Tuesday, May 24, 2011

360 Chapter Four, Section Two & Three

Key to any vibrant urban area is the street scene. Section two dissects the current and gives it suggestions for the future, though since it has been suburbanized for the last sixty years or so, it is a bigger task than the planners can overcome, but at least the majority of the suggestions are sound.

The first page is encouraging as MIG acknowledges that fundamental changes would be needed to accommodate more than just cars. To do this, they introduce a new street classification, or a hierarchy. From the plan:

Our roadways have been designed over recent decades to primarily accommodate automobile traffic, parking garage access and loading activities. These are all important functions for the city center. However, Downtown’s future livelihood also depends on the ability to re-craft the streets as places where pedestrian activity is promoted and all kinds of other functions – from transit use and bicycle riding to daily commerce and special events – can take place. It is also dependent on the ability for each street to be designed in a context-sensitive manner; that is, to allow for the street design to best respond to the surrounding environment of buildings, sidewalks and open spaces, not to just facilitate cars passing through. In a bustling urban environment, this concept is key.

In response to this shift in thinking about Downtown’s circulation framework, each roadway is designated with a new classification, emphasizing the unique activity and relative importance or prominence of the street. Each street type presents a balanced approach to the design and function of the public realm, emphasizing various modes depending on context and street purpose.

The hierarchy is as follows: streetcar boulevard, district connector, neighborhood street, special use overlay and passage.

Streetcar boulevard is as it sounds, giving its recommendations to make streetcar travel convenient, with either a median or curb loading. However, the historic is ignored, where the streetcar would drop passengers of in the middle of the street and car traffic would stop. MATA does it now on McKinney, so there is a precedent.

District connector is the one that bothers me the most. Elm, Commerce, Griffin, Pearl and Ceasar Chavez with portion of Field, Houston, Ross and Young are given as examples. The first descriptor in the plan says it all.

Provide primary automobile connections between districts inside the loop and extend linkages outside the loop and to the freeway system.

Why? Why does it have to be the primary auto? A good street grid distributes the traffic all across the street grid, thereby reducing the burden from a select few streets to the entire thing. As some bloggers have noted, the plans slogan of bold ideas are a little less bold because the freeway system is ignored. Because the very nature of freeway exits and entrances, certain streets have to have more traffic than others, simply because they are the ones that connect to the freeway system. Were the freeways built as originally devised (and therefore less destructive to cities), they would have stopped at the cities edge, leaving the street grid intact. Any attempt at urban rejuvenation must address this, and the district connector does not. In essence, it condones it, despite what the final points say.

• Improve physical and psychological connections between districts on either side of the street through consistent treatment, enhanced design, and public art installations;
• Carry vehicular through-traffic to access freeways and adjacent districts and neighborhoods;
• Accommodate multiple modes including bus, streetcar, bike lane, pedestrian and automobile as needed;  and
• Incorporate innovative treatments to accommodate alternative modes at key intersections.

This will do nothing to mitigate the autos on these streets. Cars are the antithesis of all things urban, and streets that do not limit their role while simultaneously encouraging others do not belong in an urban area.

The third level, neighborhood streets, are what all streets in downtown should strive to become and mimic. Compare the first point of this street type to the prior.

Emphasize bicycle and pedestrian mobility;

Note that a street can emphasize the above, while accommodating the car. It just we are so used to streets doing the opposite, and it is hard to imagine another way in this part of the country.

The specifics listed on page 54  (the document can be loaded here) are nice, but pretty standard. The only one that I don't like is the call for medians to break up more than four contiguous lanes. Making a wide street wider is not pedestrian-friendly. Giving it a diet is. And they called for more on-street parking. That's an idea we can all get behind, unless you are a traffic engineer.

The second part of this transformative strategy is open space. I've always said, streets and parks go together. Perhaps they were joined together because the parks, like the streets, are grouped in a hierarchy: district park, neighborhood park, historic/cultural park, plaza/pocket park and passage.

For district, they see it as a regional park that hosts events, attracts users from wider distances, are within the "heart" of a district and are two acres or more. The neighborhood parks have features that serve immediate users, are more focused on daily needs and not events, supports families and pets, have different vendors and are an acre or smaller.

MIG lists virtually two identical parks, Main Street Gardens and the-under-construction Belo Gardens, into these two separate rankings (see for yourself here). Were it not for the event hosting, Main Street gardens would fit either category. MSG is 1.75 acres. Belo is 1.5. A common critique of planning is that they try to give order and separation to things that don't need it. This may fit that bill.

The other three categories are almost self-explanatory. JFK's assignation site at Dealey Plaza qualifies it to be historic, Aston Park is a near non-developable site on a sliver of land at Pacific and Harwood, so that makes it a pocket park, and Stone Street is a former street, now plaza that people pass through, making it a passage.

The planners insist that public space must be functional, comfortable, accessible and memorable. To achieve that they list several bullet-points for each goal, like keeping the intended users in mind, compatibility with the surrounding environment and creating a sense of place. Once again, like the streets, I can get behind most of it, even if they are somewhat generic.

The third tranformative strategy, ensuring great urban design, is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and sorely wrong in much of downtown Dallas.

After acknowledging the past as a boon for urban design, and the subsequent decades declined its quality, the planners offer guidelines for private development. These are: reinforce the relationship between the street and building edge, respect surroundings with context-sensitive design, contribute to a positive, memorable urban experience and support a sustainable built environment.

Page 64 through 71 show the specifics, governing things like setbacks, building height and orientation, access and circulation, ground floor design for various buildings, above ground guidelines, brief parking (further discussion in the fifth section), character and signage.

While I have a few minor concerns (advocating at least 90% lot coverage instead of what should be near 100%), most are worthwhile. I recommend the read, though critiquing or even listing them all here would be beyond the attention span of most readers.

The big issue is that there is nothing that gives these teeth. Hunt Tower violates near every one, yet was approved by the City. The big problem is that downtown has a lack of zoning. If a form-based code were adopted with these as the guidelines, then there would be progress. But since there isn't, downtown will continue to see development from the good and bad urban developers. All the plan has to say is this:

These guidelines comprise strong recommendations for how individual property owners and developers should develop their land and buildings so that they are supportive of the Downtown vision. They should be used as the basis for voluntary design review of all Downtown development projects, either through a Peer Review Committee or similar mechanism.

I'm sorry, but this is Dallas. The developers run the show. There needs to be more in the way of teeth or incentives to get this to work the way the planners envision.

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