Saturday, February 26, 2011

Another Example of Developers Running the Show

Today I direct your attention to this piece from the Unfair Park. In essence, Wal-Mart has announced plans to build lots of stores within Dallas city limits, including one in North Oak Cliff.

Wal-Mart building stores is never news. There are literally thousands upon thousands all over the place. This is news because the neighbors worked with the City to develop stricter design standards that encourage non-automotive transportation. While this is done to varying degrees all over Dallas, the region and U.S., this is one of the few areas where residents also walk the walk.

Imagine if you were a neighbor and you negotiated a design of the built-environment to be a more walkable area that resembles this...
...but instead you read in the newspaper the city is more than happy to have this instead...
Now city leaders, like Dave Neumann who represents the area, are quick to point out that nothing is in stone yet in regards to the site plan or that Wal-Mart hasn't even outright purchased the property yet. But let's face it, Wal-Mart doesn't announce anything and then walk away unless there is a super-compelling reason, which is usually neighborhood protests or political opposition, and even then they can and do get the courts involved.

But unlike some claims, what the residents are opposed to isn't the Wal-Mart specifically, but the design. Wal-Mart does one thing and one thing only, detached buildings with acres of parking lots. When was the last time you can remember a Wal-Mart that didn't look like that? Forget landscaping or paint on the building. Their sites are the same, just arranged a tad differently to fit the area. Wal-Mart is the pioneer of suburban big box retail and that's the issue. If this was a Wal-Mart, Target or K-Mart, the outcry would be the same. The design does not fit what the residents worked for in this area.

Some have been quick to suggest this could be an neighborhood market and that would be okay. That still wouldn't fit the area. Compare this link from google maps of the neighborhood market in Uptown and see for yourself how urban and walkable it is. Now compare that to the picture below (taken from the Unfair Park post) of what residents had in mind for this tract of land and see just how out-of-style this development is from the product the neighbors and City worked out.

I'd also like to point out Wal-Mart is notorious for opening multiple stores in an area or region and saturating the market, to drive out competitors and then shutter multiple stores. If they do open all 14 proposed stores, that combined with the roughly ten stores already in Dallas seems like over-saturation. Because Wal-Mart is so big, they can open stores that lose money, since they will eventually close those stores after driving out the competition and make more money at the remaining stores. So maybe it is a coincidence that new stores like Aldi have opened up recently near some of the proposed stores, but I doubt it. If they are using that tactic and are trying to close competitors stores, what happens if they decide this store is no longer viable as a loss leader. Then we are back to the same state it is today, while at the same time, there would now a vacant building that doesn't fit the area.

This is just another example of Dallas working on an issue in regards to urban development and then throwing it out the window when the first developer comes along. What I am interested to see is how the neighborhoods respond. They are developing a reputation for circumventing City Hall to achieve their objectives for their area.

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).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Super Bowl and Mayoral Tidbits

In planning circles, it is widely accepted that building public stadiums is rarely the panacea that promoters make them out. Rarely do the economic claims back facts. Rarely does development promised follow. In many cases tax revenues actually decline. The only claim that hasn't statistically been refuted is civic pride and exposure.

Until now, perhaps?

The Dallas Morning News ran a piece that showed the national perception of Arlington after the Super Bowl was virtually the same as before. Before the game, 17.5% of respondents had a positive impression of Arlington, whereas after the game, it was only 14.9%. A neutral impression stayed in the 2% range. 4.6% of respondents before the game had a negative impression, whereas after it was 6.1%. The real telling stat is the no impression. Before the game 73.7% had none, whereas after, it had risen to 74.4%.

Think of that for a moment. Supposedly, on the biggest stage, the host city LOST ground in impression on a national perception list. Of course, it doesn't help that Arlington is just another generic suburban city that has nothing unique but two stadiums and two amusement parks (It has a University and good bones for a lackluster downtown, but they neglect that). And when the messengers of the message from the city to the nation find nothing unique about your city (1st paragraph), then the nation doesn't either.

If this proof (albeit anecdotal) that stadiums don't bring about positive urban development, then I don't know what is.

Moving on, in the paper version of Unfair Park, Jim Shutze, in his story about the politics of the mayors race, makes an astute observation.

In spite of these terrible economic times, Dallas continues to bloom at its heart, from North Oak Cliff to east of downtown around Baylor Hospital, further east in the Henderson Avenue area, north along the Uptown corridor, south into the Cedars.
Well, the city blooms in a circle around the heart, anyway. The heart itself still has problems. Downtown seems to suffer from some kind of chronic a-fib.
The places in the city that boom and bloom have one thing in common. They are centers drawing the kind of people who just like being in the city, who don't want to be separated, rated and gated. It's all about people who like the mix.
None of this is unique to Dallas. It's all stuff that Christopher Leinberger, author of The Option of Urbanism, and others have been writing about and predicting for cities all over America. Leinberger calls it "Seinfeld America"—a place where people like the idea of living stacked up on top of strangers more than living on a cul-de-sac with their cousins.
In fact, that's probably exactly what's wrong with downtown. Still domineered by the old culture, downtown has been redeveloped as a kind of high-rise gated community. So it's boring.

This sums up so many things I have been saying much more concisely than I ever could. Downtown is made up of too many fortress, stand-alone office towers that are doing nothing to contribute to the urban environment. The tunnels statisfy the public realm that should be a true melting pot. And parking lots are the biggest use of land.

Sadly, Dallas will never achieve the urban level it needs as long as that is the case. Downtown should be the hub of the urban core, not the divider. As long as the streets that are pedestrian friendly until it reaches the border and are suburban-commuter friendly and places like Hunt Tower or the Arts District pop up in downtown, it will always be that disjointed urban core that we know today.

Maybe one day, many decades off, that will change. But the old guard will have had to pass and the new will have had to use a lot of tricks to righ the wrongs.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

More Freezing Wet Weather and Urban Observations

Spent much of last week and this outside in the snow walking around downtown, as can be seen from my last post. I would like to add a couple of more.

First, it is clear from the surface where the pedestrian tunnels begin. Unlike sidewalks placed over the earth, the snow and ice doesn't melt as easily over man-made structures. Like the signs on the highways say, watch for ice on bridge, a similar occurrence happens here. In order to avoid a lengthy scientific discussion, the geothermal effect is in play. This is a natural heating from the ground. It can be absorbed energy from the sun or from within the Earth's crust. In the case of the tunnels, this heat dissipates in the basement, rather than at the street level, melting the ice.

This is dangerous, since it can easily refreeze and when it does, it becomes like a skating rink. The slipperiest ice was in the areas where something was beneath.

To be certain, this doesn't apply to just the pedestrian tunnels. Many of the older buildings and a few of the new have basements that exist under the sidewalk to give them more space. A subway tunnel would have the same occurrence and I think we can all agree that I don't think that is a negative.

However, as planners we are supposed to consider all alternatives. Obviously this is very hard, if not outright impossible and has been a common critique of the profession for decades. And since a freeze happens once a year for a couple of days and like the past two weeks every two to four years, is it really that necessary? I am merely pointing out an impediment to the walking environment that I think needs to be considered.

As for snow removal/remediation, Dallas does something that I haven't decided if I like. Most cities that face the type of snow regularly that we had use salt and plows. Dallas used dirt, which helps for traction when walking and biking on the sidewalk and biking and driving in the streets. Environmentally, I like it better than salt, since it has less negative side effects than salt. However, after the melt, everything turns into a big dust ball. This means those out walking and biking tend to get a big mouthful of dirt every so often (I speak from experience) and cars just are filthy. Windows have a dust layer and buildings turn brown. I am torn and if anyone has anything to add about other effects or processes of snow removal/remediation, please do so.

I bring this up because they have quantifiable effects on walking. Planners need to take things like snow in mind when working. What they do now and the decisions they make will effect every pedestrian on into the future.

As an aside, can we put to rest the idea that people move to the sun belt for the weather. In the summer everyone complains that it is too hot, in the winter, it is too cold and at least once in the winter months, everyone complains that it is too icy. In the spring it is too rainy and in the fall it is too windy. Only April and September seem to be "good" months. That doesn't seem like a resounding affirmation of our weather.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

More on Parking

In an older post, I mentioned the ills about off-street parking and curb cuts in an urban environment.

After this ice storm, let me add another. When walking on the sidewalk, as long as it is level, pedestrians are all right. However, the grade of a curb cut is steeper than sidewalks. I was slipping every time I walked by one yesterday. And Dallas has no shortage of slipping opportunities.

This is just another example of Dallas being unintentionally pedestrian-unfriendly.