Slow Ride

Try getting to Toronto on DART light rail some day

"What am I, the Flying Dutchman?" I'm sitting on this DART train wondering. Outside I see a flat rolling moonscape, crumbling cinder-block walls, ranks of dusty 18-wheelers, an endless procession of small tumble-down frame houses. The back yard of Dallas. Add some minarets, I could be in Fallujah.

And me, I'm looking for Toronto. Imagine how disappointed I must be.

I came out here last week and rode every single mile of light rail in the Dallas Area Rapid Transit System, looking for what they promised us when DART began operations 20 years ago. Toronto in the Southwest. That was the promise.

Mockingbird Station is the promise of cool in the future of Dallas. So why isn't the future here yet?
Mark Graham
Mockingbird Station is the promise of cool in the future of Dallas. So why isn't the future here yet?

The whole dream was that DART would change the way we live by sucking people in from scattered huts on the prairie to live instead in glittering towers. Step off that evening train into a cool little gas-lit cobblestone village of shops, pick up dinner at the deli, say hi to your doorman, zoom-zoom up 14 stories on the elevator to your crib and gaze out over the endless prairie where the munchkins live. That was the dream.

I don't see it. Not here. What I see out these train windows is bleak, man. I am gazing at backs of U-Store-It warehouses. I see vast parking lots full of automobiles that belong to munchkins. Where am I, Dorothy?

Wait, wait, it's coming to me. Aha. I think I know where I am after all. I'm on the bus.

That's it. This vast rail system in which we have invested billions of tax dollars is just a big sprawling version of the bus. It has changed squat.

I don't see no Toronto. Do you? I just see buses on railroad tracks, plowing through exactly the same shotgun spray of low-rise cheap-ass development that was here before they launched the first choo-choo.

No, no, hold on, there I go leaping to conclusions again. Bear with me. Wait another minute. This has been a long journey. I'm stepping off the train at Mockingbird Station, and I'm riding up the escalator, and I'm standing on a mezzanine. And I think I see something.

I do. I see the Angelika theater. I see a cafe where I could get a latte. And I see the Mockingbird Station lofts, which would be a very cool place to live.

So I could step off the train here in the evening and stroll through a very happening neat little village of things going on, pick up some carry-out or walk the other direction to Kroger and get actual food, then ascend to my fashionable loft. I could be even cooler than I am now, if that were humanly possible.

Does anybody here really do that?

Ken Hughes, who developed and still operates the Mockingbird Station lofts, tells me lots of people do exactly that.

"I have 211 rental apartments in that project," he said from a cell phone somewhere on the planet. "It has a separate parking garage. If you go to the typical suburban garden apartment parking lot during the daytime, the lots will be substantially vacant.

"That is not true at Mockingbird Station. Our garage is 50 to 60 percent occupied at that time of the day. We know just from our own observation that our residents are using the train.

"We also have a way of metering it, because we get people coming in from out of town that want to rent apartments and go through our Web site. They specifically are looking for places on transit, because they may be coming from Philadelphia or Chicago, and they're used to having that."

So I was wrong. It's not that there is no Toronto there. In fact, I should be looking at Mockingbird Station as a little tiny babykins Toronto, a seedling striving to stretch up out of hostile soil.

We do have a fledgling population of cosmopolites living the good life almost without cars. And as I keep traveling the rails for the better part of two days--where in the heck is the bar car, by the way?--I do discover other bits and pieces of cool here and there.

Downtown Plano, of all places: It's just on the verge of quite nice, with some neat "transit-oriented development" right at the station stop. Not high-rise, of course, but attractively urban all the same. Keep this up, and they'll have to change its name to Not-So-Plano.

Now, whoa up here, what is this business? I am not prepared for this at all. At the rail terminus in Garland, I don't see Toronto, but I do see an inviting civic center of theaters and other facilities. It's sort of barricaded by fences and parking lots, but if you squint your eyes just the right way and tilt your head, you can imagine an amusing destination of theater and dance and public events reachable by train.

It's not that there are no beginnings out there. The question is why the beginnings haven't begun more in the 20 years since DART launched operations. I talked with another developer who didn't want me to quote him by name, because he's afraid of getting in Dutch with DART. He says DART can be very regal and vindictive.

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