On Big Ticket Projects and Being a World Class City

Today the Dallas City Council voted to spend over $10 million to redesign the IH-30 Calatrava bridge.  I was the sole “no” vote. (WFAA; Unfair Park; DMN City Hall Blog)

Transportation dollars are extraordinarily limited right now. In these challenging economic times, it doesn’t make sense for us to spend taxpayer dollars on elaborate architectural designs when we have real infrastructure needs. My fellow councilmembers argued that we must have a second Calatrava bridge “to keep up with the Joneses,” that we can’t be “short-sighted,” that the elaborate bridge is necessary to “create economic development,” and that we must “move forward” in order to be a “world-class city.”

So it got me thinking about what it says about Dallas that we constantly chase after the dream of being a “world-class city.”

Does it reflect an expansive, visionary belief in the future of Dallas? A noble effort to create lasting landmarks so that our fair city may one day be considered in the same breath as London and Paris?

Or does it reveal a pathetic neediness to be noticed by foreign tourists and cited by visiting journalists? Or worse, is it an indictment of egotistical leadership intent on leaving their imprimatur on massive public projects, no matter the cost?

I think it’s a little bit of all of that.

But most residents I talk with aren’t really interested in being a “world-class city.” They just want a great city to call home. Unfortunately, as we heard today, many city leaders dismiss that as too prosaic. They figure even if we could fix all the potholes, mow all the parks, address all the code complaints, pick up all the stray animals — all of those things will just be forgotten in time. But an ornamental bridge, a convention center hotel, a big toll road — those are lasting monuments.

That perspective misses the point. The choice isn’t “either, or” — either we clink our champagne glasses as one unnecessary boondoggle after another drains our city coffers while our basic infrastructure falls apart or we myopically fill every pothole but live in a city bereft of beauty and grandeur.

We can have the best of both. We should do big projects. But not because they might finally be big enough to be seen from space or because they may (hopefully!) pique the interest of a writer at some obscure architecture journal. We should do big projects because they enhance the everyday lives of our residents. We should do big projects that are useful.

Massive parks are useful. Museums and theaters are useful. Trails, bike lanes, cycle tracks — useful, useful, useful. These are visionary projects, expensive projects, that are meaningful, lasting, and make it nicer to live in our city.

Coincidentally, these are just the kinds of things that make people and businesses want to call a city home.