There is a battle raging in Plano, a healthy and necessary one, as the suburban city moves forward with its new comprehensive plan. The policy document was approved by Plano’s council yesterday, even though hundreds of residents showed up to oppose it. The contention is understandable. The new plan sets an ambitious course for a more urban future in the community that, through the 1980s and 1990s, served as DFW’s archetypal suburban community. The new land use proposals still call for reserving a little over 50 percent of Plano’s land for suburban neighborhoods. But the city that is running out of vacant land also hopes to add a lot of dense, mixed-use infill development.
I haven’t dug into it in too much detail, but from a surface overview, Plano’s new comprehensive plan looks smart. The city seems to have internalized has the lessons of the inner-ring burbs – that the mechanics of suburban sprawl place an expired-by date on entire communities. As new development explodes up the Dallas North Tollway and North Central Expressway, and the region’s oldest suburbs struggle with decay and dwindling tax bases, suburban cities need to reimagine themselves as multifaceted urban and suburban clusters. Or, as I once argued, a model of DFW’s sustainability can be found in the Ruhr Valley and its network of dense mini-cities. That’s exactly what Plano’s plan tries to do, taking advantage of its connections via DART, successes like downtown Plano and the Shops at Legacy, and re-envisioning the potential of outdated strip malls and big box-style development sites.
There are two things that stand out in the plan. The first is the detailed approach it takes to community design, laying out acceptable block sizes and street lengths, offering guidelines that discourage surface lots and encourage parking to be placed behind new developments, presenting architectural requirements, and putting forth all the increasingly standard urban design criteria which attempt to encourage more walkable, human-scaled development.
The other thing that I like about Plano’s plan is that it doesn’t just lay out a vision, it establishes a firm and transparent means to implement and monitor that vision. For example, the comprehensive plan’s land use policy statement calls for the review and evaluation of the existing zoning ordinance and zoning map. It also calls for the creation of regulations that incentivize the redevelopment of under-performing retail and multifamily. It also says that the plan should be evaluated every five years in order to adjust or adopted the plan to changing and evolving realities on the ground. These are concrete and realizable goals, and for each of the specific policy goals, there’s a nifty little status update bar which allows citizens the ability to see whether or not is actually taking place.
You might say that a little status bar on a website isn’t much, but let’s compare that for a moment to how Dallas handles the implementation of its own comprehensive plan. First, lets try to find the ForwardDallas! Comprehensive Plan online, which was adopted by the city in 2006. The city’s strategic planning division website offers pdfs of the plan documents. Then there’s FowardDallas.org, though it isn’t clear if that site is set up and run by the city or by some enthusiastic residents. After all, in addition to laying out some of the plan’s core values, the homepage of FowardDallas.org recommends that you go eat at Green Papaya on Oak Lawn.
“They move Dallas Forward by making super yummy food,” the mysterious author of FowardDallas.org tells us. “If you haven’t been there, you’re missing out.”
But I digress. There’s a simpler way to show how Dallas and Plano’s plans differ. It’s called the Uptown Sam’s Club. Approving zoning for a big box retailer with plenty of surface parking at a location of some of the highest-valued real estate in the state of Texas, surrounded by dense multi-family and multi-use development, is what happens when a comprehensive planning document lacks any real enforcement power.
The FowardDallas! plan does offer some policy suggestions, but they are vague and, now that it is nearly 10 years since the plan was adopted, shamefully out of date. For example, the very first policy item listed in the FowardDallas! land use plan is to implement the Trinity River Corridor Plan. How do we do that? Well, the city should, “Implement a coordinated public-private strategy to enhance conditions for redevelopment and new development opportunities in the Trinity River Corridor.” Well, we’ve seen how easy that has been.
These vagaries persist through the plan. For the southern sector, here’s the plan’s suggested policy: “Focus on developing strong middle-class neighborhoods anchored by successful schools and supported with sufficient retail.” That sounds swell, though I’m surprised they left out the phrase “world class.” The unanswered question, of course, is just how are we going to do that?
This is typical of the plan. ForwardDallas! offers no specifics, no checks and balances, and no quantitative guidelines or any way to track its progress. And whereas the new Plano plan includes a trigger mechanism that ensures the plan is evaluated and updated every five years, the Dallas plan is a decade old and no such re-evaluation has occurred.
The problem with ForwardDallas! is that it isn’t really a plan, but rather a guiding vision document that calls for the creation of multiple sub or area plans. ForwardDallas! pretends to measure progress in the creation of sub plans, but these sub plans don’t always get created, and they kick the difficult policy decisions down the road. They don’t protect Uptown from a Sam’s Club or explain the stagnation of the Trinity River Project. And even these sub plans have sub plans, like the Downtown 360 plan, which is currently undergoing a much-needed updating, in part, because it is seeking to untangle the many overlapping visions that have been created for downtown.
The lack of any actual method of establishing concrete goals and evaluating the progress of achieving those goals was the major find of a 2013 University of Texas at Dallas doctorate dissertation by Doric Earle. In his study of Dallas comprehensive plan, Earle found that the city failed to lay out any method of evaluation:
“Dallas spent two years and considerable expense to assess the opinions of the city’s populace, assess the potential development land, understand the city demographics, and to identify objectives for the Forward Dallas! Plan. Yet once those objectives were incorporated into the Plan no systems for data collection, analysis and dissemination were formulated as part of the planning process.“
Earle concludes that the plan lacks any “teeth,” which has certainly been borne out by the rag-tag recent history of development in Dallas.
“The fowardDallas! Plan lacked enforcement power,” Earle writes. “Leaving the Plan as simply an interesting guide to city planning.“
The adoption of Plano’s new comprehensive plan should be a wake-up call for the city. Unfortunately, the reality is that Dallas seems to simply be repeating its periodic exercise in meaningless planning. The city isn’t talking about updating its comprehensive plan. Instead, it is advancing a new vision-creating program, the Neighborhood Plus initiative, which is wrought with the same mushy, gushy vagaries and lack of quantitative or direct policy implications that plagued ForwardDallas!. Furthermore, Neighborhood Plus claims to replace the housing and neighborhoods component of ForwardDallas!, meaning the hopeless land use component of Dallas’ comprehensive plan remains in place and a decade out-of-date.
Creating a comprehensive plan that actually guides civic policy is not that difficult. Plano just did it. But then, that’s starting to sound like refrain around here. Plano creates a comprehensive plan. Houston builds a river park. Dallas? Well, Dallas specializes in visions, not reality.