Grocery or Big Box In Downtown Dallas? Or, Why Inequality Needs to be Part of Urbanism Conversation.

Cue panic. Could Sam’s Club be invading downtown too?

1401 Elm
1401 Elm

There’s an interesting tidbit on Unfair Park this morning about the possibility of a new, large-scale retailer coming to the ground floor of 1401 Elm, the largest vacant building in the Central Business District.  The Observer’s Stephen Young makes a heads-up observation. Back in January 2014, the developer of 1401 Elm requested TIF funds from the city, and the request said the project would include 25,000 square feet of retail or restaurant space and 40,000 square feet of office. Now, the developer has come back to the city with a revised outlook: how about just 65,000 square feet of commercial space? That, according to city staff, would allow the developer more flexibility for things like bringing in an upscale grocer to take over the building’s 50,000 square feet of ground floor retail.

But wait. Young points to a Dallas Business Journal article from December in which Jack Gosnell, who is brokering the retail for the site, suggests that the same space might be good for a “big box retailer or a department store.”

Cue panic. Could Sam’s Club be invading downtown, too?

Actually, I’m glad this has come up because it creates an opportunity to clarify something with regards to how we talk about urbanism. A few weeks ago, when I posted an item I wrote about the Uptown Sam’s Club to my Facebook page, I got reamed in the comments by someone calling my opposition to the Sam’s Club “elitist,” suggesting those who opposed Sam’s Club were all “kale eaters” and things like that. The comment, I believe, strikes to the heart of a significant misunderstanding that often muddles conversations about urbanism, highways, and regionalism.

Too often the idea of urbanization is associated with gentrification. Those who support dense, walkable communities are assumed to also be people who want these things because they like artisanal cheese shops, copious yoga studios, and the rest. The conclusion: re-urbanists are elitist yuppies, and their opposition to things like Sam’s Club is a reflection of their larger project — that is, to impose the tastes and values of a certain class on the poorer, weaker classes.

It is an easy mistake to make. After all, in the last 20 to 30 years, the rapid growth and success in cities on the east and west coasts has been paired with gross displacement, neighborhood disintegration, astronomical rises in real estate values, and cities whose geography is increasingly an expression of broad-based income inequality. For example, the average sales price of a co-op or condo in Manhattan now exceeds $1.68 million, and real estate speculators are pouncing on East New York, which means gentrification has finally pushed to the outer limits of the boroughs. One study showed that income inequality in San Francisco is on par with Rwanda. When we say we want to turn Dallas into a dense, urban, walkable city, it is easy for critics to say that we want to turn Dallas into an overly expensive enclave of young professionals who price-out the city center for middle class families and lower income citizens alike.

But urban density does not necessarily need to equate to a city segregated geographically by class. Given the relatively short supply of urban housing stock in downtown and uptown, left unchecked, any redevelopment of the central core will tend towards high-end luxury lifestyle apartments and condos. But this doesn’t have to be the case. One development I have been keeping an eye is the Belleview Apartments recently opened by Matthews Southwest in The Cedars. While the architecture leaves something to be desired, the Belleview is a remarkably forward-thinking project, combining market rate and workforce housing as well as an evolving program of amenities specifically tailored to attract service professionals who work downtown to affordable housing nearby in The Cedars. It is an example of how a high-end boom can bring jobs to the center, while a variety of incentives can create a market for housing that can accommodate those new workers without forcing them to rely on long commutes.

We have been talking a lot about the importance of density, reviving the core, rethinking our transportation network, and trying to build a future for Dallas that takes advantage of the social and economic efficiencies of a dense urban city center. So far, the conversation has revolved largely around transportation issues: how do we deal with the highways that strangle our downtown and discourage urban growth? The second important conversation, and one that is happening in fits and starts, is about land use. It is not enough to free up land for development, but we need to make sure that the development that happens in the city center is the right kind of development. This has been discussed with regards to the West Dallas redevelopment, as well as Uptown, the Cedars, rezoning in Oak Cliff, and elsewhere. Land use is also very important with regards to maximizing the potential of our public transit system. It is also the tragedy of the Uptown Sam’s Club situation — the design of the new big box is absolutely the wrong land use with regards to maximizing the potential of that area of the city.

The third conversation is a subset of the land use question. We need to make sure that whatever “New Dallas” we build is an equitable Dallas. That means strong and strict provisions for mixed-income housing within the center of the city, for promoting retail uses that serve the needs of people who live in these neighborhoods, and educational outreach to developers and other stakeholders to demonstrate why an economically diverse central Dallas will ultimately be a stronger central Dallas. We need to envision the city core as a network of real, livable neighborhoods, and not as designer playgrounds for the young and well-healed.

Which is all to say that I have no philosophical or absolute opposition to the idea of a Sam’s Club downtown. For me, it is not about the retail use, but the land use. If a Sam’s Club moved into a ground floor retail space downtown, and they didn’t require the leveling of city blocks for massive parking lots, then I don’t believe that would necessarily be a problem, just as I would rather have seen the Sam’s Club integrated into a denser, more walkable mixed-use new development at the site in Uptown. One caveat: the difficulty with Sam’s Club is that it is a regional destination shopping center, and their business model is reliant on attracting shoppers in cars who drive distances to shop at their store, load up their vehicles with mass quantities of product, and drive home. You could argue that a Sam’s Club would never be attracted to a mixed-use development in Uptown or a downtown office building because it requires the parking by design. For that same reason, I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a big box moving into the 50,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor of 1401 Elm. The space just doesn’t make sense for what they do.

A department store, on the other hand, is a different story. Given the nearby presence of Neiman Marcus, the anticipated arrival of Forty Five Ten, and other boutique shops in the CBD, bringing something like The Gap downtown might by the kind of victory that could jump-start more retail shopping downtown.

But what if city staff is actually just telling the truth on this one, and 1401 Elm may soon be home to an upscale grocer? Is Central Market (or someone like that) going to expand downtown? That would be its own kind of major win for downtown and downtown residents alike. The complete victory, though, would be if the developer of 1401 Elm set aside affordable living units in their building for the people working in that Central Market. Well, in fact, that is exactly the power TIF funds afford the city, the ability to require affordable housing in these kinds of projects. Ten percent of 1401 Elm will be affordable.

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