Monday, April 11, 2011

360 Part 1

As I have been reading the Downtown Dallas 360 plan, it has occured to me that covering the entire docment in one post might be a little cumbersome. Instead, I will do posts on the sections, six total.

The first section is the introduction. While neccesary, these are my least favorite part of any plan. They are overly positive and more like a cheerleading session than a planning guide.

The beginning:

As the premier urban center in North Texas, Downtown Dallas is the epicenter of economic, cultural and social activity in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Its history as a vibrant city is well-known; its future as one of the world’s most dynamic urban environments is currently being shaped.

That might be overstating it a bit. As Dallas and the region have sprawled, downtown isn't as the start of this report indicates. That is not to say it isn't important, but the epicenter might not have been the best word choice.

Another disinterest I have in these introductions is that they tell me things I already know. It gives the history of downtown and Dallas, the purpose of the plan (to guide growth, duh) and the snapshot in time of the current conditions.

The part of the introduction that has substance is toward the end, page 10 of the document, titled Assets, Challenges and Opportunities.

Fighting through the cheerleading, the assests in the report are listed as historic prominence (assett?, really?), location (middle of the region, middle of the country), corporate and government presence (lots of major corporations and levels of government in downtown), institutional and cultural presence (churches, schools and the first of many references to the Arts District), architecture and open spaces, transportation network (interstates, light and commuter rail, streetcar and no bus mention), district identities and tourism and hospitality.

Challenges, in my opinion, were nearly all right in the money. These were, unfriendly streets (made for cars only), fortress-like buildings (a saying I use a lot about buildings that have only a single-use and no urban quality), image and perception, multi-level pedestrian system (tunnels bad), freeway loop, parking access and management (some red flags here), Trinity River Corridor (barrier and lack of progress) and housing choice (upper income only).

I thought, minus a little stretching, the assets were accurate. I am not sure if it is relevant today that downtown was where everything happened before WWII. I don't think that people or corporations choose downtown as a location because it was important 60 years ago. They do so for locational or economic advantages, such as those listed.

Are district identies important? From the report:

More than just a “central business district,” Dallas’s center city is, in fact, a collection of various distinct districts that form a more complete urban environment. From the West End’s preserved historic architecture and nightlife to Main Street’s unique combination of corporate headquarters, landmark retail and gleaming residential towers, Downtown’s districts are immediately evident – if not yet fully realized and connected to each other. Additional areas such as the Dallas Arts District, Farmers Market, Deep Ellum, South Side, and Cedars meet diverse needs and help round out the overall experience. Further identification, connection and development of all of Downtown's districts will help create a seamless urban experience.

While it is important to have districts, I am not sure, in the way the planners described it, that it is an asset. Yes the institutions within the districts are important, such as Market Street in the West End or the Farmers Market, but having a lot or a little districts doesn't really matter. It is the urban experience that matters. That seemed to be glossed over.

As for transportation, there will be a reaccuring theme. The light rail is great, we need more streetcars and buses aren't worth mentioning.

Similar to assetts, challenges and opportunities were fairly accurate. I don't think it is a stretch to say streets like Commerce, Elm, Griffin or Pearl are less than ideal for pedestrians. I do think, however, there is a political will that is missing. As a society, we think very car-centric, mainly because that is all we know. Collectively, car travel must be supply and demand. Instead, studies and observations have shown that it is more of a behavorial tendency than a linear one. Just look at the comment from Unfair Park about the Elm Street Road diet in Deep Ellum to illustrate what happens when there is a percieved reduction in car capacity.

Perhaps even more so than the auto-centric streets, there is no greater harm to downtown's urbanity than the fortress office buildings. Buildings like Bank of America Plaza, One Main Place, Thanksgiving TowerChase Tower, Trammel Crow Tower, Energy Plaza, virtually-every-government-building, etc. all are dead zones because if you don't work (or have direct business) there, those places are useless and useless buildings in an urban area create empty streets. Most of these buildings were built in the '70's and '80's when the thought was to the property itself and it shows in the design.

Now take another '80's tower, Fountain Place. Despite the fact there is no ground floor retail, that it is single-use and their are ample set-backs, it is still an urban-friendly building. The setbacks aren't covered with useless landscaping (instead wide, shaded sidewalks with benches), and though it is an office building, there are many fountains in the plaza area under the building that are open to the public, easily accessible and doesn't close.

It is possible to remediate these problems. Renaissance Tower had a makeover, and while it doesn't overcome its single-use problems, is a pedestrian-friendly example. It doesn't have blank walls, tinted windows or use the same material for the entire block. The windows open into the building and the materials vary giving the pedestrian a varied trip and therefore more stimulating, experience.

Though most of Comerica Tower is terrible, they did add an outdoor patio (albeit for a high-end restaurant). While it isn't perfect and it certainly doesn't makeup for the rest of the property, it is an improvement from what was there. Small changes like this made repeatedly have a big effect.

Taken from my home, the Dallas Chophouse patio enlivens a formerly dead space.
Image and perception is a non-issue with me. If the negatives are fixed, the rest will fall in line.

The freeway loop is a problem, and really one that I don't think will be solved for decades. Ultimately, for the urban area to heal, they need to be removed. I just don't see it happening. I've touched on mitigation before. In the end, it is nothing more than a cosmetic change that doesn't alter the negative effects of their existence. Removal is the only true way, and it just isn't happening soon.

I'll refer you to Car free in Big D, a favored blog of mine on Patrick Kennedy's thoughts on freeway removal. While I won't bash the planners as he did (a big part of being a successful planner is navigating the political arena), I do echo his sentiments about the desired course of action.

Parking. What-to-say? Before I respond, here is the entirety of the section in the document:

As an area that was redesigned to serve automobiles entering and exiting the area daily, Downtown Dallas remains a heavily auto-centric environment. The area’s blank fa├žades and unfriendly streets are often accompanied by surface parking lots, entrance ramps to subsurface garages, and imposing above-ground parking structures. While the design of and access to parking creates an unattractive and unfriendly environment at the street level, the location, distribution and effectiveness of existing parking facilities is also an economic challenge and obstacle to investment and development. Many office buildings are grossly “underparked” when compared to suburban counterparts, contributing to high vacancy rates. Many older buildings that have been converted or are candidates for rehabilitation into residential uses face a similar challenge, making for-sale housing units difficult to finance and market. Finally, inconsistent rate structures, management and operational flexibility mean that much of the parking appears, or actually is, unavailable to the public, resulting in a frustrating experience for less-frequent visitors. While the 360 plan supports the transition to a truly multi-modal transportation system for the center city, a strategic short-to-medium term approach to parking will be essential to ensure that Downtown competes on a regional level for a stronger share of commercial and residential investment.

Obviously, they were short of space. I could make a downtown parking plan that is 116 pages.

They hit the mark about the urban design. Parking creates a hole in almost every situation. Even garages that have ground-floor retail to minimize the damage still suffer from a lack of consistent activity. If a commuter parks the car, they are quickly on the way to work. They may get some breakfast-type item, but not usually. More likely, they are going to stop by after work, but that small activity isn't enough to keep a business afloat. The garage either needs to be in a location with a lot of activity (by which the garage's very nature detracts from) or there needs to be something else, like residences or office above. Most of the time, that doesn't happen.

The best planners can do when it isn't mixed-use is to put the parking at the edges, but when that happens, connections outside the area are just as unfriendly. It does the same thing as a freeway in severing neighborhoods. With the layout of Dallas, that would likely mean garages and then elevated freeways. Yikes.

My big issue comes when it says that office buildings are "underparked" compared to the suburbs. THEY SHOULD BE!!! The buildings and towers in the suburbs are not mixed-use, and most don't have even decent transit service, if they are in a city with transit at all. The only way to access their property is with a car. In downtown, you can take a train that goes in 7 directions, 28 local buses, nine express routes from the outlying areas and one streetcar. No other area can match that service. Generally, the greatest residential density is in areas near the core, so many more folks are capable (and do) walk or ride a bike. There is a lowered need for parking spaces in downtown. Therefore, they should be "underparked" than their suburban counterparts. In fact, if they weren't, that would take away all the advantages of being in an urban area, since most of the land would be dedicated to cars.

As for the residential component of a parking shortage, that is a code issue. There are lots of people who live in my building that don't own a car. That is true in every building downtown. If the City were to rescind parking codes for downtown (that are the same regardless of location), that let's developers and renters (or buyers) decide their parking situation. This market-based approach will help downtown in many ways. If the lack of parking is an issue in conversions, the city is the primary obstacle, though lenders are right up there.

While the Trinity is self-explanatory, housing choice isn't. Part of the reason why downtown living is so expensive is that we are behind the demand. Some polls have shown that at least 1/3 of the housing market want to live in an urban area. Currently, easily 90 percent of DFW is suburban. Simple supply and demand show that those that can afford rents that would be higher do. Those that want to live downtown but are lower in the income scale are left out. Easy way to lower rents is to increase the supply.

Up next is section II - the Vision Plan and Framework. I have already read it and judging by the length of the intro critique, it seems wise to have split it up. With five more sections, I am not sure even I could have stuck with a post that long.

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