Slow Ride

Try getting to Toronto on DART light rail some day

He said the question is why DART didn't develop Mockingbird Station to be even bigger and better--or any of its other developable station sites. Instead of surrounding its stations with huge surface parking lots to keep the hut people happy, why doesn't DART move the parking a block or two away and sell or lease the land right next to the stations for high-rise development?

I tried to get through to DART to discuss these issues and failed. There was some phone tag between us, and I'm not sure whom to blame for our ultimate failure to communicate--them or me. I wanted to ask about high-rise residential at DART stations.

But I went back to Hughes with that question. Instead of redeveloping existing mid-rise structures the way he did, why not also do major high-rise development where the DART parking lots are?

He said a couple of things. First of all, when he was pitching Mockingbird Station to money people in the mid-1990s, it was tough enough to do what he did. His basic vision of Dallas, he said, is "an East Coast city with a West Coast lifestyle," but that was not the first thing he wanted to say to the checkbook guys.

"We had to finance that deal based just more on its common market fundamentals: great corner, great neighborhood, good atmosphere, things which help any kind of development, whether it's transit-oriented or otherwise. But we sort of sold the financial end of the deal as, 'Oh, and by the way, there's this rail station.'"

So that makes sense. In the beginning there was light rail. But there wasn't enough light rail to talk about high-rise buildings full of people without cars. Pitch it that way in 1994, and the reaction would have been the fluttering whir of checkbooks snapping shut.

But this is 10 years later. Believe it or not, in 10 years a lot has changed. The Center for Transit Oriented Development in Oakland, California, published a report last September called "Hidden in Plain Sight," arguing that demand for Toronto-style living is going to grow dramatically in this country in the next decade, especially among people young and old who don't have kids. The Center is a joint venture of urban think tanks in Chicago and Berkeley.

Something I found especially intriguing in their study was a table showing that demand for transit-oriented housing will grow faster in Dallas than in any other city in America except Los Angeles--a projected increase of 364 percent from 2000 to 2025.

Whoa.

And there are major checkbook people now who see the same thing. Fannie Mae, the nation's largest supplier of mortgage money, is offering what are called "smart commute" mortgages: You can buy up to $30,000 more in house value if you live near transit and agree to limit the number of cars you own.

Guess what: Fannie Mae in Dallas told me the smart commute loans are available in Plano but not in Dallas, because Dallas doesn't have an agreement on it with Fannie Mae. Apparently Plano has been a bit more forward-looking about transit than Dallas.

Don't even get me started on that.

Hughes agreed with my unnamed guy that high-rise development right next to the stations makes more sense now than it did back in the day. He thinks it may happen.

"DART is now beginning to get the message," he said, "that the surface parking lots at Mockingbird Station that are close to the station are potential development sites. The parking can be placed a five-minute walk away, and it will not change their ridership from cars."

I asked everybody I talked to about downtown Dallas. If we can have Toronto some day at Mockingbird and Central, in Not-So-Plano of all places, then why can't it happen downtown? Everybody said the same thing: Find a way to get 50,000 people to move into downtown. Then downtown can become whatever you want it to be.

One guy told me DART is half-built. He said it's like looking at a 12-year-old and saying, "Where's the world-class ballerina?" The answer is that she'll be here in about 10 years. I just worry that when Toronto finally arrives, it'll be in Plano and Garland.

It's the vision thing. Meanwhile I'm back on the rails, and my vision is blurring. Did you know the DART trains have to stop for red lights downtown? The pedestrians are moving faster than we are.

And the trains go "ding-ding." I hate that. It's embarrassing. Please, somebody make something bigger happen. Soon.

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