Shelter-in-place orders be damned, the Dallas City Council did hold its regularly scheduled briefing yesterday via teleconferencing and with relatively few technological hiccups. And while the end of the meeting brought some COVID-related debate around a proposed eviction ordinance (more on that soon), it was comforting to settle into a few presentations revolving around the usual, drab city business. The most interesting briefing addressed the city’s revived effort to steer development around so-called Transit-Oriented Developments.
Transit-Oriented Developments, or TODs, are central to the long-promised benefits of Dallas’ light rail network. When DART originally proposed the system back in the 1980s, the hope was that new rail stations would spur on new developments of dense housing and commercial real estate. Despite the agency’s continued touting of its TODS, redevelopment around DART stations has only happened sporadically, perhaps most visibly at the Mockingbird Station. Yesterday’s presentation drove home how little development has actually been directly generated by the region’s light rail system.
Here are some of the most interesting numbers:
First off, development has largely ignored the city’s mass transit system. Only 9 percent of the city’s total land mass is withing a half-mile of a light rail station, and much of that land is still zoned for single-family or industrial use. The light rail network is accessible within a half-mile to roughly 13 percent of population and 39 percent of jobs. That disconnect between the rail network, jobs, and residents is one of the reasons why ridership is around 3.8 percent of the total population—a “significantly low number” compared to other cities, according to Peer Chacko, Dallas’ Director of Planning and Urban Design.
Part of the problem is that the city hasn’t acted to create the conditions for development around the approximately 2,700 acres of vacant land near transit, Chacko told the council. There are zoning, basic infrastructure, and financial challenges at many of the sites. That also means there remains a lot of potential for future development. If the city could manage to build new housing with a density of 20 units-per-acre, then you’re looking at a potential for adding an additional 54,000 residential unites near DART transit stations. That could be a serious boost for transit ridership, urban redevelopment, and affordable housing.
The good news is that the city and DART control a lot of that land. Dallas owns 1,460 acres near DART stations and DART controls 293. The bad news is that half of Dallas’ land is parkland, and the city doesn’t even know how much of the acreage is controlled by the Dallas Housing Authority, Dallas County, the Dallas County Community College District, or the Dallas Independent School District. In other words, 40 years into this whole DART experiment, in which the promise of stirring on TODs was integral to the success of the network and the economic benefits it might bring to the city, and no one is keeping track of a big chunk of the land that is best primed to be leverage for that development.
At least until now. Yesterday’s briefing kicked-off a years-long process of evaluation in which the city will finally wrap it hands around what land is available near DART, what land use policies are best suited to shape potential development, and what financial incentives will be needed to help steer that development to potential TOD sites. That this work hasn’t happened — or has only happened in a piecemeal fashion — is reflective of both the city’s characteristically hands-off approach to working with DART and the inconsistent, patchwork approach the city has taken towards land use, transit, and long-range planning in the past.
That inconsistency was reflected in many of the council members’ reactions to the presentation. Some pointed to potential sites that weren’t included in the early scope of city staff’s study, including potential development near the new Cotton Belt line. Others complained about long promised transit-oriented development that hasn’t happened, such as around the growing University of North Texas at Dallas campus.
But I’m going to remain hopeful on this one. I’m optimistic that the city is asking the right questions about TODs and appears willing to finally set in place clear policy goals around this kind of development. We will be able to measure the effectiveness of that policy not merely by the success of any future development around stations, but based on the city, DART, and other public entity’s ability to create new tools to capture whatever increased value is generated by that development. That has long been the missing piece in DART’s financial plan and approach to development: capturing the value created by public transit investment and reinvesting it in public transit service.