Monday, February 21, 2011

Downtown Dallas 360 (long)

I've delayed my critique of the latest plan released for downtown Dallas called the 360 plan. It was released last week and I have tried to read up on it as much as possible before commenting. There's the brief references in the Dallas Morning News' Metro section, in the editorials, Unfair Park, and the blogs. I have tried to gather information as much as I could.

For more meatier references, here's the PDF presented to City Hall, pretty generic really. There's a lot of pictures from somewhere else using buzzwords of the current planning paradigm. Toward the end, there starts to be something more specific regarding certain areas like Reunion, Farmers Market and Main Street.

This one is a bit more specific, though not technically part of the plan itself, but rather one of the last PDF's late last year about the final phases of the plan. It has a bit more info, not surprising since it is three times as long. This is also the one that I will reference throughout the rest of the post.

And finally, this website supposedly contains the plan, though I couldn't find anything current. I glanced at the parking section, and will defiantly comment on that later.

I'll begin with the subtitle. This has been presented as Quick Wins and Bold Ideas. I absolutely hate the first part. Quick wins aren't going to solve anything. Instead of doing the right thing right now, the idea of quick wins is more along the lines of maintaining the status quo. The main things downtown needs are streets that are less focused on the car, places that are properly designed on the street level (ie ground-floor retail vs. fortress stand-alone office tower) and less gaps in the urban environment. I really saw little that accomplished those things.

Instead, the quick wins were a lot of cosmetic things like landscaping Main Street, among other things.

The problem is that landscaping, in the name of increasing pedestrian amenities, can actually make things worse. The following two pictures were taken on Main Street between Pearl and Ceasar Chavez. They are part of a landscape improvement in the 2006 bond package.

At first glance, the new concrete look and bricks near the curb are pleasant. However, when it comes to actual use, it can be quite cramped.

Look at the first one and use the white car as a reference point. Between the lamp post on the left and the shrubs on the right, only two people can comfortably fit. That landscaping has taken away pedestrian space and decreased the capacity of the sidewalk. On a Sunday, the wife and I walked by this very point and I had to walk behind her to let someone else pass. We had to stop our conversation and slow our pace, which is the antithesis of a quality urban environment. Outside of a park, the only landscaping I really approve of are trees. They help provide shade while providing a color difference to the concrete jungle. Shrubs do the second, usually at the expense space. The only redeeming factor of shrubs is the look and that is not enough.

I have no idea what the designer/architect was thinking in the second picture. Clearly, the lower half near the street is virtually impassable. Between the banister, the light pole and the meters, the sidewalk capacity is halfed. The upper half is where all the traffic will be going. It is ok to have a sloping sidewalk. The grade here in minimal enough not to be an issue. There is clearly a bump where the banister is with each side at virtually the same grade. Sadly, this has happened elsewhere in downtown the last few years. And in each of those places, an artificial bottleneck has been created, as this will be too when completed.

However, the main point has been glossed over. Main between Field and Ervay is just fine now. What really needs help is everything else. No part of Elm or Commerce (or any other street for that matter) is at the level Main is now. As I will mention in my long-delayed post about the AT&T renovation, the big grocery store, Urban Market, was put several blocks away by city mandate, yet we don't do anything to ensure its connectivity to the main urban section of downtown. The reality is, as I have mentioned before, it is that linear or corridor thinking that Dallas loves to do.

Great urban areas are not built upon lines, but rather districts and neighborhoods. If you were to walk the length of Manhattan, you would not be able to delineate the exact boundary between Greenwich, SoHo, Midtown, Chelsea or the Meatpacking District. In essence, they all feed of of each other. If one of those neighborhoods were cut out and placed in Dallas, the activity and vibrance immediately declines. Without the other districts reinforcing the others vibrancy, it all falls apart.

The plan also gies a street classification system, which is different than what  most every plan and planner uses. I am absolutely against their classification (page 49). The really pedestrian- or close to pedestrian-friendly streets like Main, Lamar or Harwood get called a "streetcar boulevard" while the designation of "District Connector" goes to the car-heavy streets like Griffin, Pearl and the soon-to-be-widened Ceasar Chavez. Sadly, Elm and Commerce get the District label. The rest of the streets are nothing more than freeway connections to and through downtown. It is really sad that Elm and Commerce are considered in the same ilk.

Every other street gets a neighborhood or special use street, though oddly enough some streets are listed in multiple category.

The linear thinking continues as the plan transitions into the Lamar Street corridor. I can not for the life of me think why this corridor is that important over the other streets in downtown. On page 70, the only reason this area is given consideration is ...

Accessible to historic, cultural and civic resources
Destination for regional, national and international sports and convention tourists
Overall, I am disappointed in the plan. It ignores the basic aspects of what needs to be done, while doing things that are superfluous. Downtown once again is likely to be held back from what it could be, and that is where the real travesty is.

Supporting residential and student housing
Sports-related venues, live music/events, family friendly restaurants
Wide range of visitororiented retail, lodging, and entertainment

I don't know why that is reason to include an area. But again, this goes against district thinking. And on top of that, south of Main Street, there is little on Lamar besides a Greyhound Station, a warehouse-turned-office building, the convention center and lots and lots of surface parking lots.

The district that best exemplifies what could be on paper and in reality is the Farmers Market. Minus a tract across from the Camden and north of the Farmers Market, this area is largely built out. What it called fits the area and also its needs. I think this is A) the most likely of their ideas to come to fruition and B) the best idea within the plan.

The final district I wish to comment on is the Reunion District. I can't help but think these are pie-in-the sky ideas. I'll reference the graphic on page 149, but won't post the picture because the labels are too small to read.

First, the area they are calling for is the most isolated in downtown. On the one end is the rail lines. Light rail AND freight rail prevent any crossing to the main part of downtown. On the west is I-35E, the most traveled interstate in Texas and on the north is the main exit ramp from 35 into downtown. Last, I-30 bounds Reunion on the south. There are only three ways into Reunion. That is not urban in any way. If there plans come about, this will be the most isolated neighborhood in Dallas. Might as well put a gate up and armed guard in a booth at the entrances. It will have the same effect.

I also just can't follow the graphic around the Dallas Morning News area south of Young either. It calls for smaller blocks in that area and draws some streets on the map, but there are existing buildings there. Unless they think Belo and newspapers are doing so badly that they will just sell everything, that will never happen. The odd thing is the streets are shown to connect to Houston and Market, but in those areas, those are bridges to Oak Cliff, concrete structures on pillars, not at-grade streets.

When it says mixed-use rising to the Houston Street Viaduct, I can only assume they mean a connection at the bridge level, particularly since they call for a stop on the upcoming streetcar line on Houston Street. If not, I doubt many people will want to climb three to five stories worth of stairs to get to the streetcar.

While the idea of a deck park between the Houston and Jefferson bridges and over I-35E is appealing at first, I just don't think it is feasible. The cost is high, and the payoffs to an isolated area leading to the future Trinity Park (which has been a future park for 13 years now and the earmark ban putting its main source of funding in doubt) seems to be unnecessary.

In my opinion, the Reunion area is the least likely to succeed. Its transportation network has ensured that it is isolated and this plan does nothing to relieve that constraint. If I were a guessing man, I would gander that Belo, which has a lot of influence within Downtown Dallas Inc., and Woodbine development, also with a lot of influence, had a say in this.

The parking plan was at least a bit more amenable to me than the main plan. There were somethings I liked, but there were also flaws. I am always a bit weary when I hear something that attempts to bring convenient parking to downtown. I've said it before, you can't outsuburb the suburbs. They were built around the car and as a result, are built to be convenient to them. Downtown is not nor will it ever be convenient for the car. What it can be, that the suburbs can never, is a true urban environment.

This idea that there is a perceived shortage of parking in downtown is valid to the suburbanites coming to downtown. They are used to the big box parking lot that is full only around Christmas and the get a spot 50 feet from the door. It doesn't work like that in downtown, which means it gets a perception of not having enough parking.

Many people credit downtown Fort Worth's success to the subsidized (roughly $2 million a year) free parking. I tend to disagree. Because downtown Fort Worth had solid urban bones, and because the 70's and 80's building boom largely passed it by, and because the developers, the Bass Brothers, did proper urban design, it became an attractive place to work, live and play. When a place is attractive, people will come.

Back to the plan, the call for more on-street parking to meet short-term demand appeals to me. The lack of on-street spaces still baffles me. It really shows the conflict between the car and a proper urban area. I like that the authors are calling for more. The real question is how will the traffic engineers respond?

Secondly, I like a lot of the management principles. Getting rid of the time limit and installing market-based pricing is really solid. Market-based is really the counter argument to free parking. If the market will bare paid parking now, switching to a market-based strategy will maximize supply to demand. It will also quiet calls for free parking to some degree, since if the place is so unattended, the price will be lowered to near-nothing eventually. But, if the spaces always maintain an eighty percent occupancy rate, then obviously the price is right and the place is attractive enough to bring the cars in.

One of the things that caught my eye was the cash-out strategy to reduce parking demand. In essence, parking is seen as a benefit at the workplace. The space to park is not free (no matter whether urban or suburban) and places that have free parking subsidize it, in this case for their employees. Now those who take transit are essentially losing out on a benefit. So with cash out, employees decide whether they want a parking space, or the equivalent worth of the space in their pay check. Go here to get a more in depth explanation of cash out parking.

I'm just not sure if it is legal in Texas or if a law would need to be changed. In places where this has been implemented, driving alone has decreased and transit use has increased. This would be a great way to alleviate perceived parking shortages.

Other things like bringing in a management entity, new meter technology and customer service are decent, so what is my hang-up? First, here's a graphic issuing supply and demand.



Sadly, I do not know how they arrived at the numbers above. There is no way to get a solid number of demand, especially since car travel is not a simple supply and demand function. The more parking spaces provided might actually have an inverse effect on the attractiveness of an urban area. Parking lots and garages can and do cause holes to shred the urban environment. The only way they work (and not optimally) is through mixed-use, similar to the Third Rail Lofts garage (the plan does call for it at least).

The main shortfall of the parking plan is the lack of a real mention of alternatives to parking. There's a lot of parking-related ideas, which are valid, but nothing non-parking to relieve the need.  Increased use of transit negates some need for parking spaces. They suggest more parking and in another part, more transit. They don't add together.

In there, I read something about encouraging retailers to move up from the tunnels. However, with nothing concrete in either incentives of moving them up or details of shuttering all or part of the system, I am just left to wonder. Page 155 is the only mention, and when the word develop is used, it obviously is esoteric at this time. It's a shame, since closing of the tunnels would be a very quick win in increasing the street vibrance and therefore the attractiveness of downtown.

I come away with two fundamental questions.

The first, the lack of a transit section and the mentions that are made are pitiful. They consistently show an alignment for the second rail line that Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the builder and operator, has said in not feasible and will never happen. It stems from the desire to add a station to the Convention Center Hotel, which of all the alignments studied by DART, has the least effective ridership numbers and is the most costly.

The streetcar maps are conceptual and I doubt have done any land-use studies or modeling estimates to refine alignment or to even determine feasibility. Typical Dallas, focus so much energy on cars and ignore everything else. When I said earlier that downtown can not out-suburb the suburbs, they can out urban them and transit is a huge part of that. By running a rail line to the most vacant, empty and poorly designed part of downtown, it will ensure that the urban experience and ridership is suppressed. Combined with an urban redesign of the street, a rail line under Commerce would mean so much more for the rider, urban participant and downtown.

Second, many of the ideas and suggestions will require private participation, approval and capital. Parking lot owners are making a profit on their lot, at the expense of the urban environment. I see nothing that will encourage them to build.

I also see nothing that will encourage them to build according to the plan. As is usual with Dallas, the developer will run the show at City Hall and get the required approvals needed, whether they fit the guidelines of the plan or not. While planning boards are supposed to pass decisions based on the comprehensive plan and any supporting plans, often in Texas in general and Dallas in specific, that is not the case.

The last critique of the plan is a common one for planning in general in Texas. This is a property rights state after all, for the good (private) and bad (usually public).

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