Sunday, October 31, 2010

Downtown Dallas parking

Inevitably, every five years or so, the City of Dallas commissions a downtown master plan study. Always, it focuses on the latest in planning at that time, more office, greater car access, more residential units, more street scenes, etc. Also just as inevitable, the study ignores the effects of parking, perhaps the most important aspect of any urban study. Arguably, no other aspect has a greater impact on urban form than parking.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, I have done my own parking inventory. To the defense of those prior plans, doing a parking inventory is difficult. I have been doing since the start of summer. It is not complete, and likely will never be complete. Counting public spaces is the easiest for access. Many public buildings have their own spaces, some of which are easier to enter than others. Even more difficult, a lot of government buildings are shut to all but those who have access cards. And since downtown is in constant flux, surface numbers are constantly changing.

Even the count itself might be off, but only by a little. Counting spaces over and over again is monotonous and ripe for miscounting. However, any errors I have made are minimal.

I chronicled everything onto Google maps. Since it isn't quite a GIS capable application, I had to separate them into different land uses. While the information contains more than just parking, it isn't anything that isn't already known somewhere else. At least the parking information is likely to be unique. If anyone has it, it is unknown to me and to several others who would know where to find that info.

First, here's surface parking, which contain over 22,000 spaces.
Surface 1
Surface 2
Surface 3
Surface 4
Next up, garage spaces, which contain the most spaces in downtown at just shy of 30,000.

Office spaces is the third highest space holder at just shy of 10,000.

Government and similar institutions comprise 5,500 spaces.

With new residential development comes new residential parking, or roughly 4,000 spaces.

And finally a grouping of the other land uses add another 4,000 spaces. And yes, in Dallas, even the parks have parking, or more accurately, they are underground garages with green space on top.
Parks and Plazas
Retail and Misc.
And perhaps the most overlooked part of any parking system, and arguably the most important is on-street parking. Since it isn't Google Maps friendly, I have nothing to post. It is in Excel format. There are less than 2,500 spaces in the 1.3 sq mile downtown area. When you analyze the locations, you see that the major streets have surprisingly little. More on that later.

Now to the commentary. There is an over abundance of surface parking, the antithesis of an urban area. The dead zones created by surface parking is incredible. In many ways, they create a de facto boundary, clearly delineating one zone from another. It is no accident that the vibrant areas tend to be without surface parking in large numbers. But make no mistake, even small amounts can have bad effects. Large amounts are disastrous.

In order to get to healthy proportions in downtown, that number needs to be one-third of its current total. The positive news from such an over supply is that redevelopment is easy on a surface lot. However, given the tract record of urban development in Dallas, it doesn't mean it will be a good addition to the urban environment. Without any comprehensive guidelines on what is good versus bad, downtown will see just as many bad addition like Hunt Towers and the Commerce side of the Merc as we will of the good development like Third Rail Lofts and One Arts Plaza. Seeing the poor development of the south side of Uptown around Lower McKinney, I won't hold my breath.

Garages, like development, can be hit or miss. Depending upon design, they can be conducive to the urban area or just as easily rip it apart. The garage catty corner from the new Main Street Garden park is a great example of a bad one. At the street level, it is pitiful. There is nothing that engages the pedestrian and makes the entire block feel longer to traverse than should be in a good urban area. There is no mix of uses, unless you count the car wash in the interior or the dry cleaners at the skywalk level (I don't). Like surface parking, this garage creates an artificial boundary, signifying the end of the Main Street District.

Meanwhile, at Main and Akard, just a few blocks away sits another public garage, although you'd never know it. At the ground level is a CVS, Jason's Deli and the vehicular entrance, the only indication there is a garage there. Above the car park are residential units. If you were to look up at the garage section, you'd see the design was coherent with the rest of the buildings. In other words, it looks like a building, not a monolithic garage.

The final component of a public parking plan are the on-street spaces. No other parking in the automobile age is as vital to an urban are than on-street for many reasons. The convenience of quickly finding a space is important for retailers and shoppers. Stopping, heading in the store, purchasing you product and leaving is the bread and butter of on-street parking that simply isn't there for off-street except in the most immediate spaces. Even still is hard to beat the pulling up to the curb when you have to pull into the lot and pay.

The second benefit is extended to pedestrians. On-street parking provides a buffer between cars and sidewalk-users. It isn't comfortable walking next to several one-ton machines going on at 40 miles-an-hour.

A final primary benefit comes in the aesthetic. A street full of parked cars appear to have more activity than streets without. And in a common theme of urban areas, activity begets more activity.

In downtown Dallas, on-street parking is too scarce. Were I in charge, I could easily double the amount of street parking. They are rare for two main reasons. For every property that wants vehicular access, a curb cut is needed. When you add a curb cut, you have to eliminate at least two meters. And that's just for one entry point. It is more common to have multiple entry points, which eliminates several spaces. In the eastern end of downtown, there are several small property owners who have surface lots, even adjacent to another small surface lot. Each has its own curb cut which means on-street parking is rare in that part of town.

Heck, were I a surface parking lot operator, I would try to have as many curb cuts as possible. That way you are more likely to park and give me money in my lot than park on the street. There are many lots that have entrances every few feet. In some instances, these entrances are no longer in use and have spaces on the private side, but the street still has no meter. Sadly these practices just encourages nobody to park at all downtown, leaving the area empty.

The other big player in a lack of street parking is the traffic engineer. Their ilk are primarily concerned with one thing, moving as many cars as possible in as little time as possible. There are several streets where on-street parking has been removed from one side. And, at a time when there are the most car users, the remaining on-street parking is outlawed.

Think about that for a minute. In rush hour, where there are the most cars and some drivers need a convenient place to quickly park, the spaces don't allow parking. The City actually has a policy that encourages people to NOT spend money downtown. Need a gallon of milk? Well don't stop at the convenient 7-11 on Commerce Street on your way home to the suburbs. Spend your money there, not in downtown Dallas.

These traffic engineers want to keep adding lanes, while simultaneously leaving these lanes free from anything but moving cars. Very few retailers are going to go anywhere without some convenient parking spaces for prospective customers. Streets like Pearl or Griffin, which have six to seven lanes have very little meters.

Until this relationship between encouraging off-street parking and discouraging on-street is fixed, the urban area will continue to suffer. While other people, like Donald Shoup, can effectively worry about pricing, Dallas is not there yet because there is not an ample supply of it. You can't price something right until you have an ample amount of it.

Which brings us back to the plans. None of the downtown Dallas plans have really addressed this issue, including the current plan. You want to encourage retail, you need to give them convenient parking. In an urban area, you can't depend solely upon pedestrian traffic, just as you can't depend solely on auto traffic. You need a mix. It is hard to get that without on-street parking. You want to encourage more street activity, more residential and more visitors, on-street is an added component of that. Any plan that wants those occurrences, but doesn't address the parking issue will ultimately come up short in accomplishing those goals.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Freeway mitigation

The Dallas Morning News published an interesting story about the efforts to mitigate the strangling effects of the ring of freeways around downtown. In essence, it acknowledges that freeways, particularly elevated ones, diminish the urban quality of life (though conversely, it is essential to the suburban quality).

It detailed the mitigation effects, like the Woodall Rogers deck park over the sunken portion of that freeway, cleanup and landscaping under the elevated that crosses Ross, landscaped rocks by the new train line and painted columns and fancy shapes painted into the elevated beams near Deep Ellum.

This elicits several reactions from me, but the first is always why must we accommodate the car as is? Several cities have removed freeways for various reasons and several more are in the planning stages of removal. Why can't Dallas join them?

I'm not advocating removing all freeways, but it makes sense to remove the stubs and subsections within the urban core. If I had it my way, Woodall Rogers and I-345 that connected U.S. 75 with I-45 would be built at-grade and require cars to slow down. If they are through traffic, they would then route on the outer loops, fulfilling their original purpose.

But back to the mitigation effects. Aside from the park, which has other issues I may delve into at some other point, none of those fulfill any urban requirement. A good urban area doesn't have places you just pass through. All components add something to where the whole functions at a much greater rate than the sum of its parts. Very few people go to an area to look at its landscaping. People do go to a restaurant to eat its food, pass by a shop to by its and purchase its wares or a park to recreate. The better the public space, the more activity it brings, the a public space it becomes, the more activity, and so on.

Jane Jacobs, in her seminal piece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, describes the effect much better than I can, but essentially, the dead spaces magnify the dead zone, as those on the periphery of the "active" zone are performing less than optimal. A good urban area is one where boundaries are arbitrary. One urban area ends right where another begins and the definitions vary between people. Freeways are an absolute boundary. No one questions were downtown ends and the other areas begin.

So, as per usual Dallas, instead of working for optimal, they are working to maintain the status quo, only a little better. Aside from the limited deck park, the rest is purely lipstick on a pig. The freeways are still dividing the neighborhoods, still creating dead zones and still holding back cohesive urban development. Downtown will always be separated from Deep Ellum, Uptown, The Cedars and The Trinity.

From an aesthetic standpoint, it is better to do something rather than nothing. But, in my mind, this is trying to put out a house fire with a bucket. It is better than nothing, but in the end, it makes little difference.

Finally, I see a lot of ironies here. The same people who are acknowledging the boundaries the freeway makes were the same ones who said that the Trinity River tollroad would be a divider in the park. Either they have had a change of heart or this is politics as usual. I know which one I pick.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Main Street Gardens

As some may or may not know, my planning style is in provide for the basics. City's need to give their citizens the basics to thrive. Stuff like roads, quality transit, attractive urban areas and public safety can all be done with a basic approach. Parks are no exception.

Central Park is a good example of a basic park. Yes it has ponds, zoos, equestrian centers and such, but its design is of a basic nature. The attractions are the basic need to provide the amenity. It isn't a futuristic design with over-the-top gadgets. It evokes a sense of nature with its simplistic and basic design.

It has been close to a year since Dallas unveiled its first downtown park designed with residents in mind. There are several plazas and other "open spaces" but none that fit the park mindset. Main Street Gardens, in a very typical Dallas way, is an over-the top style park.

When the park first opened, I was blown away and in some respects, bitter about the extravagance. They built a cafe for the park that offers "an organic take on street food." Which is nice, except Dallas barely has any street food at all. And, that sounded like a very expensive proposition. My thought was starting with street food and working from there.

There a "tot lot" with a small assortment of play gear, none of it traditional.

My first thought was back to the basics. Where was the swing set? Why is there no slide? Instead, there is a ball attached to a post with spring tension that goes up and down. There is a jungle-gym-style contraption, that doesn't quite add the adventure I remember as a kid. Also included is a triangle shaped devise with rock climbing holds. A set of three arches made out of poles is up to the kids imagination, since I don't quite know what it would be used for and finally, one of the things I actually liked from the beginning, a merry-go-round style swing, where a kid sits in a pod and spins round and round. Below is my son in one.
The park was part of a small controversy where the metal during the day would get so hot that kids couldn't touch it or they would burn themselves. Again, this goes beyond the basic as it is modernist design at the expense of actual usage.

The main open section, in keeping with modernist design, is angular, as you can see in the first picture. It looks attractive, to some, but outside of passive use, can be a pain. For example, if someone wants to play football or soccer, one part of the field is larger than the other, which can lead to arbitrary boundaries and makes playing a bit more difficult. The only sport that is triangular (though this part is actually trapezoidal) is baseball, which won't be played here.

There is a dog park, which we rarely go to, since it has a concrete floor rather than grass. I know it couldn't be grass because the concentration of dogs would make it dirt instead. But, when a dog pees, the puddle stays. Some does go into the drain, but a lot of it stays. You can imagine that solid waste is easily left behind. Our dogs have had to have baths after playing in there the small amount of times they have been. Instead we go to the much larger one down the street.

A water feature complements the over the top look. There is a (surprise) triangular basin with jets of water and granite blocks at the wide end and the water trickles down to the point. It has been a popular feature and one where I have started to come around on. However, the ironic bit, in keeping with Dallas going beyond the basics, was that after the budget crisis started, this fountain was only going to be active for two hours a day, since they couldn't afford to keep it going more than that. The improvement district stepped in and is footing the bill beyond that.
There is a seating area that is beyond basic too. Instead of an awning with chairs, there is an LED lined L-shaped shade provider that is more for looks than actual use. The shade is minimal during the day, violating a basic provision. In fact, the designer called this art, rather than a seating area.

There is a lot of unused space, simply dedicated to landscaping. While that in and of itself is not a bad thing, the design is bland and comes up short of being a quality space. It seems to fit more in line with an arboretum rather than a public park. In my opinion, it adds insult to injury, since a large portion of this unused space was on the site of three historic, occupied buildings that was claimed through eminent domain. I'd rather have the buildings, which added to the street life, than the unused and unneeded shrug and bush area.

One thing I believed was well thought out, but needs a sign to tell its significance is this.
The southeast corner of the park was the sight of the Grand Hotel's parking garage. This sign was on that garage and now is being reused within the park. I like the connection to its historic past. Similarly, on the northeast corner is an information booth that details the changes of that area since it was first developed. Since that is the location of the unused open space I mentioned, it seems the only part of that park that is for public consumption.

While the tone of this post might seem a bit critical, I must say I am turning around a bit. Some of my fears have been unfounded. The cafe is way better than I thought. While typically the city has tried to steer expensive eateries to downtown, this hasn't been that. Five bucks can get you a nice meal. The tot lot is often busy. The water feature is popular, when it is on. And the best part of all, there are lots of people in the park at all hours of the day.

Some of the critiques remain, like the park's layout, the dog run and the unused green space. However, I am beginning to like Main Street Gardens more overall. Yes, it went beyond the basic, but it does have a good amount of varied land uses around. That is perhaps the most important aspect of an active public park. In this case, immediately adjacent is 1.5 million square feet of office, 498 residential units, a 130 room hotel (the one my aunt, uncle and Tutu (grandmother) stayed at for my wedding), a university consortium, a municipal courtroom - soon to be law school, a 2,000 space garage, 7-11, parking lot primed for development and two vacant buildings. One of the buildings is slated for residential conversion while there are no plans for the other at this time.

It is this varied land use that make the park attractive. Use at all hours of the day give it a sense of safety and attractiveness, since people like to watch other people. It has filled that role of quality public space, based on its location more than anything, that Dallas lacks. I hope these mixed-use principles will be applied on a broader scale in downtown and surrounding areas. Then Dallas will truly elevate its urban core into a true urban area.