Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Downtown Dallas Talks Millennials

Not Dallas, but not far from it (geographically or rhetorically)

[Edit: I'm stupid. Only when I get a direct message from Richard Florida do I go back and carefully re-read the press release. They will talk abooooouuuuut Richard Florida's concepts. Of all sections of standardized aptitude tests, I always scored the lowest in reading comprehension.]

So the news of the day in Downtown Dallas (other than an old personal stomping ground burning to the ground) was the annual Downtown Dallas luncheon. This was supposed to include Richard Florida (jokes on me!), but perhaps he didn't make enough of an impression to garner mention in the summary over at FrontBurner. Perhaps everyone fell asleep for his portion of the show as one might through one of his books. (I kid. He's a data wonk which makes for brutal books, but he's actually a pretty good speaker, probably the reason why he is famous more than anything.) Also, hat tip to Tim at D Mag for giving me the heads up on their coverage, as I missed the event due to a meeting.

First thing is the most important thing, as Tim writes:
I will tell you that I went to this annual luncheon about five years ago, and I think about 150 people attended. Maybe 200. Today there were more than 1,000 folks gathered at the Sheraton. In short: it is happening.
The Downtown Dallas org needs to be given all the credit for the increase in attendance with their acceptance and utilization of viral media, in particular.

As I wrote yesterday, passion is the most important piece of the Downtown puzzle. If not enough people care, there isn't a market to cater to, nor build for, and there isn't a mass movement to provide the confidence or platform for elected leaders to make the tough decisions. To even begin talking about recruiting for the Creative Class or Millennials as this event was marketed is jumping the gun in my opinion. There are too many barriers in place that must be first addressed. Otherwise, they'll keep heading to Bishop Arts.

Now, to get to those tough decisions however, tough questions have to first be asked. From the tone of the FrontBurner article, it seemed like a lot of cheerleading and even some AT&T/Apple marketing going on. C'mon AT&T, you need to do your part and let Golden Boy out to play.

Cheerleading makes us all feel warm and fuzzy inside for a while, but does it really make much of a difference? That's not a rhetorical question, it is a legitimate one. But, in the end, I would like to see actionable items and I would like to see them address the difficult questions. With 1,000 people in the room, that is the perfect opportunity to start building a mass movement behind downtown. As Tim writes:
Toward that end, I suggest that at next year’s confab DowntownDallas throws down a discussion about what needs to happen next. Come up with 10 ideas. Tackle em. Have your smart people get up onstage and address em. Should we do away with all those damn one-way streets? Is there any way to widen the sidewalks? What about that proposed second set of DART tracks through downtown? Should we make parking more or less convenient? And so on.
As I've written before, we tend to get lost in minutiae. Dallasites like to feel good. Unfortunately, tough questions make people mad. But, if you ask any ex-junkie, they feel a million times better being clean and sober than they ever did from any short chemically-induced high. No city (nor person) can address the systemic issues without utter and brutal honesty. Could cheerleading be our drug?

Downtown needs a champion, one to get behind. However, a champion needs support, a mass movement to point to and rest his confidence in decision-making upon. That support was sitting in a room today.

Unless the tough questions are asked and key problems identified, particularly in front of a large group like that, then real identifiable goals can't be formed. The decisions affecting downtown will continue to be made by "specialists" (for lack of a nicer term) that are more concerned about how many cars move past a street than helping to create a lively downtown. They aren't elected to improve the livability of the City. They are hired to move cars.

Now, what are those tough questions. I've tackled the tunnels recently, but they aren't the biggest issue on my mind right now. Frankly, I think the transplanting of the tunnel businesses is really a catalyst to solve the larger issue.

The larger issue first stems from the highway loop. It could be argued that the 35,000 surface parking spaces in downtown Dallas ARE the highest and best use of land next to freeways. What other use really wants to be near what John Norquist called (and I'll paraphrase), "like passing gas in the elevator. They're noisy. They're smelly. And noone wants to be near them." He left out the part about killing people and destroying the economic vitality of cities, but that would be some ultra-potent flatulence.

Now, let's say for the sake of argument and urgency, given the 1,000 that showed up today, that the highways aren't going anywhere for the time being. I'm on record as saying they're the fundamental problem but it would require a fifty year plan (and an inordinate amount of legal wrangling) minimum to address. So if the highways are with those of us alive and kicking (or driving) in Dallas, what's next?

First, we have to have 1,000 people who matter, care, and can make a difference in a room. Then we have to point out the problems facing downtown Dallas with brutal honesty. Highways, surface parking, tunnels. Everything else is more symptom than malady. Veneers are Victory and they still hurt until you fix the real problem. To make downtown lively, we have to excavate the entire cavity.

Then we have to ask, what do we do about the surface parking lots. As I suggested, they're probably at their natural market conclusion and the lack of development of them suggests the same. Now let's drill into the issues of developing the surface parking lots:
  1. Owners, whether out of town or otherwise, are generating revenue.
  2. Conception of downtown development is mostly of high-rise, even some of what one might deign as "science-fiction." For the sake of argument, let's say that is fine as well.
  3. Downtown lots are going at high-rise residential on a per-square foot cost.
  4. Construction costs are too high for high-rise right now, and more importantly,
  5. There is minimal market for high-rise, high-end residential that isn't already over capacity in Dallas.
  6. This is mostly because there isn't enough amenity or (perceived) safety in Downtown currently for more residential.
What does all of this mean? It means several things:
  1. There is a significant gap between cost and profit to develop downtown lands that as it currently exists would require heavy subsidization by the City (or any other public entity that can kick in funding. Such as for affordable housing, sustainable development grants, etc.)
  2. There is still no guarantee that the surface parking lot owners will sell, and
  3. that there is still no guarantee that there is a market for residential, particularly when they're asking what do Millennials want (I'll pretend I never saw the press release that mistook Gen Y and Millennials as two separate groups. [pet peave] Is there enough action downtown for Millennials? Is there enough community? Are downtown buildings too overscaled?)
  4. Millennials are already making things happen elsewhere (see: Bishop Arts).
Option 1: overpay for land, continue to do heavily subsidized, splashy "bricks and mortar" projects and pretend, hope, pray that a market might form to support the project when in all likelihood they will sit mostly empty. Sorry, but this is the urban thinking of 1990 to 2008. Cities don't have that kind of scratch any more, unless they want to plunge their credit rating like Vancouver.

Option 2: condemn surface parking in Downtown Dallas. I know. It's a radical idea and probably not a realistic one. I'm just throwing it out there, that it is a way for the City to assemble land and put it into an RFP/RFQ for (re)development.

Option 3: Explore alternative carrot/stick type measures that will, in effect, drop the price of land for parking by incenting the surface lot owners to sell. From what I've experienced, creating a special district for Split-Tax or Land Value Taxes is both effective and popular with stakeholders that actually give a hoot about downtown. Ya know, like all downtown businesses other than surface parking lots.

Option 4: Think differently about Downtown. First, there should be no such thing as business districts. That is a mindset of the 20th century. All decisions should be about Living First, and there just so happens to be 70-story towers and all the transit modes imaginable nearby, ie amenity. Think of it as a neighborhood with unique amenities rather than a business district.

Furthermore, reconceptualize the size of Downtown in our minds. The inner-highway loop makes for a logical boundary, but the foundation of complex systems extend beyond the simple lines that our minds draw. Downtown is built on a foundation of adjacent areas. There is an argument to be made that LoMac (Lower McKinney) is more of an extension of downtown than it is part of uptown.

The cheapest and easiest way (politically) is to focus on all of the areas immediately adjacent and around downtown that are less afflicted with inhumane highways/roads and inhuman-scaled office buildings. Focus on Oak Cliff/Bishop Arts, Deep Ellum, Ross Avenue, the Cedars. A tasty ice cream sundae is built upon a foundation of plain vanilla ice cream.

Drive the value of these places to such extraordinary levels that it makes sense to develop the surface parking lots at market-rate and to environmentally remediate historic structures like the Statler or Old Dallas High. Create such a demand to be downtown that there is a market to live next to a highway because there is so much amenity in and near downtown.

Or, just start converting the highways to boulevards and we can reposition for development right now. It's your decision.