Monday, March 21, 2011

Compiling Past Thoughts on Woodall Rogers

I was asked today for my thoughts on the Woodall Rogers Deck Park given the new virtual fly-thru:

Since I don't have much time this week, I am assembling, compiling, cutting, and pasting here from previous efforts. Two things to keep in mind: 1) Most of these thoughts were put together over a year ago and some things have since changed, and 2) what actually goes IN the park is not of my greatest concern, but what happens around the park, as I'll explain:

The links:

First, people who at least presented themselves as being involved with programming of the Park from the Bryant Park Foundation asked me for comment:
As for what is within the Freeway Deck Park...I think what is within the design is all well and good. However, my concerns with it are a bit broader, generally more global issues outside of the actual scope of the park design:
  • First, closing of Harwood through the park is a mistake. I understand the desire for a larger lawn area, but for a park where the fundamental purpose is connectivity, it is a mistake to reduce the amount of connectors so that a full 11 on 11 football game can be played in a downtown that is so thoroughly cut off from its adjacent neighborhoods by the inner highway loop. Limiting the amount of vehicular connections will apply too much vehicular pressure on the few access roads that do exist, further eroding the public realm as well as instill greater impetus to the private development along those few roads to respond to increased "car demand," for lack of a better term.
  • Second, the streetcar plan is bothersome to me (ed. note: this comment was made when the streetcar plan was still proposing a downtown circulator loop), in that it cuts short the existing M-Line at the park to make its phase 1 loop between the convention center and the arts district. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how transit can be leveraged for positive, urban, economic development and how streetcars, in particular, function as transport for inner ring workers to get to office space downtown. Under the current plan, if somebody in uptown wants to check out a new restaurant in Bishop Arts district, they will have to make two or three connections to do so which will prevent people from ever making the trip without the car. All meaning that the streetcar effort will be little more than a tourist trap.
  • Third, the point of the park is to link downtown and ideally make everyone forget that they happen to be standing over essentially adeath trap freeway. While it may be a novelty at first, that awareness will never be overcome as the freeway rises on both sides of the park as to become visible. There should be some thinking down the line of getting the air rights from TxDOT to be able to add buildings at each end of the park to create some enclosure, pedestrianize the Pearl and St.Paul as well as further enhance the stitching back together of uptown and downtown. Even if it would be one-story retail buildings with extremely narrow depths, anything would help...except for giant walls, which is what the Winspear is building on the back side of its building toward the freeway and frontage road, which ideally would become part of the urban grid rather than and on/off ramp as it is now.
  • I guess my only other potential regret is how little interaction the parcels adjacent will have towards the park, but like all things urban, some of these are at least in transition and will help add to the parks character when they develop.

Part of a pretty big post on "Parks and Lessons on Return on Investment":
The Woodall Rogers Deck Park is a great thing for this City and its design in absence of the complete removal of the freeway is the best (well, 2nd best possible) solution. But Bryant Park isn't great without Gramercy. Piazza Navona without Centro Storico. Want to be a World Class City? Yes, that is the competition.

This post isn't intended to poo-poo the park, but remind us that the work isn't yet finished.

When thinking about parks (or anything in isolation) in terms of ROI (Return on Investment) things get a bit tricky. First, parks, like roads, are never expected to be fully self-sufficient. Can we make them that way? Sure, but largely their returns are either enumerable, incalculable, or externalized. There is too much subjectivity floating around to accurately derive an input. How do you value clean air or water compared to me? How important is walkable urbanism?

On the other hand, the best statistic we've been able to arrive at for cities wasn't worked out by mathematicians, but by the market: real estate values. We pay for those subjective items with our dollars. To combat this difficulty, statistician Nate Silver tried to input some "consumer preference" weighting into his livability survey of NYC neighborhoods. Steps in the right direction.

I'll have to track down the graduate thesis from MIT that I have saved floating around on this here computer, but it showed a 24% increase in land values of properties within 300 feet of parks. From memory, I believe that leveraged increment decreased gradually to about 10% bump for 800 feet from the park.

So what's the problem? As I have pointed out before, the area around the Deck Park is largely built out but a few vacant properties immediately to the North and the Arts District to the South. And it is likely to sit that way given the high land value, the saturated high end residential market and flat, probably over supplied office markets. Eventually, those blocks will fill in and the new (and existing) users will need open space to stretch their legs, but I don't expect a rush of anything new in that area for some time.

Well then, what "externalized" benefits will there be? Well, it is a park so it will be used for recreation, festivities, and enjoyment, but for the most part will function as the neighborhood park for LoMac, precisely the kind of place that is like a jumbled puzzle without a piece yet put in place. Urbanism is an assembled puzzle. The pieces come together to form a new picture, something greater than the sum of the parts. Simple analogy, I know, but cities are actually remarkably simple things when you clear out the mental flotsam and visual jetsam.

LoMac has a highway, a park slapped on top, an incomprehensible and impossible to navigate set of anti-urban spaghetti of roads, and a lot of density with no urbanity. In sum, it is precisely the "urban" by-product of silo-ized attempts at urbanism. You get the government you deserve, and the city as well, which is why my money would be in areas set to rise, not those already at their peak.

Since the area is almost fully built out, Woodall Rogers Deck Park might be the cherry on top of the sundae. Except the ice cream is on the floor. The nuts are at the store and the chocolate sauce is all over the kids face with his filthy hand stuck in the jar. In other words, there is still work to be done.

This might seem crazy to say since there is about to be a new park in the neighborhood, a Ritz-Carlton, and hundreds of extremely high end condos, but without broader, more comprehensive thinking about the entire area of LoMac and the park, I promise you that the area is at its peak. Other parts of the City will surpass it as desirable places to live and be as those areas get the livability equation right, which means if you own a condo there, don't expect to sell it for more than you bought it. Return on investment.

So once the park is completed and all ribbons are cut and we take a moment to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, we can take a moment to build the sundae, the complete urban neighborhood.

So, how could it be better?

We have to think about what is outside the boundaries of the park. Despite removing a road in what I believe to be a mistake, one of the park's primary objectives is connectivity, linking downtown and uptown. Since we're disrupting vehicular connectivity, I presume we must be thinking about pedestrian connectivity only.

That is all well and good, but I don't find areas immediately to the North or South to be particularly pedestrian friendly. They are in spots, for example Flora Street, the spine of the Arts District is, but the North-South connectors are anything but. Therefore, in order to make the park successful we absolutely, positively must think about pedestrian connections to and from the park (and widening sidewalks on oversized one-way roads doesn't help).

In order to expand the Deck Park's magnetic qualities, we have to begin stripping away the impediments. We do that by mentally moving outward from the park almost as if we are walking it ourselves.

The first barrier(s) are the parallel access roads running alongside Woodall Rogers. Currently, these look and act more like highway feeders, on- and off-ramps. Mostly because they are. But they should be designed as urban streets, with textured cross-walks, countdown crosswalk signals, parallel parking, and probably narrowed to two lanes just as they are now with the construction. If a car is perturbed by the extra twenty seconds before they can get on 75 back to Plano, so be it. Do you want a more livable city? Make it safe, amenable, and attractive to pedestrians. OMG I can't speed through (insert City from Most Livable Cities list)!!!

Next, since we are hardly using Harwood anymore (correct me if I'm wrong, but that is the one that has been ripped out, right?), we should conceptually make Harwood function as a piece of the infrastructure for the park, a pedestrian welcome mat for the park reaching into both downtown and uptown. Some vehicular access must remain for the various buildings served by it, but since cars won't be using it as a connection, might as well make it serve as much "traffic" as possible: the foot and bike kind. Harwood should look and feel like an extension of the park and it deserves an exceptional design treatment allowing it to stand out all the way to Ross and McKinney.

(Side note: I would strongly recommend vertical elements at both ends of the park to block the views of the rising Leviathan like freeways.)
Lastly, and most ambitiously, a complete rethinking of the spaghetti network of roads, both north and south of the park (cloverleaf) with renewed prioritization for the pedestrian.

Think about this: how do you walk from the Ritz to the American Airlines Center?

Possible answers:
- Are you crazy?
- Walk? /quizzical look
- I just drive or cab
- Umm, I have no idea

The distance is little more than a 1/4 mile, but perceptually it might as well be miles away. All of these roads (Field, Akard, Cedar Springs, etc.) deliver traffic to other parts of the Metroplex but function as barriers to connectivity locally. If great cities are built on a foundation of great neighborhoods, wrecking areas for the sake of others further out is anti-city.

There is a rational framework intended by the original city planners beneath the illogical suburbanized road system. It doesn't even feel safe to a driver. You may be too comfortable on them because of familiarity, so drop a tourist in the area and give them directions. Panic ensues. Much like what happens everyday downtown when drivers inevitably turn down the wrong way on the preponderance of one-way roads.

The logic and intuitive wayfinding of the walkable urban grid needs to be revealed in order to unlock the value of the remaining undeveloped and underdeveloped areas of LoMac. Oh, and side benefit: restitching this area will also help to save Victory from floating out to sea. We can't get Oceanfront property type return on investment without thinking outside the park for the "return" we are looking for, which is great, walkable neighborhoods as part of a great American City.
In a recent tweet, I stated that authentic places are always demand driven. So what does this mean for parks? Are they cherries on top or catalysts for change? Chemical reactions don't start on their own.

Following the logic of demand-driven places, parks can be both. If a City decides that it wishes or needs a certain portion of town to revitalize, become safe, attract investment, then a new park can enhance the livability that is lacking, the reason for disinvestment. However, a park alone is rarely enough. It has to be one part of the plan including changes to the transportation network, typically to improve the "green infrastructure" or walkable/bikable access to the park, and possibly even financial incentives to reverse momentum in an area.

On the other hand, a park can be the finishing touch on a neighborhood, the cherry on top so to speak. This is also demand driven. If enough people agglomerate around one magnet that the distance, scale, or density of the new development creates the demand for an additional park or amenity closer to the recent development. This will create a new sub-center (or altogether new center of gravity) for the neighborhood. Does it become an entirely new neighborhood or a hierarchical place within the existing one is a place specific question.

So is Woodall Rogers a catalyst for change or a cherry on top? The answer is that it is (or ought to be) a little bit of both. The new density requires some reasonable greenspace because the transportation network is unwalkable. AND, because the transportation network in the area is so bad, that the park can be the catalyst for transforming it into one that is more walkable, livable.
And lastly:

I refer to the area quite a bit in a post about the Museum Tower, now under construction:
The stuff inside of a building or unit, ie quality of counter tops and fixtures, etc are well and good, but those are the fine-grained adjustments to the real estate microscope. Location and proximity, or propinquity, is the big knob.

The problem of the Arts District is its clustering of the venues so tightly that any potential vitality is suffocated by an over abundance of simple boxes. Sure the architecture might be complex but that is only skin deep. Value is driven by complexity. And real complexity is created by the mixture of types, uses, buildings and the interconnection of a walkable urban fabric. The point of walkable urbanism is the value of having your daily destinations within a safe, pleasant walking distance.

This is still Henry Ford assembly line urbanism when we need the technology of the 21st century of smart, interconnected systems thinking with the ability to learn and adapt populating our approach to urbanism and development. Simplicity vs. Complexity.

It is the difference between Wrigley Field and Fenway Park being so loved and "stadium districts" getting, well, torn down every twenty or thirty years. Which was the smarter investment? I'll answer my own question, it is the development that is the cherry on top, the culmination of the messy mix of its urban neighborhood.