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Local News

Dallas City Council Members Walk Back Promise to Remove I-345

Matt Goodman
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This rendering shows what a boulevard-ed replacement of I-345 could look like.

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.

Urbanism

Dallas: The City That Hates Pedestrians, Pt. 45

Matt Goodman
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Construction again trumps walkability and accessibility.

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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Singleton United/Unidos steering committee member Jose Rodriguez, who lives at Kingbridge Crossing in West Dallas, affixes a postcard to the fence of the GAF shingle plant. Neighbors of the facility have put together a 100-page case for why Dallas should force the plant to leave.

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. 

Local News

TxDOT’s Official Recommendation for I-345: Don’t Remove It, Bury It

Matt Goodman
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I-345 shown from near Deep Ellum. (photo by Scott Womack)

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.

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.

Urbanism

Dallas City Council Approves $4 Billion Deal to Tear Down the Convention Center

Peter Simek
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The red blob roughly represents the new footprint of the planned convention center

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.”

Urban Design

The Most Important Part of Dismantling an Urban Freeway

Peter Simek
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Google image of I-345's bottom.

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.

Transportation

Will Dallas’ New Vision Zero Plan Actually Save Lives?

Peter Simek
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Dallas, built for cars. (photo: Neff Conner/Flickr)

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.”

Urban Design

Dallas Should Spend $2 Billion to Scrap the Convention Center. No, Seriously.

Peter Simek
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Inside George Dahl's Dallas Memorial Arena

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.

Local News

The City of Dallas Is Putting Parking Spots in Its Crosshairs

Matt Goodman
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The current Dallas code requires far too much parking. We should set maximums instead of minimums.

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.”

Local Government

Dallas Bike Lane Infrastructure Overhaul Gains Momentum, But Will It Be Enough?

Matt Goodman
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Riders cruise into West Dallas as part of one of Transit Bicycle Company's organized bike rides.

The city of Dallas will enter 2022 with grand plans to update its now decade-old bike plan, which had similarly grand ambitions that never manifested. Since its completion in 2011, the city has opened more trails and a nonprofit is leading an effort to create a 50-mile loop around the city, including new routes throughout east and southern Dallas. But what hasn’t changed much since 2011 is how poor our urban cycling infrastructure is, something Peter Simek wrote about a few months ago.

A memo sent on Friday to the Dallas City Council announced a new advisory committee that will be charged with steering the update to the plan. Each council member and the mayor will appoint someone to the committee. That is now the second transit-related committee made up of members of the public; council already had to appoint constituents to a micro-mobility committee, which is first charged with determining how to safely get scooters back onto the streets.

(Mayor Pro Tem Chad West, of North Oak Cliff, tells me he plans to appoint the same member from that committee to this cycling one, an effort to avoid “duplicating efforts” between the two bodies. It will be interesting if his colleagues follow his lead.)

The City Council will vote on Wednesday whether to award a five-year, $450,000 contract to the global architecture and design firm Gresham Smith, which would update the plan. Establishing an oversight committee was a cornerstone of the 2011 bike plan, a way for the public to hold the city accountable as it implemented its goal. But that never happened. Now, the committee will start by monitoring the consultant as it develops yet another plan to make it safer to cycle in Dallas.

The new plan was born out of yet another plan: this year’s wide-ranging mobility planning document, called Connect Dallas, which found that the 2011 Bike Plan “no longer reflected existing conditions, needs, and preferences.”

The plan from a decade ago was the city’s first effort to plot a series of on- and off-street facilities for cyclists, even hiring staff to help implement it. The goals were ambitious, even targeted at lowering emissions by increasing cyclists; the Environmental Protection Agency had classified Dallas County in non-attainment status for the Clean Air Act’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards. (It remains so, 11 years later.)

But it wasn’t safe to ride a bike then and it still isn’t. Five years after the plan was implemented, the League of American Bicyclists found that bicycle commutes in Dallas actually dropped by 20 percent.

Eleven years after the bike plan envisioned a “fully interconnected, seamless, and safe Dallas Bikeway System that connects all areas of the City and adjacent jurisdictions,” there are only 5.3 miles of on-street protected bike lanes, where cyclists are physically separated from vehicles.

When you remove the trails, that means the vast majority of the city’s 74 miles of bike infrastructure is shared lanes, often separated by little more than paint. The 2011 plan called for 840 miles of cycling facilities, but the city didn’t pony up the money it would need.

Last year, 228 people were killed in traffic in Dallas, marking an 80 percent increase in the annual number of traffic fatalities here between 2010 and 2020. Of the 15 most populated cities in the country, we have the second highest traffic fatality rate: more than 14 deaths per 100,000 people.

Getting around Dallas is dangerous no matter how you do it, but it’s especially hazardous on foot. According to city statistics, pedestrians account for only about 2 percent of travel within the city (compared to 88 percent in cars), but make up about 36 percent of traffic deaths.

If city officials want to be able to report zero annual traffic deaths by 2030—and they say they do—then they have their work cut out for them.

Those numbers come from a briefing given to the City Council’s transportation committee Wednesday, at which city transportation director Ghassan “Gus” Khankarli discussed Dallas’ in-progress Vision Zero action plan.

Cities across the country have adopted similar so-called “Vision Zero” plans over the last decade or so, with mixed results. But traffic deaths are preventable—urbanists like to point to the example of Oslo, Norway, which actually has been able to realize zero traffic deaths in a year.

For that to happen in Dallas, it will take more than talk.

“Very often around this horseshoe we talk about wanting to be a walkable city, but we’re clearly killing our pedestrians,” City Council member Cara Mendelsohn said at the briefing. “I think these numbers are alarming. And a lot of this goes back to some of the basics we keep talking about.”