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When It Comes to Urban Development, We Need to Raise Our Expectations

 

Wood Partners' Alta Farmers Market
Wood Partners’ Alta Farmers Market

We’ve been talking a lot about how we want development downtown, and how tearing down I-345 is the best way to get it. An entire issue dedicated to the idea is about to hit newsstands. But tearing down the road is only the start of the conversation. In fact, believe it or not, it’s the easy part. The real challenge in building the future Dallas is making sure that the development that follows actually creates a functioning city, and doesn’t just plop down suburban building models dressed-up to look “urban.”

I thought of this last night after the Dallas Stars playoff victory, when a  sellout crowd flooded out of the American Airlines Center only to wander through an irrational patchwork of parking lots, streets fronted by building backsides, skinny sidewalks, obstructive museums, garden apartments enclosed by wrought iron fencing, highway underpasses, and other pedestrian “un-friendly” (or, rather, outright hostile) built environments. Despite the crowds, cars still whipped passed us in every direction on streets designed for maximum speed. The city failed the moment. A jubilant populace lifted by victory was looking to be caught up in the city we were celebrating, but we were instead only dispersed into a concrete wasteland punctured by monolithic developments.

We all know Victory was a tremendous wasted opportunity. I won’t dwell on it because, frankly, I find it too depressing to think about too much anymore. But we’re still making the same mistakes. Take this proposed Farmers Market development by the Wood Partners that was announced yesterday. On the surface, it looks the very kind of thing downtown needs: mid-rise apartment housing; compact, dense living; more than 300 apartments added to 4.7 acres. But take a step back, and the renderings look like a garden apartment development minus the setbacks and breezeways. Notice the long block face with nothing to engage the street, the entrance that is as innocuous and unwelcoming as a corporate campus, and the lack of any street retail that might provide services for people who living in the building or attract people strolling by. The only difference between Wood’s proposal and this communist apartment block in Croatia is that I actually like the architectural boldness of the Croatian apartment’s Brutalism.

But here’s what really bothers me: developers are cheating themselves by relying on cookie-cutter development schemes. In other cities developers make simple logical leaps to maximize their return on investment. They ask the right questions. “I’m going to add capacity for a few thousand people, and won’t those people want to buy sandwiches, get their clothes cleaned, grab a quick coffee, run downstairs to buy eggs mid-way through a recipe, or pick-up a bottle of wine on the way home from work?” As a developer, I would want to capture that revenue, to take advantage of a captive customer base, to have a few spaces on my ground floor that enjoyed higher commercial rental rates — let alone realize the value of creating a community that is attractive to renters for more more than just another tricked-out exercise room.

But many developers, particularly in cities like Dallas, are too used to segregating uses in their investment underwriting models. Wood Partners is an apartment developer; that’s what they know. They likely plugged some data into a program, making assumptions about rates and occupancy rates, to prove to their investors that they can hit their required ROI. To the developer, the development exists more as an abstract financial concern than an actual, physical structure – what will be, in essence, a future community.

We’re seeing this mistake repeated in many of the new developments going up in Dallas right now, from Ross Ave. east of I-345 to the Trinity Gateway in Oak Cliff. You see it reflected in the developments of the past decade, how some of the denser developments south of Ross to the east I-345 have vitually no inner character to their neighborhood form — no local shops or restaurants or anything other than portals to units where rent-payers hibernate in between their daily stints of earning revenue streams. This is because developers failed to provide spaces for them. Zoning tries to encourage multiple uses, but Dallas can’t even figure out how to write its zoning laws to make it easy to have sidewalk cafes. Gradual changes to zoning and permitting will help in the long run, as will the contribution of the City Design Studio, but what’s needed now is a cultural shift in the development community.

Groups like The Real Estate Council, various planning organizations like the Greater Dallas Planning Council, architectural firms working on the projects, city council members dealing with the developers in their districts all need to be proactive in shifting the expectations for what urban developing looks like in Dallas. New development must contribute the kinds of public spaces — both commercial and non-commercial — that will actually make developments function as neighborhoods. Stakeholders need to make it clear that developments like the Wood apartment proposal are not enough. These types of projects fall short of the high standards we hold in other aspects of civic life — from sports teams to cultural institutions — and they will only fail Dallas in the same ways Dallas failed the crowds last night outside the AAC.

  • Joanna

    Well said! Just look at what a few trees and sidewalk cafes have done for Lower Greenville in the matter of a few months.

  • Greg Brown

    When did the memo come down that support of the I-345 teardown has to be in the first sentence of every article posted on this forum? Just curious.

  • LDR4

    That development isn’t even “iconic.” Where’s the giant video screen?

  • robbiegood

    The City of Austin has a Vertical Mixed Use ordinance that REQUIRES street-level retail on any development within a specific boundary. Take one look at how this has changed the urbanity of that city as a whole within the past 10 years and you will agree that Dallas should follow suit if it wants to compete.

    It’s shameful that the new developments on Ross have no street activation. On the bright side, there is some old building stock that could fill this void. Just look at the buildings at Hall and Ross with Method Coffee and Joyce and Gigis.

  • Erik Schuessler

    So what would happen if I wanted to get from 75 or the tollway to 30 or 45? Driving down in downtown? It is already a cluster down there. Did you know there are 7 different major highways or freeways criss crossing through downtown? This whole thing sounds like an expensive mess.

    I have been thinking about this idea and being a person that uses 345, I don’t think it is a smart idea.
    http://www.erikschuessler.com/index.php/the-difference-between-dallas-i345-san-francisco-and-seattle/

  • Greg Brown

    Nice link. Unfortunately, facts will get you nowhere with True Believers.

  • Ed Woodson
  • Alexander

    Erik, I’ve seen other people propose a High Line idea for 345 and while it seems like a good idea, it forgets that you need people there first. Sure, far Chelsea wasn’t super active before the HIgh Line, but there were still tens of thousands of people living within a 5 minute walk. There are only a couple hundred people in that distance of 345.

    As for your question about traffic. It really isn’t a cluster. Downtown streets are significantly under capacity. And you don’t need 345 to get into downtown, you need it to get *past* downtown. If you are coming from UTD to Deep Ellum you are already exiting at Good Latimer. The view will change, but the route will not.

    No one from the Tollway should be getting on 345, that’s backtracking.

    When you use 345 what your starting and ending points?

  • Greg Brown

    Great articles.

  • Greg Brown

    Northerners going to work in the South and vice versa. SB 75 to 30. North and southbound through traffic. Someone has to tell you this?

  • Alexander
  • Ed Woodson

    Of course, development restrictions / zoning like this could be done without tearing down I-345, right?

  • Greg Brown

    My starting point is White Rock Lake. My ending point is Loop 12 and Lancaster. Has been for over 20 years. Takes 25 minutes by car. An hour and 20 minutes by DART. I could take a bumpy Loop 12 all they way around, but with multiple, poorly timed lights that that adds an additional 15 minutes, reducing fuel consumption and increasing pollution. Or I could take I-30 to I-35 to Loop 12, but that would be insane.

    –Patrice

  • Greg Brown

    My starting point is White Rock Lake. My ending point is Loop 12 and Lancaster. Has been for over 20 years. Takes 25 minutes by car. An hour and 20 minutes by DART. I could take a bumpy Loop 12 all they way around, but with multiple, poorly timed lights that that adds an additional 15 minutes, reducing fuel consumption and increasing pollution. People also drive like negligent idiots in that area, potentially increasing the risk of a serious vehicular accident. Or I could take I-30 to I-35 to Loop 12, but that would be insane.

    –Patrice

  • Greg Brown

    The fun part is driving SB on I-45 and looking at the mile of traffic backed up due to an accident on 30 or 75 and telling all those cars that they should not be there and that they are totally screwing with the idea of New Urbanism.

  • Alexander

    I was asking Erik.

    Where at White Rock Lake are you starting. I assume you are not the Lady of the Lake. From the Spillway you would never get on 345. From Boy Scout Hill it is the same travel time and a mile shorter to take Bucker/Garland/30/45 over Mockingbird/Central/345/45 (a minute faster in current traffic).

  • Ed Woodson

    Alexander. Quoting drive times from Google Maps is of questionable relevance.
    1. They are only accurate (if at all) for then-current traffic. That will understate the time advantage of highways in low-traffic (i.e. off peak) situations.
    2. If you tore down I-345, the traffic pattern is by definition different. You would be throwing some (the big question is how much) more traffic onto surface streets, and those streets would be slower.

  • Greg Brown

    Taking East Grand & I30 to I-45 in the morning adds a minimum of 15 minutes due to traffic congestion as opposed to Mockingbird 75->345->45. Over 20 years of the same trip 5 times a week you don’t think I have tried every imaginable route? Don’t look at miles, look at time.

  • Alexander

    Ed, you’re right. Google does not factor in speeding. But I assume you never do that. You don;t get to live in University Park by giving the government extra money, right?

  • Ed Woodson

    Nice non-substantive response. I always chalk up ad hominem attacks (though in this case a weird one) as a de facto concession that you can’t refute my point.

  • Raymond Crawford

    Instead of tearing 345 down, why not build an off ramp on either side of it around Elm? Both sides of the city win with direct access.

  • Alexander

    Ed, tearing down 345 would do almost nothing to North-South commutes because almost no one works south of I-30. We both know this. You are free to be a google maps skeptic. Heck, I am too, I think it pushes people onto numbered roads when local streets are a faster/shorter option. I think reliance on navigation systems has in turn made people more reliant on highways.

    Greg, maybe you are completely correct. Maybe it is 15 minutes faster for you. But very few people are making that trip. I don’t think we should maintain a highway and destroy an area that the free market wants to develop so that you can get to work a couple of minutes faster.

  • Greg Brown

    I’m sure the South Dallas contingent really appreciates you writing them off as economically unimportant and unnecessary to the ideals of New Urbanism.

    As for me, you are right, what is one person’s inconvenience in the face of an Ideal Urban State?

    Oh yeah, almost forgot. What about the other 199,999 vehicles per day?

  • Greg Brown

    I’m sure the South Dallas contingent really appreciates you writing them off as economically unimportant and unnecessary to the ideals of New Urbanism.

    As for me, you are right, what is one person’s inconvenience in the face of an Ideal Urban State?

    Oh yeah, almost forgot. What about the other 199,999 vehicles per day?

  • Ed Woodson

    “Ed, tearing down 345 would do almost nothing to North-South commutes because almost no one works south of I-30. We both know this.” I don’t know this. I have seen zero persuasive evidence that this is the case, and current traffic loads argue to the contrary, unless 100% of the traffic is thru-traffic (which not even Patrick claims). And I take everything he says with a bucket of salt, since he and others are trying to argue that the I-345 teardown is closely analogous to other cities’ experiences, which is simply not true.

  • Wylie H Dallas

    Another terrific piece from Peter Simek…

    These are exciting times in Dallas, new ideas are taking root. Today’s keynote speaker at the Downtown Dallas, Inc. annual meeting was noted urbanist Brad Segal and he was very good. Also, from what I could see, the audience was highly engaged. He made it clear (in a very polite, subtle manner) that he was not thrilled with the current state of affairs here.

  • Greg Brown

    After driving home on 45–>75 just now the thought of a tunnel from 30 to 75 makes a lot of sense. Seriously. A good half to full mile of bridge south of 30 will have to be torn down and rebuilt for any re-engineering of 345 anyway. A 1.5 mile tunnel would solve a lot of problems.

  • GlennTheHunter

    Aside from his very plain-spoken suggestions about bike-sharing, Wylie, what exactly were these subtle and polite signals you were able to pick up on?

  • Thisis_Julie

    I live off of Ross on the east side of downtown, I’m one of those rent-payers who “hibernate(s) in between their daily stints of earning revenue streams”. When people ask me what part of Dallas I live in, it’s kind of weird to explain…my complex says it’s “Uptown”, but I find that to be untrue. I associate my neighborhood more with Deep Ellum, as I often walk there.

    I couldn’t agree more with your statement that Dallas developers are “too used to segregating uses in their investment underwriting models”. But, lately I’ve been seeing strides in changing that. Consider some of the new openings taking place in Deep Ellum this year – Pecan Lodge, Braindead Prewpub, and various art galleries. Also, closer to me, establishments like Joyce and Gigi’s, Method Coffee Shop, and Toad in the Hole have emerged.

    I would love to see more restaurants and local shops come up around my neighborhood, and especially Downtown. But it’s also a double-edged sword. The nice thing about this area of Dallas is that it really does have character. I often enjoy walks around the Wilson Historic District and taking my dog to the Meadows Foundation park. This area has not only charmed me, but provided a place for me to live that is relatively affordable as a young professional, and I can only see that price rising with new development.

    I think it will take some more time before things really get built up, but since moving into this part of Dallas just a year and a half ago things have already changed quite a bit!

  • billholston

    You are right Julie. I work in Wilson Historic District. I often walk to lunch in Deep Ellum. I walk every morning from my office on Swiss over to Exall Park, which is a popular park. I also find it pretty easy to walk downtown from my office. Although crossing under Central at Good Latimore is risky as people never pay attention to the cross walk light for pedestrians there.

  • TheBlaydes

    Agreed, a squandered opportunity to develop an exciting unique development that ends up like something in Frisco. My guess would be that the developed looked at the Farmers Market development and decided there was enough retail going in there, and the market couldn’t support additional ground floor retail. Whether that’s the case or not, hopefully the building is being built with 14 or 16 foot ceilings on the first floor, so it can eventually accommodate retail on the ground floor.

  • William Jones

    I consider Lower Greenville closer linked to Lakewood than downtown. As Lakewood becomes more upscale, which a lot of developers are now banking on, then retail in its vicinity should be pushed further out towards commercial centers like Lower Greenville.

  • William Jones

    Great article? There is such a place as a residential neighborhood. At the same time, developing retail is a lot like a beauty contest. You can’t have a store on every street just like every pretty girl can’t win the contest. Some crazy fool in the past had to build a a large department store. Then a lot of lessor fools built a proliferation of street level retail. Then another department store opened. You then had a commercial shopping district. Around that commercial district were built residential neighborhoods. You never build the proliferation of shops around the mall first. The mall comes first and then stuff gets built around it. When the stuff within the mall is the same stuff that generally gets built around the mall, as is the case with the Grapevine Mills Mall, then you build a lot of resort hotels around it.
    Thing is, someone has to be a fool to get the process started. How is the city hurting the process? Well, it isn’t trying to run a beauty contest, determining scale in other words, but it is trying to build retail all over the place equally so just as Russia was once trying to do way back in the days of the old Soviet Union.
    In a real successful neighborhood, the city shouldn’t have to erode its future tax base by giving away incentives designed to attract development.