Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is Richardson Screwed?

At a large lunch at Dallas's downtown Omni Dallas Hotel, scene of the annual meeting of Downtown Dallas, Inc., keynote speaker Carol Coletta spoke of the importance of urban centers. D Magazine's Peter Simek was there and summarized her message as this: Dallas is Screwed.

After the jump, does this verdict extend to Richardson, too?

I'll let you read Simek's lessons for Dallas for yourself. You decide if Coletta's message is all that dire for Dallas. I'm more interested in considering how Coletta's advice might apply to Richardson. Bear in mind that, in the rest of this post, when I say "Coletta says" I really mean "Simek says Coletta says."

Coletta warns that "the image that we have of the American Dream, with the suburban white picket fence, is out of sync with what the next generation is looking for." Uh oh. Richardson's history is working against us. Our history is out of sync. Is our future?

Coletta says there is "an increasing desire among young people to live within a 3-mile radius of their place of work." Moreover, "tomorrow's top talent actively seeks out cities that can provide for this kind of quality of life, characterized by walkability, pedestrian interconnectivity, and vibrancy." Most important, "we can't treat urban living as an 'alternative lifestyle.' It is the new norm."

From 2009 12 Eastside Christmas

In this regard, Richardson's recent focus of development is looking in the right direction. Developments like Brick Row, Eastside and Galatyn are compatible with this demographic change, even if the results so far are mostly incomplete. When Coletta says Dallas needs to "double down" it applies equally well to Richardson. A few isolated urban centers, left to fend for themselves, are going to wither on the vine. Nurture them to grow together into a string of overlapping vibrant urban centers all along the DART line from Spring Valley to PGBT and Richardson will have a cornucopia. (Aside to civic boosters: feel free to use that image in advertising. I won't ask for royalties.)

Coletta says a city needs to strive for spontaneity. As one young professional put it when describing what he looked for in a city, "I want to stumble onto the fun." Richardson has fun things to do -- Cottonwood Art Festival, Huffhines Art Trails, Wildflower!, WildRide!, Santa's Village, etc. But a vibrant urban space has something like that happening almost all the time, so that a visitor to the city is likely to stumble onto something fun year round. Even if it's something as simple and natural as families enjoying a picnic at Dallas's White Rock Lake on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Spring, or the street life in Uptown on a Friday night. Richardson needs to find a way to plant the seeds for such life, too.

This last bit of advice is probably the hardest to plan for. Planning is the antithesis of spontaneity. But Coletta had some advice on how to load the dice to improve the odds of serendipity happening. "Don't go 'buffalo hunting' to score large corporate relocations, but rather focus on supporting small, local businesses downtown." The more players you have in the game, the more often someone will roll a winning number. Lots of small winners can help fill in the gaps between the really big events, increasing the odds of stumbling onto some fun any day of the year. (Aside to city fathers: using new zoning laws to snuff out seedlings of life like the ashes of a hookah pipe is the exact opposite of nurturing "fun.")

So, back to the original question: is Richardson screwed? Richardson's smaller size compared to Dallas makes it that much harder to create the urban vibrancy Coletta describes. But Richardson is headed in the right direction. Is it moving fast enough? Does it have the civic spirit to double down? The future prosperity of Richardson hangs in the balance.


Anonymous said...

Richardson may be screwed. I don't have demographic data to back it up, but Richardson seems to skew old to me. Coletta talks about the kind of cities young people desire. I don't know if the older Richardson citizens will approve of changes to increase density and improve walkability.

Mark Steger said...

Fred, thanks for the feedback. Richardson does skew old, as you say. But if an aging Baby Boomer like me can see the need for Richardson to reinvent itself, I'm not giving up on the other old codgers here, either. ;-)

Anonymous said...

When talking about urban planning, people often make the mistake of looking in the "now." Fred makes that mistake when looking at Richardson's current demographics. These types of planning demographics are about longer trends.

A few things about this entry. Simek doesn't know squat. He is art writer so says his bio: "Peter Simek is the arts editor for D Magazine, where he manages, edits, and serves as the primary movie critic and reporter for FrontRow." The rest gets worse from there. He is just the guy I want stitching together the long term consequences of urban growth trends and urban form changes. uh-huh. I am told by someone in attendance that his take is completely wrong and the talk had little to do with what he wrote about. Even so, let's consider it with Mark's question.

Is Richardson screwed? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Let us dispense with the whole "stumble onto fun" thing because it is mostly ridiculous. Did suburbs grow and lay waste to America's central cities because they were fun places? Having been to China in three different huge cities, (and Hanoi, Vietnam for that matter) I can say that successful thriving urban cities do not have to have the "stumble onto fun" factor. In fact, thriving parts of places I visited in China (including some parts of Hong Kong) were the antithesis of fun. Places where there is stumbling fun can come and go rapidly (Dallas Alley, original Deep Ellum, revived Deep Ellum of the 1980s, and so on.)

That also can run into tension with the hypothesis that leadership is one of the four pillars. Is the person that is looking for the "stumble onto fun" factor as a serious reason to choose one place over another going to be the person that roots down and becomes a future leader of a locale? Less likely I'd say as compared to someone who puts the "stumble" criteria down several notches and looks to economic opportunity and to an extent family appropriate opportunity. I'll put economic roots and family commitment over the stumble factor as an indicator of potential future leadership any day.

In any case, is Richardson screwed? I think you are partly correct, Mark. Some of the things you mentioned (Brick Row, Eastside, and Galatyn) are positive indicators. However, here is the rub. We have had a leadership change.

The former leadership "got it" to a great degree. It wasn't perfect but the direction was the correct one especially when you add in something you missed: the West Spring Valley revisioning and rezoning. They got behind that with a bullet and they even pushed folks in the community who "got it" to get the heck out there and carry it. (Yours truly being one of those.) We can wring the hands about whether they pushed of urbanism soon enough or enough, but my point is they did go that direction.

The new leadership? ahhh... Hard to tell. As you blogged, we of the Heights neighborhoods put forth a list of goals and action items for consideration and they were not really embraced. Moving to this urban form necessary to accomplish what is being discussed by both yourself and the previous blogger requires an outright sustained redevelopment effort. The word "redevelopment" appears twice in the action items of the council and on the schedule it is listed as "ongoing" with other items getting specific dates. By this relative time, last council term the West Spring Valley snowball was rolling down hill at a good clip. We have yet to hear a public briefing on Main Street and 75, let alone have public meetings.
-- Andrew

Anonymous said...

Part 2

You quoted something: "Don't go 'buffalo hunting' to score large corporate relocations, but rather focus on supporting small, local businesses downtown." While I do not want anyone to back off relocations, we are not paying enough attention to that second half. (BTW, I will disagree with you on the Hookah bars for a number of reasons that are beyond the scope of this discussion.)

Let me take on a few other comments you made. "Richardson's smaller size compared to Dallas makes it that much harder to create the urban vibrancy Coletta describes." Not really. It will be small scale but it's doable even more than once in Richardson's size. I will also take an exception to something implied by Coletta and others. Great places do not have to be some direct new urbanist form. They can include suburban single family areas. This is a current urban planning prejudice and in my opinion could be destructive if applied incorrectly.

"But Richardson is headed in the right direction." Is it? The forward looking cases you mentioned were put into motion years ago and none have been put into motion since. In fact, in one case the developer tried to back off mixed use. Take a look at the bulk of zoning cases (that had public hearings) in the past year to 18 months and tell me what pattern you see.

"The future prosperity of Richardson hangs in the balance." Oh it does indeed.

Mark Steger said...

Andrew (Joe?), thanks for the feedback. There's a lot of good stuff in there.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the typos. It was late and I was tired.
Re: Joe = Andrew -- Blogger changed the OpenID logon and doesn't put my name up there any longer. - Andrew

dc-tm said...

Sprawl is good and high density is fairly undesirable mainly because of traffic and very poor public transportation. Why have 8,000 or so cars in a small area (think of Richardson’s very own “BURP” Project) when you could have only 1,000 or less? Urban may work in NYC, Chicago or any number of other places that were design and built around mass transit. Richardson is not that kind of town and I really don’t care for it to be that kind of town. Have you ever tried taking mass transit from Dumont and Coit while trying to get to Southampton and S Murphy road? In a car it would take 15 minutes or so. Using the sorry excuse of mass transit that we have in Richardson would probably take more that 2 hours for the same trip. If a person wants a high density stack 'em and pack 'em conditions in a city then there are already have many places to choose from.

Anonymous said...

dc-tm gives evidence to support my concern.

dc-tm said...

Fred, I am glad to validate your point about how some people would be somewhat resistant to major lifestyle changes. And very honestly, I am unable to understanding of why a person would like to live in an urban type environment. But some people do and presumably enjoy that lifestyle.. I also don’t understand why a person would want to drive a European car. But plenty of people do and are very happy with them.

With all the open space in the country and in Texas, I see nothing virtuous about packing loads of people together in a very small, high density area? At the risk of sounding rude, if a person wants to live in an urban environment, where there is good public transportation, where that and walking are the main means of travel, there are many places a person can find that.

Semi-Old Codger :)