Recreating Dallas: Council Discusses Creating Walkable, Urban Coummunities

Last week’s council briefing was terrific. We had a full-day session on “sustainable development and the value of urban design.” Our City Manager, Mary Suhm, did an outstanding job organizing this symposium, which included Larry Beasley, who led Vancouver’s development processes during a period of inner-city revitalization; Christopher Leinberger, a visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute and metropolitan land strategist; Maurice Cox, Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts; and James Rojas, Transportation Manager for L.A. County Metropolitan Transit Authority and co-founder of the Latino Urban Forum.

I was most struck by Beasley’s and Leinberger’s lectures on creating dense, walkable, urban neighborhoods. They advocate large-scale, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use communities that provide a resident’s basic needs (grocery store, drycleaners, parks, elementary schools, etc.) to reduce car trips. Some highlights:

Vancouver has no freeways in or out of the city. They will not expand or widen any streets coming into the city. This prevents sprawl. Contrast that with Dallas, where we can’t make our freeways wide enough, where we spend billions of dollars to cart people back and forth from the suburbs to Downtown. Leinberger called this a form of socialism, where the people of the inner city (Dallas) are forced to subsidize suburbanites who have chosen to live far from the employment center. We could be spending this money on mass transit within the city to make it easier to get from one part of Dallas to the other without a car. We could be spending this money on making our city more pedestrian-oriented and bike-friendly. Instead, we keep feeding suburbanites’ dependency on cars. Not smart planning or an efficient use of our city’s money.

But what about all the congestion this might create? Beasley said “Congestion is our friend,” meaning that busy streets encourage people to live closer in, and are also safer because people are driving more slowly. Dallas’ response to congestion has been the same as an overweight person who simply loosens their belt in response to weight gain: we build bigger and bigger freeways instead of putting ourselves on a diet of mass transit and inner-city growth. Let’s not widen streets in Dallas, or if we do, let’s widen them only to provide more sidewalk space and bike lanes, not more room for cars. Beasley also said that we’ve got to create choice and balance in our transportation system: more streetcars, more bike lanes, more pedestrian-friendly streets. He also argued that creating walkable streets is the cheapest thing we can invest in, but also one of the most important.

The process for new development projects is also different in Vancouver. First, the vision for the city is clear. They have mapped out exactly where they want development (as well as where they do not). They have a ream of regulations defining exactly what is permissible — set backs, human scale design, streetscapes, etc., while maintaining the flexibility to provide trade-offs and incentives for the placement of schools, parks, etc. As Beasley said that in Vancouver, “Regulation is our friend.” Vancouver has serious land development regulations which require developers to create walkable, sustainable communities with plenty of greenspace, quality architecture, adjacent schools and senior centers, and housing for all income levels. They also require all parking to be underground, and have the lowest parking standards possible. In Dallas, we’re fearful that restrictive regulation will not only infringe on property rights, but also stifle development.

Vancouver’s approval process also includes a panel of experts (architects, urban planners, landscape architects, etc.) that reviews development plans and makes the final decision. There is community input upfront, and it is a cooperative process with everyone working together to create a great development. The panel of experts has final authority on the project’s viability; there is no appeal. And politicians are cut out of the process.

This process sounds great, and I wish we could adopt it. I love the idea of setting up very specific standards for development, outlining where that development will be, then getting out of the way and letting the experts take over. With the most zoning cases of any councilmember, I would be more than happy to turn the reins over to a group of experts IF, and it’s a big if, the right planning and zoning rules were in place and the areas for redevelopment were agreed upon. Without those rules and protections, we’re just creating a developer’s dream: speedy approvals with no pesky neighborhood advocates to get in the way, and no bothersome elected official to have to negotiate with.

The Mayor liked the process Beasley outlined very much because it would, in his view, reduce the frustration that developers have with our city. But I worry. We can’t implement half the process (that is, cut out the elected officials) without ensuring that we’ve created the right regulations and identified the right redevelopment locations up front.

Beasley explained that Vancouver put a boundry, or “corralled” the areas they wanted to redevelop. They did this in concert with residents, and also made some neighborhoods off-limits. This, he said, eliminated the anxiety that neighborhoods experience when new development appears next door. Under their model, everyone knows the areas that are targeted by the city for the development, which creates a more certain environment for both developers and neighborhoods.

This discussion highlighted the most significant difference between walkable, beautiful cities with great planning and foresight, and Dallas’ more desperate approach to re-zoning. Both Beasley and Leinberger explained that great, walkable cities are in the driver’s seat when it comes to development. They are proactive, they know what they want, and they are not afraid to say “no” to bad development. Here in Dallas, we are reactive. We do not tell developers “Here are the areas we want to see grow and this is what we want it to look like.” Instead, we wait for developers to come to us, asking to put a denser development on whatever real estate they happen to own.

The name of Dallas’ planning department — “Development Services” rather than “Planning and Zoning” — underscores Dallas’ desperate desire to please developers at the expense of good planning. Dallas is terribly afraid that if we say “no” to poorly conceived re-zoning requests then our city will dry up. No new buildings will be built. We’ll become a ghost town.

But both Beasley and Leinberger agreed that the opposite is true. Beasley said it is critical to say “no” to bad development, both to ensure the quality of growth but also to entice good developers who want to be assured a piece of junk is not going to be constructed beside their investment.

Leinberger pointed out that there is no need for Dallas to fear saying “no.” Leinberger reminded us that we — the City of Dallas — hold all the cards when it comes to planning and zoning. We know what will happen in the future — where the city will put in new infrastructure, where DART will put in new light rail, where we are planning new hike & bike trails and streetcars. But today, developers are guiding development in our city not based on what is best for our city as a whole, but based on what piece of property they happen to own at the time and how they can best maximize their profits. I’m not casting developers in the role of villain here; profit maximization is their business and livelihood. But it is a failure on the City of Dallas’ part to take the reins and focus on the 20-30 areas in our city which, according to Leinberger, Dallas can sustain as walkable communities.

To begin, we must identify those areas where we want to see growth. We can’t allow density everywhere — density everywhere is density nowhere. No, we need vision. We need to get out our map and define those areas where we want growth and craft specific regulations for good development and design. If developers want more density outside those locations, too bad. They need to find some land inside the lines we’ve drawn and work within the regulations we’ve created.

We can make Dallas an amazing, walkable, beautiful city. We can cast off the chains of suburbanism and focus our funds and future on a city with great light rail, accessible streetcars, abundant bike lanes, and amazing streetscapes. But that will mean redefining what planning means in Dallas and having the political will to be more discriminating about development and rezoning.