The fact that it looks like Trammell Crow will have no problem going ahead with its plans to build at Sam’s Club in the heart of one of the most high-valued, successful urban real estate markets in the state has to be one of the most unconscionable real estate wastes we’ve seen in some time. But the situation is also telling. Here we are, during a week that brought all of the country’s mayors to Dallas, when the city played host to a bunch of talking heads yammering on about how cars are evil, green is good, and yadda yadda, and Dallas’ plan commission flashes the green light for a big box development in the heart of its urban core. It kind of puts all the urban envisioning and future of Dallas BS in perspective.
How did this happen? Well, I think Rudy Bush hit the nail on the head a few weeks ago when he played the blame game, throwing the plan commission, city council, city staff — even himself (he was the city hall beat reporter at the time) — under the bus for not properly exercising the checks and balances in the city’s tool kit to help prevent something like a Sam’s Club in Uptown. I also believe Bush was right to insist that we should not blame Trammell Crow.
Here’s the problem. For Trammell Crow the Sam’s Club project is a cut and dry deal. Sure, they knew what they were doing. They made sure their zoning language left a door open for big box retail before they closed on the land. They also knew that, as their Timbercreek Sam’s Club project has shown, big box and pad site developments near major traffic arteries provide two things anyone who wants to make money loves: they’re lucrative and they’re easy.
I happened to have a conversation with a developer yesterday who was talking about a few projects he had going on, one in Dallas the other in Austin. The Dallas project is trucking ahead. The Austin project, though, is going to take some time. He basically said that — and I’m paraphrasing here — in Austin everything is more sophisticated when it comes to development. The city staff, the zoning laws, the neighbors. You can’t just walk in and drop down something even if it is a project that, in Dallas eyes, looks “urban.” This guy isn’t planning on building a Sam’s Club next to UT. It actually sounds like the type of thing that, if it was going in where the Sam’s Club will be, we’d all be applauding him for urban progress. But even still, he knows he has to tread lightly, get his ducks in a row, and be ready because the city expects that whatever he builds it will have to be exactly right for Austin.
Mayor Rawlings has been blowing the Dallas trumpet all week, and he’s going to continue until the mayors leave on Monday. He’ll take them to various sites and show off our best side. But this kind of complete and utter failure on the part of the city to prevent something so ridiculously out-of-place, something that will disrupt Uptown development for a generation, is indicative of just how far Dallas still has to go. There should be a new rule for city staff: if you’re green-lighting something the mayor would be embarrassed to bring Rahm Emanuel to, then don’t do it.