Monday, April 30, 2012

Transit in the DFW Burbs

The Dallas Morning News ran two articles last week pertaining to transit service in some local suburban cities, both of which underscore the difficulty of providing that service in an area not built for it.

On April 23, the headline read "Mesquite's DART deal irks Garland." Ray Leszcynski outlines how the City of Garland has poured millions into DART over the past few decades with its one-cent sales tax, while Mesquite is paying $300,000 a year for one DART express bus route. John Willis, a Garland council member expresses his frustration that Garland can't use its sales tax since it goes to transit and Mesquite can, even though a fraction goes to transit. Just a note, Willis was a person who I sparred with on a message board prior to office and remember he was critical of DART no matter what they did, see here, herehere, here and here just for some quick examples (if you can figure out who I was, I want to apologize as that version of me was quite a bit more idealistic and naive).

The thinking of some DART suburbs is that they could have stronger local economies if they could use their sales tax for economic development. I don't agree because there is a strong correlation between local cities with transit and their employment numbers, while those that use their sales tax for economic development have higher resident populations than employment numbers, indicating a lower performing local economy.

I guess part of the issue for Willis is that Mesquite is paying for transit with that sales tax while also using it for other purposes, but Garland is certainly the winner in terms of transportation. They have two rail stations, 20 bus routes and paratransit service to show for the money. Mesquite gets one express route with limited service and has to pay for paratransit elsewhere. Garland carries over 10,000 trips on an average weekday, while the Mesquite service tops out near 100.

But as I warned in this post, this type of reaction was eventually going to happen. It is only natural because we leave transit up to every city to determine if they want it or not and how do they want to pay it. There will always be folks who are against the funding mechanism as we know. I even am. I don't see the state legislature authorizing the city residents to vote on if they want sewers or not, trash pickup or not, roads and highways or not. They deem that a valuable public service the state needs to allocate. However, they don't see the same for transit. It's the same 1960's thinking that has doomed much of our cities to mediocrity. How we fund and operate this system is borne out of this detrimental period.

The second bit of news came from the headline "A-train's weekend lag studied" from Friday's edition. The Denton County Transit Authority is struggling with how to schedule or even have Friday night and Saturday service on its commuter train. The agency has a goal to achieve 50% weekend ridership when compared to its weekday service. It hasn't met them consistently.

The main reason I want to bring this up is a quote in the DMN from board member Tom Spencer.

"I remind you of the statement that 'nobody ever built a successful commuter rails system catering to discretionary ridership,'" he wrote.

He's right. That's the problem. We know beforehand that by building a commuter rail system, its design has long headways, high capacity and low-density surroundings. It is no-doubt a commuter focus. But because it is cheaper than any other form of rail, it gets preference. When most of the area is suburban, it doesn't make sense to build more urban forms of rail.

This really gives ammo to the transit detractors. It is too expensive. No one will ride it. Yes, there is some increase in riders from express bus to the rail line, but is it enough to justify the added expense of rebuilding the rail line? As a voter, does the increase in cost have an effect on future ballot decisions?

In the end, any transit investment will be muted if there aren't any land use changes to accompany it. That is the struggle for the DCTA's A-Train. There would be plenty of discretionary riders if the stations and surrounding areas they served were denser. But then, they would be a more urban rail system.

Commuter rail works best when it connects to large employment centers, even if it still carries less riders than the urban forms that run in the large employment centers. This line doesn't even do that. It connects to an outlying light rail station and requires a transfer, and remembering that transfers suppress ridership, maybe the DCTA has bigger problems than weekend scheduling.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Just what is Walkable?

Walk score is a website that made the planning rounds when it was introduced a few years ago and despite its oversimplisticness, has been at least a decent tool for determining how decent neighborhoods are at achieving a car alternative. They have added a new feature that gauges transit. How it works, I don't know, but I wanted to post the transit link for two reasons. The first, illustrates just how poor Dallas ranks. Here's the top 10.

Portland, OR (Transit Score: 50)
Baltimore, MD (57)
Miami, FL (57)
Seattle, WA (59)
Chicago, IL (65)
Philadelphia, PA (68)
Washington, D.C. (69)
Boston, MA (74)
San Francisco, CA (80)
New York, NY (81)

Dallas has a score of 39. The heat map, found here, is pretty clear, transit and walking are very hard in Dallas.

The second reason I post this is that when playing around with the heat maps, I found again just how goofy stats can be. For example, the Oak Lawn area includes Uptown (highly walkable), Oak Lawn, very walkable) and an area west of the tollway (unwalkable). By combining all three, they have made a mediocre walkable score.

Of course, this also goes with its main detraction, that being near things isn't always walkable. If I lived on one side of the street and everything was across an intersection with 7 lanes and a median on both roadways, I may want to reconsider walking. Cedar Springs from two posts ago is another example.

Anyway, have fun with the time-wasting map!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Importance of Place from an Unlikely Source

I was perusing one of my common stops on the internet that deals with planning when I clicked on a link of a link. In it, a Michigan businessman details why his company may have to move out of Michigan. It isn't common political talking points like taxes or education (at least not that one directly).

To him, the lack of true urban place, the lack of variety in the fruit cart, is causing talent to leave, is failing to attract new talent and will be a death spiral for the state if they don't do something to offer a balance within the built environment. It is a great read, simply because it comes from the private sector.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Ideas for Uptown (long)

If you were to peruse my previous 90+ posts, there would be a consistent topic or model. Downtown Dallas is the most used example to make many of my points. It is the center of the local urban area and the neighborhood where I call home. But, adjacent to Downtown is Uptown, which is more urban than Downtown in almost every way. So today, I am going to look at Downtown's northern neighbor.

This is going to be hard for me because I have conflicting thoughts here. The first is that I recognize Uptown is the most urban neighborhood in Dallas, and probably the region. The only area that comes close is Downtown Fort Worth. Each is better than the other in some categories, so it is hard to say which one is the best, which is also somewhat of a subjective measure anyway.

However, here's the conflicting thoughts. I have often wondered if I let the idea of a perfect or great get in the way of good. There is a lot going for Uptown. But, it could be better. It does encourage people to walk, which is close to the epitome of what an urban area should be. Is it perfect? Of course not, but it is better than 99% of the region.

Am I an optimist who sees how things can be better, or am I the pessimist who sees what is wrong?

That said, here's what I think of Uptown., whose boundaries are Woodall Rogers on the south, U.S. 75 on the east, Blackburn on the northeast, the Katy Trail on the northwest and I-35 at the Katy Trail bend.

First, the balance of activity in Uptown is on the east side around McKinney. In the lower half of Uptown, Cedar Springs runs down the middle. So why the disparity? Why does the wstern half of Uptown feel like a sleepy burg while the eastern side feels like a city.

The answer lies with the street grid, primarily the two main streets of the area. McKinney on the east is narrow and exhibits many pedestrian-friendly designs. Cedar Springs is wide, made for getting as many cars through as possible and conjures feelings of playing a live Frogger game for anyone not driving.

McKinney and Boll St looking north

McKinney and Fairmount St looking north

The two photographs illustrate a lot of what is right about McKinney Street. There is the obvious with the streetcar tracks. These are known to slow traffic. Also notice how the street is narrow. There are still four lanes of traffic, but because they aren't so wide, drivers don't feel as comfortable at higher speeds and behavorially slow down.

There are also several design features that favor pedestrians over vehicles. Notice the trees and poles so very close to the curb. That, in lieu of on-street parking, creates a barrier between moving traffic and the pedestrian. Those trees are also an amenity during warm summer months. There are also things like benches, trash cans and signage that make life as a pedestrian more comfortable and easier to navigate. While the sidewalks aren't great, they are at least wide enough in most places to accommodate more than two people shoulder-to-shoulder.

Now compare the above with Cedar Springs.

Cedar Springs and Routh St, looking north.

Cedar Springs and Routh St, looking west. Would you want to get to the other side?
Notice how wide this street is. Despite having the same amount of through lanes, Cedar Springs is roughly 50 percent wider. Each lane is one-two feet wider and there is also a center turning lane. Since the street is made for automobiles, there are no trees near the curb, primarily because traffic engineers deem them a hazard (more on that point in a moment). The sidewalks are narrow. There are no amenities like shade or benches. Buffer zones like on-street parking, poles or the aforementioned trees aren't anywhere to be seen. There isn't even local transit service.

Now take that second picture. This is an intersection. By state law, at an unsigned intersection or in a marked pedestrian crossing, the pedestrian always has the right-of-way. In the real world, this feels like playing chicken just to cross the road. There are no people in the pictures, because this road isn't designed for them.

That's a point I want to make when it comes to transportation in urban areas. McKinney and Cedar Springs have similar traffic counts. So that begs the question, why do we design our streets for cars. In the first set of pictures, there are cars, just like the second. However, there are no pedestrians, cyclists or transit users in the second. So if we can design the streets for everyone by making ifocusing the design towards a pedestrian-oriented feel, why do we continue to allow streets that are car designed that exclude everything else in the urban area?

Part of the reason, is that traffic engineers, who control street design regardless of location, have an inordinate amount of influence. So for example, to them, trees next to the curb represents a hazard for cars. Yet, they don't or can't realize that 1) it is an amenity to pedestrians and 2) that gives drivers a greater sense of danger at higher speeds and they therefore slow down, mitigating much of the danger they represent. In fact, some digging of actual traffic accidents and fatalities stats would reveal that the "safer" streets and intersections preached in the traffic manuals are actually the unsafe ones. They give drivers a sense safety and when that happens, we as humans naturally go fast and start to go through the motions. The "unsafe" examples actually have fewer accidents. Why this isn't more known or a bigger issue in city and urban design is beyond me.

That example is seen in these two streets. There are more accidents on Cedar Springs than McKinney. There have also been multiple pedestrian fatalities on Cedar Springs this year.

Interestingly enough, in the late '70's and early '80's, the traffic engineers wanted to expand McKinney and make it three lanes in each direction. Thankfully, there was enough push back from stakeholders that instead the streetcar line was pursued. I shudder to think of what Uptown would be like today if McKinney resembled Cedar Springs.

My recommendations to fix Cedar Springs would be to remove the center turn lane, narrow the lanes, widen the sidewalk and add on-street metered parking. Other than widen sidewalks, I like McKinney as it is.

On a similar, infrastructure note, it is amazing to me how even in Uptown, some streets do not have sidewalks.

This part of Howland Street has no sidewalk.
I think the recommendation is clear. Even though Howland in not a major street, there should be no street in any urban area that has no sidewalk.

The next issue that I think is holding the area back even further may be the hardest to remediate. Like much of Downtown, the building stock of the 70's and 80's (what an awful time for urbanity) hold back the walkability of the area. Part of the reason that Uptown doesn't suffer the malaise that Downtown does is twofold: the lack of empty spaces (like parking lots) resulting from demolition of existing buildings for spec office buildings and that the buildings not built during the booms were usually built pre-car. The buildings built in the last 10-20 years have generally had respect for the street. But, there are still large parts of Uptown that contribute nothing to the urban environment.

Sadly, the exception to the newer buildings respecting the street can be seen in the Lower McKinney portion of Uptown. Starting at Maple and heading south, each building is like Downtown's urban area. Great individual buildings from afar that are empty at the street, by design. The trend was started in the '80's with the Crescent Complex. The architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News, David Dillon, called this block an attempt to combine the best of both the urban and suburban realms and fails in both.

The huge setbacks and ample parking out front make this complex a ghost town for pedestrians.
Continuing that trend, in no particular order, were Ritz Carlton, 1999 McKinney, Uptown Plaza, 2000 McKinney, Texas Capital Bank, Advancial Tower, 2200 McKinney, Granite and so on. Crossing Maple Street is like crossing into a totally different city neighborhood.

Thankfully, there are only a smattering of these buildings further north and the area is dominated by low-rise urban buildings. West Village has contributed to a positive street scene in the north part of the area. Other parts aren't so successful. The Quadrangle is active, but not vibrant, a throwback to all the poor planning ideas of the time: parking out front, landscaped setbacks and single-use zoning.

Is this in an urban area or a strip shopping center near a freeway?

The namesake office building; unless one offices here, there is no reason to be here.
The office building may be a little harder to retrofit, given the topography and current configuration, but the retail building may be more cost effective to demo and start over. Market pressures alone may make that happen. One positive I can say is I like the retail variety in the Quadrangle. There is a variety of restaurants, a liquor store, wine maker and theater. Hopefully any redevelopment could reincorporate these establishments, or maintain the variety.

The poor design can be seen in sporadically throughout the rest of neighborhood, but this smattering suppresses many of its negative qualities. There is no critical mass of urban vacuum here like there is in a "newer" development like Las Colinas. However, reflecting the transportation system, the Cedar Springs corridor has the highest concentration of these building.

Nothing for the pedestrian, and so few parking spaces that a only a select few can benefit. This building effectively isolates the building user and the passing pedestrian, getting no benefit for either.
While a remodel isn't impossible, getting these buildings, with large lobbies and ample setback, to respect the street is an expensive proposition.

An example of a good urban building along Cedar Springs, doors opening onto the street with a minimum setback.
This is the two working against each other. The two-story doesn't generate enough foot traffic on its own and the larger commercial building generates next to nothing. In the end, the bad urban building is bringing down the good.

It is important to note that this coming recommendation will not solve the problem, only prevent future ones from appearing. Most cities are reactive in their zoning, saying what will be allowed. I would argue for a form-based code for most or all of the area. This is important because this is the zoning code that most accurately reflects organic city building. This dictates what is not allowed, usually in the form of the building. You can build office, retail, residential, entertainment as long as it looks like X. It can not have Y setback, be Z feet tall or have W feet of blank sidewalk space, but others, do what you want. If done right, it can ensure proper urban-design guidelines while giving the private sector developers the freedom to build what they see fit.

As I said, this wouldn't fix the office examples above, but enacting it would make surethey will be the last ones with overtly negative effects.

Finally, as I was out and about, I noticed a scene that I had touched on before.

In a vacant lot off of Routh Street, we have a food truck court.
I am still undecided on how I feel. The same feelings I had before still exist. Had the area been done right before, these would be unneeded. However, since we are here and moving forward, they add a certain flair to an unused area of the neighborhood, even if just temporary. I will say, I am moving more towards being in favor of these, if for no other reason than the transient nature of food trucks allow for something better if it were to come along.

The last thing about Uptown is a bit redundant from a previous post I made. So instead of detailing the area's transit shortcomings and suggesting my ideas, I'll just give the link.

While the tone of this post is about what needs changing, let me devote the rest of this piece to what they do right. Upper McKinney Avenue reflects a wide range of architectural styles and transportation elements. There is a good combination of small, medium and large buildings of many uses that reflect a wide range of activities at all hours of the day and week. Cityplace Co. has demonstrated that Dallas developers do have the ability to design great urban spaces. The City needs to keep that going and make it a template for the rest of the area.

There is a great variety of retail and restaurant offerings. In large part because of West Village, but Gables managed properties have excelled at this too. Of course, the older buildings were already made that way and still function as such.

The mix of uses is close to, if not the best, of any urban area in the region. Aside from industrial, just about everything is represented. Overall, the approach to this neighborhood should be replicated that yielded these results. It is a great way to increase the tax base, lower the infrastructure costs and limit the environmental impact.

There, I can be positive, though I am still conflicted as to what I actually feel about this neighborhood.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Saving the Past

Early plans are in the works to convert the currently vacant Tower Petroleum and Corrigan Tower into residential buildings. These two are right across the street from the building my family lives in at this time, so I have taken an active interest in these two buildings for some time.

I have avoided posting about this at first because I don't feel I am a news source. I try to stay more towards the editorial side. However, after thinking it over, I think there is one very important thing that can be learned from this.

Several years ago, there was a proposal to convert the Tower Petroleum to a hotel and demo the Corrigan Tower to make way for a 50-story condo tower. The reason given was that the Corrigan Tower was beyond saving (see post #188 here).

This is the point I want to make. I am a historic preservation advocate. From a cultural perspective (seeing where we came from), from an urban design perspective (old buildings are usually more urban than new) and from a lost perspective (when it is gone, it can never return), I generally side on the case that preservation is paramount, especially when you consider that Dallas' downtown is not short on open, empty or vacant land. Destroying a building when there is a parking lot across the street is a net loss to society and the area.

Back to this particular story. I always suggest taking the idea of demolitions with a critical eye. In this case, there is a developer who wants to do it right. He sees the value in this building. Oftentimes, people look at architecture from the '50's and '60's and say they are ugly and need to be demoed. While I don't disagree with the first, I do with the second. There was a time when Dallasites thought Old Red Courthouse was ugly and needed to be razed. Nowadays, this building is considered a gem. While I sometimes wonder if these buildings will ever be considered beautiful again, I do know they need to be carried over until the next generation, if for no other reason than to avoid a situtation like Old Red.

These two pictures are from my wedding day. These would have been impossible if prevailing thought of the '40's and '50's had won and Old Red was razed.
There is almost always a way to make an old building work. Sometimes there are cost issues and that's where I would say local governments can help with TIF payments, tax abatements or other incentives. But often times the developer just wants a blank slate and will say it can't be saved. That may be okay for them, their architect, but for the rest of us, we don't come out ahead.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Street Versus the Created Walkway

Alas, another story behind the paywall from the Dallas Morning News' April 18, 2012 edition caught my eye. I would really like to discuss these in greater detail, but apparently the topics of this blog are pay worthy. Yet, not one of you has given me a dime for it.

Anyway, the headline reads Small spaces, big picture: City looks at converting their passages between skyscrapers into inviting pedestrian pathways. While it was more feature rather than news, the gist is buildings built some extra spaces that "are just pass-throughs, while in others there might be a place to sit or even eat. And then there are those spaces where few venture at all."

Karl Stundins, Area Redevelopment Manager for the Dallas Economic Development Department, is looking at making these spaces a bit more inviting. Successful examples in the article are Stone Street Gardens and Browder Street Mall (my take of Browder Street can be found here), while little used spaces listed include the "pathway" around Thanksgiving Tower and the west side of the Central Library.

A well used pedestrian walkway, Stone Street Gardens.

Believe it or not, the wall on the left borders a pedestrian walkway.

I want to hammer that point home for a moment. Why are the first two successful but the others aren't? Both Stone and Browder were former streets and most of the buildings there fronted them when they functioned as streets. The later two are really nothing more than useless setbacks. The article can call them walkways or pedestrian paths if they wish, but they aren't. These are setbacks filled with pretty but functionally-useless landscaping. Look at the library picture. Does that look like it was designed for pedestrians? No, there is no entry or exit from the building, no signs, no easy street access and because it is winding, it is not designed for pedestrians to use. In reality, the only people who use this space are the homeless population looking for a little isolation.

Same thing with the Thanksgiving Tower "walkway" that runs on both sides of the building. It is nothing more than meaningless setbacks and landscaping that serve no practical purpose for the urban environment. I touched on this idea in this post, and the article backs that point up. The design of the buildings around Stone Street cause it to be successful. The design around the library cause it to be vacant.

You have to give people a reason to be there. You can paint all the people you want in the rendering, but unless they have a function in that spot, they won't appear.

Stone works by design. Thanksgiving Tower "fails" by design. There would be some architects who say it works as it was designed. It is that isolationist design that permeated the architecture scene in the '70's and '80's. It is also the big reason why Downtown Dallas feels empty.

That said, is what they are discussing a bad idea? As a future post about Uptown will include, this is a contradictory thing for me.

One the one hand, the purist in me sees this as a failure. Poor design still works as designed, with negative consequences for the urban area. I also don't think these linkages will be beneficial for connectivity, since the street grid is already a grid and super-efficient for pedestrian travel. Pedestrians will likely need to get to the bordering street anyway, since the opposite block probably will not have the same pathway. I can see positive effects if two major destinations are a block or two away. But around the library, the Young Street median is on one side and the Interurban Building garage and a parking lot on the other. Unless one is exploring or loitering, there is no need or reason to be here or even to go anywhere else from here.

However, since the wholesale demolition of large parts of downtown is unrealistic, where do we go from here with what we have? Something needs to be done. If Thanksgiving Tower can be converted to make that space somewhat usable, is that a bad thing? For example, if that space was converted to an outdoor patio for a restaurant with a street entrance on Elm, we have solved that problem AND strengthened the street scene on Elm. Is it ideal? No, perfect has long left this site. Is it good? Yes, and certainly an upgrade over what was there.

In fact, in many ways, I see the conversion of the '80's office towers as paramount to turning downtown back into a populated area (this was wish eight in this post). If they do convert the lobbies of these buildings into a more pedestrian-friendly space and make these "leftover spaces," according to Stundins, functional, then it certainly is a win for urban Dallas.

I am a case study guy, and since this hasn't been done on any large scale anywhere, I will withhold judgements until they do their thing. Hopefully my concerns will be mitigated or unsubstantiated. However, I am pleased there is at least dialogue on this topic. That in and of itself is a win.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Change of Heart in Deep Ellum

In my previous post about the saga of a new charter school, from Uplift Education, in Deep Ellum, I expressed my concern that the truce between Deep Ellum stakeholders and the school after the removal of the 300 foot barrier between schools and alcohol establishments could be tempered by something else. My fear was that some of these folks were against it no matter what and we grabbing for whatever reason they could to oppose the measure. Thankfully, for some, the 300 foot barrier was the only reason.

As reported in the Wednesday edition of the Dallas Morning News, the neighborhood is coming around (it is behind the paywall). Here's some quotes I thought were great to hear.

And many locals are now accepting, if not embracing, the arrival of all those new kids on the block.

" I really feel like all the school's going to do is add to the neighborhood's culture," said Stephanie Schumacher, owner of La Grange, a nearby music venue.
"We actually reached out to them," he (Clint Barlow, owner of Trees) said. "We'd like to help with some sort of band camp if they have enough [students] interested. ... The kids might find an outlet to express themselves in a positive way here."
"There are really good partnerships that can happen there," he (Tanner Hockensmith, director at Life in Deep Ellum) said. "One thing that is lost in eduaction is the arts. ... I think Deep Ellum has always been an eclectic place, and it's perfect for the school."
Hockensmith said some business owners may have to get used to the change, but the adjustment period will be short.
"The start of the conversations were 'How can we coexist?' Now it's, 'How can we assist you?' he said. "Five years down the road, that school's going to be the fabric of this neighborhood."

Many of these sentiments I echoed in the past, more than once. It is good to see that I was partially wrong in that alcohol sales were the stumbling block for most of the dissenters.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Downtown and Parking

Though I've been on a parking kick lately, the actual reason I am posting this article from the Tulsa World is that it fits quite neatly with this blog post about the downtown of Midland, Texas. I've said it before many times and it bears repeating again, urban areas function and operate the same regardless of culture, location weather, etc. Tulsa and Midland are similar to Dallas. The only difference is how each city approaches revitalization.