The Inter-Connectedness of All Things in Dallas – Race, Place, Urbanism, Highways & Affordable Housing

Our quality of life, both individually and collectively, is intricately the result of where we live. We understand this individually when we spend time stuck in traffic, or are forced to drive for daily chores – grocery store, bank, drug store, cleaners, etc., all of which are isolated with the car being the only viable mode of transport. We know this when choosing where we live also means a top quality school or a safe neighborhood for our children.

But this isn’t just about me or you – where we live affects/infects the collective “we” of society at the city/regional level in ways that are insidious and evidence as societal issues over expanses of not only distance, but time, as evidenced by the following discussions in Dallas:

 –          Home rule schools & Charter Schools and the quality of DISD

-          Grow South Initiative

-          I-345 Tear-Down debate and the claim that South Dallas residents need to get to their jobs in North Dallas

-          HUD’s claim that the City has used federal funds for affordable housing in South Dallas and only market rate housing/economic development in Downtown

-          Inclusive Communities Projects’ lawsuits against the State of Texas and Dallas suburbs for congregating affordable housing in South Dallas and not permitting affordable housing in the suburbs

All of these issues center on race and place, income and opportunity, and affect us individually and collectively.

In a simplistic overview, we have created a spatial divide, a segregation if you will, between housing and jobs, between opportunity and disinvestment, and between races, that are at the historical heart of each of these issues. Driven by market and social pressures of the 1950’s-1970’s – the double whammy of integration/court ordered busing creating white flight to the suburbs, occurring at the same time as new highways facilitated rapid movement from the suburbs to the jobs in the City (and subsequent flight of jobs to the suburbs, following white collar employees) – combined to start the process of separating jobs to the north and affordable housing to the south. This trend was exacerbated and reinforced by zoning codes prohibiting or drastically limiting apartments, the primary form of affordable housing, in many of the suburbs, and by local not-in-my-backyard efforts and state political/administrative decisions accepting those attitudes that made certain that placing affordable housing in the northern suburbs was difficult at best, and impossible in many areas.

Lack of jobs and new development in the southern section leads to more disinvestment, a lower tax base and poorer quality schools.  The great north-south divide creates a dysfunctional City Council that has trouble finding common ground on what is best for the City, as the “City” is really two cities, as we often refer to them – North Dallas and South Dallas. Starting earlier, but reaching critical speed in the 1960’s with public housing, and continuing in the late 80’s through the early 2000’s, were benign if not malignant actions – using federal funding (public housing money, low income housing tax credits and Community Development Block grants, to name a few) to congregate affordable housing south of the Trinity. Put the service sector housing in one part of the City, and move the jobs to the other side, and you get a north-south divide, a north-south debate, and traffic infrastructure (highways) to bridge the gap.

Which leads to corrective measures:

-          “Grow South”, a special concerted effort to facilitate growth that in more balanced communities would be organic change.

-          I-345 Tear-Down being labeled as impractical because we need to continue to have the infrastructure to support the great divide, jobs to the north and service sector housing to the south.

-          Home Rule School initiative, desperately searching for ways to improve DISD.

We can continue to reinforce the status quo, or we can step back and consider if there are better alternatives.

 First, like alcoholism/drug addiction, we must admit we have a problem – we are addicted to problem avoidance on at least two fronts: (1) the legacy of historic racism in Dallas (if it makes anyone feel more comfortable, we can call it “economic egalitarianism” – which is for the most part the later stages of the cancer of racism), and (2) the universal belief that the automobile is the only real viable mode of transportation for all persons of all income levels. And like all addictions, we need an “intervention” – we need a major step, an iconic breakthrough moment, a massive symbol that we have identified our problems and are willing to take drastic steps to overcome the status quo ante and are embracing a bold new future.

Take the Calatrava Bridge for example.  At first appearing to be just another expensive icon for the Dallas skyline, the elaborate structure literally bridges Downtown and Uptown (now themselves linked by the Klyde Warren Deck Park) to West Dallas – a historically lower income mixed Hispanic and Black community. The result is that over the last couple of years Trinity Groves is springing up, with a multi-restaurant incubator, other restaurants and recently announced residential apartment units. Without the Calatrava Bridge, and the highly symbolic bold move to re-connect to West Dallas, the economic revitalization of West Dallas would not be underway.

The proposed I-345 Tear Down is another bold proposal, this time to reconnect Downtown and Deep Ellum / East Dallas. Both the Deck Park connection of Uptown to Downtown and the Calatrava Bridge connection of Downtown to West Dallas are “at grade” – they serve as connecting points and not barriers. Elevated I-345 acts as a blockade between Downtown and Deep Ellum, and reconfiguring that portion of 75/45/Central Expressway as an at-grade parkway would tear down the wall that keeps the east end of Downtown from thriving and makes the remaking of Deep Ellum so difficult.  Maybe more importantly, it would signify a shift in thinking in Dallas – to an understanding that highways and cars will not drive (pun intend) our City into the future. 

And maybe we’ll also begin to understand that those very highways are what separates us not only by distance, but by race and income.  We could actually sit down and have a dialogue about “social equity”, inclusive zoning and mixed-income/mixed-use places, so that people can live closer to work, and Blacks and Hispanics and Whites can live, work, play and go to school together. We could actually start with mixed-income residential development at our DART train stations. Setting a 20% affordability standard at all transit-oriented development would be another bold symbolic statement and, coincidentally, density at transit is less likely to be politically unpopular and access to transit is particularly critical to lower income workers.

50 years after the Civil Rights Act, can we bold enough to come together and say “We have a Dream” for Dallas? 

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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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