Sunday, January 22, 2012

Downtown Midland: How to Revitalize

Now a heads up from my hometown of Midland, about 5-6 hours west on I-20 from Dallas. My sister directed me to a story in the local paper, The Midland Reporter Telegram, about this effort to revitalize their downtown. She sent it to me several months ago, but I procrastinated discussing it until now.

In many ways, Dallas and Midland are similar. Their downtown's were converted from the center of the city's life to an office park, they have a nearby rival city and a lot of activity has shift to the fringes. Even looking solely at the downtown area of each city reveals similarities. Each have/had vacant office buildings. Each looks great from a distance, but getting inside reveals fake density, similar to what I discussed in this post. Both have out-of-whack parking situations that depend heavily on surface lots and restrict on-street parking. In fact, in a lot of ways, downtown Midland is now where downtown Dallas was 15 years ago. There are even intangible similarities like old money still controls each area and elected officials that do not quite know what is going on in the area or really what is needed to get where they want downtown to go.

This would fit right in if it were in downtown Dallas.

Note the cluster of tall buildings, as well as the vast amounts of surface parking.
Some excerpts from the article that will form the basis of my discussion:

City leaders, along with members of the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) board, the Downtown Midland Management District (DMMD), Midland County and the Midland Development Corp. (MDC), among others, have been meeting regularly since the spring to create a unified vision for the future of downtown.
The DMMD in July brought its executive director on full-time. The city also is looking within the next 60 to 90 days to hire -- in conjunction with the other entities -- a full-time employee who would work to develop a "catalyst" project for downtown and to eliminate obstacles that prevent that type of development, City Manager Courtney Sharp said.
What exactly that catalyst project will be still is up for consideration, downtown advocates said. But, they agreed for the first time the entities all are working together toward a common revitalization, rather than each acting separately to achieve essentially the same goal.


[Natalie] Shelton [DMMD Executive Director] said she'd support a mixed-use property that would allow for office space on the upper floors and retail or restaurants on the ground-level. Some members of the DMMD said the renovation of the Ritz Cultural Events Center could be a catalyst of sorts as it aims to bring several hundred people downtown at least a few nights a week.
Others have pointed to a combination of possibilities.
"Office space is needed immediately," [Jerry] Morales [at-large City Councilman] said.


Gary Glasscock, partner at Tgaar Properties Inc., said they are moving their offices back downtown after operating from farther north for the past several years.
The company purchased Wall Towers east and west, which are about 30 percent occupied, and plans to update the remainder of the buildings to open more office space, he said.
"We've already signed up several leases," he said, adding they've had interest from businesses locally and nationally. "Once that begins we'll start renovating."
Still, he said, there are challenges to re-doing old structures. They're presently conducting a study to determine if asbestos exists in the structures and anticipate it will take about $5 million to fully restore the properties.
"Once you get past the basic issues, this has great bones," he said of the property. "It's a first-class area to be in."


Aside from the cost required to bring some buildings up to code, parking issues prevent downtown from thriving, Morales said.
Glasscock said they have an agreement to lease spaces just east of the library, but a lack of parking is prohibitive.
If there were a few developers committed to coming downtown and bringing jobs, Morales said they then could assess where it would be feasible to put a parking garage.
If I were to change Midland to Dallas and the names of the entities involved, this would be just like Dallas' situation. The basic problem as it stands today is that there are too many chiefs and not enough indians. When that situation exists, there are a lot of ideas on what needs to be done. In this case, one wants a cultural institution, one wants office space, some want a parking garage and others want mixed-use office/retail. None of the serious flaws that exist now are addressed. Midland has great bones. That is it. What was proposed does not add the flesh to downtown.
The Councilman wants more office now. The company official bought two office buildings that are 70 percent vacant. Those two don't mesh. Downtown Fort Worth, with an office occupancy above 90 percent in downtown can say they need mopre office. 12.5 percent of the office buildings in downtown Midland are completely vacant right now (which is to say nothing of their overall vacancy rate, which is quite high). The empty buildings are where the biggest opportunity lies. What I have experienced in Midland, coupled with what I know about vibrant urban areas, is the lack of activity outside of office hours (Dallas, anyone?). The current trend across the United States, from coast to coast, cities large and small, is that the younger generation is looking for something different than the prototypical American living situation. That is all Midland is, single-family houses and garden-style apartments. There are no townhomes, no lofts, no duplexes. Convert a handful of these empty and near empty office buildings into a residential use, try to keep them near strategic points and near each other to increase the likelyhood of critical mass and all of a sudden, things will move and they will get their catalyst. People will be walking on the street, retailers and restaurants will be attracted, and Forbes will look at them for the list of best small city downtowns.
However, Midland has not encouraged this thinking. Instead, several empty buildings, six that I can count, have been demolished instead. That is a wasted opportunity. However, the prevailing theme in Midland, like it was in many cities in the United States, from coast to coast, cities large and small, is that no one wants to live downtown. I fear that until someone actually does it, that thought will always prevail and good, solid buildings will be demoed for parking lots.
Speaking of parking ... downtown Midland has it all wrong. There is very little on-street parking, despite the wide four-and five-lane streets that prevail all over the district. You want to encourage ground floor retail? Start there. It will actual bring in revenue to the city, while at the same time reducing parking pressures on the private lots and enticing quick convenient parking for the customers of the potential retailers and restaurants the city wants to attract. I can recall only two restaurants accessible from the street in downtown Midland, and both are always packed.
I have said it before and it will never be invalidated. Urban areas will never out-suburb the suburbs. Downtown Midland will never be able to offer large amounts of surface parking like the places on Loop 250 can. Instead, they need to offer what those places can't, an inviting streetscape teeming with pedestrains. When I say activity begets more activity, that is what I mean. Sometimes people don't go to the mall to shop. Sometimes they go to socialize or people watch. Malls are nothing more than an urban streetscape covered by a roof and usually lacking the mixed-use component. When the land use encourages street-level activity, people will come to observe and be a part of it, not because of what use is there now specifically. The base activity encouraged the ancillary activity, furthering the vibrancy of the street.
Downtown Midland would have to take steps to encourage that pedestrian traffic. A big start would be the addition of the on-street parking, which then gives the pedestrians a buffer from the traffic.
Also, the idea that it takes a catlyst project or one thing to jump start development is a very outdated mode of thinking. Urban areas operate best when they are a conglomeration of lots of little pieces. One residential building with 100 units is better than none, two is better than one and three is better than two. However, it is not linearly better. In this case the sum is greater than the whole. The 300 units are far better than if each 100 units existed on its own seperately. So any policy that is geared toward a catalyst is flawed from the beginning. The focus needs to be on accumulation of several small things at once. Encourage a form-based code that dictates where you want the street-level retail. Make improvements to the streetscape, particularly shade and benches. Set-up a tax break system for certain tyoes of development, ie. residential, that will encourage private entities to look in that direction. Study where transit makes the most sense within the current land-use.
Downtown Midland has tried catalyst projects before and have seen minimal results out of the effort. Midland Center was built, yet downtown wasn't revitalized (just like the empty promises of almost every convention center in America). Centennial Plaza was supposed to be a gathering spot for locals to enjoy downtown in an open setting. But without complementing land uses nearby, it is sparesly used when an event isn't scheduled. There was a massive undertaking to remake the streets and sidewalks from regular concrete to red brick or other fancy patterns. Yet without fundamentally changing how downtown was used, there wasn't a fundamental increase or decrease in anything but the budget.
Bottomline, downtown Midland has a great opportunity, but I just have a feeling that well-meaning officials will miss the mark. Unless they bring in someone with a basic knowledge of urban design and land-use, things will not change. Midland is not different than any other city or region. If places like Fargo, North Dakota can revitalize their downtown, then so can Midland. Weather, industry or age, despite what common criticisms are leveled, will not prevent Midland from having a vibrant downtown. Misguided directions and policy will.

1 comment:

Rae said...

You're hired!