Yesterday I detailed how development plans for the Pink Wall’s PD-15 had been upended for two parcels months after the city council granted new development rights in a contentious battle.
Today, we have more news to put under the tree: the Diplomat’s deal has also gone sour. Why?
Fire lane width. Earlier this month, I “gave” Oak Lawn’s Mansion Park residents a Christmas present of sorts. I said that if they wanted real leverage in managing development, they should look at road width regulations and how they’ve grown since the area was originally laid out.
This played out for the Pink Wall’s Diplomat condos this week as a “reinterpretation” of fire lane widths made the current development plan unworkable for the developer. I was told that the site isn’t unbuildable, it just can’t deliver the level of product desired with the new interpretations. One city staffer I spoke with last night took that to mean that something cheaper (though unlikely smaller) would now be built by a future developer.
It’s a very, very disappointing end to a three-year process of design, redesign and trying to work with the city and the neighborhood.
Why did this happen? Unwieldy fire trucks.
Street width requirements have expanded as U.S. fire departments have decided that roadways need to be built to accommodate the mammoth trucks that now ply the roads in an emergency. Some municipalities have been beset by fire departments so hell-bent on having a clear 20-foot right of way that they’re demanding it be retroactively enforced. The results are a loss of on-street parking, parkway landscaping and trees.
Never mind that studies show that wider streets and wider corner radii speed regular traffic and result in increased risk for pedestrians and increased accidents – the very things narrower streets and pedestrian-friendly design were (in part) created to diminish. Even a two-foot width difference increased speeds and crashes.
In essence, fire department demands are increasing their own workload for the sake of oversized equipment in urban areas. Bass-ackwards.
Sure, a wider road shaves seconds off the time it takes to get to an emergency (but so would a smaller vehicle on existing roadways). But it might surprise you to know firefighting is near the bottom of the list of calls fire fighters respond to.
2.5x as many “false alarms” as actual fires
According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2018, 78 percent of all calls were medical-related. This typically equates to an ambulance/EMT truck and perhaps a fire truck escort. Certainly NOT the stuff requiring a fire truck seating up to eight, laden with ladders, tanks and pumps holding hundreds of gallons of water (and lots of other equipment). When so few calls are actually fire-related, would smaller, more purpose-built vehicles make more sense?
What if municipalities re-thought their purchase of enormous trucks and followed a more European model (where centuries-old urban streets are even narrower) of purchasing equipment designed to fit down existing roads?
Certainly urban areas outside the U.S. have embraced smaller, purpose-built vehicles that sacrifice nothing in capabilities or response time but are much more nimble on city streets. And even in the U.S., some municipalities have opted for a more restrained approach. When faced with replacing two aging fire trucks, Beaufort, South Carolina (population ~13,000) went a different route. Instead of a traditional truck costing $600,000 each, they bought two All Purpose Response Vehicles for $145,000 each. They saved $765,000 and got vehicles more able to navigate narrow streets in a town dating to 1711.
And imagine if a city the size of Dallas were to right-size their fleet to meet actual needs and uses. How much money could be saved that could be put to better use (including the pension fund)?
Or as one New York City first responder commented:
“If it can be done all over NYC then it can be done. Sometimes it is difficult to drive on a narrow street during an emergency. Sometimes you have to block streets/intersections, or park on the sidewalk or do whatever you have to do to fit, but that’s just part of urban living.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that driving conditions in places like this are less than ideal, but that’s because these places are built to be more pedestrian friendly than car friendly. This can make driving emergency vehicles difficult, but you just have to adapt to it the best you can.
The biggest problem, in my experience, isn’t the narrow streets but it’s the other drivers that think they’re so important that they don’t need to pull over. You’d be surprised how many people don’t get the **** out of the way.”
Unopposed, unvetted regulation
And since men in uniform are proposing these roadway changes, they’re often silently adopted without a lot of public debate. If Dallas wants to become a vibrant city with a more dense urban core, it can’t allow codes written for new development in far-flung exurbs to blanket its urban fabric without understanding the ramifications.
Returning to PD-15 and the Preston Place fire. It was a seven-alarm blaze and not once did I hear that access was an issue that delayed response or hampered their ability to fight the fire. But now a no-problem problem has stopped one developer only to open the neighborhood to something of potentially lower quality. It will also force widening of roadways fronting redevelopment which in turn will result in more attractive roads for drivers to cut-through.
The neighborhood will lose every day to a fire truck that’ll battle a fire like Preston Place once in a lifetime.
Alas, this isn’t the only project in Dallas facing this issue. Stay tuned.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.