Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Reduncacy Department Redux

I promised (perhaps to myself) that I was finished writing/talking about Museum Tower.  Everything had been said I thought.  Then new DMN architecture critic Mark Lamster took a tour of the building and actually reported from the inside. Go read his review of it here. It's accurate, often funny, and perfect.

There is one point he makes within it that I want to dig into further because it's something that infects quite a bit of the public understanding of urbanism and cities.  And that's the idea of what should have been done.  Mark writes about the need for a retail base that engages the public realm and transitions the tower to its context in a way that ingratiates itself to its context, forming the seam between private and public spaces while further activating what is an incredibly dire streetscape.

And he's right.  It should've been more like the typical Vancouver point building where the tower occupies a smaller volume, set back further then the 1- to 4-story base that fills out the entire block.  See image below or more from my trip to Vancouver from a few years ago.

It's telling that Dallas seems to want to be a cheap knock-off of Vancouver while mimicking the building it's most known for when what Vancouver ought to be best known for is the rejection of any highways through the city.  The point tower is simply a by-product of the protection of the walkable, pedestrian-scaled street and block system uninterrupted by car-first engineering.  The city needed to accommodate the demand for density (again, by-product of underlying conditions) while mitigating the negative impact that towers can have on the public realm below (too much shade in a cloudy city, windshear, and scale as towers loom uncomfortably out over the sidewalk) so they created the concept of the point tower where buildings had invisible volumes they were allowed to fill.

Again, that part is fairly irrelevant except for the fact that hypothetically it would be better than the defensive posture and isolation that the final design of Museum Tower instills.  Isolation is anti-urban.  Urbanism is fundamentally about connectivity.  Dallas struggles to understand what connectivity means and that it should be the priority rather than a rube-goldbergian after thought.  Why?  I answer that in this post on the Prime Directive.  Ease of car movement and the perpetual struggle against the bogeyman of congestion trumps every other consideration.  The actual function of the city as an efficient machine for social and economic exchange for all is subservient to car movement.  Don't have enough money for a car?  Don't enjoy driving? Don't feel safe with your life in the hands of the lady applying make-up passing you on 75?  Or the teen texting?  Or somebody heading back to Wylie after having a few too many in West Village?  Tough cookies.

That's important to understand the hypothetical of what could've been done to Museum Tower.
There are systemic issues preventing what SHOULD'VE been done from being what COULD'VE been done.

The first is of a formulaic nature.  During the development process I can see somebody suggesting the idea of adding retail to the development and design program.  At which point it could be derailed by a million different players along the decision chain.  The lender is afraid of mixed-use.  The developer doesn't want to deal with the complexity.  The brokers say no retailers are interested in the site.  The retailers plug demographic data from the surrounding 'customer shed' (a 1-, 3-, or 5-mile radius) and decide that there aren't enough people, or dollars, or pedestrians, or vehicular traffic to trigger their decision making process.  It could be any or all.  And based on those backwards or sideways looking metrics, they'd be right.  Formulas can't see into the future.  Only thoughtful people.

It's the other issue that underlies all of the above.  And this is what I wrote about three years ago when the Museum Tower design was first unveiled.  The building's design did nothing about the cloverleaf exit ramp of Woodall Rodgers, essentially making a defensive posture for the design a rational response to harsh physical conditions.

To generate pedestrian activity, it's less about the supply of ground floor retail or towers in the sky, but more about the soil conditions being right to foster life to grow.  And that requires pedestrian-scaled street and block system.  But unfortunately that is subservient to the free flow of cars.  Watch out kids!  Car comin' thru!

It is that which drives demand and pedestrian activity from which ground floor retail and density responds.  Because we refuse to do the hard work of tilling the soil (restoring a pedestrian-scaled street and block network and rightly prioritizing it), we're left jamming shiny aluminum Charlie Brown Christmas trees into the dirt.

In case you're wondering, yes, the vestigial walkable pockets of Main Street, Deep Ellum, Lower Greenville, Bishop Arts, etc., are the little, actual living thing.  Perhaps they could use a bit more stewardship if we want to the full flowering ecology of Vancouver.