Friday, October 26, 2012

Joe vs. the Volcano

What more is to say about the Museum Tower vs. Nasher Sculpture Center other than what's already been said?  Well, I guess what I'm about to write.  All of the major local (oxymoron?) media outlets have had their say and described the basics since the most recent news of well respected mediator Tom Luce stepping down out of frustration.  And nothing is wrong with what they've said either.  It's good background.

Here is what matters.  Mediation was never going to work.  Nor should it have.  Going to court always was inevitable, not only given the two entrenched sides bickering over petty architectural snobbery, but because of the necessity of the battle as a precedent in zoning law.

And this moment, dare I say opportunity for greater long-term good, only arises due to the private power behind the Nasher.  If that was your house getting roasted by the tower, the developers and the city would collude to have your property condemned and then thrown a bbq around the newly ablaze roof roasting under the museum's open fire.  OK, maybe not, but it's funny because you know you can't be too certain that wouldn't be the case.

And roast it is, as I essentially predicted when two years ago I proposed a column to D magazine about the similar effect the various glass towers have on the public realm in the hot Texas summer sun (Fountain Place in particular, oddly enough, there is history between these two buildings).  Except, at the time I didn't have the handheld weather station equipment I now do so we didn't have adequate, objective data (tall, reflective glass buildings are a bad idea in a hot, sunny, windy climate. Who knew?!).  Now an issue which should have been raised long ago finally gets the chance to see the light of day.

Only it took a museum to be roasted to make a difference rather than a public sidewalk.  Because who cares about those, amirite?  It's only the most important element of a city's daily vitality other than or perhaps in conjunction with the intersection.

The odd thing is the public seems mostly on the side of the Nasher even though their "stake" is effectively with the Police and Fire pension (bad business deal in the first place aside).  In effect, the city essentially owns any failure in the Museum Tower, but also owns the land under the Nasher Museum.  So beyond the obvious reasons, the Mayor is right to want to find some form of amicable win-win.

However, at this point the only way is for everyone to just accept their fate.  This is going to court and as long as we get some form of precedent based on how much one property is allowed to adversely effect another building for noxious uses heretofore unregulated such as solar gain (but the building is LEED sumpin' sumpin' or other!) or wind shear off the tall building.

My guess is, legally, the Nasher at present has few, if any legs to stand on other than deep pockets.  Today.  But if we're all to win, perhaps the Nasher might have to fall in its sword, put some form of semi-translucent film or membrane over its custom roof structure to maintain the natural, refracted light effect originally intended.  However, that doesn't address the issue with the garden.  So, perhaps the Museum Tower should apply a similar non-reflective film to its windows (c'mon it's not world class because of the windows - otherwise Vancouver has 100 of these towers with better, more urban, interactive bases.  And if everything is world class, is anything world class?).  Otherwise, it's a giant beach umbrella with a middle finger imprinted on it.

There you have it.  Both have to make minor, relatively cheap, non-structural alterations.  We get some form of ruling and precedent from court up on high for how much we're willing to allow the post-card view of object buildings ruin the actual life of a city.  Win-win...somewhat.  That still doesn't solve the mis-management of the Police and Fire pension getting involved in financing a $200 million condo tower with but 100 units in it for the super rich that may or may not exist or have any interest in living there.  And that gross negligence is the other real issue worth addressing (while they blame their own predictable failings on everyone but themselves. How predictable.).

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Intersection as the Atom

Just a really short post due to time constraints, but a necessary one.  I've realized that in these posts (The first draft and the eventual ASCE journal entry) on the inward or outward force (sociofugal vs sociopetal) exerted on the real estate market (human emotion: want and need) by infrastructure lacked a foundation.  Why was I talking about networks?  And why was the simple mathematical exercise based on intersections within a set proximity?


The answer is something that I've never fully expounded or articulated, but it has been the foundation of many of my various studies over time.  For example, see this post on Intersection Density and the relationship between lack thereof and Disinvestment and Decay.  Or this one, where I gave different types of intersections, variable values based on the degree of convergence, or how many directions were merging at one place.

The reason is that the singular intersection is the basic building block of a city.  Not a person, not a building, not a city block or a parcel of property.  I've compared the city to both the internet and to a brain before and it is the intersection that provides the synapse.  It is the spark of energy where to singular elements come together to create something greater than the sum of their parts, opportunity.

Intersections can be the connection between many things, for example skills and labor, or agricultural produce from fertile soil to markets, but to understand this we have to think about it at its very simplest, the crossing of two roads (which tend to be located between those things I mentioned at the beginning of the sentence, which in turn were located based on the intersection of various other needs and/or elements along Maslow's Pyramid).

The singular road is established between two points already pre-determined.  However, there is no locational aspect along the road between those two points.  Very little differentiates anything along those lines, assuming the geography is consistent throughout.  For example, every point along the line would have a value of 1.  It is along a presumably used route.

Only when a perpendicular road crosses, does that change the spectrum.  While the remainder of the road remains a 1 at all points, the intersection might value up to a 2.  And that it creates four parcels at each corner, that might create each of those parcels as a 2.  Value goes up, there is more opportunity through more energy that passing traffic (of whatever form) provides.  Because the value goes up, potential for increased density goes up to meet that value.  Supply (of space) meets Demand (of opportunity).

It is that increased increment in connectivity which yields increased density.  You can't just make density happen if the demand isn't there (which is the how and the why we subsidize so many projects to "inject" density.  Unfortunately, without increasing demand through interconnectivity, we have no guarantee the "supply" of a new building will ever fill up without more subsidies such as deflated rents).  This is where density comes from, not some complex financial equation as some supposed "experts" on density will say.  The complex financials are necessitated only as a substitution for truly demand-driven density.

In modern terms, somebody might see the opportunity and add a gas station and quick mart at one of the corners (a modern day trading post?).  That new business would need employees and employees have to live somewhere.  Housing is built.  Those residents have needs such as schools and recreation as well as other services, which can then be met.  Provided the geography is amenable and there is enough traffic generated from the initial crossroads, this is a process that begins to create its own inertia until some form of carrying capacity is met (and then typically some form of technology expands that capacity if demand exists).

As the place grows the addition of intersections is necessary to ensure choice of route, flexibility, while the density of intersections is critical in 1) disciplining development patterns to engage the "conduits," thus tame those conduits so that they movement itself doesn't become pernicious to the value of the place, and 2) to maximize the percentage of site square footage that is the most valuable, ie frontage (see these two posts for the exercise: 1 and 2).

But underneath it all, every city starts with an intersection and expands by intersections, be they abstract or literal.  With the size and proportion roughly of "private usable space" with public "conduit," ensures desirability through opportunity which makes for durable, sociopetal, demand-driven places.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Identification and Treatment

Michael Mehaffy shared the following images on the Professional Urbanists Listserv.  They are before and after of a hillside slum/favela/informal settlement in Bogota:

As you can see, hand-made, rickety staircases up the slope were replaced by concrete stairs, terraces, and covered escalators.  The point is not to say whether bottom-up or top-down planning and development is better than the other, but instead, that they must work together, in a concerted, forward progress towards an end of improved quality of life and opportunity.  The locals (bottom-up) obviously identified the problem, the steep slope that the informal settlement organized around.  Then, the commonwealth, which has the ability and resources, formalizes the vertical circulation into a more convenient and improved organizing device for the community.

In many ways, this is no different than the Near South neighborhood in Fort Worth, adding their own bike lanes and road diets, only for the city to see the progress and benefit and thus formalize with re-engineered streets based on the center of community the neighborhood started.

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.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Knox Demonstration Road Diet, Before & After

As you may know, Knox Street was identified on the Dallas Complete Streets plan as a road suitable for being, ahem, "completed."  The gist of a complete street is that it isn't just for cars, but the infrastructure is essentially balanced for all forms of transportation.

Though Knox is not well-served by mass transit, to complete it without significant changes to the public transportation system, means a road diet.  In this case, the road diet took a four lane road and reduced it to two travel lanes in each direction and a shared center turn lane.  The leftover space from the removal of the fourth lane became a two-way cycle track, effectively extending the Katy Trail onto Knox as "an urban detour."

Throughout the country, similar road diets such as this one have proved to effectively calm traffic, improve safety, and actually move MORE vehicles with no evidence of any negative economic impact (usually there is economic improvement, but these numbers are harder to come by.  This is why I often point out that traffic isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Places need energy.  But to create a center of gravity that energy must be "condensed into a slow vibration," to paraphrase from physics).  Though this seems counter-intuitive, there are two primary reasons:  1) the place is more desirable when it is safer, so more people are attracted to it, and yes, drive there, and 2) the slowed traffic reduces headways between vehicles thereby increasing its overall capacity as more cars can fit on the road.  As people drive slower, drivers feel more comfortable being within 2-3 car lengths of other vehicles.  There is adequate stopping time and even if something were to happen, at such low speeds, damage would be minimal.

Because I knew this was happening, I decided to take speed readings before the installation and after.  Here was my methodology:

- data readings before and during the road diet demonstration were taken at similar times from 12-2pm on a weekday.
- data readings taken shortly after installation was complete, but before any of the programmed festivities so as to avoid distortions to the data.
- measurements were taken using a handheld radar gun from behind vehicles so as to avoid detection and subsequent unnatural slowing thinking I might be 5.0
- vehicular speed measurements were ONLY recorded when there were no break lights present and a green light ahead so as to record only "full speed."



The ranges shown in black at each segment of road show the full range of speeds on those particular street segments.
No vehicle moved along these segments at speeds greater or lower than these ranges with two exceptions. There were only two exceptions. One was a porsche heading towards Highland Park at 27mph and the other was an SUV heading towards 75 at 24 mph.
These are shown in brackets next to the segment where it was recorded.

In red parentheses is the reduction in speed on average per segment.
Predictably, traffic slowed all along Knox where the road diet was installed.

Interestingly, the vehicle speeds as cars entered Knox was the same as before, but then slowed noticeably as they approached McKinney Ave., where the start of the road diet was visible.

- The vast majority of vehicles actually moved slower than above, as most approached red lights or used their brakes. As noted, these were not recorded.
- During the time of recording, traffic generally moved at a steady flow, generally 1-3 car lengths apart. Stacking at red lights rarely over a few cars at a time.
- Choke points/backups/conflicts occurred not at intersections but at mid-block alleys, curbcuts, and crossing traffic into on-street parking.
- There were more pedestrians present at this time than before, though not in overwhelming numbers. Also, it was 92 degrees during, and 98 degrees when the Before measurements were taken.
- The right turn only lane from Knox to McKinney was critical in reducing conflicts.

How “Tethered” is the street?
A street can be considered knitted together based on the degree to which pedestrians are willing to cross a road for various reasons including cross-shopping, an intricate component to synergy of place. How knitted a street is, is a measure of inherent pedestrian comfort and confidence in their safety.

 - A road where pedestrians do not cross at all can be considered to have 0 knitted value.

 - Where they cross only at control points, such as crosswalks and intersections is a 1.

 - Where pedestrians cross at desire lines, a road can be considered to have a ‘knitted’ value of 2.

Lemmon Ave, a zero for integration

Greenville Ave, lose the zero, get with the one?

Main Street, lose the zero and the one and get with the hero, a 2.

Based on observation, it is believed that Knox as it is currently designed and operating generally functions as a 1 or slightly below. When pedestrians cross, they will use the crosswalks at signalized intersections. However, there seems to be little evidence of cross-shopping, partially due to tenant mix/location, and partially due to road design.

During the demonstration project however, pedestrian crossing at intersections was rare as most crossed where they pleased, at desire lines between origin and destination. Though pedestrian activity at the time was relatively low (compared to Main Street as shown above, though higher than normal), it operated closer to a 2.  As traffic speeds were suitably reduced by the demonstration road diet to below 20 mph, pedestrians felt more comfortable to cross the street without using crosswalks or waiting for the crossing signal.

Walkability Schmalkability: Cognitive Dissonance of Simulation and Simulacra

Don't always believe what you hear or read (even this!).  I don't even know how I came across this article about a supposedly new urbanist-y new development in Illinois, but it couldn't be a better possible example of when terms like walkability, livability, sustainability, etc. become completely disembodied from any real meaning, and in turn, become marketese, empty vague vessels for you, the consumer, to fill with whatever happy thoughts you might.

For example:

The idea, he explained, is about “a sense of place, diversity and connectivity.”
“People need to be able to walk out their door, walk to the park, walk to their neighbors, walk to the shops, without having the need to get in their car every time they need to go somewhere,” he said.


Fremont Commons developmen t

Hmmm. That looks suspiciously like a diamond freeway interchange.  Not looking good so far for that promise of walkability...

Hmmm again.  That looks like a conventional suburban development.  I count one (1) strip center, thirteen pad sites (13), one (1) cul-de-sac, no (0) access between the residential and retail, and zero (0) homes that actually front on the waterfront park/lake thing, essentially privatizing it.  Might as well put a golf course in there and throw a gate around it and call it a day.

Oh, and this is from a firm in Texas.