The session on Feb. 16 was different from the recent Preston Center Task Force meetings. Nearly all the task force members were there … and about 50 residents showed up as well! Before I run through the high points, a pair of interesting things …
During the meeting, I was paying particular attention to Laura Miller, as she tends to speak often and with some authority. I’m not sure if her demeanor had softened with the blue jeans she was wearing, but at some point I realized she’s smart-smart versus just opportunistic-political-smart. I’m not saying I completely agree with her, but she connects the dots quicker than most. And lately, I’ve been in too many rooms filled with people unable to connect the dots.
Secondly, after the meeting I approached councilwoman Gates to make a (constructive) suggestion (that I’ll get to later) and her preemptive question was to ask if what was said tonight matched up with the plan I’d crafted oh so many months ago. “Kinda” I said, caught a little off guard. (In truth, I’ve said I don’t have the resources to drill into development comparisons as these consultants have, but my plan and conclusions have a lot of similarities.)
Parking … Still Not a Problem. Really!
Last time I wrote about parking at Preston Center, I said it was “Still Not a Big Deal.” The task force, disbelieving of the single-day of parking count data amassed previously, asked the consultants to perform a full week of parking counts in Preston Center west. Guess what? One workday looks pretty much like a whole week. The central garage is an echo chamber at almost every hour of the day outside lunch … and even then, at 70 percent full, area parking is not a sell-out.
Parkers just need to abandon their dreams of winning the parking lottery and snagging the ONE PERFECT SPACE directly in front of Flying Fish’s front door at lunchtime. They need to resign themselves to parking in the tattered central garage, and — gasp! — walking a bit.
A lot of the lunch-bunch congestion is from those aforementioned parking lottery players circling the area like vultures, burning a gallon of gas instead of shoe leather.
Some of the not-so-quick task force members spent time questioning these results because they personally have a hard time finding parking at Preston Center at lunch. Really? One or two stories somehow outstrip the results of human beings spending a week charting and counting every car’s entry, exit and route in the various parking areas of Preston Center? If anecdotes carry the weight of facts, why hire the consultants?
Another of the dimmer bulbs wanted to know how the traffic counters counted cars that take up two spaces. Annoying, yes. But in the grand scheme of 1,300 parking spaces that number would be what’s called a “rounding error” because it’s too small to impact results.
One interesting point was uncovered but not latched onto (nor by me until now). Seems a lot of people use the central garage for a lot longer than the allotted three hour max. On average, 100 cars per day overstayed their welcome, and nearly half stayed over six hours. Obviously the majority of these are area workers who are supposed to park on the upper deck. Moving them upstairs only shifts the current upper-level openings to the ground level. The same trends were seen on street parking where 78 cars overstayed their welcome.
Unmentioned was the idea that there is apparently no police presence in the parking structure all day long (or at least they’re not issuing parking tickets). Given the recent rash of local parking lot muggings, this isn’t great news and surprisingly was missed by all.
Density: Today and Tomorrow
One task force member asked the unasked question. Has the task force, originally positioned as a way to keep a lid on development (while improving traffic and parking), become in fact a planning body to manage growth? (Insert crickets chirping here)
In fact, that’s just what this body has become. The output will be a series of publicly vetted suggestions that will try and tie infrastructure improvements by the city to density increases from new development.
Of course before that can happen, the consultants need to get their numbers and projections straight.
The consultants first showed what the current area looked like and how much it could change if every building was rebuilt to its maximum zoned height and density. Their first boo-boo was to claim that the difference between existing office space and maxing out existing zoning for Preston Center was just 92,476 additional square feet. That’s 4.8 percent of unrealized square footage. Their calculations appear to forget the Preston Center Planned Development District that has gobs of unrealized capacity that would eat 92,476 square feet for lunch (if it could get parking – ha!). In fact their own zoning materials from several meetings ago show the portion of the Preston Center PD west of Douglas to be zoned for 121-180 feet in height. (In the coming weeks there will be a meeting to figure out the discrepancies.)
From a residential perspective, there are 244 existing housing units in Preston Center that could grow to 941 (or likely more with corrected figures). In Pink Wall territory (Zone 4), that number nearly doubles from 1,932 to a potential of 3,739 housing units. It was brought up that some properties on Pink Wall turf have deed restrictions and covenants that can’t be broken and would limit that number. (Deed restrictions and covenants can be broken … I’ll cover that in another column)
From a traffic perspective (which is the lens most view development through), the modeling showed the increases based on the programming’s algorithms. However, I wonder. City of Dallas traffic studies have shown over a decade of overall traffic drops in this area (perhaps city wide?). Over that time, Dallas has begun using mass transit and nationwide, younger generations are reevaluating their relationships with cars. Are these long-term trends (over a decade says yes) and do the traffic projections take them into account? Or do they just assume all density increases uniformly equate to X-number of journeys?
None of this should be a huge surprise. Between the underutilized Pink Wall to the commercial density of Preston Center these were always going to be where the action was. As one member quipped, Laura Miller didn’t have to worry about a high-rise in her single-family neighborhood.
NOTE: These are exercises in what’s possible, not what will happen. It’s scenario creation to help understand the effects of development in the area. No landowner has asked for any of these mock-ups.
In an effort to demonstrate the opposing effects of differing types of development, all-office and all-residential/retail density increases (beyond current zoning) were crafted using computer programs. Think of it as a real version of the computer game Sim City — less pretty but more accurate. Unsurprising to readers of my original plan is that mixed-use development is the most advantageous for everyone.
Not being familiar with this type of modeling, several task force members freaked out a bit at the sample renderings. They looked like someone had scattered Monopoly houses and hotels all over Preston Center. They were never meant to suggest a literal plan (or be pretty), but rather sticking various building types and sizes where they’d fit simply to examine the effects. (My suggestion to Gates was to produce an interactive browser-based “toy” version of the software where users could experiment adding and subtracting development from the area to give them an idea of the interdependencies. For example, how does increased residential development in Preston Center differ from office or retail? How to find the right balance? I think being able to play a bit with the tool would help comprehension)
Unfortunately, this data was also corrupted somehow. Huge swaths of Preston Center were turned one way or the other and yet only minor increases of a few thousand square feet overall were shown. There was also a seeming mix-up in traffic increase data that showed quite small increases from very large projects. Oopsie. They’re going to recheck all this, so stay tuned.
Of course, a pair of scenarios covering Mark Cuban’s 10-ish acres on the north side of Northwest Highway caused the expected pearl clutch-gasm. One featured six-story office while the other three-story townhomes. Both adding 400,000-ish square feet of buildings each.
While Miller has resigned herself to increased density south of Northwest Highway, she drew the line at Cuban’s doorstep adamantly defending the current (anachronistic) single-family zoning on two-acre plots. Others were less rigid speculating that a more dense (premium-priced, natch) bunch of townhomes for downsizing north Dallas empty nesters maaaaay be OK with the neighbors if a big enough buffer was constructed … b’cause, ummm, ewww. Oh and they’d be once again shielded from Northwest Highway on someone else’s dime.
How Many Year Plan?
Once the task force’s purpose of managing new development was admitted, many referred to time periods of anywhere from 20 to 40 years for a complete build-out. This may be technically true, but it’s not going to be even, measured development. Once the lid is off the cookie jar, there will be a very quick air-grab for higher buildings that will fairly quickly peter out to a trickle.
The linchpin to all the plans was some form of redevelopment of the central parking garage. Whether it’s buried or elevated, it’s a huge undertaking and cost. Thankfully, based on a city planning spokesperson who spoke at a prior meeting, the city doesn’t need the approval of the landowners to replace the garage. Approval is only needed if its usage changes.
This means that infrastructure, traffic and parking will come to a head quickly. Will the city be ready with the integrity and money needed to manage the process effectively?
Maybe. If they can stop wasting our collective time on the inanity of things like Exxxotica!
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