Tuesday, November 29, 2022 Nov 29, 2022
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WHAT’S MISSING? VISION

By Sally Giddens |

THIRTY YEARS AGO, DOWNTOWN commuters zipped along a recently completed Central Expressway from their spanking new homes in North Dallas. As they approached downtown, the Southland Life building, the tallest building west of the Mississippi at forty-two stories, rose before them. That building would open in 1959 and would be called the “most prestigious address in the Southwest” for years to come.

But now the turquoise tile towers of Southland Center date the downtown skyline like a poodle skirt among leather minis. And thirty years from now, in the year 2020, we may be looking upon the Texas Commerce Tower and its now-modish hole in the top with the same condescending smirk. How will the Dallas skyline symbolize change in the next thirty years? What will downtown Dallas be? A thriving, busy profit center where people live, work, and play? Or a ghost town abandoned for the New Downtowns far from that core?

And what will it take to ensure the former?

1. A transit system. The defeat of DART’s bond referendum last June, which would have given the green light to construction of a downtown subway, was a tremendous blow to downtown. One of the architects of that defeat, longtime downtown booster Dave Fox. looks out from his tower window upon the stagnant parking lot that is Woodall Rodgers Freeway and shakes his head in disgust at the cloud of pollution. Even Fox says that we must find a transit solution that will address downtown’s specific needs.

Despite the recent controversy over tunneling, grade separation is a must. We can go up and over or down and under, but the primary people-moving vehicles must be off the streets-or else bumper-to-bumper bus lanes will drive pedestrians (and their dollars) to the more manageable shopping and entertainment environs of the suburbs.

Is a solution possible within the current confines of a regionally driven DART? We don’t think so, It may be time to seriously consider divorcing the city of Dallas from the regional approach to transportation-and using Dallas’s portion of DART dollars on a transit plan that works for the inner city.

2. People living there. Urban planners across the continent agree that one element critical to the survival of a downtown is its inhabitants. People. People who not only work downtown but live there, play there, spend there, eat there, shop there.

The city’s planners and downtown business leaders have given an awful lot of lip service to the goal of bringing housing to the city’s core. But up to now, lip service is about all it’s been (see related story on page 80). A new study commissioned by the Central Dallas Association indicates that a market exists and offers at long last a concrete action plan for the city and interested builders. This may be the pro forma hesitant developers have been waiting for, and the CDA is to be commended for getting it done. But the CDA must continue to educate its members as to the economic viability of positive strokes to downtown. The city must take a more aggressive role as well: the planning department can do better in designing incentives (and disincentives) for downtown developers (see “Downtown USA,” facing page).

In the meantime, housing will probably begin at the district’s fringes and seep inward over time. Those already living nearby can help spread the positive message to a community of recalcitrant suburbanites. According to philanthropist Curtis Meadows, who lives with his wife Patricia in State-Thomas, inner-city living offers a vibrancy that his University Park neighborhood lacked. Their home is within walking distance or a short drive from many of the couple’s favorite restaurants and from the cultural attractions of the Arts District. Crime, Meadows reports, is no greater in State-Thomas than what they encountered in the Park Cities.

3. Street life. If people are the end, a lively streetscape is the means. Each downtown block must be viewed not only as an investment, but as a magnet for pedestrians. Cultural kiosks, such as those at the base of the office towers built recently by the Trammell Crow Company and the inviting cypress-lined plaza at Fountain Place, represent major leaps forward. But other property owners and the city must follow suit. And that means more grade-level shop windows, pocket parks, greenways and water walks, sidewalk vendors, and streetside cafés.

Sadly, for the past twenty years, downtown has been moving people off the streets to underground and above-ground pedestrian-ways. The labyrinth of tunnel linkups was designed to let people cross town without ever having to feel the blistering sun or breathe the polluted air.

The underground school had a noble intention, but it may have killed the perception that there is life downtown. We must abandon this “tunnel vision” and bring amenities back to the streets.

To that end, retail is a must. Though the city is considering writing a large check to ensure that a huge retail mall is built downtown (see related story on page 78), that may not be the answer. With Rosewood Property Company planning to build a major shopping mall just a stone’s throw from downtown, the city’s money may well be better spent where the private sector is not willing to invest. The city’s old Main Street core, for instance, is not likely to see much major development activity in the near future as developers move to the north and the Arts District. We may get more mileage from our tax money through creating incentives for property owners to provide renovated space for smaller, service-oriented retailers in the old core. Imagine-window-shopping in downtown again? We like it.

4. Planning. Much of the city’s potential streetscape is masquerading as parking lots. Absentee property owners, many of whom acquired their asphalt fiefdoms back when Grandma passed away, have presumed that property values downtown will skyrocket forever and have decided to wait for a better economy to deliver their land’s highest and best use. In the meantime, they have, in many cases, razed buildings of historic significance. And what do we get in return? The lots collect trash and weeds, while their owners collect the proceeds.

When Dallas was booming, the surface parking dilemma was viewed as temporary- a problem that future development and an evolving city policy would cure in time. Now, it is a prime example of the need for firm, tough, positive planning. The city can further the goals for downtown by supporting these smaller, independent property owners. It can “play developer” by pursuing more positive interim uses, such as pocket parks, or encouraging riskier permanent ones. City incentives added to depressed property values (meaning lower taxes for owners) can spell feasibility for projects like housing and retail that don’t make sense in boom times.

In turn, the landlords can take a more active role in protecting their investments. They need to get involved in downtown issues and to break away from single-issue thinking: high-rise office towers and surface parking lots are not the only development avenues for downtown property.

in the meantime, a strict landscaping requirement for surface parking lots downtown could add an immediate aesthetic boost.

Planning in the form of support for the city’s newly adopted Public Art Master Plan will also imbue downtown with a vigor and spirit that will touch visitors, office workers, and future residents alike. People are still talking about the 1985 Texas Sculpture Symposium, which brought lifelike cows to graze on Ross Avenue.

5. Respect for history. Dallas’s track record in historic preservation will never make the annals of the Smithsonian. But efforts have been under way over the past decade to correct sloppy policies and inadvertent slip-ups-sometimes, it seems, to little avail. Last August, a building in the Farmer’s Market fell prey to the wrecking ball even though the City Council had agreed to postpone its demise. One of the strongest things going for downtown is that it is the seat of Dallas history. We must continue to capitalize on that history and protect treasured buildings. There are some one hundred buildings identified by preservation experts as worthy of hanging onto. Let’s listen.

And in our lust for progress, we must continue to find resourceful ways of reusing old buildings. We need stronger leadership to disseminate information about special city programs that can spur redevelopment of older buildings. We must either up the commitment level or build a new redevelopment authority into the city’s planning structure- an agency with teeth that could monitor and assist reuse efforts, especially in the West End, Deep Ellum, and the Farmer’s Market.

6. Security. Before people will pay rent to live downtown, before they will stroll, shop, or eat downtown, they must perceive it to be a safe place. More and more, that means finding creative solutions to the homeless problem. Despite the repeated assurances of social workers that crime and violence do not necessarily go hand in hand with poverty, highly publicized exceptions to that viewpoint have persuaded people otherwise. Mayor Annette Strauss’s day shelter for the homeless and other city initiatives are positive steps. It is essential that we continue both public and private efforts to fund them.



DO WE NEED DOWNTOWN? MORE and more, urban planners, downtown property owners, and suburban office developers are asking the question: why downtown? Why do we need to have downtowns at all? We have telephones and computers. We have fax machines. In the future we’ll have phones that put the callers face to face. Why do we need central business districts if we don’t have to walk across the street to do business?

But futurist John Naisbitt, who wrote the bestseller Megatrends six years ago. predicted that along with expanding high tech, we will develop a corresponding human need dubbed “high touch.” People, Naisbitt believes, will continue to prefer to do business face to face.

High touch is alive and well in Dallas. Barry Henry, managing partner in charge of office development for the Trammel! Crow Company, can attest to that. Despite the super high-tech capabilities of Trammell Crow Center, he says services like voice mail are just not that popular among tenants. “People don’t want to talk to a recording or listen to one,” Henry says, “they’d rather talk to a person.” And, he adds, though a building may have amazing security capabilities with cameras and a high-tech command center, people still feel more secure when they can look down an empty hallway and see a security guard.

Another believer in high touch is Ed Blessing, president and CEO of Strategic Petroleum Inc. Blessing is relatively new to Dallas. Two summers ago, his Oklahoma City-based company began to look at major cities to choose as its headquarters. Settling on Dallas, Blessing was courted by building owners from downtown to Las Colinas to Piano and back. He chose downtown, for the same reason that more people choose downtown than any other single area in town and will continue to do so: “There is an intensity of business here.” Blessing says, “that is unequaled anywhere else. In our business we still need to press the flesh, to be in the footpath of those people we do business with.”

Though it has been the subject of countless bad nightclub act songs, it seems that no matter how wedded to technology we humans become, people do continue to need people. Being human, we continue to be more comfortable clenching a business deal face to face with a handshake than we do via telefax. Increasingly, we will do business by machine, but the need to work in close proximity to those we do business with-in a downtown-is still there. That will continue to be the reason for downtowns to exist.

Certain types of businesses will naturally gravitate to suburban office markets and to “satellite downtowns.” But growth in the suburbs does not mean death to downtown. In the future, downtown will continue to be the hub of city government and of (he courts system, and therefore, it will always be a center for business. But downtown is also growing and emerging as a center for spectator sports, the home of the Dallas Mavericks, Sidekicks, and, with the right bid, the Texas Rangers. It is an important hub for the arts, the location of our only symphony hall and our only major arts museum. It may become a center for higher learning with the expansion of El Centro College and a new campus for the University of Texas. It will be a transportation hub in the future.

Downtown Dallas is not going to wither and die. But only with guidance and give-and-take will our downtown make the jump from being only a “central business district” to much, much more.

Construction cranes are now absent from Dallas’s downtown skyline. But rather than lamenting the boom of our past, Dallas needs to use this lag time to its advantage. Now is the time to plan, to reevaluate old visions of our future and make downtown Dallas into a shining symbol of the city and region as a whole. Then in the year 2020, when the international media beams pictures of downtown Dallas across the world, we won’t be tempted to turn off the set.

DOWNTOWN USA:

How Other Cities Have Strengthened Their Downtowns

Boston

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (one of the oldest city planning agencies in the country) has wielded considerable clout when it comes to the city’s urban renewal and planning activities. The BRA’s current strategy is to approve the look of new development projects and revise zoning regulations and requirements to spread the benefits of development to neighborhoods nearby. The BRA is also taking an active role in stimulating affordable housing by squeezing developers for part of the cost. The BRAs linkage program requires development projects exceeding 100,000 square feet to pay $5 per square foot for twelve years. The proceeds go to a housing trust that is used for construction of affordable housing and to mixed-use neighborhoods.



Louisville

This sleepy southeastern city created a thriving “enterprise zone” called Station Park to stimulate its decaying downtown, wherein eighteen acres of vacant land were purchased by the city and sold to smalt business owners. To be eligible for state and city tax benefits, new businesses in Station Park must draw 25 percent of their employees from within the zone, or from among individuals who have been unemployed or who have received welfare payments for at least three months.



Pittsburgh

The city has an open-air ordinance requiring that a minimum of 20 percent (with a 60 percent requirement in the Gateway Center area, a mixed-use development in the heart of downtown) of a building lot be used for open space. Based on the recommendations of William Holly Whyte, the nation’s leading open spaces advocate, each development must be designed “to enhance the overall environment of the district in which it is located” by serving at least one of the following functions: facilitating pedestrian traffic; providing room for entertainment, eating, drinking, or viewing exhibits; improving access to public transportation by widening sidewalks, sheltering waiting areas, providing connectors between the platform and sidewalk levels at transit stations.



St. Louis

The development of the multiuse Busch Memorial Stadium in the center of downtown was one of the first city projects funded there by a private “353” corporation. A 353 is a coalition of downtown businesses and financial interests, granted authority under the Missouri Urban Redevelopment Corporations law (also referred to as state chapter 353, from whence it gets its name). Under the terms of the law, the city was able to pass on its power of eminent domain to acquire land for the stadium. St. Louis also granted real estate tax abatements to the stadium project, which was then developed by a private, for-profit redevelopment corporation. Planners say that Busch Stadium set a precedent in defining a city government’s ideal role in redevelopment: namely, to establish and maintain an economic climate in which private developers are encouraged to take risks-but without local bureaucratic intervention.



Seattle

Seattle’s Freeway Park demonstrates one of the most innovative ways of creating downtown park land. Financed by both the public and private sectors, the public park stretches over Seattle’s Interstate 5, the city’s link from downtown to area neighborhoods, spanning five acres and including a parking garage and entrance ramps. Additions to Freeway Park included a convention center complete with landscaped terraces. And the city has plans for a second Freeway Park on another nearby interstate. But this park also includes plans for the construction of a 700-unit residential community with the city acting as the key developer and private builders doing the construction.



Portland

When Portland wanted to lure people to live downtown, it created the South Auditorium Urban Renewal project, located on almost eighty-three acres within walking distance of downtown. The project is a cohesive collection of offices, hotels, retail shops, restaurants, and nearly 1,000 residential units. The Portland Development Commission kept strict control over architectural design while providing for street-level activity and an enhanced pedestrian environment within the South Auditorium area. The city provides all aspects of management of the property except the marketing of the spaces.

by Lucie Nelka