Council Retreat – Day 1

Today was the first day of the two-day annual council retreat. Since I’ve only been on the council for six months, this was my first retreat.

The purpose of the retreat is to two-fold: Create a strategic plan for our city while shaping our priorities for next year’s budget.

I have been arguing for a strategic plan for our city since I arrived on the council. Running a city without a strategic plan is like bulding a home without a blueprint. At the end of construction, you’ll have a place to live. It just won’t look very nice, the rooms won’t connect, and it won’t be built to last.

My desire to develop a strategic plan was reaffirmed by residents at my Neighborhood Listening Sessions, who said it was among their top ten priorities.

This planning process is entirely new for Dallas, and is actually on the cutting edge of most cities across the nation. While most comparable cities have a strategic plan, they don’t tie that plan to expenditures. We, on the other hand, are creating a strategic plan tied directly to our budget. This will give us a road map for our long-term goals while also guiding our annual spending to ensure we reach those goals.

Here’s how it works. From a strategic planning aspect, we’ve got nine “key focus areas”:

-Trinity River Corridor
-Natural Resources
-Culture, Recreation and Education
-Health and Dignity

Teams of cross-departmental staff responsible for these key focus areas developed a set of proposed goals for each key focus area.

For example, in the “Safety” key focus area, the over-arching goal is to “Make people feel safe where they live, work, and play.” The staff then developed major factors that contribute to making people feel safer, and then sub-factors. The staff then put together requests for proposals that city departments will compete to fulfill:

Key Focus Area: Safety
Major Factor: Physical Environment
Requests for proposals:
Enhance actual and perceived levels of safety through improvements to the physical environment by addressing one or more of the following categories:
-Clean neighborhoods
-Safe buildings
-Built and maintained to required codes
-Premise violations
-Street conditions

This is a totally new way of thinking about our city planning and about our budget. Instead of giving about the same amount of money to city departments year after year, departments will have to compete for money allocated to specific goals by coming up with the best, most cost effective proposal to achieve that goal.

Emily Ramshaw of the Dallas Morning News explained the process well in her report:

At the retreat, the council will take its key focus areas, such as public safety and economic development, and agree on the end results such as creating a safer city or promoting a thriving economy. Council members will consider steps and strategies to reach these results. Then they’ll establish the total “price” of the budget – how much constituents are willing to spend for these results.

In the coming months, city departments will design new programs or tweak existing ones to meet the council’s desired results. Council members will prioritize each program and allocate funds in the budgeting process until they’ve reached their price cap. And all of their work – including long-term results, short-term strategies and available resources – will come together to form a strategic plan.

I have to admit, I was skeptical of this process at first. There are still some aspects of the plan that I’m concerned about. For example, this is a “top down” strategic plan. Instead of holding townhall meetings throughout the city to determine what our residents’ priorities are, the City Manager developed the priority list. However, the priority list addresses nearly all of the primary concerns raised by residents at the dozen neighborhood listening sessions I held, so I am becoming convinced this is going to be a plan that reflects the goals of Dallas residents, not just the city’s bureaucrats or elected officials.

Neighborhood Listening Sessions – Results

In October and November of last year, I held a dozen “listening sessions” across District 14 to learn which issues our residents consider to be the most important for our city. Over 280 residents attended, representing a very diverse cross-section of Dallas. At the City Council retreat today, I presented the results of those meetings.

I asked residents for the primary issues they would like our city government to focus on. The figures below represent the percentage of attendees who believed a particular issue to be a top five priority:

1. 89% Crime Reduce crime; hire more police; put more officers in neighborhoods
2. 63% Economic Development Bring more businesses to Dallas; be more business-friendly; improve Downtown
3. 49% Code Enforcement Be more responsive; enforce codes; follow up
4. 41% Neighborhood Quality of Life Improve and expand park and recreation facilities, trails, and greenspace; create compatible residential development; encourage trees and pedestrian streetscapes; support libraries and arts facilities
5. 37% City Council, Get Along Cooperate more; don’t talk too much at meetings; get on the same page; don’t have “fiefdom” mentality
6. 32% Environment Improve air quality; encourage environmental construction; promote recycling and reuse
7. 31% Homeless Get homeless off streets; reduce panhandling
8. 23% Property Taxes Valuations are too high; reduce taxes
9. 22% Strategic Plan Create a long-term plan/vision for city
10. 21% Mass Transit Make more convenient; encourage use; create connections to major hubs of activity (libraries, cultural facilities, airport, sports venues)

While some of these results are not surprising (crime and code enforcement, for example), two stand out. First, 37% of residents believed that a top priority is for the “City Council to Get Along.” Residents expressed a real frustration with the City Council for (in their words) spending too much time fighting and not enough time working together to improve our city. Although I have learned that such infighting is not the reality at City Council, it is, sadly, the perception, and the Council must figure out ways to address this.

The second topic of particular interest is residents’ desire for the Council to have a long-term vision for our city in the form of a “Strategic Plan.” I am hopeful that the City Manager’s Action Plan and Budgeting for Outcomes approach will provide a good first step toward developing a larger vision for our city that our residents will embrace. In another blog, I will address how our strategic planning session went today.

Both of these priorities are significant because they can be addressed, in part, by the same solution: more frequent meetings among the Mayor, Councilmembers, and the Manager to discuss long-term issues. Our regular Council meetings and committee meetings do not offer us the time or forum to address more general concerns. While an annual retreat is a great opportunity to discuss long-range plans, more frequent meetings could ensure we stay “on the same page,” reduce the perception of infighting, and give us time to develop and monitor a strategic plan for our City.

I’ve also got each listening session’s top five priorities that I will post this weekend.

New Hanover Building Coming to Uptown

Today the City Council approved a change in zoning for a new development in Uptown: the Hanover Residential Tower.

Hanover will be constructing a residential tower on the northern part of the block at McKinney, St. Paul, and Harwood. The lot was zoned for heavy commercial uses, and the developer wanted to add residential uses.

The developer worked with surrounding property owners to reduce the impact on their views of Downtown (“view corridors”). As a result, the developer sought to make its tower thinner and taller — 45′ taller than the 240′ zoning standard permitted by the Oak Lawn Planned Development District. (The same height as the Crescent.) They also asked for increased density for the development.

For these additional zoning rights, the builder agreed to restrict part of its property (the little panhandle that abuts Harwood) to parking and greenspace, and not build on that part of the lot.

I also requested that the builder put in wider sidewalks than required. Uptown is a pedestrian area, and is quickly linking with Downtown and Victory. I get so frustrated walking or riding my bike in Uptown where the sidewalks are so tiny. We need to make the area pedestrian-friendly, and the narrow sidewalks discourage people from walking. So instead of little 4′ sidewalks, I requested 5′ of parkway and 10′ sidewalks on the McKinney and Harwood sides, and a 5′ parkway and 7′ sidewalks on the St. Paul side.

Lastly, I requested that the builder camouflage the parking garage to make it look less like a garage and more like the rest of the building’s facades.

I also stripped out a number of heavy commercial uses that should no longer be allowed at that site.

Overall, this is going to be a great contribution to Uptown, and I am pleased with the resulting zoning changes.

VOTE: Unanimously in favor.

New Uptown Trolley Line Approved

Today the City Council voted to approve a new trolley line connecting Uptown to Downtown. The trolley line will run from the current McKinney trolley line, turn south down Olive Street, and end at Bryan Street. The line will run down the west side of Olive, go through the Arts District past the Nasher, and connect to the Pearl Street DART light rail line on Bryan Street. Right now, the plan is for the trolley to return along the same line. In the future, there will likely be a separate return route.

There is currently a trolley line from McKinney Avenue down St. Paul , the line ends at Ross Avenue. The McKinney Avenue Trolley Authority, a non-profit that supports the Uptown Trolley, analyzed various ways to extend the trolley line to a DART light rail line in Downtown. In particular, MATA examined extending the St. Paul line, but due to underground utility problems, could not do so.

I’m very excited about the new connection to Downtown, into the Arts District. Just yesterday, the Economic Development Committee was briefed on the final report of the Inside the Loop Committee. The Inside the Loop Committee is a group of Downtown stakeholders who, at the City’s direction, have developed a comprehensive plan for Downtown that includes transportation, parks and trails, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, and improved signage. One of their primary objectives is to link Downtown to nearby areas, including Uptown, and this trolley line accomplishes that.

This resolution was important. While we did not allocate funds to this project, we ensured that a state grant that was given to the City years ago did not expire.

VOTE: The new trolley line was unanimously approved.