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It’s Time to Stop Talking Past Each Other on I-345 Teardown

Photography by Scott Womack
Photography by Scott Womack

I think we’ve reached the point in the I-345 teardown debate where both sides are talking past each other. Take the two pieces last week by the Dallas Morning News’ most vocal opponents of the teardown. Rodger Jones issued a cranky post that more or less boils down to a reiteration of his view that people use I-345 to get to work and so tearing down the road would amount to an undue burden on the part of those who use that road today. Then Tod Robberson argued that the teardown shouldn’t move forward until supporters can figure out how to create new jobs in South Dallas.

My knee-jerk response to both of these arguments was to grab the tired drum and start pounding it again. No one is ignoring the data regarding I-345 usage, or denying that people in southern Dallas use it to get to jobs in northern Dallas. The point is that removing roads doesn’t affect net mobility; commuters will still be able to get to their jobs without I-345 — and, eventually, more efficiently; and tearing down roads produces economic benefits that radiate far beyond the immediate vicinity of the road. And don’t take my word for it, look at Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, Milwaukee, New York, Paris, Chattanooga, Seoul, etc.

The problem, however, is that repeating these arguments is pointless because they don’t really address opponents’ more fundamental assumptions about what kind of a city Dallas is and how it should evolve in the future. This became clear when I came across a blog post Rodger Jones wrote a month or so ago in response to Patrick Kennedy’s own persistent drum beating. Jones writes:

I have read the explanations that traffic would find its own way and the world would not come to an end. I have read that, absent I-345, southern Dallas could end up diversifying its economy and southern Dallas people could become less dependent on North Dallas for jobs.

I have to say that can sound cavalier where other people’s livelihoods are concerned. What if I said McKinney and Allen people should find another way than US 75 through Richardson to get to Dallas? What if I told my daughter that?

Like much of the recent debate about the I-345 teardown, this line of argument attempts to create a dialectical impasse by reducing the terms of the debate to a personal scale: “There are people who use the road to get to work; We can’t talk about teardown until we have a plan for jobs in South Dallas; The teardown can’t affect the status quo; The interest of the civic multitude doesn’t trump the multitude of individual interests.” It is likely that the proposed study, undertaken by a city council committee led by a staunch opponent of the road, will only serve the same purpose, to contribute data to the argument that we can’t talk about tearing down the road until we can imagine a scenario in which tearing down the road is exactly like not tearing down the road.

More than a rhetorical strategy, this line of argument is rooted in a failure to grasp the severity of our historical planning failures and scale of the opportunity presented by I-345. So let’s step back a bit.

The reality is that Dallas today is not really a city. Dallas stopped being a city around 60 years ago when transportation planning and incentivized development created an economic region that prizes the low cost of doing business in an economic zone that is held together by a network of efficient highways. Now Dallas exists as an urbanized node in a multi-nodal region. This is why Jones can make the comparison between tearing down a road in downtown Dallas and tearing one down in Richardson. What we live in is an equally distributed network, structured along a highway system that intersects a variety of arbitrarily named zones. What is Richardson, or Coppell, or Plano, or Allen, or Flower Mound? What is Dallas, for that matter? They are all generally indistinguishable, semi-autonomous locales that are sewn together into a highway-networked economic region.

Critic and urban historian Louis Mumford had a name for this phenomenon. He called it the “anti-city.”

“By allowing mass transportation to deteriorate and by building expressways out of the city and parking garages within,” Mumford writes, “our highway engineers and city planners have helped to destroy the living tissue of the city and to limit the possibilities of creating a larger urban organism on a regional scale.”

There is nothing like a major national sporting event like the Final Four, and the TV broadcasters’ subsequent linguistic hopscotching across terms like “North Texas,” “Dallas-Fort Worth,” and “Metroplex,” to offer evidence to back up Mumford’s assertion that this anti-city “annihilates the city whenever it collides with it.” Not only do large-scale events get scattered across our sprawling metro-area, outsiders leave the area after the event with little conception of where they actually were. It reminds me of my favorite joke about a visitor in Dallas: “I drove around Dallas for two hours looking for it.”

The cost of sprawl is the failure of an urban space to provide the economic and social benefits that are the very raison d’état of urban existence. It is not a coincidence that Dallas County has lost 266,000 jobs in ten years, or that Dallas has $900 million in deferred street maintenance, or that TxDOT is $35 billion in debt. These are the symptoms of the regional development whose unsustainability have had a corrosive effect on the economic efficiency that urban environments are meant to provide. It is also not a coincidence that Klyde Warren Park has been embraced so enthusiastically. Although in the context of great urban spaces Dallas’ new park is somewhat contrived, there is a deep, unsatiated hunger among citizens — a kind of civic desperation — for a setting that denotes a sense of place, where a city-dwelling individual can recognize or root some aspect of her identity in a social existence made physically manifest in the public square. What we ultimately seek in spaces like Klyde Warren is the way that cities inform our political and aesthetic consciousness.

It is illuminating that this debate has begun to frame itself around the fate of South Dallas, and the reason for that extends beyond the practical connection to employment I-345 represents and the typical Dallas political reflex to turn important civic conversations into messy and debilitating racial skirmishes. Although its history is couched within a legacy of racism, South Dallas’s challenges today are indicative of how the steady sprawl of development has ostracized the once centralized neighborhood from the region’s economic hub. Even though South Dallas appears to be an inner-city neighborhood just south of the region’s hub, the reality is that, over the past 60 years, patterns of development have moved the region’s economic center out of downtown Dallas and further north along the Tollway. Today South Dallas is more of a rural exurb on the fringe of the economic region, on the far side of I-30, which now functions like an inner ring road. South Dallas suffers from rural blight, its rural-fication a product of a city’s migrating mass suburbanization. We wonder why we can’t figure out how to bring jobs to South Dallas, but we might as well wonder why we don’t have a jobs plan for Celina.

The teardown of I-345 represents the most immediate and large-scale opportunity to reverse a pattern of growth that has led to the dilution of Dallas’ urban form. The very fact that detractors characterize urban life as a kind of designer lifestyle, a playground for the young and well-to-do, is either a reflection of an ignorance of what it is like to actually live in a city or a caged animosity for forms of living that look anything unlike the homogenized stratification of life in super-sprawl suburbia whose highest civic value is individualistic autonomy (“What if it were your daughter?” Jones threatens). But what is at stake is more than a real estate gambit. The teardown is an opportunity to begin to reverse 60 years of failed planning and begin to move towards building a future city in North Texas that achieves the economic efficiencies and social edification that are absolutely necessary to sustain the region’s viability.

That’s why this ongoing conversation is so important. More than tearing down I-345, it is a conversation about rethinking the macro-planning of North Texas. The inertia of suburban growth will continue to incentivize regional planning organizations, supported by their multitude of nodal constituents, to sustain the status quo that supports the continued spread of the “anti-city.” It is incumbent on Dallas to seize this opportunity to take control of its own future. We can no longer afford to be just another innocuous node in a sprawling region. We can’t afford to place contingencies on systematic change that require outputs equal the inputs — the aftereffects of teardown to mimic the failings of the outdated model. If we take this opportunity to change the trajectory of urban growth in North Texas in a major way, our sons and daughters won’t be encumbered by economic hardship — they will be grateful for our prudence and vision.

But we are currently at an impasse in the conversation. I’d rather argue about whether or not the economic realities of contemporary inner-city redevelopment can realize the right kinds of density and urban forms required for a healthy city. I’d like to argue whether Dallas has the political will to plan the future development of downtown as it spreads eastward in a way that can facilitate an economically and racially diversified series of city neighborhoods. But to continue to assert that plans to revitalize Dallas as a city  must fit into the matrix of the regional infrastructure that has dismantled its urbanity is to talk past each other. It is to take a self-defeating position. It is to continue to beat this conversation back and forth in a manner that wastes everybody’s time.