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.

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