Thursday, April 5, 2012

Asking the Difficult Question

Last night I was part of the Dallas Press Club panel talking about West Dallas. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect of the audience, who was going to attend, but it turned out to be another neighborhood meeting essentially. One of the many and on-going with the La Bajada neighborhood about the future of West Dallas. And that's to be expected. Aside from investors, they have the most at stake: their homes and 'hood.

And it's understandable that the planning process has to and needs to be sensitive to them. We, as American urbanists, have about 80 years of thoughtless, insensitive "planning" to atone for. And by "planning," I mean clear the way new stuff is coming in (rarely for the better).

However, there is a very difficult question I haven't seen asked nor addressed. One that I wanted to pose, but last night wasn't the time. Let's say, that the West Dallas plan does catalyze the amount of investment it says it will, $3 billion (for now, we won't critically dig in to this number, but I suspect it will be lucky to get 1/3rd of that. Rather than high-rise condos and super high end development imagery shown in the book, I expect more 1-story retail with 2- and 3-story affordable housing being the dominant product typology. To simply draw a full build-out, calculate it, and put a dollar value on that is to belie both planning and economics of cities/development, ie invoke magic. This is why so much planning is ridiculed as paper planning.). With the proposed neighborhood preservation overlay limiting height to 27 feet, what will ultimately happen to La Bajada?

Despite the aside, the CityDesign Studio has the unenviable task of trying to make things work, incent development in areas that reject it. Not so much politically, but infrastructurally. The areas are fractured, fragmented, and disconnected. Such disconnections have led to disinvestment and decay. As I said last night, integration begets investment, disintegration begets disinvestment. I've never seen this published as the xxth rule of urbanism, but it might as well be.

Point being, investment and density will want to happen in the best areas. It wants to build on momentum. It wants to be in highly connected areas. In other words, if you love your neighborhood, there is a very good chance, density wants what you have. This may not necessarily be West Dallas. This is more of a broader statement pointed at a 3-mile radius around downtown. We're already seeing evidence of conflict between the onsetting approach of regional residents wanting to be a part of Greenville Ave., Henderson Ave., and Bishop Arts area. The battles over parking are just the start.

Next it will be about height restrictions and density, if they haven't already. So, to cater to the present, rather than the next generation, we politically have to placate neighborhoods. We'll find density in places where the market isn't quite ready for it, and thus the challenge.

In other words, to paraphrase Nedd Stark, change is coming.

But back to La Bajada in specific, let's say that $3 billion does happen. It will inevitably significantly raise the property values of homes in La Bajada. And even though in Texas property valuations for taxing purposes can only go up 10% per year legally, you can bet this will catch up eventually.

The rise in property values would do a few things. The increased property taxes might force many residents out, to sell. However, since the market value will outpace the assessment in this hypothetical scenario, it likely wouldn't make sense to the buyer's market to maintain low density. Because of the height restrictions, more density isn't really possible to make the land viable at higher land costs. I suspect this means a slow bleed out of La Bajada over the next few decades until not much is left.

However, I am ambivalent to this. I have no stake in it beyond wanting Dallas on the whole to be a more livable, lovable, resilient place that can withstand rising gas prices, that empowers its citizens, that provides choice in housing and transportation, and by doing so is a more latent, intelligent city. Since the users aren't forced into certain transportation modes or housing types, but can make the rational choices based on their own wants and needs. In other words, a truly self-organizing city is a resilient city.

Places either get better or get worse. Even those that stay the same have to achieve a certain maturity before they're calcified via historic districts. And these are generally only 1) possible and 2) ideal, when not just the local neighborhood loves their hood, but the entire city as well. Because it takes money to reinvest, just to preserve something in time. As generations pass, if the rest of the city doesn't find it equally as lovable and suitable as the present it will decay. It is inevitable. This is why the arrondissements of Paris, whenever under assault by the next obnoxiously brazen starchitect with grand visions for wiping out the the millennia of care, love, stewardship, and thought into crafting highly livable, incredibly user-friendly.

I worry that by calcifying La Bajada as it is today, ultimately means the last generation of La Bajada as we know it. If choice is what we want, choice to sell should also be instilled. To cash in on having a great location near to downtown. I worry that it's being dishonest to say anyplace will stay as it is now and forever. That isn't true any place on earth let alone a very young, highly malleable city like Dallas.

By setting this height restriction, are we embedding disinvestment? And will that disinvestment limit the potential of the West Dallas plan? Will we have to wait until the area is completely eroded when we'll have to go through another zoning process just to undo the height restrictions in 20 or 30 years? Such is the challenge of modern zoning. It just takes a guess at what the market wants and tries to steer the market into other places...as it should. However, when the steering doesn't match the market, when it doesn't match the infrastructure, is when that steering veers off a cliff.

This is why gentrification is such a touchy and awful word. It has too many meanings. To one person it means moving them out of house and home (though they very well might get a handsome payday out of it and it wouldn't be coerced as feared, but an option, a choice). To another person, it means chain stores and restaurants, generitopia rather than small, local businesses (even though sometimes it takes the chains to make the local businesses work). To yet another person, gentrification means investment. And without investment, without care and stewardship, all places suffer a slow and painful death (or at best a zombie-like state of undead).

I'm sure somebody will try to speak confidently to assuage these worries (such is politics), but nobody knows the answer. Cities are highly complex, unpredictable organisms. And they are especially cruel places to those adverse to change. We can make a best guess, no matter how experienced or how trained the eye. It is always just a best guess and only time will tell.