Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why O Why?!?!...or Critique of the City-Owned Convention Center Hotel

I have been putting this one off for a while. I have been sitting on the pictures for near a month. Part of me just doesn't have the energy to once again illustrate why Dallas struggles with having a vibrant urban core. This building violates every solid urban design principle I know and I can't honestly think of one good thing to say about its urbanity. The only positive points are inside.

To that end, I will let the pictures talk for me.

The pedestrian sees only setbacks when they get to the northeast corner.

The big selling point for this hotel was that it was attached to the Dallas Convention Center. In reality, Dallas just got another skywalk/tunnel connection.

At the street level, below the tunnel. Despite the less inviting streetscape. Pedestrians still use this as much as that vaunted skywalk connection.

From the southeast corner, the setback is very clear. The ground-floor retail is not.

An illustration of one of the negative influences of setbacks. This pedestrian is trying to get from the sidewalk to the building. On the way he has to cross huge amounts of grass.

Looking south from the northeast corner.

Looking at the north side of the building, the only thing that is apparent is the valet drive up and the vast amounts of concrete for the driveway.

The east side of the building is nothing but service bays and garage. I have less of an issue with this because it is by the Jefferson Viaduct. Of all the ills, this is the least.

The valet drive dominates the north part of the property, isolating the pedestrian from the hotel.

View of the Lamar side from inside the hotel. No wonder there is little pedestrian activity in this part of downtown. What is there to walk to in this picture?

One of the few things I actually like about the hotel. They use Dallas landmarks and districts to name their conference rooms.

A friend of the family took these pictures. Another feature I like inside the hotel.

The view from inside looking northeast. Several blocks away, downtown begins.

More local pictures. Notice the pictures have no pedestrians. That is the photographers style, but in Dallas it isn't hard to find that shot.

In previous posts, I talked about the emptiness in Deep Ellum. The Omni backs that up.

These pictures are fairly recent. Main Street Gardens opened in 2009.

The view of the conference rooms on the third floor.

View from the north inside the hotel.

More Dallas landmarks.

Thanksgiving Square on the left, Old Red Courthouse on the right, the building where I got married.

Third floor connection to the Convention Center.

The main conference room is named after the city.

The third floor balcony. As usual the interior of a building in the urban core is more inviting than the exterior.

The view from the balcony looking southeast. Notice the univiting streetscape.

Same spot, looking northeast. The streetscape is still barren.

Half the rooms have this view inside. This was taken from the 22nd floor. Notice the large amounts of automobile infrastructure and low amount of urban anything.

From the same spot looking down, you can see the area where the conference rooms and garage are.

The view inside the other half of the rooms is better. Here you can see downtown, of which the most vibrant parts are several blocks away.

Despite being the most expensive hotel rooms in the city, I was amazed at how average they looked. The only "luxury" iten I know of is the bathroom mirror turns into a tv when the power is on.

A typical hallway view.

As noted in other posts, bland stairways with no meaningful connections limit their use. The Omni is no different.
I included pictures of the interior just to show the inside, though in reality, whatever is inside would have zero impact on its urban design features. I have made my objections known about the urban design, setbacks, no street furniture, empty greenspace (or is it brown), lack of pedestrian engagement, auto-dominated features, etc. In some ways, I have come to expect that from new buildings built by the private sector.

My biggest disappointment is that on the one hand, Dallas says it wants to make the urban area more inviting. They mention things that need to be done. Then on the other they produce this. They completely own this property. They could have done anything here. Even just a moving the builing east, bringing the east part of the building adjacent to Lamar St. would have made a big difference. In the end, the City that talks about revitalizing downtown, helped keep the status quo.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Uplift in Deep Ellum Update

Two things transpired today at Dallas City Hall as the City Council approved two items related to Uplift Education and its quest to build a school in the Deep Ellum neighborhood.

The more contentious issue, and least likely to be of any measurable effect to Deep Ellum, was the aproval of a motion to create a non-profit that will allow Uplift to buy bonds at lower interest rates. It doesn't pertain to Deep Ellum much, since they were going to build the school regardless. The savings in interest are promised to go to teacher raises, so maybe they will spend more in the area, but otherwise not a big deal as far as the urban design that is the focus of this blog.

The second item was the removal of the 300-foot barrier between new bars and existing schools in the neighborhood. Deep Ellum and downtown now share that same city code. It passed fairly easily and quickly.

We were told by the stakeholders in the area that this 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 have said it before and I will say it again, Deep Ellum is perhaps the area best suited for an urban neighborhood in Dallas. However, in order to do that, the thinking needs to shift from an entertainment/bar district to an urban one. Bars, restaurants, schools, residences, office, hotels, etc. all can co-exist in an area. In fact, generally speaking, the more of everything, the better. This is another positive step forward in the evolution of Deep Ellum.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Urban Bus Reductions

In response to anonymous, I am going to break down how further changes to the bus system in the upcoming service changes will have a negative impact on the urban area. Similar to the simplistic method I mentioned in this post, identifying the urban areas is the first step. In my opinion, the urban neighborhoods are Downtown, Uptown, The Cedars, Deep Ellum Knox-Henderson, Oak Lawn and Bishop Arts. Upcoming neighborhoods that are close include Cedar Springs, Design District, Expo Park and North Oak Cliff (some might differ with my opinion that this is emerging. I say that because there are still many suburban designed areas, with large amounts of setbacks and parking. That also makes it more of an emerging urban area when there is no consensus). I don't include anything that is not contiguous with the urban core such as Mockingbird Station or the Medical District.

From here, identifying the buses within these neighborhoods will illustrate my point. The buses that are scheduled for adjustment in the first phase are the 21 (BA, NOC, D, U, KH), 27 (D, U), 35 (D, C), 59 (U, D, NOC), 110 (D), 111 (D), 155 (D, C), 183 (D, U), 202 (D), 208 (D), 210 (D) and 521 (U, KH). Those scheduled for the second phase are the 31 (D, U, OL), 39 (D, U, OL, CS), 49 (D, U, DD), 51 (D, U, OL, CS), 207 (D) and 283 (D).

Now several of these buses can be stricken from the discussion, the 202, 210 and the 207, as new rail additions are replacing the current service. The 283 is canceling a suburban portion of the route. The 208 is a new service. As a whole, the express route 200 series buses are of little use as urban travel. They are merely ways of transporting suburban workers to urban workplaces. While this is important, I have established previously that commuter services carry far less than their urban counterparts. Similar to the 200's is the 183, as it is adding portions to its suburban segment. While this is a good thing, it is also of little use in urban travel.

I would also excluded the 110 and the 111. Leaving downtown, they both travel over two routes toward Far East Dallas. After the change, each will be operating on only one portion, with the same total coverage as before. The 111 will have reduced times, which I will touch on in a minute, but since the 100 series are semi-express, the same rules apply, there is little the urban transportation gain from these routes.

Consequently, we can group several of the routes under their respective negative change. First up is the 35 and 49. These are going to be reduced in frequency. This means less buses plying the streets and connecting the urban areas. It is no secret that higher frequencies lead to higher ridership along the same route. Obviously, cost has to come into play, which is the reason some routes operate quite a bit more than others. If money were no object, every route would have headway's less than five minutes apart and operate 24 hours a day. Sadly, we live in the real world and DART planners have to balance operating costs with service provided. While I don't necessarily disagree with the change, it will have a negative impact on urban transport.

The 155 serves Lamar Street, but the frequency is so low that it's loss will mean very little. It's primary function was operating with limited express from the South Ledbetter area to downtown. Eliminating it will require an extra transfer, but the ridership wasn't that high anyway. It's local service in South Dallas was already served by existing rail feeders so there is no need to add a shorter rail feeder route to replace any loss of service. Again, were this an ideal setting, this bus wouldn't go anywhere, but given the constraints DART faces, I am fine with this one. However, it is still worth acknowledging its negative impact.

Another grouping is the 21, 27, 51, 59 and 39. These will have parts or all of their route eliminated. Obviously, truncated routes negatively effects the urban neighborhoods by no longer offering its services in that corridor. In the case of the 21, part of that route is being added back into a new route, the 521, but not all. It also now means an extra transfer is needed, as is the case of the 39 and the 524. The 524 is picking up the truncated part of the 39. That now means those using that portion of the service will now have to make that transfer. The 27's elimination doesn't bother me too much. It basically duplicated the Green Line, since there is very little on that route between Downtown and Parkland to act as destinations for passengers (the Harwod District in Uptown is the only exception). Some folks addressed their concern with this one in the public meetings, but I think a reshuffling of the circular's scheduling within the Medical District will alleviate some of those issues.

The 31 was addressed in the post linked above, but I'll briefly repeat. The 31 will be pulled from service on Oak Lawn to pick up the eliminated urban portion of the 51. This means a major urban street has no local bus service from downtown and only one route overall. In many ways, a lot of these changes fall under this umbrella too. McKinney has less local bus destinations if the 21 is pulled. Elm and Commerce get less buses now with the reduced headway's and eliminations, it is very easy to travel east-west in downtown because of all the different buses. It will be a little less so now. Other urban streets like San Jacinto, Pearl, Harwood, Lamar and Houston will similarly be effected.

Let me repeat, this is not a criticism of the planner's proposals but merely a look at one set of negative effects. I'd be more upset if they were trying to make a $50 million budget surplus into $60 with these changes. But as it is, they are trying to break even. Some environmental justice folks would be upset that part of the reason for the cuts is the debt incurred for building the rail system. I share part of their position, but I also understand the politics involved. I know, surprise, surprise, something involving tax dollars and public infrastructure involves politics, but that is the way of things.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More on Stairs

I want to follow up on one of my previous posts about how city codes can have unintended side effects. The post in question regarded stairs and how architects design them to meet codes, which consequently make stair climbing uninviting and less likely to be used outside of an emergency.

My point was that if architects were allowed to design stairs to be more than blank walls and utility conduits, people would take them more, increasing the health benefits to everyone. The Los Angeles Times reports on a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine that concluded signs encouraging people to take the stairs increased their use. "The signs featured a pictogram of a man walking up stairs with text that read, 'Burn calories, not electricity. Take the stars.' The submessage read, 'Walking up the stairs just 2 minutes a day helps prevent weight gain. It also helps the environment.'"

They were placed on every floor of three different buildings and the increased use of stairs were observed in all three. While I still contend that use would increase with better design, as has been observed in places that considered that in the design phase, it might be interesting to note that overt reminders might overcome some of the tendency for humans to do what is easiest. However, it still won't overcome bad design, the kind illustrated in my wife's office building where the stairwell is only an exit on the first floor. If people have to take the elevator to the second floor, then the stairs to their final destination, well, I don't think it is hard to imagine the tendency to stay in the elevator.