Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pioneers Get the Arrows, Also Spread Small-Pox

Sylvan:Thirty and the West Dallas Plan

There is an old saying in real estate development, "pioneers get the arrows, the settlers get the land." Most urban planning, as we know it, is an attempt to get out in front of those inevitable conflicts between past, present, and future. We like to think all places are permanent. We are naturally resistant to change, particularly that which happens right before our eyes. We live day to day. Cities live generation to generation.

It appears a dawn is rising on West Dallas as the citybuilders, the busy bees, look for new areas to colonize where opportunity and potential exists at an increment high enough above existing (land costs) to allow for profitable investment. This is how all city building is done within a market economy. Sometimes the city, our representatives, as gentle nudges to the market. Sometimes zoning plans are enacted to get out in front of the market and guide investment and development towards a desirable end.

Sounds good. Only this playbook is still in Dallas, where zoning is a mere suggestion. We're actually far closer to Houston than we are Portland or Vancouver or wherever we are trying to mimic (and in many ways, rightly so). Zoning is a placeholder here until a deal is made and then zoning is amended via PDDs (which is customized zoning) or amendments. Often this is an entirely political process. It is also one that can take up to two years of negotiations. And, if you know anything about legal fees, you know that is a pretty hefty barrier. Both in terms of cost and time.


The question then becomes, why would anyone want to invest in such a climate? Part of a necessary planning process is to streamline development that is headed towards your desired end. If it isn't, it should be hard to do bad work, easy to do good work.

In nearly any case such as this where a developer is investing in an area not quite ready for it, that requires city participation, subsidy, beyond typical street and block infrastructure. It is often a deal we're willing to make, in order to up the tax base/density of areas lagging. And hopefully into something long-term and meaningful that will be cared about, "owned," and stewarded by the citizens themselves (that for the most part, don't currently exist on site -- another issue of the public planning process, but that is neither here nor there).

Since it requires subsidy, the financial gap is really one of demand. The developers are supplying more square footage (density) than the area currently warrants. The deeper issue is that this investment is out in front of the West Dallas Plan, whose primary goal must be, to drive demand. Demand is created primarily through spurring spatial integration, locally and globally. Density is a by-product of desirability. Desirability stems from a few things: access, mobility, safety, and quality of surroundings to name a few.

Not coincidentally, these are all components to spatial integration. For example, downtowns typically have the tallest buildings because they are the easiest places to get to (theoretically) and to collaborate and interact with others, because others are also there making similarly rational decisions. There are positive feedback loops interconnected and intertwined creating this self-organized complexity. The intensity of these feedback loops should be matched by the greatest density (often emblematic by building height), merely a supply to meet demand.

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The West Dallas area already has regional connectivity, being right on I-30. West Dallas is also getting the Hunt Hill Bridge to extend Woodall Rogers freeway into it, amplifying broader, regional scale connectivity. However, the area is in its current state of disrepair and disinvestment because of a lack of local connectivity. And in some cases the lack of local connectivity is due to said regional connections (including the railroad trestle) interrupting complex local networks. This is on the City and the West Dallas Plan to create.

The proposed Sylvan:Thirty development ignores these things and the West Dallas Plan nor whatever public money might help the project go vertical hasn't convinced the developers to do what is in everybody's interest (the neighborhood, the city, AND the developer). The West Dallas Plan, the "urban structure" plan is showing itself to have no real point, like many of the other plans created around the city. The West Dallas Masterplan shows the Sylvan:Thirty project as is (and with few changes has been for about two years), not as it should be. The key to planning in a place like Dallas is to either have some real teeth and stick to them (with big fat healthy carrots to go with that stick) or to find developers that are willing to buy-in and adhere to the vision.

So what should have been done? Or, could still be done?

First, let's review the existing plan:
(click to enhugen)

When I first look at this plan, I see what everybody else sees: buildings brought out to the street edge. I can't say whether this is a misunderstanding of urbanism, a cynical attempt to fool people into thinking it is urbanism, or simply a rational response to bad zoning that doesn't quite understand its point. And this is a point I always try to make: form-based code is not an end to itself.

In fact, to get urbanism right, it should be a rational response to site conditions. Buildings out to the street, "live above the shop," "mixed-use," density, etc. are all a by-product of something else: the desirability of proximity and the proximity to desirability. The ends, that we should be striving for, is actually highly interconnected places and therein is the failing of this and the West Dallas plan for allowing it.

The local resistance to the plan is that this is a hybridized version between suburban "convenience" (whatever the hell that is in a highly inconvenient context where everyone must drive everywhere) and the visual trappings of urbanism, which is why we end up with form-based codes and plans like this that line some buildings around a block, and arbitrary labels on buildings like "this here building is MIXED-USE."

The city is insisting on a traffic light on Sylvan in order to create access to the site, to the private parking lot, which becomes a clusterF of parking, amenities, "public spaces," storefronts, and loading zones all sort of just tossed into the center of the site in hopes Pinocchio can somehow become a real boy some day.


The "mixed-use building" is an absurd 800 foot long "bar building" (meaning single, straight shot corridor) with 5 levels of residential sat on top of 3 levels of parking garage. I can understand the neighborhood's stance that it is too tall. Those fights happen all the time all around the country. But frankly, I don't care either way about height in this case.

What I can't see is the designer nor developer's motivation to draw such a monstrosity. Would you buy (or rent) a unit that looks upon a parking lot in one direction (the west) or a truck depot (to the east)? I understand they're trying to sell a view of downtown, but the postcard view lasts a day and wears off. Life happens on the street level (if there were streets). You buy a townhome for the town. Or in this case, you move into a mixed-use building to be part of an integral mixed-use neighborhood.

I imagine the building was designed this way as a barricade to the adjacent properties: the truck depot and the USPS property. And therein lies the deeper problem. There is no vision for properties further integrating and interconnecting

The thing is, I don't really blame the developers one bit. Their physical response is a mostly rational one given the site, the lack of a highly interconnected street-block infrastructural system, and the overly scaled Sylvan and Fort Worth Avenues which move between 10 and 15,000 cars per day. In other words, the same amount as Main Street in downtown Dallas which is one lane each way.

The traffic model surely says they have to be this way so engineers and road building companies can keep cashing checks and property values can keep plummeting and the city can get further into budgetary holes as tax base flees for more desirable locales, safer for their kids to play than in the middle of Fort Worth Avenue. To some extent, the city is cash strapped. But there are tools and money available to do what is necessary: to ready sites for development by creating an interconnected street, block, and public space structure.

So if the city is participating financially, then the city has some leverage. As in, "if we're going to make this profitable for you, it has to be profitable for US." And by US, I mean what it does to catalyze redevelopment and reinvestment throughout the West Dallas Area. But maybe rather than bridging the financial gap for Lake Flato architectural fees and hill country doo-dads tacked onto a donkey of a building, we actually do what is necessary to create a livable neighborhood, the platform of desirability for new investment.

Below is a sketch I did in ten minutes. It only loosely follows the exact program of the site (since I don't know it fully), but adheres to one-garage, and a desire for surface parking (which is cheaper). I moved the garage over along I-30 frontage road to 1) improve access into it and 2) buffer the more pedestrian experience from I-30. The primary entry to the 1st phase of development is again at the proposed traffic light on Sylvan:

(click image to enmassive-a-size)

The green zone is the Sylvan:Thirty property. The yellow zone creates a second phase on the adjacent property. To be developed by? Who cares, as long as it creates for parcels that are now interconnected and create some synergies between adjacencies. The rights to this development might make a nice carrot to the Sylvan:Thirty developers to actually do the right thing on their property.

The last, or longer-term, phase is outlined by the red dashes to suggest future building frontages, organized around a new public space/center of gravity for a neighborhood that has none. A neighborhood without a center of gravity is not a neighborhood. It has no definable place.

Where the new traffic light is proposed on Sylvan, would turn onto a public road that extends through the site, unlocking the potential value of the adjacent property rather than burying it. This allows for the two-sided "main-street" retail experience so may developments try to create. I haven't taken the time to calculate the development capacity of the plan, but from eyeballing it (and drawing thousands of these in my lifetime), it looks much more efficient than the current plan. I would bet there is more leasable floor area potential in this plan AND lower development costs.

Furthermore, the new public street system would actually create further site efficiencies allowing the right-of-way to be excised from property ownership and land taxes.

This is the fundamental failing of the West Dallas Plan. It didn't successfully engage the developers to steer them into a plan that creates longer term success for both this particular site/developer over the long-term as well as the adjacent properties. Any long-term area-wide vision will only be as good as the first development out of the gate, the one that sets the tone for everything else to live up to. Otherwise, public planning and subsidy is wasted.

By creating developments (or allowing them) that are by nature disconnected from the adjacent properties or create a situation where new connections and interrelationship are impossible is inherently suburban. This is what fails over the long-term. There aren't relationships that hold property levels up and create places that people care for. As somebody super cool said about the Park Lane Place development:
...a development like this one needs to do two things to succeed. “It has to be so well-designed, so lovable that the citizenry will always care for it and ensure that it endures,” he says. “The other is, it has to tie into the rest of the city, the adjacent properties, neighborhoods, street network, and transportation framework so that the improvement, stewardship, and resilience are mutually ensured. I’m not sure Park Lane successfully accomplishes either. I think the underlying logic defining Park Lane—that of convenience—undermines certainly the latter and possibly the former, as the experience is ultimately degraded by the disconnection, no matter the level of detailed design.”
Neither does this plan, super awesome, handsome, and intelligent bro.

And when I said, "I'm not sure." I actually meant, "I'm a bazillion percent certain," which has proven correct. As I am for Sylvan:Thirty development.

How about we start working towards some win-win-wins, rather than lose-lose-loses, eh?