Cool, Uncool

The city council decides our future this week

Dallas is right on the knife's edge between maybe finally about to become cool and maybe finally not. Believe it or not, the city council will decide. Yikes. Maybe this week. I'm scared.

If anything is cool about Dallas, what? Everybody says Uptown, meaning McKinney Avenue, West Village, the Cityplace area around Lemmon and Central. I would add the train. East Dallas. Fair Park.

There's more. My point: Every single thing you can think of that's cool about Dallas came about because of people outside City Hall.

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.

David McAtee is a partner in the white-shoe law firm of Akin Gump, but he was a young outsider in the 1970s when he and another lawyer, Lee Simpson, who works for the Dallas school system now, told City Hall the DART train needed to go up Central Expressway and not way over in the sticks along the Katy tracks (the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, known as the MKT, or Katy).

City Hall didn't know any better. McAtee brought a guy to town from San Francisco, who had worked on BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit. He said oh-hell-no, don't put the train up the Katy through Turtle Creek and all those beautiful low-density neighborhoods. Put it up Central Expressway, where the traffic and the density exist to support it.

The smart stuff never comes from City Hall. Perry Heights activist Kay Colb, McAtee, former city council member Lori Palmer and other like-minded rebels created the Oak Lawn Plan, which created Uptown, which created West Village. Virginia McAlester and her parents are why City Hall didn't succeed in turning East Dallas into one big used-car lot. John Tatum saw what could happen in the West End and then Deep Ellum when the only thing City Hall could see happening there was bulldozers.

What's great about a city is what's surprising. The twists and turns. And those come from people out in the city, not City Hall.

Many of the people mentioned above had withdrawn from city affairs to do other things but popped up again earlier this year because they were so alarmed about "ForwardDallas"--a big "master plan" for Dallas being pushed by City Hall and The Dallas Morning News' editorial page.

I'd tell you what ForwardDallas is if I could figure it out myself. It's something about future development--where the new buildings should go and what the city should look like. But the people pushing the plan keep trying to tell me it's not a plan. Oh, I'll get to that. It's so stupid I can barely stand to talk about it.

The Morning News editorial page is presenting this as a debate between people who believe in planning and people who are drunk all the time. But even if you believe in planning, what the city staff and their consultant came up with was a monumentally dumb plan--so dumb that I think maybe they're the ones who are drunk.

Last week a diverse alliance of homeowner and business interests talked the Dallas Plan Commission into making major revisions to it. So this week the city council is supposed to review it, as revised by the Plan Commission.

But, aha! A hitch. Big hitch. The city staff is mad, because the plan commission drew on its picture. The staff doesn't like the changes the citizens on the plan commission made, so they're going to ask the council to ignore the plan commission version and adopt the original staff-drawn version.

Janet Tharp, the city's interim director of long-range planning, told me it's standard procedure for the staff to send its own recommendations on issues to the council in tandem with what has been adopted by the plan commission. Members of the plan commission told me they were surprised and irritated to find the staff still peddling its version in competition with them.

Be that as it may, the city council would make a truly horrible mistake if it ignored the plan commission's work--a mistake with serious repercussions for decades to come. The council needs to find out why the critics were able to talk the plan commission into changing it.

Let me give you just a few examples. Without asking anybody who lives in the areas involved, the staff and their consultant proposed vast "transit corridors" a third of a mile wide all over the city to be re-developed with mid-rise and high-rise buildings and retail.

Well, problem here: The transit corridors they drew on their map are not the same corridors that DART, the regional transit agency, is planning on. The city staff and the consultant just drew these big fat corridors all over the map, I guess where they thought they looked good.

The staff also drew what they called "urban neighborhoods" sort of willy-nilly all over the map, including right on top of established single-family neighborhoods where residents have no desire to change.

But much worse: Off the map in their written explanations, they came up with theories about how the city should grow, based on really, really bad arithmetic. If they had been in the third grade, they would have come home with big red teacher marks all over their papers.

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.

"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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