Thursday, March 4, 2010

Downtown 360 - 33 1/3

If I've been unnecessarily hard on the 360 plan thus far, it is only that I care. I also want others to care as well and be informed so we can better react to what is being presented.

What you should know is that we all should have thick skin; especially those with 500k contracts. Just shield yourself in stacks of benjamins. Further, I come from the world of ideas. Anybody who has been through design school, where the ad hominem attack critique is a daily occurrence, should know that in the world of ideas you have to disconnect yourself and your feelings from the work, and let ideas compete. The end user and the city (and its citizenry) involved are the client no matter the project, big or small

And actually, I'm quite happy that a lot of the issues I have mentioned are getting some TLC (RIP Left-eye). So my quibbles and concerns are shrinking.

Full review is after the jump (clicky on the read more).

There were many smart people involved with this and this summary is result of those meetings. Later in this post, I will address the actual presentation to which the stakeholders provided this feedback so I'm jumping ahead. But since I've been criticized for getting too lengthy (apologies, David Foster Wallace - get it, DFW - has had an impression upon me), so you will have to deal with jumping ahead and occasional tangent tripping.

Of those thoughts posted in the summary, there are many good sentiments. In particularly:

- closely examine negative impacts or detriments of Denver's pedestrian mall. I reiterate - we don't have density right now. Frankly, I'm not sure Denver does either. But they are further down the road than we are. If we are serious about pedestrianizing streets (and I love Copenhagen, btw), I would suggest that some performance parameters be in place before we even think about this again, like downtown permanent resident population has to hit 30,000. It's at 5,000 approximately right now.

- connect Main street to Trinity. Yowza! That is a tough one. I have heard some ideas, but I don't want to crib them. They could be effective (once the Trinity happens), of course, until we implement the 50-100 year plan to remove the downtown freeways entirely! Ringstrasse! Someone clumsily compared freeways to city walls recently, to which I suggest, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Speaking of, I used to have a piece of the Berlin Wall. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, until I brought it into school for show and tell and it broke and turned into sand.

- prioritize main street as showcase project. Careful here. As I will discuss in more detail later, I would recommend working the problem streets first. Main Street is an undeniable, categorical success story. Why spend money enhancing something that works by dolling up Main street when money is tight? Yes, it probably deserves it eventually, but let's go for bang for the buck and fix the streets that are actually preventing Main Street's success from spreading.

- Need to phase out businesses in tunnels to “populate” street-level retail space with existing and potential new tenants, but need to explore alternate revenue-generating uses for tunnel spaces. First, it would be interesting to see how much revenue the various buildings generate from the tunnel businesses. I can't imagine it is that much considering 1) they are open 2-3 hours today on average; 2) some buildings give a pass or substantially reduced rent to street level restaurants as an amenity; and 3) we're talking about 70-story towers. The cost/revenue can't be a significant part of the budget.

Rather than thinking about pennies in revenue, we should step back, think a bit more broadly aka "outside of the box" (or our own buildings) and rather than watching another office tower shutter under the excuse that "it's not class A space," we can realize what the real cutting edge institutions and corporations are realizing: A VITAL, VIBRANT, SAFE, ATTRACTIVE STREET IS A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE IN DOING BUSINESS AND ATTRACTION/RETENTION OF TALENT. Recoup that revenue through leasing out the space you have above-grade and then multiply it by ten, then say it was all you and you need a raise.

The tunnels are depressing. The weather is fine here 9-months out of the year - not an excuse. Class-A? I don't see Deutsche Bank fleeing a building a few hundred years old in Rome. If the downtown is attractive enough (and I mean attractive in the broadest sense possible), they will retrofit their space to make it amenable to their digital or whatever needs.

- preserve existing building stock, especially historic. Good, however this will require some strategy. I have a particular soft spot for many of the buildings between commerce and the farmers market. However, many of these sit within fragmented ownership and parcelization, which will prove challenging to assemble. If the surface lot owners think they're going to get 70-story tower money for their land, that is a significant barrier and the lots remain.

- general issue, and this really stems from a joke made by Robert Wilonsky at the Observer. For a lot of typical citizens - they might not understand why much of what is being talked about should mean anything to them. They often (and rightfully) suggest things that will improve their daily lives. One such example is suggesting various and very particular retailers that they would like to see in downtown. This will rarely get talked about. The reason is that retail is typically a follower. Retail and similar businesses are market-based and require people to support them, ie what is sometimes referred to as "rooftops," "demographics," or "density."

Unlike many consultants that dabble in urban planning, I believe MIG to be competent. They understand this and are working towards the core issues that they are capable of addressing (and the ones we bring to them - which is why i've written extensively on this) and the "pioneers" into "unproven" areas that catalyze change. They know that saying abra cadabra and getting x business here or y biz there before its "ready" requires subsidy, usually substantial.

Lastly, the question of how aggressive should parking change be?? Although I may occasionally drift into the bombastic or rhetoric, this is an important question. Groups of people in complex systems rarely handle radical change well, if at all. Any change has to be incremental and virtually guide the adaptation without the direct conscious awareness of the group. Yes, you are being manipulated. But, you are right now sitting in traffic on I-35. Get over it and welcome to how the world works.


I am going to present my reactions to the overall recent presentation page-by-page. I may skip some pages without comment. Also, I may suggest something that doesn't get addressed until later in the presentation, so if I jump the gun with a thought, so be it.

Fuel the 21st century economy - fuel, funny not like haha funny, but I get it.
General goals and principles are provided in this section. Getting the big picture bullet points down and with consensus is always a good thing (this is essentially the level that councils and cpcs should remain at, the 10,000 foot level - then trust staff to ensure projects meet those goals).

In my estimation, one of the more vapid concepts to come out of recent American urban planning (practice moreso than actual supportive theory) is that districts must be defined by hard edges: portals, boundaries, gateways, etc. This is vastly overrated. In reality, there is far more overlap from one adjacent district to another. You don't need to know when passing from one to another, but you do need to know when you are in the middle of a distinct, hearty district...and you won't need signage to tell you that.

In fact, that should be a livability indicator, distinct character without boundaries or signage. I'll be interested to see what the varying strategies will be by district. Count me of the opinion that these can't be thrust upon areas, but they emerge naturally. In general, I think of cities as canvasses that must follow certain rules in order to function successfully, then the character is supplied by the people who willfully choose to organize themselves in that area and then paint that canvass with their own collective individuality.

Hey, streetcar alignments are getting better. Starting to look much more like mine. However, why is St. Paul being abandoned? It links the existing line, Main Street Gardens, and Old City Park. I'm not saying that I'm for/against yet. I just want a rationale. Based on recent discussions and my own curiosity about MLK Blvd, I will need to revise mine in order to make the connection to MLK.

Interesting to see there are new D2 lines proposed.

Fixed transit improvement incentive zone - I like the concept. As part of completion of lines, the special improvement districts would work to address surface parking and tunnels. [high fives self] but how serious is this? Is it a bone? Either way, it is up to the city to carry this out. I'd like to see more specific details for how the implementation of business relocation will work.


General note (and late addendum here now that I think about it... I know this isn't really part of the scope, but it would be nice to have some intersection details in plan to coincide with the street sections. If not drawn, at least get some statements set in stone that curb radii should be kept minimal. Tighter curb/turning radii slow cars and force them to yield at intersections rather than rolling right thru.)

Main Street - like it. And this is a minor detail, but while the suggestion of mid-block connections are fine, I am not sure they are actually necessary.

Main Street is a haven for "jaywalking." Or, crossing wherever deemed necessary by the "offending" party. As you might know, in my opinion this is a GOOD thing. It is an indicator of an area that feels safe enough to cross without a crosswalk or a signal and free transfer of "dialogue" as buildings across from each other are "communicating."

A good mid-block crossing with high quality materials would be fine. However, I'm not sure it is worth the cost here to actually change any behavior patterns that aren't currently happening.

Also, I like the idea of signature design for Main - but again...are we fixing a problem or creating costs for ourselves? Main isn't the problem. Elm and Commerce are. Treat this as the cherry on top, and lets build the sundae first by addressing problems. And those problems are an empty bowl. Now let's get some vanilla ice cream...

As for the alternative street sections proposed...we don't need to think of these as one OR the other. There is no reason main can't accommodate both (or more). And this goes for ALL streets. In fact, all streets SHOULD change character dependent upon their context and role as place, link, or both.

I like the Las Ramblas section. I wonder whether Main has the dimension to accommodate a substantial enough central space to feel like a space. Why not apply this to Elm or Commerce, which could use a narrowing and good dose of traffic calming and .

District Connectors.
Frankly, I would suggest strengthening the language. "May accommodate" may also can mean may not. How about "shall?"

The transformative potential of streetcar on Ross Ave from West End to Lower Greenville makes me all tingly inside. Not sure that I'm a huge fan of the central median on all options. I would like to see one option w/o it. Medians funnel traffic. On-coming traffic, itself forms a calming measure because you don't want to be hit. Remember, make drivers smart and aware of their surroundings. Turning people into driving automatons is what leads to accidents.

I could like the median if the streetcar is on the inner lanes, providing a loading point/pedestrian refuge. Otherwise ditch the medians and recapture the space on the edges in usable pedestrian space. Most of these streets lack the monumentality for medians. Furthermore, pointless grass is a pet peeve of mine as well as anybody who has to worry about the maintenance of it (as are concrete medians, just without the maintenance or moderate level of improved aesthetics).

Pearl. I like alternative 2 in general, but im not sure this leaves enough pedestrian realm (6' curb to building wall?). If we're gonna have bike lanes, I would push for divided bike lanes. As is currently shown, this is how bikers hit swinging doors of parked cars. They also look and work infinitely better on the busiest of streets. One could argue that it is less "urban" to segregate mode and instead to share lanes as space (ie lanes) is at a premium. And that a segregated bike lane is more appropriate in areas of higher "link" quotient and less "place." However, if that were really the case, Pearl wouldn't be so large in the first place. I think this is really a design detail issue. Examples:
(Man, those people sure look happy to have a segregated bike lane and some planting!)

Once again, Elm/Commerce should be a priority for 2-way conversion/narrowing. However, I'm not sure the sections proposed in District Connectors are appropriate. Neither needs to be 3-lanes each way. Downgrade them to two-lanes each direction, max.

Alternative 1 should be dismissed out of hand immediately.

Neighborhood streets
Narrowing, two-way conversion - all necessary and good. There really is no functional difference in any of the alternatives. Point being, make em all 2-way, set the dimensions, but I think I would allow aesthetic differences/planting types some leeway for eventual design and streetscape projects. I understand the need for commonality on the "background" streets, but a little more variety can be fine.

Special use streets - fine.


Guidelines - are they part of the scope for this contract? I don't know the answer. For 5 hundy large, they should be. FYI, nearly all guidelines are cut and paste jobs that would make any lawyer proud. Planners/urban designers just don't charge 300+/hr. Because of this fact, everything I see shown here is something I have seen before in guidelines.

Now, are they necessary? Typically. But, in all honesty, I am more concerned about the buildings that exist than the ones that are still in imaginationland. What do we do about those? They often get grandfather clauses, but should we make the bad buildings comply?

Next page suggests laminating uses, tuck uses in garages, pretty much what I was just suggesting. I worry that this is something that sits on a shelf. It will need some championing to do some arm-twisting and get existing buildings to step to.

Surface lots. Bleh.
Should we even bother "activating" edges or buffering them with landscaping? Unless current owners are mandated to do as such. Otherwise explore all options in order to 'strongly suggest' they apply some reality to their asking price for the land - and get em out. In fact, now that I think about it. Start that drumbeat to instill a little scare in their giddyup.

Zero setbacks - creates a form-based component. Cool.

Public realm: roadway - I like the 4 contiguous lane max without vegetated median. I would be sure to say it doesn't have to be a centralized median (for those multi-way blvds). And I completely agree with narrowing of all travel lanes to recoup unnecessary Right-of-way. Rights-of-way all over the state and country, will be an important asset as governments wrestle with need to redevelopment (wisely) on limited budgets. You've got land and over-scaled roads!

Living streets.
Again, I have real concern over the metabolic rate of downtowns and maintaining "green" streets. We don't have to "green" up everything. And I mean that literally and figuratively. I don't believe these to be appropriate for downtown where space is at premium, waste outputs are high, and "green" measures aren't substantially effective. They're negligible really. Put these on the shelf for the conversion of the suburban arterials to complete/context sensitive/green streets. We're already proposing them on projects outside of downtown.

The stepping back of buildings over certain heights to prevent the canyonization of the street is a good point, however I think the Vancouver point tower might be more appropriate than some of the wedding cake forms shown. The Vancouver model has 4-stories (typically) around the building perimeter with a tall, narrow tower within and setback from the building envelope. This might just be my personal preference but overly terraced buildings are incredibly ugly and clownish.

Amen to overzoning. In fact, it might even be necessary to downzone with height limitations to get sellers minds right.

Public/private partnerships - absolutely - and guarantee an inclusionary housing component to accommodate affordable units sized for families, not just the efficiencies so the developers can get away with market rate, just small units. If they are getting public participation covering their risk and essentially ensuring profit in some cases, it should come with strings. Downtown has transit opportunities. These families need proximity to transit to avoid mandatory car ownership, allowing greater freedom in budgeting family finances.

Ditch parking ratios altogether - create maximums. Of course, moderation in all things even moderation.

There is some discussion of reducing demand for parking and the strategies to do so. I think I might reduce demand through supply-side measures in this case. In reality, the real answer is probably a coordination of both policies and directives:
  • Reduce supply in order to drive up the cost of parking.
  • Maximize on-street parking, but digitize the metering to fix costs to demand so there is always 80-85% capacity
  • Use revenue from public parking to put to efforts like redeveloping surface lots, participating on employee transit pass programs, and streetscaping efforts.
I came across a quote recently arguing for measuring against "unreasonable future outcomes." Does the huge cost of revitalizing the Statler Hilton really automatically mean development is sparked to the South and East?

For all of these catalyst projects, I think the suggested building types might be a bit aggressive. High-rise in all locations? Is that feasible? Possible? Or will it take another 80-year business cycle to start proposing nonsense again? I know 8-stories isn't that many or cost prohibitive, but if downtown filled in all the gaps with 3- and 4- and 5- in the 4 over 1 format...we should be so lucky. What did we say about overzoning to manage expectations of land value?

Other minor issues thoughts with the understanding that these catalyst sites are going to get attention before the next round of meetings/presentations:

Statler - how to deal with asbestos and floor-to-floor heights. Those, and the associated costs to do so, are the two primary barriers.

Pearl/Crozier tech. Another one with asbestos, but a possible grant application for historic reuse AND lots of land adjacent and a DART station. I brought this one up years ago.

Lamar street. By the way, this is also something I suggested as part of the convention center hotel plan. That the hotel needed to be part of a larger strategy, found here and more supplemental detail here.