Dallas is growing fast—and haphazardly. Demographers expect the city to add 86,000 households by 2030. But Dallas is the only major city in the country without a comprehensive plan to guide its growth. So the city hired nationally known urban-planning expert John Fregonese (at a cost of $1.4 million) to draft a plan. After more than a year of study and meetings with community leaders, Fregonese presented a 450-page draft of his plan to the City Council in February. Not every councilmember was thrilled with it. (View the document at www.forwarddallas.org.) I reached Fregonese at his Portland, Oregon, headquarters to ask why.
ROWLETT: Councilman Mitchell Rasansky said your report contained proofreading mistakes that made him think it was done for another city and you’d just filled in the blanks.
FREGONESE: It’s 120,000 words, and, unfortunately, it’s not perfect. He found one error. And we are definitely going to go through it and make sure we get that out in the next draft. I can tell you, as the person who wrote a lot of this plan, that there is not one thing here that is copied from another document. This is original work.
ROWLETT: What is your definition of city planning?
FREGONESE: City planning looks at the future and tries to figure out what the strategies are that will help the city prosper.
ROWLETT: How many of these development plans have you done?
FREGONESE: I’ve been in the business for 30 years. But in terms of these full development plans, not many, because they take years to do and you just don’t have that many in you in a lifetime.
ROWLETT: And you have to be something of a critic of these cities, don’t you?
FREGONESE: You certainly have to go into them with an objective eye. Sometimes people who live in these cities don’t see the forest for the trees. And I think we bring a systematic approach that allows us to examine a city, sort of like a doctor examines a patient.
ROWLETT: Were you surprised by the resistance you ran into at Dallas City Council?
FREGONESE: No. I think that some on the City Council were resistant, but Dallas is in transition. So when we talked about going to urban housing, for example, I think some people thought that would mean more rentals.
ROWLETT: You did emphasize condos and townhomes over single family dwellings.
FREGONESE: Right. Dallas is now about 57 percent rental and is producing about two multifamily dwellings to every single-family house. Dallas only has room for about 55,000 or so single family homes, so we believe Dallas should emphasize owner-occupied urban housing. We believe that will keep more people in Dallas, and they will contribute economically and to the tax base.
ROWLETT: You’ve predicted a housing boom in the southern sector. What is the evidence for that?
FREGONESE: That is where the vacant land is. And that’s where the ability to build is. I think the southern sector is the area that will do well in the 21st century economy. It is much more multiethnic and has a lot more opportunities. And when areas start going in the southern sector, they are really going to take off. That is what we have seen in other cities. Areas that have been formerly overlooked and are more ethnically diverse are now among the most prosperous in the nation.
ROWLETT: Another criticism of your report came from one council member who saw a lack of coordination with DISD.
FREGONESE: Well, the city staff in charge of this and the DISD have been in contact at least once a month. DISD is on the advisory committee. I think there has been a lot of coordination, but there is always room for more. This will be formalized in the implementation where they will be part of the planning coordination and they can look at where the new housing will go and make some plans for that. I think what people need to look at is not just the increased growth, but the increased tax base. The scenarios that we are talking about will mean a 70 percent larger tax base for DISD.
ROWLETT: And you would agree that for Dallas to be successful it must also have a successful school system?
FREGONESE: Yes, but that success must happen almost simultaneously. Most large cities that are successful have schools that are not 100 percent. And schools that are coming around are in neighborhoods that are upgrading with people who are moving to the urban environment. So I don’t think you improve the schools and then improve the neighborhood. I think they have to happen together.
ROWLETT: Why is our city code so goofy?
FREGONESE: They get goofy over time. It happens everywhere. It’s put together with the best intentions, then it’s later modified and edited without a look at the overall task. And cities have to go in there and fix those. In Dallas, the vision and the conditions have changed, and the code hasn’t. So the code is on autopilot, set to a vision from the 1970s. Today, people’s lives and what they want are in another place. So the code is producing a product that is not what people want or the economy needs. We have some key elements of the code that we are focusing on and that need to be modified.
ROWLETT: For example?
FREGONESE: Dallas needs to look at its urban design standards and needs to seriously look at its parking requirements and the way it applies them. And it needs to develop a more mixed-use zoning code.
ROWLETT: Why is parking so important?
FREGONESE: The building codes now require onsite parking. That’s important and reasonable if you are building a Wal-Mart. But a lot of the parking that Dallas requires is space that is not used very efficiently. About a third of all parking spaces go unused except for a couple of days a year. Look at the Bishop Arts District. The parking that’s required takes out almost the entire neighborhood, at least two full blocks. The Dallas parking code must have different standards and different approaches so that it’s sensitive to the context.
ROWLETT: That brings us to mass transit. How do you rate DART?
FREGONESE: DART is one of the most successful mass transit systems in the country. But Dallas has not taken advantage of the investment. Most of it is located in Dallas, but with the exception of a couple of stations, there hasn’t been any obvious [development around] the DART system. Yet Dallas has one of the more intensely developed rail transit systems in the country. The intention of the plan is to make the most out of the investment that has been made in DART.
ROWLETT: How much redevelopment is City Hall’s responsibility, and how much is private investment?
FREGONESE: Reinvestment is a public-private partnership. And I don’t really mean in the way of giving tax breaks as subsidy, although I think that does have to happen sometimes to prime the pump. But primarily Dallas’ role is to coordinate the development program, to look for infrastructure, and to remove obstacles to make sure the development meets the goals of the citizens of Dallas.
ROWLETT: So with that in mind, what do you think of Dallas?
FREGONESE: I think Dallas is a great city that is going through a real transition. It’s been successful primarily by building on vacant land and expanding. But now Dallas has reached the edge of its physical expansion, and in the next 15 to 20 years will see the development of its last vacant parcels. So Dallas is transitioning to a more mature city that relies more on redevelopment than in building on vacant land.
ROWLETT: But isn’t Dallas also transitioning in terms of ethnicity?
FREGONESE: It’s becoming a largely Hispanic community, as many of the cities in the United States are. And I think that is also bringing some changes to the city. It’s become a portal for new immigrants to land and that can lead to great economic success, but it can also lead to great stress in a community. A key to the success is that once people start to get a leg up on the ladder that they stay and contribute and not go someplace else. And right now, Dallas has too many people who leave once they have that ability to buy a house. They go to some other area. Dallas needs to develop a strategy to keep people there who really are achieving the American Dream.
ROWLETT: Is Dallas in competition with its suburbs and with Fort Worth?
FREGONESE: Only somewhat. They are all so linked as a region and competing as a region, and our frame of reference is that of regions competing with one another. Dallas’ primary competitor is not Fort Worth, but Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The DFW region is going to prosper or decline as a whole.
D Magazine Contributing Editor Tracy Rowlett is a news anchor and Managing Editor at CBS Channel 11.