Tuesday, January 24, 2012

DMag Column: Feb Issue

...is on West Dallas and the West Dallas Plan. Please go here to read it at the flagship's main page. It is perhaps worth noting that I left all mentions of the Sylvan:Thirty development implicit, as I'm referring to block size and its clownish 800 foot long building and inside-out pseudo-urbanism. Many complex urban grids are composed of blocks somewhere between 200-400 feet in the x or y direction. That is, unless it is an irregular grid akin to a medieval street and block system. Because there is no guarantee nor intent to create a complex, interconnected grid, it will likely never happen. As I closed in the article:
The West Dallas plan seems merely to hope that it will happen. And I suppose hope is all we’re clinging to right now.
As I mention in the article, the bridge connection will increase the degree of integration to some extent. The increment remains a mystery, but I argue it will be minimal. Some initial investment and development will poke its head around, mostly under the assumption that picture books can come true. Then it will fester, like an untreated toothache. Veneers look better but won't help. All places are what they are precisely because of their infrastructural context. Some may be trending upwards, other downwards. How far depends on the complexity and intensity of the network and its connectivity to all things local and global.

Integration = Accommodation. If the proportion isn't precisely equal then it is trending towards the appropriate balance. Urban morphology 501.

West Dallas is what it is today, largely vacant, a number of industrial warehouses, proportional to its degree of connectivity. It is fragmented and isolated, and therefore devalued despite its proximity to downtown. It exists on an island. The new bridge tosses a lifeline, but walkable, livable, timeless places must exist on a foundation of local connectivity. Local connectivity stems from the street and block plan, in this case, measured as intersection density. Lots of intersections means lots of complexity (but not complex), in the way a diverse ecosystem or crop rotation is more durable than single crop farming.

The point remains that the West Dallas Plan is entirely superficial: the book, its pretty pictures, many of which uptown and State-Thomas (at least in its ambition), as well as the intent. State-Thomas had a built-in historic street/block network that were maintained. Initial public investment and partnership tools were necessary to kickstart the chemical reaction past the catalytic barrier wrought by wreckless S&L investment that ripped the neighborhood to pieces in the 80s. In West Dallas, if it ever was there it is gone and must be created or recreated. There is a significant failing to understand the underlying dynamics that allow high quality urbanism to organically and incrementally emerge. Instead, words like incremental are used, but misunderstood. Misrepresented even.

It is the degree of integration, the complexity of the network that instills demand. Demand which expresses itself as maximization of development. Demand wants proximity. It is what pulls buildings up to the street. Or what wants to live above the shop. The plan refers to these things, but forgets the foundation. The structure. But it calls itself a structural plan. Pretense. If the city wants to see development happen, without the expense of a real, interconnected street and block system, they'll pay in another way: subsidy. It may produce the same development but it won't fill up and sustain itself. It won't be loved by the market, ie citizens in perpetuity.

It is how we end up with developments like Victory. Like Park Lane Place. Like Sylvan:Thirty. "Urban" only with quotation marks. Big buildings, half full. At best. A cynical attempt to capitalize on the "fad" of urbanism and get their IRR out before anybody thinks to push over the stage set. The only hope is that enough money is sunk into those places that eventually we'll have to bend the network to them, re-integrating them, just to salvage the initial (or eventual) investment. Often corrections to a property, to achieve highest and best use, must be made off-site. Unless it is just cheaper to start over on-site.

I say "hope," but the reality is there is so much more value and opportunity in doing it right from the beginning. It's really expensive to go cheap. Why sprawl has bankrupted everything. And that starts with the infrastructural framework. Not just for the private market, potential (theoretical) residents, but also the city, which needs to see a return on its investment in the form of tax base.