UT Arlington professor seeks new ways to urban growth

Betty Dillard bdillard@bizpress.net

Michael Buckley is out to save the world from suburban sprawl. A pioneering professor of real estate development, Buckley formerly directed Columbia University’s master of science in real estate development program and headed the Center for High Density Development, a Columbia research initiative. As president of Halcyon Ltd., a development advisory firm, he has an international reputation for higher density mixed-use retail and urban revitalization. Buckley is now a clinical professor in the University of Texas Arlington’s School of Architecture and director of the school’s Center for Metropolitan Density (CfMD), a new think-tank on urban issues. The center’s mission is to demonstrate that greater densities, including suburban scale density, are economically productive, operationally effective, fiscally efficient and environmentally responsible. The center is focused on creating higher densities throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth region. Buckley recently chaired the education committee for Plan 2023, a 10-year strategic action plan for downtown Fort Worth sponsored by Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the city of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority. A Midland native, Buckley earned degrees from Rice University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a board member of the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate and of Interlink Group in Puerto Rico.

How is downtown Fort Worth faring with higher density development? Downtown Fort Worth is blessed with a compact urban core and a regular grid system of blocks that are well-sized for pedestrian movement. The central business district enjoys a strong office workforce population as well as a good collection of retail, food service and cultural attractions along with a superb central library and convention center. It has stable office rents compared to downtown Dallas, which has a larger vacancy rate and lower absolute rates when compared to suburban Dallas. Nonetheless, downtown Fort Worth must act with purpose to preserve its regional office workforce role. Luckily, there are a number of existing vacant lots currently used for parking well-suited to higher density development.

What sectors are improving? Multifamily/office/retail/hospitality? Downtown Fort Worth enjoys a regionally significant workforce population and some of the best office rents in the immediate region. This sector should be reinforced over time with the addition of new office structures with environmentally sensitive systems and better layouts to promote workforce flexibility. The retail sector in downtown is continuously improving and enjoys a very strong thematic presence with Sundance Square. Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s leadership in providing strong emphasis on the walking experience in downtown – which includes retail and entertainment as well as strong cultural components – and has proven a successful formula recognized by residents, visitors and conventions attendees. This effort should enjoy further success with an increased density in urban residential and further complements to the office core. Expansion of the convention center offers an opportunity to add another destination hotel, which further strengthens visitation to the central city.

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Where will new jobs arise? Fort Worth is blessed with a diverse economy with significant industry clusters in oil and gas, legal and financial services, defense and aerospace, and service sector employment. However, the future portends innovative new industry clusters that will include alternative energy, bioscience, digital media, electronic commerce, cloud-based information technology and wireless communications. Fort Worth would be well advised to position itself as the best live/work environment for these new jobs, supported by innovative educational institutions and a recognized differentiating lifestyle with attention to its historic past as well as easy access to cultural entertainment and recreational opportunities within a built environment that offers new residential and workplace options. Fort Worth also enjoys an educational advantage with presence of Texas Christian University, Tarrant County College, Texas Wesleyan University and the soon to come Texas A&M Law School joint venture. Other unique educational environments are proposed within Plan 2023, which together can offer singular opportunity to address the needs of tomorrow’s knowledge workers.

What are the priority development drivers and issues? The UTA CfMD has sponsored numerous roundtables for outreach to the development and financial industry to test research premises and to gather firsthand opinions on trends and critical success factors. These roundtables have shown the primary development driver is user demand – for office space that means jobs and reinforcing existing industry clusters as well as for encouraging new urban residential formats, which encourage and support retail and food service offerings. Biggest issues are land costs; along with difficulties in acquiring large enough sites to yield scalar advantage and the serious burden of providing structured parking, which dual problems are avoided with suburban development and large surface parking lots. At UTA CfMD we have probed innovative structured parking solutions, as garages are the most dire consequence of high density development. We have explored new city-sponsored parking authorities to encourage development by removing the biggest upfront financing hurdle, relying on support from the workforce and from developers who would not otherwise build for this infrastructure improvement. UTA’s Advanced Design Studio, co-sponsored by CfMD, is also exploring higher densities to create more tax ratables, which offer the potent opportunity to generate higher tax increments, a portion of which can be redeployed to offset site development, including offsite utilities, street improvements and, possibly, parking. One of the great fiscal benefits of high density development is the opportunity to generate higher tax ratables per developed urban area, which proceeds can, and should be, used to further support that same development. An important national trend is the notion of the “density of investment,” where large financial institutions such as pension funds can feel more comfortable in making large-scale development investments protected by the urbanity of the environments created, the stability of revenue streams by the project’s scale, the livability and walkability premium associated with such environments, and the probability of high resale values created.

What can developers do to transform “troubled” urban properties? The CfMD Advanced Design Studio has focused an effort to identify underutilized sites and long-term large scale vacant buildings to demonstrate methodologies in “asset repositioning and turnaround strategies,” part of a new course at UTA within the School of Architecture. Using a nine-step process to execute a site capacity audit , create alternative use scenarios tested for financial feasibility, and devise implementation plans with emphasis on public/private partnerships, UTA graduate students have analyzed the long vacant Texas and Pacific Warehouse building in downtown Fort Worth creating reuse scenarios from new urban residential to destination hotel and other cultural uses. Clearly troubled properties became troubled due to locational disadvantages, functional obsolescence and lack of financing given the redevelopment challenges. Equally clear is an implicit mandate for the city and the business community to form innovative development/financial partnerships to turnaround these properties. Many cities have done so with deliberate effort on their downtowns, including quite successful multiyear effort by Charleston, S.C., to resurrect its historic core; downtown Denver’s commitment to increased urban adaptive reuse residential in LoDo; and San Diego’s deliberate commitment to rebuild antiquated warehouse areas into mixed-use developments. All required innovative combinations of both private development and public sector actions.

What is your vision for downtown Fort Worth? UTA’s Advanced Design Studio has recently envisioned the Jones Street Corridor from Lancaster Avenue up to the [Tarrant County] Convention Center. Currently hosting a majority of vacant parking lots, the area requires no displacement for the urban high density scheme proposed. Expansion of the convention center and the merger between Texas Wesleyan School of Law and Texas A&M University makes for a very interesting mix. Our Jones Street Corridor Vision Plan featured several new high-rise office buildings, including a Geotechnical Research Center and a new Fort Worth City Hall office tower combined with iconic council chambers, fronting a new Wesleyan Square as a joint address of the law school and the historic Santa Fe Depot, creating an instant urban civic plaza. Adjoining sites featured mixed-use residential with artisan retail and a street of cafes at grade, a new themed hotel with a live entertainment venue adjacent to the expanded convention center, and new educational offerings including a STEM (science technology engineering and math) high school on a shared site along with a Digital Media Arts Academy near the existing transportation center. An innovative childcare center with extended hours to serve the needs of the downtown workforce was proposed as ground floor of loft residential in which a science-oriented Discovery Center for young children would be part of childcare day-to-day operations, while open to the public on weekends. A Jones District streetcar loop was proposed on new streets with brick patterns and landscape motifs borrowed from the Fort Worth Water Garden extending throughout as a district branding device. This Vision Plan, while an urban design exercise for UTA graduate students, also provides a view toward what we believe is the best format for the future development of Fort Worth – continuation of existing emphasis on mixed-use development, with active uses at grade, while capitalizing on certain new industry sectors such as the oil and gas industry for generating office space demand. The hypothetical sale of the existing city hall site for high density residential could offset part of the move to a new high-rise tower within the Jones Street Corridor, which is, after all, the first turn into downtown from Lancaster Avenue. This highly visible new city hall could be privately developed with a buyback provision at a certain horizon point. The key to the proposed Jones Street District is an innovative project delivery structure that includes the formation of a “Jones Street Development Corporation,” which has the power to issue infrastructure bonds based on the tax increment that would be generated by these developments, and provide a jumpstart to a new Fort Worth Parking Authority financed in part by developer sees and user charges for workforce parking. Such an undertaking would be relatively unique for Fort Worth but would match some organizational structures currently in place – such as Fort Worth South – and would represent an extraordinary gesture to stabilize and expand the workforce, make additions to the residential population, provide considerable new educational options, and contribute to the Fort Worth convention and visitor experience.