The current version of City Manager T.C. Broadnax does not make it easy to write about his public appearances away from City Hall. In a Q&A at Downtown Dallas Inc.’s annual luncheon on Thursday, Broadnax spoke broadly about downtown but somehow left a Sheraton ballroom of about 300 business owners, developers, public officials, and downtown denizens no more enlightened about the city’s most important neighborhood and his plans for it than they were half an hour before he took the stage.
The city’s top executive either could not nor would not name a favorite downtown restaurant — “wherever my staff tells me,” he said — and his favorite downtown memory was of something he’d done recently, when he and his wife visited the Exchange Food Hall at AT&T’s Discovery District.
“I don’t have much joy in my life,” he said, apparently not joking but nonetheless cracking up the room.
I am being hard on Broadnax. He stepped in to replace Mayor Eric Johnson, who had come down with a breakthrough case of COVID-19. (He writes that he is recovering well. And tweeting.)
Downtown Dallas Inc., the nonprofit that manages the neighborhood’s public improvement district (PID), held its first in-person ballroom event in almost two years. Last year, the group’s annual meeting was streamed, with DDI president and CEO Kourtny Garrett touring downtown’s newest developments, speaking with the people responsible for them. Thursday’s event was scheduled to be held outdoors at Pacific Plaza, a way to celebrate downtown’s recent explosion of parks. But the wind had other plans, so the proceedings were hastily moved to the ballroom, where attendees ate sack lunches, some while standing at cocktail tables.
Garrett, who is headed to Denver after 20 years with DDI, ticked off the stats: $15 billion for the renovation of more than 40 vacant buildings; 13,000 residents in the central core of downtown and 4,000 units coming online; 16,000 students between the Dallas ISD schools and the colleges. Garrett has been at the helm while much of that progress was made.
Downtown added a new elementary school. DDI started homeless outreach teams to help the unhoused get services. The National, the previously doomed rehab of the 52-story First National Bank Tower, had sat empty since 2010 before developer Shawn Todd scooped it up. Garrett and DDI helped them get the historic-building tax credits to bring it back to life.
Todd also bought a bunch of buildings on the east side of downtown and rebranded it the East Quarter. Developer Mike Hoque is building a new mixed-use development on the vacant land behind City Hall. He’s also building out what he’s calling SoGood, another mixed-use giant a little south of the Farmers Market.
So, yes, activity, activity, activity. But Garrett is leaving town at a time of great transition. We still don’t know how the pandemic will affect demand for office space. (The good news is downtown never accounted for much sublease space, according to CoStar. Out of about 9.1 million available square feet across North Texas, the central business district accounted for about 368,000 total, with Uber’s sublease at the Epic in Deep Ellum eating up a third of that.)
DART has plans to build a subway through downtown. The Texas Department of Transportation is studying whether to remove the elevated I-345, and it is lowering Interstate 30 to better connect downtown with its surrounding neighborhoods. A bullet train terminus will likely locate in the Cedars.
Broadnax mostly stayed above all that, mentioning them but nothing more. We didn’t learn whether he’d prefer a depressed or removed I-345, only that he favors “infrastructure that supports mobility,” which is a bit like saying you prefer food that can be digested.
When the city manager was new here, back in 2017, he was honest and insightful in offsite chats, once expressing concern that the housing department had been filled with people reassigned after failing elsewhere in City Hall. He dug deep into housing policy and strategy.
Thursday was treated like a low-stakes council committee meeting: assuring the room that the work is ongoing. It would have been interesting to hear Broadnax’s thoughts on parking minimums, something the City Plan Commission is expected to take up next year. (Again, Broadnax mentioned this work but nothing beyond.) Or what the city is doing to motivate more affordable housing units in neighborhood like downtown, instead of only saying they’re needed so that more people of different incomes can live near transit and their jobs. To each of Garrett’s questions, he offered beautifully crafted answers that sounded sweet but conveyed nothing. He spun cotton candy from thin air.
Downtown is at an interesting juncture. Nathaniel Barrett, the urbanist and real estate developer and must-follow Twitterer, posted Census data from job numbers within a radius bordered by downtown’s highways: they’ve basically been stagnant since 2002, hovering between 101,000 and 109,000.
The decennial Census was not kind to this city. Dallas County has added only about 44,000 people in the last five years, something that took Collin just 18 months. In 2020, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan Area added 120,000 people; only 285 of those were in Dallas proper. That number blows my mind. It should also send a message to those in charge about policy and development.
Going back to Mayor Mike Rawlings’ administration, the messaging has been that a strong downtown Dallas is important for the region as a whole. There is a ton of activity happening, but the major policy and development decisions that are coming—the future of I-345, the D2 subway (which is mostly resolved), parking reform, the upcoming overhaul of the city’s land use policy—will have an enormous impact on the future of downtown. I remain eager to hear the city manager’s thoughts on these matters.
Garrett has done great work during her time with Downtown Dallas Inc. Downtown is a better place for her leadership, and I have no doubt that Denver will benefit from her skills and knowledge. But downtown still has some really obvious shortcomings. After the meeting, heading back to the office, I walked behind Tim Rogers and Peter Simek along Olive Street. The sidewalk in front of the largest hotel in Dallas was too narrow for three people to walk abreast. Broadnax could start there. Or at least say it.