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Our office looks right down on the parking lot at Ross and Harwood that may be replaced by a parking garage.

It Is Time to for Some Real Leadership and Vision in Downtown Dallas

There’s a story in today’s Dallas Morning News that is irritating because it is indicative of everything wrong with downtown Dallas.

In short, the owners of the Trammell Crow Center want to buy a surface-level parking lot at the corner of Ross Avenue and Harwood, catty-corner from the Dallas Museum of Art, and turn it into a parking garage. In the paper, this is presented as an exciting development. After all, from a real estate perspective, downtown Dallas needs more parking, and here is a developer is willing to pull the trigger on a parking development. Plus, they may plop a hotel on top. Go downtown!

Well, not really, because this isn’t really an announcement of a new development. It is the town crier shouting to everyone that no one actually has any idea what they want downtown Dallas to be.

We talk a lot about our dreams for downtown. We’ve talked about tearing down roads to kick-start Uptown-type infill development downtown. We’ve drafted a nifty plan that waxes on about downtown’s “urban” future. We’ve built parks, invested in Main Street, and constructed a convention center hotel. We’ve also promoted the potential of the so-called “Central Business District” to high heavens. Ah, maybe there’s the rub: Central Business District. It’s a term that feels pulled from a 1960s master planning textbook: downtown, a business district like any other business district — from Las Colinas to the Galleria to Galatyn Park — only this one happens to be “central.”

The term “Central Business District” is an important one if we want to understand the economic context of this parking garage proposal. From a real estate perspective, adding yet another parking garage downtown makes perfect sense. Even though parking lots and garages are the blight of downtown in terms of vibrancy and walkability, Downtown Dallas needs more parking. Why? Because when leasing agents go out and try to sell office space in downtown’s enormous skyscrapers to potential tenants, they are trying to lure those tenants away from buildings outside of the CBD that have ample parking. Tenants expect three spaces per 100 square feet, or whatever the going rate is today, and they expect those spaces in a garage adjacent to the building. That’s convenient. What’s not convenient is having to park a few blocks away from a downtown skyscraper and hoofing it to work every morning, sweating through that crisp, laundered white shirt. The gap between convenience and inconvenience exerts downward pressure on rental rates — or, in regular people language, if you don’t have good parking, your real estate becomes less valuable. This freaks out downtown real estate owners because the value of their buildings is less than it could be if they could just meet tenant’s parking expectations. And so it becomes a mantra: downtown needs more parking.

This is one of the reasons why Downtown Dallas look the way it does, a side effect of conceiving of downtown as “Central Business District.” After all, with the construction of the highways through downtown, and the other planning efforts in the 1970s that tried to “relieve” congestion and “compete” with suburban development — street widening, one-waying, pedestrian walkways and underground tunnels, etc. — the city turned downtown into what is, essentially, a suburban commercial real estate development, but one strangled by the skeleton of an urban past.

The problem is we can’t really address the value of this proposed parking garage until we confront the really important question: What role should commercial real estate play in the broader vision of downtown Dallas’ urban future? As has been raised continually in the conversations around tearing down I-345, the biggest untapped market in the central part of Dallas is the demand for in-town living: dense, multi-family apartments. That demand is driven by the twin market forces of younger generations who want to live in cities and empty-nester baby boomers who want to go back to cities from the suburbs. If this is downtown’s biggest opportunity for growth, we should think about this parking garage in light of how it contributes to moving downtown development towards this vision of an urban neighborhood downtown, not just how it may buttress the market value of the Crow Center.

That leads to another disconcerting aspect of this proposed garage development. The garage is yet another example of how misunderstood Ross Avenue is in terms of its importance to the future of downtown. Because of the way the Arts District has been developed, with Flora Street functioning as a driveway through a sealed-off campus of architectural gems, the hope for a neighborhood and vibrancy around the area of the Arts District falls on Ross. Ross can provide the density and the commercial space needed to make the northern edge of downtown vibrant.

The Hall Arts development has already squandered the opportunity to interface with Ross in a productive way. A few months ago, when I met with the developers behind the Spire Realty acquisitions (located just southeast of Ross and the Wyly Theater), they showed me plans for another development that would position itself away from Ross and treat it as a mini parkway, a way to funnel traffic into a Victory-style (though, admittedly, not as atrocious) urban subdivision. New development on Ross, however, should address the street and harness its energy, not turn away from it or line it with parking garage ingresses and egresses. Developers should treat the traffic on Ross as an asset. Ross should be a dynamic, Fifth Avenue-style urban corridor. Interestingly, the Headington Company’s proposed development on surface lots further down Ross at Field Street tries to capitalize on precisely this advantage, imagining, in preliminary renderings, turning the intersection of Field and Ross in to giant public square. This parking garage proposal wouldn’t do anything like that. Instead, it will take one of the most valuable pieces of property in terms of potential connectivity between the Arts District and the commercial district (and DART station) to the south and diffuse it.

At this point in the conversation, the constraints of quality urban planning should kick in, but as is typically the case with Dallas, they don’t. Instead, we get one of downtown’s leaders falling over backwards to coddle and praise the Crow Center investors.

“This is a home run all the way around for downtown,” Downtown Dallas Inc. CEO John Crawford is quoted in the piece. “We add development to the tax roll, get rid of another surface parking lot and increase needed parking for our growing commercial office tenant base.”

The problem with this quote isn’t necessarily the dubious claim that this will be a “home run” for Dallas, but rather that the conversation about what is the highest and best use for that important piece of property on Ross Avenue has begun with a capitulation to whatever idea the developer has thrown on the table. Who is going to advance the vision of what we want downtown Dallas to be into this conversation if it is not going to be Downtown Dallas Inc.? Will it be the planning department? The City Design Studio? The city council? Perhaps here’s the more pressing question: If someone stands up, on what grounds do they make their case? What real plan do we have that lays out the vision for downtown? The 360 plan? It is vague and lacks teeth. ForwardDallas? Ditto.

The reality is we have never really systematically addressed what we want downtown’s future to be, and we have certainly never taken any planning efforts and established clear zoning and economic development policy that can force implementation of that vision. In short, we haven’t created rules of development that will make downtown a downtown. And so, when someone says, “Let’s build a parking garage,” downtown interests smile and say “thanks for the tax base.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure who wants to live in a “tax base,” let alone a “Central Business District.” Not only do we lack a real plan and real policy, we have the language all wrong.

This is what the conversation should sound like, the quotes I’d rather hear coming from downtown Dallas leadership when confronted with a proposal like this one:

“We’re excited about the potential development that can remove a surface parking lot, and we look forward to working with the investor to make sure what goes in there is the best use of the location and downtown’s future.”

“Downtown is entering a new era, and the development of this site could potentially contribute to adding the urban amenities downtown desperately needs. We’re confident we can work with the investor to find a development that will accommodate their needs and be the best fit for downtown.”

“We’re excited to work with the developer to figure out ways we can help them make adding the highest and best use to the site make the most economic sense — and also fits with the vision the city has established for the future of downtown.”

The Crow Center wants parking. That’s fine. But until we have the resolve and confidence that we can steer those market forces towards what we want downtown to be, we will only continue to see the kind of development downtown that pushes back the dream of an urban downtown for another generation.

39 comments on “It Is Time to for Some Real Leadership and Vision in Downtown Dallas

  1. Great thought piece Peter. You have absolutely nailed what’s wrong with Downtown and Dallas in general. However well-intended, most of these guys (and they are guys) just don’t get it. If we don’t watch out, Houston’s developer community in their downtown will eclipse us in the not-too-distant future because those guys there are changing and opening up their minds. Thanks for you work on this.

  2. In other words, this has the potential to be the most vibrant intersection north of Main St. but it probably won’t be because Dallas….

  3. I’m so thankful that Peter Simek is a journalist in this city. Jason Roberts, Patrick Kennedy, et al., have awakened us to the idea of a complete street. Here, Simek applies the concept to downtown as a whole. Downtown will never be vibrant until it discards a monoculture in which the car trumps everything else. I love cars, and I love the freedom they provide. But they must not be the primary consideration in designing and developing a city. In fact, no one aspect of city life should be so “primary” that it overwhelms all other values. A thriving environment is one that’s heterogeneous: that carves out space for pedestrians as well drivers, residents as well as office workers, mass transit as well as personal vehicles, service businesses as well as banks, law firms, and accounting firms. A vibrant environment is one where the same consideration is given to how a building interacts with its streetscape as how the building’s interior is finished out. Taking a multitude of factors into account is much more difficult than focusing on one component, but it’s a huge mistake to be single-visioned. And despite the abundance of open parking lots, there aren’t so many undeveloped parcels downtown that the city can afford to squander these opportunities.

  4. i see you’ve found another way to beat the 345 horse to death … why haven’t you ever mentioned any of the areas near the old Reunion site ? or on the I30 side of town ? ….

  5. Thank you for writing this. It really needs to be said.

    Also, can you share Headington Company’s renderings of the proposed development on Ross and Field?

  6. Look at the top pic! Not one, but TWO parking garages within one block from this site!

  7. Analysis like this makes me glad to be living ~30 miles west. I don’t mean to descend into the usual Dallas vs Fort Worth debate, but thanks to DFWI.org, Mayor Betsy Price and others, downtown Fort Worth has a vibrant, PEOPLE-focused vision. It just keeps getting better.

  8. But shouldn’t Trammel Crow’s namesake downtown building (and its surrounding area) stand as a monument to poor urban design? It just seems appropriate.

  9. Fort Worth has the unique ability to closely learn from big brother’s blunders, time and time again. Keep drinking your milk, Fort Worth, while Dallas continues to drink Jolt Cola.

  10. 1.) Peter, evil real estate barons aren’t simply pushing for more parking in a dastardly conspiracy to keep their rents up. At the core the push for parking is driven by the actual people who work in those buildings (uh, that’s you and me) who want and need it, too. 2.) If you so despise all the “business” focus in the Central Business District, try taking the business part away. Then you’ll see what a deserted downtown really looks like. 3.) Once again, the Dallas skeptics/Enlightened Ones bow to New York and other sardine-packed urban zones as a development model for a flat, sun-baked city in the Southwest. Suggesting that Ross needs to become another Fifth Avenue–home to Saks, Prada, Bergdorf, Bulgari, mega-mansions, museums, the Plaza Hotel and Rockefeller Center—is more than just a little ridiculous. 4.) All that said, I agree the Crow property probably has a better use than as a parking garage. But not because of all this New Urbanism-speak. Just because it’s a dumb idea.

  11. Dallas has all the ingredients but can’t seem enact a vision. I walked around there two months ago, and it was better than in the past, but Bishop Arts and Deep Ellum inherently more walkable. Eventually gas will get expensive enough and we will run out of enough land that people will be forced to enact new ideas/visions.

    And maybe we will start seeing some new skyscrapers in downtown FW soon… will be tough, walking around there I feel like every building downtown is a historical landmark. I like old buildings, but new architecture can be cool too!

  12. New Urbanism-speak may be like nails on a blackboard to you, but if you strip away the lingo, wouldn’t you prefer a downtown that didn’t empty out at 5:30 every day? If downtown is ever to become more interesting and more of an asset to the city, we need to encourage a better balance between office buildings and parking lots on the one hand, and residential, retail, and other uses on the other.

  13. 1) This is the point I’m trying to make – the market (you and me) push for parking, not evil barons. Sensible business people respond by filling that demand. That’s just how it works. My point would be that the role of the city/downtown agents is to measure this market demand against the vision for what kind of downtown we actually want and use the tools at their disposal (zoning, econ incentives) to steer the market towards the vision. Dealing w/ parking is part of that, but it can’t be the exclusive concern. 2) I don’t despise the business, but I argue that it is emphasized in the wrong way. The biz models are off. Downtown has been trying to compete with out of the loop biz for decades and it is losing, in part, because what downtown has that is unique is precisely what makes it difficult to compete with the outer areas. So the question: what makes downtown unique and how can we invest it that so that it can grow economically? I argue that downtown’s value is its residential, neighborhood potential, and if DT was a vibrant urban neighborhood it would attract biz, just not the kinds of biz that fill our giant skycrapers. That’s the conflict — not between biz and dreams, but between the kinds of biz that serve downtown best 3) I used Fifth Ave as an example of highly trafficked urban street that still has pedestrian vibrancy. I could have said something like Hollywood Blvd., which is pretty sun baked. I agree that NYC is a terrible model for most things Dallas faces in terms of urbanism, and that the city’s penchant to look to places like NYC for solutions often creates more problems that it solves. 4) Yes, it’s dumb from both an economic and urban perspective. It’s not the highest and best use because there is untapped value in that parcel. But then, as you know, developers often just do what it easiest/fits their needs/presents least risk. Which is why you need someone looking out for the city and pushing the city’s interests. The city is also us. We’re the market and the city. Sometimes we work against ourselves.

  14. We need more places to actually go to, restaurants, grocery store, bars, I’m specifically talking about downtown, not uptown, not deep ellum, I live in downtown and I like walking out my apt door and going places, I shouldn’t have to walk to uptown or deep ellum for things to do, It’s either hotels or parking garages or Apartments going up.

  15. Peter, it’s Trammell Crow, not Trammel Crow. Why can’t anyone get the spelling of a GREAT MAN and one of our biggest contributors to Dallas right?!? Have some respect, and research the proper spelling of names before you write your articles, please.

  16. Okay, Peter, looks like you got the spelling right, but whoever posted this article to FB got it wrong. Bad poster!

  17. AND your poster (some DA intern probably whose been partying all night and not doing his/her research) writes that Trammel Crow (spelled wrong) is wanting to build this parking lot, but your article states that the owners of Trammell Crow Center want to build it. Trammell Crow Center is no longer owned by Trammell Crow Company!!! GOODNESS! Place the blame where it belongs, please…

  18. So what you’re saying is everything in this post is correct, but somewhere else (FB) it’s not right. Why don’t you post over there?

  19. I agree: “every empty lot downtown can’t have parking as its sole purpose.” Ultimately this is an urban form/use issue, less than a parking issue. And I probably spent way too many words trying to make this simple point: We can’t build parking garages that don’t have ground level uses (ie retail, or other suitable use) as well as office/residential uses above ground. Parking can be part of that mix, but it needs to be a mix. What bothered me was how excited Crawford was about just a parking garage and the suggestion of a possible hotel. Developers need to know that Dallas won’t accept single use development in DT anymore. But no one has ever set that desire in policy.

  20. Dallas (as part of DFW or the 4th largest metro area in the US) deserves better. Ugly and inefficient surface parking lots are not the answer. Simultaneous development of public transit, commercial vehicles and mixed use residential (already happening) along with underground parking, paid for by the skyscraper developers, is the answer. In watching Pittsburgh downtown for the last five months, I’ve concluded Dallas can and should do better.

  21. You say it’s fine they want parking….but you very clearly want to deny them parking. For someone concered about blight, I can only assume half empty skyscrapers are not within the definition.

    I was THRILLED however to see the unintentional acknowledgement that Dallas is inherently unwalkable due to weather for significant portions of the year.

  22. I didn’t say either of these things. I said that parking needs to incorporated into some other use that can benefit downtown development more broadly. That will mean it will be more expensive, complicated to develop, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. As for half empty skyscrapers, I don’t think that’s the end of the world for downtown. I think people who claim that are too tied up in commercial real estate interests. Just tossing this one out, but a depression in real estate values downtown might bring down the land cost of new development which would help facilitate infill that would be better suited to downtown’s future because residential rental demand would remain constant or increase even if office rates drop. But I’m happy for someone with a CCIM to tell me I’m an idiot and don’t know what I’m talking about here (after all, I only completely two of the courses towards that certification).

    Also, regarding sweat, all I said is that it is inconvenient. It’s also inconvenient to get stuck in a surprise April shower when walking five blocks in Manhattan. The point is not walkability, it’s comparative convenience. Yes, it is hot in Dallas, and so an attached garage is an added convenience, which has value. That doesn’t mean that Dallas is inherently un-walkable.

  23. The weather in Fort Worth is no cooler than that of Dallas, yet it’s steadily becoming more walkable. And POPULATED, 24/7.

  24. So, you don’t see much of a problem with “half-empty skyscrapers.” And you believe a depression in real estate values might actually facilitate infill and lead to a more vibrant downtown. I don’t have a “CCIM,” Peter, but I give you the highest marks possible for your honesty in sharing these views.

  25. It’s a very material limitation to walkability, particularly for people in business attire. Rain happens on occasion. Summer heat (except for this summer oddly) has been persistent, with only varying degrees of oven temperature. Also half-empty office buildings will scare some downtown business owners quite a bit (particularly restaurants who depend on CBD employees for lunch business). Now, from a purely theoretical standpoint, high rise office buildings in Texas make very little sense, and are an expression of hubris more than legitimate real estate optimization. But that’s beside the point, because they are here now, and IMO responsible urban planning should try to leverage what we have, given the enormous investments communities have already made (in $$, time, and their housing/school/work choices). My primary complaint with the new urbanists is their failure to do just that.

  26. What most people don’t realize is most buildings outside of CBD have 3-4:1000 sf parking, most buildings downtown only offer .5-1:1000 sf parking, and most companies now are wanting 6-7:1000 sf parking; this author doesn’t have a clue. This isn’t about people not wanting to walk a few blocks to work. This is about half empty buildings who can’t fill up their space because they don’t have parking to get new business. Yes, residential downtown is important but it will never survive if the commercial business dies. They are our bread and butter down there. In addition, all the projects that have occurred to make downtown more residential friendly, such as Klyde Warren Park and the Arts District, desperately need more available parking options. If Trammell Crow Center happens to benefit from it as well, so be it. Now, it would be great if they build something useful on top of it, but then again, that will require parking as well.

    If they build something above the parking that provides value to the city, then this project would be great.

  27. I believe the author of this piece may be missing some critical facts. Most buildings outside of CBD have 3-4:1000 sf parking, most buildings downtown only offer .5-1:1000 sf parking, and most companies now are wanting 6-7:1000 sf parking. This isn’t about people not wanting to walk a few blocks to work. This is about half empty buildings owners can’t lease up because they don’t have parking to get new business. Not to mention, the existing businesses don’t have enough spaces for their current employees and are having to pay outrageous monthly parking rates for what is available.

    Yes, residential downtown is important but it will never survive if the commercial business dies. The businesses downtown are the core of CBD. In addition, all the projects that have occurred to make downtown more residential friendly, such as Klyde Warren Park and the Arts District, desperately need more available parking options. If Trammell Crow Center happens to benefit from it as well, so be it.

    Now, it would be great if they build something useful on top of it so that the space isn’t just parking.

  28. Look, we’ve got a project going now to link Dallas and Houston with 210-mph trains. Let’s home Reunion remains vacant and available until then.

  29. Even so, the FW establishment has been dead-set against any streetcar and rail development. If Dallas could ever get land use right, we’d still eclipse FW as a 21st century city.

  30. I agree. Crawford gets excited about individual components. What matters more is how they fit together into a vital and functional urban space.

  31. Pittsburgh’s tax structure is the biggest difference. The tax is more on the land rather than the buildings on them. It discourages speculators from razing buildings to lease parking spaces, then holding these vacant lots until the price goes up.

  32. “Rain happens on occasion. Summer heat….”

    This is hardly an argument against walkability. After all, you’re describing most cities in the world.

  33. “… residential downtown is important but it will never survive if the commercial business dies.”

    In fact, the boom of residential development has come in the wake, and is in fact, the effect of the mid-80s bust. Where do you think these residencess are appearing, if not in office space that could no longer be competitively leased?

    If you really believe creating residential success downtown relies on people driving to Klyde Warren Park, I really can’t talk to you.

  34. How long before we start seeing this in Dallas(assuming we don’t already)?
    From this weeks’ Too Much:
    Developers in Manhattan have just placed ten underground parking spaces at a new condo complex up for sale. At $1 million each.

    The spaces may well sell out. Just this past May, another Manhattan developer listed 25 parking spaces for sale at $500,000. The 25 spots all quickly found buyers. That didn’t surprise the developer. The adjacent apartments, the developer explained to the New York Times, were selling for $47 million.

    “Another $500,000 for the luxury of not walking a block or two and having your own spot,” the developer observed, “I guess it becomes a rounding error.”

    The real error here? Letting wealth concentrate so extremely that some people of privilege are spending over four times more for a parking space than most Americans spend on a home. In this week’s Too Much: new research that offers the latest reason why tolerating this extreme inequality simply makes no sense.