Thursday, February 17, 2011

All Veneer Work and No Dentistry

Main Street gets all the attention and Elm and Commerce are left behind

The long-at-work Downtown Dallas 360 plan is all but finalized having been presented yesterday to the Downtown Dallas yearly luncheon. The Dallas Observer is citing its "bold ideas and quick wins." But how bold are the ideas and how quick are the wins?

There are some good things to the plan (which I'll mention), but the lack of ambition, vision, and screw boldness-how-about-audacity in correcting the real ailments of downtown were left behind. That's not very Dallas or Texan. I'm not sure any city became "world class" by compromising and focusing only on veneer work when real dentistry was necessary.

The three major problems afflicting downtown that are barely tended to are:
  • The inner freeway loop
  • The tunnels
  • Property owners perfectly happy to sit on un(der)developed properties, i.e. parking.
There are other ailments, many of which cosmetic and thus they actually get addressed. My contention however is that the real problems aren't cosmetic but systemic. The 360 plan is too focused on the urban phenotype, or physical appearance and not enough on the urban genotype, or the genetic wiring of place. The physical issues are more often than not and outgrowth of the genotype, much like how our bodies work.

We won't fix the underlying genetic issues, those that make living systems function properly, only through plastic surgery. Furthermore, those "medical procedures" end up requiring long-term and consistent subsidy to continually resuscitate a dying system, like its on a breathing machine and the family isn't quite ready to pull the plug.

The solutions proposed (or implied) for the above are:
  • lighting up underpasses or use of artwork - much cheaper than building a park over a freeway, but there is a similarly minimal return on investment ratio on this. Whereas removing sections of freeway altogether repositions acres and acres of land for redevelopment. They're instantly better connected and more desirable therefore raising demand, which reveals itself through density. If somebody considers this financially ludicrous, it would pay off at least ten-fold in new development, density, tax-base, and that strange, elusive value-multiplier of real urbanism - i.e. a highly interconnected local network, the foundation of all living systems. If your brain only made synapses between the most distant cells, you'd have an aneurysm, kind of like traffic on a highway acts to the local economy each day.
  • hope subsidized ground level retail will outperform below-grade retail. Even if it does, the availability of the 3-dimensional pedestrian grid (above-grade: pedestrian bridges, at-grade: on-street, and below-grade: tunnels) will dilute the energy of any of the above "planes." Energy from one "corridor," a convergence of linkages to destinations only spill over when it becomes too crowded. We lack the density of say, New York City, which allows the High Line to work apart from the street-level transportation network. Commercial activity requires a concentration of movement to survive (at least, those businesses that are built on physical movement to/through/past their enterprise).
  • Ummmm... I've heard rumors from some high level people, but there is no concrete policy yet for developing properties that could be considered performing (at least to the owner). Surface parking is a revenue generator for the land owner, but a net loss for the entire neighborhood around its function and land value. I've always supported a split tax approach (subject to state legality) that distinguishes improvement from land in its tax rate. This punishes underperforming properties and provides incentive for having property that participates positively in the urban network.
On the other hand, some of the highlights of the plan include the "glass box retail." I don't care for the cliched design description, but functionally it is necessary to replace the few areas around town that are currently used as micro-dog walking parks. I'm thinking particularly of Pegasus Plaza on the backside of the Magnolia Hotel and the little green patch in the nook of the DP&L building. These are backs of buildings fronting plazas (and pedestrian connections) that need to become active interfaces, frontages.

The other positive is the prioritization of the primary street framework through downtown. These being Ross, Griffin, Main, Young, and the Olive/Harwood craziness. It is necessary to improve the overall aesthetics and function of priority connectors. The reason is because of the two-tiered (but interconnected) planes that define cities.

The top level is the primary structure, the bones, that create the framework of the city. These areas will carry the most traffic (ideally of all forms of transportation in order to truly move the most amount of people) and therefore must receive the most amount of attention to detail design and function. The most people, the most stress, the most potential value that is directly connected to the attractiveness but often undermined by poor functionality and aesthetics.

The street is undesirable therefore the most valuable places (because of the amount of movement) are the least capitalized upon. The most valuable websites receive the most amount of traffic. They're the most desirable and therefore must have the best interface to reach its potential for traffic, value, and commerce. Have a shitty website, drive away business. Have shitty primary street network, which we do, drive away value...out to the 'burbs.

The secondary level is the residential backdrop. A framework of neighborhoods organized around and arranged to the amenities created by the primary street framework. If you drop the ball in meeting potential, it repulses the potential for neighborhood self-organization, aka demand to live near amenities. The residential often gets priced away from the primary streets because of the commercial value, but if the streets/spaces are designed well enough and to accommodate high degree of local connectivity (i.e. walkability) there is HIGH value for residential snuggle up as close as can be afforded to that primary network. Want to know why so many areas of Manhattan cost so much?


So far so good, except that as I mentioned, these streets have to move the most amount of people. It is troublesome that neither the downtown 360 plan NOR the bike plan address Elm and Commerce in any meaningful way. See below:

Main Street gets all the attention. Elm and Commerce are the forgotten step children. That's a quick win that will get all the attention, prettying up an already functional street. But, does it actually help to make downtown significantly better in the way that it functions as a living system built upon network density.

Let's run through a little experiment to explain why Elm/Commerce need more attention, then Main can get prettied up:

Red represents Main and its connections. Elm/Commerce one-way couplet is in black.

Too often when we think of streets and their functions (particularly in downtowns) we focus too much on the link between point A and B, as if people only drive from the start of a street to the end of it. What we forget is that the purpose of a street is to ALSO facilitate the crossing of that street as part of an adaptive, functionally interconnected network.

Elm and Commerce are both functionally dead for local connections. They're functioning perfectly in a "get the hell outta town sorta way." Also known as, exactly as they're designed. They're too wide and too one-way, and therefore too high speed. Elm and Commerce are dysfunctional streets. Empirically, go out there any day or evening. They are strictly about long distance connections and thereby sever local connectivity. Pedestrians aren't there. Businesses flounder. They effectively box in the life of Main Street, the pulse of the downtown neighborhood. Elm and Commerce are like the tourniquet cutting off blood supply.

So if we're to apply some simple math to this area, let's value functioning streets/intersections as +1. They are positive and contribute to a successful urban network. Dysfunctional streets, those that cut off local connectivity get a -1. They're reductive (almost as much as this example).

Total value of these intersections: -4

The plan is to make Main Street prettier. And there is some logic to that. As I stated above, it is the most experienced by pedestrians, the most heavily trafficked, therefore it needs the greatest attention to detail for people to touch, feel, and experience. A +1 street becomes a +2 street.

To date the efforts to "improve" Elm and Commerce have been cosmetic: some benches, maybe a tree or two, some new paving and light fixtures. But the function, its role within the network, is in no way improved. The street remains as a -1.

Total value of these intersections: 0

On the other hand, if Elm and Commerce were redesigned to facilitate pedestrian connectivity, crossing and the overall interconnectivity (particularly locally), the entire system begins to function better. There are several ways to do this, all of which should slow traffic, either through letting the eventual streetcar run on these streets (thus slowing traffic as on McKinney), widening sidewalks, allowing more parallel parking, creating cycle tracks for segregated bicycle flow. If these streets/intersections can go from dysfunctional (-1) to functional (+1), then the real estate along them will become more valuable, thus reinforcing Main Street and perhaps even raising the taxbase to the point that it makes more sense to spend on improving Main Street.

Total intersection value: +12, i.e. the "urban exponent" of highly interconnected places.

I'll bet with the house. The fundamentals of living systems always win. But, they're betting the other way.