Cool, Uncool

The city council decides our future this week

Which is just what Virginia McAlester, a nationally recognized author and expert on urban residential architecture and neighborhood preservation, and a work group of other citizens did for them. They took the staff's own numbers and their map and their written explanations and did a devastating analysis:

The staff says it wants the city to plan for 170,000 new apartment, condo and townhouse units by the year 2030 in order to create what it calls "live/work/play walking neighborhoods" like West Village. But in order for those kinds of neighborhoods to be built on the huge amount of land the staff wants re-zoned, McAlester was able to show the city would have to build between 2 million and 4 million dwelling units in the next 25 years, not 170,000. We only have 450,000 dwelling units now.

Um, 170,000 versus 4 million? I think maybe we need to work on our long division. And here's the deal: Creating way more zoning than you can ever fill with real development can have a corrosive effect, especially if you're reaching for high-density walk-and-talk neighborhoods.

David McAtee is one of the people who helped make Uptown and the West End possible. He says the best ideas always came from citizens on the ground, out in the city, not central planners.
David McAtee is one of the people who helped make Uptown and the West End possible. He says the best ideas always came from citizens on the ground, out in the city, not central planners.

"It's a little bit like what they did post-World War II," McAtee said. He said in the 1950s and '60s City Hall made the mistake of covering the city with apartment zoning, which just spread cheap apartments all over the map and never created a cool neighborhood anywhere.

"Places like Gaston Avenue deteriorated pretty quickly. People went on then to various other parts of the city where there were numerous opportunities to build multi-family dwellings, so that you never got a critical mass of anything of quality," he said.

McAlester was able to show the members of the plan commission that the ForwardDallas plan makes the same mistake, because it isn't tethered to reality anywhere. It doesn't even look like something that came out of a true community process. It looks like a grad-school project. At a bad grad school.

Objections to the ForwardDallas Plan did not come from any one sector, by the way. Business groups, developers and neighborhood associations from all over the city came to hearings and also sought out plan commission members privately to tell them how bad this thing looked. Plan Commission member Bob Weiss, an executive at the Meadows Foundation, took all of these objections and ideas, boiled them down and rendered them as a spreadsheet in which he showed exactly what changes were being called for and by whom.

In the main, Weiss said he tried to synthesize everyone's ideas in a way that would allow the plan to go forward by cleansing it of its more obvious political pitfalls. The worst of these, he said, was that the plan seemed to threaten some but not all stable neighborhoods with destabilization.

"Why would neighborhoods be pitted against each other?" he asked on the phone the other day. So his suggested solution, adopted last week by the plan commission, was to declare all stable neighborhoods off-limits for re-zoning and also to just take the transit corridors off the map, since they don't reflect reality anyway. "Deal with the transit corridors five years from now when we know what is being implemented. And get people calm about it."

I promised I would explain about the staff saying the plan is not a plan. This is the part that makes my teeth hurt.

The staff has repeatedly tried to duck out of arguments about the consequences of this plan by insisting it's not a plan: It's just a suggestion. For example, they won't even admit their map is a map. They call it a "vision statement." So that's what? An eye chart?

McAtee makes the point that this will be adopted as an ordinance. And an ordinance is an ordinance. The city doesn't decide how ordinances apply. The state and federal constitutions do. Judges do. You can't adopt an ordinance and then put in a special section called "...but don't worry about it."

People worry.

Unfortunately when this thing is presented at the city council meeting this week, the staff will be there to pitch their own version, which will not reflect any of the changes adopted last week by the plan commission, Tharp told me. But the plan commission won't be there to defend its version, except for commission chair Betty Culbreath.

She told me last week I shouldn't worry so much. She can handle it. "You know good and well I know the city staff. You know I'm not going to let them be anywhere selling something, and I'm not there to sell what we're talking about. You know I know how they operate."

I know she knows. But I know too. So I worry. I do.

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