In what Downtown Dallas Inc. (DDI) does every day, building the center of our city, public-private partnerships are imperative. DDI was founded nearly 60 years ago on this principle, bringing together the voice of the private sector interested in the social, economic, cultural, and environmental health of downtown to work with public sector to advance both large scale projects, as well as everyday stewardship of the urban experience. Whether luring Amazon’s HQ2, growing AT&T’s global headquarters, or creating new programs to activate vacancy and keeping our streets clean and safe, it takes leadership from both sides of the horseshoe.
Over the last year, there has no doubt been a great deal of change. New players are in old roles, old players are in new roles, and there is an undeniable sense that Dallas is headed in a new direction. I’m often asked, “What do you think about the new leadership at City Hall?” So last month, we brought together a panel of some of the new city of Dallas leadership team to talk to our Board of Directors about their vision, perspectives on partnerships, and upcoming priorities. The group included: Kim Tolbert, Chief of Staff, City Manager’s Office and Assistant City Managers Majed Al-Ghafry, Jody Puckett, and Joey Zapata who are all leading critical initiatives to the future of downtown. And adding to the discussion, City Council Member Philip Kingston, whose District 14 includes a good portion of downtown, joined the panel to offer his perspective on policy, politics, and what we might expect to see next.
We first wanted to hear about the city of Dallas management changes. Who’s doing what and why? At our fall membership luncheon last month, City Manager T.C. Broadnax addressed much of this question. “I think the time I spent early on out in the community talking to people about City Hall and some of the things they’ve been challenged with have really laid the foundation for me as it relates to the things I need to work on,” Broadnax says. Kim Tolbert reinforced three priorities of the City Manager’s Office: transparency, performance, and accountability in a rebranded office, now coined “Office of Strategic Partnerships and Government Affairs.” “That’s really our goal in what we’re doing right now,” she says, “to ensure that people see us as accountable public servants and that they see us being transparent and holding ourselves accountable as it relates to the way we perform. We want to take that mystery out of City Hall.”
Next came questions about the bond. Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry has been leading the assemblage of the bond package since taking his seat at Dallas City Hall six months ago. At just over $1 billion, the package is comprised of 10 propositions, with roughly half of the total allocated to over 1,000 streets projects in Proposition A, including improvements in the Dallas Arts District. Another priority of DDI’s is within the parks proposition, Proposition B, which will fund all or parts of over 163 projects, including four additional signature parks in downtown Dallas. Funding of those four signature parks, as identified in the Parks Master Plan, will be matched by more than $40 million from the Parks for Downtown Dallas Foundation. “I have to say thank you to Parks for Downtown Dallas for putting such an opportunity in the hands of the voters,” commented Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata, whose departmental oversight includes Park and Recreation. “The parks are meant to be the connective tissue. They’re meant to be the things that make Downtown more walkable, that make it more attractive, that bring more activity so that people feel if they come downtown maybe for a meeting or something, they have somewhere else to go; and its working.”
Also included in the parks proposition are matching funds for the Klyde Warren Park extension and The Loop Trail, an effort that will, according to their web site, “link our neighborhoods to transportation hubs and economic centers” surrounding the city’s urban core. In addition, critical improvements to key cultural and city facilities in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are included in Propositions H and F, and funding for permanent supportive and transitional housing facilities are included in Proposition J.
Moving from the bond into more everyday business, an ongoing task for DDI is to advocate for making it “easier to do business” with the City of Dallas. And Mr. Al-Ghafry, whose responsibilities include the Sustainable Development and Construction department, is working on a plan to do just that. His department is creating efficiencies for every project, whether a multi-million dollar development or small business seeking an occupancy certificate. “I’m going through assessment of each division;” Al-Ghafry says, “The wait time sometimes is really outrageous. The plan review process is paper-based; it’s linear from one division to another division, which means it takes a long, long time in the process instead of having processes go simultaneously.” He complimented the staff, but pointed to processes and communication deficiencies as disruptive in the current system. His evaluation process has begun to include developers and contractor associations so that, “We talk about some of the issues and put specific items that we need to address in timelines.”
Related, Ms. Tolbert addressed some new initiatives coming out of the Office of Economic Development and Neighborhood Services, headed by Chief Raquel Favela, who is described by Tolbert as being “data-driven.” True to character, Favela has launched a Market Value Analysis, which will evaluate on a parcel-by-parcel basis where, why, and how investment has been effective (or not), and where resources should be re-directed. “We want to be a leader when it comes to economic development and being able to ensure that we have the processes and systems in place as to how we make those decisions,” Tolbert says.
On the topic of mobility, with the upcoming 360 Plan update and recent headlines surrounding advancement of TxDOT’s study of I-345 removal, along with a complementary economic impact and housing study led by the city of Dallas, word of a newly reorganized Transportation Department, under Assistant City Manager Al-Ghafry’s direction, is of high interest to downtown and DDI. Al-Ghafry’s intent is for the City of Dallas to take a leadership role in transportation planning to advance what is in the best interest of Dallas; the city center is a significant piece of that. Al-Ghafry says, “The first week I was in the role, T.C. [Broadnax] and I talked about the need to have a leadership role in the region. There’s a need for us to really be driving the bus in the future. Now [in the new structure] we have two departments; public works that focuses on the brick and mortar and transportation department that focuses not only on mobility, but also on transportation planning and the things that we need to do for the future.”
Finally, returning to the importance of partnerships, we asked the group to talk about education, specifically, how we work together to advance our efforts to get more great schools downtown. Ms. Tolbert responded with a priority on frequent meetings between the City and Dallas ISD management teams. “We have to do a better job of preparing and training a skilled workforce. We believe the best place to start is in the school district. That’s one of those partnerships that we’re looking to expand upon where we’re being more proactive in how we’re engaging.”
Why are the goings-on at City Hall important to the real estate community, particularly in downtown? In our experience, from infrastructure, streets and parks to housing, commercial development and education, no one entity can be successful without the other. When the entrepreneurship, innovation and investment from the private sector are matched with vision, policy support and action from the public sector, successful city-building initiatives are born.
Kourtny Garrett is president and CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc.