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."

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.

I don't believe the city's coffers will benefit in the long run from the missed-boat strategy. Of course, in the long run many of our esteemed senior city officials may be sopping up generous city pensions on Long Boat Key, so maybe they won't care.

I know who does care—people who are here for the long haul. I have spoken to both Sleeper and Jung about this, and they say they're working together because they both represent substantial investors in the inner city, developers and homeowners. Nobody who's here already will benefit from the down-and-dirty, development-at-any-price approach.

OK, back to my riddle about rivers. The fact is that the entire city is riddled with small rivers and creeks. Most of them are buried in big concrete conduits beneath our alleys and streets. For a look at where they were before we buried them, go to dallaslibrary.org on the Web, look on the right-hand side of the page and click on "Murphy & Bolanz digital maps." You will find a trove of late 19th- and early 20th-century plat maps with the old creeks drawn on them by hand.

One of those bodies of water is Peak Creek, which runs underground from the Baylor Medical Center area eventually down to the Trinity River, joining other creeks along the way. The kind of development covering most of that area is worn-out '50s small-scale industrial.

Ugly.

But listen. We are in the process of spending $58 million to install new "pressure sewers" through that part of town—water-tight conduits through which storm water will be pumped under pressure. When this work was being considered, the city concluded that a program of "creek restoration," digging out the conduits and allowing a stretch of creek to flow openly above ground like Turtle Creek, would cost about $23 million.

But think of it.

What would it do for the land values and development potential in that area to have Turtle Creek flowing between deep green banks instead of roofing yards and used-tire storage lots? I think the tire guys would sell quickly at very handsome profits, and pretty soon you'd see something like West Village springing up in their places.

If you could live in East Dallas, be cool and have a river outside your door, wouldn't you do it? Of course you would, you silly. Anybody would.

So what am I? High? No. I'm dragging us through this whole exercise for a reason. Instead of throwing all the zoning and the code requirements out the window, lying down in the street and begging the cheapest apartment developers in the world to have their way with us, we should be looking for opportunities like creek restoration to make inner-city living desirable.

We should have our heads on straight. Not crooked.

Hey, while we're at it, let me tell you something else. Highland Park was way ahead of the curve with that idea to turn Mockingbird Lane into a toll road. Yes, I know it was illegal, and I know there were days when Highland Park skipped school on stuff like that. I wish they had figured it out better before opening their mouths.

But making it more difficult and more expensive to drive through your community is a really great idea. Heavy vehicle traffic is poison to good communities. The smartest thing a neighborhood can do is make the cars go around: It's exactly what East Dallas did in the great thoroughfare wars of the 1970s and '80s, and it's a big reason why East Dallas is hot real estate today.

Cars, bad. No cars, good. It's that simple.

The biggest threat to the success of our city right now is the continued power of the regionalists, especially the urban sprawl pimps ensconced in the North Central Texas Council of Governments. They're the people who put a toll road through what could have been one of the nation's great urban parks along the Trinity River. They're the sprawl hags from ticky-tacky hell.

I wish Highland Park would put barricades at both ends of Mockingbird and man them with Gucci guerillas. Oh, my gosh, my heart races to think of it. I imagine a Park Cities version of Enjolras in Les Miz, maybe his name is Huntingtog Scroggins And A Half or something, standing at the barricade, probably drunk, facing down the angry commuters, sword in hand, and behind him we hear the swelling song: "Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? Well, very miffed men and women anyway?"

OK, that's way over the top. Sorry. Not gonna happen. But my point remains. If it happened, it would be a good thing.

Creeks. No cars. That's sex in the city.

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