Connecting the Dots – DART/TRE, Uber/Lyft/ZipCar and I-345

Not many in DFW know this stat – We have THE LARGEST light rail system in the US (of course we do – everything in Texas is bigger!)

However as in most things, size isn’t everything. Makes for great bragging rights and huge costs, but does not necessarily result in ridership. If you can’t ultimately connect easily from your point of origin to your point of destination, a sprawling transit system that does not “connect the dots” is ineffectual and will be underutilized. [DART ridership per mile is like 28th in the country)

This lack of connectivity is one reason DART ridership is so low. For those of you who have not climbed aboard, I invite you to try DART or the TRE – in stark contrast to drive by a highway stress-induced commute, travel by rail is de-stressing, decompressing, “I don’t care if the highway is at a standstill” relaxation moment. And it allows time for more creative enterprises – like taking a moment and considering how to make DFW a better place and writing fun articles.

Back to mass transit and connectivity – the DART/TRE conundrum is two-fold. One, like fiber optic cable (a different kind of “connectivity”) the most critical part of the infrastructure is the final mile. If it doesn’t get to my house, it doesn’t really matter if there are a guzillion gigs of high speed capacity a mile away. DART to TRE stations a mile or 5 miles from my house are not conducive to my taking the train. If I have to drive to the station, park, wait for the train, etc, the hassle factor takes over, my commute gets measurably longer and I’ll put up with the highway driving stress to gain time (isn’t time our most precious commodity?)

We could dive into the importance of connecting the train stations to their surrounding neighborhoods by better pedestrian and cycling paths. Or better yet better cycling all the way from the suburbs to downtown. I’d love the option of biking from Coppell to Dallas and back. I might actually lose that 20 pounds I’ve been talking about for 20 years (I know, it’s too hot in Dallas to walk or bike – but an aside – what US city. Has the highest percent of people who bike to work? Until recently the answer was Minneapolis — not exactly the best weather in the country to bike to work (NYC may just surpassed Minneapolis)

So why are Uber and Lyft part of the equation? Simple – they are the last mile connection – for example you can take DART from DFW Airport to downtown Dallas, and then have Uber or Lyfy pick you Up and take you to a meeting in Uptown. All by smart phone app (DART has a great app and Uber should get an award for most useful app ever designed) – and Uber shows up in 5 minutes or less – try that by cab. And Uber/Lyft and ZipCar (as of a month ago we finally have ZipCar in Dallas) reduce the “range anxiety” of taking transit by providing travel options that don’t require personal car availability in Downtown. Consider this – if more of us took advantage of these transit options/connections, we could eliminate the ugly surface parking lots and quit talking about how we need more parking (which destroys the urban experience) in our downtown cores (I bet your favorite destination cities in the US relish the fact that parking is hard to find in their cores and that parking is expensive – this just means you have a desirable city). Is parking really the most important issue in enhancing our urban cores? If so we lack imagination and need to spend more time out on the train reimagining our cities.

Which comes full circle to the I-345 teardown dialogue. I recognize this is a highly contentious discussion. The fact that we are discussing whether the Trinity Toll Road should be built and whether I-345 should be torn down evidences that we are maturing as a city, beyond a pure car culture and toward multi-modal transit options (enter Uber/Lyft/ZipCar, bike share, walkable neighbors and overall connectivity) and a greater understanding of the impact of our infrastructure decisions and investment on where & how and with what quality we live and work and play. We are at a crossroads (pun intended) where we can either enhance or impair our future based on the decisions we make over the next few years. Choose wisely as what we do now will have a 50 year impact. DFW has been incredibly forward thinking in our transportation infrastructure decisions with DFW airport in the 60’s and DART/TRE (not to be forgotten, the Denton A-train) over the last 20 years. Where we go with highways and parking and Uber/Lyft are equally as critical to our regional future.

If this discussion about connectivity connects with you, consider attending the Congress for New Urbanism’s annual meeting (CNU23) next April 29-May 2 in DFW. Learn more here.  You can also follow CNU23’s Twitter Feed on DFW Urbanism here.

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Filling the Elusive Middle of the Capital Stack

In our post-real estate recession economy, secured debt at the bottom of the capital stack is easy to find — depending on the asset class, 55%-70% of cost, great interest rates.  Top end equity can also normally be found, although at a high preferred return (high teen’s / low 20’s), typically requiring giving up a significant part of the back-end profits, which results in taking money out of the developer’s pocket.  Building the middle of the capital stack is the most important slice for the owner/developer – sizing up this part of the financing at cheaper rates results in more retained profit potential.

Filling this part of the capital stack requires patience, persistence and ingenuity, with multiple possible sources that can be layered:

EB-5 Foreign Visa Capital: For every 10 direct, indirect or induced jobs created in a high unemployment or targeted employment area (TEA) the project can receive $500,000 in investment. Job counts is determined by a qualified EB-5 economist and more jobs are deemed created than would be envisioned.  Additionally, TEA’s can be expansive (Dallas’ official TEA – which is not exclusive – runs from South Dallas to West Dallas to Uptown).  EB-5 capital is normally mezzanine debt, does not take a back end interest, has an interest rate ranging from 6%-12% and is repayable out of sale or refinancing proceeds in 5-7 years.

Federal or State Tax Credits: Depending on the location and type of project, the project could be assisted by low income housing tax credits, new markets tax credits or state or federal historic tax credits. All of these sources of financing provide either equity or a forgiven loan.  Each of these credit programs have their own sets of complexities, and may or may not be available up front, such that the developer may need to source bridge loans for these future credit equity streams.

Tax Increment Financing: Many cities have TIF districts where grants are available for “public improvements” for projects that create tax value, jobs or affordable housing.  Many of the TIF Districts have pledged out their future tax increment to projects already in the queue, which means the funds may not be available for a number of years, requiring creativity to find sources of financing (such as HUD Section 108 loans) to “advance the TIF” forward to the start of construction or redevelopment.

City Ground Leases or Infrastructure Improvements: Depending on the location of the project and the benefit of the project to the city, low cost ground leases, city developed parking garages (part of which may be leased to the developer) and city subsidies to infrastructure may be available to reduce project costs.

Charitable Grants or Low Cost Loans: If components of the project have social value, local or national charitable organizations or foundations may be possible sources of low cost financing or grants.

Get Creative: If the project has some inherent value to certain constituencies in the area, a “license” may be granted to those constituencies to use the project.  An example would be a hotel room right of first refusal to sports boosters wanting access to hotel rooms during home game weekends, or arts’ patrons subsidizing affordable artist lofts for artists in residence. If a project has “public benefit” the city may have a source of funds that is not encumbered, that could be used as collateral for a tax-exempt or taxable bond issuance, the proceeds of which could in turn be used to finance the public facility.

Making these parts of the capital stack work in harmony can be tricky — but the end result may be a project that becomes feasible by reducing the overall blended cost of capital — or better yet, a project that returns a higher end profit to the developer.

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Dallas Could Learn a Thing or Two (from Indianapolis??)

Someone rescue me! I’m becoming as wonky (nerdy) as some of my urbanist friends.

After an early morning Labor Day DART trip from Downtown Carrollton to the Akard station, my bike in tow, I rode through Downtown Dallas, up through State Thomas/Uptown, Cedar Springs, and paralleled the DART track back north to Carrollton. The worst bike riding experience wasn’t the suburbs or even the industrial area between Denton Drive and Harry Hines … even with no traffic, riding through downtown Dallas is a miserable experience. No bike lanes, not even nice landscaped medians or wide sidewalks or even street trees. Other than about 5 blocks of Main Street (the Main Street “District” is a misnomer / cute marketing ploy), downtown Dallas screams “this is not a place for pedestrians or bikes.”

Say it ain’t so, Joe – or at least it doesn’t have to be so. Many of the downtown streets south of Ross are oversized for their current usage. They were designed for when most of the office workers were on Main, Elm and Commerce – when I started my career in the early 80’s, this was the urban center of Dallas. The throngs of office workers have long ago abandoned LTV Tower, First National Bank, Republic Bank Tower, One Main Place, Renaissance Tower, etc. (for those of you old enough to remember those names). The economic center of “downtown” Dallas is now north of Ross, and maybe north of Woodall Rodgers – and it is interesting to note that very few of the streets where the new office buildings are located in Uptown are near the scope of Elm Street and Commerce Street – and almost all of those streets are two way. The old core is now being repopulated at an increasing rate with tech incubators, rental residential units and restaurant/entertainment uses. And with DART centered on Pacific, there is less of a need to quickly move massive amounts of cars in and out the old urban core. 

I hear the cries of the office brokers – we need more parking, we need more parking, parking, parking – like the howling zombies, or maybe a bit of Monty Python – “bring out your dead, bring out your dead …. But I’m not dead yet, I’m feeling better.”

We can fight the transition in the old core, but it is coming, it is already here. D Magazine recently highlighted the rebirth – in a new way – of the old urban core.

And yet our streets still reflect “car culture.”  I’m not against the car, in fact I drive most days in from Coppell to downtown Dallas. I just want to see cars put in their proper place. We give more space and money and priority to cars than we do to place or people. If we told our spouses that our cars were more important that our kids or our houses, I wonder how that would play at home? But that is exactly what we are doing by continuing to grant supremacy to the automobile over the sense of place in downtown Dallas. We are basically peeing in our own pond, and then wondering why we don’t like the smell.

Which of your favorite cities in North America have this misguided sense of priorities of automobiles over people/place? Not San Francisco or New York or Portland or Vancouver or even Washington DC. 

Or even … Indianapolis, which connected their downtown via a bike/pedestrian path that found a creative way to balance cars, bikes and people. Pictures are worth a gazillion words.

2008-06SkyscraperCityMeetup015    Cultural-Trail_2012-06-04_BLRoss

IMG_3985    Indianapolis-Cultural-Trail

Downtown Dallas has the perfect street to convert to its own “culture walk” – Harwood Street connects Klyde Warren Park, the Dallas Arts District, Ross Avenue, Aston Park, Main Street Gardens, the newly revitalized Farmers Market and Old City Park just south of I-30. No other street in Dallas connects this many cultural/recreational areas. The street was cut off from Uptown when the Deck Park was installed.  Now comes the urbanist wonky part – according to the Council of Governments traffic count website, Harwood now only carries 1,700 cars per day at the Deck Park, 7,700 cars per day just south of Ross, 8,400 cars per day between Elm and Main Streets and 6,400 cars per day near the Farmers Market. Other than some short one or two block streets, Harwood Street is the most over-capacity, underutilized street in Downtown.

Let’s connect our great spaces downtown by reimagining Harwood as a great street, investing a bit in the horizontal pedestrian experience and see what effect it has on Downtown Dallas. We only have to look to Main Street to see the difference a good, balanced “complete” street (not a road) has on its surroundings.

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DFW Area Urbanism #CNU23 https://twitter.com/cnu23dfw

DFW has some great urban projects — from Dallas & Fort Worth to McKinney, Grapevine, Carrollton, Southlake, Plano, Garland, North Richland Hills, Fort Worth Southside, Burleson, Denton ….. the list is endless.  Links to some of these urbanism projects:

Legacy Town Center – Plano

Sundance Square – Fort Worth

Downtown Plano

West Village – Dallas

CityLine – Richardson & More on this Project

Hometown – North Richland Hills

Dowtown McKinney

Denton Main Street & More on Downtown Denton

Downtown Carrollton & More Pictures

Roanoke – This Place Matters

Bishop Arts District – Dallas

Deep Ellum – Dallas & More on Deep Ellum

Soutlake Town Square

Victory Park – Dallas

Uptown – Dallas & State Thomas Neighborhood (and More on State Thomas)

Addison Circle

Austin Ranch – Carrollton

Las Colinas Urban Center – Irving

Historic Downtown Grapevine

West 7th – Fort Worth

Near Southside – Fort Worth

West End – Dallas

Dallas Arts District

Cityplace – Dallas

Downtown Garland

 

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More Audacious Plans for Downtown Dallas

Mayor Rawlings has a 10 point Grow South initiative, that includes a private investment fund for Southern Dallas. What if we went further, and helped out Downtown and the Southern sector, forcing the business community to think south of I-30, and opened up vital development land and (dare I say it) parking in Downtown, with a bold, visible, long term move to literally rebrand City Hall.

HOW? What if the City of Dallas committed to moving City Hall to the Cedars as part of a larger mixed-use “town center” project, giving South Dallas a true cultural/civic center.  With due apologies to those who love “brutalist” architecture, we would then take down the existing City Hall (maybe the Pentagon could use it for target practice) and eliminate the giant building and plaza that sucks the life out of the surrounding area, and allow that land – and the massive amount of below grade parking – to be put out to developers under a request for proposal for a Downtown mixed-use project. This would leverage private investment going into “SoYo” (South of Young) – the Farmer’s Market, Butler Building, Masonic Temple, Encore Park, etc.  I’d bet that taking down City Hall alone increases property values in the area.

Seems like everyone wins – and the new City Hall just requires money, which for big important projects Dallas always finds somewhere.

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The Inter-Connectedness of All Things in Dallas – Race, Place, Urbanism, Highways & Affordable Housing

Our quality of life, both individually and collectively, is intricately the result of where we live. We understand this individually when we spend time stuck in traffic, or are forced to drive for daily chores – grocery store, bank, drug store, cleaners, etc., all of which are isolated with the car being the only viable mode of transport. We know this when choosing where we live also means a top quality school or a safe neighborhood for our children.

But this isn’t just about me or you – where we live affects/infects the collective “we” of society at the city/regional level in ways that are insidious and evidence as societal issues over expanses of not only distance, but time, as evidenced by the following discussions in Dallas:

 –          Home rule schools & Charter Schools and the quality of DISD

-          Grow South Initiative

-          I-345 Tear-Down debate and the claim that South Dallas residents need to get to their jobs in North Dallas

-          HUD’s claim that the City has used federal funds for affordable housing in South Dallas and only market rate housing/economic development in Downtown

-          Inclusive Communities Projects’ lawsuits against the State of Texas and Dallas suburbs for congregating affordable housing in South Dallas and not permitting affordable housing in the suburbs

All of these issues center on race and place, income and opportunity, and affect us individually and collectively.

In a simplistic overview, we have created a spatial divide, a segregation if you will, between housing and jobs, between opportunity and disinvestment, and between races, that are at the historical heart of each of these issues. Driven by market and social pressures of the 1950’s-1970’s – the double whammy of integration/court ordered busing creating white flight to the suburbs, occurring at the same time as new highways facilitated rapid movement from the suburbs to the jobs in the City (and subsequent flight of jobs to the suburbs, following white collar employees) – combined to start the process of separating jobs to the north and affordable housing to the south. This trend was exacerbated and reinforced by zoning codes prohibiting or drastically limiting apartments, the primary form of affordable housing, in many of the suburbs, and by local not-in-my-backyard efforts and state political/administrative decisions accepting those attitudes that made certain that placing affordable housing in the northern suburbs was difficult at best, and impossible in many areas.

Lack of jobs and new development in the southern section leads to more disinvestment, a lower tax base and poorer quality schools.  The great north-south divide creates a dysfunctional City Council that has trouble finding common ground on what is best for the City, as the “City” is really two cities, as we often refer to them – North Dallas and South Dallas. Starting earlier, but reaching critical speed in the 1960’s with public housing, and continuing in the late 80’s through the early 2000’s, were benign if not malignant actions – using federal funding (public housing money, low income housing tax credits and Community Development Block grants, to name a few) to congregate affordable housing south of the Trinity. Put the service sector housing in one part of the City, and move the jobs to the other side, and you get a north-south divide, a north-south debate, and traffic infrastructure (highways) to bridge the gap.

Which leads to corrective measures:

-          “Grow South”, a special concerted effort to facilitate growth that in more balanced communities would be organic change.

-          I-345 Tear-Down being labeled as impractical because we need to continue to have the infrastructure to support the great divide, jobs to the north and service sector housing to the south.

-          Home Rule School initiative, desperately searching for ways to improve DISD.

We can continue to reinforce the status quo, or we can step back and consider if there are better alternatives.

 First, like alcoholism/drug addiction, we must admit we have a problem – we are addicted to problem avoidance on at least two fronts: (1) the legacy of historic racism in Dallas (if it makes anyone feel more comfortable, we can call it “economic egalitarianism” – which is for the most part the later stages of the cancer of racism), and (2) the universal belief that the automobile is the only real viable mode of transportation for all persons of all income levels. And like all addictions, we need an “intervention” – we need a major step, an iconic breakthrough moment, a massive symbol that we have identified our problems and are willing to take drastic steps to overcome the status quo ante and are embracing a bold new future.

Take the Calatrava Bridge for example.  At first appearing to be just another expensive icon for the Dallas skyline, the elaborate structure literally bridges Downtown and Uptown (now themselves linked by the Klyde Warren Deck Park) to West Dallas – a historically lower income mixed Hispanic and Black community. The result is that over the last couple of years Trinity Groves is springing up, with a multi-restaurant incubator, other restaurants and recently announced residential apartment units. Without the Calatrava Bridge, and the highly symbolic bold move to re-connect to West Dallas, the economic revitalization of West Dallas would not be underway.

The proposed I-345 Tear Down is another bold proposal, this time to reconnect Downtown and Deep Ellum / East Dallas. Both the Deck Park connection of Uptown to Downtown and the Calatrava Bridge connection of Downtown to West Dallas are “at grade” – they serve as connecting points and not barriers. Elevated I-345 acts as a blockade between Downtown and Deep Ellum, and reconfiguring that portion of 75/45/Central Expressway as an at-grade parkway would tear down the wall that keeps the east end of Downtown from thriving and makes the remaking of Deep Ellum so difficult.  Maybe more importantly, it would signify a shift in thinking in Dallas – to an understanding that highways and cars will not drive (pun intend) our City into the future. 

And maybe we’ll also begin to understand that those very highways are what separates us not only by distance, but by race and income.  We could actually sit down and have a dialogue about “social equity”, inclusive zoning and mixed-income/mixed-use places, so that people can live closer to work, and Blacks and Hispanics and Whites can live, work, play and go to school together. We could actually start with mixed-income residential development at our DART train stations. Setting a 20% affordability standard at all transit-oriented development would be another bold symbolic statement and, coincidentally, density at transit is less likely to be politically unpopular and access to transit is particularly critical to lower income workers.

50 years after the Civil Rights Act, can we bold enough to come together and say “We have a Dream” for Dallas? 

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The Latent Potential of #DowntownDallas

Amazing difference what narrower two way streets, better sidewalks, parallel parked cars, can make.  Elm & Commerce treat streets as “roads” (platforms to move cars) — whereas Main Street is a “street” — a place you want to be, not just a means to a destination.

ImageMain Street

ImageCommerce Street

ImageElm Street

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