Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Roger Rabbit 2: Battle for ToonTown

Or, just about the Streetcar.

So, before the parallel has been made to the death of street cars and the cities around them as told by the venerable Roger Rabbit, well perhaps the sequel can be told as streetcars make their way back to cities as useful instruments of urban life and revitalization. We've known the need, but now it's gaining steam. Here, too even!

This week, Downtown has gotten much of my attention and others as Blog Buddy Dallas Progress has discussed in his Myths and Conceptions post, but what should get yours is the progress of news that will have a much greater impact on redevelopment in and around Downtown.

First, something I whole-heartily agree with regarding downtown that deserves special mention (as it's one of those things you almost have to see in print to fully conceptualize and get over previous potential prejudices), he has this to say:
Yes, there are homeless people in Downtown Dallas. Unfortunately, there are going to be homeless people in every downtown in every major city. A good friend of mine in real estate made an interesting statement about the homeless, which was "if you had more people downtown, you wouldn't notice the homeless because they would blend in with everyone else."
Couldn't agree more. More importantly:
The people that don't travel downtown because of the homeless folks probably will never come downtown anyway.
But, back to the Streetcar proposal, the subject at hand. First, there are several articles written this week, from the empty, to the boring, to the stupid silly:
Then Davis asked if the trolleys will be on tracks or on rubber when the trolleys leave downtown and go out into the neighborhoods. The answer: "Tracks."

We see her point. Otherwise we're going to be in a hell of a mess with all those steel-wheeled cars chewing up neighborhood streets. Bet they'd be hard to steer. No, wait. The real point of her question? She says DART should be in charge of the whole thing because "they know a lot about tracks."

True. They're really good about building them out to the suburbs.

I don't even know where to begin with this, and frankly, I'm not sure why I'm quoting it. First, steering? Streetcars steer themselves. Hear of many runaway streetcars careening into pedestrian like that old head into a farmer's market recently? Second, DART also built the Transit Mall thru downtown. While it may not have been the best idea to go transit only on those streets, it is well executed from a built standpoint. Suburbs, in town, let the designers and engineers figure that out.

So what was the point of wasting space in the article, if the real issue was only glanced at, which is who is in control? Dallas or DART? A few of those clashes going around these days. Some alter the course of careers.

The other real issue is alignment and phasing. While there are phases suggesting future connections outward from Downtown (see map below), the first phase will be only in downtown as shown by the purple route. It will link with MATA at the Deck Park (which has the most bizarre of taglines btw, "city meets country?" Farms on McKinney these days? You getta WTF?!)


I'll allow Dallas Progress to take the first crack and I'll elaborate afterwards:
I also disagree with the current alignment of the downtown streetcar. In my opinion, the route completely cuts off Deep Ellum from the rest of downtown. It's a great route for the Arts district, but not for anywhere else.

I know that Deep Ellum is listed as a "potential extension," but there are great businesses there now. The main streets have multiple lanes that would be conducive to a streetcar. How cool would it be to leave your office during lunch, hop the streetcar down to Twisted Root or Lemongrass or St. Pete's, and get lunch? It also would show out-of-town Arts District patrons about this great alternative retail and restaurant scene right in the middle of our city. Maybe just throw Deep Ellum a bone by having the train stretch to Good Latimer and Commerce, circle back to Main and then continue north at Harwood Street. (ed. Go Phils!)
The issue he touches upon is broadly, "what is the point?" Or, with any piece of transportation infrastructure, "what two (or more) things is it linking?"

**Side note: Reader beware the term linkage or linking. It can mean something when breaking down barriers, but often in the wrong hands it can be wielded as a blunt, but powerless, instrument.

A streetcar line that starts downtown and stays downtown, becomes yet another tourist attraction rather than for residents. Redevelopment MUST be focused on current and future (or even past ones that bolted and may/or may not be stuck unhappily in Generica). Tourist attractions come and go, but a permanent and dependable residential base is there 24/7. An influx of new people invigorate places that then take on a life of their own. They then, establish places as destinations because the commercial (social adhesive?) in the appropriate locations won't fail and will form magnets of activity.

What the currently proposed alignment does, is actually very little in the short term, which is to only link current pet projects, the Arts District and the Convention Center Hotel. Well, a lot of money is being spent in those two locations. I guess we're going all in on the tourism industry saving Downtown Dallas. How, '80s of us.
"Hey, theoretical visitors. Come ride the streetcar from the Convention Center Hotel to the Wyly Theater! Hey, downtown BizMen! Come ride up to the Arts District and I don't know, pretend you're in prison while visiting the Wyly for stashing cash with UBS.
The problem that I'm guessing no one wants to acknowledge is that any leveraged development incented by the streetcar in Downtown (of which I'm guessing there will be very little since they are couching the investment in current people/development served) will lag. It will begin to look like a bad investment to build on Streetcar lines in future phases. When phased properly there is a tremendous return on investment.

A 2006 study by Reconnecting America, a nonprofit group that promotes mass transit, reported that Portland, Ore., saw a 1,795 percent private return on the city’s 2001 $55 million public investment in a 4.8-mile streetcar line. Portland boasts 12,000 daily riders.

The study also said Tampa got a 1,970 percent return on the $48 million it spent to install a 2.3-mile line in 2003 - even though its line isn’t meant for commuters and has poor ridership. (ed. note: Keep in mind that a different development climate exists today than the one in Tampa in '03 to '08. We shall see which can continue to support itself. I know Portland's will.)

It isn't a build it and ROI will magically appear situation. Given the alignment and phasing, I'm skeptical it will be the case here and I fear it may be the death (or severe delay) of necessary expansion.
(The Grove in LA. No, it won't be faux historic, but it will still be the disneyfied, Potemkin Village version if it just runs tourists back and forth.

Rather we should be utilizing streetcar transit as a revitalization tool for the immediate areas around Downtown. Historically, Streetcars linked Central Business Areas with the early "streetcar suburbs," like Lakewood. We should be linking downtown outward, not inward, and allowing it to be a transportation alternative for those that already live in Dallas (and pay taxes) and those that WANT to live closer.

Once you build up the adjacent areas much like MATA helped with in Uptown and State Thomas, you can begin building off the synergies of what Downtown currently is (an office park an employment center) and revitalized (choose: Deep Ellum, Ross Corridor, Cedars, Oak Cliff, etc.). These areas are begging for it. Build up to a crescendo and allow downtown to feed off the adjacent successes (all while working on what really ails Downtown, of course).

Streetcars will have a much greater impact on revitalization for the struggling areas adjacent to downtown b/c ultimately these places will be more residentially driven (currently and in their evolution) than Downtown (although it's necessary there as well). Therefore streetcars won't have the same positive effect on redevelopment IN downtown as it will immediately outside. Fundamental change to the road network is necessary in Downtown.

Now for the picky details.

I like that they aren't messing with Main Street. I too would propose a loop adjacent to Main Street. Main Street is fine in its current design and function . Elm and Commerce are those in most need of rehabilitation and the Streetcar can and SHOULD be used as a transformational tool for those streets to become sociopetal rather than sociofugal elements of the City.

Also, rather than connecting the West End to the Arts District (which DART already does -- if it weren't for the 8 miles of surface parking and garages b/w the Pearl Station and Ross Ave, turning a two block walk into a lifetime of expected muggers and assorted anxieties) in Phase 1, there might not be a particular need to make it just one line or even connect them at this point, for that matter.

Personally, I would extend the MATA line down St. Paul to Main Street Gardens and create a loop around the park, in front of the Merc, the Grand/Statler, the Courthouse, and 1900 Elm, the Titche-Goettinger building.

Take the remainder of the cost and run the parallel Elm/Commerce loop into Deep Ellum with an expectation of this loop connecting Deep Ellum w/ Union Station/West End.

The goal of the next phase would be to start a line that would eventually run from Lower Greenville down Ross (which OMG needs it or a surgical strike), past the Arts District to the West End where it would hang a Luey and head into Oak Cliff/Zang Triangle area.