Wednesday, March 30, 2011


My mother-in-law gave me a link to an online survey offered by the NTTA. This is a great example of why survey results need to be taken with a grain of salt.

I was asked when was the last weekday day, not date, that I had been in a car. That would have been for my sons one-year birthday dinner, three weeks ago. That time should make a big difference in the travel patterns this survey is trying to find.

It then asked many questions related to that trip, however, that was only part of the survey, the other, I presume, is more of a policy guide. Which route would you take: One with no tolls and a lot of time, one with a small amount of tolls and a medium amount of time or one with a lot of tolls and a shorter amount of time. It also used a time frame in there, between 5:30 and 6:30 or outside, showing a bias towards work commute patterns, when that is roughly only a quarter of all metropolitan travel. I also have a fourth option not included, a transit route.

After they asked about the preferences of the respondent, the questions migrated towards the general do you prefer tolls for a faster commute?, how should our roads be paid for? and other toll-related items. This is what I think they really are doing the survey. This seems to have more use as an opinion survey presented to decision makers and legislators than as a trip survey.

A brief decision of how modeling actually works proves that. A metropolitan area is divided into hundreds of zones (In graduate school, the example we worked with was small, at 500 zones). Within these zones, attractions and housing are determined. As an example, downtown with its many jobs, is considered a high attraction (though in reality it is a few zones) while the suburban zones generally have lower housing amounts, there are many of them. Routes are than drawn, based on the regions roads between the zones. Many mathmatical formulas exist to determine the amount of trips on the roads between zones. Many use different things, like number of jobs, houses, retail, recreational activities, density depending on the model used. Then real world measurements are taken of actual traffic counts at these locations. Once those are obtained, the model is calibrated using adjustments and run again until all the numbers are close to the observed totals. Finaly, the calibrated model is run for X number of years in advance using projections into the future of where growth, stagnation and decline are expected to occur.

Obviously, this is much more complicated than asking where your last trip was. That makes me believe this is a device being used to push an agenda. I would hate for this to be put out there that this is being used for a road building agenda. I hope this is purely being used as a road financing tool. Instead, if its being used for the generic term of transportation, then its is skewed and not worth the paper it is printed on, and since it is an internet survey, that is saying something.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Dallas and the Census

Planners love the Census. This is the time of decade where mountains of data is analyzed and trends are extrapolated. Municipalities base their plans for the future, decades in some cases, on whatever the numbers say.

Yet, in some cases, I just feel like it is overdone. Sometimes, success or failure of a planners work is judged by these numbers. Whole projects have been scrapped by a change in direction. Imagine if a city like Portland or San Diego, which have nice downtown's today and who began their revitalization's in the 80's, stopped in 1991 after the Census showed population wasn't following expenditures. It also can be an advantage when it works against poor plans.

The 2010 census is a little different from previous ones, mainly in the absence of the long form, which really provided the information that planners seek. That info is still provided in the American Community Survey, but with their numbers differing radically from the Census, one wonders about either of their accuracy. The fact that cities routinely appeal the results of both lend credence to this idea. There has been criticism that the Census under counts minorities within central cities, for example.

But the point I want to make is on the Dallas numbers specifically. There was a lot of disappointment from Dallas officials about their results. Official count gives Dallas a population of 1,197,816, one of the lowest growth rates in the state. The city's rate of 0.8 percent gains Dallas 9,236 in population. While some people are down on the numbers, I think that shows that the urban area, which from a rate of growth perspective, has exploded and that urban renewal prevented a first for Dallas, population decline.

In 2000, there were 959 residential units downtown. Of that, 299 opened in 1999 and 29 in 1998, meaning there is a great chance that much of those opened at the end of the decade were not yet occupied. My graduate school research pegged occupancy rate of 1.25 for the building I live in. Applying that rate to all units (this would not pass in a peer-reviewed journal) would mean 1,200 people living downtown. Adjusting for the newly opened, roughly 1,000 people lived downtown in 2000.

During the last decade, 3,864 units opened up downtown, none near the end of the decade. Using that same occupancy rate, that is about 4,830. So over half of the 385 square mile city's population growth happened in the 1.3 square mile downtown. If I had the stats for Uptown, Deep Ellum, the Cedars, the Design District, Knox-Henderson, Expo Park and other various in-town neighborhoods, the numbers would show that the urban growth of the past decade far outpaced the city's total growth.

What this does is it illustrates that Dallas is mirroring national trends of an urban migration. It also exhibits one of my peeves with housing trends in America. The suburban model is to build a house, live in it for twenty years, then watch the value of the house and neighborhood decline until an eventual vacating of the property. Dallas saw huge population growth from the fifties until the eighties, most of it in single-family housing. Unlike housing before WWII, these houses aren't durable. It is great for population growth at the time, but it costs you in the future.

Luckily for Dallas, they have invested in their future by reinvesting in their urban core. I believe that for the urban core to achieve a critical mass, they'll need near the same rate, not number growth, but in growth rate. That translates to roughly 28,000 people living downtown. Not likely, but possible. Check back in ten years and I'll let ya know.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Solar Highways

Kudos to my mom, who will occasionally sends me something about urban design, planning, transportation, development or just cities. I want to comment on one of them pertaining to solar highways. The video is here and the company, called Solar Roadways, has a website that can be found here.

I like the idea. While I think the pendulum has swung too far into the car-oriented direction in this country, on the surface, this is a great product that would diversify existing infrastructure.

Think about the millions upon millions of miles of roadway in this country. While the idea of power generation is obvious, there are other perks to this. In the urban areas, streets don't just serve as a conduit for cars, they serve as a place for utilities, sewers, above and below ground transit and really anything else you can imagine being buried within that right of way.

Outside of the urban areas, including some exurban and even suburban areas, streets and highways are only for car use. Imagine a system where instead of a grid, you have a net (or a different type of grid), but instead of the traditional substation powering a certain part of the grid (and thereby making it faulty should something happento it causing failure to that part), this would power at all areas, deliver power at all areas and reroute any outings.

I really think this has the opportunity to be something special, should it be able to navigate the political system. Sadly, I just don't see this being embraced in Texas. Were I a gambling man, I would put money on the West Coast pioneering this, much like they have pioneered a lot of car-related programs. California or Oregon seem like a natural bet with Washington right up there, in the sunnier parts of the state.

With all the highways, roadways and parking lots in this country, the sky seems the limit for this type of power. I referenced the political system earlier and I could see a lot of push back from the road building lobby, and primarily the asphalt producers and installers.

Time will tell on this idea, but it certainly fits the bill of green industry touted by the President.

Friday, March 25, 2011

First Post on Stadiums

There are a lot of topics I want to get into, but few touch me like this one. I try to keep things local within the Dallas Fort Worth region or that relate to something local. However, this is one of my hot button issues, like the tunnels, that I like to comment on from time to time, especially when something relevant comes along.

That relevant is this, a piece on the economic benefits of stadiums from Governing. As per a usual stadium critique piece, it interviews elected or city officials who cite tax revenue and then it interviews academics who have studied the issue. As usual, cities officials say they are great and the academics, who cite statistical or cost/benefit analysis studies, say stadiums don't deliver the bang for the buck.

Some excerpts:

In 2001, the Florida Sports Foundation – a non-profit that works with the state government – put up $54.5 million in state money for construction and renovation of five spring training stadiums. That money was matched – and then some – by localities. Another $52.9 million in matching funds for four stadiums was issued in 2006.

Even more money could be forthcoming. By 2016, at least four Florida-based teams will have leases that are up for renewal, and many will want renovations. Meanwhile, five Cactus League teams will see their leases expire soon, and Florida municipalities will likely try to recruit them. Nicky Gandy, the communications director for the foundation, says his organization is trying to figure out how to obtain more funding for upcoming projects.
Initially, the ASTA was slated to provide $402 million over a 30-year period for Cactus League stadiums, says Tom Sadler, its director. So far, ASTA has funded $68.3 million in new construction or renovation at four Arizona facilities. It’s also providing funding for two other facilities in the Arizona cities of Goodyear and Glendale, though it may have difficulty meeting those commitments. Goodyear officials expected ASTA funds to reimburse $90 million of their $103 million stadium, while Glendale expected to recoup $142 million of their $158 million facility, the Arizona Republic reported.

Those figures will fall vastly short, given ASTA’s struggles, leaving city governments on the hook for even larger sums. Going forward, teams may be expected to make more contributions to stadium funds, and private-sector partners may need to play a role too, Sadler says.

Public officials acknowledge that a huge sum of money has been spent on the facilities, but they consider it an investment. In Florida, government leaders frequently cite the fact that the Grapefruit League contributes $753 million in annual sales to the state, including $385 million from out-of-state visitors. Meanwhile, the Cactus League estimates that spring training contributes more than $350 million to Arizona's economy. “It’s a proven economic driver,” says Gandy, adding that the stadiums also host minor league teams and college baseball tournaments that likely make the real number impact of the facilities even greater.
The two also highlight the intangible benefits of spring training. Cities that might otherwise be obscure get cachet and name recognition by serving as spring training hosts, similar to how football has put Green Bay, Wis. on the map. That, in turn, can result in businesses investing in the community. “It’s amazing how much publicity we get for this,” Dalke says.

Shoemaker says the county has not yet conducted an independent study to measure the financial impact of spring training on Charlotte County. But she emphasized that the team fosters a “home town spirit” and is involved with local charities. “Those kinds of things you can’t get any way else,” Shoemaker says.

So here we have the officials for the stadium. No sort of analysis about the actual revenues brought in or cost associated with a constant turnover in stadiums. The cite obscure numbers without really giving those numbers teeth. How do they know it brings in $385 and $350 million respectively?

They can say it is a proven economic driver, but they don't actually prove anything. In fact, the only thing they can hang their hat on is the unprovable, the name recognition and civic pride. However, as I briefly discussed here, name recognition isn't a guaranteed.

The critics, in my opinion, are a bit more convincing:

Since teams move around so frequently, there’s ample data to determine whether a city suffers financially when its team leaves. But, Porter says, “nothing changes” when a team skips town. Sales tax, property values, and the size of the tax base generally remain at comparable levels, undermining the argument that the stadiums pose a vast economic benefit. “That finding is so universal as to be irrefutable,” Porter says.

A study by University of Akron professor John Zipp examined the amount of taxable sales in Florida communities that hosted spring training in 1995, when the baseball strike caused teams to field second-rate “replacement players” and there was a 60 percent drop in Grapefruit League attendance. If spring training had a major financial impact on those communities, they should have suffered tremendously. That didn’t happen, and in fact, their taxable sales increased. Those findings “may indicate that spring training is not the major tourist draw that many claim,” Zipp wrote in a paper published by the Brookings Institution.

Porter says studies that tout the positive economic impact of spring training – typically commissioned by state and local governments – do so by asking fans at games how much they spend while they’re visiting, then multiplying that figure by the number of people who attend games. That method is flawed, Porter says, because it doesn't account for money spent locally that actually goes to the team and leaves the area, such as ticket sales or stadium advertising purchased by local businesses.
Critics also say many people visiting Florida for spring training would do so anyway, regardless of baseball, just to enjoy its warm spring weather. Furthermore, assuming the estimates of spring training's impact are accurate, it's still a relatively small sum. In 2010, Florida had taxable sales of $281.5 billion statewide. The sales reportedly generated by spring training represent less than a third of a percent of that total.
When the team left, Winter Haven was already giving the Indians a sweet deal -- the team didn’t pay rent, and it kept the bulk of revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking and advertising. Meanwhile, the city paid for the operational costs of the stadium in full, which Stavres says cost around $800,000 annually. “Spring training is extremely expensive,” Stavres says.

“We knew we wouldn’t go into another spring training agreement unless it was a mutually beneficial deal,” Stavres says. Goodyear, meanwhile, gave the Indians a deal Winter Haven couldn’t compete with: a $108 million, 8,000-seat facility designed by HOK Sport, the premiere architect of athletic venues. “When it came time, we negotiated with them as much as we could in their final years,” Stavres says. “We just couldn’t strike a chord.”
When the team left, Stavres says, “businesses felt the pinch.” Though city sales tax revenue fell $133,000 the year after the team left, that was just a fraction of what it cost to operate the stadium. Ironically, the stadium that at one time was once synonymous with Winter Haven will soon be demolished. Plans call for a developer to build a commercial site where the stadium currently stands. Meanwhile, Legoland is set to open an amusement park in Winter Haven this fall. That could have a greater impact on the city than spring training, since it’s open year-round.

So the guys who actually study these things find a different result. Zipp sees no decrease in tax revenue, Porter finds fault with studies commissioned by teams, leagues and cities and Stavres found that his city spent more to house and maintain a team and stadium then they were bringing in.

All of this echos everything I have seen in the academic world. I have yet to see an independent, academic and peer reviewed study that favored stadiums as an economic engine.

All of these cities are now at the mercy of sports teams, leagues and their actions. Governing mentioned this briefly, but not in depth. In the USA Today Friday edition, a headline reads Attendance decline in Cactus League proving to be prickly. Fighting through the pun, it raises a question. If cities spend so much for stadiums and spend more to recruit teams, what safeguards are there if they don't deliver? As for everything else, the risk is entirely with the cities, while the gains are with the teams.

Relating this to the DFW region, officials in Arlington are starting to sweat because the NFL may not have a season. They took property and tax paying properties off the rolls and replaced it with a tax-exempt building in the hopes that increased tourism would offset the loss. Yes, the stadium does host other events, but if the stadium as a whole is not financially stable with all events in consideration, what happens when the pre-, regular and postseason are cancelled? Bare minimum ten events gone. Will there be a decline in tax revenue? Possibly, especially considering the revocation of tax paying properties to be demoed for the stadium.

But let's look at this closer. Some economist and academic planners have cited that stadiums attract disposable income. For example, a patron will not miss a rent or house payment to go to a stadium event. They will, however, skip out on a dinner and a movie. The money generated by the stadium would have been spent somewhere else. In essence, it is more of a redistribution of regional tax. Most of the attendees are from within the region, so little money is coming from outside the area for these events. This is especially true of the concerts and car rally type of events. It may make sense from a city perspective to build these and try to attact dollars from other cities, but it certainly doesn't make sense from a regional one.

Now are there Arlington residents who don't venture outside when there is a game? Sure, who wants to fight all the game day traffic just to go shopping or grab a bite to eat. At best, they take that outing to another day. At worst, that is a lost opportunity for Arlington. Economists refer to this as opportunity costs. What is the cost or loss based on this activity? For example, I am curious about attendance at Six Flags and Hurricane Harbor on Sundays. I would definitely not go during a Cowboys game. How common that thought is could make a bit of difference in actual tax revenue Arlington receives. Surely the restaurants have very few patrons during the fan's flight to and from the game. I would be very interested to see the numbers for all of this.

Another aspect not considered in these debates are who pays what. Specifically taxpayers pay for some or all of the costs of the stadium and the teams use them without paying rent. But, usually hidden from the public is the other sales that go inside the stadium. A hot dog purchased at the concession stand, despite its high price, is tax-free. No dime in sales tax goes to the city. The same is said for stadium tours, souvenirs and merchandise. In this day and age, owners make their facilities self-sufficient. They don't want people going to a bar across the street before a game, they want you in the stadium, spending your money there. There really is little spillover from these events to the surrounding area. One look around Cowboys Stadium and The Ballpark prove that. Nothing but parking lots and vacant land. If these were so lucrative, there would be development somewhere. Instead, as is the usual suburban development pattern, stadium or no, they are along the arterials, essentially with their back to the stadium.

The big issue with the lack of development is the lack of a steady crowd. It is a bad business model for a place to open a shop specifically for these events, because the vast majority of the time, they are empty. Professional baseball stadiums are the most active, with 81 events a year (Cowboys Stadium, meanwhile is less than 50). That leaves, barring no other events, which are rare in a baseball stadium, 284 days a year without activity. Now, on a day with activity, up until 6 in the afternoon for an evening game that starts at 7, there is no activity (many games are beginning at 7:30 now, with a similar timeline). Then at 7, there is no business activity, as the people that are actually on the streets are on their way to the game, not a restaurant. Then after the game, most people are headed for the highways and not lingering. At best is a thirty minute windowwhen a game concludes for business activity. So on an event day, there is only an hour and a half window for establishments to bring in patrons and make money. There are very, very few business's that can survive on a schedule like that.

The final common argument that proponents often use is the civic pride. And that is one I can't argue. You can't put a cost or a benefit to that. Do Arlington residents feel better about their city because they have two professional sports stadiums? Hard to say. Are there better ways to spend $325 million tax dollars (Near $500 million after interest)? I think so. Would Dallas citizens have felt crushed if the Stars and Mavericks had moved from Reunion Arena to Plano? Some for sure.

In an attempt to turn this post around from an overly critical to just a critical one, at least Arlington, unlike most cities, negotiated five percent of the naming rights. Sadly for them, the stadium opened up after the economy crashed and Jerry's asking price is too high. Five percent of nothing doesn't pad any budgets. Plus, I think they should have negotiated the percentage based on the final price of the stadium, which would have been roughly 30 percent. I think the taxpayers should get the same return as they are putting up.

I think this boils down to one thing. First cities are competing against each other and the owners, not the taxpayers, are benefiting. A cursory glance makes it seem that these things do bring in people and consequently, do bring in money. But an in-depth analysis shows otherwise. In civic circles, there are a lot of people who are employed in these fields and some city officials don't want to look bad and acknowledge a mistake, allowing the economic development argument still float out there. This makes it very hard for taxpayers to get the fair story.

The owners, with the vast and deep pockets, buy ads like crazy while opposition is usually informal and poor. They especially don't want the academic studies to surface, which is how those other studies come out touting stadiums (these are based on the multiplier effect, which is esoteric and often dubious).

And of course, this says nothing about the urban design of a stadium, which may be better left to another post.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bike Lane Battles

There's a big war brewing, as is almost always the case with civic change, in New York. The city has created a couple hundred miles of bike lanes throughout all five boroughs the last few years. As usual, there are those for it and those against, in this case, those who promote a balanced transportation system and most bikers versus car first/only people.

R.A. from the Economist wrote this blog post in response to a John Cassidy blog post from the New Yorker. In essence, Cassidy wrote several reasons why bike lanes are bad. The big reason that isn't filled with flawed stats or subjective points of view is that the New York Department of Transportation is taking away space that used to be for cars and giving them to bikes.

From Cassidy:

Like many New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan, one of my favorite pastimes is to drive from Brooklyn, where I live, into the city for dinner and find a parking space once the 7 A.M.-7 P.M. parking restrictions have lapsed. Years ago, this was a challenge, but a manageable one. These days, especially downtown, it is virtually impossible. When the city introduces a bike lane on a given street, it removes dozens of parking places. All too often these days, I find myself driving endlessly up and down Hudson, or Sixth Avenue, or wherever, looking in vain for a legal spot—and for cyclists. What I see instead is motor traffic snarled on avenues that, thanks to bike lanes, have been reduced from four lanes to three, or three to two.

I encourage everyone to read the Economist post if merely for the fact that R.A. eloquently makes the economic argument for bikes in a way that I can't. From negative externalities of cars to subsidized roadways encouraging driving to positive externalities of cycling, R.A. uses a short but sweet post to debunk many of the myths the anti-everything but car "lobby" throws out there.

I will however comment on the pulled quote above. It seems that everything in politics today is based on whether it is worthwhile to me, not anything else like society or strangers. Cassidy says bike lanes are bad because it took away free parking from him on the most expensive land in the country and gave it to someone/thing else. It is of no direct value to me, therefore I am against it. This applies to all levels of government. Frankly, that makes me think we have taken a step backin the last half decade. In my opinion, we have moved from debating the merits and appropriate role of governmental programs, policies and regulations to one that makes blanket statements about governments effectiveness or need.

I personally also have to feel sorry for Mr. Cassidy. If he lives in Brooklyn, quality transit is everywhere, especially to Manhattan. Since he admits he drives constantly looking for a spot, it is obvious he is not saving any time over transit. I wonder what his hesitancy is for taking a trip on an urban rail system that carries over 8 million passenger trips a day. 

It also makes one wonder how easy it is to implement bike improvements in other parts of the country. If New York, which already is the most car-inconvenient city in the country, faces push back, how can a city like Dallas, where it is assumed to be a constitutional right for everything to be car-friendly, implement these types of improvements smoothly?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Homes + Transit = Green

The EPA published a study that is no shock to me. As the USA Today reports, "Location, location, location -- it's a well-worn mantra in real estate. New research shows yet another reason why it's important: it decides how green a home really is. Housing near public transportation uses less energy than homes in the suburbs, even Energy Star-rated ones."

Again, no shock here. You drive less, you pollute and consume energy less. You walk more, you pollute and consume energy less. You take transit more, you pollute and consume energy less.

Since it is the USA Today, details are scant but it does get into a little bit of the methodology.

The study compares the total energy use of various kinds of housing in conventional suburbs vs. "transit oriented" developments, including the energy used for heating and cooling the home as well as for transporting its residents. It found homes in walkable neighborhoods near public transit were "location efficient" because residents didn't need to drive as much.

Not something I think planners will find groundbreaking. Denser developments tend to lower driving and increase other modes of transport. Also, denser developments, particularly those that share walls, like apartments, lofts and townhomes, have lower energy leakage and therefore lower energy usage. They also tend to lack the ornate and oversized windows that are seen in abundance in the suburbs. These things tend to increase energy use, especially in the summer.

Households in TOD's tend to have less cars than their suburban counterparts. Whether that means carpooling, transit use, biking or walking, it does translate into lower Vehicle Miles Traveled per household, and therefore lower energy needs.

Some facts taken from the study: Suburbs tend to use 108 million BTU's (British Thermal Units are an energy consumption measure) for their house and 132 million for transportation, a 240 million BTU total. Homes in TOD's tend to use only 39 million for transport. Somehow, the energy consumption for house stays the same and the total for a denser living is 147 million BTU's.

The ironic point is that suburban Energy Star-rated households still consume 158 million BTU's in conventional suburban locales. So if I were to do the math (since USA Today either didn't report it or the EPA didn't publish it), an Energy Star-rated household in a TOD would consume about 65 million BTU's, or 175 million BTU's better than average and 93 million BTU's better than the suburban best.

I've said it before, the best way to reduce energy consumption is to fundamentally rethink how we design our cities and living spaces. The EPA reports that TOD's consume 40% less energy that their suburban counterparts. That is an extreme energy savings that requires nothing more than an increase in housing options from today's current stock.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Long Time Coming...or...AT&T Plaza Renovation: A Step in the Right Direction

Fear not, it took over 30 posts, but I am finally doing my critique of the AT&T Plaza renovations. This space was one of the reasons I wanted to start doing a blog.

In 2008, AT&T's regional headquarters, located on Akard Street between Commerce and Wood began renovations on One AT&T Plaza and the plaza adjacent to One and Two AT&T. Around the same time, they also relocated their corporate headquarters to this site. It was completed well over a year ago.

Sadly, the pictures I took of the buildings prior to the renovation were burned to a CDRW and won't load now. But, I will instead post recent pictures and use that as a comparison to the past. Overall, this is a definite improvement over what was there. In fact, in several spaces, it is hard to improve on it at all. Sadly, it is not a 100% improvement and several spots could use a lot more work.

Let's begin with the transportation aspect. There was a bus built into the plaza behind a water feature that had the look of a '50's bomb shelter. During the redo, the bus stop was moved down the street near Field in front of the mostly empty retail spaces of Two AT&T.
The bus stop is much more light and airy than its predecessor. The major drawback is the impediment to pedestrian traffic flow. There is no shoulder-to-shoulder walking here. Most people walk around the back, but there is space in front as well. Had they moved the bus stop against the property, that would have made more room for pedestrians.

The former space looks a lot better. When I told a friend, he was surprised since I normally don't like setbacks and landscaping in urban areas. However, meaningful landscaping in a public space can be a quality to the urban area. This is right on the edge of quality. It has opened up the water feature behind to the front door, visible from the sidewalk.

The last picture not only shows the old bus stop location, but in the background is the revamped entrance to the former One AT&T Tower, now renamed Whitacre Tower when the company relocated. They raised the pedestrian-friendliness of this part of the plaza by leaps and bounds. They opened up the second level which had an amazing effect on humanizing the plaza. Just inside the entrance stands Golden Boy, the statue that has been at the AT&T headquarters (mostly) since it was commissioned in the mid teens in New York. Now, it is easily viewed from the plaza.

The addition of LEED informational panels over the first floor entrance really sets this area as the focal point of the plaza.

One of the most practical additions to Whitacre Tower fronts Commerce Street. Previously, there was a small convenience store with a chained street entrance with offices completing the block. Now, they added an AT&T store with a beautiful entrance that engages the pedestrian at street level.
The only thing I would have done differently is move the storage section, with it's blacked out walls, from the corner of Commerce and Browder toward the interior of the Tower. This keeps the valuable street level windows in the public view. Generally speaking, the corners are quite a bit more visible (and therefore more valuable) than mid-block windows.

On the other side of the main entrance on the Akard Street side is the final positive addition to the plaza. In the elevator wells, there previously was a blank wall. During the renovation, windows were cut and a former blank area was opened up, similar to the main entrance. Also similar, the area has been humanized within the plaza, creating a more inviting space.
Imagine the above area with the entire area a blank granite wall. Needless to say, prior, this area was for smokers who worked in the building and people passing through going somewhere else. Now, there is quite a bit more activity than before. Simply, the area is more interesting than before. And as I have said before, activity begets more activity.

Sadly, not everything hit the level thus far listed. The Browder Street side remained virtually untouched. Sadly, this area has some of the most potential of any area in downtown. There is a lot of existing foot traffic. Dogs are walked from DP&L Lofts across from Whitacre Tower. Across the street from DP&L is the Interurban Building. Here residents walk their dogs too. On the first floor are the downtown Grocer store and a cafe. Even on Sunday, there is a lot street traffic in this stretch. Browder serves as the connector for this area to the Main Street District.
There is a lot of people watching opportunity in this corridor. But unless AT&T undertakes another renovation, this will be just that, an opportunity. I hate walking by this area at times, because the street has such potential. DP&L on the left has an empty retail space fronting the mall. On the right is an Einstein Brothers with NO street entrance. Across Jackson is the Interurban with the Urban Cafe and Urban Market grocer.

This is the Einstein Brothers store. The real wasted opportunity comes from the lack of a door. This would be a great area for an outdoor cafe. A door, in the cost of the plaza renovation would have been miniscule. Perhaps there would have been extra costs in the landscape box around the perimeter, but the added value in the intangibles would have far exceeded any extra cost. That is something that a lot of property owners in downtown Dallas really don't grasp that well. Property values of "vibrant" buildings are generally higher than comparable fortress towers with no street activity. The real estate industry can quantify the gyms, parking ratios, space, concierge or other amenities, but have a hard time grasping vibrancy.

Across Jackson sits the final disappointment of the renovation. On the southwest corner was a stand-alone garage. I had my hopes high when the building was starting a demo. Sadly, in its place is a new stand-alone garage for the executives, and therefore has the smallest capacity of any garage in downtown.
Notice the blank wall. There is one person and he is obviously not using this piece of urban space, merely walking by going someplace else. The view from the other angle sets my final critique of this space.
Across Browder is the Interurban Building. This does nothing for the area. That is an absolute shame. Part of my anger in this is geared toward AT&T. They know what they have near them and absolutely ignored this part of their property, to the detriment of all downtown users. But part is directed towards the City of Dallas. They forced a downtown grocer to open here. When the developer applied for incentives, part of the deal required a grocery store here. Subsequently, the store has under preformed, simply because it is just a bit outside the established urban boundary. At a cost of 12 spaces on the ground floor of that garage, supporting retail could have gone in that garage space. Coupled with Browder Street improvements, that would have made a well established connection to the Main Street area. Instead, the City fumbled away an opportunity by approving this monstrosity.

In the suburbs, grocer stores are the anchors of strip malls. When a developer comes along, the first thing they do is look to get a grocer to attract customers and then bring in the supportive retail. In downtown Dallas, in comes the grocer, then elected officials pat themselves on the back and move on to the next thing. There is an absolute opportunity in this area, but the landowners are going to have to get past this type of isolated thinking.

This renovation can really be summed up by two corners. On the Commerce/ Akard corner, beautiful additions that help strengthen downtown. On the Jackson / Browder corner, an undervalued yet highly potential corner is wasted. If the same treatment could be applied here as on the other corner, there really could be a home run in this renovation. And this one would serve as the model for towers built in the '80's. As it is, the parts they touched are better, highlighting the parts that aren't.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pedestrian Tunnels (and Skywalks) Again

You + Dallas released another video about urban problems in downtown Dallas and this time, the tunnels are in the their sole spotlight.

I've posted before about their problems, and nothing has changed since then. I like this story more for the back story. The guy who has railed against the tunnels in the You + Dallas video series, Jack Gosnell, shared his story that he was initially for the tunnels before he was against. Perhaps more than another technical post, this is the lesson of this post.

Elected officials and some of the general public, particularly in the 50's through early '70's were quick to embrace the modern. This growth-mind set saw the old as not only an obstacle, but a problem. The new then (much of which is a problem today) was unquestionably welcomed as urban renewal. We didn't learn from these projects until well after the implementation.

Planners used buzzwords and showed pictures with lots of people milling about (sound familiar) to sell their projects to elected officials and the general public. I question any project that uses watercolors or digital portraits to sell their idea. Remember the widening of Ceasar Chavez? That has a set of renderings that show people just hanging out on the street. Must be okay to make more room for cars. See, only a few cars are on the street and dozens of people, this project just feels good.

That may be the most valuable lesson in the video. Though I do like the fact that You + Dallas is raising awareness on some of the ills of downtown, the fact is that an unquestioning acceptance of anything new is a practice that must end. Critical analysis has no substitute in the planning field. Perhaps if the tunnels were questioned more in the first of the planning phases, they may have been avoided. Probably not, but one can wonder.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Capitaism, Transportation and the Tea Party

I have been thinking about doing this one for a while, but I want to tread very carefully because despite my massive amount of misgivings about this movement and its beliefs, I also want to avoid the all too common trait of minimizing others in political discourse.

Yet, I would like to point out the inherent contradictions in their political belief. I've kept this post from Streetsblog bookmarked because this isn't some academic or philosophical person saying roads don't pay for themselves, it is a chairman of the Texas House Transportation Committee, Mike Krusee. Texas is the king of highway transportation and Krusee is a suburban rep.

But for this post, here's the relevant information.

The expense to build roads and utilities further and further from the urban cores not only drove costs to unsustainable levels, it created an imbalance in who paid for growth. Over the past 50 years, Krusee argued, the federal government used tax money that came by and large from cities to subsidize roads to areas without access otherwise.
"City dwellers have subsidized the land purchases and the development costs out in the suburbs," said Krusee. What's more, the gas tax, which city dwellers pay when driving on city roads, but which goes to freeways largely outside of urban cores, is "a huge transfer of wealth from the cities to the suburbs to build these rings."

That doesn't sound like what the Tea Party stands for does it? But why is this relevant to Tea Party types. Since they are predominantly suburban residents, it has plenty. The most subsidized existence is the American suburb. From transportation, to parking codes, to mortgage deductions, to gas subsidies and so on, there really isn't much about suburban life that is left to the true workings of the free market, despite their proclivity for it.

I am sure they are all for government spending money on highways, or tax deductions for their houses, so then the statement that government needs to get out of our lives turns into what level of government intervention is needed to keep the free market moving efficiently. However, I doubt they would ever admit such a thing, or even acknowledge it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dallas to Utilize...Fake Urbanism?

Sadly, I have the flu, so I am at least hoping to use this to catch up on some posts, including an article that appeared in Monday's Dallas Morning News. The headline reads "Host committee chief shares parting ideas" and the gist is Bill Lively, the Super Bowl Host Committee head honcho, will not lead another bid opportunity and gave ideas to make things better for the next bid, Presumably Super Bowl L.

Normally I gloss over stories like this, but had the extra time and read it, which I am glad I did, because buried in the story is this gem.

He (Lively) said he would like to see arts organizations and nearby downtown corporations make a play to host one of the big networks sets. Fort Worth's Sundance Square landed ESPN's outdoor set after city leaders wooed them, a first for the sports network. One of the big selling points was downtown Fort Worth's thriving street scene.

"We don't have Sundance," Lively said, noting what kept ESPN out of Dallas.

But he said that doesn't mean Dallas couldn't whip one up before Super Bowl L. Lively said he could envision the $100 million Woodall Rogers Deck Park - which is scheduled to open in 2012 - as ESPN's set just a few years after that.

He said nearby corporations, including Bank of America, AT&T, Comerica and others, could provide volunteers to fill the park during Super Bowl week. That kind of "choreographed" effort - much like a political convention - could create buzz that would draw more events to downtown.

So many things in just a few short paragraphs...where to begin?

Let's start with Fort Worth. Fort Worth's downtown is thriving for many reasons, the 70's and 80's building boom that produced large amounts of fortress office towers largely passed them by, there is a lack of extensive tunnel and skywalk systems, the main developer "gets" urban development, the main vibrant area isn't littered with parking lots, the buildings that don't produce street vibrancy are clustered on the outskirts which minimize their damage, etc. Dallas on the other hand, with the exception of Main Street between Field and Ervay violates at least one of the above and usually more than that. The only factor that Dallas has over Fort Worth is a more extensive transit system, but that is underutilized, thanks partly to city leaders who do things like push a route to serve the convention center hotel instead of the higher-ridden, cheaper options.

That quote also sub-conscientiously reveals that they know the Woodall Rogers Deck Park will not be patronized well, or else they wouldn't need to bring in volunteers. It really isn't a wonder. On the downtown side, starting west and going east, you have a fortress office tower, a vehicle entrance to a museum, a museum wall, a freeway exit loop and the back end of a performance hall.

On the uptown side, east to west, you have an okay office tower, a fortress office tower, a drive-thru bank, a decent residential building, another drive-thru bank and the Federal Reserve, by its very nature a fortress building.

Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities was the first that I know and the most succinct when pointing out that parks are complimentary, not catalysts. Without a diverse set of land uses, parks can be vacant the vast majority of the day, a lesson Dallas should know well, with its many empty parks that dot downtown.

But, I hate to tell Mr. Lively, but Main Street Gardens, with all of its limitations, has a lot of activity, and will have a lot more than the deck park, yet ESPN still passed it by before looking to Fort Worth.

Now while the article addresses short term fixes, it ignores long term fixes that would organically make downtown Dallas a vibrant place once again. By putting development codes in place that encourage more Third Rail Lofts or One Arts Plaza and no Hunt Tower or virtually every building built in the '80's, downtown would actually be attacking the cause of its lethargy.

So instead of fixing the problem, they are trying to fix the symptoms, which once again, keeps downtown Dallas low and under performing.