Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Las Vegas: The Once and Future Downtown Project

[ To my email subscribers: I’m about to start cutover type activities to my new mailing list system. So if you get some accidental test messages in there, my apologies. I’ll be in touch further as this moves along – Aaron. ]

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the troubles plaguing Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas. The latest is a longish report in the Guardian, which notes:

Yet by late September of this year, the press – especially the technology press – had begun asking some serious questions, as the Downtown Project suddenly laid off 30 people – 10% of the total it then directly employed. Alongside portentous headlines announcing this “bloodletting” appeared claims that Hsieh had “stepped down” from his position of leadership of the project. A damning open letter from the Downtown Project’s former “director of imagination”, David Gould, called the operation from which he had just resigned “a collage of decadence, greed and missing leadership … There were heroes among us,” he added, “and it is for them that my soul weeps.”

Technology web site Re/code also ran a seven part series on the Downtown Project, some of it unflattering, including a part focused on a spate of suicides there, and other on about a prominent failed startup.

I made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Downtown Project in 2013 and wrote up my observations in a three part series, of which you can read part one, part two and part three.

I noted at the time the audacity of one project trying to completely transform a place like downtown Las Vegas:

Las Vegas has the single most savagely bleak downtown of any major city I’ve ever visited. The Downtown Project is almost literally starting at zero. There are practically no assets. So anything that the Downtown Project accomplishes needs to be seen against that backdrop. Most of these other cities have been at the downtown redevelopment game for 30+ years, have massive architectural and institutional assets, and have already been the recipients of untold billions in investment, much of it public money.

I also mentioned that the accolades the project had received in the press were disproportionate to the actual accomplishments to date:

Honestly, it’s a bit infuriating as a guy who lived in Indy, Louisville, and Providence to see a place where so little has happened garner such massive press and accolades when most other regions the size of Vegas have done more while getting far less attention.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of a single downtown redevelopment effort that received as much glowing coverage as the Downtown Project. Not even Dan Gilbert’s Detroit efforts received such fawning attention. This is an accomplishment I’m not sure most people fully appreciate. Tony Hsieh was very savvy in using his status as a tier one entrepreneurial superstar, along with a bank of free “crash pad” apartments for visitors, to create buzz and publicity. Other cities should definitely stand up and take notice.

However, the very success of the project on the PR front primed it for inevitable blowback when problems arose. As the Guardian piece notes, “The story fairly demands an apocalyptic ending.” The higher a star soars in the celebrity firmament, the more knives get drawn when anything disturbs the pristine image. The Guardian reporter also said, based on a very recent trip, that reports of the project’s demise are premature.

So the Downtown Project has run into turbulence? Film at 11. Startups are hard, risky, trouble fraught endeavors. Tony went through multiple meat grinders in the past, and if you’ve read his book it’s by no means certain that Zappos would even survive. There were many times it could have gone under. Clearly the man has a massive appetite for risk, and the Downtown Project was certainly a risky and ambitious undertaking.

The initial puffery was overblown. Time will tell if the blowback is as well. Success was always going to be difficult. I noted last year that the project was going against the grain of the DNA of Vegas as a city, was very reliant on “best practices” type solutions vs. the innovative cultural approach of Zappos, and that “curating” a city was inherently dubious. Yet I admire the ambition and believe they’ve done a lot of things right.

I doubt that the project will ever realize the full, audacious vision that was laid out at the beginning. The commitment of Zappos to its downtown HQ probably prevents a complete flameout. But it may turn out that Tony was unwise to have so heavily promoted the project up front. That has more or less ensured that anything less than perfection will be judged as a failure. He set the bar so high, it is almost impossible to clear. Had there been more modest ambitions, then probably even incremental progress against the backdrop of the disaster zone that was downtown Las Vegas would have been seen as a win. But perhaps in one example of how the Downtown Project did match perfectly with the Vegas DNA, Tony Hsieh elected to pile all his chips on Red 14.

Full Disclosure: I had previous financial relationships with Downtown Project related entities and stayed for free in one of their crash pads during my stay.

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Back to Vlasic


Image via OC Mini Market

Earlier this year a trend called “normcore” got a lot of press. Normcore is a fashion idea based on wearing boring, undistinguished clothing such as that from the Gap. Jerry Seinfeld is a normcore fashion icon.

While normcore was at least in part a joke, I think it illustrates why trend chasing by uncool cities will never make them cool. So you live in some place which isn’t on everyone’s list of the coolest cities. You read all about what’s happening in places like Brooklyn with micro-roasters, micro-breweries, cupcake shops, and artisanal pickles, and you’re like wow, my city has all that now, too. We’ve arrived.

No you haven’t. Do you think for a minute that the cool kids are going to let you just catch up and join the club? It doesn’t work that way. By the time you get to where they were, they’ve moved on to something else. You’ll never catch up doing it that way.

The idea of normcore, though probably just ephemera, shows how quickly the script could be flipped on you. Just as you finally master pretentious esoterica, the cool kids suddenly revert back to ordinary.

I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see something like that happen, actually. While I shouldn’t underestimate the ability of creative people to continue playing leapfrog to new levels of local, bespoke, exclusive, etc., at some point that trend will be played out. Then were do you go? Back to the comfort of ordinary.

Just when your Rust Belt burg finally has seven different artisanal pickle purveyors, don’t be surprised when the New York Times does an article talking about how the latest trend in Brooklyn is Vlasic kosher dill spears. (In an era in which Millennials are under huge financial pressure, this, like the sharing economy, would also be conveniently a matter of self-interest). Heck, maybe they already have and I just missed it.

Again, it’s like the way that these industrial towns abandoned their local culture to pursue cool city culture, only to have those cool cities re-appropriate working class culture – Pabst, workwear brands, etc – for themselves. Now these Rust Belt cities are re-importing their own culture back as supplicants. Remember, back in the 90s, the cool cities list used to frequently include the number of Starbucks locations as an indicator. Things change fast.

I like being able to get a good cup of coffee in these industrial towns now. I think it’s great for cities to have nicer stuff. But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that by itself will change your relative standing in the marketplace.

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Topics: Civic Branding, Urban Culture

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

I was out in Portland, Oregon last week and while there I sat down for an interview with Mayor Charlie Hales. We talked about the real Portland vs. the idea of Portland, the city’s industrial base, retrofitting suburban infrastructure, and a lot more. If the audio doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Mayor Charlie Hales. Image via Wikipedia

Here are some edited highlights of our conversation. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

Mayor Hales rejects the idea that we will have to strategically abandon infrastructure because the finances don’t add up:

My point here is that this is about political will. It is not inevitable or immutable that America is going watch its infrastructure decline. It’s a choice. It’s a bad choice to dither and do nothing. And it’s a good choice to step up and do something. And I think you’ll see more cities doing what we’re doing here in Portland. Which is to say, we’re going act locally, and then keep the pressure on Congress and the State House to do their part too.

Regarding how hard it really is to find a job in Portland:

Not hard. In fact, I think it’s 4.8% – the unemployment rate – among 25-34 year olds here – lower than New York, lower than a lot of places. We’re the 3rd greatest city in terms of college educated immigrants moving here deliberately. They move here, and then not long after, they find work. Or they create work by starting their own business because we’re a very entrepreneurial city as well. I did this in 1979. It’s not an original thing for Portland. In fact you could say it’s been happening since Lewis and Clark that we – that people immigrated here from elsewhere because they saw some opportunity here. We’ve been absorbing those people as they come to Portland. They find work. But that’s the value set of that 25-34 year old cohort. They care about quality of place, quality of life, and what they’re going do when they’re not working. And that doesn’t include, say, sitting in traffic in suburbia. So they like the idea of living in Portland, and they come here and try to make it work. And most of them do. Again, we have a better employment situation for those folks than New York City does. So it’s not true that young people come here and are stuck in jobs that they’re way over qualified for indefinitely.

About how the real Portland differs from the idea of Portland people have from the media:

Like all good caricatures, Portlandia makes fun of some things about us that are true. I mean, we do love localism, so Colin the Chicken is somebody that we would care about here in Portland. And we are relentlessly earnest about our values.

There some other ways that we don’t. We’re still an industrial city. We’re a big hands, port industrial city. We build boxcars and barges. We just cut the ribbon on the biggest dry dock in North America last weekend. So we employ a lot of welders and steel fitters and plumbers and pipe fitters, and all those hands-on trades. We build trucks here. We build boxcars. We make steel pipe. There’s a lot of traditional “old economy” industry here.

Another part of Portland that doesn’t show up in the caricature is…the other half of the neighborhoods that were half-baked suburbia when they got annexed into the city. And we’re trying to make them complete communities with a local economy in that neighborhood and those kind of services that you can walk to. And, oh yeah, in many cases, there aren’t even sidewalks, and there’s no neighborhood park. So, we’re spending a lot of effort and money on trying to retrofit those suburban parts of Portland, to not be physically identical to the old neighborhoods, but have those ingredients of a complete neighborhood that Portlanders like to see.

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

More Praise For Boring

As a follow-on to my Guardian piece last week “In Praise of Boring Cities” I want to highlight a companion piece by Victoria and Albert Museum curator Rory Hyde called “Bollards, Bricks and Black Cabs: Why the Best Urban Objects Are Mundane.” His arguments in it are in line with my old adage that the mark of a great city is it how it treats its ordinary things, not its special ones. Every city does their main street, their war memorials, etc. up right. There’s no distinctiveness there. But what about the average street, space, or object? That’s when the real values of a place are often revealed. As Hyde puts it:

Mundane city objects also offer a glimpse into the operational logic of a city. Pedestrian buttons, building materials or the Johnston typeface are the visible moments when vast urban systems reveal themselves. They are the hooks that invite our participation in the system. Despite or because of their mundanity, they are the city – as close as we can get to this big machine we inhabit.

Whatever you think of these projects (does it matter that the traffic light MoMu celebrates was actually designed in 1965, not 1868 as the label claims? Kind of, yes), noticing city objects “in the wild” can jolt you out of the moment to reflect on the millions of design decisions that bring the city into being. Boring objects can teach us that the city is an intentionally constructed project – and therefore a project that can be changed for the better.

Again, I’d add that by inspecting these elements, something important about the city and its people is revealed.

As I wrote previously, it’s London, a city chock full of iconic buildings and such, that perhaps best embodies the notion of treating the ordinary as special. This is easily seen in its black cabs, retro telephone boxes, and police uniforms. True, there’s an element of kitsch at work. But that too is a part of the city. It’s just another small entry showing the why London has remained arguably the premier city in the world for so long.

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Beyond Urban Branding

Following on from my Governing piece, here’s a video of a similar presentation I gave on city branding at a symposium on the topic at the University of Washington-Tacoma.

I normally do not like to pick on smaller cities (bigger cities and ones that profess to be world class should be able to take it), but in this case I wanted to make some direct peer style comparisons to cities the size of Tacoma. Here are links to the videos I reference in the talk. They weren’t included in the posted version.

Video 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M1rT9hX1nE (I also wrote a post on this one a while back)
Video 2: https://vimeo.com/70575853 (I only played 3:45 or so of this one)
Video 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZt-pOc3moc

If the embed doesn’t display, click over to You Tube.

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

The World City

Last week’s episode of the Monocle 24 show the Urbanist was an interesting look at the “world city” or “global city.” They take a bit of a skeptical look, showing how, for example, many residents of Istanbul are at odds with the construction boom designed to turn the city into what one critic dubbed a low-grade Dubai. And also how smaller cities like Lisbon and Wellington, New Zealand are following their own path without trying to aspire to compete as peers with the big boys. They also take on Vancouver, though fail to note its extremely high housing prices (it’s not livable if you can’t live there), and also its gang wars and other issues that belie the kumbaya vision the mayor is pitching. And there’s a conversation with an analyst from the Economist Intelligence Unit who talks about that organization’s ratings. It’s a bit eyebrow raising that Monocle, a publication that has done a lot to promote the whole global city idea and transnational norms, values and amenities to which all cities are called on to aspire to (in addition to publishing its own league table), would be critiquing the global city, but it’s a good listen regardless.

If the audio embed doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Cutting To Invest In Kokomo, Indiana

fairy-tale
A whimsical fairy tale convenience store in Kokomo, Indiana

Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution likes to talk about a paradigm called “cut to invest.” The idea is to cut spending on operations and lower priority items in order finance investments in higher priority infrastructure or other projects. Nice theory, but who is actually doing it?

One example is Kokomo, Indiana. It’s not the mythical tropical island paradise you may have heard about from the Beach Boys. Instead it’s a small industrial city of around 57,000 people about 45 miles north of Indianapolis. After I posted a piece from Eric McAfee about Kokomo’s intelligent rail trail design, someone from the city reached out and invited me to come for a visit. So that’s what I did this week.

What I discovered is that Kokomo has done a lot more than just build a trail. They’ve deconverted every one way street downtown back to two way, removed every stop light and parking meter in the core of downtown, are building a mixed use downtown parking garage with a new YMCA across the street, inaugurated transit service with a free bus circulator, have a pretty extensive program of pedestrian friendly street treatments like bumpouts, as well as landscaping and beautification, a new baseball stadium under construction, a few apartment developments in the works, and even a more urban feel to its public housing. Like Eric, however, I wasn’t just struck by the projects themselves, but they obvious attention to detail that went into their design. And especially by the fact that they’ve done it almost all by paying cash – no debt – in a city that went through an economic wringer during the recession.

A lot, though not all, of this has been pushed by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who’s gone from factory worker to politician during his career. He also appears to be an urban planning geek, as the stack of books behind his desk shows.

books

I sat down with the mayor and chatted about how the city pulled off this program of investment. After the jump I’ll visually walk you through a number of the projects. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to Soundcloud.

Now let’s take a look at what’s going on. I mentioned the pedestrian bumpouts. Here’s an example of one:

Pretty much every downtown intersection has a treatment like this, including landscaping. Taking a page from other cities’ playbook, Kokomo has invested in beautification, including not only landscaping of pedestrian bumpouts, but also hanging flower planters we’ll see later. These were actually put into place by Goodnight’s predecessor and were a huge source of controversy at the time, though seem to be well-accepted by now.

Here’s another example on a street heading out of downtown.

bumpouts2

I’m actually of two minds about bumpouts. They do facilitate pedestrian crossings, but also can force bicyclists out of the curb lane into traffic. I’ve generally found them obnoxious when bicycling. The street widths through the bumpouts look ok here, but I didn’t put it to the test. A number of streets have painted bicycle lanes, where this is definitely not a problem.

Eric’s blog post was about the Industrial Heritage Trail. Here’s a shot of that through downtown:

I think this is really attractive. It reminds me of a red brick version of the Indy Cultural Trail. This section actually has a separate sidewalk from the biking trail, but that’s not the norm. Kokomo has really made a point to include some ped-bike protection wherever possible. So the landscape buffer is narrow, but effective and attractive. (It doesn’t use bioswale type green stormwater detention like the Indy Cultural Trail, though). There’s also ample street lighting and street furnishings.

As one nice touch, note the back side of the stop sign. It’s black to match the color of the other items, not just plain galvanized steel. This treatment is done throughout downtown and adds a bit of refinement.

Here’s another shot of a segment a bit south. Note the bespoke bike rack.

There aren’t people in these photos, you might have noticed. I was doing this walking tour on a Tuesday morning, and it wasn’t super-crowded but I did see multiple people out biking and walking on these trails.

On the south side of downtown, the IHT crosses and east-west path called the “Walk of Excellence.” I love the name because reminding Hoosiers that a focus on excellence is an absolute must to survive the brutal global competition. Here’s a shot:

woe3

Again, very attractive. And again, a narrow but nice buffer between the trail and the street, even though the roadway is little more than an alley or driveway. This is very consistently done, in another place even where the trail just passes through a parking lot. That’s what I mean by attention to detail. There’s a stream running to the left of the trail which adds to the pleasant effect of walking along it.

Here’s a street crossing:

woe-intersection

The trail has its own traffic control signs, as well as a street sign near bicycling eye level to tell users what street they are at. In my experience, that’s too rare in trail design. You can also see bumpouts here along with large concrete planters that add beauty and make the crosswalk and street narrowing very visible to drivers.

Here’s another crossing example, showing the different crosswalk shading as well:

woe-intersection3

Here’s a bike route sign, with the city seal on it. That’s another nice touch and one that shows a certain pride of place versus a generic sign.

bike-route-sign

Moving on, here’s a median treatment on a major street. This goes on quite a distance:

median3

Not only is this very nice, including more flowers, decorative street lights, etc, but the metal railings are especially unique. The railings were actually custom fabricated by the high school’s shop class. Not only was this great real world practice for the students, but the city paid for the railings and the students are all ending up with $1,000 scholarships to college out of it. I’m told this was the superintendent’s idea. (Kokomo’s superintendent grew up in Corydon in my county and his wife actually still works part time in Laconia, the tiny town where I grew up!)

Eric mentioned the school district’s International Baccalaureate program. But I don’t believe he mentioned that they also run an exchange student program. IIRC, students from 15 countries attend high school in Kokomo, and a number of them are actually housed in dormitories in downtown Kokomo. This injects life into downtown and creates a more international flavor in the city. I didn’t take pictures, but the school district is also renovating a 1914 vintage auditorium back to its original design that will be very cool (and also paid for without recourse to debt).

Trails and bumpouts have a fairly limited cost, but the city is also doing some bigger ticket items including two recently-constructed fire stations, a million dollar renovation of city hall, a parking garage, and a baseball stadium. Pictures of those in a moment but it’s worth ask how the city was able to pay for them without debt.

The first is that there was no legacy debt. I’m not anti-debt in all cases, but if a mature city like Kokomo is saddled with heavy debt repayments, that’s not good. By not having any legacy debt, the city’s tax base isn’t encumbered by repayments. A good part of our federal deficit these days is simply interest on our gargantuan debt load. That’s a dynamic Kokomo avoided. (The city does have some utility debt, but it’s revenue bond type stuff).

Secondly, the mayor says that he was able to reduce the city’s workforce by close to 20%, going from 521 employees just before he took office to only 415 today. That’s a significant reduction, especially given the fact that during that time the city annexed seven square miles and added 11,000 new residents (though some of them were already receiving some city services). Some of this was achieved through efficiencies. For example, the city went to single side garbage pickup, where all garbage is collected on one side of the street, eliminating the need for trucks to traverse each street twice. The mayor, council members, and department heads have also had a pay freeze during that time, with at least some time in there in which all city employees had their pay frozen during the recession. Keep in mind, the city experienced a severe revenue crunch during the auto bankruptcies, and Chrysler, the town’s largest employer, failed to pay its tax bill. This created an urgent need for cuts.

It’s possible the cuts and freezes have gone too far. I don’t know the full history of what has happened to services. But I speculate that having something like this can potentially act like a forest fire. It allows for longer term, healthier growth, whereas continuous growth in employees and compensation over time leads to serious fiscal problems.

In any case, these reductions freed up cash flow as the city recovered, letting Kokomo allocate a decent chunk of its revenues to capital investment. This is running at about 5% of the overall budget, plus an additional sizable sum (for a city of that size) from an economic development tax. This is an example of the cut to invest strategy in action. Without the cuts and tight budget management, there would be no money to invest. Indeed, some other Indiana community have found themselves asking questions like “what fire station should we close?” as they feel the sting of decline and tax caps.

Here are a few more photos, then some additional observations. Here’s that parking garage I mentioned. (This was originally debt financed, but the city paid off the bonds early when it decided to borrow for the baseball stadium).

parking-garage

This supposedly has some all day free parking, designed to attract downtown employees. There’s also going to be apartments on the top floor. It looks like there’s no ground floor retail, however, which will create a bit of a dead zone.

Here’s the YMCA construction site across the street. You can see the old Y in the background:

ymca

A painted railroad viaduct on Sycamore St. heading into downtown:

viaduct

An alley treatment:

alley

The baseball stadium under construction:

baseball-stadium

Here’s a picture of an older style public housing building. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s done in a traditional duplex style reminiscent of early suburbia.

public-housing-old

Here’s a new development in a more urban form next door:

public-housing-new

I think the fenestration is poor which gives the design a public housing look. Nevertheless, I appreciate that the city is even thinking about the design of public housing downtown as part of its strategy. After all, why shouldn’t public housing residents get to take advantage of high quality urbanism downtown like everyone else?

Overall, I think they’ve done a number of good things, and I especially appreciate the attention to detail that went into them. You clearly get the feel of them walking downtown streets. I would say the commercial and residential development lags the infrastructure, however. That’s to be expected. They do have an Irish Pub, a coffee shop, a few restaurants, and other assorted downtown type of businesses. This will be an area to watch as some of these investments mature.

When I talked to the mayor about this he took the long view, saying that Columbus, Indiana has been at its architecture program for decades, that Indy’s sports strategy is 40 years old, etc. Substantive change takes time. For example, Mayor Goodnight says it isn’t realistic to think that older workers who commute in to Kokomo will uproot themselves out of their established lives in other communities and relocate. But he’s more hopeful that as workers retire and are replaced, he’ll capture the “next generation” labor force.

That’s obviously a more realistic ambition. But will an impatient public buy it? We’ll see. Clearly Goodnight has his critics. More than one of them has dubbed him the “King of Kokomo.” A newspaper article fretted about gentrification (level of realistic concern about that: zero). I didn’t do a deep dive into the other side, so keep that in mind reading this. But the baseball stadium would appear to be the most controversial item as near as I detect.

Regardless of any controversy, when you look at the downward trajectory of most small Indiana industrial cities, the status quo is not viable option. Kokomo deserves a lot credit for trying something different. And regardless of any development payoffs, things like trails and safer and more welcoming streets are already paying a quality of life dividend to the people who live there right now. It’s an improvement anyone can experience today just by walking around.

Historic buildings on Kokomo’s courthouse square. The tenants testify to the industrial heritage of the community.
union-storefronts

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Hello, Calgary!

City slogans and songs are notoriously cheesy and no one locally even likes them. Ira Glass of This American Life heard that there was an exception to this rule in Calgary. The first segment of this show below is the almost unreal story of what happened when they looked into this. There’s a short promo at the beginning to get through first. If the embed doesn’t display, listen at the show’s web site.

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

The Downtown Dallas Experience

My post Sunday on Dallas in transition put the development of the metroplex into context. Today I want to zoom in and look more specifically at the experience of Dallas from the standpoint of a visitor attending a downtown event. This is a critical experience to get right because that and transiting through DFW may be the only experiences people from outside the city have with it, and it can be determinant in creating an impression.

I first visited Dallas in 2007, and gave the city’s downtown experience a failing grade, writing:

What I’m saying is not intended to be reflective of Dallas as a whole. I hear it has very nice neighborhoods, upscale shopping, excellent restaurants, etc. But based on my convention experience, Dallas is possibly the single most disappointing city I’ve ever visited.

It starts with a long, dreary, and very expensive cab ride from the airport to downtown Dallas. As if your wallet doesn’t take enough of a beating, you drive past miles and miles of sprawl hell, auto dealers, strip centers, distribution centers, fast food restaurants, etc. lining both sides of the road into town. It seems like traditional urbanity drops off very rapidly outside of downtown Dallas, only a mere mile or two from the core, replaced by older sprawl. I expect this in smaller Midwestern burgs, but not in a metro area of almost 6 million. On the plus side, this drive takes you past Texas Stadium (unimpressive unless you are a Cowboys fan) and the new American Airlines basketball arena. I thought the arena was extremely nice and the highlight of the trip. It had a retro-20′s look that was reminiscent of an old London train shed done up in red brick – and I mean that as a compliment.

Downtown is full of drab, generic skyscrapers, many lit up with neon. The hotels I saw were likewise very generic. The Convention Center itself was not easily walkable from hotels, and so it took shuttles to get there. The building is a typical hulking concrete structure. Although near the similarly uninspiring Dallas city hall, the area around it appeared to be an urban wasteland. I’ve never seen such a desolate and deserted area in such a high profile downtown area before. What’s more, it was a 4-5 block walk from there to the core of downtown.

I actually made that walk, and once you get into the center of downtown proper, there is good density, pedestrians – albeit still a shockingly small number, and even a few older buildings, though I didn’t see any truly spectacular structures. A light rail line, called DART, runs through downtown, but the station I saw was deserted, as was the train that I saw stop there. I did see a few restaurants and a Starbucks, but nothing that looked like a major entertainment district. Admittedly, I did not have a guidebook, and I didn’t have time to walk up and down every block searching for interesting things – especially not over a mile from the convention center.

Given the size and affluence of the metro area, and the good things I know from talking to others that it has, I was very surprised to see the poor face it presents to people attending conventions there. This is the only time many people will ever see the city. It’s the first and last impression many folks will ever have of Dallas.

Has Dallas improved since then? Yes, but there’s still a long way to go. I’ll walk you through the experience, along with some specific suggestions for improvement.

The trip starts at the airport. DFW is very convenient to get into and out of. I flew out of Terminal C, which is serviceable architecturally, but was overcrowded. The foodservice choices are quite poor and this is one easy upgrade area for a city that wants to be a global powerhouse. Chili’s and Friday’s ought to be there, but they aren’t enough.

The cab ride is still steep – $70 according to one person I talked to who took it – but fortunately there are now transit options, with even better service on the way. But before I get to that I’ll mention the highlight of the airport, which is their ambassador’s program. This program has volunteers in cowboy hats who help direct people where they need to go, or with anything else. I took advantage of this to get directions to the train station. This sort of super-friendly and also useful introduction to the city is actually a great first impression, and especially good because it creates a human connection to the people of Dallas.


Airport Ambassador. Image via dfwairport.com

There are two transit options. One is the DART light rail system, which stops short of the airport at this point and requires you to take two buses to get there. I’m told a direct airport stop will be available later this year. I took the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter line linking Ft. Worth with Dallas that has a stop at the airport.

tre-trinity-railway-express

You take two buses to get to the train station as well, but they are free shuttle types. The journey to the station was half an hour and the train trip only twenty minutes with a fare of $5. However, it only runs once an hour or so, so you may have a wait at a station with no services or amenities. Light rail will surely prove more popular when there’s a direct connection. I found it interesting that the train was only two cars, has a human conductor, but still uses POP. What is that conductor doing if not punching tickets?

There are a handful of stops before downtown Dallas, none of them featuring any real sort of TOD until the second to last one. The train arrives as the smallish but well maintained Union Station:

dallas-union-station

I’d originally planned to cab it from the station to my hotel, but I decided to try walking instead. Good thing I was up for that since there were no cabs. It was a 20 minute or so walk to my hotel and my original thought is that I might pop into a restaurant for lunch on the way or something. However, the only real restaurants along my path were a diner right by the train station and a McDonald’s. It was a pretty bleak walk in a blazing hot sun, but certainly most destinations can be walked from the station.

The conference I was at took place at the Winspear Opera House, which is part of the Dallas Arts District I mentioned in my previous post. They’ve got north of a billion dollars in new facilities. The Opera House is a fantastic place to hold a meeting. It seats 2,300 people, so places like this are where I’d be looking to book high end business functions like global partner meetings for prestigious firms and such. It’s a massive upgrade from the convention center. (Dallas may have improved its convention center since 2007, but I didn’t visit it). When you’re inside the opera house you certainly do feel like you’re in a real global city.

The arts district itself is a bit Lincoln Centerish. The buildings are attractive but are in a plaza style layout that you wouldn’t want to visit if you didn’t have an event there. The DMA and other visual arts institutions at one end are an exception.

flora-street

As you can see, there was no one here on the street during the day. The streets of downtown Dallas are pretty wide, with buildings that don’t address them well, and hold little pedestrian interest. I’m told most of the historic building fabric was obliterated long ago. Today’s downtown Dallas is quite a contrast with what used to be there.

Speaking of which, someone recently unearthed a video of downtown Dallas from 1939 – in color even. You can watch it on You Tube if the embed doesn’t display. The majority of the historic footage starts at 3:44.

The urban fabric of that era contrasts starkly with the city today. I’ll show a couple of examples in a moment.

Downtown Dallas has a ton of concrete and one thing they’ve focused on is creating green space in the city. Sunday I mentioned Klyde Warren Park, which is built on a freeway cap that not only provides greenery, it creates part of a link between downtown and uptown. I walked over to it and given that it was 96 degrees and the rest of the city streets were mostly empty, I expected the park to be as well, but I was wrong:

klyde-warren1

Parts of the park were empty, mostly the ones without shade. But the water park was great (and has shade as you can see) and there were places with trees, such as the spot in the background where food trucks have parked, where people were hanging out:

klyde-warren2

There are also a couple of places serving adult beverages, including this restaurant with a canopy to keep out the sun where I enjoyed a bit of relaxation and people-watching:

klyde-warren3

Klyde Warren Park is definitely a highlight, and while certainly not cheap wasn’t ridiculously expensive as urban amenities go. I think it was less than $100 million dollars, including the freeway cap structure.

There’s also been a lot of residential construction in the central area. Residential uses were previously banned in downtown Dallas, but now there’s a bit of an increase in population. One example is the 42 story Museum Tower that is in the arts district and overlooks Klyde Warren Park:

museum-tower1

So to checkpoint here, what we see is what I described previously: Dallas is putting major pieces on the board. It’s invested in the transit infrastructure, a major arts district, signature parks, and high profile residential development has started to sprout. These represent a pretty high dollar investment in stuff that a major city with aspirations mostly needs to have.

What’s missing is the connective tissue. It’s only a block or two from the arts district to Klyde Warren Park, but here’s the street you walk down:

dallas-streetscape

It’s not just that the street is wide, it features a very poor design in which the uses are incredibly inhospitable to pedestrians. This isn’t legacy either – it’s the brand new stuff. Here’s how Museum Tower addresses that street:

museum-tower2

Not good. I think we have to acknowledge that much of downtown Dallas is functionally an edge city because of designs like this. Until the designs change, there isn’t likely to be much pedestrian life.

This is where we need to take a step back and think about what Dallas needs. The streets of downtown today are clearly inhumane. However, I’m not sure the traditional urbanist prescriptions will work here. There’s a comparison of Dallas to New York in that 1939 video, and indeed the streets were bustling, but I’m not sure Dallas can ever go back to something like that.

For one thing, Dallas temperatures are very high. It was in the 90s and blazing sun every day I was there. This renders the city functionally unwalkable. I wanted to do a lot more exploring but just couldn’t because if I spent more than about 10-15 minutes outside I needed to take a shower.

When I tweeted this people kept talking about other places in the world with high temperatures. It may be that some places are acculturated to this, or too poor to afford air conditioning. But I actually didn’t even get a good counterexample once you factor in humidity. Some folks mentioned Seville, Spain, but the July dew point in Seville ranges from 51-66 while in Dallas it’s 64-72. That’s a big difference.

So walkability and urbanity is going to mean something different in a hot, Southern climate vs. northern cities. Think of that as challenge #1.

Challenge #2 is that the “everything’s bigger in Texas” approach requires modification for pedestrianization and quality of space. Richard Sennett, one of the speakers at New Cities, elsewhere observed that “When we design a street, for instance, so that buildings are set back from a street wall, the space left open in front is not truly public space. Instead, the building has been withdrawn from the street with people walking by tending to avoid these recessed spaces.”

How to fix this? In Sennett’s view it’s about scaling up from the small, not scaling down from the large. As he puts it, “I’m more interested in street furniture than starchitecture” and that one of the most interesting challenges to him is to design a “really good corner.”

Dallas is a place where whipping out the checkbook to hire a starchitect is in line with the DNA. Designing a high quality urban corner, not so much. This is why there are these fabulous major chess pieces, but the street level experience is poor.

Dallas must overcome this to realize its urban ambitions. The mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary spaces, not its special ones. Everybody treats the special civic spaces right. But what about the average street? What about the details of the feel of the city? This is the mark of greatness.

I suggest two steps for moving forward.

1. Create an authentic Dallas/Texas street experience. This means creating a climate appropriate design, and also figuring out how to work with, not against the culture of “bigger.”

I noticed that outdoor cafes at restaurants have misters, fans, trellises, etc. Maybe Dallas could figure out how to incorporate these sorts of designs into the streetcapes. Maybe the streets of Dallas should be colonnaded or covered with trellises full of greenery to provide shade. These structures could incorporate misters and fans or something. Implementing something unique like this at scale might be a way to channel that Texas ambition. Dallas shouldn’t be afraid to question the orthodoxy here. For example, Minneapolis has skywalks that render that downtown more pleasantly navigable during the brutal winters, even though skywalks are conventionally considered a negative. I’d look at what other cities have done. For example, study Singapore’s Orchard Road.

Secondly, channel the culture into an authentic way of expressing it with taste. At New Cities, Michael Tregoning talked about the design inspiration for the Joule Hotel as in part coming from Stanley Marcus, former chief of Dallas based Neiman Marcus. I visited the hotel and its design has a nice mix of some glitzier elements but done in a tasteful and classy way. That’s somewhat how I see Neimans, which manages to combine a bit of in your face flaunting of luxury with class and attention to details. Stanley Marcus was the first person to bring some French designers to America, for example. I suggest figuring out how to articulate and channel something like this into public space design.

So you take the Stanley Marcus approach and apply it to climate and contextually appropriate street designs, and do some pilots to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Dittos for the way buildings interact with the street. Once you nail it, then scale up, which Dallas does well.

2. Prioritize critical connective tissue. When Jeff Speck does an urban walkability plan, he maps out the high priorities corridors because you can’t fix everything at once.

I’d start with a more pleasant connection between the arts district and Klyde Warren Park, two recent major investments. Basically you want to map where people are likely to go, especially spaces between destinations where you want to get synergies or make a good first impression (such as the corridors coming out of Union Station). Improve the area around the arts district and focus on luring high end events there, and you can make a great impression on the out of towner.

To sum it up, while there have been noticeable upgrades to downtown Dallas in terms of major building blocks, the overall grade is still Incomeplete because the street level experience has not been addressed. Once that’s taken care of in at least a few zones, Dallas will present a much more impressive face to both the out of town visitor and local heading to downtown events alike.

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

Dallas: A City in Transition


Dallas Skyline. Source: Wikipedia

I was in Dallas this past week for the New Cities Summit, so it’s a good time to post an update on the city.

I don’t think many of us realize the scale to which Sunbelt mega-boomtowns like Dallas have grown. The Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area is now the fourth largest in the United States with 6.8 million people, and it continues to pile on people and jobs at a fiendish clip.

Many urbanists are not fans of DFW, and it’s easy to understand why. But I think it’s unfair to judge the quality of a city without considering where it is at in its lifecycle. Dallas has been around since the 1800s, but the metroplex is only just now starting to come into its own as a region. It is still in the hypergrowth and wealth building stage, similar to where a place like Chicago was back in the late 19th century. Unsurprisingly, filthy, crass, money-grubbing, unsophisticated Chicago did not appeal to the sophisticates of its day either. But once Chicago got rich, it decided to get classy. Its business booster class endowed first rate cultural institutions like the Art Institute, and tremendous efforts were made to upgrade the quality of the city and deal with the congestion, pollution, substandard housing, and fallout from rapid growth, which threatened to choke off the city’s future success. At some point in its journey, Chicago reached an inflection point where it transitioned to a more mature state. One can perhaps see the 1909 Burnham Plan as the best symbol of this. In addition to addressing practical concerns like street congestion, the Burnham Plan also sought to create a city that could hold its own among the world’s elite. And you’d have to argue the city largely succeeded in that vision.

The DFW area is now at that transition point. They realize that as a city they need to be about more than just growth and money making. They need to have quality and they need to address issues in the system. Much like Burnham Plan era Chicago, this perhaps makes DFW a potentially very exciting place to be. It’s not everyday when you can be part of building a new aspirational future for a city that’s already been a successful boomtown. The locals I talked to were pretty pumped about their city and where it’s going.

How true this is I don’t know, but some people have attributed a change in mindset to the loss in the competition to land Boeing’s headquarters. Boeing ended up choosing Chicago over Dallas. In part this was because Chicago bought the business with lavish subsidies that far outclassed what Dallas put on the table. But it was also because Boeing saw Chicago as a more congenial environment for global company C-suite and other top executives to be, both from a lifestyle perspective and that of access to other globally elite firms and workers available in Chicago.

Meanwhile, the cracks in the DFW growth model were becoming apparent, especially in the core city of Dallas. Ten years ago the Dallas Morning News ran a series called “Dallas at a Tipping Point: A Roadmap For Renewal.” This series was underpinned by a report prepared by the consulting firm Booz Allen. This report is well worth reading by almost anyone today as it is a rare example of a city that was able to get insight and recommendations from the type of tier one strategy firm used by major corporations. Booz Allen was direct in their findings, though perhaps with a bit of hyperbole in the Detroit comparison:

Dallas stands at the verge of entering a cycle of decline…On its current path, Dallas will, in the next 20 years, go the way of declining cities like Detroit – a hollow core abandoned by the middle class and surrounded by suburbs that outperform the city but inevitably are dragged down by it.
….
If the City of Dallas were a corporate client, we would note that it has fallen significantly behind its competitors. We would warn that its product offering is becoming less and less compelling to its core group of target customers…We would further caution the management that they are in an especially dangerous position because overall growth in the market…is masking the depth of its underlying problems. We would explain that in our experience, companies in fast growing markets are often those most at risk because they frequently do not realize they are falling behind until the situation is irreversible.

Put into the language of business, we would note that Dallas is under-investing in its core product, has not embraced best practices throughout its management or operations, and is fast becoming burdened by long term liabilities that could bankrupt the company if the market takes a downturn.

The city responded in a number of ways, some of which were similar to Chicago at its inflection point. Many of these involve various urbanist “best practices” or conventional wisdom type trends.

By far the most important of these was adopting modern statistically driven policing approaches. As crime plummeted in places like New York during the 1990s, Dallas did not see a decline of its own. But with the expansion of police headcount and adoption of new strategies by new police chief David Kunkle in 2004 – and no doubt some help from national trends – crime fell steeply during the 2000s. The Dallas Morning News says that the city’s violent and property crime rates fell by a greater percentage than any other city with over one million residents over the last decade. In 2013, Dallas had its overall lowest crime rate in 47 years.

This is critical because nothing else matters without safe streets. I’ve had many a jousting match with other urbanists on discussion boards about where crime falls on the list of priorities. In my view it’s clearly #1 – even more so than education. It’s simply a prerequisite to almost any other systemic good happening in your cities. Students can’t learn effectively if they live and attend school in dangerous environments, for example. NYU economist Paul Romer made this point forcefully in his New Cities keynote, saying that fighting crime is the most important function of government and that if you don’t deliver on crime control your city will go into decline. Fortunately, Dallas seems to have gotten the message.

But there’s been attention to physical infrastructure as well. The area has built America’s largest light rail system (which was in the works since the early 1980s).


Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) light rail train. Source: Wikipedia

Both the city and region remain fundamentally auto-centric, however, and this is unlikely to change.

There’s been a significant investment in quality green spaces. A major initiative called the Trinity River Project is designed to reclaim the Trinity River corridor through the city as a recreational amenity. This is underway but proceeding slowing. Among the aspects of the project is a series of three planned signature bridges designed by Santiago Calatrava. The only one completed is the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.


The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Downtown Dallas. Designed by Santiago Calatrava. Source: Wikipedia

The single bridge tower is quite an imposing presence on the skyline. However, the size of the bridge creates an awkward contrast with the glorified creek that is the Trinity River. It looks to me like they significantly over-engineered what should have been a fairly straightforward flood plain to span just so they could create a major structure.

Another green space project – and the best thing I saw in my trip to Dallas – is Klyde Warren Park, which is built on a freeway cap. About half the cost came from $50 million donations. I’ll be going into more detail on this in my next installment, but here’s a teaser photo:


Klyde Warren Park. Source: Wikipedia

The Calatrava bridge shows that Dallas has embraced the starchitect trend. This was also on display in the creation of the Dallas Arts District. Complementing the Dallas Museum of Art are a billion dollars worth of starchitect designed facilities including Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center, IM Pei’s symphony center, Norman Foster’s Winspear Opera House, and OMA’s Wyly Theatre.


Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. Designed by OMA’s Joshua Prince-Ramus (partner in charge) and Rem Koolhaas

This arts district – which naturally Dallas boasts is the world’s largest – along with the other major investments that were funded with significant private contributions show a major advantage Texas metros like DFW and Houston have: philanthropy. These are new money towns on their way up and local billionaires are willing to open their wallets bigtime in an attempt to realize world class ambitions, exactly the way Chicago’s did all those decades back.

By contrast many northern tier cities are dependent on legacy philanthropy, such as foundations set up in an era when they were industrial power houses. This is a dwindling inheritance. What’s more, what wealthy residents they do have are as likely to be taking money out of their cities through cash for cronies projects than they are to be putting it in. Thus they can be a negative not positive influence.

This shows the importance of wealth building in cities. Commercial endeavors can appear crass or greedy at times, and deservedly so. But without wealth, you can’t afford to do anything. There’s a reason Dallas could build America’s largest light rail system – it had the money to do so. Similarly with this performing arts district. To be a city of ambition requires that a place also be an engine of wealth generation.

I’m sure that Dallas’ moneyed elite are well taken care of locally and exert outsized influence on decision making. I don’t want to make them out to be puristic altruists. But they’ve shown they are willing to open their wallets in a serious way, something that’s not true everywhere.

This is a flavor of what Dallas has been up to. It’s too early to say whether the city will make the same transition Chicago did. Its greatest challenge also awaits some time in the future. When DFW’s hypergrowth phase ends and the city must, like New York and Chicago before it, reinvent itself for a new age, that’s when we will find out if DFW has what it takes to join the world’s elite, or whether it will fade like a flower as Detroit and so many other places did.

Toyota did just announce it’s moving 3,500 jobs to north suburban Plano. But corporations have long seen Dallas a place for large white collar operations. Boeing was what I call an “executive headquarters” – a fairly small operation consisting of only the most senior people. I haven’t seen Dallas win any of these as of yet.

The Dallas Morning News takes a somewhat mixed view on the city itself. They just did a special section called “Future Dallas: Making Strides, Facing Challenges,” the title of which sums it up. Dallas has put a lot of pieces on the board and made major progress on areas like crime, but it’s failed to make a dent in others, such as Booz Allen’s call to make the city more attractive to middle class families. Poverty is actually up since then, and the city is increasingly unequal in its income distribution. Dallas is not unique in that, but that’s cold comfort.

Despite gigantic regional growth, the city’s population has been nearly flat. Despite the vaunted Texas and DFW jobs engine, Dallas County has lost about 100,000 jobs since 2000. The core is clearly continuing in relative decline, and the Dallas County job losses are particularly troubling. I’m no believer in this idea that everybody is going to abandon the suburbs and head back to the city. But as former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut put it, you can’t be a suburb of nowhere. If the core loses economic vitality, the entire DFW regional will take a hit to its growth.

I highlighted some of what Dallas has accomplished recently, as well as continued areas of concern. On Thursday I’ll be back with another installment taking at look at downtown and the visitor experience.

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