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Urban Design

The Most Important Part of Dismantling an Urban Freeway

Peter Simek
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Google image of I-345's bottom.

When I first read this op-ed about I-345 that appeared in last Sunday’s Dallas Morning News, I was flummoxed. Blame it on I-345 fatigue, which breeds a kind of paranoid defensiveness similar to Trinity River Corridor Project PTSD. Mention either of these projects, particularly within the pages of the DMN, and my back instinctively spikes up like a porcupine.

The piece is by Michael Grace, the assistant city manager and chief operating officer for the city of Ferris, and he writes that I-345 is a “very important regional transportation corridor” and that “removing this transportation connection, within a competitive, polycentric, still maturing urban region, would have a wide ranging impact that would reverberate across the entire city.”

Polycentric urban region? Very important corridor? Urbanism blasphemy!

But by the time I got to the end of Grace’s piece, the more I saw that he was trying to call out some aspects of the I-345 removal that truly do need more attention. Grace seems to agree that there are a lot of benefits to removing I-345 and replacing it with a boulevard and a reconstructed urban street grid. But he also offers a warning. Tearing down an urban highway is one thing. Making sure what replaces it is worthy of the effort is something else entirely.

“Simply removing this bit of highway, as some have proposed, will not bring those neighborhoods back to life nor magically create equitable and sustainable development,” he writes.

Transportation

Will Dallas’ New Vision Zero Plan Actually Save Lives?

Peter Simek
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Dallas, built for cars. (photo: Neff Conner/Flickr)

Vision Zero has been one of the buzziest topics in urban planning circles over the last few years. The phrase describes a traffic safety strategy that is being rapidly adopted by cities throughout the country. Dallas was a little late to the party when it instructed city staff to begin working on its own Vision Zero policy in 2019. It took staff more than a year to bring an early version of the plan to council, which it unveiled at a briefing last week.

After hearing the briefing and looking at other cities’ experience with Vision Zero, I still have mixed feelings about the policy.

Here’s what I like about it: Vision Zero starts with the attitude that all traffic-related fatalities should be avoidable. The “zero” in Vision Zero means that cities should strive to have no traffic deaths. This may appear like an obvious goal—why would it be a city’s policy to allow some people to die in traffic? And yet, thanks to a sordid history, which includes all sorts of auto industry-led misdirection, traffic fatalities have generally been accepted as a side effect of the unquestioned need to drive cars in cities. Put that logic in another deadly industry’s familiar catchphrase: cars don’t kill people, people do.

Vision Zero says all traffic fatalities are unacceptable, and our streets and transportation policies should strive to reduce deaths to zero. That’s the part I like.

The part I don’t like is that cities that adopt Vision Zero policies haven’t really seen great results. Why? Generally, most Vision Zero plans create a laundry list of recommendations—from re-engineering streets to improving signage to enforcing speed limits—but often the little things get done and the big things don’t. Big changes to streets cost money, take time, and get snagged by politics. And yet it is precisely those big changes—like rebuilding streets so that they favor safer pedestrian and bike mobility over speeding up cars—that will eliminate traffic deaths. Big, multi-pronged Vision Zero plans can also obscure the reality that reducing traffic fatalities is not rocket science. It’s simple. To modify another over-used catchphrase: “it’s the streets, stupid.”

Urban Design

Dallas Should Spend $2 Billion to Scrap the Convention Center. No, Seriously.

Peter Simek
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Inside George Dahl's Dallas Memorial Arena

There is no more boring, ugly, and polarizing a building in Dallas than the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. More than just a hideous piece of architecture—so gargantuan that it snuffs out the urban life of the entire southwest corner of Dallas’ central core—convention centers, as a business, are questionable. When you try to dig into the byzantine economics of the convention center business, it’s easy to get turned around.

On the one hand, Rosa Fleming, the city’s director for convention and event services, can make a convincing case for the economic activity the convention center generates for Dallas. She can cite eye-popping numbers: $855 million in annual revenue from event bookings, $200 million annually tied to direct visitor spending, $65 million generated in hotel tax revenue.

But what makes this supposed impact difficult to appreciate is that people who live in Dallas can’t see it. Because of the center’s design—and the wasteland of concrete that surrounds it—convention activity remains sequestered inside its dominion of cavernous exhibit halls.

So, when an academic like the UT San Antonio public administration professor Heywood Sanders writes a book that calls the entire industry a boondoggle, his arguments feel convincing. After all, much of the justification for convention centers come from the way they supposedly generate trickle-down economic benefits, with conventioneers spending money that otherwise wouldn’t be spent on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and even tickets. But it’s difficult to count those receipts.

Particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world gathered digitally in lieu of personal meetups, the justifications of the convention center business’ future feel murky. Talk to Craig Davis, the president and CEO of VisitDallas, and he’ll tell you the business is roaring back. Catch that old convention center grinch Sanders on the phone, and he’ll tell you that the business hasn’t grown in decades and the whole thing is going to tank.

This month, the convention center will once again become a subject of public debate. The Dallas City Council is set to vote on a few options for a massive, multibillion-dollar renovation of the center that are laid out in a master plan completed last year. That vote will likely redraw the old battle lines between convention center critics and boosters, just as the debate over the development of the Omni Dallas Hotel did in 2009.

But here’s the thing to remember as the debate heats up: this time the conversation isn’t really about the convention center, the convention business, or murky economics—at least not directly. This time, the real debate is over the future of downtown Dallas.

Local News

The City of Dallas Is Putting Parking Spots in Its Crosshairs

Matt Goodman
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The current Dallas code requires far too much parking. We should set maximums instead of minimums.

For two years, the city of Dallas has been researching what would happen if it stopped requiring businesses to provide so much parking — a seemingly radical idea in this car-centric town.

Before we examine how this move might change Dallas, here’s what it won’t do: it won’t make parking disappear. It won’t flood single-family neighborhoods with empty cars overnight. It also won’t immediately solve the problem of garages sitting empty. And where buildings have been torn down already and replaced with parking lots, the concrete and asphalt will remain.

The city calls those buildings “disappeared,” by the way. Back in May, the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee—known as ZOAC, an important volunteer body that researches the impact of changing the city’s development code—received a routine briefing from city staff that featured a satellite image of Lower Greenville. About a dozen plots were highlighted in yellow. The image included the caption “disappeared buildings that are currently parking lots.”

It is a tangible example of what parking minimums do to a city. When a city’s development code requires every project—big or small, office or residential, retail or church or bar or bowling alley—to provide a certain amount of space for a certain amount of cars, it changes the landscape. In a denser neighborhood like Lower Greenville, a developer working on one building has had to acquire its neighbor to tear it down in order to fulfill the city’s parking requirements. (And various building uses require various amounts of parking, so the the parking can wind up limiting the pool of tenants. One developer I spoke to for this story said he had to tell a to-go food operation that it could not place two tables with chairs inside because it would require more parking.)

“What is now surface parking lots used to have old structures on them,” says Jon Hetzel, the president of the Deep Ellum Foundation and a partner with Madison Partners, which owns and leases buildings in popular neighborhoods like Deep Ellum, Lower Greenville, and Oak Lawn. “Those are old structures that our company and others bought and tore down because of code parking requirements. Because we had to.”

The current deep dive into the city’s parking code began in 2019, when a husband and wife couple found a dream building they wanted to redevelop, only to have their dreams crushed by parking requirements. The building, which was a little over 5,000 square feet, was on Beckley Avenue in North Oak Cliff, not far from Bishop Arts.

As detailed by the Dallas Morning News, Timm Matthews and his wife wanted to turn the building into a boutique hotel and a restaurant. To get the city’s OK, the couple was asked to produce more than 8,000 square feet of parking—which, if a single parking space is about 350 square feet, meant 24 spots. The city requires a parking space for every hotel room and for ever 100 square feet of a restaurant. According to the News report, the project fell about 16 spaces short. Matthews told the plan commission that it would cost between $2 million and $3 million to meet the city’s standard.

Mayor Pro Tem Chad West, the councilman who represents the district, and his then plan commissioner, Enrique MacGregor, soon triggered a review of the city’s parking minimums. One major problem stuck out: the city still relied upon a parking formula that was introduced in 1965, codified into a development code known as 51A.

On a recent Zoom chat, some local architects talked about how silly this is. They had a guest online, Dr. Donald Shoup, the urban planning professor at UCLA widely thought to be the first to study and quantify the effect of parking requirements in cities. He started his chat with the Dallas branch of the American Institute of Architects by pillorying the city’s more ridiculous parking requirements.

Clubs are required to provide one parking space for every 25 square feet of dance floor. A bingo parlor must have a parking space for every 50 square feet. A sewage pumping station requires a parking space for every million gallons of sewage the station can pump; it does not clarify whose job it is to track such a thing.

“Of parking codes, I have to say the ones in Dallas are the most bizarre I have ever seen,” Shoup said. “Most of them date from 1967, and it seems as though no one has ever looked at them since.”

Local Government

Dallas Bike Lane Infrastructure Overhaul Gains Momentum, But Will It Be Enough?

Matt Goodman
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Riders cruise into West Dallas as part of one of Transit Bicycle Company's organized bike rides.

The city of Dallas will enter 2022 with grand plans to update its now decade-old bike plan, which had similarly grand ambitions that never manifested. Since its completion in 2011, the city has opened more trails and a nonprofit is leading an effort to create a 50-mile loop around the city, including new routes throughout east and southern Dallas. But what hasn’t changed much since 2011 is how poor our urban cycling infrastructure is, something Peter Simek wrote about a few months ago.

A memo sent on Friday to the Dallas City Council announced a new advisory committee that will be charged with steering the update to the plan. Each council member and the mayor will appoint someone to the committee. That is now the second transit-related committee made up of members of the public; council already had to appoint constituents to a micro-mobility committee, which is first charged with determining how to safely get scooters back onto the streets.

(Mayor Pro Tem Chad West, of North Oak Cliff, tells me he plans to appoint the same member from that committee to this cycling one, an effort to avoid “duplicating efforts” between the two bodies. It will be interesting if his colleagues follow his lead.)

The City Council will vote on Wednesday whether to award a five-year, $450,000 contract to the global architecture and design firm Gresham Smith, which would update the plan. Establishing an oversight committee was a cornerstone of the 2011 bike plan, a way for the public to hold the city accountable as it implemented its goal. But that never happened. Now, the committee will start by monitoring the consultant as it develops yet another plan to make it safer to cycle in Dallas.

The new plan was born out of yet another plan: this year’s wide-ranging mobility planning document, called Connect Dallas, which found that the 2011 Bike Plan “no longer reflected existing conditions, needs, and preferences.”

The plan from a decade ago was the city’s first effort to plot a series of on- and off-street facilities for cyclists, even hiring staff to help implement it. The goals were ambitious, even targeted at lowering emissions by increasing cyclists; the Environmental Protection Agency had classified Dallas County in non-attainment status for the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. (It remains so, 11 years later.)

But it wasn’t safe to ride a bike then and it still isn’t. Five years after the plan was implemented, the League of American Bicyclists found that bicycle commutes in Dallas actually dropped by 20 percent.

Eleven years after the bike plan envisioned a “fully interconnected, seamless, and safe Dallas Bikeway System that connects all areas of the City and adjacent jurisdictions,” there are only 5.3 miles of on-street protected bike lanes, where cyclists are physically separated from vehicles.

When you remove the trails, that means the vast majority of the city’s 74 miles of bike infrastructure is shared lanes, often separated by little more than paint. The 2011 plan called for 840 miles of cycling facilities, but the city didn’t pony up the money it would need.

Last year, 228 people were killed in traffic in Dallas, marking an 80 percent increase in the annual number of traffic fatalities here between 2010 and 2020. Of the 15 most populated cities in the country, we have the second highest traffic fatality rate: more than 14 deaths per 100,000 people.

Getting around Dallas is dangerous no matter how you do it, but it’s especially hazardous on foot. According to city statistics, pedestrians account for only about 2 percent of travel within the city (compared to 88 percent in cars), but make up about 36 percent of traffic deaths.

If city officials want to be able to report zero annual traffic deaths by 2030—and they say they do—then they have their work cut out for them.

Those numbers come from a briefing given to the City Council’s transportation committee Wednesday, at which city transportation director Ghassan “Gus” Khankarli discussed Dallas’ in-progress Vision Zero action plan.

Cities across the country have adopted similar so-called “Vision Zero” plans over the last decade or so, with mixed results. But traffic deaths are preventable—urbanists like to point to the example of Oslo, Norway, which actually has been able to realize zero traffic deaths in a year.

For that to happen in Dallas, it will take more than talk.

“Very often around this horseshoe we talk about wanting to be a walkable city, but we’re clearly killing our pedestrians,” City Council member Cara Mendelsohn said at the briefing. “I think these numbers are alarming. And a lot of this goes back to some of the basics we keep talking about.”

Architecture & Design

Remembering Kevin Sloan, Urban Dreamer and Originator of Wild Dallas

Peter Simek
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Sloan at work in 2015 at Lark on the Park

I can’t remember the first time I met architect Kevin Sloan, who passed away a week ago today at 62. I’m sure it was at D’s offices. Kevin was at the magazine a lot in the lead-up to the publication of our Wild Dallas issue, in March 2017. Kevin would come armed with renderings and maps and big ideas, talking excitedly about new ways to think about the Trinity River or Dallas’ all-but-invisible network of creeks and streams. His cherub cheeks, mischievous grin, thick-rimmed round glasses, and mess of hair lent him something of a mad scientist look. And when we kicked around ideas about the future of Dallas with Kevin, it always had the excitement and boundless potential of entering a madcap laboratory.

Kevin had big, crazy ideas about this city and, by extension, about the future of all cities. And yet what made his thinking around landscape architecture, urban ecologies, and sustainable development so brilliant was that his vision was so simple, sensitive, and subtle. In 2017, few people who looked at Dallas and North Texas’ vast acreage of concrete saw, as Kevin did, a hidden and expansive network of creeks, tributaries, and forgotten greenspace. That greenspace, Kevin argued, was part of a native riverine ecology that was the reason North Texas sustained human life for thousands of years before Anglo settlers arrived. He also saw that these natural conditions played their own role in shaping the region’s urban growth.

Kevin’s big idea was that under the concrete there was nature, and we could unlock it, free it, restore it, and learn to live with it while being sensitive to ecological balance and appreciation. He believed that by restoring our city’s proximate relationship with the natural world we would make Dallas-Fort Worth a global model for sustainable urban growth. His vision was more narrow, too: a future urban environment that enhanced our connection with nature instead of pushing it away, making each of us happier, healthier, and more empathetic.

That may all sound idealistic and abstract, but, as a practicing landscape architect, Kevin gave us concrete examples that illustrated his broader vision.

Good Public Transit

America Needs to Kick Its Car Dependency. Are Local Investments in Urban Design the Answer?

Peter Simek
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Texas led the nation last year with 685 truck-related fatalities, ahead of California with 463, and Florida with 282.

We write about the shortcoming of North Texas’ car-centric urban design a lot. Last week, I pointed out how Dallas lags behind other American cities when it comes to bike infrastructure. This morning, Matt reminded us that the city still makes life for pedestrians difficult. We’ve spilled a lot of real and digital ink pushing for things like converting urban highways into boulevards and investing in better and more useful transit.

We devote so much attention to how to make our region’s cities less car-dominated because of all the benefits that come with addressing North Texas’ car-centric design. A less car dependent city would improve neighborhoods’ safety and quality of life, help regenerate inner-city growth and create new jobs, reduce the costs of transportation that contribute to inequality, and lessen the burden on taxpayers for funding a never-ending infrastructure Ponzi Scheme. One benefit we don’t focus on too often is the way in which a shift away from car-centric urban design, particularly in sprawling metros like Dallas, could play an outsized role in the effort to bring global carbon emissions in line with the goals outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement.

The BBC has a new report that looks at the role the United States’ car-centric infrastructure plays in the ongoing effort to reduce global carbon emissions. To drive home how car-centric American culture is, the BBC piece opens by dropping into Arlington, which—as we all know very well—is the largest city in the United States without any public transportation. The BBC isn’t picking on Arlington; it makes the case that the North Texas city is by no means an outlier. No matter where you live in the United States you are likely dependent on cars for all your transportation needs. Since 2017, driving has been the single largest source of greenhouse emissions in the U.S.

In 2019, more than three-quarters of American workers drove alone to work. The vast majority of their cars burn petrol, each emitting an average of 4.6 tonnes of CO2 per year – equivalent to the total yearly emissions of someone living in France. The US also lags behind China and Northern European countries in electric car sales – electric vehicles made up only 2% of all new cars sold in 2020 (75% of cars sold in Norway the same year were electric).

The BBC also reports that the U.S. was responsible for about a quarter of global passenger aviation emissions in 2019. Taken together it becomes clear that any attempt to substantially reduce the United States’ contribution to climate change will need to address the fact that we drive and fly virtually everywhere.

That’s not going to be easy because, as the BBC points out, since the end of World War II we’ve built a country in which it is all but impossible to use a form of transportation that isn’t a car or truck. In other words, it is not drivers who are at fault for all those emissions. Even if you wanted to give up the car and begin using other, less-impactful means of transit, in places like North Texas, the option just isn’t there. The irony, the BBC points out, is that the car has come to symbolize American freedom, and yet it has also made us slaves to a single form of transit.

Urban Design

Dallas: The City That Hates Pedestrians, Pt. 44

Matt Goodman
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Construction has eaten the sidewalk on Main Street at 2nd Avenue.

It’s time we brought this series back (…for the second time). The city is buzzing and the sidewalks aren’t always accommodating. We’re back this week in Deep Ellum and both of the below images are along Main Street, the first at Trunk Avenue and the following at 2nd Avenue. Construction has torn up the sidewalks, pushing walkers into the street. And considering how walkable Deep Ellum should be, it’s a shame that there aren’t safe alternatives for pedestrians who are looking to get past this stuff.

Let’s take a look:

Bicycles

Biking in Dallas ‘Feels Like a Death Wish.’ Hopefully That Is Beginning to Change

Peter Simek
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Riders cruise into West Dallas as part of one of Transit Bicycle Company's organized bike rides.

On paper, Dallas looks like it is trying to be a bike friendly city. It claims to have some 74 miles of bike infrastructure. The City Council adopted a bike plan back in 2011 and employs staff to oversee its implementation. Since the creation of that plan, several new trails have opened, and a nonprofit is working to connect many of those trails into a large mega loop which will allow cyclists to navigate from the Katy Trail through East Dallas down into the Trinity Forest and back entirely on dedicated trails.

Yesterday, to highlight the importance of biking in Dallas, Mayor Pro Tem Chad West and council members Jesse Moreno and Paul Ridley led the 2021 Bike to City Hall event, an annual ride (though it missed last year due to COVID) to raise awareness around cycling. But as city council members attempt to shine a spotlight on biking in Dallas, a recent report by Vox reminds us that there is  still an enormous gap between the way the city presents its bike facilities and what they are like to use.

The Vox report looks at how the Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill could impact urban cycling, and it uses Dallas as an example for how there is sometimes a disconnect between ways cities promote and fund bike facilities. It finds that Dallas has woefully underfunded bike infrastructure through the years, making Dallas one of the unfriendliest cities for cyclists in the United States.

D Magazine has operated its studios in downtown Dallas for a little over a decade. In that time, we’ve watched the place take huge strides toward becoming an actual place and not just a collection of office towers. Kourtny Garrett deserves much of the credit for that progress. The CEO of the nonprofit Downtown Dallas Inc. has worked for 20 years to make the city a better, more vibrant place to live, work, and play — which is astounding, because I think Garrett is just 32 years old.

Garrett is very good at her job. Which is why I’m sad to say that everyone in the city now hates her. Because she’s leaving us. For Denver, if you can believe that. Weird choice, right? I mean, even if you’re from Colorado, as Garrett is, why the heck would anyone want to live there? Landlocked. No scenery. Repressive marijuana laws.

Anyway, here’s the full press release out of DDI. Read it with malice in your heart.

(All kidding aside, cheers to you, Kourtny Garrett! We’ll miss you — until we hit you up for your spare bedroom when we come ski.)

Urbanism

The Guardian Explores the Human Costs of Oak Cliff Development (And How to Resist It)

Peter Simek
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Oak Cliff, pictured here in 2018, where new development is colliding with old. (Photo by Creagh Cross)

When you live in a place and are involved in its day-to-day life, it can be difficult to recognize the pace and scale of change. Neighborhoods change slowly, evolving over years and decades. Case in point: North Oak Cliff. New restaurants open all the time, and townhomes and apartments seem to spring up from vacant lots weekly. It takes a big news event — like a recent council election or a planned new master plan  — to refocus attention on how all those little changes are driving neighborhood development.

Now, a new report in the Guardian draws our attention back to just how much has changed in Oak Cliff in a relatively short period of time. Here’s a striking statistic cited in the piece: