Thursday, December 16, 2010
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
One small problem: as my host drove me into town from the airport, it dawned on me that Austin isn’t a beautiful city. Not in the way that I meant. It’s not a showcase of the best 21st-century architecture and urban design. The cityscape is still dominated by the state capitol, an 1888 model of Beaux Arts splendor. The red-granite Renaissance Revival temple, topped with a 310-foot-tall dome, serves as the city’s official wayfinding device, protected by view corridors. It’s a spectacular object. But overall, the city is the antithesis of my thesis.
And recent attempts (brilliant syntax in bold):
But the building that truly upended my thesis both impinged on the primacy of the capitol dome and hogged the skyline. Frost Bank, a 33-story green-glass tower built in 2004 and topped with a sort of origami flower, was designed by Duda/Paine Architects, of Durham, North Carolina, and conceived to revitalize downtown in the wake of the first dot-com bust and 9/11. But it looks like a delayed echo of the post-modern moment and a study in the ways that attempted architectural beauty can go wrong.
I wound up wandering around Austin trying to reconcile the city in which I found myself with the lecture I planned to give. I did find beauty in Austin—the running trail along the river is a glorious piece of urban infrastructure—but decided that most of what the city brings to the table is its native scrappiness. Austin is an endearing mess. Its slacker reputation has made it a magnet for musicians, techies, film-makers, and artisanal-cocktail mixers. Everyone I met traveled by bicycle at least some of the time. Daimler chose Austin for the first U.S. test of its high-tech Car2go vehicle-sharing system. Music percolates continuously from friendly outdoor bars. But unlike, say, Portland, Oregon, where bike lanes and light rail abound, here there is a conspicuous mismatch between the perceived values of the place and the physical environment. This is Texas, after all.
I took a walk down West 6th Street to the 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods flagship, a few short blocks from my hotel. Once there I had trouble finding the entrance. A ceremonial lobby facing the sidewalk led to the corporate offices. Shoppers usually arrive by car and enter from the parking lot or garage. One night, I watched a steady stream of bicyclists—some equipped with safety lights and helmets, but most not—pedal beside the fast-moving traffic on South Congress, the city’s hipster main drag. No bike lane. The situation was crazy. There is a new light-rail system, a single line that begins downtown and ends at a northern suburb called Leander. It doesn’t go to the airport. It doesn’t run at night or on the weekends. It’s described as a “starter line.” Clearly, the city isn’t quite what it aspires to be.
Eventually, I made my way to city hall, which I had hoped would be the 21st-century counterpoint to the state capitol, topped not with the Goddess of Liberty but with an array of photovoltaics. Occupying a prominent waterfront site, this 2004 building tries incredibly hard to do everything right: it’s LEED Gold certified, incorporates local and recycled materials, counts its outdoor plaza as a green roof for the parking garage, and generates some of its own electricity. The jagged form was a collaboration between the noted Southwestern architect Antoine Predock and Cotera, Kolar, Negrete & Reed, an Austin firm. The building was supposed to resemble a Texas Hill Country rock formation. But the jutting volumes recalled the deconstructivist movement of the late 1980s. Instead of providing an enlightened retort to the hubris of the big dome, it is more like a corollary to the Frost Bank Tower. That building was all dumb vanity. City hall, on the other hand, thinks way too much.
Enough about failed architecture and urbanism that either tries too hard, thinks too much, is too ideological, or just plain compromised by autocentricity. To overcome these issues of walkability (and lack thereof) we have be big, brave, and bold. Texan.
And now, to the failings of the public planning process (that is still on-going). And when I say that, I don't mean specifically this public planning process as much as ALL public planning processes and the way they are orchestrated. Along with the Better Block guys, I recently put together a presentation discussing these issues that will be posted up here when the time is right. The thesis is that the public planning process is too often rigged. It is so, by asking citizens to be experts in things they aren't expert in. See if you can find some of that here:
While at city hall, I picked up a newsprint handout, “Which Way, Austin? Help Plan the City’s Future,” a survey asking for public input on the city’s first comprehensive plan since the 1970s. Based on past growth patterns, the plan assumes that the city’s population will almost double in the next 30 years; today’s city of 786,000 will be more like 1.5 million come 2039. At that point, the mess will be far less endearing. The plan was not about an aesthetic, or even an urban-design strategy, but about finding a pattern of growth that would sync with the city’s values. Later, Mark Walters, one of the city’s planners, told me the questionnaire represented the middle stage of a three-part process. The values expressed in it were harvested from interviews conducted in the first phase by Wallace, Roberts & Todd. In phase three, an outline drafted by WRT will be fleshed out with community input early next year.
I was impressed by the way “Which Way, Austin?” distilled complex concepts like creativity and livability, and goals such as improved transit and more walkable neighborhoods, into the language of cartography. Possible future scenarios were illustrated by four maps. Map A depicted a future in which sprawl continues and there are few urban-style “live-work-play” centers. Map D showed new mixed-use development concentrated along existing transportation corridors. Respondents were asked to vote for a scenario map and then answer a handful of questions about their priorities: How important is it “to preserve Austin’s culture, character of historic buildings and neighborhoods”? Or “to reduce Austin’s carbon footprint”?
“This is a public process, and we’re letting the public tell us which way we want to go,” Walters says. “We’re a very democratic city, with a little d. The public process is sometimes more important than the end result.” The selection of the survey questions, however, pretty much telegraphed the tenor of the plan that will result. Unless of course, I said to him, everyone votes for sprawl. “Well, they haven’t told us that thus far,” Walters said, a month before the deadline for completing the surveys. “I think the participants, by and large, realize where we’re at. They live here in Austin. They know that something needs to change.”
Eventually I realized that the title of the questionnaire—“Which Way, Austin?”—implied a lack of direction. Or rather, it suggested that the act of providing direction would be undemocratic, disloyal to the local civic culture. I also realized that what I was seeing was an aversion to authority in built form—not typically the kind of environment in which civic beauty thrives. Not that I expect weird-ass Austin to morph into anal Portland. But if the city is going to grow as much as the planning department expects, it will need to know exactly which way it’s going, and it’s going to have to implement a vision. And that may not be a democratic, small d, undertaking.
The first issue is the masquerading attempts towards grandeur. This and all comprehensive visioning plans like this pose as big, transformative moments. But very little ever happens. A project here or there, but largely superficial changes. Very little is done or suggested with regards to transportation funding, the tax code, or the zoning code. The result is no systemic change.
By suggesting a giant influx of population, seems little more than a scare tactic. I am all for planning, but is it realistic? Is all growth exponential or will there be asymptotic forces that govern the way cities and populations grow? That is a rhetorical question.
Furthermore, these public planning processes put maps and pictures in front of people often with an expected answer. Even if there isn't and we go along with the charade that we will stick with whatever "vision" err drawn representation of a theoretically possible city, the recommendations are already foregone conclusions, nearly all of which are still superficial.
Lastly, because they ask non-experts to be experts in things they don't fully understand the planners in charge ensure two things: 1) that public participation will wane and therefore 2) they get to remain the gatekeepers of information. They get to retain control. Hardly democratic. Any democratic process requires knowledge for it to function, however no boring hour long presentation will make citizens expert in picking one map from another.
All human progress throughout history is the process of taking information, knowledge, out of the hands of a few and giving it to the many. These large public planning processes, if they have any benefit, is the slight uptick in broad awareness, but this is not enough for what goes into larger planning decisions and urban form.
What we should be doing is empowering neighborhoods, where citizens actually are experts. They know their neighborhood better than anybody. In a way, this is about affecting the large scale by working at the small scale, fractally, many small changes repeated ad infinitum until massive change is produced. This is actually how cities function properly.
By returning planning to the neighborhood unit level, we would be prioritizing local connections. For example, if a neighborhood says, "this arterial is big, ugly, unsafe, and traffic choked" the appropriate response isn't to make it bigger and uglier, just because it is a "regional connector" or some other meaningless word on an arterial plan. The answer is to restore local connectivity, rebuilding local neighborhoods, unit by unit.
The modern public planning process attempts to change the big, but ultimately only changes the small. By changing the small, over and over again, we change the big. While the article above questions the role and ability of democratic process in city building, this solution maintains it, empowers it, if not outright unleashing it. The real challenge is for those in control to let go of the supposed democratic planning process.
Friday, December 10, 2010
You are missing the point of Thanksgiving Square. It's not a park. It's a building with no roof. Like any other building, it does not have porous walls. It has articles inside and on the walls. If you want to enjoy it as a respite from the city, then enjoy. If you want a cafe for people watching, go elsewhere.
So I didn't miss the point if I stated it explicitly.
Secondly, if it is a building without a roof, should all of our buildings have blank walls and no entries. Should our buildings not be porous, physically or visually? Should they all be bunkers and corrosive to urban environments?
It isn't about the intended point of Thanksgiving Square. It IS about taking a toxic piece of property and repurposing it so that it doesn't kill vibrancy and, in turn, the potential businesses and property values around it.
Hardly a successful urban park. We're no longer in the 1970s. Piazza Navona is no longer used to wage staged naval battles and practice nautical tactics. It is time for a repurposing.
I'm one of those naysayers - and the problem is these are being sold as mobility improvements rather than amenities for urban development. We've backed down our plan here in Austin to almost as stupid as Fort Worth's now, because relatively few people are willing to be honest about the fact that a streetcar running in a shared lane is actually even worse than a bus if you care about speed and reliability.
But yeah, if you're a tourist, or have gone voluntarily car-free, a streetcar might be nice. How about if the developers pay for it then, and not just the initial capital cost - but bond out the operating cost as well? In the meantime, transportation funds should go to things that can actually shift mode choice - like light rail.
Let me raise others that many don't often think about.
First, I want to mention something I heard last night, that the McKinney Avenue Trolley is up to 300,000 riders per year. And if you've ridden it recently during peak or rush hours, you understand. It is literally packed. Far more so than when I rode it to/from work every day living in uptown 2004-06.
The significance of this suggests a mode share change by the typically younger demographic that lives in uptown, millennials.
Secondly, as we begin to price parking more appropriately, people will be looking for outlets that don't require paying 100/month in parking downtown.
Light rail has an appropriate service length as do modern streetcars. Streetcars can better serve the neighborhoods within 1 to 3 miles with very frequent stops that light rail can provide only 1 or 2 stops at best. These immediately downtown adjacent areas are where the greatest gap between existing and potential lies, aka profit, opportunity, value, and of course, interesting walkable urban neighborhoods.
Lastly, and perhaps most out of the box, is the idea of mobility, shared lanes and traffic calming. The MATA trolley often makes driving on McKinney Avenue a pain in the ass. And that is a good thing. It is harder to speed, thereby making walking along McKinney and crossing it, much safer and more enjoyable (despite the narrowness of sidewalks).
It may hurt long distance mobility, but it increases localized mobility and the interconnection or "tethering" of neighborhoods.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Empiricism suggests otherwise once all of the auxiliary, correlated, and causal effects are effectively weighed which are either too inconvenient or too complicated for the anti-streetcar crowd. Fortunately, if this is what their final stand has come down to, streetcar vs. buses, then we (and our cities/economies) are in good shape for the future.
First, streetcars being on fixed alignments provide greater predictability for the real estate development market to properly associate price/value potential of a site given its proximity to the line. It instills a hierarchy, an awareness for what works rather than trial and error urbanism. While real estate development is guided by an “invisible hand,” that hand is always tied to an invisible arm, that being government and public investment. Do we want a smart, efficient, guided real estate delivery system or a dumb one that stumbles around the edges trying to either create real estate value from scratch or hoodwink people? See the housing bubble.
History has proven streetcars to be a far more effective tool in catalyzing development (particularly the high quality urban development the Mayor has stressed) whereas buses and their “greater mobility” aka greater inefficiency effectively doom themselves by their own inefficiency and sparse building patterns.
Second, modern streetcars are more accessible for the disabled, handicapped, elderly with the flat loading and along with their increased predictability for real estate the public awareness of the line is greater. The simplicity of alignments allows the linkage of important place to important place not only physically but in the collective consciousness of the community. They know where to catch it and where it will take them. So if people can’t get on a bus or don’t know where to catch it or how many transfers they have to take, all deter from the mobility you are claiming that comes from some antiquated or outright false theology.
Third, buses must be replaced every 3 to 5 years and are a maintenance nightmare due to their construction and internal combustion engines whereas Dallas and other cities have streetcars running that are a century old.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the modern streetcars are slick, sleek, and represent progress. Much of the engine of the private market place is psychological and often irrational, driven by consumer/investor confidence. Initiating that confidence in the 21st century sustainable city, with positive symbols of which all cities who have them are inherently proud, is one of those steps to pulling a recessionary economy out of the doldrums.
Lastly, buses will still be part of the equation, but as circulators for the less dense areas of cities at the edges linking with other rungs of the hierarchy such as DART, TRE, AND streetcar. There has to be a multiplicity of solutions, an ecology of sustainable modes of transportation including more walkable/bikable development with associated improved public infrastructure. The effective load of buses will be lessened. Streetcars will serve and drive the physical form of areas 1 to 3 miles from the primary hub or job center being downtowns.
The empirical history of city evolution is the best lesson and will provide a far better guidebook than the misguided theology of the 20th century that so misguided us such as the theory of mobility (much of which was driven by the car/oil/gas industries successfully seeking monopolies) but rather real mobility through actual and differentiated choice, fundamental to any real marketplace of which the City is the ultimate one.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Monday, December 6, 2010
DO NOT ENTER
A colleague and I have a joke. One that will no doubt leave you not laughing, but inwardly snickering at our silly professional humor. It goes something like this, "what do you do if you can't design a road properly? You add speed bumps." Hilarious, I know.
If you can't cry all there is left to do is laugh, right?
The point of the joke is that drivers will always drive at the speed that they feel comfortable and safe driving. The bumps imply that there is motivation to slow traffic for whatever reason, but the traffic engineering manual doesn't know how to design for calm traffic speeds so we must add regulation (signage with speed limits), enforcement (cops sitting in a car), and if all else fails, structural impediments (such as speed bumps).
It is with that said that I bring up Thanksgiving Square in downtown Dallas. Having recently relocated from the Interurban Building to the Mosaic, the park is now in sight and on the mind daily. Furthermore, it is my understanding that the city of Dallas is trying to figure out what to do with 1600 Pacific, an ominous looking black glass 60s era office tower. The tower sits on Thanksgiving Square, emptied out and went bankrupt last summer, and has had some teases of new development floated across the news wire. I haven't seen anybody working on it at all however.
The point of this post is to express that the design of Thanksgiving Square is a speed bump slowing down an entire portion of downtown Dallas from investment and densification. If the city wants to reinvigorate 1600 Pacific, surely there are economic partnerships in the works, but numbers alone will not ensure success. Thanksgiving Square must be reversed from a negative attractor, repelling people, to a center of gravity drawing people and investment.
As speed bumps are a sign of poorly calibrated road design to the needs of an area, as are public parks that are closed and gated at 5 pm. This is the case with Thanksgiving Square. Contrast this with other public spaces in downtown: Main Street Gardens and AT&T Plaza, which had to remove the bus 'bunkers' to make it an attractive, successful public plaza. It removed visual impediments creating a safer environment. Thanksgiving Square lacks both physical and visual porosity necessary in making a public space successful.
Let me also state that I'm really not interested in the history, politics, or ownership of Thanksgiving Square. The purpose of this post is not to figure out how to solve the potential maze of hamstrings and red tape from making a vibrant plaza, but to point out the physical flaws in the public space. They are there and identifiable. Whatever nostalgia or attachment we might have had to the process that created the park must be forgotten for the sake of bettering and enlivening downtown Dallas.
A successful city creates an environment where density equals desirability, in that the provision of space is enough to satisfy the demand to be there, without hindering that demand (i.e. a giant building might be overbearing - or in this case, the towers along the southern edge ensure that the Square is nearly always in shade). The majority of space around Thanksgiving Square, like 1600 Pacific, is dead, dying, or on life support (heavily subsidized). Certainly there are macro-design elements effecting the general desirability and well-being of downtown (highways), but from the micro-sense, why are some areas of downtown more successful than the cluster around Thanksgiving Square?
The park was designed by Philip Johnson who, along with I.M. Pei, probably did far more harm to downtown's health and vitality than they ever imagined or intended. But what's an architect to do? The client is the boss, right? Concrete and grade changes, typical of the time of design, are not just ever present, but bold, as if the idea needed to be extruded to cartoonish proportions just like Johnson's other buildings: the Crescent and what is now known as Comerica Tower (which will surely have five more names of whatever bank such-and-such over the next few years).
Thanksgiving Square leaves one with the sense that it was designed as a place of respite to get away from the 1970's downtown Dallas that was still quite busy, perhaps even oppressively so. And that would be fine, cities need places to get away. However, how do you reconcile the intentions for peace and quiet with its design as an interchange between levels, a hub between below-grade tunnels and at-grade street activity?
When the park is open during any work day, it is predominantly used by smokers as they are shoved increasingly further away from any public building or entrance and for the occasional dog walkers as there are two large residential buildings adjacent to the Square: the Mosaic and Gables Republic Tower.
The dogs crap in the expansive spottily emerald shards of grass only to be occasionally cleaned up by the owners. We've discussed the issues of cleaning up after dogs extensively on these pages, which is only exacerbated by the lack of visual permeability to and thru the park. When people aren't being seen, some may not live up to the standards society imposes upon them.
I have a perhaps unnatural aversion to turf grass in urban settings. In places like this that are sloped and heavily treed, it often doesn't grow well. It is a maintenance nightmare that most be mowed constantly as well as cleaned as it attracts trash, cigarette butts, and dog shit. I generally only believe in using grass in open lawns that are usable for free-form activities, playing, picnics, etc. Grass because you couldn't think what else to do with the plane is generally a bad idea.
However, this also is not the greatest offense by Thanksgiving Square. It should be wanted for murder, because it kills everything around it. Let's look:
- First, is the transportation network, which is limited, and in turn limits the life of the square. Pacific, running along the southern border of the square is one-way. If you believe in my concept of convergence or Space Syntax/Bill Hillier's idea of centrality of networks, you know this limits the amount of activity around the space. Pacific is also mostly used only by cabbies who know their way around downtown and since they are stuck on one-way couplets use it as a U-turn.
Furthermore, along the north side is the DART line, which is for DART only, but this doesn't stop the confused driver from turning down it daily only to be honked at by a DART train. Since it is for only DART, this also limits the amount of traffic moving past the site, only compounded by DART not stopping on this particular block.
- Squiggly orange lines represent pedestrian ways that break up the Dallas super blocks. These would be necessary and well used if they were direct and the destination more visible. Instead there are vertical circulation escalators to get to the sky bridges and tunnels in the way, as you see. I'm not sure I've ever seen these open, let alone used. They should all be removed similar to the bus 'bunkers' to increase sightlines and perceived safety.
(the DART corridor - there might be a pedestrian or two here if they had any reason to be on this portion of sidewalk)
The streets to the east and west are the Akard-Ervay one-way couplets, which provide the majority of north-south pedestrian movement in the immediate vicinity.
- The solid red squares represent access to parking garages. These interrupt the pedestrian network as well as occupy potential development space that would participate in the urban fabric rather than subtract from it as garages do.
- The thick, fuzzy red lines represent walls. Walls are nearly always detrimental to street life. Even worse when they are blank and taller than a person. Even even (sic) worse when these walls aren't broken often for points of access. Walls create a border vaccuum condition which from an urban perspective, repels activity, which heads towards centers of gravity, the centrality of networks, nodes. This is not to be confused with people preferring to hang out near edges of spaces, rather than stand in the center of spaces. Call it the meso- vs. micro-spatial preference of people. For people to gather around the edges, first an attractive space or outdoor room, a center of gravity has to be created.
- In the orange shade, I'm showing the two residential towers I mentioned previously. If I were to guess, there are probably in the neighborhood of 6-700 units between the two buildings, which, along with the office population, should help support ground floor businesses.
*For the sake of argument here, we'll also ignore the drastic grade to traverse between street and tunnel as well as the tunnels siphoning commerce and vitality from the street.
- I've also outlined the ground floor uses around the square and color coded them based on their relative success. Red is bad, yellow is okay, and blue is good. I had to make a few judgment calls, but I'll go through each for you to decide.
GROUND FLOOR USES (by color):
Taco Borracho: This is a new taco stand in the Mosaic building. It has people in it every time I walk by and given its physical dimensions, it must have pretty low rent. I can see this place sticking around.
Miguel's Cantina: I'm giving this a blue because it often has lunch lines out the door and down the block. Minus points for not being open weekends or after 7 pm, but its lunch success keeps it from being downgraded to yellow.
(part of Miguel's cantina and building garage access)
Beyond the Box/Office/Bank - Part of the storefront in the Republic building at Ervay and Pacific. Only Beyond the Box is a typical, active ground floor use, it also has outdoor tables, but are rarely full. Like Miguel's BtB is only open during typical working hours, but since it and its neighboring office uses have all been here for several years, they remain blue.
Republic Tower Leasing - This goes yellow despite having an attractive, maintained storefront because leasing is non-revenue generating. If somebody came along and offered the right price, I'm sure Gables would shove their leasing people into a closet.
Office - I forget what company is in the ground floor of the TXU building, but I believe it has turned over recently within the last two years. The real minus points come from the engagement between inside and outside space, with no physical porosity between the two.
Trophy Club - The gym for the Mosaic building. It was called Pulse, but recently renamed to tether to its mother brand presumably to up awareness and clientele among downtown office-types. Gyms can often make great ground floor uses if they make for the fishbowl and put aerobic machines up close to windows. It is what it is. However, there is very little to see in the configuration. Bonus points for reorienting the entrance to the street to have a real storefront within the past year.
AM/PM Lounge - This very well may go red shortly if it already hasn't. I didn't notice a crowd this weekend. I think this is closing if it already hasn't. I will have to verify before we make it red.
Entire 1600 Elm building - See the frowny face on the diagram
Below - Once upon a time this was a soul food joint that was pretty good. It relocated here from another location, then I believe it changed ownerships before dying a swift death, like a guillotine.
Asia Wok building - This restaurant has been dead for about 8 years. The building has been entirely empty (with the exception of a little bodega on the Elm side) for even longer. It has changed hands about a half dozen times, each promising to restore it to health...if only they could figure out the parking!
Backbeat Cafe, formerly known as Opening Bell Coffee, and even before that as Standard and Pours. This closed within the last two weeks and sits as you see it.
Vacant corner space in Mosaic
It is important to not the pattern. The closer to Akard/Ervay, the better chance of success because there is more traffic, foot and car. Until Thanksgiving Square is a more usable space, there will be no reason to venture into these blocks.
The transportation is a bit tricky due to lack of space, but the other solutions are obvious. First, the perimeter walls all need to be lowered to sitting height, broken more frequently to allow more access points, and the access points that DO exist need to be opened up to be more friendly by designing them to be welcoming sub-spaces to Thanksgiving Square that attract people to sit and hang out (remember people like to be at edges of spaces).
Here is a quick sampling of the walls and entries as they exist around Thanksgiving Square:
My personal favorite. What exactly are those shrubs doing there except to convince people NOT to enter?
This wall runs the entire length of the block without break.
On the north side is the rare "double wall" to allow daylight into the tunnels, or a convenient place to toss your bottle of Schnapp's.
While lowering walls which very well may eliminate some of the trees around the edges of the parks is a pretty significant undertaking, one solution that isn't is a complete redesign of the 'point' of the park. Right now it is a garnish, as you see.
Bizarrely, there is useless grass and useless shrubs as if whoever planted them thought, "this will cover up our mistakes" with signs that say, "keep off the grass."
Even this lego model ignored the point:
Here you see it in action, or inaction:
This point should be turned into an outdoor seating plaza to be shared amongst all of the potential restaurants and ground floor uses that currently occupy space nearby such as Miguel's, AM/PM, and Taco Borracho as well as the future uses that might move in. This would immediately make part of Thanksgiving Square more active, a central part of the outdoor room created by the building walls. It should have access back to the main part of Thanksgiving Square to allow the option of eating in a more serene setting as Thanksgiving Square is intended or you can stay out in the new cafe seating if you want more hustle and bustle and to "see and be seen."
Below is a before and after of Pearl Street triangle in New York City. Instead of going from parking to park, we would be transforming a part of Thanksgiving Square from useless green to useful, and green in that it helps to revitalize the downtown core.
I am not even suggesting radical change to the interior design of the park, but the issues at the edges are fundamental to successful public space and must be addressed. Until we transform Thanksgiving Square, it will remain a speed bump, slowing efforts to revitalize downtown Dallas.