Monday, October 15, 2012

The Pernicious Conceit of Place as "Destination"

A week or so ago I was on a panel at the Dallas Center for Architecture regarding the future of Fair Park.  The panel was organized by D Mag arts/culture editor Peter Simek who was inspired by my column from earlier in the year which explored the rise in crime in the nearby area due to the fragmented nature of the area around Fair Park.  It is severed from the rest of the city and it has survived as well as if you were to disembody your arm from the rest of your body then toss it onto the floor.  We apparently expected it to live, but it only grew gangrenous.

During the panel, I tried to draw parallels with areas of London and Paris where riots occurred within the last few years specifically in areas that were socio-economically as well as physically isolated, disconnected from the surroundings.  The point wasn't that we should get the riot gear at the ready, but that there was a connection between physical segregation and socio-economic segregation.  The disconnections brought about disinvestment and decay.

At this point, the Fair Park area has bottomed out (we hope, of course) and that it hasn't or won't approach full-on state of Necropolis (again, we hope).  So with that shred of veiled optimism, we assume there is nowhere to go but up.  But how?  And that's what I wanted to focus on.

Too often, whether it is at community meetings or economic development proposals or even private developers the approach is backwards.  We talk about what *should* be there, not how to ready the platform for what *should* be there to occur naturally and as a response to the ecology around it, instilling interdependencies and the bonds that provide stability of place.

Here is why:  we focus too often on "destinations."  How will we get people to visit? And, "but what if people don't show up?!"  I suspect there is a notion of 'race to the bottom' unwittingly driving this logic because if the place is desirable enough, people will show up anyway.  Too, if a place is desirable enough, people will want to live there, providing stability.  Without readying the soil so to speak to cultivate place, we're basically just throwing roses (whatever various uses we try to subsidize) on a grave, expecting them to sprout a rose bush.

Instead, we focus on how do we get people there.  "It has to be convenient for them," right?  So we build big roads, and ample, free parking specifically for the convenience of others to live far away (often outside of the taxing entity supporting the place).  Here is the problem:  the roads and parking for the convenience of outsiders is what damages the quality and character of place, making it undesirable to live (disinvestment) and ultimately it undercuts the very demand that the outsiders want to visit over the course of time (decay).

This process encourages 1) rent seeking and 2) the endless process of cannibalism, where location and connectivity no longer matters, only to be replaced by "build it and they will come" ideology, which inevitably leads to cannibalism, instability, and sprawl.  There will always be some other place to come along and be better than the older version, because there is no stability of place, location, and desirability of livable, safe neighborhoods with emergent amenities, businesses, and services nearby brought about by the demand of the local population.

The rent seeking is an economic concept describing the process of manipulating policy to extract value.  It is particularly pernicious (and usually illegal) form of capitalism.  Wealth and value aren't created, but carved off and extracted.  In the geography of cities, this is accomplished by creating things like parking, devaluing the local place while maintaining value elsewhere (typically always low everywhere).

When describing this process, I always think of the State Thomas neighborhood in uptown Dallas.  People complain that "parking is difficult and inconvenient."  Of course it is.  That's why it is a desirable place to live. By demanding more convenient parking, you are effectively rent seeking.  Looking to take advantage of the desirability of the place while ultimately devaluing it (even though you aren't a stakeholder, resident).

Since State Thomas has matured of the 20 year redevelopment process, it has become less dependent upon McKinney Avenue (the uptown main street) and has reorganized around its own center of gravity, as places are wont to do.  This center consists of the restaurants and bars at State and Allen and Thomas and Allen intersections, which mostly act as neighborhood third places, where neighborhood regulars come to visit and enjoy the company of each other, not unlike a typical Barcelona neighborhood bar, but with dogs on leashes replacing the kids playing on the adjacent playground close by.

The one outlier, and this is apparently causing problems with the neighborhood association, is the Nodding Donkey.  And I enjoy the Nodding Donkey (and LOVE the architectural redesign blurring the inside sports bar culture with popular Dallas outdoor patio culture).  The problem is that it's almost become too popular, drawing cars invading from all over, and generally being louder and more boisterous than the rest of the neighborhood scaled bars.  It's more of a McKinney scene than a State-Thomas scene, infuriating the neighborhood.

Generally, these things tend to work themselves out over time, but the underlying issue is that there aren't enough complete neighborhoods like State Thomas, therefore people come from all around to take advantage of it without actually living there.  Because the demand for these kinds of places outstrips supply, housing prices remain high.  A barrier to most (even though the construction isn't particularly expensive).

And this is how we must first think about anyplace, but Fair Park in its next iteration, as a livable neighborhood first.  Like I was quoted long ago in Letters from the Green Line, we have to stop thinking about Fair Park as a DART destination, and first think about it as a DART origin.  Then, it will surely be a DART destination in 20 years, rather than a vestige of memories lost.

To do so, we have to start leveraging the excess land occupied by park, parking, and roads.  The city has way too much land tied up in both parks and road right-of-way.  Too much infrastructure and not enough tax base.  Before the panel, I counted up all of the excessive right-of-way based on actual traffic counts compared to the roads full capacity, the surface parking lots at Fair Park, and the right-of-way at SM Wright were it converted to a 4-lane urban boulevard, and found nearly 150 acres of land that could be used to sweeten the pot for potential investors (provided they adhere to certain development standards), leveraging economic development.  Maybe some day, the park can actually be a park, a center of daily activity, rather than a place of homogenous, one-off destinations.