Friday, May 13, 2011

You Know Who Should Be for Highway Removal

Downtown Tower Owners. In their usual short-sighted understanding, would probably assume, "OMG, we need those highways to get people here." But, as I pointed out in the Spatial Integration of Downtown Dallas post, we were busy building towers to a demand that was effectually being gutted by those freeways:
Thinking again about downtown and the plethora of high-rise towers throughout downtown and specifically in areas of low integration, we are left to wonder, were these mistakes? I would say, likely not (at least in the frame of the discussion of space syntax -- whether the towers themselves and their associated infrastructure/delivery system create barriers is another story). Instead, many of the towers were built thinking Dallas, and downtown, was on the upswing. Meanwhile, the overall spatial integration of much of downtown was systematically being eroded by our transportation ideology and investments.

For example, you start building a tower in downtown in 1980 right as Woodall Rogers expressway is going under construction. You think that means more access and increased value from the base point of where you started/bought the land/invested. Instead, it decreased access and spatial integration, eroding the area around your investment, but making housing developments in Plano and Frisco seem like a grand idea. Rational locators.

You did perfectly fine financially if you built and got the F out, selling your asset before the price correction by way of long-term market response.

So we're left with lots of built floor space in downtown Dallas with very low levels of spatial integration throughout. Meaning, more floor area space than what the land value would suggest is appropriate for a direct relationship. Also stated as, we've overvalued the land of downtown Dallas in its current state.
So along comes this story of Comerica Tower being in deep doo-doo, along with many of the other office high-rises in downtown Dallas. Which is expected but perhaps not so coincidental that just yesterday I was sitting across the street looking at it from Press Box Grill having a discussion about its structural integrity. It turns out, and I should've known, considering the broader discussion I was in had a similar arc and conclusion, that the bigger issue isn't one of structural integrity but of financial viability. Said viability, which is pegged to demand which equals desirability.

Can't fill all of that space if no one wants to be there. Unless you drop rents. Can't drop rents and still cover the bills. Can't fill with tenants if downtown is not desirable. Downtown can't be desirable if towers themselves are subtracting from the experience of downtown.

I'm not suggesting getting rid of towers, there is far too much embodied investment and energy tied up into them, but I am suggesting the expectation of more towers is highly unlikely (the mystery of Museum Tower withstanding). Furthermore, to fill them up, perhaps we need to 1) make downtown more desirable and 2) bring housing back closer to the potential employment in the tower by removing the freeways and availing the real estate market to cheap, formerly right-of-way land near downtown.

If you bring residential back closer to downtown (by removing the freeways, thus increasing desirability, then you no longer need to have the freeways to deliver employees from Allen to downtown everyday.


An addendum from the comments in the Observer section where the consensus solution is "mixed-use." Urbanism is always more complicated than that.

The problem is deeper than simple conversion to mixed-use.

A few problems: 1) is the cost of transforming these office towers into residential , 2), can residential deliver the rents/returns that commercial space did, and 3) is there even enough demand to be in downtown Dallas to achieve those rents. The rents of all the other downtown residential buildings would say, likely not. That is not to say they can't be there in the future. Then we have to start looking at why demand is low to live in downtown and why supply of residential is similarly though even though they are partially linked.

The #1 problem in downtown is that land costs are very high (as many landowners expect their land to be worth new towers) and well, demand is low. Demand is a product of desirability, as is density. Both are a product of spatial integration, but that discussion begins to get too wonky for a comments section.

As much as we like to thump our chest, exclaim bravado, and yelp, "world class!" The things we "DO BIG," are only the ineffectual. High cost, little return. And as much as the downtown 360 plan wanted to avoid it, the answer is inner highway loop removal. The cost of which would easily be paid for by the land sale, which then pays off by way of tax base, new, high quality, walkable urban neighborhoods near downtown, meaning a residential base that doesn't need massive amounts of infrastructure (which we can't afford) to get to a downtown office tower.

The inner loop highways make land next to them 1) undesirable and 2) inaccessible (part of the spatial integration aspect), so that the highest and best use all around the "ring" is parking lots, as you can observe. What is built around the "ring," has either been the result of heavy subsidy or charity, the majority of which is tax-exempt.

We, downtown, will forever tread water if every project has to be subsidized and we can't "right-side" the equation of land cost and demand.Lastly, we have to look at having independent (or dependent) neighbors whose tax base is dependent on cheap and easy (or perceived) commutes into downtown as an advantage. Houston, who annexed their 'burbs has to listen to them as constituents. Dallas, in the interest of self-preservation, needs to make it harder to drive into downtown from far flung places.