Thursday, May 6, 2010

Woodall Rogers Park and a Lesson on Return on Investment


Lil' Jon says, "parks parks parks parks!"

Alright. Let me first get this out of the way. A park is rarely a bad thing for a city. I can't stress that enough. People want them. They connect the City with a glimpse of nature, a spot of free-form recreation, and a breath of fresh air.

On the other hand, too many parks and open space can be wasteful and a drain if they aren't well appropriated, maintained, or scaled to the neighborhood or region which they serve. One quick example, was the downtown parks plan.

In my opinion, it did little more than fill most of the "openings" aka surface parking lots or vacant sites of downtown as parks. It gave little thought to how it could leverage further private investment or how the City could purchase a property and turn it into an urban scaled plaza and privately-invested new residential (of whatever affordability level) to increase the number of residents, perceived degree of safety, and overall prestige of the City of Dallas. In other words, how does the plan contribute to the Livability Hierarchy? Instead, it was a plea for "parks, parks, parks" much the way cookie monster might ask for his favored morsel or Lil' Jon might yearn for his (which are really one and the same).

Simply put, it was the type of "thinking in a silo" that created sprawl, sprawled cities, and desolate cities in the first place, despite the best of intentions. It was about parks and not about parks and people or parks and city, where parks are an integral part of the city's infrastructure much the way transportation and development are all interlinked.

With that said, I came across this outlandish claim that Woodall Rogers Deck Park will "be like ocean front property." I know it is the local modus operandi to label everything and anything new around here as "world class" despite any and all evidence to the contrary, but this just might take the cookie, err cake. Don't bust out the surfboard and sex wax just yet.

Why? Because we think of these things in a bubble without regard to their context. The Winspear is nice, but what is around it?

The Woodall Rogers Deck Park is a great thing for this City and its design in absence of the complete removal of the freeway is the best (well, 2nd best possible) solution. But Bryant Park isn't great without Gramercy. Piazza Navona without Centro Storico. Want to be a World Class City? Yes, that is the competition.

This post isn't intended to poo-poo the park, but remind us that the work isn't yet finished.

When thinking about parks (or anything in isolation) in terms of ROI (Return on Investment) things get a bit tricky. First, parks like roads are never expected to be fully self-sufficient. Can we make them that way? Sure, but largely their returns are either enumerable, incalculable, or externalized. There is too much subjectivity floating around to accurately derive an input. How do you value clean air or water compared to me? How important is walkable urbanism?

On the other hand, the best statistic we've been able to arrive at for cities wasn't worked out by mathematicians, but by the market: real estate values. We pay for those subjective items with our dollars. To combat this difficulty, statistician Nate Silver tried to input some "consumer preference" weighting into his livability survey of NYC neighborhoods. Steps in the right direction.

I'll have to track down the graduate thesis from MIT that I have saved floating around on this here computer, but it showed a 24% increase in land values of properties within 300 feet of parks. From memory, I believe that leveraged increment decreased gradually to about 10% bump for 800 feet from the park.

So what's the problem? As I have pointed out before, the area around the Deck Park is largely built out but a few vacant properties immediately to the North and the Arts District to the South. And it is likely to sit that way given the high land value, the saturated high end residential market and flat, probably over supplied office markets. Eventually, those blocks will fill in and the new (and existing) users will need open space to stretch their legs, but I don't expect a rush of anything new in that area for some time.

Well then, what "externalized" benefits will there be? Well, it is a park so it will be used for recreation, festivities, and enjoyment, but for the most part will function as the neighborhood park for LoMac, precisely the kind of place that is like a jumbled puzzle without a piece yet put in place. Urbanism is an assembled puzzle. The pieces come together to form a new picture, something greater than the sum of the parts. Simple analogy, I know, but cities are actually remarkably simple things when you clear out the mental flotsam and visual jetsam.

LoMac has a highway, a park slapped on top, an incomprehensible and impossible to navigate set of anti-urban spaghetti of roads, and a lot of density with no urbanity. In sum, it is precisely the "urban" by-product of silo-ized attempts at urbanism. You get the government you deserve, and the city as well, which is why my money would be in areas set to rise, not those already at their peak.

Since the area is almost fully built out, Woodall Rogers Deck Park might be the cherry on top of the sundae. Except the ice cream is on the floor. The nuts are at the store and the chocolate sauce is all over the kids face with his filthy hand stuck in the jar. In other words, there is still work to be done.

This might seem crazy to say since there is about to be a new park in the neighborhood, a Ritz-Carlton, and hundreds of extremely high end condos, but without broader, more comprehensive thinking about the entire area of LoMac and the park, I promise you that the area is at its peak. Other parts of the City will surpass it as desirable places to live and be as those areas get the livability equation right, which means if you own a condo there, don't expect to sell it for more than you bought it. Return on investment.

So once the park is completed and all ribbons are cut and we take a moment to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, we can take a moment to build the sundae, the complete urban neighborhood.

So, how could it be better?

We have to think about what is outside the boundaries of the park. Despite removing a road in what I believe to be a mistake, one of the park's primary objectives is connectivity, linking downtown and uptown. Since we're disrupting vehicular connectivity, I presume we must be thinking about pedestrian connectivity only.

That is all well and good, but I don't find areas immediately to the North or South to be particularly pedestrian friendly. They are in spots, for example Flora Street, the spine of the Arts District is, but the North-South connectors are anything but. Therefore, in order to make the park successful we absolutely, positively must think about pedestrian connections to and from the park (and widening sidewalks on oversized one-way roads doesn't help).

In order to expand the Deck Park's magnetic qualities, we have to begin stripping away the impediments. We do that by mentally moving outward from the park almost as if we are walking it ourselves.

The first barrier(s) are the parallel access roads running alongside Woodall Rogers. Currently, these look and act more like highway feeders, on- and off-ramps. Mostly because they are. But they should be designed as urban streets, with textured cross-walks, countdown crosswalk signals, parallel parking, and probably narrowed to two lanes just as they are now with the construction. If a car is perturbed by the extra twenty seconds before they can get on 75 back to Plano, so be it. Do you want a more livable city? Make it safe, amenable, and attractive to pedestrians. OMG I can't speed through (insert City from Most Livable Cities list)!!!

Next, since we are hardly using Harwood anymore (correct me if I'm wrong, but that is the one that has been ripped out, right?), we should conceptually make Harwood function as a piece of the infrastructure for the park, a pedestrian welcome mat for the park reaching into both downtown and uptown. Some vehicular access must remain for the various buildings served by it, but since cars won't be using it as a connection, might as well make it serve as much "traffic" as possible: the foot and bike kind. Harwood should look and feel like an extension of the park and it deserves an exceptional design treatment allowing it to stand out all the way to Ross and McKinney.

(Side note: I would strongly recommend vertical elements at both ends of the park to block the views of the rising Leviathan like freeways.)http://i16.photobucket.com/albums/b18/Crazyharp81602/leviathan.jpg

Lastly, and most ambitiously, a complete rethinking of the spaghetti network of roads, both north and south of the park (cloverleaf) with renewed prioritization for the pedestrian.

Think about this: how do you walk from the Ritz to the American Airlines Center?

Possible answers:
- Are you crazy?
- Walk? /quizzical look
- I just drive or cab
- Umm, I have no idea

The distance is little more than a 1/4 mile, but perceptually it might as well be miles away. All of these roads (Field, Akard, Cedar Springs, etc.) deliver traffic to other parts of the Metroplex but function as barriers to connectivity locally. If great cities are built on a foundation of great neighborhoods, wrecking areas for the sake of others further out is anti-city.

There is a rational framework intended by the original city planners beneath the illogical suburbanized road system. It doesn't even feel safe to a driver. You may be too comfortable on them because of familiarity, so drop a tourist in the area and give them directions. Panic ensues. Much like what happens everyday downtown when drivers inevitably turn down the wrong way on the preponderance of one-way roads.

The logic and intuitive wayfinding of the walkable urban grid needs to be revealed in order to unlock the value of the remaining undeveloped and underdeveloped areas of LoMac. Oh, and side benefit: restitching this area will also help to save Victory from floating out to sea. We can't get Oceanfront property type return on investment without thinking outside the park for the "return" we are looking for, which is great, walkable neighborhoods as part of a great American City.
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Of course, if you want real return on investment, start thinking about removing freeways, which would create a way to unlock land and remove a barrier preventing the exorbitant demand for in-town, affordable, walkable urban housing from being met. The recaptured land can be sold at low prices to willing developers and contribute cash money to the empty city, state, and DOT coffers while driving down land prices around the city as well, which is a significant impediment to investment, particularly in downtown.

It is what Seoul, SK did with $200 million, San Francisco did with the Embarcadero, Portland with Harbor Drive, Milwaukee with the Park East, and countless other cities are planning. Turning millions into billions is what I call ROI.