Friday, February 26, 2010

Free Beer Friday Guess the City

...where we pretend that we're professional curlers on the shuffleboard table at the Elbow Room.

Same rules apply as last week, perhaps I won't stump the masses this time.

If you are a piece of land and you happen to have a deep water port, coal reserves, and killer surf, chances are that you will find a human settlement nearby as soon as humans figure out steam power, combustion, and some rockin' board wax bro'.

You might not be too familiar with this city, but as mentioned above, it has been one of the industrial and shipping hearts of its particular country. Like many similar cities state-side, economies moving away from such enterprises has not made for a smooth transition. However, like many places, once it hits a rock bottom, the local citizenry eventually finds a way to reorganize and begin structure building again. And, by this, I don't mean physical structures so much, as a more diversified economy.

[edit: apparently had a wrong pic in here.]

Below, I love the sign of feet walking. Combined with a sight of nobody walking behind, I suppose reinforces the need to warn drivers that the unexpected just might occur. Ghasp, somebody could cross the street.

Centralized planning has led to some growth and development of transitioning industrial waterfront lands...

...but the historic downtown still languished on the somewhat isolated point on which it sat, until a few creative individuals ideas took off via internet-fed organization.

...not exactly all the way back yet.

...but it is rarely a bad sign when people with cameras show up to capture what you have.

Oh, look. A Kookaburra.

"Sweet hair bra."

"Chill, bro. It's my new faux-hawk. The chicks dig it."

Here are some chill broheims about to catch some waves.


Even some of the suburban centers have begun the process of consolidation and densification...

Couple of Brief Friday Thoughts

...Before Unleashing the Free Beer Friday Post.

First, I rode a bike down the proposed streetcar line from downtown to Bishop Arts yesterday. Nothing like experiencing space and time at a pace other than at vehicular speed to better get to know a place. Also, often visiting for lunch, I was able to experience Bishop Arts at night for the first time in several years. This recent article at the Observer really gets at what is going on down there. It is emergent urbanism, ummm, emerging, right before our very eyes.

They are getting streetcar because they are ready for it. As Schutze points out the fabric was originally constructed with streetcar in its urban DNA genotype, but they are ready for a rebirth not because of the fabric, but because the people are ready for it. They are active, they are organized, and City Hall would be wise to not only support these efforts but to market the area as it evolves into the eclectic, vibrant place that the residents care deeply about. I became a believer. Their unified vision and organization is guaranteed to make it a success.

Vibrancy and interest is best constructed from the bottom-up, not bestowed upon certain areas. Any top down planning initiatives should focus on fostering such natural and incremental movements.

After speaking with a few people and watching Downtown Dallas limp along for ten years despite countless dollars and extreme efforts, I became convinced. The way to support and reinvigorate Downtown Dallas is an amplified strategy of what I alluded to yesterday. Build around the big project with smaller, simpler projects. In this case, that means supporting, investing, and encouraging more emergence in all of the areas immediately adjacent to downtown into order to build up value and demand for Downtown revitalization that is proving too costly to overcome its considerable barriers.

The adjacent neighborhoods once built upon downtown's success, but now they provide the opportunity for the foundation for downtown to once again sit upon.
Perhaps burying the lead here, but Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief recently did the extraordinary. He honestly and unequivocally addressed the transportation crisis that Fort Worth and nearly all cities are facing. We simply can't afford the car-centric development, not because of the individual mobility, but because of the spin-off and associated costs with supporting diffused infrastructure and its upkeep.
Unfortunately, Fort Worth and other major metropolitan areas are finding out the hard way what a mistake it was to design and build cities around automobiles years ago. Friends, we cannot continue to focus solely on building more roads for more vehicles. That’s counter productive at best...

If this is a mobility crisis—and I believe it is—then it must be treated like one!

In the spirit of the early Fort Worth pioneers who took it upon themselves to pick up shovels and extend the first rail line to our city, it’s time that we took matters in our own hands. It is clear to me that we are not going to get where we need to be by relying only on help from the feds or the state.

The point he touches upon is that the policy of road construction was a self-perpetuating (and -defeating) force producing a construct that we can no longer sustain. And I don't mean sustain like in sustainable (although) that applies. I mean that we literally can't afford it.

Our ability to comprehend the mistakes and adapt to the new world and the time it takes to do so is the process of boom to bust, and back to boom. This time however, the next boom will be in the consolidation. We are shifting from the fission stage of economic development to the fusion stage and the great recession is merely the time it takes to adapt to the new world.

Fort Worth, Dallas, and all of the cities of the Metroplex are going to have to think long and hard about how they want to pay for the infrastructure of individualized mobility. Is it increased gas taxes? New VMT taxes? Increased DMV costs/fees? Is it more toll roads? Frankly, I'm in favor of more toll roads, not new roads that are toll roads, but more roads becoming 'tolled.' *

Then taking the revenue from those tolls to increase overall mobility: convert arterials to complete streets with bike lanes, walkable sidewalks, and buildings that can begin to address the streets the shield themselves from; as well as to help pay for the expansion of the streetcar system that will do more to create high quality urban housing in all of the areas adjacent to downtown mentioned above.

Is it possible politically? I don't know. I do however know that the longer we wait to be honest with ourselves, the bigger hole we begin to dig for ourselves. If in doubt, repeat the phrase "WALKABILITY IS A TAX CUT."

The full transcript is at FortWorthology.

*In order to prevent the poor from being left at the edges footing the bill at toll roads, I would suggest that all developments accepting "transportation/reinvigoration" revenue as part of a public-private partnership should be required to have a 10% affordable component (and for family-sized units, not the smallest efficiencies like downtown buildings appropriate).

In fact, we might have to structure the affordable housing component with greater gradation of affordability, then a simple inclusionary offering, ie 10% of units at 60% median income, 20% at 80%, etc.)

As you may know, I'm a sucker for the application of biological studies towards urbanism, and as this article points out, biologists are beginning to take on cities and concluding that diversity (including income) is a key component of complexity which is the foundation of resilience.

From a value standpoint, we should realize that affordable components in what otherwise may be seen as an upscale neighborhood have several positive spinoff benefits. First, the wealthy provide a positive example for the children of the poor. Second, the wealthy act as benefactors bringing culture directly to the community (and much more effectively). Third, isolating the poor into enclaves also known as ghettos creates a spirit of despair, which can incite a criminal element.
Last, I caught a news segment yesterday on Pizza Hut relocating from Addison to Plano, calling it a new, cutting-edge building. I saw the plan. There is nothing cutting edge about it. I don't care about what kind of wifi or fiberoptics the building might be wired with, the cutting edge is walkable communities.

Cutting edge is defined by academics like UPenn and Johns Hopkins. Cutting edge is defined by businesses like Google. All of which are investing in walkable locations for more interesting atmosphere to attract and retain the best talent. Even AT&T moving to Downtown Dallas (although Golden Boy still needs to be set free!).

Cutting edge would've been relocating to Bishop Arts!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Over at the Observer

The Observer has linked to my post on the January downtown 360 plan stating that I suggest they think bigger. I don't recall if I used the phrase "think bigger," but the point that needs to be made is that these big catalyst projects that are discussed (Statler Hilton and Old Dallas High School - which I posted about years ago, found it!) might be too big to pull off in the short-term with the budgetary issues. So I think I'm actually suggesting thinking smaller???

While this is a publicly-driven planning process, I think the model of identifying large catalyst projects as part of the solution to the planning process worked pre-crash, but I'm skeptical now. This is essentially what happened with the Mercantile: identify the empty building, heavily subsidize a private developer to renovate a building, remove the developer's risk, build a park adjacent, hope for the best. I think it is going to take deeper, more strategic thinking and some political leadership to make for some of the systemic changes that need to occur.

I was trying to arrive at strategies that generate more bang for the buck to arrive at solutions to problems, ie surface parking lots and daylighting tunnel businesses, that could be more cost effective than writing a $20 million dollar check for abatement of either of those buildings. Work on the easy wins to build up value around those buildings, which then makes those catalyst projects make a little more sense.

I'm just inverting the thinking from throwing money at individual vacant buildings to catalyze the area around them, to working the fabric around the vacant buildings, so those "eyesores" seem less tragic. Those inherently are singular, top-down projects, and we need to be focusing on empowering a more emergent urbanism, meaning more developers intensifying surface lots and vacant properties, smaller, more finance-able projects, focusing on the fine-grained urban infill, and meeting the under-supplied niche housing markets while supporting all the goals of walkability and livability.

Thirsday Thursday Linkages

The Elm Place building in Dallas, Texas

One more skyscraper goes dark in Dallas. This one makes national news and it is distressing to say the least (depression only underscored by this tweet from DallasProgress). As the headline suggests, is it the end of an era or is it just a story of too much homogeneity of product type?
Commercial realtor Jack Gosnell recalls many empty buildings during the 1980s savings and loan crisis. But this time is different. Even when the economy does rebound, Gosnell is doubtful that much of this real estate will be reopened. Gosnell: Technology is moving at such a clip that a building can become functionally obsolete in 40 years easily. It can be too expensive to operate without stripping it down and completely converting it to green.
Seems to me like the "culs-de-sac" in the sky by nature provide too much similarity of product, inhibiting flexibility and adaptability. Meaning it is anti-resilient and anything so overscaled might very well be doomed to limited lifespan. Given that it lacks the complex high-tech wiring for the modern office, is it too much building space to renovate as something else? Is its highest and best use now little more than storage? What happens when our current high-tech office towers become "obsolete?" Will we be saddled with several more millions of unleasable square footage? I think we're seeing the end of the argument "efficiency of scale," at least as it is currently understood.
Not coincidentally is this post by Steve Mouzon at his blog the Original Green, discussing "The Long Tail" of the housing market.
Chris Anderson’s excellent book The Long Tail describes the discovery of a powerful phenomenon of our aggregated age: The curve of available products begins with the “big head” of blockbusters and superstars on the left, but then drops off “sickeningly.” See how the curve seems to go quickly to zero? Before Amazon, everything after the big drop-off was invisible because no bricks-and-mortar store could afford to carry stuff with sales so low. Amazon was the first to aggregate these low sellers (books, to begin with) online, and what they discovered was that the sales curve extends further out to the right than anyone previously imagined. If companies are able to provide a nimble way of searching so that you can short-cut to the niche you want, the “long tail” of the sales curve extends almost forever. In many markets, there may actually be more sales in the long tail than in the short head of super-sellers and greatest hits, just as more light reaches your eye on a clear night from the billions of stars too faint to see than from the thousand or so that are actually bright enough to see.
What he's talking about here is the overshoot in delivery of a singular product type (sound familiar?) in the housing market and the long tail represents the demand for niche housing types. The high point in the graph represents the supply of the most conventional housing type, the large lot single family housing type.

With some projections estimated that there could be as much 25 million of these vacant by 2020, 1/4th of American mortgages under water, and other reports suggesting that their is a "shadow" housing market of possibly 8 million homes that banks are sitting on to inflate the housing prices for the existing 4 million vacant ones, that is an awful lot of supply to absorb.
The home types were so varied because the people were so varied... but today, the American population is more varied than ever before, even while our housing choices have become more bland. Nielsen Claritas has identified 66 market segments
The biggest problem comes from the lenders. Because they are sitting on so much supply, they can't lend, particularly to something they don't understand, which are all the niche markets that make up the missing 25-40% of demand for more walkable urbanism.

It's worth the read, especially when nearly all of the walkable developments we do produce are still of a similar market segment/building prototype. Considering how fragmented parcelization is in many locations in need of densification, we need to figure out how to finance the fine-grained infill. I think this starts with the overhauling the standardization of products that state and federal affordable housing agencies will help underwrite.
Since I haven't seen this in American media, we have to go the Telegraph for perhaps the most important news of the day. China rattling its economic sabre by selling US bonds. As the article points out, the two economies are so intertwined at this point, that this really doesn't make much sense. Unless you think that China thinks we can't remain as the consumer of what it produces, which we probably can't.
Lastly, a new localized and potentially affordable fuel-cell technology? It could potentially decentralize energy production from large, potentially dangerous power plants (ie melt downs or terrorist attacks). It has buy-in from Walmart and Google so the science must make some sense, but it is proprietary and therefore secret. Remember when Jonas Salk invented a polio vaccine and donated it "open source" for the public good? Neither do I.
"We want to move this product forward to the point where we can put it in an African village ... and they can have power, they can have light," said former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who sits on Bloom's board of directors. "Think of the potential."
With that said, let's do a little math to see how much energy each of these produce and how many households that supports at a cost of $700,000 per unit. First, the founder of the company says their fuel cell consisting of sand rather than precious metals produces energy at a rate approximately 60% of the grid. Furthermore, it can be inferred that less energy is lost due to transmission inefficiencies (I don't know if that is where the savings come from however).

If each Bloom fuel cell generates 100 kilowatts (I have to assume that is kilowatt/hrs) and the average American household uses 10,000 kilowatts per year, which works out to a little more than 1 kilowatt per hour per household. That means one fuel cell can support 100 households, or spreading the cost of one fuel cell over those hundred households to $7,000 per household, which is the size of some mid-sized residential buildings.

If a 200 unit building costs approximately $20 million, adding two of these would cost 7% of the hard costs, which is pretty significant. This could make sense for some condominiums, neighborhood associations, or even apartment buildings that cover the costs in rent - with the caveat that there are no utility bills.

While Bloom says that the fuel cells pay off in five years, it remains to be seen how long and at what rate the cells continue to produce energy or what kind of outputs other than electricity there are. Either way, household energy efficiency needs to be improved and the cost of these fuel cells could come down with increased productivity. The combination of the two could really transform our cities. Imagine a world with no power lines...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Paying for the Mansion and Getting Motel 6.

So, I've finally had the chance to review the latest (January) presentation from the downtown 360 plan and I'm a bit concerned that not much has changed. Once again, I feel compelled to state that everything presented are things that absolutely are necessary. They are fundamental improvements, particularly for a transportation system that undermines any efforts at livability, the ultimate necessity of revitalization in the 21st century.

I am particularly enthused with the street sections that suggest potential real improvements are possible to some of the wider and more divisive streets through downtown with pedestrian refuges, divided "browsing lanes" (my term) for their "multi-way boulevard" street sections. What this does, is create a hierarchy of speed of movement moving outward from building face.

(Taken from MIG's presentation found at the link above)

For example, pedestrians are moving the slowest, their space is allocated closest to the storefronts, where they are going in and out. Next is the "browsing lanes" and the parking. These are divided from the lanes for movement. You drive in the browsing lanes when you are looking for parking. This configuration allows for both "place" the pedestrian realm buffered from high-speed movement, the parking and slow traffic, as well as "link" the primary travel lanes in the center of the street for those trying to get from somewhere to somewhere else and are merely passing through. This street section can potentially apply to 100'-ish rights-of-way in downtown like Pearl and Griffin.

However, my first concern might be the idea that one street section applies to an entire street and that rather than arriving at a design solution that maintains a 100' right-of-way perhaps the solution in downtown might be more significant narrowing curb-to-curb with more pedestrian (sidewalk) space, level of service be damned. I think this street section has a lot of value particularly when it comes to refining our arterials to allow for more density to begin to line up to the street rather than set back buffered by a field of parking, as more suburban models begin to consolidate and intensify.

The other idea that I like is the Main Street section. Essentially eliminating the parallel parking currently on Main, moving the traffic flow to the edges, and recapturing the difference in a central pedestrian plaza. This could be construed as counter-intuitive, but the traffic flow would be so slow, that it presumably would have little effect on total parking count or spatial dynamic. Here is a picture of a similar situation where the pedestrian realm is centralized from Torrent, suburb of Valencia, Spain.

The reason that I like this, and I think it is probably only valid for a block or two, is that the parking on Main Street is mostly devoted to valet stands (although the image above shows parking), so it is not like we would be losing that much parking. If this is done however, Elm and Commerce badly need to be redesigned. If for no other reason than to slow down the valet drag race:

Below is mixed-use shopping district Santana Row in San Jose, CA, which has the same street section for one-block.

Also, the "green streets" suggestions are okay, but I think they are more appropriate in densifying suburban centers than they are in downtown. Downtowns are areas of extreme metabolism, which means (at least for now) lots of output, which means lots of waste, or trash. These things get caught up in bio-filtration systems and can just look like litter. Furthermore, we aren't the best at maintaining things right now, and if the streets come before the businesses (that might better care for their front step) perhaps these are even less of a good idea.

So, why am I in a bad mood? Well, first of all, these are all good design ideas, but this is also meant to be a strategic plan, and I think I'm more interested in creative solutions to the issues negatively effecting Downtown Dallas. While thus far there are some design ideas, but all of these seem to be off-the-shelf urban planning 101 boilerplate. I don't feel like a lot of it is customized for Dallas-specific issues.

I've written at length about the street network being a detriment to livability of downtown and thus hindering development, but while this is a factor, I don't think it is the MOST challenging one, or even a difficult one to address. There are three much more difficult issues hindering revitalization that require much more depth than simply design strategies, and perhaps they have yet to be identified as issues in need.

1) Obviously is the freeway loop. While I hold out a grain of hope that there might be movement towards the removal of these, I also realize the difficulties and that at best would require a 50 year plan. For the time being, I would be far more interested in the tightening up of the on/off-ramp system away from clover leaves and frontage roads, to a restoration of the street grid, where the highways and their interface essentially exist at a different plane.

2) Surface parking lots. Nobody likes the management of these lots and while we are big proponents of property rights, it might be time to take a hard stand against these guys, particularly when factoring in how much they are holding back downtown. If they are willing sellers, which they might not be since they're generating revenue, they are holding out for high-rise prices. I don't see the market bearing any kind of high-rises office, luxury, or otherwise.

Downtown revitalization will be driven by high density, but affordably constructed mid- and low-rise development. I don't mean to be a party pooper, but I see that as reality and four-stories makes for great urban fabric and filler between all of the high-rises and more glamorous structures.

As I've suggested before, if you don't want to condemn their properties, and you (private or public) can't pay for the asking prices, perhaps there are more creative solutions out there like setting a split-tax system which reduces the burden on performing properties (definition TBD) and pressures under-performing, ie non-contributive properties to sell, encouraging intensification of the site.

3) Tunnels. I have not yet seen any suggestions for how to deal with the tunnels or analysis that honestly suggests that they are a barrier to positive street life. I would be happy with the acknowledgement.

First point, is that retail needs the predictability of movement. This is why the best retail locations are on the busiest roads, where the traffic is. A Dendritic traffic network (2-dimensions) forces all cars onto collectors and arterials and the retail wants to be where it can be seen. Here is a dendritic drainage network as if abstracted from a hierarchical street system. Commerce occurs where it is predictable. Consumers need to know where to go, and the businesses need to know where to locate. In the drainage diagram, if water were people, commerce would occur in the darkest, blackest areas where the most water is.

I've used the term convergence several times before because it applies in different dimensions. Below is how it applies in three-dimensions. The tunnels (as do sky bridges) strip downtown streets of their vitality. This translates into reduced potential of all businesses, on-street or below.

Furthermore, this can be applied in four-dimensions. What times are the restaurants open in the tunnels? Most are typically only open around lunch time. Some a little earlier, some a little later, but the mystery and short-time frame is a problem.

Retail and restaurants need concentration, of people and typically, of each other (especially if they lack the former - see shopping malls, strip centers, etc. - to even exist). And cities need the livelihood that commerce brings, particularly those that engage the street because the street life is how a city is perceived. By its own citizens and visitors. Do you think it is a coincidence that all of the visitors for NBA All-star weekend loved Main Street? Because there were a lot of people there and it went off mostly without incident because it is also easier to police a raucous party atmosphere when it is mostly located in predictable locations.

What might I suggest? Well, off the top of my head, might be a carrot/stick program where the amount of incentive to relocate is amortized over a given amount of time until reaching a deadline for businesses to relocate. Let's say five years for the sake of argument. In year one, the City and Downtown Association might work to find/create/retrofit space in currently vacant buildings. They could also receive a rent subsidy and ability to break the lease if it doesn't work out for them in the new location.

In order to counteract the potential for failure of businesses at the street, we should work to conglomerate the first few daylighted pioneers in clusters together, and do it with fanfare. Celebrate their "return" to Downtown Dallas to instill a sense of awareness with downtown office workers or residents, so that they know where to go for their quizno's sub or whatever. Point being, that if you cluster them, you are one-step closer to achieving "place," and places are magnetic.

While the first businesses to "daylight" would get the most assistance, the longer the rest wait, slowly but surely the amount of "help" or subsidy they get (and the best locations) begin to evaporate until there is no more help and the doors get locked so that the tunnels are reserved for emergency shelter. (Or, there is always a colleague's idea for turning the tunnels into a red-light district.)

In my opinion the downtown plan should be thinking about where some of these "premier" spots might be to cluster retail and further, addressing some of the barriers to street retail in Dallas. One, is the street network which they are doing, but in a passive way, not an active one to stimulate business and entrepreneurship like Renew Newcastle. There is more to urban planning than streets and trees.

Evolutionary biologists often refer to periods of expansion to increase complexity while testing for resilience. Entities proven resilient are then ripe for "structure building" phase during periods of contraction after the species over-extended, intentionally. While we our cities are temporarily done expanding into new territories (suburbs/exurbs) and have begun the process of consolidation, this is precisely the time to aid in areas that we are determined to reinvigorate, like the most important center, downtown. To structure build.

These are relatively cheap when we are talking about some of the potential infrastructure dollars for all of the other things proposed in the City. Reduced rents, micro-leases, help in relocation or some start-up seed money for entrepreneurs. All of these should be considered small investments for a larger payout, a more interesting and vibrant downtown. Many won't survive and that is precisely why they need the flexibility to turnover those that don't for those that might. The energy alone of cluster new businesses can stir a turn-around. They are our new honey-bee drones in search of new territory, which will be a successful business or a few that can grow, add new employees. Structure build.

This is what I mean when I suggest we can no longer "grow" quantitatively, but our economy is ripe for qualitative growth, structure building (and by structure, this doesn't necessarily mean "buildings," but foundations of stability, resilience).

Another major barrier, however, is the relatively few amount of buildings that are suited for ground floor retail, or should I say, the amount of buildings that are not. Many are designed defensively, to not engage the street, or "communicate" with the streets and other buildings. Many of these are not suited for immediate adaptation so we have to suggest some creative ideas.

Take this building for example, rather dreary, also not terribly welcoming as the entrance is set back within the envelope (outer wall).

Pardon the crude photoshopping, but this is what you get when I do it in ten minutes. Also, this is meant to be conceptual, as I'm not suggesting this is the most appropriate location for relocation. Rather, merely to suggest that we should be thinking about retrofitting buildings to communicate with their surroundings, the streets, other buildings, and pedestrians.

I'm not a huge fan of awnings as little more than nostalgic mementos, but thought that this particular did need some of the color, variety, and visual interest that they can provide. Obviously, these are things that would have to be worked out with various building owners and the basic integrity of the buildings and their primary entrances would have to be maintained, but I'm sure there are a few that would like some extra income via new rental space.

Furthermore, many small retailers don't require the kind of depth or square footage that you find in the boxes in the 'burbs. In fact, see the liner retail at Mockingbird Station that can't be more than 10' deep.

If nothing else, I would like to commend the efforts thus far, because making downtown Dallas streets more "complete" or better designed for people is an important step. However, we also need to think more deeply about how to activate those new streets as well.

Apropos of nothing, check out a historic photo I found from the same spot:
Akard at Wood St., Dallas, TX.

Mmmmm. Bar. I could use a drink.

If You Build It, the True Costs will Come...Eventually

Elana Schor at StreetsblogDC has an article on the budgetary shortfall in funding transportation and the potential solutions for paying for an overextended transportation (read: highway/road network) system:
Of course, Conrad's chart makes one significant assumption: that the gas tax is kept at its current, non-inflation-adjusted level of 18.3 cents per gallon. Increasing that (gas) tax was one of five transportation financing options that he outlined today. 

The others were: levying new charges of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), greater use of tolls, more transfers from the general fund ("which I strongly oppose," he noted), and a revenue-raising option yet to be proposed by Congress. 
Here is the timeline of how we got to this point, as simply as it can be said:

1 - Because of Industrialization, cities were pretty attrocious places to live in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Low pay, high pollution/squalor/poverty, and poor sanitation marked many cities American and otherwise.

2 - One solution was to move to the "countryside," aka areas immediately adjacent to cities and streetcars were the way to get to those new areas with "unlocked" real estate value for use intensification, ie new neighborhoods.  These were primarily for the well-to-do, although some company towns were also constructed this way with workforce housing near the factory.

3 - Getting out of the city and land use policies in support became humane.  Legal codifications were constructed unfortunately, without the adaptability to reflect changing conditions (for example Form-Based Code is intended to codify quantifiable urban "regularities" while allowing flexibility and adaptability of use/density).  This is why you see cities like Miami adopt sweeping zoning changes like Miami 21 and NYC rezone 20% of its land in one year, the effort to catch land use regulations with modern times.

4 - Invention and implementation of mass production combined with a burgeoning form of transportation and its marketing promised new freedom of mobility with more affordable cars for the middle class to also get out of cities combined with mass production of single family housing (Levittowns, etc.).  This did nothing to reduce the cost of the infrastructure and its eventual maintenance, which is paid for by taxes.  While initial costs of transportation to the new found living arrangements were often factored into the housing, the long-term maintenance of the infrastructure was not, meaning it was essentially financed on credit.

5 - Skip to today:  diffused, low-density housing created for a dendritic road hierarchy which funnels traffic to primary arterials and highways.  This by nature creates traffic, which is typically treated with the call for more supply.  The more supply of lane-miles to reduce traffic however, is no longer backed by a booming housing market (or one that has actual demand driving it rather than funny money), meaning it has no one to finance it except the the same housing that created the problem. 

This is a reality that every suburbanite must realize. For those who love their house, their neighborhood, and their commute and that is fine, two things:  1) your costs are going to go up (and this has nothing to do with fluctuations in oil/gas prices) because the lack of density can't support the infrastructure at the current per capita, and 2) if you are fiscally conservative, you should be encouraging higher-density walkable neighborhoods for others that may want it but there isn't the supply to meet the demand.  Walkability often means more density and a more balanced housing market (in terms of density) which means less infrastructure per capita.

Promoting walkable urbanism is a more efficient allocation of commonwealth resources.  Walkability is a tax cut.

Pardon the Mess

You may notice some changes around here.  I've made up my mind to turn all things "CarFreeInBigD" to "WalkableDFW".  The twitter account has already changed, of course, that was the easy part.  So this site might go up, down, and around as I monkey with it until it fully reappears as "WalkableDFW."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Celebrity Shot! - Guest Post

In last night's late posting, I decided to add my two cents to an article that no one could yet see. Presumably because it was over the head of the typical reader to which local major media outlets cater. And therein lies the niche that the blogosphere fills.

Due to popular demand, and without further ado, but with his permission, I present Russ Sikes's article on Dallas the Synthetic City:

Dallas: Syn City
by: Russ Sikes

Perhaps Dallas' identity crisis began with John Neely Bryan muttering to himself “Why build here?” Whatever its origin, 150 years and six million people later, the lack of an evident geographic purpose for the anchor city of this vast conurbation still troubles our psyche, inspiring episodic attempts at self-definition.

Our latest, “Live Large. Think Big” may make a great Chamber of Commerce come-on, and it does impart a sense of the spirit and possibility Dallas offers. But it's more lure than identity.

What IS Dallas really, this city of aspiration, ever in the making? The fact that we ask the question perhaps reveals more than any answer, but at a recent party, I finally heard a moniker that struck a chord: “Dallas, the synthetic city.” Synthetic. Instant ouch. Synthetic suggests man-made, artificial, contrived.

    Man-made. Absent striking topographic features or coastline, most of our regional attractions are indeed constructed, including all area lakes and reservoirs. From our glass and steel business district downtown to glitzy sports arenas like AA Center and Cowboys Stadium; from entertainment clusters at Six Flags, Lone Star Park, or Texas Motor Speedway to vaunted shopping meccas like Neiman-Marcus and Northpark—even to vast, land-locked DFW airport—the celebrated features of this metropolis are thoroughly man-made.

    “Artificial”. Big hair, fast deals and ostentation are part of the Dallas package. “Fake it till you make it” has been a creed among ambitious Dallasites for decades. In physical form, it is evident in the sea of simulacra that blankets the horizon, McMansions and theme restaurants fairly boasting their pretentious inauthenticity. Such traits do not speak of self-acceptance. Quite the opposite, they reek of striving and guile.

    Contrived. Public ice-skating rinks in a land lacking natural ice, “heritage” fairs in subdivisions with saplings still sprouting guy-wires, Connecticut-green lawns whose ruler-sharp edges strike a property line against spare buffalo grass, much of our area is forcibly contrived into being. A Trinity River re-fashioned as lakefront property sporting Calatrava bridges only accentuates this point in exclamation.

Yet for all this, the Synthetic metaphor conveys deeper, more positive connotations too.

To synthesize means to absorb, to infuse what emerges with novel and often superior properties. It implies adaptability and relevance, a capacity for assimilation. Dallas certainly has that...IS that. As case in point, here we were discussing Dallas as synthetic, a couple of immigrants: I, born in Boston, he from North Carolina, at a party hosted by a couple of musicians from Maryland and Georgia respectively, at a home in Plano that only 30 years ago was surely a cotton field.

Dallas synthesizes alright, largely people, and the ideas and vitality they bring. And despite our snarking at its synthetic character for cocktail-hour sport, our real vote is cast with our feet, not our mouths. Many of us who come never leave.

Perhaps it is the flipside of what we mock that attracts us.

Man-made has meant “self-made” to many, and legions here have made something from next to nothing. Texas Instruments, mainstay of the Dallas economy and emblematic of its rise, was among the first to transform raw silicon into high-valued components—a synthetic process if ever there was one. On an individual level, people like Ross Perot and Harold Sammons converted ideas, work and ambition into billion-dollar dynasties. Norman Brinker started restaurants from ideas on napkins. Mary Kay and Ebby Halliday blazed new business trails for women. They and countless others have achieved stupendous success here by synthesizing what was available to them into something more. Chances are that most of us, you and I included, can tout successes made possible through the synthetic potential of this diverse, expanding region.

Where long history and unique geography confer identity, they also constrain it. For its millions of newcomers, the Dallas experience is about transformation. It’s often why we came and what we seek. Our lack of long tethers here can leave an impression of shallowness, but it also leavens our possibilities. Artifice, contrivance and guile, ugly themselves, are perhaps inevitable handmaidens to the restless energy and aspiration that fuel them. It is unsurprising that their stark features shape the bland face of a region like ours, many of whose inhabitants are so newly-arrived, striving en masse to forge new lives.

Synthesis may even prove our salvation, technologically and culturally, elevating “synthetic” from 20th century pejorative to 21st century virtue.

“Sustainability” is said to be key to our future survival, and as Herman Daly explains, true sustainability requires shifting our consumption from finite stocks of resources to self-renewing flows in our midst. This conversion will necessarily involve various synthetic processes. Chief among them is photosynthesis, which makes virtually all other life possible, and provides not only our food, but increasingly our fuel too. Since nearly all of our energy derives ultimately from the sun, some form of photosynthetic bio-mimicry or novel synthetic processes are sure to provide the fulcrum on which a sustainable future rests.

Likewise, cultures develop by synthesizing their endowments: natural, human, financial, technological, to become what they are. But not all do so equally well. A 21st-century of global access favors the truly universal culture. Those that welcome and assimilate newcomers, that fully synthesize their contributions, will prove the most attractive, vibrant, and resilient. This has been key to America’s success generally, and to California’s in particular. As Texas swells into a “super-state”, the Dallas region too can shine among the stars.

Good and bad, wince or smile, an honest identity must ring true. To me, the synthetic city sounds utterly improbable, just like Dallas itself. So live large. Think big. Synthesize the life you want from all that’s available here in Dallasthe Synthetic city.

Is Dallas Synthetic?

Russ Sikes, local businessman, and president of the local chapter of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU-NTX) writes when the spirit moves him unlike myself who witheringly taps away at the keyboard like I've had a heavy dose of mental fiber. Each time he does, it is timely and appropriate. In this latest iteration of knowledge-dropping, he manages to craft a love note skillfully masquerading as an excoriation of DFW citizenry.

In "Dallas: Syn City", he asks, "is Dallas a "synthetic city?" I want to react to the general query along with this key statement:
“Sustainability” is said to be key to our future survival, and as Herman Daly explains, true sustainability requires shifting our consumption from finite stocks of resources to self-renewing flows in our midst. This conversion will necessarily involve various synthetic processes. Chief among them is photosynthesis, which makes virtually all other life possible, and provides not only our food, but increasingly our fuel too. Since nearly all of our energy derives ultimately from the sun, some form of photosynthetic bio-mimicry or novel synthetic processes are sure to provide the fulcrum on which a sustainable future rests.
This alludes to what we will find to be profitable in the next wave of growth, the "new economy," or at least the next economy until we must reinvent it again. The irony is that the profitability will be found in the very things we deemed to be the thief of profitability: waste. That is right, waste = food. It is natures way.

The city (meant generally as "all or any city") is a metabolic creature. Nutrients go into cities which are the physical emodiment of local economies in the form of human capital, natural resources, etc. it is processed by skill or talent which then produces goods and services deemed of use. These processes all have waste.

Natural systems are all highly evolved closed-loop systems in which all waste is food for other interconnected processes. The city as we have constructed it is an open loop by virtue of neo-classical economic ideologies and policies that support and in fact encourage business actions that "externalize" waste.

The equivalent of this might be if human and animal waste didn't fertilize plant life that then produces oxygen, food, or both. Our cities are cavemen smearing each other and drawing on the walls with R. Kelly's doo doo butter. That doo doo butter being the externalized costs of pollution, waste, etc. that are eventual costs that we will all have to deal with eventually.

Smart businesses and cities will monetize their waste and begin to think of the economies of cities as metabolic loops. This will most definitely require a close examination of all/any materials flowing through these loops to determine their potential in the new economy. This is all cradle-to-cradle 101 and it is contains infinitely more profit potential than the economy we are shedding.

As for what is derided as "synthetic," in my opinion, are those retreating remnants having surpassed their useful livelihood. These are the dead leaves, damp and dirty, lying on the ground waiting to be swept into piles and jumped into; all things we essentially relate to North Dallas, fairly or unfairly.

It is the conspicuous consumption spread across the landscape in the form of what we know as wasteful auto-oriented sprawl; a form of gambling in essence. Turns out the financial mechanisms behind it rigged the game, to avoid the losses: the returns had to be faster than the testing mechanism to properly assess the real value. That way the lenders could get out before the floor dropped out, i.e., test of time revealed the true value behind the forever growth mythology fueling the housing market boom. (All the more reason to valuate real estate based on long-term, and more consistent returns.)

This is, of course, not to say there weren't successes. All eras of expansion are marked by overshoot, a spreading out period to test apples to apples, in order to find what areas will endure. The whole point of the expansive growth was to find those places. The marked recklessness, however is what creates for such drastic swoons: the further the expansion, the more intense the contraction, the rougher the recession, which is simply an economic term for a evolutionary biological concept - repurposing.

We have the places that we will now begin the period of contraction to (re)organize around, ie densify. These are both old (found to be useful in previous gambles of expansion) and new (found in the most recent round of expansion).

These are the areas that we plug back in, closing the "economic" nutrient loops as we realize or remember the value in them. They are the areas we often define as "authentic," including places ripe for reinvigoration: Lakewood, Deep Ellum, Near East Dallas/Ross Ave, North Oak Cliff, etc. etc. (I could go on and on, but those are the freshest in my mind after the streetcar post.)

Unfortunately, many are ill-equipped to identify the more permanent elements from the recent high tide of expansion. Some erroneously lump those that will prevail in the long-term with all that will fail as one large regretful flood of wastefulness (haven't we learned that in all waste is potential for profit?). Others incorrectly presume everything we've built in the latest go 'round of boom/bust expansion as permanent inexorables of modern life. These are the Bruegmann and Kotkin's of the world.

What is "synthetic" is that which has lost or is losing its purpose in the new city phenotype, fallen leaves from trees. And, we all serve our biological purpose rightfully deriding its various permutations. That which we define as "authentic," provides the "green shoots" of the new city as it re-adapts, yet again. These are the fruits of the loom? boom and bust, carrying seeds as lessons.

How much will we learn? And,

can you decipher which is which?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Problem with Bruegmann

Professor and author Robert Bruegmann visited Dallas over the weekend, perhaps to some fanfare, or not. Either way, while I missed the panel at UTD, I did listen to the KERA interview with Krys Boyd (podcast here) and managed to follow the highpoints as tweeted realtime by a local Dallasite attendee.

Frankly, like many in academia, I find his usefulness to be rather narrow. And that is the suggestion that sprawl has no meaning. This is an issue that has arisen before on this very blog, as commenters pointed out I was using "suburb" to liberally as a shorthand, for what I really mean, which is the overbuilt living arrangement that has passed its usefulness and will slowly whither away as the land is repurposed into something more useful for a changing society.

To further define "sprawl," it is a depreciating asset: the poorly built and auto-oriented tract homes comprising the majority of the housing stock provided for middle and lower classes, but masquerading as well-to-do with urban level of infrastructure and amenity. We're slowly but surely finding out that we can't afford it and went into extreme levels of debt to perpetuate it. We're learning that only a certain amount of either a) wealth or b) commonwealth through conglommeration of population density and conservation and/or efficiency of resources via said density can afford luxury and amenity. Suburbs tried to do it with neither, but a promise of wealth.

It is really tragic that so many retirements are put into some of these homes that will be worth nary more than what vegetables can be wrought from the Earth it sits upon in twenty or so years.

By never really defining it himself, he ends up defending it by pitching an umbrella over all living arrangements deemed "not the city" and calling it a book. He suggests that this version of "sprawl" like all other forms is an eventual inevitability as if we're all actors in a noir-ish tragicomic reality show. This is utter BS within a system of self-government.

If you want to say that there is a natural effort by people toward their own preference of housing/living becoming an array of living arrangements of which less dense versions are one legitimate and practicable, that is fine. But don't use that as a Koolhaasian defense of the American slumburb the way Rem suggests Lagos is an ideal urban situation for the 21st century.

Through tax structure, infrastructural investments, land use policies, and regulations, the overbuilt version of worthlessness was nothing more than an overzealous Dad, with aversion to asking directions, stubbornly deciding on the way to go, only to find the family station wagon in the wrong part of town on the way to Imaginationland. It was top-down decision making walking a path and preventing the testing of that model against others to find its usefulness. Or maybe, the last sixty years was that test of time, and we just get to be the unfortunate lab rats that get to deal with the failed study sample.

If nothing else, at least if there is a purpose to life, it is to learn from mistakes in order to perpetuate the species and this was one of those learning experiences on the level of the reformation. James Howard Kunstler elaborates in his review of Bruegmann's book Sprawl: A Compact History:
Kotkin is a highly-paid consultant to municipal governments who use him to rationalize the pernicious effects of their engrained practices. Huber gives aid and comfort to those who regard the public interest in any form as an affront to private gain. And now along comes Bob Bruegmann seeking to lend the imprimatur of empiricism to these arguments, so as to valiantly prove wrong for once and for all the peevish critics of suburbia (including yours truly) by driving the wooden stake of science through our superstitious and sentimental hearts.

Despite his boatloads of statistics, Bruegmann is just flat-out wrong in many of his positions and virtually all of his conclusions. At the center of his thesis is the unquestioned assumption that the suburban project can continue indefinitely, that it is a good thing, that we will get more of it, and we ought to stop carping and enjoy it. His book fails entirely to acknowledge the fact that we are entering a permanent global energy crisis that will put an end to the drive-in utopia whether people like it or not. This singular harsh fact obviates all the rationalizations brought to the quixotic defense of suburbia. What Bruegmann and his homies overlook is that American-style suburbia, aka sprawl, was an emergent, self-organizing system made possible only by lavish and exorbitant supplies of cheap fossil fuels, and once those conditions no longer obtain, not only will there be no further elaboration of this development pattern, but all the existing stuff built according to that pattern – which comprises more than eighty percent of everything ever built in America – will drastically lose its usefulness and its relative “market” value.
In the interview he goes on to perpetuate a few fallacies while allowing himself unwittingly to be made a fool of by some of the laypersons who called in. He subtly makes two jabs at the Congress of New Urbanism, both of which are false. The first is that it is all about quaint cottages, Mayberry, picket fences, and faux-nostalgicism. The other is that it and any attempts at whatever he thinks "planning" is, is an attempt to force people to live certain way.

As a member of CNU, I'm fully aware of its weaknesses or flaws, neither of which apply to the traits he mentioned, but are continually propagated by this cast of characters as if they are the white knights of freedom for the common red-blooded American man. In reality, they are really only delaying the inevitable realization and neither Bruegmann nor Kotkin will be the ones to suffer when perceived value meets real value.

While it is somewhat concerning that he basis his entire course of study and authorship on these issues, what is more comical? terrifying? useless perhaps are his efforts at arriving at ideas for problems.

In response to the concern raised during the KERA interview that the poorest and perhaps hardest working are relegated to the furthest reaches of the city and shackled to the ownership and operational expenses of cars, Bruegmann responded that "perhaps the cheapest solution is to give cars to all the poor." That ought to be cheap, particularly as nearly every city in America grapples with its budgetary deficits and ability to maintain its overstretched infrastructure.

This is the level of stupid that gets you a professorship at the university-level these days. It is probably not coincidentally the same level of stupid that tried to suggest Katrina-like disasters would be averted if we give everyone in NOLA a new car. If you can't arrive at a suggestion that neither the right nor left would support, perhaps you should no longer have a microphone in your face, proverbially, metaphorically, or fo realz.

Alas, maybe the smartest person during the interview was a woman driven by necessity, your average DFW citizen (this caller happened to be from Frisco) that stated she "can't afford to live in a nice area of Downtown Dallas." But, wondered why she couldn't walk to convenience stores or shopping. Now, I don't need to excuriate her for mistaking "Downtown Dallas" for a super fancy area (HOLLA!), but rather accentuate her want, nay need, for walkability.

Cars will always find their appropriate place in our lives, but designing through walkability allows for cities to function efficiently, to think, to adapt. The more we create, the more affordable it will become as supply reaches demand for both housing and for small business space as the cost disparity by location is no longer as hindering of a barrier to local entreprenuership.

Walkability is a tax cut. It allows for more efficient use of city infrastructure and the ability to provide, maintain, and police. Furthermore, it cuts the unnoticed tax that is the inefficiency of every single transaction you make whereas propinquity through walkability greases the wheels of economic activity, innovation, and adaptibility of the complex systems that are cities.

Every single trip to each store, all over the metroplex, the gas, the car maintenance, the road construction and maintenance, the parking, as well as all of the affected real estate depreciation to support such a world, is a tax that goes directly from your pocket to those that want to perpetuate a system that most people no longer find useful or ideal.

In fact, maybe Bruegmann's assertion that he doesn't want to control people's lives and the way they live is really an act of transference, because he's doing a pretty good job perpetuating the status quo as a worthwhile endeavor. The reality is that we need to tell Dad we're at a dead end and it is time to turn around.

Walkability can come in all densities. The level of amenity is an issue of design and economic practicality/realities. The sprawl he defends has none of the above. Bruegmann bumbled and stumbled through a non-answer because walkable convenience and amenity afforded through density runs antithetical to his entire reason for being (and perhaps those who underwrite his research). This question rendered him virtually speechless. If you have no ideas, perhaps you should be audience-less too.

[edit: for confusing University of Illinois-Chicago with University of Chicago. Holy big difference batman.]

When a Neighborhood Matures

You know it when the residents begin to flavor the area with their demographic personalities, when they have fun, and they make it their own. It just so happens that uptown Dallas is largely a post-college with new found money environment, populated mostly by pre-nesting Millennials and Gen-Xers who found the walkability and sociability of college campuses/college towns an improvement over the conventional living arrangements of post-war cities.

This picture is from Friday and you might not recognize it or what is happening within, but this is the McKinney Avenue Trolley with what else, but the favorite of all collegial activities, a Beer Pong tournament, occurring in it:


For the first time ever, I've managed to stump the masses. Does that mean it was too difficult or a tip-toe beyond the line of juuuuuust right. Although, many many many guesses were close, practically encircling the actual city, which was Donets'k, Ukraine; a city of about 1 million people.

Extra bonus points, but no beer, to McCready for answering "Long Island?" to the clue, "what is full of Russians but not in Russia." Apparently, this clue was a bit misleading for some. The source was census data suggesting that the majority of Donets'kians? Donests'kites? were Russian rather than Ukrainian.

Friday, February 19, 2010

CarFreeInBigD is Heads South for the Winter

Not physically, of course. Just an update that will be migrating over the weekend to its new custom-made house of sticks and spit, a three-car garage, and hot tub:

The previous address will still forward to the new address, but there is no certainty that free-beer-Fridays will occur in the hot tub.

Free Beer Friday Guess the City goes for Gold

Like many American industrial cities, is this Sun a setting or rising one?

New rules. The game is always open to guessing in the comments, but to garner the free beer at Friday Happy Hour now requires you to 1) be the first to accurately guess the City described/shown; and 2) arrive at the happy hour locale sans auto.

This week I found a city of nearly identical size of population (of the city, not metro area) and age as to Dallas. I thought it might be fun to compare and contrast the similarities/differences in both form and function and how these were affected by different dynamics.

The city for this week has had several name changes over its relatively young lifespan (not to dissimilar in age as our own hometown). One of its original names alluded to its founding and primary industrial output despite sounding like it was named more in iconic idolatry.

Geographically, there are enough rivers running through the city to put its American sister city to shame, making it ideal for industry in 19th century, which is still active after hiccups in how should we call it...ownership and operation?

Being rich in natural resources, West European investors initially founded the City as a company town, really not too much unlike the globalization of industries today towards the far east, Africa, and South/Central America. You can imagine the kind of living conditions and quality of life that existed 100 years ago. Given those, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see why the area has seen the severe swings in political and economic ideology since then.

Today, the city (and region) suffer a bit from identity crisis not unlike many rust belt American cities as it traverses the bumpy waters of a similar transitional period as its primary economic driver, heavy industry and raw material output, flags moving into the 21st century. Only multiply the effect by about a 1000 when you factor in governmental instability.

I always find it interesting looking at these cities, because the aerial maps seem so disconnected from the at-grade experience. In the typical google earth planometric aerial, there doesn't appear to be much density, but in actuality there is quite a bit.

To some extent, it comes down to the form of that density, but even areas with predictable urban form (the areas that look to fit together like puzzle pieces rather than those that look like train wrecks), the block size and scale is quite oversized to what we typically see. There isn't a concentration of density (not so much of people, but of form), that provides a framework of highly active areas, economically or socially despite the city being primarily organized around a pair of parallel, North-South streets as platform for cultural and political heart of the City.

Researching this city, I struggled mightily in finding the social hearts of the city. Where are the main informal gathering spaces? Where is the concentration of transactions (of all kinds) which is the chief driver of what we refer to as vibrancy.

I had a bear of a time finding the shared social spaces, the busy, vibrant streets, etc. The provision existed in form, but not apparently, in usability, as grand plazas that make Dallas City Hall Plaza look lively and inviting. Not to give too much of a hint, but in these plazas you'll often find Lenin in his working class attire, but without many people gathering around him (which seems somewhat fitting) as he is propped up on a pedestal, which somehow seems to miss the all -isms, I suppose.

The areas where form and transportation typically might dictate some predictable measure of vitality are not as active as you might expect. This is first confirmed by the lack of concentration of uploaded photos into Google Earth, always an indicator of "sacred" or at least, well travelled areas. This comes thru in photos as rarely do you find more than a handful of people, even in its "main street" areas:

I suspect this might come from its organizational hierarchy as a quasi-communist state, but probably more appropriately described as a top-down dictatorship, which minimized the collective intelligence of cities to the singular individuals making decisions for things like "where to locate the market," etc. Ironically (or perhaps not so much), that a "communist" nation lacked collective intelligence of the system.

This looks like what we might describe as a typical mixed-use district, at an intersection with some small-scale neighborhood service retail. However, this is THE primary street, attractive as it is.

It is generally accepted in western thought that the ground floors are reserved for uses that need to interact with movement, ie permeability from street to building. While there are businesses in the ground floor, they aren't highly interactive.

In some ways, despite the density, robust grid of streets, and hierarchy of transportation modes, the form is at least partially responsible for the way cars have taken over the cities of the country this city resides in (since the dream of glasnost tookhold), which has since caused severe traffic and pollution (although pollution has been a problem since its foundation given its economic history).

The form I allude to is the size of blocks and the spatial distance between buildings and uses minimizing walkability, at least from a functional standpoint, ie walking to school, walking to the store, walking to work, etc.

You could blame it on residential towers, but these are mostly new phenomenon locally. I do believe however, they are exacerbating the problem as the epitome of density with little relation to its surroundings. You could call them "towers in the park," but another way to think about them might be as vertical cul-de-sacs. How does it interact with the street? Which becomes how does it then interact with its adjacent buildings, its context. That is how cities function, the interrelation or communication metaphorically of buildings to each other in that the "words" are literally embodied by the people moving about and interacting with them.

Brand spankin' new tower, undoubtedly for the nouveau riche. Whose wealth was found thru the various opportunistic nefarities of their new "open" economy. Not coincidentally, if you were to ever visit this city don't be surprised if you get pulled over for inspection for black market weaponry.

There are however many of strong axial streets, many of which make for some pretty attractive boulevards with ample people space. There is not much evidence of bicycle use, but there is plenty of space for pedestrians. Because of the distances to traverse, the pedestrian usage is mostly kept to recreational purposes.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

One if by Car, Two if by Streetcar

Streetcar is coming. Streetcar is coming!

I'm sure most of the regular readers of this site have heard the good news. Dallas won a federal TIGER (transportation initiative) grant for $23 million to start design and construction of the proposed 1st phase of the modern street car line. The second piece of good news, is that it is actually going to be one of benefit rather than the tourist trap downtown loop initally proposed. The flip side of this story, is that while the application was pursued in concert with Fort Worth, the federal government took it upon themselves to extricate Fort Worth from the receipt.

There has been some speculation that red Tarrant county was victim of some partisan politics from the Feds. First, whenever I see the victim card played, typically red flags go up in my head. Before we start getting all conspiracy theory, let's remember that between the high speed rail and TIGER grants, that some of the biggest winners have been states with Republican governors. So without cynicism, perhaps we might find other reasons for Fort Worth being left the feds might have some concern that Fort Worth is double-dipping with multiple applications (ie the New Starts Grant later this year)? That is just a guess, but one that I think might be a little more logical.

It is a setback, but ultimately one more of timing and inconvenience than anything else. The shame of it is, that in my opinion the area of Fort Worth due to get the early phase streetcar is more lined up for immediate real estate investment. This is where the real value of streetcar is found, ROI. I'll have more on this later, but first think about the kind of returns via private investment Portland ($2.5 billion) and Tampa ($900 million) talk about with their streetcar lines. And Tampa did virtually everything wrong!

So maybe there is hope for us when we begin to get off the rails (pun rather intentional)...

For the uninitiated, the first question one might ask is, "more streetcars?! Like that old-timey trolley thingy on McKinney Avenue? In fact, no. These will be sleek, quiet, comfortable low-floor, accessibly loading modern streetcars. And, I'm told that they will be purchased domestically from a company in Portland (rather than the Siemens cars), so I don't have to spend time belly-aching about bailing out Ford to build more stuff that we don't need rather than overhauling plants to build that which we will.

As freeways were the way to the future for the baby boomer generation, making the streetcar "of its time." Anything resembling nostalgia will limit its potential and reach towards the new population bubble, the Millennials.

Beyond style or preference, I find that the contemporary if not almost futurisitc look is an important indicator of progress to the public at-large. It is a subtle, but important message for building support that the City of Dallas is serious about building a great city rather than any feeble attempts at freezing people in time like a ride at Disney. This isn't about tourists, it is inclusive, but primarily for residents (the significance of which I will explain in a bit).

I expect them to look more like these Portland cars...

But, it is fun to check out what some other cities have:

Your second question might be, "what can this possibly do for me?" First, why turn your nose up at $23 million dollars from the Federal government that isn't going towards highway expansion (although as part of the TIGER grants, somehow something called "innovative highways" [guffaw] received funding including a highway expansion in Dallas. I guess being second in highway lanes per mile just isn't good enough. Kansas City, don't you know everything MUST be bigger in Texas, for better or worse - we make no qualitative distinction, or lest we consider ourselves failures and frankly, we just can't live with that.).

Public transportation can often be a lightning rod because of its relatively high upfront costs and seemingly low revenue generation. It is important to remember that no form of transportation on the history of the planet was ever "profitable" in and of itself. Even for me to ride a bike to the new bowling alley bar in Deep Ellum this Summer requires 1) cost to buy the bike, and 2) energy, ie calories. I have to eat a powerbar to expend the energy to get to my destination. Yet, it seems free, just like it does to hop on the highway and drive to Walmart. The true costs have been "unbundled," so the average person has no idea how much they've been screwed over by the automobile monoculture.

The primary purpose of transportation is to facilitate the functions of city (the transaction of human needs/wants), as Mumford states, "to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within that limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel. A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation; and in any event, it offers change of speed and mode to fit a diversity of human purposes."

Car monoculture dislocates these operational efficiencies and have since, as predicted, proven a failure fiscally, environmentally, economically, socially, and medically.

Second, is that streetcars by nature encourage density (eek density! Arm yourselves with crosses and garlic!) and density pays the bills; it requires less infrastructure per capita lessening the tax burden on everyone. This is the ROI that I spoke of regarding streetcars and transportation in general.

Here is where I say, "this is how transportation should always be thought of, but never is." Except that I am not too naive to understand that it is FAR too easy to externalize certain factors/costs, and convince people that a new highway is actually a good expenditure. The question you have to ask people then really comes down to, how do you want to live, how do you want your city to look?

Third, the streetcars will help to lessen the burden on downtown parking for workers, as streetcar is best suited for short- to intermediate-range commuters. Less demand, with all that supply (OMG ALL THAT SUPPLY) could mean lower costs for parking for commuters into downtown. Though, that is a very slippery slope into circularity of argument.

Fourth, streetcars help lead to safe, interesting, vibrant areas - with unique restaurants and experiences. Note that I didn't say "will." The implication being that streetcars are some magic bullet for livable cities. They are one in a kit of parts. As I've said before, if it isn't part of a chicken/egg dilemma, you probably aren't on the right track toward building more livable cities.

See McKinney Avenue. It took the state's first TIF, will of city leadership/stewardship, and private developers willing to take a monumental risk so big that they had to go oversees to find lending for projects in what was one of the worst areas of the City 20-30 years ago. Now we have things like Crooked Tree coffeehouse, the prototypical third place/hole in the wall, offering character while indicating a mature, resilient, complete neighborhood. (Yes, I shamelessly plug my favorite spots in the City: those that are local, embedded in their community, friendly staff, and full of character.)


Historically, streetcars were largely private investment tools for new neighborhood creation. They were a scaled-down version of the common mass transit at the time, trains, and served a scaled-down catchment and service area. In this case, they unlocked the value of land immediately adjacent to very compact downtowns, as developers sought to capitalize on the demand to get out of cities that had become polluted/corrupted by industrialization.

These were the first suburbs and you still see the vestigial remnants of the emergent city forms in Lakewood and Bishop Arts. The underlying forces dictating these efforts were not unlike what continued to happen building further suburbia. The difference however, is that the streetcar suburb was still walkable, it still had a functional urban form, and a workable and predictable hierarchy imposed by the permanence of a fixed-line transportation element where the singular dominance of the automobile and its infrastructure diffused people, spaces, and buildings into "anti-city" where each component not only no longer communicated with the other elements of the urban equation, it now ignored them. Anti-city meant anti-economy.

Dallas, feeling its supposed raison d'etre went nuts with the new fangled contraption building over 200 miles and one of, if not, THE most extensive networks in the country, which coincided with a wave of building that made Dallas arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the country. You know the rest of the story.

Not coincidentally, streetcars are logically seen as one of the items to help restore the areas they helped to create one hundred years ago. In the modern megalopolis, each region of the city needs to have the appropriate scales of transportation to serve it in relation to its context. Streetcars typically serve areas within 1/2 and 3 miles of the primary convergence point, core or destination, typically a job center, ie downtown. These are the areas that have become blighted and desolate for the most part, and now have the potential to go from 0 to 60 as fast if not faster than did uptown Dallas because they will be swimming with the tide rather than against what is considered "conventional."

I'm not going to spend much time on the original downtown loop plan since I spent a couple of thousand words on it already, the methodology based on the form of transit and its purpose/history was so fundamentally flawed (or ignored) that it really isn't worth revisiting, but here it is linked if you want to check it out. The right decision was made in the end, I'd like to give the proper credit to those that helped make that decision, so the comments section is wide open for you. I know OCTA had a lot to do with it, but somebody above them had to make that call.

While I think a case can be made for Ross Avenue or Deep Ellum to get the first line, I think it is 1) important politically to address South Dallas and 2) Oak Cliff already has a more robust and defined character that makes the area ripe for success. The goal will be to allow that almost Austin-like [ducks] funkiness to remain under the extreme pressure of investment and new development. Some might call this gentrification, others investment. Either way, it is another engine that must be harnassed to maximize value (of all kinds).


If we are to look at what this grant means to Dallas, Oak Cliff, and the future of the City, the first challenge at hand, is as always, dollars. The sum of federal spending that Dallas will receive, like many of the proposals, is half of what it had asked for. Can the entire line be built after the hat is passed around, or will the first phase be drastically cut short, especially considering that a good portion of the cost will be allocated to a the long Houston Street bridge that will obviously have no private investment immediately adjacent? Are there creative ways to cut costs?

The plan, as stated in the TIGER award, starts at Main Street Garden at Harwood and Main, head west down Main Street to the West End, hang a left on Houston to Union Station, where it will then cross the Trinity into Oak Cliff. The summarized submission then gets a bit vague stating that it will stop at Methodist Hospital before servicing several neighborhoods. I'm guessing if there will be budget cuts, these neighborhoods are what get expanded to at a later date.

Looking conceptually at how streetcars can strategically reposition areas of Dallas, it helps to establish goals. Mine would be to catalyze reinvestment in the form of high quality walkable urbanism in the districts/corridors shown below. These would all be immediately adjacent to downtown, would create for the kind of urban housing that is proving difficult in downtown, and thus be mutually supportive of downtown Dallas. If I were to prioritize these areas based on need of immediate investment (desperation), readiness (somewhat subjective), and potential for future buildout (or what is the ceiling/highest and best use for this area?), it would be as follows:

1. Oak Cliff (between Bishop Arts and the Trinity)
2. Deep Ellum
2b. Ross Avenue to Lower Greenville
3. Cedars
4. Fort Worth Ave
5. Industrial Ave/Design District
6. Davis Street

New/Future DART Line in green. Katy Trail in yellow. Uptown area served by MATA in aqua.

So if we add in the new phase, and stop it at Zang and Davis to save approximately $20 million/mile while still serving Methodist Area and being a 1/4-mile within Bishop Arts, I think this would be logical. There might be some desire to loop it back on Beckley, but as I'll get into, I would avoid "loops" in favor of Y- or T-turnarounds in a parking lot if the rights can be had.

(click to embiggen)

Rather than building loops, the next couple phases should focus on extending lines through downtown to the other areas in need of transportation alternatives and private investment. This would minimize transfer between lines to (typically) one at most. If I'm on Lower Greenville and decide I want to pizza at Eno's in Bishop Arts, if lines criss-cross, I can more predictably navigate my way on two lines max, rather than riding into downtown, catching the downtown circulator to some stop that I might not be sure of to catch the car heading towards Oak Cliff. Amount of transfers can be a mental barrier and should not be underestimated in terms of how it effects ridership.

This expansion consists of probably three phases. The first that I would execute would be to extend the MATA to Main Street meeting the new line, which would simultaneously be extended into Deep Ellum, thus directly linking Bishop Arts and Deep Ellum on one line. The next phase would take a radius line from the Arts District on Ross to Lower Greenville.

Eventually, the MATA/uptown line that is now extended to Main Street would continue down St. Paul to Old City Park and into the Cedars. If you look closely (or click to embiggen) I included several graphics along with this line. The first that I would like to discuss is the questionmark within the Cedars loop. As I said earlier I don't care for one-way loops. Maintaining both directions within one right-of-way creates for more predictability and "convergence," which is necessary for commercial or mixed-use areas. This also allows for movement all on one-track with switch points at stopping areas for cars in different directions to pass. This can be cheaper but difficult to design.

Also, one-way loops makes permanent one-way roads. We may not be ready for them now, but we might some day. And, in fact I would call it a priority to start thinking of all downtown roads as places rather than escape routes (link to highway as agent of disinvestment) and begin converting them to two-way streets. If you know me, you know that I often stress flexibility and adaptability, as none of us is clairvoyant enough to design for 2050 issues, but we can allow for the ability of those who are living in them.

The Cedars however, and areas like it that exist essentially as peninsulas, it will be primarily residential with some smaller scaled-neighborhood support type functions rather than any kind of high intensity mixed-use or commercial that you might see along Ross, Davis, or in Downtown.

Furthermore, in residential areas, you want to get as close to the residents (in this case even the hypothetical ones) as possible. With streetcar, the catchment area may only be 1/4-mile and with the dimension of the Cedars it makes sense to loop the track on Corinth, Lamar, and then Cadiz back to St.Paul (as shown). This would reposition the maximum amount of city blocks for redevelopment/improvement.

At Woodall Rogers, you will see a red "X" and a green blob. The red X would represent the cleaning up or "context-sensitizing" of R L Thornton through downtown. Cloverleafs are a property value killer and highly inefficient use of land that should be much too valuable for a spacious on/off ramp. These should be cleaned up. The green blob would be a new deck park (ya know, provided any/all of these highways go away as they should) over the freeway. This repositions the south side of the convention center (to help alleviate the gigantic barrier that the CC is) as potentially new office development and the North side of the Cedars as higher density residential/mixed-use on the park. This part of the street car phase then would complete a loop between Main Street Garden, Old City Park, and a new deck park.

Obviously highly conceptual.