Preston Center Pavilion and Square

Urbanism

Dallas’ Challenge: Creating Walkable Neighborhoods Without Leaving Communities Behind

A study on the region’s 38 “WalkUPs” puts data to the city’s struggles toward adding affordable housing and efficient public transit to its most desirable neighborhoods.

As a recent report lays out in detail, walkable urban neighborhoods provide vast economic opportunity. The “WalkUP Wake-Up Call” identifies 38 walkable neighborhoods as existing in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area. These account for 12 percent of North Texas’ entire gross regional product. They fuel more efficient economies, and developers have taken notice. About a quarter of all of DFW’s multifamily rental housing went into those 38 areas during the last real estate cycle. (Our Peter Simek wrote about the study previously.)

However, there aren’t many urban areas that have managed to become booming economic engines without pricing out a significant portion of the populace. It’s partly an issue of supply and demand—these are intensely desirable places to live and work, but they occupy just .12 of one percent of the region’s land mass. This follows conventional wisdom about displacement in our city, too. These neighborhoods sport rents that are 37 percent higher than the regional average, making affordability difficult for many, concentrating those who can afford it. Building a more walkable future equitably becomes a trickier proposition that begins with a simple choice, says Chris Leinberger, a professor and chair of the Center for Real Estate & Urban Analysis at George Washington University, which conducted the study.

“The real issue is having the intention to do this,” Leinberger says.

Within the study, each of the 38 WalkUPs are grouped into tiers—platinum, gold, silver, and copper—based on both economic and social equity indicators. The equity groupings are a reflection of housing prices, transit accessibility, and the area’s mix of rental and for-sale housing. Leinberger’s team created an index to consider those factors as they relate to one another.

When the team studied other regions, they found in the equity category a near-even distribution between gold and silver—plenty of neighborhoods have good access to public transit and somewhat mixed housing costs. Here, that’s not the case. Of the 38 WalkUPs, only one received a platinum rating for social equity. Relative to the region’s other WalkUPs, East Jefferson, in North Oak Cliff, performed best. Just four (Baylor University Medical Center in Old East Dallas, Magnolia/Fairmount in Fort Worth, the Bishop Arts District, and Lower Greenville) received a gold rating. That leaves a whole mess of development in the silver range, and two dipping into copper. Meaning prices are high and access to public transportation is poor.

“My personal interpretation would be there’s something going on here—in terms of how housing and transportation are regulated and organized—that is a social problem,” says Tracy Loh, a senior data scientist with the center.

Several mayoral candidates have made displacement and transit access a key piece of their campaign platforms. But outside of lobbying our elected officials to make policy changes, how can the city produce more equitable urban development? It’s easy to imagine shadowy New York-based real estate investment trusts shoving high-dollar developments in every neighborhood that’s the least bit walkable to make a sure profit. But Loh says there are ways to partner with community members so that the existing community is not viewed as a commodity.

“There’s a need for leadership and there’s a need for leadership to be well-capitalized,” she says. “When you hear about a success story in these environments, it’s never, ‘We all just wanted to do the right thing.’ It’s, ‘We got organized, and we raised half a billion dollars.’”

The study identifies potential for more walkable urban areas across DFW. In Dallas, it pegs Fair Park, Zoo Park, Lake Cliff, and the DART Royal Lane Station. Getting there will take key improvements in the city’s transportation ecosystem.

“You have continued to sprawl more and more toward the fringe,” says Leinberger. “That fringe is 40 miles from downtown Dallas. Folks that live around Fair Park and south have a choice to either not participate in society or drive horrendous distances at great financial cost.”

And then there are the areas that have succeeded in becoming walkable economic machines but lag behind in the measures used to identify equity. In grouping the 38 WalkUPs into economic tiers, the study considers metrics like asking rent per square foot, place-level gross regional product, and total jobs per acre. So let’s take Preston Center, the study’s only platinum economic rating. When it comes to social equity, it’s one of the two worst WalkUPs in the region, receiving a copper rating alongside Southlake Town Center.

Fixing that calls for creativity. Leinberger suggests inclusionary zoning, requiring 15 percent of all new housing units meet the federal standard for subsidized housing projects. Without diving into the way its calculated, a family making $61,760 a year in DFW would spend $1,544 a month in rent on what would be considered affordable housing. Leinberger also suggests developing public land for use toward cheaper units. And he suggests working toward a goal in which everyone employed in the city center would be able to afford living there.

The zoning around Preston Center is a particularly hot-button issue, one that drew former mayor Laura Miller out of public office retirement for a City Council run. (She’ll debate sitting Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates about the neighborhood and more later this month.)

Above all, making equitable changes in Preston Center starts with willingness, same as anywhere, says Leinberger.

“For Dallas, this is one of those fat and dumb situations. You’re fat and dumb,” he says.

Conventional wisdom would be not to change anything. But the economy is beginning to demand walkable urban places. He points to Amazon’s prioritization of walkable urban space in its pursuit of a home for its HQ2.

“Nobody’s saying that Dallas should forego the car, forego single-family housing, forego regional malls,” he says. “We’re just saying add more arrows to the quiver.”

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