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.

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.

"Now," he says, twisting my notebook around on the table, "if you turn it this way and put it down on a map of downtown Dallas, it goes from Griffin Street to Harwood."

In other words, 50 years from now Tatum sees Eaton Centre running right up the spine of downtown Dallas, with Neiman Marcus, the Mercantile redevelopment project, the new law school and the new park at the east end of this vibrant new core and the banks and El Centro at the other.

How? Not by taking the new line way over to the south side of downtown and then joining it with existing lines only at the intersection of the X at Pacific and Lamar. That's a bottleneck, a squeeze-point, a narrow passageway through which all of the transfer traffic must pass.

"When I was on the DART board, we went to Atlanta, San Francisco, Toronto, London. They all said to us, 'Don't build bottlenecks.'"

The other thing he sees in the Decherd Route (my term, named for Morning News CEO Robert Decherd) is the heart-breaking loss of development potential. That vision of Eaton Centre running up the spine of the city, he says, is totally dependent on using this new downtown alignment to create an entire new population of people living downtown largely without automobiles.

Sketching again on my notebook, he crosses out the Decherd Route and draws a new one running down Elm Street, beneath the street in a subway a block away but parallel to the lines that run already on Pacific. Then he draws several lateral hash marks from Elm to Pacific forming a ladder: Those are multiple transfer stations.

Aha! Like any stroke of genius, this one solves multiple problems at once and makes the machine run free and smooth. With the line down Elm in a subway, parallel to the existing lines on Pacific but only a block away, now the multiple transfer stations are all only an escalator ride away from Pacific Avenue.

Dallas passengers, Tatum says, will want three things in a transfer. "Don't get tired, don't get hot, don't get mugged."

But much more important: Now you have created an entire corridor the length of downtown where a person could live, work, play or do all three and still be able to get out into the four corners of region by rail. Tatum sees the Morning News as pursuing its own legitimate interests. And he thinks the idea of using the train to help the convention center might work. But he thinks the Elm Street subway would accomplish a much greater good.

His model of parallel downtown lines connected by a ladder of transfer stations would create a zone where much less money would be spent accommodating cars.

"You increase the carrying capacity of the land," he says.

Great. I have no idea what that means.

"You change the zoning so that people developing office and residential towers in this zone don't have to provide parking or they have to provide much less parking."

I still need help. I grew up in a clergy house. There wasn't enough entrepreneurial know-how to run a lemonade stand.

He explains, patiently: If you don't have to provide massive parking for the towers, you save a bunch of money. You can spend that money building more offices and apartments, which you can then rent for less. It's a way to hit the magic number of 50,000 people living downtown, which is what everybody says you have to have in order to attract retail and create a truly livable community.

"The subway stations and the transfer points," he says, "become the people-pumps."

All that residential and office population moving up and down and across that double rail corridor feeds retail, which feeds street life, which makes the place even more fun, and the whole thing just gets better.

Spreading out the lines, splitting the new one off to the far side of downtown, kills Tatum's economic engine. The Decherd line loses the critical mass needed to create a whole new way of life in downtown.

I don't delude myself. I think the Decherd line will win. DART staff will offer the city council the Decherd line and some other line that's a total loser, so the council can act like it's doing the right thing by going with the Decherd line. That's how decisions get made in this town.

But it's also why downtown Dallas is dead, and downtown Fort Worth is alive and lively. Decisions here are made by too few people with too much self-interest and too little imagination who don't really get downtowns.

So that's my two bits' worth. Later on, when it's all said and done, I'm going to campaign for re-naming the Decherd line after César Chávez. Just to be ornery.

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