutional meme for highways arrived at in the 60s as Mumford, Jane Jacobs and others feared the fate of the positive aspects that highways swept clear. While cities were not perfect, they were already highly adapted, but had not yet come to terms with the physical and ethical dirtiness of 19th and 20th century industrialism. The car and highways were the way out.

The car had become ubiquitous and cities struggled to find balance (which is all that is necessary). Copenhagen started reversing its streets from cars only to pedestrians only. Amsterdam stated that all new development should adhere to a reasonable level of beauty. Paris flipped the parking and promenade portions of the Champs Elysees to traffic lanes and back again.

American cities drunk off the economic resource of excess land, half-heartily applied pedestrian malls to its cities. Here, we went balls to the wall, building highways full bore. This proved to be a short-fuse economic success story for politicians with relatively short election cycles.
"Downturn? Let's buildus a highway fellers! Tarrrrrnation! We seem to found us a magic eeeeelixir for recessions fellers!”
Sorry. The good ol' boy accent is not intended to be regionally pejorative as much as to convey the irrationally exuberant euphoria characterizing any meme at its most inertially robust, carrying it past equilibrium. Howard Bloom argues this is due to biological wiring causing for intentional overshoot, a trial by error pattern coloring human development patterns throughout history.

American cities are adolescent in comparison to cities we love to visit. European cities, proving their learned history through trial by error, and therefore further adapted and more resilient cities realized this mistake. These changes molded cities between generational upheavals categorized by crashes, like today. What we are seeing is not a recession, prolonged recession, downturn, or depression. Those are linguistic abstractions. This is a categorical shift in humanity’s direction, which means a new way of city building.

As Harvard Professor Ed Glaeser has said, cities with a dominant economic resource tend to act stupidly and therefore, experience a crash when the resource fails the city or no longer is useful. In Dallas, and much of the Sun Belt, that illusory happiness-in-a-bottle was land. Therefore, in order to unlock the potential of that excess land, highways were built for access. They became valuable. Except much of that land is not valuable as we see half-finished neighborhoods at the extreme ends of the Metroplex like brown leaves on autumn trees waiting to fall. It was not demand driven, or naturally incremental, but it offered the supply, more land with houses on it, then put a price tag on it with a promise of rising values. The test of time is showing that many of these foldout housing developments are more valuable is nearby agricultural production.

Dallas, unlike its metastasizing sister to the south, Houston, is now landlocked by other jurisdictions. It has no place to grow, so highways were built internally to deliver the outer residential to office high-rise downtown. As John Norquist, highway vanquisher as Mayor of Milwaukee, covers in his book Wealth of Cities, highways in cities (to summarize) are predominantly the fault of federal funding and their requisite federal standards. Either way, they are with us now. So what to do?

Fortunately, this means Dallas does not have to limit itself to the simple to do, quantitative growth, and can focus solely on qualitative growth.

Highways do serve a purpose of regional and global interconnectivity. They are miscast on the local level and downtown economies are built on local streets. They are for macro-conveyance designed to reach macro destinations - i.e. metro to metro. When applied at the neighborhood level, they do the opposite of building connectivity, but rather are subtractive of a city, where a local economy is defined by its interconnectivity.

The result is what Mumford and others have deemed the "anti-city." This is an appropriate term for the resultant overshoot towards car-dependence. Concerning downtown Dallas, the highways brought promise of economic development. What we are left with are surface parking lots, parking garages and vacant buildings. Cause and effect.

Cities, and downtowns are finely-grained, requiring fine-grained solutions and a plan such as downtown 360 can't function properly unless the inner loop of highways are addressed, structurally, not superficially.

In detail, highways have inverted the city. As I have discussed at length on my blog, the overshoot characterized by car-dependence has create a physical world that functions abnormally. Because the road networks to serve this overshoot are, in a word, inhumane, and rejected by the average pedestrian. The natural result is to build defense mechanisms, strip centers with parking in front to provide a buffer from the street, the typical internalized shopping mall - which would be this idea in its purest form, or the recent compromise, but nonetheless illustrative of progress, the "lifestyle centers."

The closest we have come in this area to a more pure "messy" urbanism that addresses a primary thoroughfare is the new development called (and at) West 7th in Fort Worth. It is on 7th, which is and will continue to be an important street linking downtown Fort Worth and the cultural district, but the majority of the experience and ground floor businesses are a block parallel. Contrast this effort to get away from the primary energy source (the "main street") with Michigan Ave, Fifth Ave, or a city with more in common - much of Wilshire Blvd.

The solution, like Copenhagen's while ambitious, has to be incremental. The following list is by no means finalized or conclusive, just brainstorming:
  • Step one is the fifty year vision – Identify and delineate all opportuny areas, constraints, potential political allies, funding sources, and economic projections
  • Step two is figuring out the legal ramifications, particularly how to deal with TxDOT. This is probably the biggest hurdle. IMO, this is one place of the most opportunity with budget difficulties at the state and city level - land value locked up in ROW - and then, see the amount of value negatively affected by that ROW, which brings me to...
  • Step three - secure funding for early phase "deconstruction.” There is plenty of federal money flowing right now towards livability initiatives, particularly those that are "shovel-ready" or in this case "wrecking crew" ready.
  • Step four - implement a plan to leverage future development in conjunction with the repurposing of highway land. This is what how it will pay off as ROI.
  • Step five - be incremental. Start with removing cloverleaf on/off ramps - creating more context sensitive and spatially efficient highway and ramping systems.
  • Step six - eventually start incrementally converting highways to boulevards working inside out from Downtown outwards. Oh, and rethink the entire I-30 plan.