A Daily Conversation About Dallas


The Council Nearly Killed the Oak Cliff Streetcar, Then They Realized They Can’t

| 4 days ago

For the first hour or so of Tuesday’s meeting of the Dallas City Council’s Transportation Committee, council members listened as the region’s top transportation official and the assistant city manager who oversees transportation discussed the need for a more integrated approach to long-range planning.

They proposed an approach to transportation planning that allowed for other city investments and services – like improved traffic signals, reconstituted streetscapes, and expanded access to high-speed internet – to be incrementally built into the system. The idea was to design each transportation project not as a single, standalone investment, but as a component of a broader network of iterative improvements.

Then, the council pivoted and nearly killed the Oak Cliff Streetcar, a pilot trolley line that the city has long hoped will someday evolve into a modern streetcar network covering downtown and the surrounding inner-city neighborhoods. It was a paradoxical juxtaposition of planning philosophies and something of a case study in what works – and what doesn’t work – with city planning in Dallas.

Council members are understandably frustrated that the Oak Cliff Streetcar is leaking money. The streetcar connects the far southwest corner of downtown at the Eddie Bernice Johnson Union Station with the Bishop Arts District. It is short nearly $1 million of its $2.3 million annual operating budget. Staff proposed the council draw from the city’s general fund to cover the gap, but only North Oak Cliff representative Chad West was vocal in supporting that idea; the streetcar is in West’s district. In the end, the council voted to delay action – but not before the committee kicked the tires on giving up on the streetcar altogether.

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Urban Design

The Feds Might Nudge Cities Toward Highway Removals

| 3 weeks ago

Good news for the I-345 removal proponents: the federal government is speaking the same language. In December before Congress recessed, more than two dozen Democratic senators signed onto then minority leader Chuck Schumer’s Economic Justice Act, a $435 billion spending bill that included a pilot project for removing highways that decimated communities of color in many major American cities.

The bill, if it’s passed, allots $10 billion over five years to tearing out the freeways and creating community land trusts to help manage land use after the structures are gone. The bill refers to these highways as “infrastructural barriers.” And I-345 is certainly that: an elevated mile-plus of concrete connective tissue between two freeways that divides downtown from Deep Ellum and the Farmers Market. Removing it would free up about the same total acreage as Fair Park, creating opportunity for housing, jobs, and other resources if the city can get the land use right.

The bill anticipates that challenge. As it’s written, local governments would be prioritized if they enter into an agreement with nearby residents to establish an anti-displacement policy or a land trust to help ensure that the removal of the highway won’t re-traumatize the community. That’s a significant inclusion because it would help communities have greater control over how the land around the highway removal is developed.

“Every highway teardown project will be a little different, have different political and market conditions, and these federal tools will have to be evaluated for whether they are appropriate,” says Patrick Kennedy, the DART board member and urban planner who first raised the possibility of removing I-345 about a decade ago.

The federal grants created by the bill would help pay for outright removal or a retrofit as long as it “enhances community connectivity and is sensitive to the context of the surrounding community.” The grants could help pay for replacing existing highways with a new facility or “other transportation improvements that address the mobility needs of the community.” The bill allows for the feds to pay for up to 80 percent of the project. For I-345, burying it below grade is also an option being explored.

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Dallas’ New Mobility Plan Admits That Walking Here Is Dangerous

| 1 month ago

The city of Dallas owns and maintains about 4,400 miles of sidewalk, but only 1,200 of those miles are undamaged or unobstructed. A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that judges how safe cities are for pedestrians says Dallas is more than twice as dangerous as the national average, scoring us just outside the 20 most unsafe cities for walking in America.

In considering parking requirements for proposed developments, the city only takes into account what it means for people in cars, not giving any special favor to projects that may encourage the use of public transit or actually reduce the need for a vehicle. Meanwhile, about half of all fatal and severe vehicular crashes occur on just 8 percent of Dallas’ streets, split between the denser core of downtown, Uptown, and Oak Lawn and the high-speed, six-lane arterials you can find all over town. In 2019, 174 people died in traffic-related incidents and another 920 were seriously injured.

These statistics come from the city’s first-ever mobility plan, a project that has been in the works since the Department of Transportation was reorganized, in 2018. Until now, the city has not formally attempted to account for how transportation policies affect pedestrian safety, as well as land use and economic development. Back in 1991, the city considered the very bad idea of widening Harry Hines to eight lanes through the Medical District. By contrast, this plan calls for the opposite: traffic-calming measures where possible and improved infrastructure to make it safer for folks to get around without a vehicle.

This mobility plan, which was unveiled yesterday in a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting, is called Connect Dallas. It identifies some of the city’s transportation problems and provides guidance to prioritize spending on projects that will make it easier and safer for people to walk, bike, and use public transportation. “It really lays out the foundation for other elements such as housing, economic development, and equity and how all of them connect together,” said Majed Al-Ghafry, an assistant city manager. He called it “the framework for how we move forward … in terms of funding strategy.”

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A Better Look at That New Klyde Warren Park Fountain

| 3 months ago

Last week, when it was announced that Nancy and Randy Best had donated $10 million toward the erection of a new “super fountain” in Klyde Warren Park, our own Zac Crain ridiculed the idea. Seeing the rendering of the fountain that was released at the time, I agreed with Zac. It looked terrifyingly out of scale. The brilliance of Klyde Warren is that it brings people together in a comfortable human-sized setting in downtown Dallas, a place that has for so long been hostile to humans. This thing, it appeared the opposite of that. Then the Morning News wrote an editorial that must have made its architecture critic, Mark Lamster, cringe. [Update 1:35 p.m.: 15 minutes after this post went up, Lamster published his thoughts on the fountain, though he hadn’t yet seen the images we are publishing here.] In part:

Yes, this project is flashy, splashy and over-the-top. A “super fountain” that will shoot water 95 feet high choreographed to music and colored lights could become the most Dallas thing in Dallas. Like big hair and 10-gallon Stetsons, it makes a statement. Supporters say it’s destined to become Dallas’ “blimp shot” — an iconic feature of the skyline.

But we’re not afraid of big, bold statements. In fact, we encourage them. The donors and developers in our city who can afford to spray out $10 million didn’t get where they are without making bold moves. Dallas is a city of big hats, big ambitions, big money, and now big fountains. We say bring on the dazzle.

We say bring on the outdated clichés and the pitchforks to rend our flesh! Yippee!

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How Urban Planning Consultants Can Shape the Future of Dallas

| 3 months ago

Would you rather bring the family to a restaurant that offers you a few pages of menu items or a restaurant that only makes two or three dishes? Probably the former, right? Now what if the first restaurant had a terrible health department record, was panned by every dining critic in the city, and takes an hour to get the food on the table—but the second restaurant has a Michelin star?

Different story.

This is, essentially, the game Dallas Area Rapid Transit played this summer when it surveyed Dallas residents about its planned bus system overhaul. DART has long insisted that Dallas residents favored a bus system that covered as much of the city as possible. After all, whenever the agency threatened to change a bus line, riders pushed back. And when DART asked riders, non-riders, and other stakeholders in its survey whether they preferred a system with broad coverage over one that focused on increasing ridership, 55 percent said they wanted coverage.

But then DART asked the question again in a different way. Would Dallas residents prefer a short walk to a bus stop followed by a long wait for the bus, or a long walk to the bus stop followed by a short wait for the bus? The results flipped. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they preferred the long walk and the short wait, while another 29 percent said just make the whole damn hassle with the bus go as quickly as possible.

In other words, 76 percent of the respondents preferred the ridership-oriented, high-frequency bus network model. The question just had to be asked in a way that made it clear that they were choosing between quality over quantity.

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Good Public Transit

DART President Gary Thomas Retires, Creating Opportunity for New Era at Transit Agency

| 4 months ago

Gary Thomas, the longtime head of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, announced last week that he will be taking early retirement and stepping down from the agency.

Thomas has been president and executive director of DART for nearly 20 years, and he has worked for or with the public transit agency nearly since its inception. Thomas got his start working as a consulting engineer designing DART’s park and ride facilities, and he joined the agency full time in 1998, when he became the senior vice president of project management. Under Thomas, DART has seen the expansion of its light rail network into the largest system in North America, though his departure comes as DART faces unprecedented challenges, from the pandemic-induced decrease in ridership and revenue to mounting evidence that, despite billions of dollars of public investment, DART has built one of the least-reliable and user-unfriendly transit systems in the world.

It is difficult to overstate the impact Thomas has had on shaping public transit in Dallas and the region.

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Commercial Real Estate

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

| 6 months 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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Dallas City Council Blocks I-345 Soccer Field Proposal

| 6 months 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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Dollar Stores Are a Sign of Urban Decay. It’s Time to Stop Their Spread.

| 6 months 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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Staring at a Shortfall, DART Weighs Returning Service to Normal

| 7 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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Houston Continues to Do Dallas’ Urbanism Homework

| 7 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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What a NIMBY Victory in Plano Means for the Future of Urban Planning in Texas

| 7 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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