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A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Last week, Jeff Speck was looking at a map of Uptown and trying to make sense of McKinnon Street. It is basically an elongated freeway on-ramp that shoots drivers onto Harry Hines and the Dallas North Tollway. It’s a big wide street in a neighborhood that should be the city’s most walkable, but you wouldn’t want to be on two feet here. Elsewhere in Uptown, there are enough one-way streets that the neighborhood still functions, in part, as a commuter spoke for drivers.

Speck is a city planner and urban designer who authored the best-selling planning book over the last 45 years, Walkable City. It explores ways municipalities can achieve the goal spelled out in its title. He followed that with Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places, which is also very literal. (And includes some dings at Dallas: how our high-rises come paired with surface lots and garages, how we practically trademarked the “Dallas Donut” of apartment buildings flanking parking lots.)

Uptown Dallas Inc. flew him in to speak on Monday night at the Crescent. It finally appears that the city will soon convert McKinney and Cole streets from one-way to two-way streets, a core tenet of Speck’s goal to help cities design streets to make neighborhoods safer for perambulators. (The city recently made public 30 percent design documents pertaining to making those streets two ways.)

He was still researching the neighborhood when we spoke last week. But he still had plenty to say that Dallas can learn from. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

A new collection of organizers is pushing for the Dallas City Council to request that the state slow down its plans for Interstate 345. Sometime this fall, the Texas Department of Transportation will begin seeking resolutions from partners like the city in support of its “preferred alternative” for the highway, which would take the road below grade between downtown and Deep Ellum. The TxDOT plan includes 11 opportunities for at-grade decking over the road that could support development. It also would add 7 acres of surplus right of way beside the thoroughfare.

Resolutions in support of this plan are important features for TxDOT; they help the agency compete for funding from the Texas Transportation Commission, and they contribute to the federal environmental impact statement. That statement, known as an FEIS, is required before construction can begin.

Meet More Neighbors Dallas. They’re a chapter of YIMBY Action—yes in my backyard—that advocates for policies that will lead to more housing for more people in cities across the country. This local chapter now has its eye on removing I-345, starting with urging the state to develop an FEIS for removal that can be analyzed alongside the FEIS for putting the highway in a trench.

“We’re pushing the jobs away from people by keeping these highways,” says D’Andrala Alexander, the organization’s co-founder. “A lot of what we’re asking for at this moment is actually to pump the brakes. We’re asking for time.”

State officials briefed the City Council’s Transportation Committee in June, about a month after TxDOT unveiled its preferred trench plan. Both sides presented TxDOT’s plan—which the state refers to as the “hybrid” option—as a compromise of sorts between the folks who want the highway removed and replaced with a boulevard, and the others who want to keep the roadway but see the need for more buildings around it.

More Neighbors Dallas has enlisted environmental groups such Sunrise Dallas and Downwinders at Risk. The Imagining Freedom Institute, Do Right by the Streets, and the Coalition for a New Dallas are all involved. (The Coalition was started by the late founder of D Magazine, Wick Allison, but has always operated separately from the magazine.)

The mix of organizers is reflective of the opportunity they believe removing 345 presents. The city’s climate action plan has a goal to significantly reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips in the coming decades. Sunrise and Downwinders have long favored policy that curbs emissions; they view a highway as a major barrier to that goal.

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.”