Is Dallas’ Edifice Complex Hindering Downtown’s Growth and Livability?

A recent Texas Tribune article pointed out that over the last 10 years the city of Dallas grew by a mere 1 percent and Dallas County grew by only 6.7 percent. The four most populous other Texas counties grew by over 20 percent. City and county officials in Dallas blame the topography for the low growth, claiming Dallas is simply built out.

And yet, “critics suggest that Dallas’s larger-than-life image may be shrinking for another reason. They say that officials’ lack of investment in public schools, streets, parks and pools — the real-world priorities outside the city’s [iconic projects] — is sending white families and middle-class minorities to the suburbs. The result, they say, is an increasingly Hispanic, less educated and poor inner city.”

Dallas continues to be an absolutely phenomenal city, with true men and women of vision, and nowhere has this been more apparent than our amazing skyline. In just the past couple of years we have built or are under construction on the Merc, the largest urban Arts District in the country, the Calatrava bridge, the Convention Center Hotel, Museum Tower, the Woodall Rodgers Deck Park, Main Street Park, the Trinity River Vision and the largest light rail system in the country, just to name a few. Many of these initiatives came with significant governmental financial incentives and/or large gifts from the private sector.

And yet, a truly inspiring city is not really made up of iconic structures. People love Portland and Washington DC, New York and Boston, whether to visit or to literally live in their urban cores, not so much for large-scale physical realms but rather for the emotional, almost spiritual responses they elicit from many of their smaller details – the walking curb appeal more than the drive by wow effect. The desirability of these great cities, really of any great city, is dependent on its “livability” — how the fabric of the city is knit together at the human level.

Downtown Dallas has incredible “venues” in many spread out locations. Rather than continuing to build more great edifices, we should now focus on the connectivity of those places. Do our streets work for pedestrian access from place-to-place? How do these buildings/venues interact with sidewalks and sidewalks interact with cars? Should we do away with most or all of the one-way streets? Do we need more trees on the streets for summer shade? Should the sidewalks be demarcated with a different material? Should all new buildings and redeveloped buildings on major connector streets be required to “address the street” with awnings and seating and ground floor retail or restaurants?  What role should the Downtown Tunnels play? These are all granular ground level issues that cannot be seen from the 50th floor of the newest Dallas office or residential tower.

The Downtown Dallas 360 Plan begins to examine these issue. The plan has been widely heralded and somewhat criticized. The concern is that the plan focuses on 5 major areas of the City (Main Street, Lamar corridor, Farmers Market, Arts District and Reunion), which could easily turn into a rationale for major projects in those areas (e.g., the proposed Lamar entertainment building or the redevelopment of the Farmers Market), rather than doing the heavy lifting of connecting our existing (fantastic) development and making the City livable.

A growing but not much noticed phenomena in Downtown Dallas points out the potential if connectivity is done right, and the further erosion of the quality of our surrounding environment if we head in the wrong direction.  Over the last 15 years, the epicenter of Downtown Dallas has moved from Main Street to Ross Avenue, and with the Arts District and the Woodall Rodgers Deck Park, the new center of the City is becoming Woodall Rodgers. This shift can best be seen by the number of professional service firms that have abandoned albeit less expensive office space to move to new towers in the Ross to Uptown market, leaving many vacant or declining buildings in the old center, Ross, Pacific and Elm. Main Street has been one bright spot, with the long-time presence of Neiman Marcus, the arrival of The Joule Hotel and the Merc, and the conversion of many of the buildings in this area into ground floor restaurants below residential towers, along with some peripheral bars and nightclubs.

Interestingly, the new Ross/Woodall Rodgers center of Downtown has a shortage of restaurants and very little in the way of entertainment. In essence, Ross to the Crescent in Uptown has become high end offices and condominiums, and the “old Downtown” is transitioning to rental residential, restaurants and entertainment. How these two centers connect is important to the vitality of both areas.

Unfortunately (but probably necessarily in its early stages), much of the recent activity to spur development in the old Downtown has been subsidized by the City. The really positive news is that all of the unused or underutilized buildings in the old urban core have great potential for redevelopment, and the untapped potential for the City of reimagining this area of town is critical to our future. However, the City cannot afford to subsidize each individual redevelopment project.

The economics of development in old Downtown are simple. Unless the urban core becomes a desirable, livable, walkable place, residents won’t want to live in Downtown, and people living outside the City won’t come to eat, play and shop. And without these built in customers willing to pay a premium to live and recreate in Downtown, the City will be forced to continue to heavily subsidize development in these areas, which is increasingly more difficult in times of budget constraints.

What to do? Quite simply, spend the next couple of years focusing on the “little things” that would make the walking experience in Downtown more pleasant (think of strolling the streets of DC, Boston orSan Francisco). The Better Blocks “gorilla” project in North Oak Cliff and the Complete Street initiatives for Lower Greenville should be imported into Downtown.  Experiment with some Downtown streets during the week, and let’s see how it works.  Commit to “traffic calming” in Downtown — in a City that is really only one and a half miles square, there is really no reason that cars should race through at 40 mph.  If the old Downtown area has become less office oriented, there is not the same level of need for road capacity. Deconstruct excess road lanes and expand sidewalks and create tree islands (commit to 1,000 more trees in Downtown). Tear up concrete sidewalks and put in brick pavers (the sidewalks at the Akard DART station are a great example) so streets and sidewalks are demarcated. Have outdoor art and music fairs in the Arts District so the spaces between these iconic buildings are activated on a more frequent basis. Invite the Booker T Washington students to perform outside. Allow food carts and newsstands at the Downtown DART stations.

The outspoken great urban thinker Jane Jacobs  warned of the dangers of pretended order and of the “orgiastic assemblage of the rich and monumental,” where “monuments have been sorted out form the rest of the city,” where the “entire concoction is irrelevant to the workings of cities.”  She gave a lot of thought to how the streets and sidewalks are the arteries, the most important organ, of a city, where the real “intimate and casual life of cities” occurs, and declared that “if a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.”

Would Downtown Dallas be transformed, revitalized and reenergized if we reimagined our streets and sidewalks, such that our streets became interesting? No matter how strong the Dallas skyline appears, our real inner strength lies at the base level, in the health of the connective tissue and arteries – our streets and sidewalks.

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About Bob Voelker

Head of the Munsch Hardt (Dallas law firm) Hospitality & Mixed Use Development Group, and former developer of affordable housing. I'm i
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