Thursday, September 3, 2009

Snake Charming

I've ranted quite a bit 'round these here bloggy parts about tearing down freeways, but not without point. Highways were built around this country, first as a means of connecting various metropolitan areas to one another to facilitate rubber tired logistics, ie commerce. But, when these became a means and an ends to economic development within cities was where the problems arose. Simply put, tearing down freeways IS economic development.

Around the world the phenomenon is occuring from 1st tier cities like Paris and NYC to 3rd tier and below American cities simply trying to compete and/or resuscitate their own flagging economies, such as OKC, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. The way to do so is by creating livable places and listening to the residents of a particular area rather than building for escape routes for the suburbanites.

I've also often stated that a cities go from categories of viable to livable to memorable. Dallas apparently likes to do things the easy way throw some superfluous money at superficial causes, an ailment plaguing many cities with similarly simple and flawed thinking. These very expensive and ultimately bankrupting band-aids consist of the typical a la carte menu of convention centers, stadiums, museums, parks, performing arts centers, etc. Dallas has and is pretty much trying them all in an attempt to skip from its downtown being merely viable to memorable...without it being livable.

If no efforts are made in increasing the livability and improving the quality of life for those that live downtown, no decisions will be made in their favor and downtown will be a relic, a museum in its own right for suburbanites (suburgers?) to flock to once a year for some such event and pretend we all love our city so much.

Step 1: Create livable places
Step 2: Livable places attract people
Step 3: People create interesting places
Step 4: Interesting places attract more people from broader areas
Step 5: Influx of people create new economies
Step 6: New economies stimulate job/opportunity/growth

Furthermore, as I've channeled Lewis Mumford many times, transportation networks facilitate economies via connectivity. If it is a subset of an economy (which is manifested by the city form itself) than it should be thought about with similar logic as economics, ie parsimoniously. It is an investment where ROI must be considered. And since all vertical development is a direct relation to the transportation type(s) and quality, the vertical development could then be deemed "the return."

If you want to think about it in another way, the development has to pay for itself and generate a positive return in tax income to underwrite the supportive infrastructure. More density and less infrastructure means lower taxes, ie lower costs for doing business. This is the great unraveling of the suburbs. When homes were purchased, they didn't factor in the full cost as someone on the Professional urbanist listserv put it:
The choice of a house on a big lot should come with side orders of gruesome traffic, obese kids and a 23% chance of a cheating spouse, but that fine print doesn't make it onto most real estate brochures or housing surveys.
So how do we stimulate that awfully empty word "growth"? How about by tearing down some of the infrastructure we can't afford to maintain?

I suppose here I should also add that urban design is about creating places. I define "place" as something that is worth greater than the sum of its parts, the parts being the building, the street, the uses, etc. The worth comes from the intangibles, the reason outsiders want to come visit the place and which in turn drives values up in those locations. This is why Champs Elysees is some of the most valuable real estate in the world (ever since they widened pedestrian space and returned the parking).

The graphic above shows the areas in and around downtown Dallas which could be defined as identifiable districts, but I'll call them areas of current investment crossed with some semblance of definable urban form. The black areas could subjectively be called "places" or areas that have some measure of vitality beyond the 9-to-5 office crowd of Highland Park VPs, Plano middle managers, and uptown interns.

You might also notice that I call out the three block stretch of Main Street that is truly the only authentic vestige of urbanism in downtown. And, this area needed a recent defibrillator in the last five years as well.

I posit that the area of downtown that functions like real urbanism is so small is for a few reasons. First, is that downtown is choked by highways as I've said repeatedly on this here blog. The rest of downtown forms a reasonable buffer protecting the Main Street core from the malevolence of the freeways.

Second, the three block Main Street area is mostly comprised of early 19th century buildings that still had an inherent understanding of how buildings engage the public realm, ya know, before we forgot all that. Also, this small area is bounded by wide one-way roads (on three of the four sides - the fourth being Field which is still too wide) which essentially serve as service and access for Main Street...OR as Valet speedway 500.

Still, all in supportive function of the Main Street side buildings and uses, NOT as public spaces. Therefore this is area is effectively sequestered. I'll have more on this tomorrow and the potential for expanding the successes beyond its bounds.

So if we have established that removing freeways is vital to the city's economic welfare, we must be aware that these big visions must occur incrementally and build on small successes, while maintaining a much grander and longer-term vision.

The next question becomes, which direction do we tear down the freeways to forge connections and restitch the urban fabric so necessary for urban life and economies?

Well, Woodall Rogers to the North is the newest and we are currently building a deck park over it. Plus, there is a lot of development already near it which would disrupt whatever activity does occur there and be a general nuisance.

To the West and towards the Trinity (if the Trinity ever happens?), well there is just too much there to even begin working out how to deal with all of the freeways, interchanges and rail lines for Downtown to grow in this direction. IMO, this would be the last of the four sides to come down.

To the South is the Cedars, which is experiencing some development and investment courtesy of Matthews Southwest and protectings their investments in the area. In my previous life, I went after the Hotel project and created a phased approach which would utilize the convention center as an anchor for growth and connectivity in all directions, including a new deck park as shown below:

At the end of the day however, the Cedars isn't a very big area and the amount of investment (or ROI) would be minimized by its geographical boundaries. Which leaves one the East.

Below is a map of downtown highlighting roads and what I deem to be "underperforming properties" which includes vacant land, surface parking or derelict buildings. I think the direct correlation between highways and ability or inability for land to find its highest and best use. OR, perhaps surface parking and vacant land IS the highest and best use for freeway adjacencies.

So tooling around a little bit in photoshop, I started restitching fabric (which can be done in a million different ways and would take much more time than my half hour of work to get it right) by converting highways to boulevards (or context sensitive design) and connecting the grid where the highways bifurcated it.

I then highlighted the parcels which would be repositioned for development and the results are pretty clear where the most opportunity lies (and land).

East Dallas is the next big opportunity zone. Some minor and fragmented investment occuring, but the real players will be the opening of the DART line, the major employment center of Baylor MC as the anchor, affordable housing further east, connection to historic areas such as Swiss Avenue, and a proposed new street car line down Ross Avenue from the Arts district to Lower Greenville.

If one were to visit any of the areas in blue today, you would find cement and death, inhumane places where not even the rats want to be, but the grackles lord over by the thousands perched on telephone wire waiting for the lost earthworm after an afternoon holyshitmonsoon.

If I'm to paraphrase Jane Jacobs, the scale of roads should directly relate to the size of the place of the destination. IE, if I'm driving to DFW (Macro-destination), I should be on a highway, if I'm going to my office or my home ("micro-destinations), I should be on highly flexible and resilient grid network with boat loads of choice built-in to my commute.