Monday, February 28, 2011

On the Tunnels and Other Downtown Ailments

Over the weekend, I was asked my thoughts on the tunnels and the new video about them put out by YouPlusMedia. It is a valuable discussion and I appreciate their work in this direction. Honest dialog is critical to the health of downtown. As the video shows, one lone voice in the wilderness got shouted down by ideologues and sycophants. The following is my response regarding the tunnels and their future.

You'll see that I veer from the predictable answer, "grunt tunnels bad grunt" and would rather explain why they didn't work. They don't reduce connectivity and mobility but attempt to increase it. Unfortunately, other forces at work stripped downtown of population and desirability, thus reducing need for increased network complexity. As you'll see though, even the densest cities in the world can barely maintain a 3-dimensional grid. Without density we're left with too much retail and too many conduits or corridors thereby not focusing the energy of people and movement into a more orderly and logical network of market responsive clusters and linkages.

The full response is as follows:

Jack is right about everything he said in the video. It seems to have permeated the conventional wisdom that the tunnels have been a net negative on the viability and vibrancy of downtown. But the first thing we have to be sure we don’t get caught up in is assigning singular blame or promise of a magic bullet. The tunnels alone didn’t kill downtown. Rather, they were a piece of the puzzle including (but not limited to): single-use zoning (generic and cut/pasted across the country), new construction tax breaks for both commercial and residential property, federal highway $$, state and federal road standards that reduce necessary network complexity, adaptability, and local mobility, artificially low gas prices, etc. etc.


So if we’re accepting that indeed tunnels aren’t a grand new vision of progress, I feel it is always critical to understand why they failed because there really isn’t anything particularly insidious about new connectivity besides violating a few urban planning precepts. If any city begins as a crossroads (in 2-dimensions), eventually those two roads, particularly at the intersection will become overcrowded. A parallel road to the x-axis will have to be added, than a parallel to the y, and so on as the city’s grid expands along with population and desirability of the place and the marketplace that is created by 1) population and 2) infrastructural convergence, ie predictability. The traffic spills outward filling up new outlets, desire lines, bypasses, forming a complex network. Eventually, it makes more sense to go up than to continually expand outward and outward, but there is no magical tipping point besides what makes sense on a local case by case basis. It is incremental, the way cities/systems/organisms naturally adapt, evolve, grow.


The grid becomes 3-D. We see this in the form of pedestrian bridges and tunnels. The only problem is that probably only Manhattan, Hong Kong, and Coruscant from Star Wars (http://www.planetizen.com/files/oped/20050531.jpg) have the kind of density that supports a 3-D cube instead of a 2-D grid (and the first two are pushing it). This is why the High Line in Manhattan works.


We don’t have that kind of density. Film footage in the 50’s might show that we did. Dallas was a pretty crowded place and it was only natural to seek a bit of a reprieve. I think the biggest problem of the tunnels isn’t so much that it sucks life off the street (which it does), but the sheer amount of retail square footage. We have an over-abundance, as it is geared to the 100,000+ people and only open from 11am-2pm. It’s hard to make money that way and even harder for the other businesses up on the street. All of the businesses struggle. I know Jack Gosnell being the retail broker that he is, wants to fill as much retail square footage as possible, but in sum we need less retail downtown not more so that which we do have is not all puttering along on life support. Instead strengthening the businesses remain, ideally on the street. (Incidentally, the climate as an excuse is BS. Find me another city with better weather for walking the streets, reading in the park, sitting at a cafĂ© 9 months out of the year than Dallas. Copenhagen is lucky if they have 2 nice months out of the year.)


The question becomes what to do about the tunnels? Can we be draconian and just shut them down? As you mention unintended consequences, cities don’t handle radical change well. There is a period of convulsion and dislocation before they can (re)self-organize again…or they just slip into a state of disorganization, chaotic and unlivable. This is the modern city that tries to streamline, isolate, and assembly line everything: single-use, one-way, separate cars from pedestrian corridors, etc. The attempt to create order did they opposite.


In the past, I’ve suggested pretty basic carrot/stick approaches to incentivize subterranean businesses up to the street level. Give them 5 or 10 years to get out of the tunnels and amortize the amount of subsidy each year that they are given to “daylight.” They would have to move out in groups to and be clustered together to create critical mass, or pulse points, and new desire lines of movement within downtown.


Jason Roberts has suggested that the Better Food Block, or the food trucks, that the Arts District is creating will create more competition and by providing good food, cheaply (because of the low overhead inherent in food trucks) will eventually close down the tunnels. I'm not so sure. There would still be too much retail service for a permanent population/neighborhood of 5,500 people. Downtown needs more people. Except, as I always say, in a free market economy, density is and must be a product and directly relatable to desirability.


Downtown is mostly empty office buildings and surface parking lots (or parking garages). This is highest and best use. MIG can draw all of the (unsophisticated) development scenarios they want, but until the underlying issues of desirability and local mobility (specifically connections between downtown and nearby neighborhoods) are addressed, these developments would have to be either subsidized market rate housing or subsidized affordable housing (or a subsidized mix). That is no way to create replicable format where proper city building emerges naturally as the logical and profitable way to build – for investor, developer, resident, city, and environment.


If we’re willing to be honest with ourselves and think big about the tunnels and downtown, we might as well not just demonize them, but have honest dialogue about the bigger culprit for downtown’s decay which is the inner highway loop. I’ve gone on long enough so I won’t go into a diatribe about intracity highways vs intercity highways (one beneficent, one malevolent). I was on a panel about how to save the Arts District recently and someone likened the highway to modern day city walls. In one way that is correct, in that they limit local connectivity. But highways have the opposite force on development pattern. City walls, as protection from rampaging hordes and natural elements, made for coerced density, a centripetal force clustering people. Highways are centrifugal, flinging people out into the hinterlands. Well, if they’re modern day city walls (and similarly have outlived their usefulness) why not make a modern day Ringstrasse.


It may sound crazy until you think about it. All of our biggest public facilities/institutions line the loop downtown. Why not link them and give them a new front door on a grand open space system/boulevard that links downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods (where the most opportunity for development exists, like uptown’s renaissance) and more importantly improve connections across it to these neighborhoods. Right now it is far easier to get to Plano than it is to cross a highway and get to anywhere within a mile of downtown. We’re essentially subsidizing life in Plano, Frisco, McKinney, Arlington, etc. through all of the unmet potential and swaths of highways and the underdeveloped land along them. They support regional connectivity but undermine local connectivity, which is the critical key for walkability, urban success, and most importantly, resilience. It also may sound expensive, until you think about the returns. Seoul tore out a freeway for 200 million and change and has had 2 billion in investment just in the last five years. All the new tax base, all the new housing and affordability and tax base could sit right where these highways now sit. Maybe then we would have the density (due to increased desirability and livability) to find a more beneficial use for the tunnels like linking to subway lines like the mothballed D2 (which I was the lead urban designer for) and the taxbase/ridership to pay for such niceties like more public transit.


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As for actual ideas for what to do with the tunnels, they can range from the ironic and absurd to the pragmatic. A business partner and I like to joke about making the tunnels a decriminalized drug/red light district, i.e. putting everything a puritanical society wishes to keep under wraps literally below the surface. It would even localize all of the "damned" for Dallas Baptist to "save." In seriousness however, there is some really strong evidence in favor of localizing these areas as Bunny Colvin did in Hamsterdam in the Wire like isolating and quarantining anti-bodies within a living system.


On the other hand, we have plenty of square footage in downtown occupied by data centers and storage (digital or otherwise). These could easily be moved below the surface into tunnels. Data centers have two real priorities, protection and cooling. The cooling would have to be handled perhaps through drilling deep below ground to ventilate with cool subterranean air. It remains to be seen if there is a heat sink to physically exhaust the heat gain from the mechanical equipment. The protection is easy, as they would be in underground bunkers. Data Center developers won't locate along flight paths or near airports because they're seriously worried about falling planes. And why not? If something happens to that center that is millions or billions in data that vanishes immediately.


At the end of the day however, data centers and surface parking lots actually are highest and best use within the framework of what downtown Dallas really is. Both have a greater return for property owners and managers than the uses we would like to see occupying and populating downtown. This will remain to be the case until the noose is removed from downtown and we begin to think of it again as a neighborhood with offices and less as an office park with some residences.


So do we legislate this to happen and subsidize the kind of uses that we want? Or do we actually address the deeper issues?