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When It Comes to Urban Development, We Need to Raise Our Expectations


Wood Partners' Alta Farmers Market
Wood Partners’ Alta Farmers Market

We’ve been talking a lot about how we want development downtown, and how tearing down I-345 is the best way to get it. An entire issue dedicated to the idea is about to hit newsstands. But tearing down the road is only the start of the conversation. In fact, believe it or not, it’s the easy part. The real challenge in building the future Dallas is making sure that the development that follows actually creates a functioning city, and doesn’t just plop down suburban building models dressed-up to look “urban.”

I thought of this last night after the Dallas Stars playoff victory, when a  sellout crowd flooded out of the American Airlines Center only to wander through an irrational patchwork of parking lots, streets fronted by building backsides, skinny sidewalks, obstructive museums, garden apartments enclosed by wrought iron fencing, highway underpasses, and other pedestrian “un-friendly” (or, rather, outright hostile) built environments. Despite the crowds, cars still whipped passed us in every direction on streets designed for maximum speed. The city failed the moment. A jubilant populace lifted by victory was looking to be caught up in the city we were celebrating, but we were instead only dispersed into a concrete wasteland punctured by monolithic developments.

We all know Victory was a tremendous wasted opportunity. I won’t dwell on it because, frankly, I find it too depressing to think about too much anymore. But we’re still making the same mistakes. Take this proposed Farmers Market development by the Wood Partners that was announced yesterday. On the surface, it looks the very kind of thing downtown needs: mid-rise apartment housing; compact, dense living; more than 300 apartments added to 4.7 acres. But take a step back, and the renderings look like a garden apartment development minus the setbacks and breezeways. Notice the long block face with nothing to engage the street, the entrance that is as innocuous and unwelcoming as a corporate campus, and the lack of any street retail that might provide services for people who living in the building or attract people strolling by. The only difference between Wood’s proposal and this communist apartment block in Croatia is that I actually like the architectural boldness of the Croatian apartment’s Brutalism.

But here’s what really bothers me: developers are cheating themselves by relying on cookie-cutter development schemes. In other cities developers make simple logical leaps to maximize their return on investment. They ask the right questions. “I’m going to add capacity for a few thousand people, and won’t those people want to buy sandwiches, get their clothes cleaned, grab a quick coffee, run downstairs to buy eggs mid-way through a recipe, or pick-up a bottle of wine on the way home from work?” As a developer, I would want to capture that revenue, to take advantage of a captive customer base, to have a few spaces on my ground floor that enjoyed higher commercial rental rates — let alone realize the value of creating a community that is attractive to renters for more more than just another tricked-out exercise room.

But many developers, particularly in cities like Dallas, are too used to segregating uses in their investment underwriting models. Wood Partners is an apartment developer; that’s what they know. They likely plugged some data into a program, making assumptions about rates and occupancy rates, to prove to their investors that they can hit their required ROI. To the developer, the development exists more as an abstract financial concern than an actual, physical structure – what will be, in essence, a future community.

We’re seeing this mistake repeated in many of the new developments going up in Dallas right now, from Ross Ave. east of I-345 to the Trinity Gateway in Oak Cliff. You see it reflected in the developments of the past decade, how some of the denser developments south of Ross to the east I-345 have vitually no inner character to their neighborhood form — no local shops or restaurants or anything other than portals to units where rent-payers hibernate in between their daily stints of earning revenue streams. This is because developers failed to provide spaces for them. Zoning tries to encourage multiple uses, but Dallas can’t even figure out how to write its zoning laws to make it easy to have sidewalk cafes. Gradual changes to zoning and permitting will help in the long run, as will the contribution of the City Design Studio, but what’s needed now is a cultural shift in the development community.

Groups like The Real Estate Council, various planning organizations like the Greater Dallas Planning Council, architectural firms working on the projects, city council members dealing with the developers in their districts all need to be proactive in shifting the expectations for what urban developing looks like in Dallas. New development must contribute the kinds of public spaces — both commercial and non-commercial — that will actually make developments function as neighborhoods. Stakeholders need to make it clear that developments like the Wood apartment proposal are not enough. These types of projects fall short of the high standards we hold in other aspects of civic life — from sports teams to cultural institutions — and they will only fail Dallas in the same ways Dallas failed the crowds last night outside the AAC.