If the Dallas business establishment has its way with DART’s second rail line for downtown, forget about a booming metropolis.

I'm not even trying to change the outcome. It's a freight train. Strapping myself to the tracks is not my idea of fun. But I want you to see what an enormous mistake we're about to make in choosing a second DART rail line through downtown.

Downtown Dallas 50 years from now could be what downtown Toronto is now—bustling, sophisticated, exciting and, best of all, booming.

Or not.

Developer John Tatum sees Toronto in the future of downtown Dallas. Schutze doesn’t.
He sees Morning News CEO Robert Decherd.
Mark Graham
Developer John Tatum sees Toronto in the future of downtown Dallas. Schutze doesn’t. He sees Morning News CEO Robert Decherd.

In September, DART, our regional mass transit agency, opens a whole new rail line, the Green Line, which will finally give us rail coverage from the center of the city out to all four corners of the region.

But the opening of the Green Line also gives us way too many trains trying to squeeze down one narrow passageway through downtown on Pacific Avenue. From the early 1980s, when all of this was being planned, everybody knew that opening the Green Line would require building a second passageway or alignment through downtown to handle the added train traffic.

Then you have to tie the two passageways together somehow. The map of the system is sort of a twisted X with the crossing point downtown. How do you switch from a train going into downtown on one leg of the X and board a different train going out of downtown on another leg of the X? You need a link. Or even better, links.

DART spokesman Mark Ball tells me DART staff will recommend two possible routes for the second downtown alignment to the Dallas City Council in August or September. The council will pick one of them in January.

I know from the hearings and Web postings on this stuff so far that the alignment with the most political juice behind it from the downtown establishment is the very worst one—the one that will cost the most money, attract the fewest riders and do the least for re-developing downtown.

Unfortunately, this is the line that has the support of the tiny group of business people who make decisions about downtown Dallas.

It's a line that bends way out of its way to veer off into the far south side of downtown, far away from the existing alignment on Pacific on the east side, in order to go through the convention center, pass by the new convention hotel and, not coincidentally, pass through a lot of idle, bare-dirt real estate owned by The Dallas Morning News on downtown's weakest limb, its moribund southwest corner.

What's wrong with using the train to prop up the hotel and help out the Morning News with its real estate problem? Nothing, except for one thing. Choosing this alignment is a once-in-a-century chance to change the fundamental destiny of downtown itself. Using it instead to help out one hotel and one land-owner would be a reprehensible squandering of this rare opportunity.

So last week over frosty iced teas in a booth at the Stoneleigh P, I met with John C. Tatum Jr., a downtown developer. Thirty years ago Tatum foresaw and invested in a downtown that almost nobody else believed in back then—a downtown that would become a neighborhood, as opposed to a post-World War II office park. Tatum was one of the very first developers to get into the old warehouses in the West End and subsequently in Deep Ellum.

He also was a member of the DART board in the early 1980s when the early planning was done for the region's rail system. He was one of a caucus of DART board members who campaigned for a fast-moving heavy rail system concentrated in the inner city with a subway through downtown instead of the existing surface rail down Pacific Avenue. Their idea was that DART would become an instant people-pump—lightning fast and with massive capacity—feeding a boom of downtown residential development.

That dream died and Tatum and his crowd were bounced off the board after a 1988 referendum in which suburban voters killed the funding for the plan. Since then, DART has emerged instead as DART lite—a system of beefed-up trolleys, rather than trains, feeding sprawl, rather than density.

But now the swallows must return to Capistrano. The suburban lines will fail or succeed depending on how well DART is able to resolve the issue of the second downtown alignment. A bad solution with bottlenecks built into it will mean slow-moving trains, congestion and off-putting transfer experiences, all of which will drive people away from rail, not draw them to it.

Tatum believes a good solution could mean much more than just a better rail system. It could mean a whole new future for downtown. He sees downtown as the region's biggest "transit-oriented development" opportunity.

At the Stoneleigh P last week, Tatum is talking to me about Eaton Centre (Canadians can't spell) in Toronto, a huge 230-store retail mall in the heart of that city's university and hospital district. Eaton Centre, he points out, is anchored at both ends by subway stations.

Reaching across the table, Tatum sketches Eaton Centre in my reporter's notebook, stretching from Dundas Street to Queen Street. "Talk about retail," he says, in that breathless tone only a real estate developer can summon.

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