Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Two Quick Points

I don't want to make a habit of commenting on Deep Ellum too much, though two of my top three posts directly relate to Deep Ellum, but I did want to add a bit more to the discussion. In this previous post, I said

We were told by the stakeholders in the area that this [300-foot barrier between alcohol sales and school]was their main concern. When this option was discussed during the last few weeks, there were other concerns raised, indicating to me an unwillingness to accept a high school within the area and that reasons were given to make it not work.

I want to amend that by now saying some stakeholders. Barry Annino, head of the Deep Ellum Foundation, was quoted in the Dallas Morning News on February 23 as saying, "We've worked everything out. I think it is something we need to do anyway, something we didn't realize. In the long term, we want more charter schools. And if we make this addendum we can all work together."

I am at least glad that some in Deep Ellum get it. Annino has the best in mind for Deep Ellum, but he also has property owners to represent. He did a balancing act, got the heart of the issue solved and realized this is a good thing for the neighborhood. Kudos to him for a nice job.

Also in the Dallas Morning News, Steve Brown's real estate report (I simply can't get enough of these) on March 2 was about the housing market in my neighborhood, Downtown. While it was somewhat of a fluff piece, it did highlight several things that planners have been saying for a decade, much of it contained in various places in this blog. Urban areas are attractive to folks 35 and under. People want to be able to walk places or take transit. Rents are high because the demand is high and therefore the market can afford (and really needs) to build more.

What I want to post are physical numbers given in the story. Currently, there are near 5,300 residential units in downtown containing roughly 7,400 people. Downtown needs 10-12,000 total to be able to sustain itself. 600 units are being constructed right now. The rest of the story lists a few or those projects. One apartment analyst is quoted as saying that Dallas falls behind comparable cities like Houston, Atlanta and Denver in terms of downtown residences. I am whole-heartedly unsurprised.

I post those numbers for two reasons. The first is pure fascination. These numbers are nice to see, especially if you compare them to the past, when there wasn't much. However, the second reason is that there is no context here. How do cities like Fort Worth, San Antonio or even the burbs around Dallas like Plano, McKinney or Carrollton have active downtown's with far less residences? The answer is design. This piece, much like Dallas leaders in general, totally overlook this in favor of more. If I were to build a complex on the southeast side of the Farmers Market and another on the northwest side of the West End that contained the remaining 4,700 people, much of downtown would remain near the same because they weren't adequately integrated into the current urban fabric. A few hundred units sprinkled over a ten-square block area would do wonders for vibrancy. Putting them in a concentrated area on the fringes wouldn't.

It also doesn't account for the urban design of the actual developments. Main Street is vibrant because most every building there either was built prior to WWII or was designed to respect the street and pedestrians. Meanwhile, one block over on Elm is dead. Many of the buildings that make Main attractive make Elm unattractive. Adding more units won't rectify it. Designing it better would. For example, Third Rail Lofts has an alley between it and the Davis Building and its garage. Yet the entrance to the TRL garage fronts Elm Street.

If the city were to help calm streets, like Elm and Commerce for example, then development would mirror that. They could also do other things like reduce parking requirements or allow one existing garage to serve multiple buildings. This would cut down on curb cuts in the streets, allowing pedestrians to feel more comfortable, rather than feel like they are playing a real life game of Frogger.

Bottomline: numbers are great to analyzation, but context is needed for understanding. I wish Dallas were really better at distinguishing these.


Anonymous said...

This dude seems to understand this urban design topic. He should be working inside the field, putting these ideas to quality use. And, he ain't a bad writer.

I would ask him to clarify a point from early in the post - after he had mentioned the number of residents and number of residential units then mentioned a number that are needed for downtown Dallas sustainability. Does that number refer to residents or residences?

Branden said...

Initially, everything I had heard for the last several years was residents. 10,000 residents was needed for downtown to reach critical mass, where the the City of Dallas doesn't have to offer as many incentives to keep development going.

Now lately, I have heard both. It seems as though as we near 10,000 residents, leaders don't think that is enough so they switched to 10,000 units. With a rough occupancy of 1.3 people per unit, that makes a big difference.