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A Daily Conversation About Dallas

The city of Dallas is currently rewriting its land use plan, which, in its simplest terms, governs what can be built and where.

A few months ago, I began looking at what had changed since 2006, when the city first adopted what it called ForwardDallas. How were other cities similar in size to Dallas handling development? How were they addressing historic inequities in their land use policies and zoning, like where industry is allowed to operate and which neighborhoods can densify?

I came across a piece in The Atlantic with a curious title: “Cancel Zoning.”

The author, M. Nolan Gray, makes the argument that zoning exacerbates inequality, housing affordability issues, sprawl, and segregation. In some cities, almost 90 percent of its housing is zoned single-family. Zoning in Dallas is a curious patchwork. According to an analysis by the nonprofit Child Poverty Action Lab, about 48 percent of the city is zoned for single-family homes with detached garages.

Another 17 percent—about 65 square miles—are made up of what’s known as planned development districts. That’s when a developer wants to do something that the code doesn’t allow, so they request a zoning change that carves out a certain area from its surroundings. That could mean using fewer parking spots outside a retail store, adding a patio to a restaurant, or modifying height requirements to try and build something higher than what is allowed by-right.

Gray would like American urban planners to look to Houston, a city that has largely eschewed zoning in favor of addressing specific behaviors and nuisances. It allows neighborhoods to sort of opt-in to zoning through deed restrictions. 

“Houston builds housing at 14 times the rate of peers like San Jose. And it isn’t just sprawl: In 2019, Houston built roughly the same number of apartments as Los Angeles, despite being half its size,” Gray writes. “Since reforms to minimum-lot-size rules were put in place in 1998, more than 25,000 townhouses have been built, overwhelmingly in existing urban areas.”

Land is increasingly expensive, and it’s putting home ownership (and even renting) out of reach for a lot of people. Density allows builders to take the same plot of land and build up, creating more places for people to live. 

Pushes to get rid of zoning aren’t just happening on the local level. In 2019, four federal bills were authored that would have tied federal funding for other projects to zoning reform. 

But I was even more curious about Gray’s thoughts after reading his book, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. I spoke with him last month at length about everything from zoning and environmental concerns like Shingle Mountain, to what zoning was originally used for.

Part of our conversation follows. It has been edited for length and clarity.

The city of Dallas has launched a survey to help inform how it will update its 11-year-old bike plan. That survey is live through July 17.

But first, an anecdote.

I live in Oak Cliff, where the city recently reverted Polk and Tyler streets into two-way thoroughfares. The city began this process in 2016 with a goal of slowing traffic and encouraging more pedestrian activity along these streets. When they were one-ways, they were raceways in and out of the neighborhood.

There’s a new roundabout that allows drivers to access both directions of Tyler and Polk at their northern junction, a few blocks above Davis Street. Past Davis, Polk Street splits into a driving lane, a bike lane, and another lane for on-street parking abutting a dozen or so new homes.

When there are no cars parked in those spots, drivers take the lane as their own, zooming perilously close to the designated bike lane, as the gentleman in the red Hummer did in the photo above this post. I’ve seen some cars even wait for the traffic light at Jefferson Boulevard while idling in that bike lane. (That light and others in the corridor still blink red six weeks after the street opened up to traffic, for some reason.)

This is the sort of thing I would like to share with the city.

In early 2014, the Texas Department of Transportation told the city of Dallas that it wouldn’t remove IH-345, the 1.7-mile elevated highway that stands between downtown and Deep Ellum. A TxDOT spokesman told the Dallas Morning News that the agency had always planned “to maintain the existing bridge.”

Years of debate ensued as TxDOT launched a feasibility to study to figure out the best plan for that bridge as it nears the end of its lifespan. Then, last month, TxDOT released the long-awaited results of that study. The state’s preference is to keep the highway as a permanent feature between downtown and Deep Ellum, but it wants to spend at least $1 billion to dig a 65-foot-deep trench that will contain 10 lanes.

TxDOT says removing the highway entirely and replacing it with a boulevard would cause traffic delays that render that idea unfeasible.

The Council’s Transportation Committee last week largely took TxDOT at its word and spoke glowingly of what the state is calling the “hybrid” plan. The groundswell of support for removal seems to have dried up. In 2021, 12 current council members said they supported “removing I-345 and replacing it with a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood that restores the community grid and reconnects East and South Dallas.” (Those council members answered a questionnaire sent by the Coalition for a New Dallas, an organization that advocated for 345’s removal and was started by D Magazine’s late founder, Wick Allison. D and the coalition operate independently.)

No one at that meeting of the Transportation Committee spoke in favor of removing 345.

“I feel very strongly that y’all found a hybrid solution that is kind of a win for everyone,” said Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents South Dallas and the neighborhoods around Fair Park.

The state calls this the “hybrid” plan. It considered five options: removal; depressed; elevated but with a more narrow footprint; as-is; and “hybrid,” which puts the highway below grade.

TxDOT’s preferred hybrid alternative would create opportunities for connectivity between two of Dallas’ most important urban neighborhoods by way of at-grade streets and bridges. But the amount of land that could be freed up for development will be far less than if the highway were removed entirely and replaced by a boulevard. Those who support removal estimate that tearing the highway out would free up about 245 developable acres, land that could be used for more housing, jobs, retail, and other purposes. The hybrid plan creates about 15.5 acres.

Despite TxDOT’s reaching a significant milestone (that feasibility study), it now feels as if the debate over 345 is back where it began all those many years ago.

Let’s head to the edge of Uptown, on Cole Avenue south of Fitzhugh. The fence has eaten the sidewalk where North Dallas High School is undergoing a $46.5 million renovation, which will land the school a new athletic facility, a band room, and various other renovations that look like they’re really needed.

But pedestrians need their sidewalk, too. Maybe you can make sense of that new driveway. Here’s another image from the job, where an alert FrontBurnervian tells me he “had to step out into oncoming traffic literally as this is a one-way street with no signage whatsoever for pedestrians other than tiny handwritten notes.”

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Send your photo evidence of Dallas hating pedestrians to [email protected]. For more in this series, go here.

Local News

West Dallas Neighbors Say This Shingle Plant Needs to Go

Bethany Erickson
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Courtesy Singleton United/Unidos

By the time the formal event began, every chair in the West Dallas Multipurpose Center was in use. The neighborhood group Singleton United/Unidos had gathered the community there to celebrate publishing a 100-page report detailing what they say is the high price of living near a shingle plant.

Their work was aided by the longtime environmental justice nonprofit Downwinders at Risk, whose director, Jim Schermbeck, scuttled about trying to find more seats. The mood was boisterous and defiant.

A sign-in sheet near the door was full, and as attendees tucked into tacos, Schermbeck’s colleague—and Paul Quinn College Urban Research Fellow and Professor—Evelyn Mayo addressed the crowd, serving as emcee alongside Texas Organizing Project’s David Villalobos.

All told, close to 100 people showed up to talk about Singleton United/Unidos’ “Case for City Amortization of GAF.” They would end that May gathering by walloping on a piñata while a mariachi band played, then bringing their fight directly to the GAF plant on Singleton Blvd. They placed oversized postcards on the fence that proclaimed that “GAFs Gotta Go.”

For better or worse, the shingle plant directly across the street from the multipurpose center has been part of the neighborhood’s fabric since 1946, when it was operated by the Ruberoid Co. GAF, a New Jersey-based shingle manufacturer with 34 operations in 26 cities, merged with Ruberoid in 1967.  Corporate raider Samuel Heyman won a proxy battle for GAF in the 1980s, and the company is now part of the Standard Industries roster of industrial manufacturing subsidiaries.

The neighborhood group’s report argues that the city should force the operation to move away from the people who live near it, citing zoning, health, and quality of life concerns. This is a process known as amortization—the city’s Board of Adjustments would declare the plant a nonconforming use, which would mean that the plant could be forced to leave the neighborhood.

To get to that point, though, Singleton United/Unidos will need to prove that the shingle plant is having an adverse effect on the people who live around it. 

The Texas Department of Transportation believes the elevated I-345 highway should be buried in a trench between downtown and Deep Ellum, restoring connectivity by way of the existing at-grade city streets; the agency didn’t go so far as to recommend replacing the freeway with a boulevard.

TxDOT unveiled this “preferred alternative” during a public meeting Tuesday evening at the St. Philips School and Community Center after winnowing down five construction options to one. The winner is called the “hybrid alternative,” which the state believes is a compromise between groups that wanted to tear out the freeway and others who argued for a status quo repair of an aging traffic corridor that connects interstates 30, 45, 35, Central Expressway, and Woodall Rodgers. The trench will be about 65 feet deep.

But that traffic corridor occupies 1.4 miles in the core of the city, on the east side of downtown. The highway opened to traffic in 1974 and is nearing the end of its life, presenting the city with a unique opportunity to rethink the enormous spread of concrete that occupies land that could otherwise support development. When it was constructed, the highway gashed Deep Ellum and cut it off from downtown.

This magazine sparked a conversation about removing the highway in 2014, when the urban planner and current DART board member Patrick Kennedy wrote a story titled “Why We Must Tear Down I-345.”

“People are clamoring to move to an urban neighborhood, but an elevated highway stands in their way,” read the subhead of that story.

Under the hybrid plan, the “urban neighborhood” would sprout on decks over the freeway similar to the infrastructure of Klyde Warren Park. TxDOT has identified 11 areas over I-345 that could be decked at-grade and would be able to house buildings or “deck plazas.” Those areas total about 8.5 acres, stretching from Canton Street past the exit to Woodall Rodgers Freeway. The hybrid plan will also create 7 acres of surplus right of way aside the buried highway.

Urbanism

Downtown Dallas Inc. Hires New President and CEO

Ben Swanger
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Downtown Dallas Inc.

Nonprofit urbanism steward Downtown Dallas Inc. has appointed Jennifer Scripps, the city of Dallas’ director of arts and culture, as its next president and CEO. The Dallas native will shift to her new position in April.

Atop her list of priorities is ensuring the 360 Plan continues to develop Dallas’ urban, neighborhood, and corporate culture into a new generation.

“I could not be more honored and excited to lead an organization with a nearly 65-year history of success advocating for the heartbeat of our city,” Scripps said. “The DDI team is full of some of the most knowledgeable, creative, hard-working men and women in our city and I am looking forward to doing great work together to advance downtown.”

Scripps takes over the 100-employee team for interim president and CEO Amy Tharp, who took the reins from longtime leader Kourtny Garrett when she announced her departure late in 2021.

By a vote of 14-1, the Dallas City Council instructed staff today to move ahead with a plan to tear down and rebuild the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. The redevelopment project, which you can read about in detail here, was applauded nearly unanimously by council members. They spoke to its potential for stirring economic development downtown, bridging the city center to South Dallas with a new deck park over Interstate 30, and creating space for new affordable housing.

The $4 billion teardown and rebuild project will be paid for mostly through revenue from state sales and hotel tax. There will be no impact on the city’s general fund; the money used to pay for the project will come from visitors and existing tax revenue that would have otherwise gone to the state. In other words, Dallas residents won’t be footing the bill.

The convention center has been built and rebuilt numerous times during its 70-year history, resulting in a Frankenstein monstrosity surrounded by lifeless parking lots and saddled with a hefty $500 million deferred maintenance bill. The plan is to tear down much of the existing structure and extend the newest portions of the building south across I-30 and into the Cedars. That would open up a large swath of downtown which council members hope can be used for new housing, a hotel, and public green space. Developers around the convention center also hope the public investment will supercharge the revitalization of a long-neglected corner of the city’s core.

In an impassioned speech, West Dallas Councilman Omar Narvaez, who chairs the city’s transportation committee and steered the project to a council vote, praised the redo for what he believes will be “the transformation of downtown Dallas.” He spoke about adding affordable housing, more open space, and potential economic development. The funding mechanisms being used to fund the project will also allow the city to use some of the state’s portion of sales tax to pay for capital improvements at Fair Park, a provision that helped sweeten the deal—and soften political blowback.

“This money that is coming to us will cost us zero out of your general fund—I repeat that: zero,” Narvaez said. “Do we have the guts to transform our city?”

Southern Dallas Council member Tennell Atkins was even more direct.

“This is a no-brainer,” Atkins said. “Every time you get free money from the state of Texas, you better grab it as fast as you can.”

Free money, economic development, affordable housing, deck parks—it seemed the only thing the council wasn’t particularly interested in discussing was the convention business. North Dallas Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn was the lone voice of skepticism during the debate, pointing out that the city was about to invest $4 billion into a building for a business model that she believes may be questionable.

“We really don’t know what is going to happen in the future of conventions,” Mendelsohn said. “Convention centers weren’t growing before COVID. Now they’re in a different situation.”

When I first read this op-ed about I-345 that appeared in last Sunday’s Dallas Morning News, I was flummoxed. Blame it on I-345 fatigue, which breeds a kind of paranoid defensiveness similar to Trinity River Corridor Project PTSD. Mention either of these projects, particularly within the pages of the DMN, and my back instinctively spikes up like a porcupine.

The piece is by Michael Grace, the assistant city manager and chief operating officer for the city of Ferris, and he writes that I-345 is a “very important regional transportation corridor” and that “removing this transportation connection, within a competitive, polycentric, still maturing urban region, would have a wide ranging impact that would reverberate across the entire city.”

Polycentric urban region? Very important corridor? Urbanism blasphemy!

But by the time I got to the end of Grace’s piece, the more I saw that he was trying to call out some aspects of the I-345 removal that truly do need more attention. Grace seems to agree that there are a lot of benefits to removing I-345 and replacing it with a boulevard and a reconstructed urban street grid. But he also offers a warning. Tearing down an urban highway is one thing. Making sure what replaces it is worthy of the effort is something else entirely.

“Simply removing this bit of highway, as some have proposed, will not bring those neighborhoods back to life nor magically create equitable and sustainable development,” he writes.

Vision Zero has been one of the buzziest topics in urban planning circles over the last few years. The phrase describes a traffic safety strategy that is being rapidly adopted by cities throughout the country. Dallas was a little late to the party when it instructed city staff to begin working on its own Vision Zero policy in 2019. It took staff more than a year to bring an early version of the plan to council, which it unveiled at a briefing last week.

After hearing the briefing and looking at other cities’ experience with Vision Zero, I still have mixed feelings about the policy.

Here’s what I like about it: Vision Zero starts with the attitude that all traffic-related fatalities should be avoidable. The “zero” in Vision Zero means that cities should strive to have no traffic deaths. This may appear like an obvious goal—why would it be a city’s policy to allow some people to die in traffic? And yet, thanks to a sordid history, which includes all sorts of auto industry-led misdirection, traffic fatalities have generally been accepted as a side effect of the unquestioned need to drive cars in cities. Put that logic in another deadly industry’s familiar catchphrase: cars don’t kill people, people do.

Vision Zero says all traffic fatalities are unacceptable, and our streets and transportation policies should strive to reduce deaths to zero. That’s the part I like.

The part I don’t like is that cities that adopt Vision Zero policies haven’t really seen great results. Why? Generally, most Vision Zero plans create a laundry list of recommendations—from re-engineering streets to improving signage to enforcing speed limits—but often the little things get done and the big things don’t. Big changes to streets cost money, take time, and get snagged by politics. And yet it is precisely those big changes—like rebuilding streets so that they favor safer pedestrian and bike mobility over speeding up cars—that will eliminate traffic deaths. Big, multi-pronged Vision Zero plans can also obscure the reality that reducing traffic fatalities is not rocket science. It’s simple. To modify another over-used catchphrase: “it’s the streets, stupid.”

There is no more boring, ugly, and polarizing a building in Dallas than the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. More than just a hideous piece of architecture—so gargantuan that it snuffs out the urban life of the entire southwest corner of Dallas’ central core—convention centers, as a business, are questionable. When you try to dig into the byzantine economics of the convention center business, it’s easy to get turned around.

On the one hand, Rosa Fleming, the city’s director for convention and event services, can make a convincing case for the economic activity the convention center generates for Dallas. She can cite eye-popping numbers: $855 million in annual revenue from event bookings, $200 million annually tied to direct visitor spending, $65 million generated in hotel tax revenue.

But what makes this supposed impact difficult to appreciate is that people who live in Dallas can’t see it. Because of the center’s design—and the wasteland of concrete that surrounds it—convention activity remains sequestered inside its dominion of cavernous exhibit halls.

So, when an academic like the UT San Antonio public administration professor Heywood Sanders writes a book that calls the entire industry a boondoggle, his arguments feel convincing. After all, much of the justification for convention centers come from the way they supposedly generate trickle-down economic benefits, with conventioneers spending money that otherwise wouldn’t be spent on hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and even tickets. But it’s difficult to count those receipts.

Particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world gathered digitally in lieu of personal meetups, the justifications of the convention center business’ future feel murky. Talk to Craig Davis, the president and CEO of VisitDallas, and he’ll tell you the business is roaring back. Catch that old convention center grinch Sanders on the phone, and he’ll tell you that the business hasn’t grown in decades and the whole thing is going to tank.

This month, the convention center will once again become a subject of public debate. The Dallas City Council is set to vote on a few options for a massive, multibillion-dollar renovation of the center that are laid out in a master plan completed last year. That vote will likely redraw the old battle lines between convention center critics and boosters, just as the debate over the development of the Omni Dallas Hotel did in 2009.

But here’s the thing to remember as the debate heats up: this time the conversation isn’t really about the convention center, the convention business, or murky economics—at least not directly. This time, the real debate is over the future of downtown Dallas.

For two years, the city of Dallas has been researching what would happen if it stopped requiring businesses to provide so much parking — a seemingly radical idea in this car-centric town.

Before we examine how this move might change Dallas, here’s what it won’t do: it won’t make parking disappear. It won’t flood single-family neighborhoods with empty cars overnight. It also won’t immediately solve the problem of garages sitting empty. And where buildings have been torn down already and replaced with parking lots, the concrete and asphalt will remain.

The city calls those buildings “disappeared,” by the way. Back in May, the Zoning Ordinance Advisory Committee—known as ZOAC, an important volunteer body that researches the impact of changing the city’s development code—received a routine briefing from city staff that featured a satellite image of Lower Greenville. About a dozen plots were highlighted in yellow. The image included the caption “disappeared buildings that are currently parking lots.”

It is a tangible example of what parking minimums do to a city. When a city’s development code requires every project—big or small, office or residential, retail or church or bar or bowling alley—to provide a certain amount of space for a certain amount of cars, it changes the landscape. In a denser neighborhood like Lower Greenville, a developer working on one building has had to acquire its neighbor to tear it down in order to fulfill the city’s parking requirements. (And various building uses require various amounts of parking, so the the parking can wind up limiting the pool of tenants. One developer I spoke to for this story said he had to tell a to-go food operation that it could not place two tables with chairs inside because it would require more parking.)

“What is now surface parking lots used to have old structures on them,” says Jon Hetzel, the president of the Deep Ellum Foundation and a partner with Madison Partners, which owns and leases buildings in popular neighborhoods like Deep Ellum, Lower Greenville, and Oak Lawn. “Those are old structures that our company and others bought and tore down because of code parking requirements. Because we had to.”

The current deep dive into the city’s parking code began in 2019, when a husband and wife couple found a dream building they wanted to redevelop, only to have their dreams crushed by parking requirements. The building, which was a little over 5,000 square feet, was on Beckley Avenue in North Oak Cliff, not far from Bishop Arts.

As detailed by the Dallas Morning News, Timm Matthews and his wife wanted to turn the building into a boutique hotel and a restaurant. To get the city’s OK, the couple was asked to produce more than 8,000 square feet of parking—which, if a single parking space is about 350 square feet, meant 24 spots. The city requires a parking space for every hotel room and for ever 100 square feet of a restaurant. According to the News report, the project fell about 16 spaces short. Matthews told the plan commission that it would cost between $2 million and $3 million to meet the city’s standard.

Mayor Pro Tem Chad West, the councilman who represents the district, and his then plan commissioner, Enrique MacGregor, soon triggered a review of the city’s parking minimums. One major problem stuck out: the city still relied upon a parking formula that was introduced in 1965, codified into a development code known as 51A.

On a recent Zoom chat, some local architects talked about how silly this is. They had a guest online, Dr. Donald Shoup, the urban planning professor at UCLA widely thought to be the first to study and quantify the effect of parking requirements in cities. He started his chat with the Dallas branch of the American Institute of Architects by pillorying the city’s more ridiculous parking requirements.

Clubs are required to provide one parking space for every 25 square feet of dance floor. A bingo parlor must have a parking space for every 50 square feet. A sewage pumping station requires a parking space for every million gallons of sewage the station can pump; it does not clarify whose job it is to track such a thing.

“Of parking codes, I have to say the ones in Dallas are the most bizarre I have ever seen,” Shoup said. “Most of them date from 1967, and it seems as though no one has ever looked at them since.”