Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Resilience Quotient and Malls in Drag

A developer with his "mixed-use town center."

New Yorker architecture critic has a new article up on the American Scholar about his last visit with Jane Jacobs in 2004. It is well worth the read, particularly my favorite bit:
Not the least of the price we pay for having so many of Jacobs’s views become the common wisdom is the extent to which they are now co-opted by real-estate developers and politicians. They have realized that there is money to be made in shopping centers created as fake villages with pedestrian “streets” leading to “town squares,” and in “festival marketplaces” that are little more than shopping malls in drag. Developers proclaim these places to be like real cities, as if they were a natural outgrowth of Jacobs’s ideas. The term mixed use, which started as a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies an organic urban fabric, has become a developer’s mantra.
A few years ago I was consulting for a city in Nevada. They had such bad experience with past new urbanists and moreso the developers behind the new urbanists, that I wasn't allowed to use any number of buzzwords in the realm of sustainability and urbanism. They had been promised so much before in order to get entitlements, but then what was delivered was little different than the sprawl they were used to. They were tired of being lied to.

Everybody is using words like "mixed-use" as a sort of panacea. I disdain this kind of talk. In a D Magazine column, I derided developments like the malls in drag masquerading as urbanism as baking a cake with all of the ingredients but not following any of the actual instructions. All you end up with is a vat of goo. A checklist of buzzwords like "mixed-use," "live above the shop," "garage parking," "main street," etc. etc. are all bull shit. At least how the majority of urban design consultants use them. We think of these buzzwords, these superficialities as causes, goals, when in actuality these are effects. They are symptoms, by-products of something deeper (the emotional impulse towards real urbanism that I often write about. This results in form that is conducive to encouraging social and economic exchange. The result is the physical form that we call "urban."). And with all the promises of cake, they are they end up building goo.

It is my contention that there are various metrics emerging allowing us to understand the demand and resiliency of a place. As I pointed out in my last article for D Magazine, one of these metrics is intersection density. I'm currently working with a software developer in exploring whether we can tap into open source mapping data to turn this into a program, much like walkscore. For the time being, I am counting intersections effectively by hand.

In the linked D article, I included calculations of two of the premier examples of infill urban redevelopment: State-Thomas uptown Dallas and the Pearl District in Portland, OR. The baseline as figured by UConn Prof. Norman Garrick is about 225 intersections per square mile. State-Thomas has 250+ and Pearl District has well over 400.

Obviously there are limitations. You can't have a million intersections per square mile because then there would be no room for development. It would be nothing but roads, which seems to be the plan for downtown Dallas. Snark snark.

Furthermore, I've begun creating tiers for which these should be measured and then proportioned to the square mile metric. For example, since neighborhoods are by nature radial, organized around a center (even if the road network is rectilinear), centrality prevails. So instead of using an actual square, I've begun using circles. A circle with a radius of 2,979 feet equals a square mile in area. But, when using the ten-minute walk of about .45 linear miles to the center of the neighborhood, this equates to .63 of a square mile. This would be the neighborhood scale resiliency metric.

Ultimately, I want to be able to qualitatively categorize intersections into a hierarchy of values. Also, it needs a contextual metric as well. For example, Fair Park may have a strong historical grid (which it actually doesn't - but roll with me) within the .45 mi. radius, but if it is circumnavigated by a highway, or several highways and rail lines, fragmented from its surroundings, its neighborhood score could be high. Therefore, it needs a contextual resilience metric as well to tell the tale.

There is also the caveat that this is not a tell all. It must be done within the context of other analyses. For example, California required masterplanned developments in the Valley to build all of their roads upfront. Today, many of these developments exist almost like deserted towns, entire road networks, but only a smattering of houses. Who cares what the intersection density is here, because it was built with entirely artificial demand bubbling up over a boiling lending market.

For now, we'll stick with neighborhood score to look at a few malls in drag or Potemkin Villages. Note: each is mapped with a .45 mi radius from the approximate center of the "neighborhood."

Total intersections: 96
Intersections per sq.mi. (x/.63): 152
Resilience quotient (y/225): 67%

Note: State Thomas resilience quotient would be over 100%. It is also in high demand, occupancy rates are high and every little sliver of land is slowly, but surely being developed. There are a few ways to look at this number. One, is to see an area that has a high quotient, but low level of development and see opportunity. The next step would be to examine its context to see where the breakdown occurs. Second, is to look at an area like Victory and see a deficient quotient and then begin looking to its surroundings to what can be fixed to up the quotient in the neighborhood.

Looking at the map we see the breakdowns come on both sides of Victory, from the highway and the effectual super block that is the Jefferson Apartments (or whatever they're called these days). It's not actually a terrible score, but considering the amount of density built in Victory, the score needs to be higher. I expect this is partially to blame for the poor performance of the development compared to expectations. Looking deeper however, there are a number of intersections in the LoMac, or Lower McKinney, area. Given what we know about how horrid this spaghetti of intersections is, the score for this area is inflated. So we're missing a qualitative component which helps demerit this area for how truly unsafe and disruptive the street and intersection design is in this area, given that nobody walks the short .25 miles through it to the American Airlines Center.

Next: The shops at Allen and Fairview, which I wrote something here about and received a good bit of hate mail from nearby residents so proud of their new development:

Total intersections: 46
Intersections per sq.mi. (x/.63): 73
Resilience quotient (y/225): 32.4%

Verdict: Mall in Drag. You can see the breakdown comes from the poor connection to its surroundings, the highway on one side and the neighborhoods on the other that are completely ignored. It exists in a bubble, surrounded by a sea of parking, in other words, a mall without a roof. And malls are failing precisely because of their poor connections to their surroundings.

This development could likely be salvaged if the number of intersections is doubled since the density is not terribly high, I'm not sure it needs to get up to 100%. However, if it begins to struggle will the demand ever exist to instill the impetus for such infrastructural reconnections?

Park Lane Place, which I was interviewed about here and said the following:
Whether the development will flourish is something we’ll have to wait to find out. But there is reason to question Barnett’s assumption about the need to “internalize” the development. Patrick Kennedy, an urban planner and designer, has spent some time walking around Park Lane. He says 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.”

Total intersections: 37
Intersections per sq.mi.: 58.7
Resilience quotient: 26%

Verdict: Ayeeeeeeeeee! Run for the hills! It has the North Park Mall on one-side and even the mall has more intersections. That isn't really why North Park is still succeeding why all other malls are failing. Instead, it is succeeding partially because of its location and partially because it exists as THE mall in the region. Any region can only support a handful of malls at best. If I were to take a stab at a ratio, it might be a 1:1 ratio of square feet per population. Meaning a 1 million square foot mall per 1 million population. And even North Park is slowly but surely repositioning itself. I expect its surface parking lots to infill eventually.

The real breakdown with Park Lane Place is not just the poor connection to its surroundings but the design on-site itself. There are very few actual blocks and convergence points created. This is further exacerbated by the changes in plane, Whole Foods and other stores are a few stories above the street level, accessed by an elevated parking garage, disconnected from everything else.

My guess is that PLP could have done a bit better if a legitimate street and block structure was created on site. However, even if it had done so, it would have been limited by its poor connections outward. Given that it has a roughly equal amount of density as Victory yet half the resilience quotient, it is pretty easy to see how this development has failed and will continue to flounder long after Victory rights the ship.

Let's contrast these with a successful development: Legacy Town Center, aka Shops at Legacy

Total intersections: 80
Intersections per sq.mi.: 127
Resilience quotient: 56%

Verdict: It's quotient is lower than Victory's but higher than the others. Which makes some sense as the density delivered is also much lower. However, with closer examination and when looking strictly at the approximately .26 square miles that the development consists of, this number jumps to 308 intersections per sq.mi. or 137% resilience quotient. It's breakdown comes with the corporate campus sites which have few roads.

You could say this is an isolated development, much like a mall without a roof. I've heard and read of a number of critics, professional and otherwise use this criticism. Similarly, it is a cut and paste criticism of my objective critiques above clumsily and inappropriately applied. Just like when creating "mixed-use" in all the wrong places and without the proper foundation.

This is the case for two distinct reasons:

1) This development has a better housing to retail/jobs ratio than do typical "town center malls in drag" which are nearly entirely retail. And more importantly,

2) The connections to the highway and surroundings are still quite good. And furthermore, these corporate campuses can be eventually infilled as there is already thought of doing so. It makes perfect sense. Many of these corporate office parks have excess land while trying to reposition themselves and their businesses. One of their major assets is land. Legacy, rather than being a disconnected, isolated entity, will actually be the catalyst for expansion and interconnection as its urbanism spreads outward.