Monday, April 14, 2008

Wrong and Right

Greetings from Tejas. I thought I was moving here for the money which would, obviously, mean an improvement in quality of life, but I was wrong. What I gained was about 5.2 million more neighbors and the associated "amenities" that accompany such populations like pro sports, live music from nearly anyone you'd ever want to see, as well as the ability purchase imported goods from any store you could ever think of. What they don't tell you in the fine print is what traffic is like in a city that believes roads will satisfy the masses and associated headaches it causes when trying to live life. And as we all know, time is money.

After driving around this city for nearly a half a year and observing development patterns along with discussions concerning these topics, I can't help but feel like our own Duke City has been watching and mimicking the wrong city all along - Dallas, TX.

We have a frontage road along I-25 just like most roads in the metroplex. We encourage sprawling development for the sake of our growing tax base without regards for future associated infrastructure needs (although I will say that Dallas fell in love with toll roads some time ago). The largest similarity I see between the cities is an overall disregard for downtown. In a city that recently became the 4th largest in the country, downtown Dallas' peers would be places such as Cincinnati and Cleveland. The city has done nothing to make improvements in years, it would appear. Meanwhile, cities such as Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and the list continues, these places are throwing money at their inner city infrastructure because they have seen what just slight improvements have done for the reputations and for their tax bases.

Meanwhile, three hours to the south, Austin is moving along like a Bugatti Veyron with all 16 cylinders at max efficiency. They have done a decent job of catching up on freeway construction that lagged for a couple decades, they have managed to develop a reputation for outdoor sports (in Texas!), and they have managed to plan and implement a downtown that is quickly becoming the best CBD in Texas and possibly even the region. There are several emerging neighborhoods, high ends restaurants and bars, modest restaurants and bars, theatres, hotels, new office buildings, and even several new condo towers. Best yet, no one is complaining about all the partying occuring both 6th and 4th street....and Red River.

The key here is and always will be collaboration. Austin's leaders have embraced the power of a revitalized core. Mayor Marty can tout our revitalized core all he wants but he's never done a thing to get it to where it is at this early stage of redevelopment. The arena and the streetcar/light-rail projects are essential if our town is to ever make a move toward becoming the type of city Austin, Denver, Portland, etc. have become. We're quickly gaining kudos for our new industries and our bikeability. How much harder is to go the extra step and kick this revitalization into high gear already?


Michael said...

Glad to see a new post from you. I've been thinking a lot about the issue of the arena, and I'm glad to see you mention it.

Here's my thoughts:

What kind of arena should this be? I mean, realistically, I know there's caps on these types of things (they cost money, and that's oftentimes hard to raise here in NM) but if money was no object, what would it be?

We have the Thunderbirds here, it'd be great to get them an actual stadium. And I love basketball, so I'd be psyched to see that.

However, the more I've thought about it, the more sense it's made to me to make it a "football" arena. Football's in quotes because I think it would work best for soccer. We have a huge Mexican population, and plenty of Hispanics and Latinos are passionate about the beautiful game as well. It'd work best with one of those fancy retractable roofs, since we have tons of sunshine most of the year (although today it was snowing in the heights...can you believe that?!) and it (obviously) would have to be downtown.

But where would they put it? Precisely, I mean.

Let me know what you think, like I said, I'm glad to see you posting again, I hope it'll be more frequently than bi-annualy, if you have the time. :)

Mario said...


Good to hear from you. One question do you miss ABQ?

Anyhow in response to your post. You bring up excellent posts about Austin, Portland, and Denver. However, these cities did not really start focusing on their CBD or roads until they had eclipsed the 1 million mark in metro population. While I think ABQ would be ahead the game if it started doing this now, it is hard with so many NIMBY's and such still calling the shots. ABQ is where Portland and Austin were 15-20 years ago. If we can mimmick what they did from here on out we'll be just fine. As we continue to add more young professionals and urban transplants that too can only help grow our CBD and other established areas that might need some help. Having suburban growth is okay, we just need to make the core our focus and plan better on the fringes.

Tim said...

Hey guys,
Thanks for the comments. I just got done with a class that was taking up far too much time. I'll start writing more than every 6 months, I think.

I think a typical all-purpose arena with around 16,000 seats would work just fine for us. That's large enough to be expandable for big league sports and intimate enough to be potentially profitable. The argument that the city is using to get support for a 12,000 seat arena is that it's small enough to fill up for many "mid-size" events that are "appropriate" for our mid-sized market.

I say that's whoey, though. I want the NCAA tourny to return to town. Bring on the pro rodeo circuit, the X games, etc. Disney stars on ice would look much better in a real arena versus a slightly larger version of that arena up on the mesa in "the City of Vision".

I really like the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. It is the perfect size and has the right amount of amenities.

As for location, I think the east side of the tracks is a superior option. Raze the big bytes building, kick them out and build this thing directly connected to the convention center. There is plenty of space for a tower hotel and a little retail.

I like the idea of bridging Edo and downtown but I hate the idea of a 16,000 seat arena across the street from all that new housing. I'd much prefer to see mid and high-rise apartment and condo towers on that land across from ABQ High. Turn Edo into a true urban neighborhood.

Mario: great observation regarding Portland and Austin. It's just really difficult to think that it's going to take another 15 years for ABQ to get there. I kind of feel like making certain investments at this time could potentially kick us into high gear toward developing a more cosmopolitan city center.

Do I miss ABQ? Oh hell yea. I've done a decent amount of traveling the past several years and I still think we have something incredibly unique going. The people, the landscape, the's all terrific. The politics on the other hand....

There are very few places I'd rather be than ABQ. Dallas isn't one of them, either :)

Tim said...

oops, i meant the west side of the tracks for the arena

philly said...

Great post!
Miss your writings.

I totally agree on Austin.
ABQ is missing hte mark, and will soon fall behind places like Tucson and CO SPrings if it doesn;t wake up!

Sadly the NIMBY's will be the downfall of this city, and the small rural minded folk will think it's perfect.

The rail road trax truly seprate Edo and DT. Any way we could put the trax below ground for a few miles and bring back theose neghbrhoods?!

Brian Cline said...

My response is not completely related to ABQ, but there were just a few points I wanted to make.

It is true: Dallas has a curiously small downtown life after business hours. There are pockets of activity down Main and Elm streets...clubs, a pub, several bars, restaurants, etc. Perhaps it's not buzzing with activity the way Belt Line Road is in Addison, or even Bishop Road in Plano, and perhaps it winds up a lot sooner than some of the suburban nightlife, but it would be wrong to discredit what is there now.

It appears that new residential developments are opening up closer and closer to downtown. If the developer follows through, the new tower going up in the arts district will be a big step. The Davis building was an important step as well, bringing handfuls of residents downtown for several years now. The tower has a relatively low number of units, so its impact was very limited, but it was a step in the right direction.

It goes without saying that the entire Victory area around the American Airlines Center is another huge step, especially when you consider the high density towers and the demographics of their occupants ($$$), combined with the business opportunities in the area for improved nightlife.

Why Dallas didn't get on this much sooner is a mystery. To change gears, however, it appears they have gotten very used to and comfortable with the suburban growth mentality. Dallas has all of North Texas to spread out in, and that's exactly what has happened. Its economy seems to have brought more people here than traditional means of planning can handle; somewhere to the tune of 500 new residents each day. Where do they go? There's no real capacity downtown yet. That may be different in several years, but for now, the cheaper and quicker route is a place in a suburb.

The national economy is crappy right now, but it has an interesting effect. Astronomic gas prices encourage alternate forms of transportation to and from work, flex time arrangements, 4-day work weeks, and the all-important migration to a downtown home. All of these are great alleviations on traffic. The remaining suburban residents may not agree that this is good, as it has great potential to drive down their home's value due to decreased demand for a home that's far out of the way. Lower demand begets lower prices, and lower prices beget undesirable demographics, and such undesirable demographics may beget more crime. With the demographics you see in suburbs as far north as Frisco, TX, I can see why this kind of migration would make people nervous. I can't say I blame them; I certainly don't want the suburbs to go to crap, either. In addition, service-based businesses and commercial offices in the suburbs may not be excited about this movement. But I think there's a good balance somewhere in the middle of having high density residential capacity downtown, and maintaining a decent relative value of suburban neighborhoods while more people migrate to the city center, while not driving the local business economy of each suburb into the ground.

Considering the growth rate, it's probably a very good thing that this movement isn't happening as quickly as we might wish sometimes. Step by step, Dallas' downtown situation is improving. But considering its past and current state, I doubt it's easy to find developers and investors with enough blind ambition to build up huge amounts of capacity on Main Street without testing the waters first. I would not doubt that some of the towers going up right now are pilot projects. Considering their success with the Victory area, imagine the skyline fifteen years from now.

On toll roads, I think this is largely a love that Texas has, more so than Dallas. It is amazing how much power the Texas legislators have given to the North Texas Tollway Authority; they have right of first refusal on any toll road in the state. After this year's high-profile stalemate on the now-approved SH 161 toll road, it is very likely that next year's legislative session will empower the NTTA even further by lifting a major gotcha in the law responsible for the stalemate: that NTTA and TxDOT must agree on all terms. In the case of SH 161, TxDOT thought NTTA undervalued their offer on the road. The TxDOT has tried in the past to fund major road projects, and even with the relief the NTTA provides by operating several major interstates as toll roads, they barely have the cash to properly maintain their own roads. TxDOT shouldn't be funding public education with road money, but that's a different story altogether. Overall, they could be managing their funds a lot better. Until TxDOT has the right leadership in place to diversify our transportation options, I am content with paying the NTTA roughly $60 in tolls each month because I know that money is being managed better and that they will use it to maintain the toll roads I use so heavily.

TxDOT is also slowly beginning to realize the importance of rail. A great example is their plan to build a rail line straight to Las Colinas in Northeast Dallas before it has the chance to blow up the way the rest of the suburbs have. And just look at the response in development in that area following the plans for rail. TxDOT has tremendous power in this regard, but they are just now beginning to realize that. Maybe this enlightenment is the encouragement they need to manage their income better.

Perhaps all of this activity is what we need in order to bring much-needed life to Dallas' CBD. The only sure thing here is that, in a metro area with 6+ million people, it's going to take a while to get there.

Has ABQ really been watching and mimicking all along? If so, I would be anxious to discredit its leaders and planners; their circumstances appear to be much different when you consider that they have a much more dire need to build upward than Dallas has. They are in a better situation to do something unique in this regard, and once the right leadership is in place (is it now?) I would be very excited to see what they look like five to ten years from now.

Tim said...

Brian: In general, my comparison between ABQ and Dallas was a loose generalization referring to the similarities between the growth patterns of each city. Both cities have the option to continue to spread out or densify but it is the policies each city sets in place that affect such growth.

Dallas, and Texas in general, are well known to be "business friendly" by keeping their codes and zoning very general and basic as a way to create a streamlined, and cheap, development process that is highly attractive compared with places like coastal cities.

Portland, Oregon would be the best example of an alternative form of development pattern. That city has long set in place strict rules and they even created an imaginary line (Urban Growth Boundary) to attempt to curtail the unfettered growth seen in the metroplex.

My point is that Albuquerque needs to follow the lead of cities like Portland, Austin and Denver that have done a better job of diversifying development in their metro areas.

Dallas' policies have resulted in the wealth you see all along the North Tollway but it has also resulted in terrible traffic with few alternatives, some of the worst air pollution and a general lack of options for living lifestyles. Dallas and the metroplex provides the suburban lifestyle and a little taste of new urbanism in a few of its suburbs. Lower Greenville comes the closest to being an urban neighborhood with any kind of personality that isn't entirely "yuppyville." The reason that places such as Belt Line road can't really be compared to an area like LoDo in Denver or the warehouse district in Austin is because it is a strip mall where all the action takes place between separated buildings that one must find transportation between venues. That's my point about Dallas falling behind in providing little urban life. It has fostered places such as Addison where Belt Line is "the place to be" and downtown is like a ghost town on friday nights.

I would have to disagree with your comment about it being a good thing that the urban development is not occurring rapidly. As the tollways are expanding and places like Lewisville and Frisco are sprawling on a daily basis, the North Tollway continues to resemble a parking lot more and more. Urban development is taking place at a fraction of that rate. Instead of subsidizing such sprawl, why is the city not subsidizing the development of apartment towers for middle and low income folks that currently have to tolerate hour-long commutes?