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Welcome to Boomtown

Frisco sprang out of the prairie nearly overnight. And unlike its neighbor Plano, Frisco is in the process of becoming something amazing-an actual city that still feels like a small town, thanks to some careful planning and a team of leaders who learned f
By D Magazine |

FRISCO: Welcome to Boomtown

In 1996, then-mayor of Frisco Kathy Seei called an out-of-town work session one weekend early in her term so that newly elected city
council members and the city staff could get to know one another. At the end of a day of serious discussion about sewers, schools, and streets, Seei, an energetic blonde who would blend right in at a Junior League meeting, gave everyone a pair of plastic novelty gag glasses with thick, Coke-bottle lenses. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she asked, “what do you see in the future of Frisco?”

It was a goofy way to encourage people to visualize change and to verbalize their fears and hopes. Her town was—and still is—growing at a phenomenal rate. When she handed out those glasses, Frisco’s population was 16,450. But looking ahead, Seei saw something coming that few mayors in history have had the luxury or the wisdom to prepare for: a tsunami of people. And with the giant wave of people would come everything else—children, cars, dogs and cats, demand for housing, demand for quality education, roads, retail, utilities, city services, more city services, and even more city services. Plano to the south was already beginning to fill in; within a decade, there would be no more land available. McKinney to the east was feeling the first stirrings as new people began eyeing its Victorian homes and old-fashioned courthouse square. Richardson, Farmers Branch, and Addison had already been engulfed, almost erasing their civic identities and blurring them into one huge Dallas suburb rushing inexorably toward Oklahoma.

Seei saw the wave coming. But what would Frisco be like after it happened? Would it be just another few miles of that nameless, placeless Dallas suburb? Or was there a strategy, or a set of strategies, that could ensure that Frisco
could come out of it and still be Frisco?

At the end of that session, Seei and her colleagues had made a decision. They would try to create a new kind of town out of the old town they all loved. It would not be the same town—that was impossible. But they would not let it be washed over by the flood, either. They would learn what they could about how towns survive and flourish, and they would apply those lessons to Frisco. Then and there, they laid out their vision of Frisco’s next decade: a wish list that ran the gamut from grandiose (what about a professional sports team in Frisco?) to picayune (maybe we can get a Starbucks here).

According to the North Texas Council of Governments, Frisco is the fastest growing city in Texas. According to the U.S. Census, it’s the second fastest growing city in the country (among cities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000). Six years after Seei’s work session, by the beginning of 2002, Frisco’s population had swelled to 50,550—a 300 percent growth rate. By January 2005, demographers predict a population of 73,704. Ten years from now, it should top 100,000—and keep going. The town is already 30 percent built out, and the hammers never stop.

In 2002, in the final months of Seei’s last term, the council looked back at that list of dreams and found they’d been able to achieve almost all of them: Stonebriar Centre, one of the biggest malls in North Texas. A ballpark, home to a minor-league team. A new City Hall and city center, anchoring the old downtown while providing a new urban mix. Great schools. Green building guidelines. An award-winning city plan. And several Starbucks.

But Frisco’s most important achievement is not what has been built, but what was not built. Left intact is the reason many people moved to this little town on the prairie—and the reason many others have never left. Instead of succumbing to the suburban crush, Frisco decided to stay a small town, a place kids grow up in and come home to. Planners from all over the country are now watching Frisco, and here’s what they’re learning:

 1. Hire a guy with a French name that no one can pronounce

John Lettelleir, Frisco’s director of planning and development, is in charge of building inspection, code enforcement, zoning and subdivision ordinance updates, use regulations, and general implementation of the all-important comprehensive plan. In other words, he’s the guy playing SimCity with 57,000 souls in Frisco. And he’s doing a remarkable job. Lettelleir is a believer in New Urbanism (more on that later). He used to be a planner in Plano—a city that failed to maintain its small-town feel while accommodating explosive growth.

“Here he’s had a palette to work with and a place where he can try out all of his ideas about what makes a community sustainable and livable,” Seei says.

But Lettelleir is no theorist. When he talks about the monotony of most suburban developments, he isn’t speaking as an effete highbrow who wants every building to achieve architectural significance. He’s a man in the thick of making practical decisions, and his goals are comfort and efficiency for his customers: the citizens of his town.

2. Let people walk

Frisco has something called the Millennium Plan. Basically, it’s a 170-page to-do list for the city. Lettelleir and 22 citizens spent 14 months working with consultants (Dallas-based PGAL) and city staff to draft the updated version of the city’s comprehensive plan. In 2000, the Millennium Plan beat out 40 other Texas cities for the honor of being named the “Comprehensive Plan of the Year” by the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association. Lettelleir can’t help but smile when he talks about it.

The Millennium Plan embodies the best thinking in urban design circles today. Its heart lies not in something new but in something old, a theory of how cities should work that derives from an understanding of what made cities attractive places to live in ages past. This is New Urbanism, a philosophy of high-density, diverse, anti-sprawl development espoused by architects like Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck and championed by the founding urban theorist of them all, Jane Jacobs.

Frisco’s Plan includes such New Urbanism concepts as “connected neighborhoods,” in which homes are linked to retail centers via winding streets, sidewalks, creeks, and greenbelts, encouraging foot traffic and old-fashioned strolling. New Urbanism’s goal is to revive “our lost art of place-making,” and the movement promotes diverse, walkable, compact, mixed-use neighborhoods. The Frisco Plan makes this point plain when it states the city’s goal is to create “neighborhoods” not “subdivisions.” The former is a living culture. The latter is somebody’s business plan signed off on by a bank.

The Millennium Plan evolved painstakingly: 100 hours of meetings went into its creation. Careful attention was given to citizen involvement and town-hall meetings, so that by the time the plans were ready to be presented to formal elected bodies, they sailed through with little or no opposition.

It could happen this way, City Manager George Purefoy thinks, because the town itself, while 95 years old as an incorporated city, was almost brand-new. “There was no defined power structure in place, no oligarchy,” he says. “The whole community was open to looking at different ideas, and the civic entities—FISD, county government, city government—don’t compete, they cooperate.”

Purefoy says everyone understood that, in 100 years, the buildings should still be there. “We’re asking that people put a little more money and design into them so people will still want to occupy them and use them,” he says. “We’re building to last. In the last 15 years, I’ve actually been able to experience the birth of a city.”  

3. Have a heart

Six years ago, it was obvious that the demand for services would quickly require new city facilities. “So we trotted out and bought about 20 acres west of downtown to build the civic center,” Purefoy says. Small cities across America were building campuses for their various departments, following the model of the corporate campus. “But then we started thinking about it and changed our minds,” he says. “We decided to make City Hall itself the focal point of an extended downtown.” Once the planners had it in their heads that architecture represents human values, it became clear that a civic campus, separated from the town it represents, was all wrong for friendly Frisco and all wrong for a town that wanted to encourage the cyclist and the walker as much as the driver.

Instead, the thinking went, the new City Hall would serve as a catalyst. A whole new downtown segueing into the old one would preserve Frisco’s history and provide the kind of live nucleus the town needed.

“It will have a ripple effect,” Lettelleir says. “I see people making investments in the downtown area, fixing up their buildings.”

A new site, approximately 140 acres, south of present downtown, west of the railroad tracks, was selected. State Highway 720, Cotton Gin Road, and the Dallas North Tollway border the development, which broke ground last spring. Frisco’s original Main Street will be extended into the new downtown, called Frisco Square.

For this huge project, Frisco teamed up with Five Star Development, whose head is Cole McDowell, a sixth-generation Texan who built Parker Square, a New Urbanist enclave in Flower Mound. Five Star hired architect David Schwarz, who did Parker Square as well as Southlake Town Center, another New Urbanism-meets-the-suburbs development that also includes the town’s city government building.

Frisco Square is 4 million square feet of Schwarz-designed historicism, built of brick and adorned with fountains. Its centerpiece is the civic square with a new City Hall, library, police headquarters, courts, senior center, and heritage museum. Its tree-lined streets have garden medians, shady sidewalks, and—hopefully—outdoor cafes and awnings to promote lingering. This is a pedestrian’s paradise. People will stroll from shop to shop, and some will even walk home to their luxury townhouse, co-op, apartment, or assisted-living center. Frisco Square is a New Urbanist’s dream: multi-use, multi-generational, multi-income. And multi-styled. Although Schwarz created the master plan, other architects were invited to design buildings in Frisco Square, too.  

4. Throw out all those old boxes

On a dry-erase board that takes up one whole wall of his cramped, windowless office, Lettelleir draws a series of boxes. “This is the standard zoned subdivision lot,” he says, jabbing with his green marker. “Your minimum is 4 units to an acre. They’re all the same size.” That makes it easy for the developer and easy for the Realtor—everything is comparable.

But Frisco wants to break up the boxiness. A developer can still get 4 lots to an acre, but not necessarily all the same size. Requiring diverse lot sizes in a subdivision encourages diversity in the neighborhood population. Larger and smaller houses will naturally be priced differently, so economic segregation is avoided. As families grow they can move up to a larger house within their own neighborhood. Lot diversity also encourages the use of common open space.

Planned zoning’s varied price and size allows for age diversity, too. “When everyone in a neighborhood is young, everyone is gone during the day,” Lettelleir says. “That’s not good. It’s safer to have a mix.” The challenge is convincing real estate agents, appraisers, and financial institutions set up for the old system to go for the new ideas.

Back at the board, Lettelleir draws more boxes in the boxes. “This is the standard setback for a house,” he says. “But when all the houses are set the same distance from the street, basically, the street turns into a canyon.” Lettelleir proposed an ordinance amendment that allows builders to break the setback line if they’re building a front porch. “I want to bring people out through the front door. That’s the way people get to know their neighbors.”

5. Force people to slow down

From his shotgun seat, Lettelleir conducts a nickel tour of some of the products of Frisco’s planning. First stop is a partially complete Kings Garden. In his mind, there are pedestrians, kids on bicycles, flowerbed-flanked front porches, and people waving back at him from rocking chairs. Some of the sidewalks meander through empty fields, waiting for the houses to be built. The streets feed into a circle around the open space. The land doesn’t demand it—these are contrived curves, designed to slow traffic.

Oddly, much of the new planning is about slowing people down, a reversal of city thinking in the past, which was dominated by the automobile and aimed at getting people across the greatest distance in the least amount of time. Frisco’s thoroughfare plan doesn’t ignore efficiency: all intersecting streets have a right turn lane, for example, to get turning traffic out of the through lane.

“I think of it as a ’healthy street’ ordinance,” Lettelleir says. Every 600 feet, a street ends in a T-shaped intersection curve so a driver can’t see too far ahead, forcing a slowdown. Standard subdivision blocks are 1,200 feet long; Frisco’s new blocks are shorter because intersections slow traffic. The city plants trees close to the street, narrowing the driver’s view, which also slows traffic.  

6. Build a totally awesome mall

Frisco Square may look great on the city’s promotional material and private development may surround it, but a town needs more than government buildings that inspire civic pride to survive. Frisco needed an economic engine, something that attracted not only people but money. And there’s no greater economic driver in shopping-crazed North Texas than a mall.

But the mall that eventually became Stonebriar Centre nearly went somewhere else. In 1988, Jerry Rosenholtz of Homart, the parent company of Sears, called George Purefoy and gave him some good news. “We plan on putting a million-square-foot mall in Frisco,” he said. Purefoy was skeptical. “Sure you are,” he said. At the time, Frisco had about 6,000 people.

When its neighbors learned of Homart’s intentions, the tug of war began. Plano offered Homart $10 million if the company would move its planned mall across the road into their city limits. So Rosenholtz called Purefoy again. Frisco was able to work out tax incentives that kept Homart on its side of the road. To Purefoy’s relief, an agreement was signed.

When the deal fell through on its end, Plano convinced another company, General Growth Properties, to consider Plano as a location for a mega-mall. Then General Growth Properties bought Homart, which, you will recall, already had a signed agreement with Frisco. So Frisco put together its final offer: a half-cent sales-tax rebate, property-tax abatement for 10 years, and infrastructure improvements in and around the mall.

Frisco thought it had won the game. But Plano wasn’t lying down. It wound up taking 12 years of negotiations, and Frisco eventually had to up its sales-tax grant. But Stonebriar Centre finally opened in Frisco on August 4, 2000. The mall spans 1.6 million square feet. Anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, Sears, JCPenney, Foley’s, and Galyan’s, it includes another 163 stores. It also features a NHL-size ice rink, a 24-screen AMC theatre, a soft playground, and a carousel.

Stonebriar Centre is projected to generate between $300 million and $400 million dollars a year in gross sales. Thanks to such wrangling, Frisco’s tax base is now $5.3 billion. It’s grown by $1 billion in just the last two years. Sales-tax revenues, largely flowing from Stonebriar Centre, went up 17 percent last year.

The aggressive incentives Frisco used in negotiating for Stonebriar have become the pattern for recruiting other business. In June 2002, for instance, Frisco’s Economic Development Corporation (FEDC) sealed a deal with EADS Telecom North America to relocate to Hall Office Park—over the next four years, incentives could total more than $1 million. As a result of this and other agreements, Frisco has become the most aggressive town in North Texas at recruiting business.

7. Bring in some swingers

After shopping, the most popular pastime in this area is sports, of any size. Enter the Frisco RoughRiders, a Double-A team formerly in Shreveport, now an affiliate of the Rangers. A David Schwarz-designed ballpark will provide the appropriately nostalgic setting for the team, whose season starts next month (even if the stadium’s name, the Dr Pepper/Seven Up Ballpark, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). In Frisco, ballgames satisfy two goals: building a tax base and the community.

The team’s new stadium will anchor a $300 million project right next to Stonebriar Centre. Co-owned with the city of Frisco, the sports complex will also include a new training area (the Dr Pepper StarCenter) for the Stars: the home of the Texas Tornado, a Junior League hockey team; and eventually, maybe even a practice rink for Frisco High School’s own Ice Raccoons. Also part of the big plan are a gymnastics center and hotel and convention center, as well as residential, retail, and office space. The city estimates a huge economic impact.

“The Dr Pepper StarCenter alone will draw an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year,” Mayor Mike Simpson says. “Those visitors will be attending games, using our hotels, restaurants, and shopping.”

To accommodate them, the City of Frisco will spend approximately $67 million. Estimated eventual economic impact: more than a $100 million annually for what could be the most ambitious small town in the country.  

8. Skip schools (that are too big)

School quality directly affects real estate values, so it’s good business to support excellence in schools. Frisco has decided to think small. “I don’t think anyone knew the growth was going to be this rapid,” says Shana Wortham, the school district spokeswoman. “The number of kids 5 years old and younger is astronomical.”

In 1995, 2,567 students were enrolled in Frisco schools. That went up to 11,708 in 2002, and by 2005, it’s expected to reach 23,474. Demographers warn that the number of kids under school age in Frisco is larger than the total number of kids in school right now.

Nevertheless, Frisco plans to limit its schools to the 4A level. Smaller size allows more students to participate in more activities. Teachers in smaller schools tend to form stronger relationships with their students because they can keep in touch with kids as they move up. So Frisco has elementaries with no more than 700 kids, middle schools that max out at 1,000, and high schools with about 2,100 students (in comparison, Plano East High School enrolled about 2,400 students last year).

Of course, having smaller schools means having to build more of them. A second high school is scheduled to open this year. Five more schools (three elementary and two middle schools) opened last fall. There’s no real model for growth like this. The district is trying to avoid known pitfalls, but the situation is unique. “I don’t know any district that has opened five schools at one time before,” Wortham says. “It’s an enormous drain to assemble all the equipment, teachers, and everything else.”

One problem was avoided when the school board bought land years ago, when growth was a forecast, not a fact. That means the district acquired the land while it was still affordable and before houses were built on it that would have to be torn down.

And the community has supported bonds to stay ahead. In 1998, a $118 million bond issue passed by 95 percent. In 2000, a $298 million school bond referendum passed by 96 percent. Last September, Frisco did another $195 million. And now the school board has unanimously approved the order to call an election this month on another $478 million bond package. That’s $673 million in less than a year for a town whose estimated population as of January 2003 was 57,000.  

9. Weatherproof your art

Art goes to the heart of the Frisco idea that a town is more than just a suburb or bedroom community. Frisco’s own Central Park, at Parkwood and Warren Parkway, is the site of a herd of bronze steers and stone sculptures depicting the history of the Shawnee Trail. Artist Anita Pauwels of Fort Worth says the objective of the artwork is to present a walking history lesson. As patrons stroll along the winding walkways to the top of the 8-acre park, they learn about the trail drive by reading quotes that have been embedded in the walkways and by looking at the relief murals and the longhorn sculptures. The city is thinking about creating more of these public sculpture parks.

Even the office parks in Frisco look different. At Hall Office Park, well-known Dallas investor Craig Hall has installed amenities that make it seem like a small city in itself, from a bank to a shoeshine service to the local branch of the YMCA. But the biggest, and in some ways least tangible, amenity comes from the $10 million Hall set aside for art on and around the premises. He has installed the most ambitious collection of contemporary Texas art in the state. The sculptures, assemblies, and mechanical devices are placed strategically in a setting that encourages the viewer to walk and gaze—and react.

“Art touches people and makes them think,” Hall says. “It gets to the soul and makes people respond, whether they like it or not.”

Hall has also placed pieces from his own international collection throughout the 160-acre office park, both indoors and out. Some works offer visual relief. Others startle. And some are serene. All this has been carefully thought out: the park is the only office development in Texas with its own curator. Dallas art maven Patricia Meadows (founder of Dallas Visual Art Center, now Dallas Center for Contemporary Art, as well as the State-Thomas Historic District in Uptown), helped Hall assemble and design the Texas Sculpture Garden. Four acres of grounds feature 37 works of art celebrating the talent of some of Texas’ most renowned—as well as many unknown—artists, such as Jerry Daniel (Sanger), Eliseo Garcia (Farmers Branch), and David McCullough (Dallas). “Local artists are often overlooked and the last to get respect,” Hall says. “I wanted to show people that there are good artists in Texas.”

As a result of Hall’s attention to aesthetics, his office park has become more than a business center. It’s become part of the town, a de facto city park, such a welcoming place that on July 4 last year, Frisco held its Centennial Celebration on the office park grounds, with bands, fireworks, and thousands of people.

“I don’t know any other town that has the same level of commitment to quality of life and family that Frisco has,” Hall says. “What we wanted to do is what Frisco is doing—they are pro growth and pro quality of life. It was a real meeting of the minds.”