Thursday, November 29, 2012

Spinning in Circles at the End of a Long Metaphorical Cul-de-Sac

Not to be naive, but now I know why politicians distill their message into carefully engineered empty soundbites.

As you may or may not have seen, WFAA did a bit on the pending IH-345 feasibility study and our version that removes the elevated freeway that TxDOT in their infinite wisdom (and debt) will ignore.  I'd post the video but it's not worth it.  You can find it here with the much better written portion.  I usually don't watch myself on TV because the entire time I think about what I could've or should've said differently. This time I did however watch it and was disappointed the fifteen minutes of dialogue was reduced to a seemingly reactionary, "tear it down!"

Here is what I hoped would be conveyed:

How did you get started on this?

Well, a developer friend and I were talking about the various downtown initiatives and critiquing what was happening, that the underlying problem of downtown wasn't being addressed in the downtown revitalization efforts.  And that is that the real estate market of downtown was upside-down, that demand was too low and land costs were too high as landowners of these surface parking and vacant lots all around us (the highest and best use specifically because of the freeway) look for a Museum Tower, skewed-market kind of payday.  So we have to address the core problem which is dropping land costs while increasing demand.  Demand is low precisely because of this road that is effectively publicly owned land by an institution drowning in debt that should be looking to offload assets rather than increase cost burdens.


We, as a city, have to ask ourselves what is the purpose of the city?  What is the purpose of transportation within a city? What do we want it to be?  And does TxDOT's mission align or contradict with that?  Cities are a machine for interaction. They facilitate social and economic exchange.  And do so as safely and efficiently as possible with regard to the mode of transportation, the degree of connectivity, and the spatial effect transportation has on real estate (urban form).

And to do so it's necessary to come together, to converge, to create congestion.  Congestion that TxDOT tries to fight in their costly Sisyphean War.  You can't defeat congestion because congestion is inherent to city processes.  You can only determine what kind of congestion you want, which is like cholesterol, the good kind that makes the system more healthy, or the bad kind that slowly kills.  Car congestion or diversified transportation, which is ultimately (as long as densities aren't too extreme) not really congested at all.

When you look at this highway what do you see?

I see a crumbling artifact of 1950's and 60s era planning that, it too, is crumbling.  There is really no point to repairing it or rebuilding it.  There is no more economic development to be garnered from just rebuilding it.  What economic development did occur, happened mostly outside of downtown anyway.  What I see is a giant barrier to downtown and Dallas as a whole's next step in evolution to a better, more livable, more fiscally stable and sustainable 21st century city.

You know people are going to say, "that's crazy," right?

It's actually crazy that it was even built in the first place when you consider that everything downtown leaders want in downtown (housing, streetcar, theaters, etc) were removed to make way for it.  And since then it has simply corroded the urban fabric all around it.  Which is ironic because the structure of this highway is literally corroding from within.  Good luck to all those driving on it right now.

Why wouldn't they do this?

Because TxDOT will tell you that they need to move the 160,000 vehicles a day through this corridor. But that's the funny part, those cars are only there and in those numbers precisely because of the highway being here.  The real estate market adapted to the highway by moving further out and becoming more car dependent.  In turn, it helped gut the tax base locally, in downtown and in Dallas in general.

The thing is most of the cars on that road above us aren't coming into downtown, it's regional traffic conflicts with the local movement patterns, causes "congestion," pollutes the air, and generally makes it intolerable and undesirable to live or be near.  Meanwhile, much of East Dallas is crippled by disinvestment and decay precisely because the street grid is 250,000 cars per day UNDER capacity.  That excess capacity combined with moving regional trips to loops 12, 635, and 190, increased DART ridership, and ample opportunity for more walkable urban neighborhoods absorbs more than the entirety of the 160,000 trips per day.

So if you could boil it down to one statement, what would you say?

I'm interested to see the costs of the various TxDOT plans, because we calculated that for less money than the cost of the Klyde Warren Park, we could open up 180-acres of land for new development on this 245-acre area which currently only has $19 million in improvements on the entire area and generates only $3 million per year for the city in tax revenue (and that's just property tax revenue as there is little to no economic activity occurring on this land).

Instead, we can spend $60-65 million to remove it, use the 4 TIF districts in place to restitch the urban grid, generate over $4 billion in investment for the city over fifteen years after demolition, and bring in $100 million per year in tax revenue for the city of Dallas.  Money that would build several new parks, streetcar lines from West End to Lower Greenville and downtown to Deep Ellum

This is a no brainer that would be the most important thing Dallas could do to compete as a 21st century city for the next fifty years.  But you tell me if there are any brains at TxDOT or in leadership positions.  We could use some brains, courage, and a heart.  Where's the wizard of Oz when we need him?