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

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