Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Weekend in Dallas w/o a Car

Some haven't happily tailored their entire existence around a carless lifestyle, honed over 3+ years now. Long time reader and twitter follower Curtis Rogers details his return trip to the DFW area after having moved to the Bay Area without renting a car. Find it here:
**We planned to walk, but jumped in the car with a friend that was driving from the Crescent to the Ritz, which is located across the street, literally. Valet to valet, it’s how we roll in Uptown Dallas.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hacks and Faux Libertarian Oppressors

I've always had a gripe with the anti-urbanists: Randall O'Toole, Joel Kotkin, and the like. The problem isn't that I disagree with them. It is that they're logic is quite illogical. They claim to be libertarians, or something like it, but it is really simple pandering that they partake in. In reality, they try to impose their particular worldview upon others. And this is why I'm so profoundly offended by their drivel. Luckily, I don't have to prove this because O'Toole comes right out and says it:
I would never step into another city again if I didn’t have to as a part of my work. But I don’t think everyone would be better off living my lifestyle; I just think people ought to have a choice. Avent’s book simply stimulates the smart-growth advocates who want to impose all sorts of policies on urbanites and suburbanites to force them to live in denser communities.
Poor, oppressed soul. They conveniently ignore the fact that nearly all spending, policies, and zoning favors disconnected, isolated development patterns that poor Mr. O'Toole just wishes he could live in and spend his entire life within. If only there was some of that out there.

On the other hand, trying to live within vibrant, mixed-use places is damn near impossible if not illegal in many places. Sorry, I accept that people are social beings, we need to be around each other, for better or worse. Cities are the greatest invention in human history for the facilitation, efficiency of social, economic, memetic, and genetic exchange.

This likely means O'Toole hates people (or perhaps himself) and wishes to be a hermit. He has that right.

I completely agree with him on one point. People should have a choice. Except if he were to get his way, which he has, then nobody would have a choice.

Streets vs. Roads

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns Blog describes the relationship between debt, road building, and the cannibalization of place:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Form-Based Codes and the Dentistry of Urbanism

Get the drill back out. It's time to go to work:

Today is the CNU-NTX event today on Form-Based and Smart-Codes. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend because of last minute deadlines and what not that fell upon me like an acme piano falls on wil e. coyote.

Earlier today, via email list-serv, Andres Duany posed the question as to what is the reason for these codes and what is the potential argument against them. While I agree in principal with the need for such codes, they are not enough. I respond:

I believe you're correct in that the counter-issue is and will continue to be an economic one, which, if we are to play "urban dentistry" should point us toward the root of the cavity. The "too expensive" line is but the immediate pain of a toothache. In the short-term, too expensive is relative. It isn't too expensive if the returns will be greater. Then it is just right. In many of our cities, particularly the Sun Belt, the land nor the building is too expensive, but rather the demand is too low in infill locations. Sure, many have been highly successful, but they've all relied on significant public participation that has either dried up or must become increasingly creative, which turns both lenders and developers off.

While I believe in form-based and smart codes, without demand they are merely an empty glass. The demand is the liquid that fills the cup.

I believe this comes from transportation. To (perhaps over-)simplify, downtowns have/had the highest density, which is a direct response to desirability, accessibility. The introduction of highways into and through downtowns ripped up the highly interconnected fabric, made them less interconnected, less accessible (except from far away -- for example, it is easier to get to Plano from downtown Dallas than anywhere within 3 miles of it), and overall less desirable because of negative effects on quality and character of spaces near freeways, safety, air quality etc. And by improving accessibility to far flung places, each intracity freeway makes land further out at the edge viable while reducing demand/desirability in town, or other clusters lower on the nodal hierarchy.

And from a longer-term perspective it is "too expensive" because they want to build cheaply. They want to build cheaply because they want their returns within 7-years. But nothing is more expensive (over the long-term) than cheap. The effect of form-based and smart-codes will be dramatically reduced unless there is significant progress in the design and spending for transportation infrastructure as well as the financial industry and their standard practices and expectations on the short-term (at the expense of long-term value).

I should add as a local example that both Park Lane Place and Victory Park were built with some form-based guide, if not an actual form-based code. But at the end of the day, they're really all the same. Build to this line, get up close to the street, stack your uses, etc. But both have failed. If any of you have numbers available about how much they were built for and then sold for, I'd love to see them. (I don't for a second ever buy the leasing numbers provided by companies with a stake in the deal. Ever notice everything is 85% and going fast!?)

The reason both have failed (in the short-term) is because of transportation networks. The design, integration, and overlay of the various networks of movement and interconnection as well as the siting and location of the developments.

This is why projects/developments like these I call "cargo cult urbanism." As Tyler Durden said, "sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken." Neither did putting coconuts to their ears and playing air traffic controller bring cargo planes and supplies to the Pacific Islands after WW2. These developments only get the superficial elements right: build to the street, mixed-use, etc. Those things are outgrowths of something deeper.

Buildings built to the street because they wanted to be as close as possible to the pedestrian movement along it. People wanted to live above the shop because they wanted to be close to the amenities below. Density = desirability. And proximity must equal desirability and the desirable must be proximate. It is a more efficient way to build, it is less costly way to move around, and creates more value long-term.

But we can't get there until we overhaul the transportation and finance industries.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Freeways to Real Estate, the Circle of Life

Urban Land Institute bumps their head on the road to Damascus, realizing, "hey, there might be opportunity in this," detailing the top 10 (and really, only 10) Highway Removal projects on-going in these here United States. The article even has a Dallas mention as "thinking about it," which I presume is regarding 175 and Dead Man's Curve. The list:

Spivak TOP TEN Highway

Because of this article and arming myself with plenty of defense for the obvious questions to arrive whenever an idea threatens to disrupt everybody's daily lives, I took a look back through comments of larger media outlets when they bring up the very idea of highway removal. The response is typically along the lines of "PREPOSTEROUS!" I won't go so far as to call these people idiots, so ignorant will suffice. And when they point to their reliable gotcha question of "where would the traffic go?" LA Carmageddon was kind enough to provide the answer in a contemporary context. It finds other ways to get around. Or it doesn't at all. And that is for temporary closings.

The highway along with cheap gas prices (which first socialist President Michelle Bachmann promises to set arbitrarily at $2/gallon) allowed for destinations to spread apart, often severing irrevocably the bonds of community. And that was when the cost of road construction was paid back in return thru cannibalistic development. Since building the freeways that made in-town living undesirable and out-of-town living (and commuting) viable, tax base fled to the point where we can't maintain the roads and infrastructure we built. Insult to injury, the elevated freeways of concrete reinforced by steel is literally corroding each other to the point that driving on them much longer is closer to a game of Russian Roulette than it is to a casual Sunday drive.

For long-term closures, like the aforementioned list, what happens is that people will relocate. The city, the state, and particularly the federal government are short on cash and looking to divest assets, particularly land, their largest one. Under highways we have right-of-way, given potential value in its proximity to assets and amenities like downtown. Along highways, but in private hands we have land where demand is low for anything but parking lots. You can thank the freeways. The cars to fill those parking lots pay taxes outside of the City of Dallas. The City is left with infrastructure and no residential base to maintain it. And it gets over-run and overburdened by the mandate of car use upon it. At some point in a downward cycle you can go downward no more until you hit bottom.

There is one consistency in all cities throughout time and therein lies a lesson. The golden rule if cities have one. And that is that they are defined by and created specifically to serve the wants and needs of the humans that build them and are served by them. Where we locate upon them might be defined as a fractal pattern of individualized and interdependent desirability of place organized across the geographic landscape. We need things to survive. We want things to make life better. To get those things require others, who in turn, require their own space. To facilitate these social and economic exchanges cities make various interconnected conduits: roads, sidewalks, interstates, trails, train tracks, bike lanes, etc. etc. Each of these can't compromise the others, but rather would want to enhance them, interconnect with them. They also can't compromise the nested spaces within the lattice-work networks for us to live, warehouse, interconnect, trade: ideas, goods, currencies, genes, etc.

Each city works the exact same. Except the means by which we move between these exchanges varies from city to city, mostly due to the degree of choice that exists for various modes and varying purposes. We've let a certain type of road building corrupt our cities. A Keynesian idea of spending to spur economic growth turned into a Frankenstein monster of a ponzi scheme. Build roads, get spending, get growth. But what if all that growth is specifically because of the spending of that money, a bloated financial and construction sector feeding into itself and then, in turn, upon itself?

Like most large-scale public projects the chance of graft and corruption is a large and opportunistic one. Railroads corrupted federal government. Highway projects replaced railroad ones thanks to the impressive and influential public works of the nazis. And we spread out. Sun Belt cities grew, in numbers and in size. The car and the roads allowed it as transportation technology of the day always dictates size and shape of a city. Except the car is no longer new. It is no longer popular. And we keep the industry afloat simply because. Because that is all we knew and the future seems frightful. No one seems to know what is beyond that curtain.

Count me as one not afraid. That is, because I see a future. One that must be dictated by the choice of travel and transportation. Where we can still achieve all of our wants and needs as a social species without having to spend a day in the soul-crushing conveyor belt of a polluted freeway that offs 40,000 Americans each year and mangles a million of us.

A business that is inefficient and stupid is likely to soon be a failed one. The cities we have built are incredibly cost inefficient in terms of the cost of infrastructure per capita AND the costs imposed on families just to accommodate their lifestyles or participate in the local economy. ie get to a job everyday. Having to own, operate, and maintain a car is like a de facto second income tax, simply because some politicians and road construction companies got fat off of state and federal tax dollars. Walkability is a tax cut.

The city as a machine is also a stupid one in that we have little choice to appropriate our day and direction. There are few routes and modes so we all hop in cars, get on the same freeways and arterials based on a dendritic-model, and get stuck in traffic every time there is a hiccup. And because of human error, inevitably there is an accident or the accordion effect that costs the economy billions every day, year after year, simply because we can't act rationally in our daily lives.

Taking out specific highway segments, and not willy nilly as people who don't understand basic fundamentals of urban structure might suggest to strengthen their own specious arguments, creates opportunity for the private market to get back to work, constructing highly complex, interconnected places. Building cities that will last, not as Richard Sennett writes in The Corrosion of Character:
The classic American suburb was a bedroom community; in the last generation a different kind of suburb has arisen, more economically independent of the urban core, but not really town or village either; a place springs into life with the wave of a developer's wand (ed. note: and the political entities willful desire for its own ponzi-fueled growth via infrastructure), flourishes, and begins to decay all within a generation.
The larger point Sennett is making in his book is that short-term, impatient people, as we have become, armed with short-term, impatient capital, and short-term, impatient investment armatures, can not possibly build a permanent structure, whether that be a physical town, a business, a family, or a community. Sennett laments what it is doing to us in that long-term relationships and structure are no longer seen as amenities but even as hindrances. They tie us down and prevent us from something called freedom, I suppose.

But with regard to cities, building costly infrastructure based on short-term ephemeral technologies is a doomed strategy. Along with Sennett's point, I would argue that the economics that drive our decisions based solely on short-term calculations also give us certain freedom. That is freedom and independence from long-term benefits or that which might be described as invaluable: community, trust, obligation, togetherness.

But there is no such thing as this imagined, unadulterated freedom. We are all tied together as neighbors whether we like it or not. My rent goes to property taxes, which pay for roads so you can live outside the city. Getting along is hard work, but it pays. Democracy is messy and difficult, but in the absence of it, there is no choice. You'll get the roads and you'll like it, because the road builders pay campaign kitties. Then you'll have no choice in how you live and work and commute. Then people stop going to live there, choosing other places around the country and world where there is more opportunity, more actual freedom. Where people want to be. And where people want to be is density (the by-product of desirability). And amongst others, we have to learn to get along, or not, but we find others that we can and want to get along with. Because we have to. It is in our DNA.

Unfortunately, it isn't in the DNA of Sun Belt Cities. There is no built-in adaptability. No choice. It is a dumb, monoculture. Not the people, but the system. The ecosystem if you will. The bees aren't pollenating the flowers. The trees are no longer providing shade and shelter. But merely getting logged because the short-term economics say so. And that is why they'll die much like any single purpose Silver Mining town once it is strip-mined did, without radical repurposing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Park(ing) Day, Downtown Dallas & Happy Hour

A brief note: come to downtown Dallas this evening and join @fortworthology and myself as we do a bit of a pub crawl up and down Main Street Dallas to check out whatever Park(ing) Day parklets are still up and operational. Just took a spin down there as they're setting up.

Now, a point to make about park(ing) day:

It is taking place today in the Arts District (on Flora), in Deep Ellum (presumably Main Street), and in downtown Dallas (on Main Street). The Park(ing) Day phenomenon was born in San Francisco in 2005 where citizens essentially rented a parking space and rather than park a car they created a park, overfloweth in hipster-driven irony.

And like similar citizen-led initiatives towards improving the urban experience, it is anti-authoritarian by nature. The city is a human invention born out of emotion, needs and wants. It is the platform for accelerating social and economic exchange. It is why city's have and continue to exist as long as civilization has. It is civilization. It is why all things urban are logical and the anti-urban defined by the illogical. The top down, modernist policies of cities favoring the car of people and life and everything cities are intended to provide, have failed. Park(ing) Day, Better Block, etc. are as much performance pieces, messages of protest, as they are improvements.

Graffiti in many ways is about power. And Park(ing) Day is urban graffiti (in a good way). It is citizens taking back their city from the car and the policies favoring the car. Consciously or not, we are all aware something is wrong and that our cities are failing to provide what we need from them, media for social and economic exchange, value in each. The policies favoring the car spread us out, reducing the ability for exchange, lowering the metabolism of the city. Not coincidentally, it makes the city, and us, rather rotund.

As Lewis Mumford wrote: "in dense places, the fast way to move people between destinations is on foot. The slowest is to put them all in motor cars." And if we buy into the fact that density is a product of desirability in a market economy, that is lots of people want to be in a place, then we should want dense places. Density = desirability = places worth caring about. Dense, highly interconnected places are engines of productivity and ideas through that metabolic process. Everything is sped up, including the competition of ideas, producing the best. Therefore, there is significant economic value to what is easily dismissed as "only walkability."

However, when we examine Main Street in Dallas, we have a place that is functional. It is already highly interconnected locally. As the mathematical model using space syntax shows below (red being the most highly interconnected (spatially integrated):

That is from a more macro-level. Below is a map of common pedestrian routes on a block of Main Street. On a micro-level, examining how the specifics of the street actually functions, pedestrians own the street. They cross where they need to. It is what I call, a highly "tethered" street. I'm not saying this is ideal in all locations, but is indicative of safe, pedestrian-friendly locations. Also, desirable places hence the amount of businesses open and thriving on the ground floor interfacing directly with Main Street.

It may not be the prettiest street in the world, trees and shade are rather sparse, but this is not terribly critical to the overall function. Those things are accommodation. Accommodation doesn't make things work or not work. That is why there are so many streets where we mistakenly thought streetscaping would transform the real estate value along it. Integration must come first. So in that way, it is natural for Park(ing) Day to occur on Main Street. It is integrated, driving the demand for more accommodation, which comes in the form of restaurants, residential buildings, office tenants, and in this case, parklets.

But we know it works already. Holding Park(ing) Day on Main Street misses an opportunity. I'm typically all about fostering centers of gravity. And Main Street is that for downtown Dallas. However, by scale, it is little more than a neighborhood main street. There are about 6,000 people living downtown, within walking distance of their neighborhood center, Main Street. San Francisco has 66(!) such walkable clusters, with approximately 6,000 people living within a 1/4-mile of a neighborhood commercial center (of gravity). Desirable.

It is time for downtown and Main Street's success to grow beyond its barriers. And to do so, we have to address those barriers, boxing in the life of Main Street into a short 3-block stretch.

As I just said residential occurs where there is demand. Demand is sparked through spatial integration. See the map below (which is actually a map of ethnicity, but shows density quite effectively):

Hopefully, you can click to enlarge this. Sometimes blogger gets a bit unpredictable at times with graphic interface.

If you can click and enlarge take a look at downtown Dallas. It is like a reverse donut, a donut hole, I suppose. All of the dots organize around Main Street with a wasteland around. And this is verified in reality by just walking around. See the space syntax map above. Where integration is high, demand is high. Where demand is high, value is high because people want to be there, and are then accommodated via habitable real estate.

Or see this map showing parking and underdeveloped properties:
Car-centric road design and geometries undermine spatial integration, walkability, and safety. These policies reduce value, and the only accommodational demand is for space for cars, parking. Park(ing) Day is a baby step towards reversing this. Except hosting it on Main Street means it is only a one-time event. It is not profound nor transformational.

Meanwhile, running parallel to Main Street are Elm and Commerce Streets, which apparently are untouchable because some arbitrary traffic formula says they must be wide. Ironically, if we're trying to create density in downtown the stance becomes "more people = more cars, must have more road capacity" when in reality more people = less need for cars because everything is closer together. This is the illogic of modernist planning, why it is failing cities, and why viscerally, we feel we must do something about it through demonstration projects like Park(ing) Day.

Furthermore, and not coincidentally, if the road network in downtown was not primarily of one-ways, T-intersections, dead ends, overly large blocks, etc., there would be more choice of route thereby creating 1) a more navigable system, 2) a smarter system that empowers users to use their brain and make the appropriate decisions of route and mode, and 3) creates more capacity in the overall system because of that increased choice. A smarter, more flexible system.

Now take a look at Elm Street, right next door to Main:

Elm and Commerce are both overly wide one-way roads that box in the success of Main Street. The built space along them matches their spatial integration, forlorn. The width and the speed allowed for cars because of that width "untethers" the road reducing the spatial integration, the connectivity via the ability to cross and how desirable it is to be next to cars (and DART buses) zipping by at 50 mph. Consciously and subconsciously our brain is telling us, "that thing could kill me, get away from this place."

Kudos to those cities that have since embraced these ideas and are making ground-up initiatives part of public policy, but if we wanted to make a difference long-term for the city and particularly downtown's revitalization, we would hold these events on Elm and/or Commerce. How about a loop even?

I understand fully that Main Street is the ceremonial street. After all it is "Main Street." Except it is already spatially integrated, a positive experience. Let's give it a numerical value of +1. The added accommodation (parklets) transforms it into a +2, a prettying it up so to speak.

+2 - integrated, accommodated
+1 - integrated
-1 - accommodated not integrated (ie prettying up low-functioning roads)
-2 - neither accommodated nor integrated

Elm is a negative experience and this bares out in the adjacent real estate, which retreats from it in horror, seeking safer more hospitable locales. At best it is a -1 street by the above semi-arbitrary, semi-rhetorical criteria. It received some streetscaping and predictably that accomplished little. All cost, no return. This is what happens when you don't change the functionality of the street. There is more value to be gained and less buck to be spent taking -1 and/or -2 streets into +1 streets rather than +1 streets into +2 streets.

I suspect there will be the most parklets in the downtown Main Street. Integration begets accommodation. Each parklet is a form of accommodation, space for people. Main Street in downtown is the most integrated of the three locations and that is precisely why this will make for a fun event, because there are already restaurants and bars to interface directly with it. But that is all it will be, a one-day event. That is why I've taken to calling these (perhaps too derisively) puppet shows.

They are indeed fun events (although, now grown up puppet shows are only one-step below clowns on the creepiness scale). However, if we want to actually accelerate the revitalization of downtown, we would use these opportunities, the increased interest in citizen participation in urban development, to host Park(ing) Day and things like it on the bad streets. We would demonstrate that narrowing the bad streets, those that constrict life into tiny little pockets around the city, is in fact, not CARMAGEDDON, but quite the opposite really.

Urbanism is about the amplification via interconnected places facilitating synergy through interdependence. These roads are dividers moreso than connectors. Rather than extinguish life, it would might allow it to flourish once again. If the city continues to make things like Park(ing) Day official public policy we might as well kill 2 birds with one stone and do what cities are supposed to do, facilitate social and economic exchange through improved spatial integration.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You're Fired

What the what? Somebody somewhere thought this was a good idea.

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.

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?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mark Your Calendars

The CNU-North Texas Chapter is holding a Smart Code/Form-Based Code workshop:

Nathan Norris
Nathan Norris
Susan Henderson
Susan Henderson
Francisco Garcia
Francisco Garcia
Joe Minicozzi
Joe Minicozzi
Scott Polikov
Scott Polikov

How to Implement Form-Based Codes

Belo Mansion, 2101 Ross Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75201
Thursday, September 22, 2011
8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. (or so)

Many communities across North Texas are adopting Form-Based Codes, having learned that the common, use-based zoning codes of the past have over-regulated the marketplace and failed to protect or produce great, people-oriented places. Form-based codes overcome these weaknesses but are only a tool and, just as owning a paintbrush doesn’t make one an artist, an FBC won’t automatically make your town a masterpiece. Implementation is everything.

CNU-North Texas hosts our nation’s leading experts for a day-long presentation on the Do’s and Dont’s of implementing these new “Smarter Codes” for superior results. Lunch will be provided. After the sessions, join a walking tour of Dallas’ Uptown district, terminating at the Londoner pub for drinks and conversation.

Friday, September 9, 2011

From the Files of Duh

What?! You can't be serious! You mean ephemeral aesthetic theory doesn't make for good social or urban policy? /snark.

Get the subjective out of the urban. Save it for the finishing details. We are all people not for our particular looks. They might attract you or repel you from one another. Or they allow you to recognize one another. But inside, we all have the same vital organs. The same internal processes. The same neuro-functioning. Architects thought they could gut the patient and rearrange the human anatomy into sculpture. Afraid it doesn't work that way Dr. Mengele.

Architects also have a real fetish for experimenting on the poor. Balzac (from the article) in Paris, Cabrini Green, Pruitt-Igoe, Bed-Stuy...all Corbusien. But the willingness for experimentation doesn't stop there.

They get downright tumescent when it comes to natural disasters. See Hurricane Katrina and the experiments on the poor emerging from that particular tragedy.

mmmm. Loverly. The by-product of a design competition. The budgets for the winning designs? Several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Incredibly practical way for housing the poor, no?

Brad Pitt may not have a brain, but he has a heart. Unfortunately, many of these architects got the opposite end of the equation. It's a shame they couldn't rearrange those collective organs into a worthwhile effort.


Enough Literal Fire

Let's show the proverbial fire, that being the economy. I wonder what happened in 1980? (Rhetorical question)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Highway to Hell?

When I say the road to hell is paved in intraurban highways, I didn't mean it quite literally. Joking aside, holy !#@$:

...received via email.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The latest Columns magazine, the quarterly publication of the local AIA, is out and available in print and online. You can read it online here. My article is on pages 16-20.

Fall 2011 issue of AIA Dallas 'Columns' magazine

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Link of the Day

Off subject? Somewhat. In a post about enjoying college football from an english lit. grad turned college football blogger within a corrupt world of simulacrum, there is this:

Florida. Tennessee. South Carolina. Georgia. The states changed but the houses never did: new, empty houses with unsodded yards and spotted with buckets of paint and spackle. We played in them as children, crawling up new plywood stairs without railings, walking through fiberglass insulation in unfinished walls that left subtle scarlet irritations blooming on the skin. They sat on roads with names saluting fantastical geographies. In one of the subdivisions we lived in had at least three roads titled "Something ridge." The highest point in the subdivision could not have been higher than 50 feet above sea level, and nothing so much as resembled a ridge.

They were fake. Developers imagined them. Builders took the curlicued weavings of road and lots on plans and graded them into existence, pouring concrete flats where orange groves or cattle pastures once stood. They all smelled like drywall, freshly hung drywall shedding motes of powdered gypsum into the air.

They aged poorly. In Georgia, the red clay stained the foundations. In Florida the exteriors grew mold like bread left in a petri dish. Water stains rippled in eccentric brown patterns through the ceiling after heavy rains. The yards became patchwork jungles after the first layer of sod died and the locals moved back in, salting the green with barbed seed pods and lurking hives of yellow jackets.

These places were fabricated, ersatz, unreal. Their roads and names were meaningless, parking places for cars and people surrounding factories, buildings, offices, and schools spilled across unincorporated land like the unwound wiring of a deconstructed motherboard. It was fraud, too. It is where I lived, and slept, and snuck from house to house as a teenager, and threw bricks through windows of homes no one owned when boredom required petty violence. No one would stay here. No one ever did.

Like millions of others, we went where money's currents floated us. Those winds usually died somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac, in a neighborhood built on nothing and sustained by attachment to a major road. There's one of these in Franklin, Tennessee that I drove past once. It is named Spencer Hall: an expensive, fictional nothing filled with homes sitting on streets named for things that never existed.

Places like this are where I lived, and loved, and slept ignorant sleep without dreams for 18 years of my life.

It's all over, it's all over. It's all over


Ridiculousness looks different from 10,000 feet.

Which I always find interesting to listen or read people not in the background or profession to excoriate such places, but do so with a tinge of fondness while in full knowing of the reality.

And of course, there is this line which like the mark of any great writer, meaning is delivered one sentence at a time:
You have to accept that the only redemption for the large, cheap machinations of life is the redemption of experience, the only thing you can control.
Experience. Genuinely best enjoyed with others. And only you are in charge of that reality.

Come for the writing. Stay for the Cookie Monster singing Tom Waits.