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.