Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why a Fruit Cart Needs a Variety

Taking a break from a 360 review, I direct your attention to the St. Louis area where the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch had an interesting story with big planning implications.

Essentially, young people are moving out and older people are staying put in the western suburbs. The areas that are experiencing decline are the equivalent of DFW's Plano or Lewisville. There's a lot of relevant points here that will effect planners in a profound way.

The size of the American household has been on a constant decrease. The Census numbers are not complete yet, but there is no reason to believe that trend has reversed itself. For the suburbs, that is bad news if they are built out. If no new housing stock is built, and the average size decreases, then obviously there is a decrease of population, but that really isn't the big negative.

The fact that seniors are one of the biggest expenses in a municipal budget is the big tale. Seniors have a greater dependency for social services, like transportation, medical help and other general assistance. In the past, that hasn't been much of an issue on a large scale because family supports were there and seniors were generally a lower porportion of the overall citizen base. However, that is beginning to be less and less, leading to a greater strain on limited government resources.

This is were I am going to borrow an analogy from a guest speaker that appeared while I was in school. As a planner, he likes to compare housing choices to a fruit cart. In these suburbs represented in the story, and repeated all over the country, the houses are all apples. Now apples are nice at times, but so is a variety. As the children age and move out, they would like a pear. The parents who are left behind, would like to trade their apple for a banana. A young couple, who is currently having a peach, would like to have the apple of the older couple if they got their banana. But sadly, for Fruit Cart City, all they have is apples. So, the kids seek their pear somewhere else, some parents leave and get their banana elsewhere too, while most usually stay with their apple. This cause the other couple to look further out for their apple.

This is part of the reasons central cities have been having a renaissance these past couple of decades. As single-family homes were built by successive generations, some planners and cities finally see the importance of a more balanced housing stock. For example, in downtown Dallas a buyer can purchase a high-rise condo or a townhouse, they could rent a reconverted loft unit in a high- or mid-rise, a more familiar garden-style apartment or a hybrid. All across the city are more choices, not just single family house built in the 70's through '90's. The M Streets or North Oak Cliff offer houses from different time periods even, so you can get a Granny Smith, Red or Golden apple in those areas.

These types of areas will appeal to a broader market and constantly replenish itself, keeping its vibrancy in equilibrium. It will also be a bit more sustainable for the municipality. I already mentioned the increased need for services, but on the other end of the spectrum, the older generation is also tax-adverse. Somebody has to pay for their increased services. Typically that is the younger residents. If there are no younger residents, then what?

Now what hapens to the schools in these aging places? Can they ever recover to their pre-aged place? Some can I am sure, but others wouldn't be able to accomplish that. This is part of the equation for why suburbs are unsustainable. In the sixty plus years the modern suburb has existed, none have revitalized themselves on a large scale. Targeted areas have succeeded, but nothing on a municipal level. The coming two decades will be a trial for the inner ring suburbs.

I think at some point, some area will pioneer something to regenerate themselves, or perhaps changing demographic trends will do it for them, but there is too much land area and population for them all to decline. I think at the end of the day, I believe the cities that revitalize will have made a trip to the farmers market and stocked up on different fruits.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

360 Part Deux

Vision and Plan Framework, or section 2, details what the planners (MIG) are working from as the molded the plan. In the base terms, it means every recommendation they made was done to accomplish these things. That also means it is the shortest section, lasting only eight pages, including one that is the cover page.

Sadly, even as the shortest section, it is filled with fluff too. The first page is filled with the same words still praising downtown as the center of the region, strong with districts, transportation and urbanity. Yes, we know. You already told us.

The odd thing is that they call this the vision. I would say this isn't a vision, it is a statement. Vision, to me, implies what we want changed, would like to see and what is already strong and needs strengthened. In essence, the vision is the goals.

The actual frame work is presented on the third page of the section, the 17th overall. MIG wants every objective to achieve: 1) an exciting urban experience, 2) a balanced transportation system and 3) an inclusive environment.

To accomplish this, they list transformative strategies: 1) expand transit and realize transit-oriented development potential, 2) create vibrant streets and public spaces, 3) ensure great urban design, 4) diversify and grow housing and 5) reform the approach to parking.

Unsure of how it fits into the framework, the next part of section to is titled Fuel the 21st century economy.

Competitive advantage, once again regaling the history of downtown being the center of the regional economy.

High quality office space, with the combination of the Uptown/Turtle Creek area, they list the amount of office space as 37.5 million square feet. Since Downtown has lower than regional averages for Class A rent, they say that Uptown has the highest in the region, an indicator of strong urban employment desireablitliy. Since downtown is a greater urban place than Uptown, that doesn't make sense. Obviously there are other factors, like not overbuilding. This is more positive spin placed within the plan.

Convention and entertainment center, which trumpets the million plus square feet and the new hotel of the convention center, as well as the numerous nightlife, sports and of course, the world-class Arts District.

Diversified employment base, downtown has a good range of companies to weather economic crises.

Growing residential base, something I have
touched on before.

Economic opportunities, which praises all the investments, like the Arts District, Main Street Gardens and the rail expansion. The ones in the works now, according to the paragraph will further the increasing vibrancy of downtown.

A wide range of job opportunities, from corporate headquarters to mom-and-pops make up downtown's employment rolls.

Creativity and inclusivity, not just housing, workplaces and retail for upper income, but creating these for all levels. I couldn't agree more. Yes, the market for residential calls for those prices, but encouraging rents to be available for all will not only create a more vibrant street scene, but will also create a greater return in tax receipts for the city. Of course, this will have to mean following the rules for certain things, like
HUD grants.

Multi-modal transportation system, making all (but not really all) modes of transportation easy. Here's what I mean:


Also, the current light rail transit system provides services to only a limited number of Downtown stations, making its use less convenient to riders from outlying areas who need to ultimately arrive at locations more than a few blocks from those existing stations. A more complete public transit network can shorten these travel times and provide connections among Downtown’s many assets, without requiring the addition of private vehicles to the roadways.

Ok, so obviously, they mean rail or streetcar or else this wouldn't be an issue, since the buses pretty much cover all of downtown. If riders can walk two blocks, then there is very little, aside from surface parking lots, that is not accessible. This isn't the best map, but click on the link and you see just how many downtown streets are covered by multiple bus routes.

At least later on they say why they have a rail preference.

While "rubber tire" systems such as buses and shuttles can be a quick fix and relatively inexpensive way to provide these connections, the addition of new stations and routes for fixed-rail transit (light rail and streetcars) can create a sense of permanent investment and service, and help to organize future development around such improvements.

I am curious if they consider the two transfer centers as a permanent investment (though I would advocate for DART declaring the East as surplus property and selling it).

MIG commits a rather common mistake in the planning profession here, one that always errs on the capital cost side. But it is the operating cost that can provide what the authors are suggesting. A bus running every ten minutes will have a greater ridership than a rail route running every 30. The shorter the wait times, the more people will ride. What you have to do is find a balance between riders and cost. In DART's case, the Red Line North is deserving of a rail line. It has a greater demand, therefore needing the greater capacity rail provides. The Red Line South may be more deserving as a bus line, with a high frequency.

Architectural significance, a great range of architectural history exists in downtown, although much of it "did not prioritize pedestrian interaction." SPOT ON! The fortress office towers will need attention and something has to change. I am so glad that MIG recognized this.

I did come across a point that I am not quite sure of:


Whereas architecturally-significant structures can be an important factor in attracting businesses, residents, and visitors to the city core, buildings in the of interfacing with the public realm. Buildings in the urban core mus be designed with high standards to emphasize the importance of interfacing with the ublic realm. Buildings in great downtowns also serve as a record of locl history. Downtown Dallas can benefit greatly if feasible uses can be identified for landmark buildings. However, where such feasible uses cannot be identified after exhaustive efforts, Downtown may benefit more from the replacement of obsolete structures with new, top-quality buildings.

What do they mean by landmark? That is a big distinction. Could it be any skyscraper? What about those that define a period or style? Do structures that are simply old qualify?

I also shudder at the idea of replacement. If is very unlikely any building can't be remodeled at the street level. Dallas could create a vibrant downtown with all the buildings it has demoed. I'd hate to see more go. Exhaustive is such a subjective word.

At the begining of this section, I was wondering what they were getting at when putting this in the Vision and Framework, they explained it a little better at the end:

The final page details what the next sections will cover. These are identifing downtown as a collection of districts, the transformative strategies for achieving the vision detailed in this chapter and the focus areas that provide the focal points for growth and development.

Of course, I'll have those detailed and provide my insight in future posts. Stay tuned for all that and mo
re, here on An Urban Rambler.

Monday, April 11, 2011

360 Part 1

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

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

The beginning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are district identies important? From the report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 7, 2011

360 Update

The final document is avalaible here. I commented on the preliminaries here.

It is a big document, but I will review it and post a more in depth review later. Just from what I have seen, it seems a lot better than what was available a bit ago.

Monday, April 4, 2011

More Census Stuff

The pattern whereby I mention an item, and then later it appears in print somewhere continues.

First up, in the USA Today April Fool's Day edition, a headline reads "Young and educated show preference for urban living." No new figures or news really, just what we already know. Downtown's and urban living are an increasingly attractive living option, in this case, it's my generation and the college educated.

The more prudent piece of information is the info graphic on page five, in the link it is at the bottom of the page. Here, the top 51 metros are listed . Of that, only two experienced a decline in the young and educated population within the urban core, New Orleans and Birmingham, AL New Orleans is to be expected, given that they still haven't recovered from the hurricane.

USA Today ranks them in the paper version by growth percentage and DFW ranks tenth. I wonder about the rankings, since the explanation says "...and live within 3 miles of a metro area's central business district..." Fort Worth has a nice downtown, but it has fewer jobs than Dallas. Does that mean that all of the growth on the list is around downtown Dallas or does that include downtown Fort Worth? Either way, an additional 5,081 college educated folks now live near the DFW CBD, whatever that means.

Incidentally, St. Louis leads the way in percentage growth with 87 percent (a gain of 2,700) followed by Indianapolis at 83 (2,670), Miami at 68 (4,378) and Baltimore at 66 (8,625). New York led the way in absolute numbers with 26,126 (13%), followed by Boston with 20,558 (40), Philadelphia at 16,032 (57) and Chicago with 15, 887 (33).

I bring those up because the highest percentage growers generally added only a couple of thousand and still have a ways to go in order to achieve a vibrant downtown. Those with the highest number added were generally lower growth percentages. When dealing with stats, it is important to keep things in perspective. Using percentages, we can make the claim that DFW is better than established urban areas. Using pure numbers we see otherwise. Generally speaking, the more people per square mile, the more vibrant (other things like design, transportation and use certainly play a factor too).

Next up, from the Dallas Morning News Sunday paper. An interesting graphic showing vacancy among census tracts. I can only show the link but not the graphic because I don't subscribe to their pay site. It is a map of the eastern section of the region. Green means a vacancy rate less than 5 percent and red is over 30. The map is predominantly green, with islands of red throughout. Much of these are due to projects just coming on line or about to come on line when the count was taken.

This is why I cautioned against putting too much emphasis on census numbers. For all their use, they are really just a look at that particular time period. Some of those projects are filled and would change to green were the Census done this year.

Also, giving the critics a voice, is the issue of immigrants arose. From the article:

And other factors can make collecting accurate information difficult, she (Angelina Avalos) added. Some residents are illegal immigrants and unwilling to talk with someone from the government. Many work two jobs and are rarely at home.

"And some of the people are living in apartments that aren't furnished," she said. "So even if someone peeked through the windows, it would look empty."

That may explain why a lot of the areas near the central core are the in between shades. It also explains why a lot of cities, unlike a lot of suburbs, are planning to contest those numbers. The Census may not be entirely accurate, but as of now, it is the best system we have.

Finally, again from the Dallas Morning News on Monday, is a story about how the redistricting of the City Council Districts will be a messy and political one. While that is interesting, that is beyond the scope of this post. What isn't is the map accompanying the story. Since I can't post it, I'll try to recreate it, albeit crudely.

The following map is taken from here. Had I the time or inclination, I could have done a GIS whose color scheme made sense (I should do that anyway).
Districts 1, 2, 6, 7, 10 and 13 saw a more than five percent  population loss.
9 and 11 lost between zero and five percent.
4 gained between zero and five percent.
3, 5, 8, 12 and 14 gained over five percent.

I bring this up because the only "inner" city council district that gained population was the one that encompassed downtown, uptown, Deep Ellum and Knox-Henderson, or the inner urban core of Dallas, District 14. That relates directly to this post I made, Dallas would have lost population had they not invested in their urban neighborhoods. Now yes,  had District 3 or 8 not grown too, Dallas would have lost population, but they all work together (BTW, District 3 includes parts of North Oak Cliff, which is also a resurgent urban neighborhood).

District 14's growth is made all the more impressive when you consider the western portion did lose population. The M Streets and especially Lower Greenville area are old street car suburbs and quite walkable, and thereby attractive in today's market.

Dallas would do well to heed this warning. Areas that are walkable grew while most of those that aren't really didn't. Since most of the lost population districts are in the north, in old suburban-like neighborhoods that were built between the 50's and 70's, now is a great time to analyze what can be done to renovate/revitalize those areas into more walkable and pedestrian-friendly areas, lest Dallas gets further behind in the growing urban trend.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

More Downtown Units

Near the end of this post, I talked about how downtown would need a similar growth rate this upcoming decade as it did during last decade. After a lost year in 2010, May should kick start this decade with two projects opening up.

This week, I talked to some folks at Andres Construction, the same guys who did the residential conversions at D&L Lofts and the Mosaic, both for Hamilton Properties. The father/son duo of Larry and Ted own the Atmos Complex, a block's worth of four buildings, with the earliest built in the 1930's. When Atmos Energy left downtown, they gave the buildings to The City of Dallas. They in turn gave it to Forest City, who decided they couldn't do it after they did the Merc (I am sure a critique on that one is coming at some point), and they gave it to the Hamilton's, with the City's approval.

After resolving their issues with HUD and getting the affordable units spread throughout the building, it looks like Hamilton Properties and Andres is set to begin construction in one month. The original proposal called for 269 units. I don't know if that has changed.

While talking with Andres, I also found out they plan to start on the Continental Building at the same time. This was another building Forest City was supposed to do in the Merc deal. They appear to finally have financing in order. The building while house roughly 150 units.

That equates to over 400 residential units, in an area of downtown that could use it. That just leaves 27 and a half thousand more units to equal last decades growth rate. It's at least a start.