Monday, May 2, 2011

360 The Third Installment

A Downtown of Districts. This section opens up by defining the districts, both within and adjacent to downtown. The core districts within downtown are the obvious, like Main Street or the Arts, and some that I hadn't heard before, like Thanksgiving Commercial Center. This is a good example that some districts are nothing more than arbitrary lines. True districts, like Main or the West End exist within a common fabric. The rest of downtown is a motley collection of fortress office buildings, parking lots and leftover pre-WWII structures, lacking any true identity. I think this was a more political decision than a planning one.

Each district is identified, described and recommendations given for future development. I'm worried that just going through them will be monotonous, so I'll try to give my take on the district recommendations.

First up, for the Arts District (on the northern part of downtown), MIG foresees a streetcar along Ross with streetscape improvements, adding art and exhibits along Flora, reconstructing Harwood in the same manner as Flora and a redesign of Pearl to be more pedestrian-friendly.

This is the district I am the most ambivalent about. I just don't see anything making this area vibrant. I like the Pearl Street idea, but more out of principle of making the street less auto-centric, rather than adding life to the Arts District. It won't add life, the design of the area is just wrong. It will be a benefit to downtown, but it will make little difference to the Arts District. People will still go to the shows and people will still not go when there are no shows. Until there is more inclusivity in the design, that will never change.

Thanksgiving Commercial Center is next, the area roughly between the Main Street District and the Arts. The area is generally composed of fortress office buildings. To improve this district, streetscape improvements along Ervay, Harwood and Pearl, ensuring a stop along the McKinney Avenue Streetcar extension near the St. Paul light rail station, encourage conversion of the ground floor of the office buildings to retail and reduce the size of the park planned on the block by St. Paul and Live Oak to accommodate development are advocated.

These are all solid, if obvious. I don't think any transit planner would run a streetcar by a rail station and not have a stop. I don't think any non-transit planner would do that either. Streetscape improvements are a good idea. Ervay and Harwood, aside from the one-way, are quite pedestrian-friendly. I like the idea of reducing the park down. In fact, I think that park is redundant with Main Street Gardens two bocks away and Aston Park directly adjacent.

My only beef with these are the conversion of the office buildings first floor to retail. That sounds nice, but it overlooks the land-use equation. This is a solidly 9-5 area. There is already ground-floor retail in some areas. It is possible and in some cases probable that adding more would reinforce the existing retail, but what is there is sparsely used outside of business hours. Adding more uses aside from office would make the ground-floor conversion palpable. As it is, most non-business hour uses are well outside this area, making ground-floor retail a want rather than a possibility. The skywalks and tunnels pose a problem for this as well, since there is retail on these levels.

In Dallas' most urban and dynamic area, the Main Street District, more retail is wanted, as well as a streetcar connection Deep Ellum and the Trinity River, adding a branding campaign, streamlining parking, recruiting and retaining retail, converting the Grand Hotel from vacant to used and creating a Gateway at Lamar Street.

Retail will come when retail is warranted. This is something that occasionally bugs me about planners. Work on the stuff that needs changing. 20 years ago, retail was wanted, but there was no market. The area was also dead. There were abandoned office buildings, holes in the landscape with surface parking and an auto-oriented street. Incentives were offered to convert the buildings to residential, a surface lot was converted to a plaza, another was built into a residential tower over a garage, a lane was taken away and given to make the sidewalks wider,  vehicle choke points were added at certain locations. Retail has come in some areas as the district has changed. Planners added residential and made a pedestrian-friendly street. Retail followed. You don't have to plan for retail. You have to leave space for it and in that regard, you have to plan for it. Otherwise, it will come when there is demand for it. As it stands now, there is not a lack of retail space.

I like the streetcar, but I think they made a slight mistake in that they just want to connect districts. That is fine, but transit doesn't work quite that way. I just don't see a demand for rides to the Trinity River. Deep Ellum, yes. Connection to Uptown and Oak Cliff, were existing or planned streetcar connections are make sense, as there are destinations and origins there now and will be in the future. A river, even with its planned recreation elements, won't likely create the demand for ridership.

The Grand is 1) already in the works and 2) contingent upon the private market. I advocate the developers and the Improvement District working together, but nothing is enforceable. That is one common criticism of the planning profession.

This set of recommendations seem to be nothing more than window dressing. Main Street District, of all areas in downtown, is the least in need of help and it shows.

In the Farmers Market, the planners envision a park along Pearl, calming of traffic and improving the pedestrian realm along Ceasar Chavez, developing an image or brand for the area, working with the Bridge, Dallas's homeless shelter, for safety issues and integrating a light rail stop on the next rail line in downtown.

A key part that seems to have been excluded is the West Village-type development just north of the market. I know it will be discussed in the small area plan, but that would seem to be a key recommendation for this area. I wonder if that is where they envision the park. As for the rail line, that is out of their hands. DART is working on it, but as par for the course, this plan seems to be lacking in the transportation department.

The Civic Center, on the south end, is where most government buildings are. The recommendations are to increase the connection to the Main Street District from City Hall Plaza, pursue the reuse of the Butler Brothers Building, redesign City Hall Plaza to be more vibrant, create a new residential development at Wood and Ervay and enhance Ervay with streetscape improvements.

Once again, hard to argue with these, though I do feel some are out of the planners control. Aside from incentives, there isn't much to make the Butler Brothers or a new residential building happen. The plaza remake has already been acted upon. Streetscape improvements are great, but the underlying land uses are what makes an area vibrant, and sadly, like the Arts District, this areas has poor uses and design for an urban area.

Speaking of poor areas, the Union/Reunion area is next. A land swap near Reunion for development, a deck park between the Houston and Jefferson Street viaducts, TOD near Union and a pedestrian promenade and streetcar stop on the Houston Viaduct are what the planners see as making this district vibrant.

While this all sounds fine, this area is detailed in later sections. I'll discuss it there as well. Just remember that I am not high on the plans or this area.

The final district is the West End, the second best urban district in downtown. For this area, the planners want a mixed-use development on a surface lot at Lamar and Ross, the reuse the West End Marketplace, a park at Market and Corbin, streetcars and enhance paving at Lamar and Ross, special events and an update and rebranding of the image.

Once again, it is hard to argue with these recommendations. The good news, aside from the mixed-use development, this is all within planners and decision makers control.

I do take a bit of exception with the adaptive reuse of the West End Marketplace, a former tourist-oriented structure that was a bit of a mall in function. The planners want to:

Re-tenant the West End Marketplace with complementary uses such a (typo in the original document, should be as) museum, hotel, or as a business incubator with strong ties to El Centro Community College, Bank of America, and the nearby Environmental Protection Agency office in Fountain Place to encourage innovative, creative/green economy business start-ups and partnerships.

I like the idea of not making this an indoor mall. I could see a hotel, but this too big for most any museum (and this isn't in the Arts District, where Dallas likes their museums :p). As for the incubator, it seems like they just named area tenants. For the EPA to have any use or connection with this building, they would need to cross the six-lane-and-median Griffin Street, otherwise known as the most car-oriented street in downtown. I think residential or hotel would be the better bet.

From here, the surrounding districts are analyzed in the same manner, though their descriptions are shorter. I'll try to be as brief.
For Victory, they want TOD's at DART stations and streetcar stops, to convert Houston street to the "front door" rather than the alley it is now and infill next to the new Museum near downtown.

In Uptown, the planners want walkable, transit oriented neighborhoods, improved walkability on select streets, workforce housing and links to the various bike trails.

On the northeast, in the Baylor District, the recommendations are to strengthen connections to the Arts District, new housing for working class (specifically between Deep Ellum Station and Central Expressway), enhance pedestrian connection to Baylor from Baylor Station, enhance links to the bike trails and reconfigure the Ross/San Jacinto intersection.

In Deep Ellum, cultivating artistic base, improve the pedestrian experience on Elm, Main, Commerce and Malcolm X, maintain a small property development style, bringing mixed-income residential, extend the freeway lighting and artwork and connect to bike trails are the planners recommendations.

At the Cedars, on the south side of downtown, the area needs to improve Ervay and add a streetcar, better use and market Heritage Village, higher intensity housing near Interstate-30, provide a fruit cart mix of housing, become an incubator for small business and enhance the connections along Belleview.

In the Southside, long considered the Cedars until this plan, planners advise a streetscape improvement along Lamar, decked development over I-30, streetcar along Lamar and enhanced connectivity along Belleview and Corinth.

On the west side, there's Riverfront and Design Districts, these are really the same area with no real distinction, so I will cover it as one too. MIG proposes native landscaping on industrial sites, access to the Jefferson/Houston deck park, redesigning Riverfront as a multi-modal street, a streetcar connecting the area to Victory Station and encourage cottage industry with live-work sites.

Nothing really jumped out at me in these districts, neither good nor bad. Some seem solid, streetscape improvements, adding active fronts toward the street and increasing housing options and ranges. Others, like the deck park and streetcar lines everywhere might be out of reach.

I am so glad this section is over. It seemed the most tedious and likely boring, though there was a lot of good information in there. I am looking forward to the next section, which will contain the teeth of the plan.

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