Monday, October 28, 2013

"That Sounds Too Much Like Work"

Here is Dallas Morning News architecture critic and known carpetbagger and I discussing the very basics of the proposal to tear-out IH-345 between downtown and Deep Ellum:

I would like to add some of the more incisive questions Mark asked me during our very first conversation about the topic, since few have ever dug down into my motivations or the specifics of the design and plan.  I'm paraphrasing from memory here:

Q:  What do you stand to gain from this?  Is anybody funding your work?
A:  I'm covering all of my own costs.  We've set up a 501c3 to potentially offset future costs as well as when we pivot ANewDallas into other projects in the future.  If there is anything for me to gain, it's a better city to call home.
Q:  Why not more green space?
A:  First of all, this has to be understand as a financial exercise.  The design is a place holder for a more inclusive public design process.  However, the public will always want more amenity and open space.  Usually too much.  We just wanted to see what kind and how much development could fit on site.  However, with that said, Dallas is "over-parked" as it is and has trouble maintaining what it does have because of the same problem we're attempting to address, an infrastructure (in this case green infrastructure of parks) to tax base imbalance.  What is needed more than anything in Dallas is walkable, affordable urban housing, increased density, housing and neighborhood choice, and increased choice and convenience of transportation alternatives (which come from density and highly interconnected grids).  Furthermore, the Trinity River is proposed to one of the great, large urban parks in the country, so that pretty much has open space covered on the grand scale.  What is needed is more small-scaled, intimate neighborhood parks to serve as focal points of sub-districts.  It's open space that is scaled appropriate to the development that we're proposing, which is high density, walkable neighborhoods.  

To read his full piece on the subject, you can go here.  The crux:
Studies may be useful, but too often they are tools for delay, inaction and manipulation. Dallas, a city of action, should not settle for excuses or stopgap repairs that will themselves cost millions and do nothing but propagate the status quo. 
The city stands with its future before it. In the coming weeks, the finalists of the Connected Cities Competition will present their visions of a city reintegrated with the Trinity River to the public. Combined with the proposal to tear down I-345, Dallas will have visions for the reinvention of both the west and east sides of downtown.
As always if you want to see/read more about it, you can go directly to the ANewDallas website or see some of my past powerpoints available online.  Or read my D Magazine piece from earlier in the year.

My favorite part though is where TxDOT belly-aches over having to coordinate with other agencies at national and local level.  Because what is city building if not collaboration.  Especially if you're used to steam-rolling your way from point A to point B, consequences be damned.  One lesson I picked up from convos with former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist was actually how easy it turned out to be despite the fears of bureaucracy getting in the way.  345 is a stub on the US Interstate system.  Considering the natural subsidiarity occurring of agencies off-loading maintenance burdens wherever and however they can, I don't think it will be a problem getting the feds to de-list the segment and turn it over to the state.

So here's a recommendation.  1) Get the FHWA to de-list 345 from the US Interstate system.  2)  TxDOT can just walk away by abandoning the right-of-way.  3)  If and when that happens, the land is turned over to the State of Texas who is in position to benefit from a) one less weight on overburdened TxDOT and b) land $ale$.  4) Set up a development agency composed of state and city representatives to manage phasing, land sales, and street level infrastructure reconstruction.  At this point the state is really just the passenger, but they get the initial revenue.  The city gets the tax base, which is where the real, on-going revenue is.

If we've done nothing else here, at least people now know the road's official name.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Imagine This Great View of the River

...and then put a highway there.

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.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In Disaster, There is Opportunity

It has now been a full month since I've last posted.  And it feels kind of great actually.  To take a break and be back, now that I actually have a time for yet another stitch.  This one is about, like every other post, the inherent failings of our transportation policy, funding, and design and the havoc the inertia has wreaked upon our development forms and (hand in hand) our ability to maintain that infrastructure.

However, I don't need to rehash all of that same ol' same ol'.  The news does it for me.  Exhibit A, B, and C:
This is the best news ever.  TxDOT is tossing what it thinks is a bone to the cities, saying they can now control "driveway access, speed limits and maintenance schedules."  No thanks.  Not enough.  If I'm the cities and want to seize this opportunity, I want full control over these roads.  I want the right-of-way.  

The problem and solution is the vague idea of 'value capture.'  Not just in the land itself, but in the ability to design networks to leverage investment, development, and a tax base that is actually in proportion with the infrastructural burden.  That means more complex, more walkable streets that are not only context sensitive in terms of the existing surrounding but conducive to the kind of context that we want to achieve, which, again is more walkable, empowering, desirable, and livable neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, value capture is a hideously and corporately vague term that is a useful rhetorical device because it has not meaning besides $$.  People can fill in the void with their own interpretation and all too often that can be the conventional wisdom that conventional highway/road building is healthy, productive economic development.  Which, sure.  It's spending at first and money flows around the system, until it has so dispersed the tax base into density too low and design and form so repulsive, it becomes unsustainable due to a lack of care (and that pesky infrastructure/tax base imbalance).   

Since there is effectively two qualitative interpretations of how to design and build roads (the filter vs the funnel - a future post.  See also: dendritic vs reticulated), one good/one bad, there are two directions cities can take with this new "infrastructure burden."  Maintain it as a burden, as it currently exists.  Or, they can see the opportunity in controlling the design of these streets so they're integrated with development, are safe, attractive, empowering for a variety of forms of travel, particularly walkability, and thus encourage social and economic exchange.  The very point of cities.

In effect, this is the concept of subsidiarity.  Or decentralization of control to the lowest or smallest authority that can handle it effectively.  The smart cities will leverage these in a way that benefits them the most, not arbitrarily standardized from Austin.  Those that take advantage of this opportunity will be those that recognize this opportunity and seize it, and by doing so, improve livability, quality of life, will be more attractive to talent and businesses alike, and will thus win the future.  So to speak.