Why New York Is Not A Model For Dallas’ Urban Development: Amanda Burden Speaks at The NasherSALON

The moment when the details of New York City Planner Amanda Burden’s presentation at last night’s NasherSALON became largely inapplicable to its Dallas audience came very early on. “New York is going to grow by one million people,” Burden told the crowd at the Nasher, which included notables such as Mayor Mike Rawlings and the Trinity Trust’s Gail Thomas. “So we decided to focus on New York’s greatest asset: its mass transit system.”

What followed was an alternatively inspiring (for New Yorkers) and depressing (for anyone in a car-based city) presentation that showed a city planning department with the guts and vision to get city building right. New York no longer issues building permits for new developments that don’t have “great transit access.” As a result, the city has rezoned upwards of 115 neighborhoods (more than 11 thousand blocks) in a “transit-oriented way.”

In other words, how do you build a competitive 21st century city? Focus on creating density around mass transit, while building-out neighborhoods with a focus on quality design that is created with a details-first mentality. Burden shared a number of public space projects in New York that illustrated how attention to the smallest design details (from the height of a railing to the shape of a bench) are vitally important to the creation of viable public spaces.

Burden also spoke about a number of specific areas of focus involved in her wide-ranging rethinking of how to develop New York, including the East River waterfront and the High Line. Some of her most illuminating comments came when she spoke about the revitalization of Coney Island. Looking back at historical photographs of the beach-side amusement park in its prime, Burden emphasized how density was what made the area attractive, and that misguided attempts to regulate or clean-up the area in subsequent decades diluted the density of its attractions. As a result, Burden and the city have created a master plan for Coney Island that seeks to pile “one use on top of each other.”

Building great cities isn’t rocket science. Density creates streets filled with people, and busy streets make a city fun. And a fun city spurns on development. Everyone wins.

Yes, Burden’s development lessons were illuminating. Her thoughts on Coney Island could be applied to a rethinking of Fair Park and its surrounding neighborhoods. Her comments on how aggressively the planning department tackled rezoning suggested Dallas needs to apply its much ballyhooed thirst for big thinking to urban design, rezoning, and seriously rethinking public transportation. But in Dallas, when we enact an attempt to master plan an area to promote greater density, such as along Bishop Ave in Oak Cliff, neighbors complain about people parking on their street. However inspiring, Burden’s ideas are birthed of a city that is both structurally and culturally other than our own.

What was disheartening about Burden’s presentation is that it all hinged on a simple premise: the kind of density that creates the vibrancy in places like New York is enabled by the existence a viable mass transit system. Because Dallas lacks that, focusing on the details of design – while still necessary – won’t have the same transformative impact it has in New York because the connectivity between Dallas’ improving urban projects (reasonably well-designed places like Main Street Garden, Belo Garden, and the Klyde Warren (Woodall Rodgers) Deck Park) still requires an accommodation of the automobile. What do you do with a neighborhood like Lower McKinney, key to the Klyde Warren’s success, when it is already built-out in a way that values car over person? And outside of Dallas’ investment in the inner-core urban projects, the vast majority of Dallas’ urban landscape still looks like the corner of Abrams and Mockingbird. How do we deal with that?

After Burden’s presentation, there was an onstage Q&A conducted by local media notable Lee Cullum. This was the opportunity to take Burden’s experience in New York and apply it, however possible, to how Dallas should be thinking about its own development.

The first question did just that. How did Burden take New York’s planning department from a reactionary to an activist agency, Cullum asked. “We had a mayor who was determined,” Burden said. She added the department was enabled by monumental ambition (The ambition of Robert Moses, and the sensibility of Jane Jacobs, she said). She also cited creative ways the city was able to promote good urban design by incentivizing developers, for example, offering the owners of the land underneath the High Line (who wanted the old railroad trestle demolished so they could develop) the opportunity to sell off their development rights to property owners on the main avenues, thus dampening pressure to destroy the now-beloved park and pushing development away from the urban asset.

After this promising start, however, the Q&A vered off course. Cullum served up a number of long, orating questions that succeeded more in displaying her own well-researched familiarity with Burden’s history, then actually allowing Burden room to speak. I would wager Cullum spoke during 70 percent of the Q&A, an egregious waste of an opportunity to hear from one of the world’s most important urban planners active today.

Cullum did manage, though, to get Burden to defend the Arts District’s mono-functional design, even though Jane Jacobs criticized such districts. Burden said entertainment districts can create vibrancy by attracting people. It was curious moment considering that earlier in the program Burden criticized New York’s Financial District for having become too mono-fuctional, a problem remedied by the addition of mixed-used developments and the opening of Lower Manhattan’s waterfront by way of cleverly conceived park space. The natural follow up question would be to force that comparison, however it wasn’t brought up by Cullum, who simply seemed satisfied to have New York’s city planner offer an endorsement of the city’s long-rendered Arts District.

Cullum also asked where on the High Line a New York City council person was going to get married this weekend (Burden’s not attending, in case you cared), and then proceeded to present two preposterously contrived questions related to Museum Tower. Framed as multiple choice questions with cheeky fake answers stuffed with intimate knowledge of the situation, Cullum wasted a ton of time playing to the hometown crowd, leaving Burden mute and bemused on the stage. The planner graciously responded to the first question saying that she was reluctant to comment on any specific city problem after only being in that city for a little more than twelve hours. Fair enough, but Cullum then went on to ask a second long-winded, multiple choice question about Museum Tower. This buffoonery would have been funny had not the mayor of Dallas been sitting in the front rows, and had the opportunity to elicit real advice and insight into Dallas’s car-based planning problems been so rare and welcomed.

All Burden could do was ask Cullum what she thought of the Museum Tower fiasco, and no one in the audience had shown up to hear that. Burden also offered some words of encouragement, pointing to how the destruction of Penn Station led to New York’s landmarks law (let’s hope the Nasher’s fate isn’t the same) and saying that people in New York were “talking” about Dallas – its architecture, its glare problem. That comment elicited an audible and embarrassing mix of “ooo’s” and “ahh’s” from the flattered crowd. And of course it did. After all, despite Burden’s talk of aggressive master planning, the necessity of an exemplary public transportation system, and the high value of close attention to the best urban design, there has always been an aspect of Dallas’ approach to urban design that feels focused not on density, or vibrancy, or transportation, but rather on winning a little praise and affection from cities that actually get it. In that case, I suppose Thursday night’s lecture was a success.

Photography by Scott Womack for D Magazine