East Dallas Veloway is Getting Underway (Finally!)

Today, the Council is set to approve several items related to the East Dallas Veloway, which is East Dallas’ version of the Katy Trail, built along the old Santa Fe rail line.

I’m still trying to understand what has caused a year and a half delay, but from what I understand, it was related to problems coordinating with the Texas Department of Transportation (with whom we’re partnering on this).

Here’s the new schedule, below. I’ll update the timeline on the East Dallas Veloway page, but I’m also going to leave the “old” schedule up so we can keep track of shifts in the timeline.

Phase 2 (Randall Park south to I-30):
Feb. 2008 – Construction contract awarded
Apr. 2008 – Construction for phase 2 begins
Aug. 2009 – Construction for phase 2 completed

Phase 1 (Randall Park north to White Rock):
Feb. 2008 – Authorize construction contract w/TXDOT
Summer 2008 – Construction contract for phase 1 awarded
Fall 2009 – Construction for phase 1 completed

See my East Dallas Veloway page for a map.

Dallas is “Walkable”? Really?!

On Friday, the Downtown Dallas Association held a luncheon at which keynote speaker Christopher Leinberger opined about the need for walkability in cities: the pendulum is swinging back from the post-war, sparsely populated, suburban model that required dependence on cars, to a more dense, urban model that encourages pedestrian accessibility and mixed-use planning.

I enjoyed Mr. Leinberger’s discussion, but found his conclusion that Dallas is on the cutting edge of pedestrianism curious. Because we aren’t. We aren’t neck-and-neck with Denver for creating a walkable city. We’re just starting out.

Our lack of good sidewalks in Uptown drives me crazy. They’re ridiculously narrow, particularly on McKinney, and we have utility poles, street sign poles, and other obstacles obstructing the walkways.

So what do we do? What I’ve been doing is an ad hoc response: when there are zoning change requests, I require the developer to do 10-12 foot sidewalks (the new Lincoln and Hanover buildings on McKinney). But that isn’t good enough.

So here’s what I’m going to do: First, I’m working with Uptown and Downtown stakeholders on a trail connector from the Katy Trail to the Arts District. That will be an awesome pedestrian amenity. Second, I’m going to work with Uptown Public Improvement District and the Downtown Dallas Association on improving sidewalks linking major venues, like Uptown, Victory, Woodall Rodgers Park, Arts District, West End, Convention Center, Main Street Gardens, Farmers Market, Deep Ellum, and the Cedars. We could make them more attractive, wider (?), line them with trees, encourage flowers and planters, standardize the location of, and move, signs/lamp poles/telephone poles. Third, I’m working on a streetcar system in Downtown Dallas that will get people out of their cars.

I welcome other ideas about making our city more walkable!

Whole Foods – The Real Story

I was troubled recently when Whole Foods announced that it was withdrawing its proposal to build a new store on the old Lakewood Minyards site, and instead was going to reuse the old building. What troubled me was that Whole Foods seemed to blame the the neighborhood and plan commissioners for the decision.

See, Whole Foods couldn’t build their new store with the current zoning standards, so they had to get a zoning change. Like any zoning change, the process involved meetings with the neighborhood and the area’s plan commissioners. The process is inclusive, but not excessively onerous.

After a number of meetings, Whole Foods announced two weeks ago that they had decided not to build a new store because of the so-called challenging and lengthy zoning process.

I wante d to set the record straight. I spoke with Whole Foods’ Seth Stutzman two days before they publicly announced their decision, and he explained that after they got into the zoning case, they did a cost comparison of building a new store versus redoing the old Minyards store. They were shocked to see that the redo would cost $4.5M less than a new store. It would also allow for a more environmentally-friendly store.

I asked Seth, if the zoning change sailed through, would they consider constructing the new building? He said probably not, because of the significant cost savings.

I don’t begrudge Whole Foods’ business decision. What bothers me is their attributing their decision to the “onerous” zoning process when the real reason for their decision is financial.

Whole Foods tried to clarify their position, but never explained it to the media as clearly as Seth did to me. So I wanted everyone to have the benefit of this information.

I liked the proposed new store, but I’m sure that Whole Foods’ redo will be great. I’m thrilled they’re coming to Lakewood, and I’m excited about a “green” store. I just want to make sure our inclusive zoning process is not blamed for a business decision.

Dogs on Patios – Redux

The City Council will vote on revised standards for restaurants to allow dogs on patios. Rick Wamre over at the Lakewood Advocate Blog argues that the city council should stay out of this matter and let the market decide: restaurants that want to allow dogs will allow them, and customers that want to frequent dog-friendly restaurants will do so. Those who don’t like dining with Fido will dine elsewhere.

In general, I agree with Rick — there should be freedom of choice on this issue. However, a point that gets lost in this issue is that it is ILLEGAL for restaurants to have pets on patios, anywhere in the State of Texas. The point of the city ordinance that I’ve championed is to give residents the very choice that Rick mentions, by giving “restaurant owners the power to make their own decisions (and reap the economic rewards or losses).” Because of state health regulations, in order for any restaurant in Dallas to “break” the state law, the City of Dallas must develop specific health standards to maintain cleanliness and food safety. So to provide freedom of choice, the city MUST create a local regulating ordinance.

This issue came up after some restaurants in my district (in West Village) alerted me that they’d received tickets from the city for allowed dogs on patios. Although my husband and I don’t own a dog, we frequent many restaurants in East Dallas and Uptown that are “pet-friendly,” and never had a problem. I consulted with our city attorney and environmental health department, and they in turn worked with the Texas Health Department to come up with a possible solution to give restaurants choice. Councilmember Elba Garcia and I subsequently met with restaurant owners to discuss the rules, and now we’re refining those requirements.

Some of my constituents (rightly) note that there are more important issues facing our city. While I agree, I would point out that neither I, nor city staff, is spending all our waking hours on this ordinance. But this is the type of issue that gets media coverage, as opposed to the more “mundane” issues we’re working on like addressing neighborhood crime, reducing the neighborhood impact of the St. Patrick’s Day party, creating a trail link from the Katy Trail to the Arts District, developing a Downtown streetcar system, working with Cedar Springs businesses to reduce the impact of street closures, working with neighborhoods and developers on multiple zoning cases, etc.

At the same time, as the representative of one of the most urban areas of the city, I’ve got to be responsive to my constituents on issues that directly affect them, like the dogs-on-patios issue. While I’m proud of this ordinance, I don’t want to give anyone the idea that this is top on my priority list or the only thing I’m working on.

More Info Needed on Proposed Convention Center Hotel

On Wednesday, the Council voted on two matters related to the proposed convention center hotel: The first was to fund an analysis of refinancing the convention center debt (which could provide the city’s funding of the hotel). The second was to approve placing an option on the hotel site.

I voted against both items. Here’s why:

I am not against a convention center hotel, but I have not gotten the facts I need to make an informed decision.

Here are the arguments I’ve heard for why Dallas needs a convention center hotel: The lack of an adjoining hotel is preventing Dallas from attracting large conventions. All the other top 20 convention cities have (or are building) convention center hotels, so we need one to compete.

These are good arguments, but these arguments alone do not substantiate the immense taxpayer-supported, public investment that will be required to construct a convention center hotel. Pertinent information is lacking, primarily economic information about the actual benefits of a hotel to our city.

Some who oppose a convention center hotel point out that if it were a profitable enterprise, the market would have already built one. I disagree. I think a reasonable argument can be made that a convention center hotel is a “loss leader” — an item sold below cost to stimulate other, profitable sales. In other words, the convention center hotel would lure more visitors to Dallas who would shop at our stores, eat at our restaurants, and drive our rental cars, yet use few city services. These additional visitors, the argument goes, will provide a net gain to Dallas, though the convention center hotel itself may operate at a loss.

The loss leader issue in itself doesn’t trouble me. A net gain is a net gain. The problem is, I don’t have the data to prove to me that there will actually be a net gain.

Last fall, when this issue came up, I explained to city staff that I had not made up my mind on whether to support a convention center hotel because I didn’t have the following information:

what are the actual (not projected) direct, indirect, and infused economic gains experienced by other cities that have built convention center hotels in the last ten years? What are the before and after numbers for visitors, conventions, rental car usage, sales tax, retail sales, and restaurant sales (five years before and five years after)? Were there substantial gains, and if so, did those gains justify the significant public investment? Because analysts’ predictions are often much rosier than subsequent reality, obtaining actual numbers from other cities can give us a more realistic expectation of the economic impact that could result from a Dallas hotel.

Also, what about hotels that have “failed” financially? Who picked up the bill? How were those financial deals structured? Why did they fail? What can we do to avoid those pitfalls?

How much might a hotel cost Dallas and how would we pay for it? Would we have to raise taxes? If so, by how much? Again, would the economic gain justify taxpayer investment?

I still haven’t gotten the answers to any of these questions, and until I do, I cannot give my support to the convention center hotel. I again requested this information from staff yesterday, and am hopeful that it will be provided soon.

By moving forward without this information, I think we are putting the cart before the horse, which may end up putting Dallas in a precarious financial situation. No one wants Downtown to succeed more than I do, but I need more facts to jusify supporting such an immense public investment.

Council Foregoes Public Hearings Before Leasing Public Land for Gas Drilling

On Wednesday, the council discussed a proposal for the city to lease city-owned land to private companies so they can drill for gas on public property. The proposal will allow gas drilling and wells within 300 feet of residential neighborhoods and public parks. In return, the private companies will give the city $32 million.

Have you heard about this? No? Perhaps because there weren’t any public hearings to discuss whether we, as a city, want to have drilling rigs and gas wells littering Dallas’ landscape.

Here are my objections with this entire issue:

First, no community input. When the council discussed an ordinance on gas drilling last Fall, I suggested we put one of the 150-foot gas drilling rigs out on the City Hall plaza and let residents come by and see what they think. I objected then, and object now, to the idea that we would do something like this without having public hearings. This is something we’re going to have to live with for decades, and we’re not asking residents what they think?

I just read an article in the Star-Telegram that pointed out the buyers’ remorse some Fort Worth residents are feeling over the city’s decision to drill for gas:

I do know that we didn’t ask enough questions at the beginning of this gung-ho gas drilling process, primarily because most of us simply didn’t know what questions to ask.

The new drilling techniques were to be minimally obtrusive, with the rigs only on-site for a handful of days and the finished wellheads basically out of sight or hardly noticeable….

Despite attempts by some companies to camouflage the destructiveness of natural gas drilling, we’ve already seen a terrible scarring of the land, with large swaths being cleared for access to rigs and the laying of miles of pipeline.

In several parts of town, I’m seeing the ugly industrial sites necessary to support this growing industry, where machinery like I’ve never seen has to be stored and maintained.

Large trucks are crowding and destroying streets that led to once-quiet neighborhoods. And many of us have just begun to learn that some of those massive mobile tanks are hauling waste water that we still haven’t figured out how to handle — whether to inject it into the ground in our own city or ship somewhere else to become someone else’s problem.

–“That upset feeling — was it something we swallowed? Barnett Shale” by Bob Ray Sanders (Fort Worth Star-Telgram, Dec. 9, 2007)

Second: I don’t like being railroaded. The City Manager told us if we didn’t approve the lease, we’d lose $20M from this year’s budget and another $14M from next year’s. What? How could staff have counted on this money when the council had not yet approved the drilling leases? When we had our council retreat last July and the gas drilling issue came up, both Mitchell Rasansky and I specifically instructed city staff NOT to count on this money because the council had not approved the gas drilling. We did not want to be in exactly the position we’re in now.

So here we are: staff puts the council over a barrel by including certain anticipated revenues in the city’s budget, despite the fact that the funding source for that revenue has not been approved by the council. The philosophy seems to be: “It is better to ask forgiveness than permission.” By including the gas lease funds in the budget prematurely, staff ensured that most of the council would have qualms about eliminating the revenue source, which would necessitate “budget cuts.” Then we’re told we’re in a rush to get the lease done, and we can’t possibly wait for public input. (Mitchell Rasansky wryly pointed out that the gas had been down there for a few million years; it could wait another couple of months.)

Third: If you’re under eighteen stop reading now, because I can’t think of a less crude way to say this: I’m tired of our city whoring itself out for a few measley bucks. There. I said it. I’ve been thinking that a lot, like when we decided it would be fabulous to put up ugly kiosks on tiny sidewalks all over town, for a pittance. Or every time we beg businesses to come to our city and give them tax breaks or other financial incentives out of the public coffers. Or when we give developers excessive zoning rights at the expense of residents/the environment/good design. We need to be more chaste and less desperate. We need to make our city attractive to businesses by making our city safer, improving our schools, and cleaning up/beautifying Dallas. We need to force new developments to provide generous sidewalks and use quality materials that will last. We need to protect our few natural assets like Timbercreek and the Trinity River.

Fourth: Ah, the tranquility of Dallas parks. Did I mention that the six-page list of addresses of leased property includes the Trinity River Park as well as Grauwyler Park and Bachman Lake Park? Oh, and Love Field, too. Makes sense, right? Airplanes, gas wells, parks, gas wells. Sure!

At the end of the day, I proposed that we postpone the issue 90 days while we hold neighborhood meetings and gather public input. We need to discuss this with Dallas residents. We need to talk about safety concerns, environmental impact, risk of water contamination, the future costs of possible environmental remediation.

Unfortunately, everyone except Councilmember Rasansky and I voted against getting public input before doing the leases. Those against the motion argued that each drilling site would require a public hearing and council approval, and that’s when residents would have their say. But that misses two key points: One, residents might like to have been consulted not just on individual gas wells, but on the overarching issue of whether they want gas drilling on public land in Dallas. Two, the council will NOT have the “absolute right” to refuse every drilling request. The drilling companies aren’t giving the city $34M to get absolutely nothing in return. We can’t turn down every single permit and not expect a lawsuit. And we can’t refuse a permit just because residents don’t like the idea of drilling near their homes. So we’ll be forced to do some drilling, somewhere.