The Year of Living Boringly

Here's to all the stuff that could have happened at Dallas City Hall

This is my 2002 fantasy story: In a major turnabout, downtown leaders called for the restoration and preservation of vast natural areas along the river, along with the creation of some man-made amusements like a white-water kayaking venue, an old-fashioned dirt-bottomed swimming hole and a fly-fishing zone along the river. Recruiters at UT Southwestern Medical School, major law firms and banks and in many small businesses reported a surge in their ability to attract talented young professionals to Dallas, once people found out there was something to do outdoors in downtown Dallas that didn't involve being ticketed by the police.

Didn't happen. Sigh.

Speaking of which, wouldn't it have been great if the same new vision had infected the city's park board in 2002? What if the park board had announced a new program of building skate parks, dog parks, running parks and stuff like that downtown?

What happened to Laura Miller? Have the Lilliputians succeeded in tying her down, or is it a clever ploy?
Michael Hogue
What happened to Laura Miller? Have the Lilliputians succeeded in tying her down, or is it a clever ploy?

Was there a way in 2002 City Hall could have encouraged the establishment of more pawnshops, gun stores, escort services, fortunetellers, chili parlors, herb merchants, witch doctors and taxi dancers downtown, so that visitors could tell they weren't at NorthPark Mall? But that brings us to the most troubling aspect of what did not happen at City Hall in 2002--a major change in leadership.

Before 2002, City Hall was led by Mayor Ron Kirk, whose ideas for the future were all about freeways on top of the river and clone-malls downtown. During 2002, the city was led by Mayor Laura Miller, who was supposed to bring radical change.

Didn't happen.

The thing you hear now among Mayor Miller's supporters in the business community is that she didn't turn out to be the radical they'd feared. Sometimes when I hear them say it, it sounds almost like a brag: "We've got Tinker Bell in the bottle, and the cork's in tight." And I think they're exactly right. She did not turn out to be the radical so many of us thought we were electing.

She says she's not for this zillionaire, she's for that one. She's not for this big-ticket program to redevelop downtown, she's for that other one. But these are all the same people and the same program. It's called great big projects designed to drive up land values.

High land values are the enemy. As long as land values downtown stay above a certain point, none of the cool small things can take place, the semi-dangerous things, the scary-exciting things, the things that have drawn peasants from the countryside since 15th-century London.

Look at how they think: They want grand parks and plazas and promenades. We don't need grand plazas. What is this, the Soviet Union? Why do we need a downtown to inspire awe in the peasantry? We need little things, cool things, things that are tucked away and unexpected, woven together and tugging apart.

The more we pile on infrastructure and debt, both public and private, the more money has to be squeezed out of the land to make sure the whole thing doesn't go upside down. Big rents, big stores, big offices, big bore. You can see all that stuff in Richardson.

The big threat, whenever anybody talks about doing it any other way, is that the big boys downtown will pick up their marbles and move the game to the suburbs. Then we'll lose all that tax revenue we need for things in the rest of the city.

But there's no game where the rules say one side gets to win all the time. I thought maybe Miller would be the one to start doing some tighter math on all this stuff: At what point are we having to give such big tax breaks that we might actually be better off just letting the big boys go? They don't just pay taxes. They cost us major taxes as well. We still have to count the money at the end of the day.

And what about the asset value we have in cityhood, in bright lights, in simply being the city, in being a place that isn't at all like NorthPark Mall? When do we worry about losing that particular golden goose?

Next year maybe. I sure didn't hear anybody talking about it at City Hall in 2002. That's why I say nothing happened. Nothing big.

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