Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Planting Shrubs to Fix a Foundation

If I had began this blog several years before I actually started it, I would posted many blog entries critiquing and discussing the relatively new area of Victory Park.

Let me compress what could be several posts into the rest of this paragraph. Victory Park is a well-intentioned idea of mixing uses, but was executed so poorly that retail can not survive and the "streets" are empty of people, even when there is an event at the anchor of the area, the American Airlines Center (AAC). The basic premise is that instead of focusing the energy towards the main streets like Houston and Victory Avenue, they made those streets function like alleys and made a central "street", Victory Park Lane, the main retail spine when it should be the alley. Street design made Victory and Houston huge one-ways for transporting large amounts of cars and minimizing the pedestrian experience. The retail is destined to fail exactly because Victory Park Lane is isolated, and it was so by design. The intentions were to give the pedestrian a pleasant walk. But, by ignoring connectivity with the rest of the development AND neighborhood, even pedestrians don't go there, making retail foot traffic sparse if non-existent.

Victory Park Lane, complete with no people out and about.
All that to say this, according to Steve Brown, the Dallas Morning News' Real Estate Editor, Estein and Associates, the property manager of Victory, have hired Trademark Property to revamp the shopping area. From the article:

Critics of the project have lambasted the layout of the retail space and its original focus on high-end merchants and restaurants.
Trademark will immediately begin work on plans to remodel Victory Park’s storefronts along Victory Park Lane. 
The developer also will be looking at how to use undeveloped land in the project for additional retail.
About 130,000 square feet of retail space is contained in the lower floors of buildings in the 75-acre Victory Park project.
Preliminary plans call for a total redesign of the streetscape throughout the project.
Fair said with the economy turning the corner and retail sales picking up, the timing is right to redo Victory Park’s retail.
“We are getting more calls from prospective tenants and have been looking for the right retail partner,” he said. “There has to be some momentum for the retailers to get excited.
“We are going to try and make a great retail street where people will want to hang out.
Trademark Property has experience with both new projects and redeveloping old ones.
It built the popular Watters Creek shopping and apartment project in Allen. And Trademark is developing the Alliance Town Center regional shopping center in North Fort Worth.
Trademark also has redeveloped shopping malls in Corpus Christi, Santa Fe and Michigan.

I still lambast the layout. Without fixing this, the very fundamental flaw, everything else is lipstick. Until the docks for the buildings line Victory Park Lane and the retail fronts Houston, Victory Avenue, Lamar or Olive, no amount of revamp will be successful. It already hurts Victory enough that the office buildings, which are relatively full, are self-contained. You park inside the building, go up the elevator, work, go down the elevator and leave the building. In downtown, there is decent transit access and many workers who do drive have to park off-site, which at least facilitates some amount of pedestrian activity. That is not the case here.

Unless a total redesign of the streetscape means this fundamental swap from the interior lined by Victory Park Lane to the outside streets, then any other effort is going to fall short.

Finally, looking at the credentials of Trademark, I wonder if they are the right group to even understand what Victory needs. The last two paragraphs list their body of works, but none are in even semi-urban areas. All are suburban, and many of Victory's flaws originate in trying to combine elements of suburban design into the urban realm. The result is that you get neither. The positives of both are negated and the negatives standout. 

Here's an example of what I mean. Victory tried to take a suburban positive, ease of car use, and incorporate that into the development. To accomplish this, they made Houston Street four lanes, one-way with wide lanes, approached Victory Avenue, Lamar Street and Olive Street the same and built garages in every building. But, from an auto user standpoint, it still has the negative of a dense district. Drivers thrive in low density surroundings, while they feel uneasy in denser areas. Also, garages are not convenient, especially compared to on-street and surface parking. This means car-based users avoid Victory because of the hassle.

Also, in an attempt to keep the design on Houston, the original developers fought DART from running the first phase of the current Green Line along Houston. This pushed it on the edge of the neighborhood, where it currently is. What should have been an urban positive instead is now a negative, since the distance is inconvenient to anyone but event goers, as the AAC is the closest building. From downtown, some parts of Victory can be reached faster from the West End Station! This means pedestrians and transit-users avoid Victory because of the hassle.
The Rail Station serving Victory. Note in the distance the AAC.
If drivers don't go and transit users don't go, only those who have to be there go. That means only people who have to go (see workers and residents) are the ones that are there. Neither have sufficient mass to support the level of retail, especially if it is high end. Add in the fact that office is designed to be isolated and self-sufficient, it is easy to see why Victory has empty streets.

I hope an future development addresses the issue, but I don't believe the existing Victory area's street level will achieve any measure of vitality until a first-floor redo is completed. Some infrastructure improvements along the major streets would be beneficial too, but not as critically as the first.

The sad thing is, this is typical Dallas development in its core. You see this on Lower McKinney, parts of Downtown, the Design District and the Cedars. Until developers recognize the benefits of the urban area and work to maximize that, Victory results will continue to be repeated.

People will walk. Main Street and Deep Ellum are examples. Developers can get it right. West Village, One Arts Plaza and Third Rail are examples. But until the city requires this, rather than hope for the best, Victory will be the norm, not West Village.

1 comment:

TxCityGuy said...

Branden, I like the thought process here, but I think you've missed some key details that ultimately affect the actions that need to be taken to "fix" Victory. First, I'll just come out and say I think in the long-term focusing retail on Victory Park Lane is actually a good thing (though I agree Houston Street and Victory Avenue should've been done better--with the latter having a greater chance of being addressed in the next wave of development).

For a good pedestrian environment to exist, the pedestrian must not feel exposed. Hence the importance of street trees, canopies, and--this is the big one in my opinion--the presence of structures on both sides of the street, preferably across a relatively narrow road. Ultimately that is how I think Victory gets improved--replacing every surface parking lot on the west side of Victory Park Lane with buildings, street trees, and ground-floor uses (mostly retail, could be some other things). Once this is done the street (Victory Park Lane) will feel like the heart of the area, not like the fringe. That surface parking is just a desert that needs to go.

Also, you missed the biggest item on connectivity to the adjacent neighborhood. The superblock on Houston Street's east side (apartments) is just brutal. In an ideal world Cedar Springs Road would connect to Museum Way. Since that isn't about to change, pedestrian connections need to be made a higher priority near the new Perot Museum, and Olive Street needs a road diet to make it more friendly to pedestrians and bikes (the latter a whole different topic about Dallas's woes). Also, this superblock and fence creates the same type of "desert" effect as the surface parking lots on Victory Park Lane--meaning that retail would have failed on Houston Street as well, even if the road was narrowed. (I will concede this street does still have the best connectivity to downtown.)

As to the DART item, I agree with your point on the station being so far from anything. Some of the upcoming development will help fill in that gap and connect to the station, but it is still a problem. That is why we need to push DART and the City to come up with the money for the D2 alignment that would provide for a second LRT station near the southern end of Victory, essentially filling in the gap between Victory Station and West End Station.

One last point--the small park at the southern end of Victory Park Lane can be a huge asset if the other sides around it are filled in with uses that front the park. Combine this with activating the park (street vendors, etc.) and you could have a great urban space.