August 10, 2015
By Dan Noble, FAIA, FACHA, LEED AP, President and CEO, HKS, Inc.

What are some ways that can we make this great city even better? How can we recapture the vibrancy of downtown Dallas? For starters, we can seek to glean some valuable lessons from other cities that have discovered smart ways to make urban life even more livable.

In my last piece (part 1), I laid out some common aspects of exceptional cities I have visited around the world. In this column, I will seek to break down how a few specific cities became exemplars of revitalization.

San Francisco

One key feature you find in dynamic downtowns are focal points—areas where many nodes of interest are within walking distance of each other. San Francisco managed to create a powerful focal point in the wake of a natural disaster. When the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Embarcadero Freeway that ran along the bay, the city opted to tear it down instead of rebuilding it. This created miles of walkways and bike paths, as well as scores of lucrative waterfront businesses.

The most profound effect this had was on the historic Ferry Building, which had fallen into disuse and been rendered virtually invisible by the double-decker freeway that cut it off from the rest of the city. The building was restored and is now home to 65,000 feet of marketplace space, with the upper two stories offering 120,000 feet of office space. Even more, the Ferry Building’s restaurants and artisanal food sellers attract thousands of “foodies” daily and even more for the twice-weekly farmers markets. 

Portland

There’s no better example of how a city can bring vibrancy and value to its downtown by thinking beyond automobile transportation. The city of Portland has long prioritized pedestrian paths and bike lanes. Now, it’s often cited as the most walkable and bike-friendly city in America, and locals have changed their behavior in response. Studies show that 6 percent of commuters there are cycling to work, 10 times the national average. And the demand for roadways to better accommodate walkers and bikers is only increasing.

City residents also flock to Waterfront Park, the site of a former freeway that has now been dubbed “the living room of Portland,” on a streetcar line established in 2001. These streetcars provided 4.5 million rides last year, up 500,000 from the year before. Research suggests hat the streetcar spurred $3.5 billion in development within two blocks of its path between 2001 and 2008. Moreover, over 10,000 housing units and 5.4 million feet of office space have been constructed within a block of the streetcar line.

Denver

Thirty years ago, the Lower Downtown area of the Mile High City was a skid row. Now, LoDo is a hip and desirable place to live and work. Part of the credit goes to new developments like sports arenas— Denverites flock to LoDo to watch the Rockies play at Coors Field or catch a Nuggets game at Pepsi Center. But credit also goes to two of the unsexiest words in the English language: zoning ordinances.

The city designated the area a historic district in 1988 and made a point of restricting building height, encouraging mixed-use development, and protecting historic buildings, some of which date back to over a century ago in the heyday of the Colorado Silver Boom. Scores of those warehouses have been restored and repurposed as shops, restaurants, art galleries, nightclubs, and high-value homes. An abundance of mixed-use infill and aboveground parking garages are also springing up everywhere in the neighborhood. The monthly First Friday Art Walks are the perfect way to stroll through this vibrant neighborhood and see how city policy can reconnect residents to their downtown and to their history.

Minneapolis

We’ve all heard it before: a major city situated within spitting distance of another major city had a declining downtown and was experiencing a mass exodus to suburbs and exurbs. Even so, the Mill City found a way to revitalize its core without hampering the success and prosperity of its burgeoning satellite cities. Part of the credit goes to the creation of a regional council that serves the seven-county metropolitan area. The council oversees everything from public transportation to sewage treatment to parks and trails and affordable housing.

The New York Times recently wrote that the city’s bustling downtown has offered a blueprint for the rest of the nation. This is partly due to ambitious redevelopment projects and partly due to a popular light rail and a commuter rail that have connected the city to its suburbs and sister city, St. Paul. At the same time, Minneapolis satellite cities like Chaska, Plymouth, Woodbury, Chanhasen, and Eden Prairie continue to regularly top  CNNMoney’s annual Best Places to Live list.

Pittsburgh

The central business district of Pittsburgh is known as the “Golden Triangle,” and before 1997, that name had become something of a cruelly ironic misnomer. But a business improvement district created by the city council in that year didn’t simply halt the decline of the downtown—it reversed it. Property owners within the district now assist in funding special sanitation, security, transportation and housing initiatives—and the results speak for themselves.

According to Forbes, office space is now 94 percent leased, up 10 percent from a decade ago. In addition, companies like PNC Financial are now building office towers in the Golden Triangle. In the last six years, over 550 new housing units have gone up, while area population has increased by 21 percent within the last decade.

So … how have these cities succeeded in adding so much vibrancy and value to their downtowns? By making their downtowns a focal point with many attractive destinations within strolling distance of each other. By creating open public spaces and incentivizing the development of a healthy mix of places to live, work and shop. By accommodating people who want to use alternate means of transportation to get to and from the downtown area. And by convincing everyone from the local businesses to the residents of suburbs that they could all benefit from a revitalized downtown.

In my next post, I will describe the changes and improvements that we could reasonably expect to see if Dallas embraced similar goals and policies.

Posted in All Markets, Urban Design
Tagged Dan Noble, Livable cities, urban design, Vision for Dallas