Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Greenville/Henderson: Why everyone is right and the real solution is right under our nose

So this is about to happen as I write. If you don't feel the urge to click the link and leave the comfy cocoon that is the WalkableDFW blogosphere, I'll fill you in. Councilmembers Hunt and Medrano are revealing new streetscape plans for Lower Greenville. And it is good.

It creates more pedestrian room, narrows travel lanes, more outdoor cafe space (but it's so hot nobody eats outside in Dallas!!!111), etc. It regains this space primarily through the conversion of angled head-in parking (business favorite as it means more parking) for parallel parking (pedestrian preferred). While this means less parking, typically it is just less convenient parking for employees who hog up all the free parking in front of the businesses and inadvertently harm their own commerce.

On the other hand, limiting parking can be a good thing. You may recall that I've written exhaustive and abridged versions regarding the conflict around parking. Parking was just a vehicle for the bigger issue. The primary point of conflict is that Henderson Ave and Greenville Ave are scaled for neighborhood service retail, but due to their nature (which I'll get in to) are trending toward Regional destination status.

In those previous missives, I suggested that we have to decide (or more particularly, the local stakeholders, neighborhoods, and elected officials) whether we want to allow the de facto "upzoning" to regional status thereby putting the neighborhood under potential threat or cap it at neighborhood service status. By removing parking, we are essentially capping the potential to grow "up" to regional status. However, the work is not yet done as proper management of the "business ecology" or array of business types is still needed. More on that later.

The neighborhood (if occasionally only the vocal minority) tends to prefer status quo. The often silent majority, often wants to see an improvement by way of more amenities nearby. Landowners and investors want to reach the highest and best use.

Because of the scale of Henderson and Greenville, and by scale I mean width, and by width I mean building face to building face on opposite side of the street, the road(s) can only handle so much traffic. By nature that pretty much seals the fate of the road to being a neighborhood service spine, with little clusters of service businesses and amenities every half mile or so, serving a neighborhood within about a 1/2 mile or so. You can still see these clusters to this day.

I had lunch with the Schuessler brothers the other day, the guys behind digital/open-source company called Brain Food. They grew up on Greenville and like most in the professions of the internet intuitively understood good urbanism, whether it be the Greenville they grew up on or Magazine Street in New Orleans.

We talked about how Greenville's neighborhood service clusters had a full ecology of businesses responding to neighborhood needs. One of the brothers, Erik, responded with this amazing list off the top of his head:
    1. New Big Wong
    2. K1 Video
    3. Dry Cleaners
    4. Dodies
    5. Futon Place that sold vacuum cleaners (where libertine is)
    6. Arcadia Shopping Center.
    7. Arcadia Live music venue - Saw Public Enemy, The Cramps, Oingo Boingo, ETC. (where it once was)
    8. Florist Shop
    9. Independent Book Store (forgotten the name)
    10. Assassins skate and t-shirt shop
    11. A cool little bakery.
    12. Pawn Shop
    13. Lula B
    14. Gordos (restaurant)
    15. Caribbean restaurant
    16. Small Mercado
    17. Thai Soon
    18. Grinders (the coffee shop where Erykah Badu worked)
    19. Teppo
    20. There was a big magic store, antique place and costume shop where public house, slice and one other store front were.
    21. The Antique Bahr (owned by a guy with the last name bahr)
    22. Rag Wear (great vintage shop, new the daughter of the owners)
    23. Record Gallery (cool record store)
    24. The Hobby Counter (model shop)
    25. Poor David's Pub
    26. Shakespeare's Books
    27. Ali Baba
    28. Some European import place.
    29. 3 antique places
    30. Gachet (but that was newer)
    31. Daddy Jack's but it is still there.
    32. Further down there was
    33. a shoe repair
    34. western auto (really handy)
    35. the Giant Sears (really handy)
    36. Flip's restaurant
    I think there was 3 bars on the whole strip.
    What has become of these areas is mostly a monoculture of bars, restaurants, and clubs, hardly the full array that he listed. No longer responding to the needs of the neighborhood adjacent, it has become (one of) the drinking destinations for the entire Metroplex. It is predominantly drive-to only. I'm sure you can see the problem here. Besides the threat of essentially contextually coerced drinking and driving, people from wherever in the Metroplex are often parking in front yards and have little reason to care about this neighborhood they might very literally be pissing on.

    A monoculture, any monoculture, is by nature fragile, if not downright brittle, vulnerable to the fickleness of changing markets, demographics, tides, the way the wind blows, or a butterfly flapping its wings in Tibet. It could be anything. That is the danger.

    Henderson has a better array of businesses but not quite the form. And after this plan is implemented, it also won't have the amenity and designed walkability that Greenville will have despite the significant amount of investment occurring on and around Henderson.

    While streetscaping is mostly a surface treatment (and a little bit deeper with regard to parking as I mentioned), it is critical to understand why the "regionalism" occurred in the first place. Let's go to a map shall we:

    Since I don't feel like taking the time to pick apart this graphic in layers, I'll walk through the pieces. Also note that I rotated the map about 30 to 45 degrees in order to fit all of Ross.

    First thing to keep in mind is that development is inextricably linked to transportation. Everything is essentially a logical solution set to the first problem. That these areas are sandwiched between (at least) two (primary) repulsive forces: 75 and Ross Avenue. Both designed strictly for the car. Hence, the primary development along them are drive-to types of uses.

    If you allow me to tangent trip for a moment, we rightly thought that investment should happen along high traffic areas. However, we wrongly thought that it could occur along freeways. Freeway frontage, particularly in the areas more difficult to get to between perpendicularly crossing arterials, are vastly overvalued.

    The real value would be along the arterials. However, those have been designed as if we collectively decided to make them as unsafe, uninviting, and frankly, ugly as humanly possible. This is Ross Avenue, and because it is car oriented has little more than autobody shops and strip centers all along it, despite its history at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries as a ceremonial axis.

    Instead, investors wanted to be near enough those traffic sources, without being directly on them. See the blue arrows. It spilled down Henderson from 75 and up Greenville from Ross Avenue to areas that are scaled better for cross-shopping and pedestrian activity. Walkable places make for better places and better business. This should be undeniable fact at this point.

    The yellow blobs are the neighborhoods, in various states of (dis)repair. Some are stable and healthy (usually the further away from Ross and/or 75) others are not so much for a variety of reasons. These neighborhoods have been experiencing erosion at the edges due to car centric development that requires lots of space, lots of parking. The end result is like a little kid touching a hot stove for the first time...or maybe even a slug with salt poured onto it...natch, or possibly better even a turtle withdrawing its appendages inside its shell.

    The neighborhood retreats into a defensive posture. Disconnected physically and, in this case, emotionally from the primary commercial spines rather than blending and integrating as would be the case in ideal neighborhood form.

    The red squiggles represent conflict areas around yellow clusters which given the scale and traffic of Henderson/Greenville should be neighborhood support centers.

    Ross Avenue provides the long-term solution to all of this. If I was to run this area through my convergence mapping analysis, my gut tells me it would rate as high or higher than any other street segment in the entire city. It provides the point of confluence of the uptown success spilling across 75 and the eventual return of Deep Ellum with Baylor U. Med Center as an anchor realizing it is the demand driver for all the residential that is needed to help save Deep Ellum.

    Where Henderson and Greenville are scaled for neighborhood support, Ross can and should be a regional destination. It is the best direct connection* to/from downtown Dallas of anywhere in the city, linking West End, the Arts District to Henderson, and Greenville as it essentially becomes Greenville bending northwards.

    *Except for the minor hiccup that occurs where it bends into San Jacinto leaving downtown turning that entire area into a giant clusterfudge.

    Each of the major intersections with Ross want to be high(er) density, walkable clusters on the scale of West Village (but ideally better executed). Because its current design is the primary culprit for its underdeveloped condition, we have to give Ross priority on the Bike Plan, Streetcar Masterplan, and the eventual Complete Streets Masterplan.

    This is the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, VA. One of the success stories nationwide of rightside out development. It is the primary connection between DC and NoVA and has a metro line running below it, so it has a bit more "energy" to it which equates to higher potential density if it is designed to integrate movement with safe, walkable places, aka the formula for highest and best use. Notice it is densest along the primary corridor. This is relatively young, so the contrast between density and low density is pretty drastic. In more mature situations, there is a smoother gradient from high- to mid- to low density.

    On the other hand, for too long in Dallas we have made weak compromises for the sake of moving as many cars as possible (thus obstructing more efficient connections), we build inside-out, mostly due to the all-powerful formula. The result is a confused development prototype where we want to be near energy sources (traffic) just not that near. Look no further than West Village or Park Lane Place for examples of this, internalized (to varying degrees) rather than engaging.

    This generally means two things for developers: 1) weakening potential returns by diverging from the primary stem (which is also logical as long as that stem happens to be from an Australian Stinging Tree - aka car-dominated), and 2) you are opening yourself up to competition and/or cannibalization because there is no built-in hierarchy, predictability, or logical order to real estate within a widely repulsive road network. Virtually any piece of property can be "valuable" and none at all.

    Ephemerality of value is built-in to the system. It serves its immediate value and then must be repositioned. Chaos of sorts. Where there is chaos, disinvestment often follows eventually. Predictability ensures long-term value.

    The current development model puts a disproportionate amount of investment on roads of low connectivity, creating conflict with neighborhoods. On the other hand, our "roads of significance" receive less than investment than they should creating a situation where our primary roads are hardly 1)something to be proud of, 2) provides a poor entry or transitional experience between places such as downtown, and 3) are vastly underdeveloped, meaning we don't have the proportionate amount of tax base/density associated with it to maintain and steward it.

    In sum, Henderson and Greenville are scaled to be neighborhood main streets. Where Greenville and Henderson (and their ancillary neighborhoods) aren't scaled to handle regional draw, Ross is scaled and situated as the main street for East Dallas, much the way McKinney is for north of downtown/uptown. We need our roads to function and be designed according to this distinction of scale/draw/significance to ensure long-term value, necessary for a sense of permanence, for long-term value, critical in creating a city worth caring about.