Urban Expert to Downtown Boosters: Dallas Is Screwed

The magazine’s table is four deep from the aisle in a crowd of more than 100 tables, adrift in a sea of laundered men in suits – grey, deep blue, black – and a diluted scattering of women, their gender apparent by smart, fitted jackets that offer occasional dollops of beige and light blue.

It is the annual Downtown Dallas Inc. meeting, and though we are in the belly of the much ballyhooed new Omni Dallas Hotel, we could be anywhere. That’s the first irony of the afternoon, given the gusto with which our hosts praise the hotel as a significant addition to an always soon-to-be burgeoning downtown. A year ago the meeting was across the central business district at the Sheraton. Two years ago, the editorial staff from D Magazine made up half our table. This year, I’m the only writer who showed. Everyone else finally digested the equation that a free, mediocre lunch is less than – not equal to – an hour listening to the bravado of local civic booster-ism. There’s no news at the Downtown Dallas lunch, just a Mark-Twaining of enthusiasm.

The Omni is what film critic Peter Wollen would call a “non place,” a location that lacks the characteristics that lend places a sense of identity, permanence, location, significance or uniqueness – qualities that humanize a place and make it distinctive. The Omni’s interior is clean and pleasant in the way that a dentist office’s waiting room tries to put you at ease, and it possesses the same sense of vacuous emptiness that most giant hotels have. The exterior, the new u-shaped building’s most distinguishing characteristic, is curtained in blue-tinted glass. During the day, it is a crescent of newness — fifth-generation Mies van de Rohe, slid between the high tide of parking lots that has yet to recede, having washed away early 20th century warehouses and red brick office buildings. At night, the entire façade becomes a giant digital scoreboard, flickering a flurry of designs or dot-matrix typeface. It looks as if the ball of Reunion Tower toppled off its stilt and exploded, only to have time stand still, freezing its dance of early-80s fluorescent antics in a perpetual play of booster kitsch. It is a desperate play for attention, like a Highland Park debutante at the end of her freshman year at the University of Texas, eyeing the soft-handed senior with the crisp acceptance letter from Harvard Business School.

The interior banquet hall — a dull, wallpapered warehouse — has four giant HD video screens that lend the afternoon’s proceedings the hyper-glow of a C-SPAN broadcast. Today they are showing the human equivalent of the Omni’s fluorescent skin: Downtown Dallas Inc.’s annual hour-long pep rally. Dallas will be one of the greatest urban spaces in the world, speakers say. Look! We have attracted businesses. We have built the hotel, parks, arts district. We have plans: plans for streetcars and pedestrian spaces; plans for business and commerce; plans for life lived in imitation of the vibrant photos that fill our glossy brochures.

But it is the event’s keynote speaker, Carol Coletta, president of the consulting firm Coletta & Company, radio host, and former president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, who perks me up. Coletta is a spry, blond-haired woman with razor-sharp eyes, the wiry build of Jamie Lee Curtis circa True Lies, and a lilting, indistinguishable mid-American accent. The subject of her talk is the importance of urban centers, and while she means her speech to be a source of encouragement to her audience (all, ostensibly and by nature of their presence, supporters of downtowns in theory), it is also an admonition.

The Downtown 360 plan is great, she says, but Dallas needs to “double down” on it. Her sense of urgency is keen, and it plays in counterpoint to the usual Dallas supposition that we are cruising along at a rate and altitude that allows us to unfasten our seatbelts. In Dallas, planning is considered 95 percent of a project, and the action of implementation is watered-down and endlessly reinterpreted – the slow erosion of ambition and forward-thinking – by Marilla and Main St.’s business-as-usual.

The meat of her talk, though, should give everyone in this city pause, and particularly the boosters who filled the Omni’s banquet hall. Great cities, Coletta said, are the product of four qualities: quality of talent, quality of place, quality of opportunity, and quality of leadership. We like to pride ourselves on opportunity and leadership, but Coletta’s primary focus is the future of talent.

If the future of a city is dependent on attracting top talent to the region, then the statistics Coletta shares about the characteristics of the next generation of workforce and leadership should be troubling to anyone invested in the future of this city. The speaker cites a 30-year study of 25- to 34-year-olds which shows an increasing desire among young people to live within a 3-mile radius of their place of work. Today, 42 percent of young people in that age demographic are more likely to want to live this close to their workplaces, she said, and if you just look at members of that age demographic who also are college educated, the figure more than doubles. In other words, college-educated youth want to live in pedestrian-friendly, localized, and dynamic environments.

The takeaway: we can’t treat urban living as an “alternative lifestyle.” It is the new norm, and more importantly, tomorrow’s top talent actively seeks out cities that can provide for this kind of quality of life, characterized by walkability, pedestrian interconnectivity, and vibrancy. Other studies have shown that members of the next generation, Coletta added, choose the city they want to live in before they look for jobs. If Dallas doesn’t look like the city the next generation wants, that generation of talent won’t consider it.

So what about Dallas’ “Texas-sized” ambition of creating one of the best downtowns in the world, as stated in the introduction to the Downtown 360 plan? Coletta said Dallas’ central business district is large, lacking in vibrancy, and disconnected. It needs to be “tightened up,” adding that complete implementation of the Downtown 360 is “urgent.”

“There are plenty of cities that are confident they can be better than you,” Coletta said, pointing to a recent city-wide demonstration in Helsinki as a model for what real civic ambition looks like.

There were also small revolutions, at least for Dallas, hidden in the details of Coletta’s speech. Introduce new voices into the conversation about the future “no matter their title,” she said, “like artists.” Don’t go “buffalo hunting” to score large corporate relocations, but rather focus on supporting small, local businesses downtown. Great cities all possess an attractive natural resource, but while Coletta nodded toward the plans for transforming the Trinity into Dallas’ natural magnet, it was hard to suppress thoughts about toll roads and pigs’ blood. Her litany continued: Imitate how New York City introduces pilot programs to try out urban ideas. Experiment. Be flexible. Out with the old way of doing things.

The image that we have of the American Dream, Coletta summed up, with the suburban white picket fence, is out of sync with what the next generation is looking for. And unless Dallas can figure out a way to look and function in drastically different ways in the future, it will not be able to compete for talent.

You would think all of this straight-talk would pop the bubble of bravado in the room, but I wonder how much it resonated. For one, Coletta’s speech sounded more like a championing than an admonition, with the meat politely hidden between the lines. But there was one troubling moment, one that made me remember Tim Roger’s comments earlier this week about the shortcomings of the Chinese New Year festivities in the Dallas Arts District. Coletta retold an anecdote about a young professional who was asked what he looked for in a city:

“I want to stumble onto the fun,” this person said.

At that line, the thousand-odd business leaders in the Omni giggled. Why did they giggle? Was it because this response registered as naïve? Was it because, in the context of all of the oh-so-serious chatter about statistics and urbanism and the multi-million dollar Omni, “stumbling onto fun” seemed too simple or childish a solution? Was it because, as Tim Rogers suggests in his post, stumbling onto fun is a near impossibility in Dallas, that the very thing that indicates a successful urban space is the thing that decade after decade proves most elusive to our civic boosters and planners?

The likely answer is probably all or some of the above, but I think the giggle was prompted by something else. I think all of those people at lunch giggled because somewhere beneath the formality of the gathering — the bullet-pointed reasons for celebration outlined at the beginning of the meeting, the award ceremony for Mary Suhm, the mashed potatoes and overcooked asparagus — there was a collective, unconscious, and uncomfortable realization that Downtown Dallas ultimately lacks this very kind of “fun-finding” vibrancy.

The reason it lacks vibrancy is that one of the things that defines this city is that its public life must be planned and programmed. Our ongoing approach to urbanism is to invest again and again in the equivalent of stages and festival grounds, parks, plazas, districts, and buildings that gather people only when they are told they are allowed to gather — by way of some event that attracts them (with ample parking provided, of course).

I think – I hope – that the giggle was a kind of recognition that Dallas is still, when it comes to urban vibrancy, the butt of the joke. Because sometimes laughing at yourself —at your shortcomings and your ugliness — is the only way to come to grips with just how desperate your situation actually is. And if the future of the workforce is really making decisions in the way Coletta describes, and the vibrancy of urban space is a key factor in determining the success of a city’s future, well, Dallas is in a pretty desperate position.

Let’s hope that was the takeaway from yesterday’s meeting — desperation — because feeling desperate, unlike feeling good about yourself, might actually prompt some real, creative action.


Photo: The new Omni by Jason Ryan for D Magazine


  • This is a great piece of writing, Peter. Really well done. In my view, Dallas exists in spite of itself thanks to regular infusions of cash. What it needs is a soul, which cannot be bought. Folks in their mid-20s are now finding that downtown living works well. But decades — generations even — are required to breathe life into bricks, mortar, steel and glass. It’s well past time to shake up those stilted suits and really begin bring our city to life. It happens one day at a time.

  • Chris Chris

    Nicely done, Peter. And what a great line: “I want to stumble onto the fun.”

  • Don Pyeatt

    We hicks over here in Cowtown figgured this out decades ago. Remember Amon G. Carter, the Star-telegram founder, who pulled Big d around by its nose from the 1910s until the 1950s? He was always quick to tell people that if they wanted culture – go to dallas. If they wanted to have fun – come to Cowtown. I think the same advice still works today.

    Y’all come!

  • Joe Aristotle

    People have been predicting the downfall of Dallas for years. The fact is that Dallas is moving in a direction toward live-work distances shrinking even in automobile oriented areas. I didn’t attend the talk but this magazine, the Observer and the other press of Dallas act as if cities outside of Dallas do not exist. In 1950, 51% of people in the Dallas PMSA lived in Dallas. By 1980, that had dropped to 44%. In 2000, it was slightly more than 1/3. The fact is that most people in the Dallas area don’t live in Dallas. Distances to employment centers from housing in many areas are easily less than 3 miles for vast stretches of people. A majority? Of course not. As we see more and more mixed use and redevelopment areas come into being I would bet the average distances will shrink. Separate outer suburbs and I’ll bet they will drop even more as time goes on. It is very easy to take a static look and say “you are screwed.” People said Dallas would never get anywhere starting in the 50s and 60s and look what happened. Project into the future and things could be more rosy if people keep at it. Nothing is certain but “you are screwed” is fashionable nonsense.

  • Norman Howden

    Who wrote this crap? First off (I was there) there were about 1400 people in attendance – so the first sentence is way off. Second, the speaker’s thesis that people age 25 to 34 WANT to live within 3 miles of downtown in multi-family dwellings is absurd. She didn’t factor in the cost of commuting from ten or fifteen miles away or ask whether people can afford to live in the burbs while paying off astronomical college loans that impact their credit rating. Think also about the availability of attractive and affordable single family first homes.

  • so like…

    this story was well-written, but i clicked on it looking for information. not just information about what Coletta said, but from other sources. things i didn’t know. more than just nice writing about how essentially downtown is not fun and corporate. i wanted more stats, facts, comparisons to other cities, little-known, quirky things about downtown. i wanted more meat, this was pretty fluffy.

  • Good stuff, Peter. Thanks for this.

    @Don Pyeatt: There is more truth to what you say than I think you realize. I had a conversation the other day with two guys who pay attention to urban planning and design. One was from Dallas, the other from Fort Worth. They both agreed that Fort Worth leaders make things happen much more quickly than Dallas leaders. Here in Dallas, we throw a Better Block, and then it all goes back to the way it was when the weekend ends. In Fort Worth, they more often make such changes permanent.

  • Steven C

    Thanks for your perspective, but I think you could have written this piece regardless of whether you attended the luncheon or not. I attended as well. The headline is terribly sensational and has nothing to do with the event or the speech it claims to recap. I’ve seen many a post where writers for this magazine scold DMN for that kind of coverage. No doubt Downtown Dallas is a long, long way from realizing its full potential, but the progress over the last 10 years has been remarkable. And things HAVE gotten better. You CAN “stumble on to the fun” walking down Main Street on any given night. It’s only one street in a vast urban area, but at least it’s improving. And it’s improving in part because the city has worked with vendors and owners with an eye towards creating an urban environment. Some of your points here have basis and I agree many things could be done better, but please don’t misdirect the purpose of Ms. Colleta’s presentation (particularly one line that was humorously delivered and humorously received by the audience) to serve your purpose here. I think it’s important to focus on the successes at this luncheon to keep the Dallas business community behind progress for downtown, and that’s what this luncheon was trying to do.

  • @Norman: 100 tables, with ten people each=more than 1,000. But I added “tables” because I understand your confusion.

    @Steven C: I think focusing on the ‘successes’ is why Dallas is a bore. Yes, things are better than when downtown was less busy than Dresden c. 1945, but let’s please raise our expectations.

  • jrp

    nice job, Peter, good recap of the luncheon

    FWIW, this yankee carpetbagger has been saying as much since moving here six years ago … even used to have a lotta fun trading barbs with many former FrontBurnervians here on this blog

    anyway, it ain’t gonna happen. downtown Dallas will never be as vibrant as other large cities, as Dallas doesn’t do spontaneous.

    it may eventually eke out a vibrancy of its own, but as Tim alluded to about the Chinese New Year festivities, as whatever planned activity is over, everyone jumps in their car and goes on their way.

    it’s deflating, boring and kinda sad. it’s downtown Dallas

  • joe lindsay

    Finally the nail has been hit on the head. Stumble on to fun.

    I lived in cities that are considered fun when I was young: New Orleans, Paris, London & New York. When I was in college in New Orleans, on weekends a group of friends and I would just head for the French quarter. Often we had no particular destination in mind, we knew that if we went to the Quarter, we were going to stumble onto fun.

    Same thing in Paris. I just got back from visiting again. I would just head to the Marais, knowing I would stumble on to fun, or at least some thing interesting. In London we would head to Leicester square, knowing there would be some play, movie or other entertainment we would stumble on to.

    I think Dallas suffered a horrible mistake when Victory was built so far from the heart of downtown. To car-centric Dallasites, the location seems close, but it is much too far from the heart of downtown to walk. Pedestrian areas that are really vibrant have a lot densely packed where people can wander… without having to walk 20 minutes between points of interest.

    I think the West Village area/Uptown is well on its way to being a classic, walkable urban area.

    Downtown could definitely be tightened up. That is just what it needs.

    I think a cinematheque in the Arts District would also add life.

    AND PARKING, PARKING, PARKING, PARKING. Dallas should bite the bullet and realize that for the foreseeable future most pedestrians in Dallas are going to arrive at walkable areas by cars. If the CIty would build huge amounts of free or very cheap, convenient parking… even if it had to be amortised until the end of time, Imagine what an explosion of quality growth there would be. And on Lower Greenville if there were adequate parking? How much does any one think Walmart would sell if you had to pay to park there? Fantasies of people taking public transportation for a couple of hours to stumble on to fun, are just that. The Dallas area is far too dispersed for most people to take public transportation practically.

    The convention hotel may be bland, but it is proving very effective in reinvigorating Dallas’ convention/trade show business. I’m glad it’s there. You might as well give up on Dallas doing good architecture. It simply is not going to happen here. even apartment buildings are less interesting and harmonious than they were a generation or two ago.

  • Fred

    Fort Worth has a small downtown with one Disney-fied chain-friendly square. Dallas has a much larger downtown and that is a good and bad. Dallas also has many venues and popular areas circling it in 2-3 mile radius: Uptown, Oak Lawn, Knox-Henderson, Lower Greenville, Lakewood, Deep Ellum, Expo Park, Fair Park, the Cedars and North Oak Cliff/Bishop Arts and Fort Worth Avenue. These areas are starting to grow together with various redevelopments and connections.

    If could run things I would get the Statler Hilton, Tower Building and others full of these creative class people and start building smaller 5-6 story apartment complexes on many of the surface parking lots which plague downtown. And I’d hurry up those streetcar connections and finish out the subway station at Knox-Henderson.

  • WJ

    “Don’t go ‘buffalo hunting’ to score large corporate relocations, but rather focus on supporting small, local businesses downtown.”
    I once worked in Victory Park, where many of us were working for out-of-state owners. It’s almost as if Dallas thinks it has to build the space of another city (NY), and then fill it with other cities’ businesses in order to offer something appealing. So we get a knock-off, and so do our tourists. We don’t believe in ourselves from the planning stage. We don’t believe in our own talent pool. What makes it “Dallas”? What does it mean to be “Dallas”?
    One day there was an artist in the plaza taking donations to paint representations of donators’ stories into his painting. He would then retell some of the varied stories represented throughout his canvas. Some tourists there found this charming. WFAA made sure no one could “stumble onto the fun” and cleared him off, ostensibly because they had to do a shoot there shortly. They prefer their viewers, ostensibly, to know our public spaces are ghost towns. I’ve stumbled onto street artists from pedestrian zones in Bath, to La Rambla in Barcelona, to Oaxaca City, to Sixth Street. There were vibrant locals mixing with vibrant tourists in all the vibrancy. I’ve lived in many Texas cities, and Dallas is a curiosity. For all the swagger, it doesn’t seem to like itself that much. But you can’t guilt the people into it. We need to find out what Dallas is, and offer it up. For us and for others.
    So, to contradict the author directly, desperate people steal others’ ideas. Desperate people have lost faith in themselves. A youthful artist, musician, chef imitates his heroes. In maturity he offers a unique voice, which in turn inspires others.
    Dallas, feel good about yourself. And then find a way to show it.

  • downtown_worker

    sensationalize |senˈsā sh ənlˌīz|
    verb [ trans. ]
    (esp. of a newspaper) present information about (something) in a way that provokes public interest and excitement, at the expense of accuracy

  • LJT

    I’m glad I didn’t walk away from the luncheon in such a pessimistic funk. The Houston Street Viaduct was right there Peter…perhaps you should have taken advantage. (Giggle).

    BTW – there were 125 tables.

  • @LJT: The viaduct? So that I could have been hit by a car on the way to my home in Oak Cliff? I think that would have proven my point.


  • Daniel

    Thoughtful and impressively written, as always, Peter. Still laughing at my shortcomings and ugliness.

  • LJT

    I meant more in terms of taking a leap into the temporarily mighty Trinity. I kid, I kid. I guess now I’m even more surprised at your Holden Caulfield-esque cyncisim knowing you’re a fellow Cliff Dweller – we’re generally an optimistic bunch 🙂

    Still not sure what was “blood haired” about the speaker? She looked more snow-haired to me.

  • Bob Loblaw

    Dallas faces the same difficulties as other cities without natural barriers to growth (like being on an island),–it’s easier and cheaper to build further-and-further out. The only thing that will cure that, eventually, is $10 a gallon gas. I think that one factor explains almost all of Europe.

  • alice

    Excellent article. Despite the positive functional improvement of having the new hotel connected to our convention center, the Omni is an urban design missed opportunity. The building does not engage the street! However, Dallas downtown is SO much better than 3 years ago and we just need to plow forward with small community activism as the speaker said.

    Bravo for this piece.

  • Wynne

    I agree almost 100 percent with the points made in this article. That said, I have head Ms. Colella’s comments, and read this article it seems, 100 times before. This article offered absolutely nothing I havent heard stated by others, in other places, for the past 10 years now.

    So the reason for this long article was? I mean, it is all well-intended, but it is like reading a really big long article about a meeting in Dallas where a large group of people are told that education is a really vital part of any city’s success and much more needs to be done to improve the DISD.

    Truly?! What a novel premise?!

    Sorry, but I’ve heard it all before, over and over and over. This was merely Chapter 4 of a book I put down many months ago.

  • Daniel

    The problem with the Omni is not that it isn’t Dallas. The problem with Dallas is that it is.

  • Leyla

    This is a VERY well written very well thought out article… exactly points out why I moved to Austin as soon as I could.

  • john

    I know that Dallas has voted Democratic in the last few elections, but it seems the people that make the decisions and dictate the direction the city is heading are white, straight, baptist, republican, middle-aged, suburban men. Can a city ever be a really cool, vibrant, urban city when the folks that are running it fall into this category? The Baptist, conservative, bubba influence is too strong here, and currently overrules any chance of the city becoming a fun, spontaneous, cool place. For instance, the Japanese festival that Tim Rodgers alluded to, where Dallas once again ruined any chance of it being fun; why would they limit the areas where you can drink beer? Why would the food-trucks shut down early? Probably because they wanted to do just enough to make it appear cool, but didn’t want it to get out of hand. The areas of the city that are becoming neat are doing it in spite of the city, for instance Oak Lawn, Uptown, Knox-Henderson, Bishop Arts. These areas are becoming neat areas without any assistance or involvement by the city. Now if we could just connect those areas and make it one big contiguous city of fun, rather than folks having to get in their cars and drive everywhere. One thing the city really needs to get moving on is some kind of free connector bus connecting all these points.

  • so glad to see all these folks engaged in writing comments…now continue your engagement and help our city become what you’d like it to be…gripers get us no where

  • jason

    She’s got a point but NYC is too expensive and anyone who ends up living there, ends up commuting more than in dfw, and then moving away by 40. Or younger. Austins traffic sucks maybe worse than dallas and there are no jobs. Dallas is in the top 5 for that demographic. What the area needs to do is improve pockets, like lake highlands, or lewisville and downtown, all places that have the business where this demo come to make money. I can’t believe how lake highlands is stiffled and I promise that’s an area where a lot of that demographic is moving too.

  • jason

    Also, fort worth doesn’t even compare, cool dwntwn for a city smaller than grapevine. And talk about traffic…

  • Investor

    The problem with downtown….. it is hard to develop a retail base when the realtors are charging the same rate as other areas in Dallas, and at this time, downtown only supports 2+ hours a day, 5 days a week in business. i have looked at the downtown area to invest, but I can get the same price space in oaklawn and be open with a client base 24 hours 7 days a week. The numbers do not make sense, and as soon as the realtors figure that out and stop inflating the numbers to the property owners, then downtown will grow.

  • rantanamo

    The only thing that will create that vibrancy is getting people to live down there. To get people to live there, there must be units to live in. That in turn will attract others. Why am I reading nothing here about the numerous buildings under renovation? Also, why don’t developers build new residential buildings downtown?

  • CWTX

    Dallas is lacking an effective and safe transit system. Go to NJ/NY – the path station will take you where you need to go…and if not, it will drop you off within feasible walking distance. It was, in my opinion, an extreme lack of foresight by not connecting the DART rail to the Cowboys Stadium/Ball Park in Arlington….the rail needs to shoot up the tollway into Plano/Frisco with stops at the Galleria and have stops in downtown. However, with that addition of efficiency in transportation, Downtown Dallas/Main street/Commerce Street HAS to have points of interest. Sure, Neimans is great, but that cannot sustain an influx of people. The New York’s, The Chicago’s, etc….they have a thriving downtown because shopping, restaurants, and bars, are all intertwined throughout the city.

  • twisted

    Dallas downtown has potential but a lot of work needs to be done.
    -For starters update the existing infrastructure
    -Put more police presence at night, near night-time venues (clubs bars lunges) so people feel safe and want to visit downtown during nights and weekends.
    – ‘Broken Windows’ is a concept that states if you have one broken window it will project an image of neglect to the good and the bad people and the good folks will stop coming while the bad ones will come in hoards. So fix every broken window (aka fix all visual issues like graffitti, lamps, streets, sidewalks)
    -Come up with a plan to make it SAFE walk-able area.
    -Texas is pretty stupid they dont have a state income tax but then they nickel and dime you with higher property taxes and all sorts of other fees, when other states just use the tax money to make their cities/state better planned with better infrastructure, adequate police force, etc. Example MN, CO, IL, IN…freakin name a state and their cities are safer than cities in TX (except maybe Austin)……stupid Texans end up paying the same in tax one way or the other and end up living in crappier cities, where the planning is poor, the security is poor and infra is poor then they spend extra on buying guns to protect themselves, installing security systems, living in half million dollar homes with low cost apartments across from their expensive home….geez….what idiots.

  • Ian

    You spelled kitsch wrong and it ruined everything.

  • Mitch

    Peter, this is not journalism; this is you masturbating your verbosity. Your point about integrating areas instead of having developers silo their own shrines to themselves is exactly right. But in your position, I’m surprised you haven’t heard of the Woodall platform park, which is a major step in that direction that shows that the leadership _does_ get that point. Huge unintelligent omission on your part, but then again I realize you weren’t really trying to produce journalism or a city, just ad sales.

  • Excellent goods from you, man. I’ve keep in mind your stuff previous to and you’re simply too great. I really like what you’ve bought right here, certainly like what you are stating and the way in which by which you are saying it. You’re making it enjoyable and you continue to care for to stay it sensible. I can not wait to read much more from you. That is really a great site.