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A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Commercial Real Estate

Will Downtown Dallas Real Estate Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic?

| 4 weeks ago

If your business relies on people sharing space in any way, these are uncertain times. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic immediately affected communal spaces like theaters, restaurants, and bars. But as the virus continues to spread through the community and companies extend the amount of time their employees are working from home, what will the ripple effect be on other major sectors  of the economy, such as commercial real estate?

That was the subject of Downtown Dallas Inc.’s continuing “State of Downtown” series this morning. DDI’s President and CEO Kourtny Garrett spoke with Sara Terry, senior vice president at Stream Realty Partners, and their conversation offered a glimpse into how real estate investors are anticipating the short- and long-range impacts of the pandemic on the commercial real estate sector.

The implications for the broader city economy are tremendous. A drop in commercial real estate value, a move toward more permanent remote working environments, and the continued closure of bars and restaurants will undo decades of efforts to build up the health and vitality of Dallas’ central core. Just as the collapse of the real estate economy after the S&L crisis in the late-1980s shaped this city for a generation, a major commercial real estate recession could lead to a plummeting tax base, stagnation in urban reinvestment and revitalization, an incapacity to provide basic city services and maintenance, and an uncertain future for Dallas as an urban center.

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Transportation

Dallas City Council Blocks I-345 Soccer Field Proposal

| 4 weeks ago

It was fitting that the strange saga of Roddrick West’s proposal to develop soccer fields under a stretch of elevated highway downtown ended today in a confusing tangle of parliamentary procedure. The soccer development was mired in political obfuscation from the get-go.

At its Wednesday meeting, the Dallas City Council voted unanimously to deny a resolution that would have seen the city of Dallas relinquish its control over land under I-345 between the downtown Farmers Market and Deep Ellum so West could build a soccer complex. The vote, however, came only after Far North Dallas’ Councilman Lee Kleinman deconstructed the resolution so that the denial wouldn’t affect the development of Carpenter Park downtown as well as the future of land along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas.

There was no good reason why those other projects were ever tied up with West’s soccer fields in the first place. The idea for locating a soccer complex under the highway first emerged last year when West, who has no previous development experience and is the son of State Senator Royce West, emerged with a deal already in hand. The Texas Department of Transportation would let West’s private company build fields on its land, but first the city would have to amend its Multiple Use Agreement with TxDOT to allow the state to lease the land to the state senator’s son. Dallas city staff supported the deal. The city council and Deep Ellum stakeholders, however, had some questions.

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Urbanism

Dollar Stores Are a Sign of Urban Decay. It’s Time to Stop Their Spread.

| 1 month ago

Drive around Dallas’ poorer neighborhoods, and you’ll find that there are three kinds of businesses that tend to survive amid urban decay: pawn shops, payday lenders, and dollar stores. Pawn shops and payday lenders often come under fire for the ways in which they move into challenged urban communities and exploit local residents. Dollar stores, on the other hand, often go unnoticed. But dollar stores are not merely symbols of urban blight. A new report shows how dollar stores serve as active agents of neighborhood deterioration.

An investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times finds that dollar stores are a magnet for crime, perpetuate food deserts, and depress neighborhood job markets. Since 2017, there have been more than 200 violent incidents at Family Dollar or Dollar General stores around the country:

The number of incidents can be explained in part by the stores’ ubiquity: There are now more than 16,000 Dollar Generals and nearly 8,000 Family Dollars in the United States, a 50% increase in the past decade. (By comparison, Walmart has about 4,700 stores in the U.S.) The stores are often in high-crime neighborhoods, where there simply aren’t many other businesses for criminals to target. Routine gun violence has fallen sharply in prosperous cities around the country, but it has remained stubbornly high in many of the cities and towns where these stores predominate. The glowing signs of the discount chains have become indicators of neglect, markers of a geography of the places that the country has written off.

The proliferation of dollar stores can also be linked with poor nutrition and increased rates of heart disease and obesity, and dollar stores also force local retailers out of business yet hire very few employees. And yet, if dollar stores are so bad for urban communities, can cities do anything about their spread? The answer is yes. In fact, many cities around the country, including a couple in North Texas, have already attempted to address their zoning laws and city code to slow the spread of these predatory businesses.

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Transportation

Staring at a Shortfall, DART Weighs Returning Service to Normal

| 2 months ago

Before the pandemic, DART was hitting a stride. It had just hired lauded public transit consultant Jarrett Walker to help reconfigure its bus routes to operate on a grid system and offer riders more efficient service. It had secured funding for two of its three largest capital projects: extending its rail platforms and the east-west Silver Line, which will connect suburban riders to DFW Airport. It was pursuing federal grants to pay for its forthcoming downtown subway line, D2.

And then in March, like so many other public agencies, DART saw the bottom fall out. By April, ridership had plunged 70 percent. Its main sources of revenue—fares and sales tax—tanked. To save money, the agency reduced its bus and rail services to mimic the reduction in demand. As the pandemic dragged on, staff told the board that the agency will need to cut $40 million from next year’s operations budget, about 7 percent.

Budget talks are beginning anew, and DART will begin finding ways to shore up that shortfall.

“There are no sacred cows,” said trustee Michele Wong Krause during a panel last week. “We are looking at everything to find those savings.”

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Urbanism

Houston Continues to Do Dallas’ Urbanism Homework

| 2 months ago

First it was the buses.

In 2015, Houston adopted a plan to completely revamp its bus system, changing from the hub-and-spoke network model Dallas Area Rapid Transit currently uses to a grid system that focuses on raising service levels to promote increased ridership. Since then, DART has begun the process of following Houston’s lead.

Now, Houston is adopting a slate of new ordinances designed to encourage more urban design. Dallas would be wise to take notes and perhaps explore a similar revision of many of its codes.

For a full rundown of what Houston plans, head here. I’ll touch on a few quick highlights:

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Urbanism

What a NIMBY Victory in Plano Means for the Future of Urban Planning in Texas

| 2 months ago

The final death knell for one of the most promising, forward-thinking urban planning efforts in North Texas will be sounded tomorrow. During a joint session of the city of Plano’s City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission, Plano officials are expected to vote to repeal the city’s Plano Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan and replace it with the 1986 master plan—literally putting Plano a generation behind on planning for its future growth and success.

The Plano Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2015, and since then, it has been embroiled in a long legal feud seeking its repeal. Opponents feared the new plan and said it would allow dangerous amounts of density that would erode the suburban city’s character. To me, the Plano Tomorrow plan looked like exactly the kind of urban planning vision that could begin to reverse the damaging effects of 70 years of sprawl-style suburban growth.

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Good Public Transit

How Much Can Public Transit Be Blamed for COVID-19 Outbreaks?

| 2 months ago

When this whole global pandemic thing kicked off some months ago, reports that the virus spread quickly through crowded, dense cities appeared to raise some sharp questions about the future of urban places. In cities like New York, subways were shuttered and residents who could fled the city. Were cities—and dense cities which rely on public transit, in particular—especially vulnerable to global pandemics? An article in Scientific American suggests that initial fears of COVID-19’s spread on public transit, at least, were perhaps a tad overblown.

The article addresses an Atlantic opinion piece written by Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and Seth Solomonow, the co-author of Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution. The pair argue that public transit can’t be linked to as many major outbreaks as bars and live music venues. Furthermore, avoiding public transit increases car use, which can create pollution, which can make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.

My initial reaction to this argument was skepticism. The premise doesn’t seem to make sense.

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Urban Design

You Can Now Ask the City To Shut Down Your Street

| 4 months ago

Remember when someone suggested fairly early on during the COVID-19 lockdown that the city shut down Seventh St. in Oak Cliff to allow residents more space to run and stroll outside, since the Katy Trail and parks were clogged? That didn’t work out too well. Some residents resented the idea that someone decided to turn their block into a COVID recreation destination. Facebook erupted into a neighborhood dog fight, and the deal died in a single weekend.

Now, the city of Dallas and a few urbanism-minded partners are back at it again with a similar, though much improved, idea. If you would like to shut down your street to make it safer and to give you and your neighbors a some  additional public recreation space, all you have to do is ask. The city of Dallas has partnered with Better Block, Bike DFW, Amanda Popken Development, and a Coalition for a New Dallas (yes, that coalition) to launch the Dallas Slow Streets pilot program. Modeled after similar programs in Austin and Kansas City, Slow Streets invites neighbors to apply for a 30-day permit that will allow your street to be closed to all but emergency and local traffic. Think of it as a month-long block party.

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Parks

Dallas Slips in Annual Park Rankings, But More Dire Challenges Loom

| 4 months ago

There’s good news and bad news in the Trust for Public Land’s annual ParkScore rankings. First the bad: Dallas slipped two spots in its national ranking among city park systems (from 52 to 54), mostly due to its comparatively weak park amenities and limited dog parks and restrooms. But Dallas’ park access score has “improved dramatically,” according to the report, thanks to new trails and agreements with schools to open grounds for public use. The city’s median park size of 7.7 acres also exceeds the national median of 5.2 acres. These gains can be attributed to the city’s embrace of the Trust for Public Land’s “10-minute Walk to a Park” campaign.

But the real story in this year’s report is—you guessed it—the COVID-19 pandemic. Analysts with The Trust for Public Land are concerned that the economic crisis caused by the pandemic will strip municipal budgets and hamper progress to increase park access. The report points out that the city of Dallas furloughed 235 Parks and Rec employees last week.

“While few cities have announced budget plans for 2021 and beyond, park advocates are gearing up for a fight,” said Bill Lee, senior vice president for policy, advocacy and government relations at The Trust for Public Land. “We encourage the federal government to provide relief to struggling park systems in the next recovery bill. We need our parks, and we will not allow park systems to be collateral damage from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Local News

Will Royce West’s Son Get to Build Soccer Fields Under a Highway?

| 4 months ago

The proposal to install a private development of soccer fields under Interstate 345 is scheduled to return to City Hall on Monday. We haven’t heard anything about this project for more than a year, after a council committee sent it back to the drawing board following concerns that it was unsafe to exercise under a highway. Some members also wondered whether the plan was the best use for the land, as the Deep Ellum Foundation had been trying for nearly a decade to turn it into special event and staff parking.

Those in opposition also note the optics of the deal. The Texas Department of Transportation is currently researching the potential for removing or burying the elevated, 1.3-mile I-345, which connects Interstate 45 to Central Expressway and occupies a whole lot of land between downtown and Deep Ellum. Tearing it out and replacing with a boulevard would free up hundreds of acres that could be used to build much-needed affordable housing, create physical spaces for jobs near the city’s core, and improve the pedestrian connectivity between two of Dallas’ most important neighborhoods. All of this development would generate millions in tax revenue for the city.

The man driving the deal to build the soccer fields is Roddrick West, son of U.S. Senate hopeful and longtime state Sen. Royce West. Royce has been perhaps the loudest and most powerful voice against removing I-345, causing political groups to question his son’s intent and confront his father at public hearings. (Disclosure: one of those groups is the Coalition for a New Dallas, the Super PAC co-founded by D Magazine founder Wick Allison that operates independently of D Magazine.)

Roddrick maintains that his dad has nothing to do with this project and that the lease agreement would include a clause that requires a two-year exit should the city and the state decide to do anything to the freeway. TxDOT confirms that fact, adding that the termination clause “can be exercised at TxDOT’s sole discretion.” The agency will not detail the lease’s financial information until the deal is final.

“Sometimes development hits a highway and doesn’t want to jump over because of the psychological effects on pedestrians,” Roddrick said. “With programming this site in particular, bringing life and activity to this site, it will drastically improve the pedestrian experience for folks crossing under 345 to go between Deep Ellum and the Farmers Market.”

For the project’s critics, the math doesn’t add up. While TxDOT owns the land under the freeway, the city controls it. Council will have to agree to cede control of the land for the soccer balls to roll.

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Urbanism

This Monday: Stream a Symposium on Dallas’ Parking Requirements

| 5 months ago

Parking requirements dictate much of what gets built and what doesn’t in this city. Residential, commercial, it doesn’t matter. City code dictates the amount of parking you need or don’t need in order for you to put up that fourplex or open that restaurant. City code hasn’t exactly warmed to the idea of urban neighborhoods as well as it should have: every 100 square feet of a restaurant requires a parking space, just as every single hotel room does.

Going back to his days on Dallas City Plan Commission, North Oak Cliff Councilman Chad West has been a proponent to rethinking the code to better reflect the conditions in the neighborhoods that make Dallas the city that it is.

And because you have absolutely nowhere to go other than your allotted walks, you’ll be able to tune into this stream with West and a few others that talk about this very topic. The Coalition for a New Dallas, the super PAC that D founder Wick Allison started (and is independent of operations at D, mind you), is sponsoring a Zoom stream with West, Travis Liska of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and Mintwood Real Estate’s Katy Slade. It happens Monday, April 27, at 5:30 p.m. It’s not like you have anything else to do.

When we come out of this pandemic, we’ll be coming to a city that will be greatly changed. Before the pandemic, the requirements were already making some projects pencil out and others not. The digital symposium promises to discuss “innovative parking proposals” that could change how our city does business.

When we can all return to our lives, it’ll be particularly important for the city to establish smart policies that encourage sustainable growth. And that, in many ways, starts with parking.

“Many cities in DFW, including Dallas, have antiquated parking codes that have not been updated in decades to reflect changes in how people move around,” West said. “The codes often stand in the way of thoughtful, neighborhood-centric growth. It’s time for us to change that.”

Head here to RSVP.

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Urbanism

Neighborhood Cannibalism: A Simple Street Closure Turned Oak Cliff Against Itself

| 5 months ago

One of the most encouraging subplots of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a story of adaptation.

Groups, organizations, and neighbors have pooled resources, schemed plans, and unrolled do-it-yourself solutions to meet some of the most pressing needs of the medical crisis. These include alcohol distillers who are producing hand sanitizers, jeans manufacturers who are producing protective gear, and restaurants who are reinventing their business models to stay open and keep their workers employed.

Better Block, the urbanist activist/design consulting organization founded by Jason Roberts, responded quickly. First, they repurposed some makeshift market stalls to transform Oddfellows in Oak Cliff into a pop-up outdoor marketplace, selling the restaurant’s freezer and pantry stock to neighbors in need of kitchen staples. Then Better Block turned their production facility into an open-source protective mask factory, and they have been shipping the face shields to medical providers around the country.

A couple of weeks ago another idea emerged from the Better Block brain trust: shutting down city streets to create new pedestrian plazas to help relieve congested parks and allow for more social distancing-compliant outdoor fun.

It sounded like a good idea before it all fell apart amid a bitter neighborhood squabble online.

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