Over the last decade, Dallas has truly become an urban “place.” Uptown, Deep Ellum, Bishop Arts, and Trinity Groves are all booming. We have the most talented development community in the United States, and the individual efforts of these developers has created one of the best skylines in the world, filled with fantastic projects.
To maintain this momentum, which is vital to the financial health and vibrancy of the city, Dallas should now focus on putting in place a zoning and planning regime that is geared toward 21st century urban development, promoting the development of place and not just project, that prescribes rather than prohibits (“do this” rather than “you can’t do that”). Our zoning and planning should focus less on preventing bad uses, and more on creating good urban form streets and neighborhoods.
As Dallas continues to grow, we need to embrace density for the city core. Density is not the enemy—the poor form that density can take under our current zoning codes is the real culprit. We currently have pieces of chopped-up planned developments and sub-districts, over 100 in the Uptown area alone, which have shredded the zoning code beyond meaning. This one-off zoning unfairly dilutes a coherent vision of the city’s future—and it hasn’t prevented bad buildings. We continue to have buildings set back from the street by parking lots and drive-thrus; entire block lengths of buildings with parking garages at the ground floor; and other buildings looming too close to busy streets with neither parallel parking nor decent sidewalks to create a pedestrian realm. Regulation of use, rather than form, results in 75-year-old buildings that are out of place, devoid of contextual character, and that ultimately do not create or promote lasting value for the city.
Traditional zoning is regulated by abstract numerical tools such as “dwelling units per acre” and “floor area ratios” that provide an artificial and misleading level of specificity and precision. A density of 20 dwelling units per acre can result in many different building forms. Under our current zoning codes, a developer can design a terrible building with low density that kills the street or a great place for the neighborhood that is higher density. In Mumbai, there is a 27 story single-family home and regulating by number of units would allow a building like this in Oak Lawn. When you regulate by use alone, you often prevent unexpected, wonderful mixes of uses. A car dealership on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco or a McDonalds in the heart of Rome near the Spanish Steps would both not be allowed under standard zoning codes. Yet both exist today and when the form is approached correctly, unexpected uses can be good neighbors. Form frames the street and catches the imagination; form creates the neighborhood’s feel
Our current zoning regulations for core neighborhoods (say within a 5-mile radius around the Central Business District) should be reconsidered and modernized to promote the streets and neighborhoods we envision and desire for Dallas’ future. Patrick Kennedy, a local urban planner, describes, “[Regulating form] increases the dialogue between buildings and the public realm as well as between buildings. It ensures buildings activate the streetscape which increases pedestrian activity, the proximity of amenities, and services and safety to residents.”
We need to control building form first with the goal of achieving our vision—promoting the development of desirable neighborhoods that are safe for walking and biking. Places where moving down the block and across the street is a pleasant experience; places where there is order to the street that promotes the overall experience of the built environment. Regulating by form, developers would not only be allowed, but encouraged to build neighborhoods where the look and function of the buildings are more important than what happens inside of them. Regulating form can assure that desirable change and development occur.
Often the first concern in zoning is traffic and congestion. People equate density with traffic and congestion. Density doesn’t cause traffic—traffic results when people have no choice but to get in their car to do anything or go anywhere and where the traffic speed in disruptive to the neighborhood and street. We need to be creating places that minimize forced driving, shorten drive times and reduce traffic speed. We need places that encourage local functionality where people can accomplish their day to day activities with options such as by car, walking, biking, or transit. Regulating by form allows uses to more easily mix which increases our means of mobility, whereas traditional zoning is not currently serving the increasing desire of places where we can live, work, and play in one place. Well-constructed neighborhoods of multi-functional streets allow for increased congestion at slower speeds to still flow along multiple distribution channels rather than sitting on a highway. Quality development and quality neighborhoods arise where there is slower traffic, where people take multiple routes. Only infrequently and artificially do quality developments arise along a highway.
Where traffic is slow, metered, and meandering, “congestion” may occur, but it is multi-modal congestion. In these cases pedestrians are walking while cars are moving at 30 miles per hour or less, cycling is encouraged and sidewalk cafes arise. We all know and love these kinds of places: Bishop Arts, Main Street in Downtown, lower McKinney Avenue, etc. With increased density developed with correct form, Dallas will enjoy a larger tax base and will allocate its existing infrastructure costs across more density. With denser neighborhoods, we will spend less on large-scale transportation projects that only induce traffic demand and perpetuate traffic problems. With increased density, we end up spending less and will get more.
If we view our neighborhoods holistically, the overall neighborhood is far more important than the zoning of a specific site within that neighborhood. In the long-term, as neighborhoods improve they become endearing and more desirable places to live and develop. The key is to be concerned with the appropriate form in the appropriate place, rather than density in the abstract or site specific zoning. As Patrick Kennedy agrees, “[Regulating form] increases predictability for investors, developers and the neighborhood alike. They know what kind of development will happen around them without fear of something incompatible going in next door.” The allowable density across the street is less important than how that development will help frame and shape the street, which acts as the “space between” the projects, and which is really public domain that developers, the city, and the neighborhoods should all want to enhance. Monolithic buildings that put inactive uses on the street and don’t hold the street edge kill neighborhoods and destroy any sense of place. It is to the benefit of the entirety if we create better neighborhoods and environments that are prosperous, active, and self-sustaining.
At the heart of regulating form is the aim of creating a great city. Dallas has invested in and created some great urban moments, Klyde Warren Park for example, but these types of large-scale public spaces are episodic and expensive. We more effectively and efficiently create great neighborhoods and great urban experiences by focusing on regulating form, thereby promoting the interface between private development and public realms. Conventional zoning focuses on privately owned land and ignores the connection to the public realm, the part of the city that belongs to all of us. A vital public realm is a valuable asset that promotes community identity, creates a sense of place, and provides economic development opportunities.
Dallas has always been a city of optimists, a city of vision. Our vision should not just be to the skyline, but should focus on neighborhood streets. Form based zoning in our urban core communities would remove the myopic scrutiny of individual sites and developments, and instead channel our energies to creating great neighborhoods, for the greater benefit of the city as a whole.
Doug Chesnut is the CEO of StreetLights Residential.
Bob Voelker is the senior vice president and general counsel at StreetLights Residential.
Meaghan Kroener Janson is a senior project manager of development at StreetLights Residential.