Sexy Town

Imagine a city with flowing creeks, walkable neighborhoods and greenery. No, not Seattle, dummy.

The big buzz word now at City Hall is "walkable." They want to develop new neighborhoods that are "walkable." Meaning you walk. But I have a question: walk to what?

Walk to crap? Do I want to leave my crappy apartment complex and walk around the corner so I can look at somebody else's crappy apartment complex? I don't think so. In that case I believe I'll send out for pizza.

Check me on this, but after the paint fades a little on the new apartment buildings and the curbs begin to crack, I think the term for a charmless area of bleak apartment blocks would be "slum."

The creeks shown on the old plats of the city are still there. We buried them. That means we could un-bury them.
Dallas Public Library/Dallas History and Archives
The creeks shown on the old plats of the city are still there. We buried them. That means we could un-bury them.

What about this for an idea instead? How hard do you think it would be for Dallas to create rivers running through inner-city neighborhoods? How much would it enhance values in Old East Dallas, for example, to create something like Turtle Creek in Oak Lawn?

It's a trick question. I'll tell you in a minute.

I talked about this last week with James Pratt, the architect and urban land-use designer. We agreed that all of the talk about so-called walkable areas typically omits a key word, probably for reasons of political correctness.

Affluent.

The market for the new walkable urban neighborhoods is going to be relatively affluent. We're talking about young employed people, older empty-nesters and maybe, someday, even families.

For that to click—in order to put something on the ground that will draw those demographic slices—the neighborhoods you are creating have got to be physically attractive. Cool, charming or both.

Guess what that requires? Green space. Not to be too Zen about it, but the key to density is open space. Parks, ponds, groves of trees, the sound of water rushing—a green opening into which the boxed-up senses can flow. That's what people want to walk to. That and good bars.

When people like author Christopher Leinberger (The Option of Urbanism) write and talk about the movement back into dense, central urban neighborhoods, they're not talking about tenements. C'mon. We knew that.

Leinberger predicts that American cities in the century ahead will turn themselves inside out, with affluence at the core, more modest-income areas at the edge and, where the suburbs are now, slums.

I don't wish a slum on anybody. Least of all me. But I worry that Dallas City Hall, left to its own doltish devices, may be headed in that direction.

I talked about it last week with another frequent source on these topics who speaks to me only on a not-for-attribution basis because he doesn't want his name associated with mine. It's OK. I get that at home too.

This is a person who has gone to school on the whole walkable neighborhood issue. He said green space is the key. "It's the first thing you do. You lay out the green space in advance, while the land is still cheap."

You can stack up all the apartments you want, as long as something at the heart of the neighborhood you're designing draws people inward and creates a sense of place.

A fight over these very questions is nearing a decision at City Hall. In one corner, a coalition of neighborhood interests and developers. In the other, city staff. The city council is about to decide.

The coalition is a very interesting development for Dallas—a first, in my memory. The coalition includes people such as developer Neal Sleeper (Cityplace, West Village) and attorney P. Michael Jung (Strasburger & Price)—two guys who have done fierce battle with each other in years past: Sleeper on the developer side and Jung representing neighborhoods.

Joined by preservation advocate Virginia McAlester, Sleeper and Jung are shoulder-to-shoulder fighting for the kind of guarantees that would give us high-quality, high-density neighborhoods in the inner city.

Led by Development Services Director Theresa O'Donnell, the city staff is on the other side, fighting for looser standards that will allow piled-up apartments with few requirements for green space and much less protection for adjacent single-family residential neighborhoods.

Why?

No one ever says it explicitly, but the assumption among people I talk to is that staff is under pressure to bring in all the development it can get. City Hall is cash-starved. Somebody thinks quick-and-dirty development is the way to beef up tax revenues.

I've got my doubts about that. In a City Hall corridor last week I spoke with an East Dallas neighborhood activist who pointed out how fragile the overall urban market remains in Dallas. The back-to-the-city trend may be flooding other inner cities with people, he said, but it's still barely a trickle here.

"If you look at the huge volumes of foot traffic that support walkable retail in other cities and then look at what we've got, you realize that Dallas is still a small town in many ways."

In this moment, we can do one of two things. We can design new inner-city neighborhoods very well, so that they will capture whatever market is out there and foster even more growth. Or we can design them haphazardly, never create a critical mass and miss the boat entirely.

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