Friday, October 18, 2013

You Can't Keep a Good Idea Down

No. I'm not talking about the Connected City competition, unveiled last night at the Dallas Museum of Art, but rather the proposal to tear-out IH-345 between downtown and Deep Ellum.  I mention that because it was mentioned last night by local architect and juror Bob Meckfessel during the Q&A which tellingly revolved around transportation and highway issues rather than the actual schemes proposed.

Now about the Connected City Competition.

"None of these are implementable."  That was Larry Beasley, another juror and former planning director for Vancouver.  A city which lacks freeways, by the way.

First, a couple of truisms:

  • Value equals degree of connectivity.  Therefore Demand is driven by degree of connectivity.  This is pretty much understood (at least subconsciously) by the very nature of the competition.  Furthermore, value is a product of local connectivity (walkability, the stabilizer) and global connectivity (the amplifier, these are your trains, planes, and automobiles).  However, you can't allow the heavy infrastructure of global connectivity create a negative sum outcome, which it too often does.  This is why subways are subways, EL trains are elevated, but still somewhat disconnective, and trains at grade create the "other side of the tracks" phenomenon.  All of these are also true about highways but multiply the impact of each several fold.  
  • You also can't increase connectivity with mere lines on paper.  It's pretty common for designers to overvalue the connectivity of the lines on the paper to the impact those lines have on real connectivity, thus real demand, thus density.  Draw one line and all of a sudden we're building the next Dubai.  For example, people generally don't walk under freeways no matter how much art, lighting, or sidewalks you add.  Getting back to the first point, this is why freeways are generally bad for downtown environments because they are more disconnective than connective, no matter how much traffic is flowing past.  This is also why the real estate market badly overvalue(d)(s) freeway frontage.  It's actually really hard to get to those when you're moving past at 60 mph.  We've built hotels along them which are slowly degrading to parking, vacant land, and great sites for billboards.
  • Real estate finds its demand = value = supply = density equilibrium point, but usually it can take a generation or about 20 years to find it (see the part about overvaluing freeway traffic as value despite its movement being more repulsive than attractive).  The area along Industrial Boulevard turned Riverfront Boulevard is gas stations and pawn shops and liquor stores.  This is a direct relationship, response, and organic outgrowth of the degree of disconnectivity to the land.  It is also what the competition is trying to address.  It's also important to note (and this is a good thing) that most of the schemes addressed the connectivity to the sites along the Riverfront Boulevard corridor to increase the value of the land and thus, hopefully, turn into development projects.
Now, a disclaimer.  I've distanced myself from the competition.  When people have asked what my ideas for Connected City are, I say 345 tear-out and let's figure out a way where development can reinforce the levee on the West Dallas/Oak Cliff side, thus making the levee more structurally stable, adding a promenade along the top of the levee, and putting buildings right up against the levee so that they can interface directly with the promenade.  That makes a lot of sense to me.  

I've never felt that the properties along Riverfront could be connected to at an infrastructural cost (investment) that would get the demand high enough to yield the Dubai's and mini Vancouver's being fancifully imagined so that the new tax base can pay off all of that infrastructure investment.  As for all of the schemes, I think this one did the best and most realistic job.  I'm the only vote for it at time of this writing.  It has the lower heights that I think the market would actually bear if we can find a way to afford the infrastructure.  And just eye-balling it, I think I'm seeing at least $2 billion in public investment (only considering the green infrastructure component) for about $2 billion in private investment.  

---- side note to the author of that plan for redeveloping the area around the Hyatt which is currently a quaint little suburban island of horror in the middle of the city ----

That's a 1:1.  You want at least a 1:5 and preferably 1:10 ratio (if not more) to make it work.  And that's the most realistic.  The Bofill scheme, is like $10 billion in infrastructure investment (including green infra, ie parks) for $50 billion in development, which is completely unrealistic unless we've got Dubai $$ laying around and Dubai, ahem, labor standards to build the two Dubais flanking either side of downtown Dallas in the section elevation shown at the bottom of their submission board. 

Who knows, maybe through subsidiarity eventually leading us back towards something more akin to city-states, money stops flowing upwards to the federal government's highway trust fund to build more antiquated, anti-city infrastructure and begins being (staying?) redirected back towards city needs and city level projects like these to attract re-investment and re-population in abandoned downtown cores.  Maybe it's possible to exchange gold plated freeways (gray infrastructure) for gold plated green infrastructure.  Personally, I don't think either is terribly wise or responsible and we should be thinking more small-scale and incrementally.

Speaking of highways and that the conversation gravitated more to them than the actual competition, let's think about the nature of this competition from the jump.  Larry Beasley added to his "not implementable" statement that these are all multi-generational, 100 years-ish plans.  That's admirable for us to be thinking that long, but then in that case, we're not thinking big enough.

Vision competitions are inherently about finding the ideal.  If we're going to be thinking about what Dallas will be in 2050 or 2100 and spending billions upon billions, rather than the mental, fiscal, and physical gymnastics trying to contort development in and around these freeways which inherently repel density and development, wouldn't a better vision plan look at what the city ought to be in terms of what the best infrastructure is for the entire city by 2050 and then incrementally work from there?

Big vision plans ought to address the underlying problem rather than work around them.  Beasley said once downtown gets to 100,000 or 200,000 people (his words not mine, up from the 6,500 today) then we can consider removing freeways, conveniently leaving out the part about the highways displacing demand from the core to the bleeding edge.  How do we get to 100,000 if the highways are suppressing 1) demand and 2) the critical mass of continguous, interconnected neighborhoods to achieve density?

We had jurists from London (no highways), Vancouver (no highways), and San Francisco (ripped out two and is about to expand one of the tear-outs further).  All cities with high degrees of local connectivity (walkability) while still managing to have high degrees of global connectivity without inner-city freeways.  They're all also attracting oodles of talent and capital, which is what it takes to make these development visions happen.

We lament the lack of or flagging DART ridership yet we still believe the "cure" to "congestion" is more highway building.  That, or we just really like coercing a captive market onto roads to then charge them for oil, gas, and tolls.  That's a very short-sighted way to build a city.  If that's our direction, we might see 2050 like Detroit sees 2010, as all the money bleeds into increasingly few pockets or out of town/state/country altogether while opportunity, and thus people follow.

Instead, let's envision the BEST Dallas that Dallas can be in 2050 and incrementally work towards there.  Do I think the Horseshoe is going away?  Nope.  But maybe it can be decked over like the preferred option I linked to above did, but it's probably down the way a bit.  We need more density and tax base elsewhere to make that work.  Do I think I-30 is going away?  Nope, but it can also be decked if not re-routed around South Dallas.  Do I think I-345 can be removed.  Absolutely.  And it's just phase 1 of a newer, better, more inclusive, and more empowering Dallas.