Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mining the Poor Utilization of Land in Downtown Richardson for Gold

(ed. note: The following is the result of a 5-hour study and intended to be the start of a dialogue, not the finished product)

As a favor to a couple of friendly gentlemen who so kindly helped with various portions of, both of whom live nearby downtown Richardson and would like to see it revitalize in a manner similar to downtown Plano, I decided to take a quick look at how that could happen.

Yes, there is a paid for study that has been completed for the area, but for once I'll keep my criticisms of the effort to myself.  Instead, I'll focus on more precise interventions and opportunities for "urban defibrillation" that would require less capital investment, but also have greater market- and structural- stability for success in order to jump start the proposed development shown in the catalyst projects.  However, there is a drawback.  What I'm suggesting will require compromise by the existing stakeholders, including perhaps of their existing worldviews, in order to achieve progress.

First, let's start with how this study began.  I was discussing the road diet that former Councilperson Angela Hunt successfully implemented on Lowest Greenville in Dallas.  The road was previously four travel lanes and she had it reduced to one, each way with increased on-street parking and wider sidewalks and cafe spaces.  Furthermore, the sidewalk bulb-outs at intersections where thru traffic used to occupy, foreshortened the crossing distance for pedestrians.

All in all, it increased pedestrian space and safety, increased important table/seating for restaurants, and more critically, increased the comfort so that those tables were viable.  Even MORE importantly, is that the road is still moving the exact same amount of cars despite the supposed reduction in capacity.  Traffic matters to businesses, but it must be tamed so that it doesn't harm the business nor the attraction of the place.

Gabe and Justin mentioned how they'd love to see a similar action achieved on Main Street through downtown Richardson.  The aforementioned report also mentioned efforts on Main, but didn't suggest reducing capacity.  Somehow though it still expected increased pedestrian space to appear.  However, when I dug into the traffic patterns of the area, I noticed that a reduction of capacity was not ideal on Main, let alone possible.  It's at capacity, if not over, moving more than 30,000 cars per day as the primary firehose delivery system to/fro 75.  The only way to increase pedestrian space here would be to knock down buildings.

Instead, I suggested that the opportunity was actually on Greenville and that the opportunity to "mine for gold" was in under-utilized land area.  First, we have to understand that development usually is already or is in process of finding its highest and best use, its "right-value."  Merely filling in vacant land requires subsidy since the land is vacant for a reason.  It's value is being undermined.

Without fundamentally changing those underlying determinants, planners and developers look to cities to "fill the gap" economically with 25% of capital costs.  The reason, because the land and the market doesn't want what the city wants, which is density.  However, most cities don't have tens of millions laying around in cash to toss at developers (this isn't the 90s and 00s) and frankly, they probably shouldn't.  It sets a dangerous precedent.  The goal is to "prime the pump," but the reality is every developer have their hand out if you don't get it just right.

Instead, there are other opportunities to explore that are maybe more difficult politically than simply throwing cash at problems, but are positioned better for success.

That's what led me to Greenville.

Greenville Avenue is wider than Main Street but moves half the cars.  Light bulb.  Therein lies one opportunity for structural intervention towards increased connectivity.  Increased connectivity, increased quality of space and public realm, lead to increased value.  Greenville here moves almost the identical amount of cars as Lowest Greenville (but far less pedestrians I presume), or about 16,000 vehicles per day.

Herein lies the opportunity to re-contextualize Greenville through downtown.  Or, in other words, re-downtown something that was once downtown but became suburbanized by standardized suburban thoroughfare cross-sections.  Urbanism, value, and development are more about underlying structures than beautification.  Pretty pictures obfuscate and promise falsely.

Urbanism is not density, but rather interconnectivity.  Density is the response to demand, but can come in many forms, urban or otherwise.  Injecting subsidy into a project, even if it looks urban, only delivers supply.  By only delivering supply, there is no guarantee of success.  There is no better example of this than the development at downtown De Soto.  Subsidy doesn't drive demand.  Instead, invest in improved localized interconnectivity (walkability), which drives demand.

The right-of-way for Greenville through downtown Richardson appears to be 80-90'.  It is also six lanes wide with four travel lanes and a left-hand turn lane in each direction.  Based on the traffic counts, we can reduce this by three lanes and a more downtown-conducive and pedestrian-oriented street section that isn't competing with the firehose effect of Main Street.

By reducing right-of-way we create a safer environment that even the FHWA has found across the country often moves even more cars, and always more safely, through the same corridor.  Calming the traffic actually even helps the businesses because storefronts have greater visibility from slower moving cars.  You can window shop at 20mph, but at 40mph, you're catching a glimpse of billboards.  Also, by right-sizing the street, you make "urban" development that fronts onto a street a more natural, market-based outgrowth than mandating minimal setbacks to car-first streets (which is doomed to fail).

More importantly however, we recapturing land.  Land is often more important than direct cash subsidy because it can allow for more efficient development than awkward sites with fragmented parcelization and ownership.  In some parts of the Greenville corridor I looked at developments gained up to 25' of depth.

That gets us part of the way to the replacement of direct cash subsidy.

The other opportunity is to explore possible solutions to under-utilized land.  I don't mean building on vacant land, because as I said vacant land is usually vacant for a reason.  In this case, I look at the intersection of Greenville and Phillips where there is about 400 parking spaces for the First Baptist Church of Hamilton Park and about 400 spaces for RISD's Greenville Avenue Stadium (and the former school turned lightly used administration building from what I gather).  I did actually count all of these spaces, but the concept is more important than the specific numbers (at least for the moment).

If you're familiar with football stadiums and churches, you know their peak park times are not the same time let alone the same day.  So what if all of this parking could be shared?  Better yet, what if the city built a parking garage to be shared amongst the uses of the area in exchange for land for development?  For the purposes of this study, I even suggest the city could purchase the land dedicated at the moment for surface parking from the church and RISD, however it could even be donated by these entities in exchange for the public good of increased tax base, vibrancy, and safety.  However, for the sake of argument, I wanted to do this as "expensively" as possible (city buying land, building garage, and providing infrastructural improvements...real improvements, not DOT's version of improvements via increased capacity), to see if it still worked (as measured by ROI).

Before doing a development plan, I wanted to get a sense of the market so I used the nearby Brick Row to get a sense of land value, value per net square foot, and tax revenue generated:

Here's the full build-out...

I'm including some infill of vacant parcels however, the crux of the development, intervention, and investment happens on the surface parking lots of the church and stadium/school.  This doesn't look at potential closing/relocation of the stadium to perhaps a better location for a stadium (that is left as long-term discussion point).  Nor does it redevelop the historic school building like the Kennedy School in Portland.  Instead, it leaves it as it is and will let RISD and the market determine what happens to it long-term.  I just wanted to drive value towards it so the building can be preserved and its utilization and appreciation maximized.

Here's the pretty picture with trees...

Something else I want to point specific attention towards is the greenbelt along the DART line, which should extend the park and trail network established at Brick Row northward towards Main Street, creating more of a front door and reducing the edge effect of the rail line, if only barely, creating more of a front than a back, edge, or border vacuum.

Here's the phasing diagram that actually allows me to talk about development order and model...

Block A is the church's main surface parking lot.  Block B1 is partially church parking, partially private owned land.  Block B2 is privately owned vacant land.  Block C1, C2, and C3 are all presently composed of RISD parking.  Take a look at an aerial at almost any time of day or day of the week the parking is barely used.  I'm guessing it does fill on Friday nights and Sundays, but not nearly as much in between those peak events.

Here is the capacity study of the entire site, even though the immediate strategy would focus on blocks A and C:

In total, it adds about 650 new residential units (possibly up to 1,000 new residents to the immediate area.  When looking at the surrounding square mile around downtown Richardson, there isn't enough density, nor dollars, nor 'dollar density' to support much more retail than is already there, thus my point about areas finding their equilibrium.  So we need more density.  More density begets more amenity.  But density also needs more walkability.  All of these contribute to a virtuous circle.

But they all also create their own demand for more parking in addition to the parking that is already demanded by stadium, church, etc.  So from this full build-out capacity study, I put together a shared-parking analysis that breaks down demand by time and day of the week.  By doing so, we can more precisely pinpoint the peak demand at any one point in time rather than if every single use needed their peak parking load all the time, which never happens.

In this analysis, I input all of the proposed new land uses as well as the needs of the church and school based on what they have existing.  I adapted entertainment category into a new 'stadium' category and made its peak Friday/Saturday nights.  Admittedly, there may be some overlap and that's where constant management and scheduling comes into play between the end users, ie stewardship and compromise.  The parking lots degrade everyone's properties in the area, so the compromise is to give up "Black Friday" parking for the betterment of the entire area.

There are two important numbers to pay attention to, the Total Required Spaces is what zoning or the market would naturally want to provide.  This is how we end up with too much parking and inefficient land uses, because they're all planned in a vacuum, in isolation from each other and so that thei max parking is necessary.  The other critical number is to find the highest necessary at any time of week.  In this case, that is weekend nights (1432), quite the reduction from the anytime peak of 2034.  Just thinking about that as square footage of wasted space, that equates to 4.42 acres completely not needed.

In terms of phasing, to implement this vision would require:

Step 1:  Greenville Road Diet

Step 2:  Consolidation of surface parking lots onto a single shared lot.  For the sake of argument, let's say we move the church's parking across to the school's parking.  The church is already crossing a street to get from parking to church, but Greenville is a busier road.  This only works because of the road diet calms traffic and puts the pedestrian first, especially on Sundays or other special events.  Or like First Baptist in downtown Dallas there are police to stop cars and give pedestrians primacy.

Step 3:  This creates a development site on Block A.  City pays for the land value to the church (assessed at $894,480), pays for the public share of the parking garage ($7.092 million - residential parking happens on upper floors behind a gate), and a developer matching the city's criteria in an RFQ gets development rights (for hard costs I estimate around $24 million) for the approx 250 residential units, 14K sf of retail space, and another 11K of flex ground floor space for small office, retail, or residential (market-dependent).

Step 4:  Once the garage is open, the church and stadium parking can shift to the garage and the various smaller surface lots still available, block C can begin redeveloping, then block B which can probably happen on its own, but makes for a nice 'sink' for overflow parking from either blocks A or C until they're fully developed.

Step 5 might look at building off this success and repurposing the school or redeveloping the RISD facilities and stadium site.

Below is a draft of estimated land, development, and infrastructure costs:

The important component here is ROI, or in this case, time it takes the tax base to pay back the city's investment.  If the city were to pay for everything (public garage spaces, infrastructure, and land), it would take approximately 7.16 years of the new tax base to pay the city back.

After that it's gravy.  However, if we push the shared parking more aggressively (I'm showing more parking structures and parking spaces than the shared parking formula says we need - the parking garage in block C1 should probably be eliminated), we can cut the city's costs by $2 million and the move the return date up by 1 year (1.03 to be exact).

If the land is donated by RISD and First Baptist, that could save Richardson another $3+ million and the turn around time to 4.5 years.

This is no longer the 90s and 00s, where cities can toss cash at developments.  There have been too many failures of supply-side urbanism and even less cash on hand to do so.  We have to be smarter about how cities work and more inventive with how to jump-start their neighborhood centers of gravity.  We have to work the demand side.  The pent-up demand produced by demographic bubbles/preferences is not for density, but walkability.  Therefore, walkability is a prerequisite.

Instead, for cities to revitalize their cores, they have to fix the underlying structures, which means to invest in local connectivity to drive demand for the kind of density that lives on local connectivity.  Within the inefficiencies of the failed model, lies the opportunity.