Wednesday, May 29, 2024 May 29, 2024
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In Dallas, Even the Sidewalks Are for Sale

The city of Dallas is pushing a plan to raise revenue by allowing digital kiosks on public right of way. Few seem happy about it.
A tubular kiosk on a sidewalk in Exposition Park. There are 137 of these around the city, according to Dallas' Department of Public Works. Matt Goodman

The city of Dallas once again wants to monetize its sidewalks. Later today, the Dallas City Council will be briefed on a plan to enter into a contract in June with a company that will plant interactive digital kiosks in downtown and other neighborhoods, likely on sidewalks. The vendor would make money from advertising and share the revenue with the city for permission to use Dallas’ right of way.

We’ve been through this before. There are 137 bulbous kiosks presently jutting out into walking paths all over the city, from downtown up to Forest Lane. The City Council unanimously approved them in 2005 and by the next year, then Mayor Laura Miller was complaining about the “giant spaceship[s]” on our public sidewalks. Whoops! Today, 18 years since their installation, some slump and lean. The plastic that covers the ad has turned scratched and cloudy, a decent canvas for quick graffiti. Some of them were placed, as the image above these words shows, right where people walk. The city can’t pull them up until 2026, when the existing contract expires.

I suppose it’s important to note that the kiosks the City Council will learn about today are not exactly like the tubes that we’ve learned to live with. They’re sleeker, about 8 feet tall and 3 feet wide, compared to the 6-foot-tall, 4-foot-deep stubs that don’t do much other than show you an Amazon Prime ad. The new ones will have wifi. They can provide directions and highlight events and other amenities. Some can have EV charging, which might work near parks. The presentation also lists such unbelievably vague and nebulous benefits as, in the city’s words, “limitless innovation” that promises “development of state-of-the-art content and features.”

So they’re like a bunch of really big, static smartphones that we may or may not have to dodge as we’re walking to work. And we’ll have them by the World Cup! And when the World Cup leaves, we’ll still have them.

Since 2006, the city has made $16.7 million from the kiosk program, which sort of sounds like the municipal version of a low-yield savings account. There are many people who don’t think the potential revenue is worth the risk of worsening our already subpar pedestrian infrastructure. Too, the Department of Public Works didn’t ask for public input before putting the matter out to bid. Downtown businesses, already frustrated by the existing obstacle course of kiosks, raised a stink. In February, the City Council ordered public works to pull the bid and hold a couple of listening sessions, which concluded this week.

They did not find much support for the idea.

“This plan has been met with overwhelming opposition from stakeholders throughout the greater Downtown area who say there is no appetite for more urban sidewalk obstructions,” said Jennifer Scripps, the executive director of Downtown Dallas Inc. Her concerns were echoed by Councilmember Paul Ridley, whose district includes downtown, Uptown, and portions of East Dallas. DDI on Tuesday night sent a letter to Council urging them to deny issuing another Request for Proposals. (The RFP is the formal name for the bid.)

Where you can find existing kiosks downtown. Downtown Dallas Inc.

Stephanie Hudiburg, the executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation, pointed to the special purpose sign district ordinance that explicitly bans digital displays and signage in the neighborhood just east of downtown. (The foundation hasn’t submitted an official stance to the city, but it seems like they got ahead of the issue.)

“A large part of the intent behind that particular rule was to preclude digital kiosks, which city staff can attest to,” she wrote in an email. “As a historic district, our stakeholders prioritized an analog vs. digital aesthetic as most fitting to Deep Ellum.”

The city’s own presentation lists a litany of concerns: impeding walkability, violating ADA, vehicular distractions, “negative aesthetic,” and potential for vandalism. The two pros include public safety additions like emergency call buttons and cameras, and the promotional aspect of “showcasing local businesses.”

Intentional or not, the RFP appears tailored for an Ohio-based vendor called IKE Smart City, LLC. (That stands for Interactive Kiosk Experience.) Dallas employees identified 18 other cities that have entered into agreements with the company, each of which makes sure to say that their 8-foot-tall kiosks are “multilingual” and “ADA-compliant.” The city wants to move quickly. It is asking Council for permission to reissue the RFP in May and approve it by June.

During a briefing last May, Hatefi could not say how many are being proposed or where they might be located. That would get worked out in the contract. Too, the city doesn’t seem to know how much revenue this might bring in. We do know the revenue is tied to selling ads, so Hatefi expected they would be placed near “the most advantageous locations that their advertising could generate revenue.” Which likely means in places where people are walking. (And 20 percent of them will be in “equity zones” defined by the city.)

City records show that registered lobbyist Randall Bryant organized at least two meetings in 2022 with Assistant City Manager Robert Perez on behalf of IKE Smart City. There was also a phone call with City Councilmember Tennell Atkins that same year. (Bryant didn’t respond to questions.)

There are scenarios where these can work. Dallas Area Rapid Transit has installed more than 300 digital kiosks near some of its bus and rail stations, which are set aside and deliver status updates to riders. The kiosks being considered by the city of Dallas are clearly intended for tourists. Maybe they work around Fair Park, as Councilmember Adam Bazaldua has suggested, or the Southern Gateway Deck Park once it opens. Klyde Warren, the Farmers Market, the future convention center—sure, maybe, but they shouldn’t be in sidewalks.

You can probably walk outside your office right now and find an example of why.


Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…