A Totally Not-Depressing Look at Downtown

City center's future is so bright, it's gotta wear shades.

The arrival of a New Year always brings about in me a strange and unaccustomed desire to be un-depressing. And I don't even drink. I don't know what does it. This year I'm blaming it on Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston.

He and I had an interesting chat about downtown office vacancy rates. Oh, I know what you're thinking: There is no such thing as an interesting chat about vacancy rates.

No, no, but this was interesting, because it was really about the future of the city, which is where the not-depressing part comes in. First, however, just let me be a tiny bit depressing so I can get it out of my system. According to The Dallas Business Journal, Dallas still has a generally suck record on office rentals, with a vacancy rate that leads the nation among large cities. But things are getting better here faster than elsewhere, giving us a generally less suck record than we used to have.

Daniel Fishel

So-called "office-using jobs" are growing here at twice the national rate, according to CBRE Global Research and Reporting, which has to be a good thing for people with office space to rent. The Dallas Morning News has reported that downtown retail is still anomalously suck given the good recent growth rate in downtown residential, but that's a glass half full if you look at it as opportunity — a market ripe for the plucking.

Kingston told me he had chatted with a commercial real estate broker who was telling him that downtown is never going to be the region's Class A commercial center again. But that's a good thing, the guy told Kingston, because it means downtown can be a vast center of good solid Class B office space, restored or never decayed, and even Class C stuff capable of being bought and restored at profitable rates.

The Class B, in particular, can be home to back-office and regional operations, as opposed to headquarters — the kind of enterprises more likely to be occupied by people who would also live downtown near their work. How many CEOs really want to live the auto-free life in downtown Dallas, as opposed to young worker bees? So go for the worker bees.

In other words, we need to stop thinking of restoring downtown to a status it last occupied in the 1960s and early '70s, a half a century ago, as a cluster of corporate headquarters, and begin thinking of it instead as a good old-fashioned 21st century working-class neighborhood.

Take that retail situation, for example. If you can pour enough people into apartments downtown while keeping the street-level rental rates less than sky-high, then you have the right medium for breeding all kinds of retail from bars to organic baby-food outlets. That seems to me like a much more likely scenario than the one City Hall seems to have pursued for the last decade, trying to re-create Manhattan somehow.

Three years ago, just before he died, I had lunch with M. Thomas Lardner, the visionary developer who was an early force in the creation of Uptown, the smart and fashionable Dallas apartment and office district just north of downtown, which on any given evening can be the closest thing to Paris you can experience without getting on an airplane and risking getting stuck next to me. I asked him what single policy he thought Dallas should adopt ahead of any other to make downtown bloom the way Uptown had. He told me the one thing Dallas should do first is find a way to subsidize rents for working people.

The secret to Uptown's success, he said, was always sidewalks full of young people, fully employed and able to afford a few drinks, not making enough money to pay high-end rents, living the walk-to-drink lifestyle if not always walk-to-work. Lardner said the high-end rent people are important too, but they don't get out as much, and when they do get out they don't look as good.

I have been sitting here putting together Lardner's vision of Uptown in downtown with what Kingston was telling me, and as I think about it, another vision comes back. A long time ago when I was beating the drum about the Trinity River toll road, I had a conversation with former council member Angela Hunt in which I asked her what she really wanted. Beyond just defeating plans to stick a super highway right next to the river through downtown, what did she see there instead?

It's been too long for me to quote her exactly, but I think I still have a vivid image in my mind: Hunt told me she had this daydream in which Dallas was a place where you could live in a downtown tower, take your bike down the elevator on Saturday morning, glide down through downtown to the river and roll out onto miles and miles of bike path through soccer fields, ball diamonds and picnics, on out into the largest urban forest in America.

That's going to happen. It will happen. That's what Dallas is going to be in the future — an uber-cool city combining the very best of urban walkable living with healthy living in the out-of-doors.

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As they say in my dad's old family romping grounds, well, "excusez moi!", but most truly great cities in the United States and beyond have little-to-no problem with "messy vitality" in terms of "organic growth"--as in an oak forest.  One of the striking things about the ever-so-vain quest among Dallas real estate developers is their obsession with class and its riding partner, luxury.  Every little thing, from the store next door, to the grand archways of, well, whatever, luxury, special, elite, express, lofty, etc, etc, are all little bits of vocabulary that seem to override absolutely everything else.  Why is that?  

Dallas seems to have a serious problem with simply not liking itself very much.  Back in 1965, my dad, a postal data supervisor way ahead of the curve in the development of computerization as a solution to federal bureaucracy (today, that is a true "mission accomplished"), took me to Rudolph's, the almost ancient butcher shop and delicatessen in Deep Ellum, and as I struggled to keep my chin above the counter with a huge Reuben sandwich in my hands, he told me, "When you're in your Thirties, this area is going to be really big!"  I looked at him as if he was out of his mind, and although indeed he was to a degree, I couldn't help but look at a warehouse wasteland and wonder, "What is he talking about?" 

Fast forward to the mid-Eighties, right here under the nose of Nancy Reagan (we used to call her Nurse Nancy), and up sprang the then-called "music district of the Third Coast" and indeed, Deep Ellum was in some senses even bigger than Austin ever was.  Then it drooped like a dying tulip when essentially-conservative landowners decided to so jack-up the rent that the organically-grown entertainment district's club and shop owners literally could not meet the "new rules" and had to close shop.  In its place, well, nameless, faceless warehouses and "spaces" housing well-heeled urban professionals with about as much "cool" as Thurston Howell III and his wife "Lovey" from "Gilligan's Island", a Sixties-era 30-minute sit-com about a "three-hour tour" of tourists marooned on an island. 

Sure.  There is a lot of hub-bub about Uptown (in the late 1970s, a friend of mine's girlfriend excitedly told us as we rode in his Beetle down McKinney that "someday, this area is going to be...POSH!" as I silently responded, "whoop-de-doo"), and indeed, while Uptown is nice, complete with so many bars another Sixties-era 30-minute sit-com character, one Otis Campbell, the bumpkin-alkie of "The Andy Griffith Show" who simply checked-into to "his" jail cell at the end of a binge, most likely would enter the precincts of Uptown and never be seen again, another victim of black-and-white comedy done disappeared and gone.

Uptown is "nice"--lots of pretty people, plenty of people who have literally no idea of the greater world beyond, say, The Dish, and yup: enough "luxuriant" restaurants to supply badly-needed grease for the next 1,300 years.  Indeed, I have been to Uptown.  I yawned. 

Back in the mid-1990s, I had a wonderfully mind-bending opportunity to work side-by-side with a REAL conservative--as opposed to the Great Texan Know-Nothing variety of herd mentalities--and having grown-up near Langley, Virginia, and having gone to school at The University of Virginia, he bluntly took me to the window that overlooks the wasteland of parking lots just beyond Plaza of the Americas and asked, "What is this stuff about?"

"Trying to pry the average Dallasite out of the car is like trying to get a dead mermaid out of a sardine can." 

Quoth the real conservative: "You Marxists are really quite observant!"  Then we both laughed at the joke and got-on with the daily conversation about politics.  There is intelligence--and then there is fashion statement.  The secret emperors of Dallas are all clothing.  Nothing like a clothes horse, is there?   


Do some of the curmudgeons on this site actually get out and interact with the city or do they just comment from their cozy Lakewood homes?


Jim, I'm so much in agreement with your column I find few exceptions to take. Even so, I have a few, and here they are:

DART has 8 potential alignments under study for the second rail line. One of them, as you describe, would go under Commerce Street. The other 7 would loop farther south. The study is available her for review:


Last year, the Dallas Morning News published a column which I co-wrote with my friend and colleague, Branden Helms. Mr Helms is an advocate of the Commerce extension which you propose. My argument was to loop it farther south.

Were this merely a question of urban lifestyle versus convention center service, I would agree with you. After all, I both live and work downtown; this is my neighborhood.

In fact, the deck is not stacked nearly so neatly, as my debate with Mr Helms illustrates. Were the Commerce Street proposal to open today, it would serve the most passengers. It offers less potential for future growth, however, as the corridor is already built out. The other alternatives include one El-train configuration, as well as both surface and subterranean configurations. There are arguments against building a line in an area already built out primarily with office space. One could argue you'd spend a whole lot digging a tunnel to serve structures which are largely in place, many of which are designed as single-use office towers. The worst-case scenario here is that one of the costliest options would primarily serve out-of-town suburbanites commuting in to jobs at towers in the Elm-Main-Commerce corridors, as well as those in the Arts District, which you would presumably oppose.

Everything isn't about the convention center, however. All of the other lines, which loop further south, could serve and revitalize parts of downtown that are currently neglected. Moreover, our debate also concerned the value of connectivity. Both a line that passes in front of the Omni Hotel, and an even larger loop passing between the Omni and the covnention center, would also serve to tie in all four of DART's LRT lines with the new Oak Cliff Streetcar, the TRE, Amtrak, and potential high-speed rail. They would further provide enhanced connectivity between DFW Airport, Love Field, the Oak Cliff Streetcar, all existing rail lines, potential HSR service to Houston and other cities, and even Port-Authority-style intermodal bus terminal.

Mr Helms vision was to link downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods with each other. Mine was to not only link them together, but to tie them into a global network. The convention center, by itself, would indeed be small potatoes.

As for the tunnels you mention, 6 of the 8 concepts would tie DART directly into the tunnel network. Some 15 years ago, one could walk uninterrupted between the Texas Club, to the southwest, and the Plaza of the America, to the northeast. This pathway is now fragmented, as the foreclosures of the towers above has broken it into pieces. It's just a matter of time before these reconnect, however. The tunnels will be coming back.

But, on a larger note, tunnel tenants are in place to serve a lunchtime crowd. They're mainly fast food and concessions, they don't serve alcohol or cater to leisure visitors, and the whole thing locks up at 6 and doesn't reopen until 7 the following morning, and it also closes weekends and holidays. I share your vision for the potential of the tunnels, but they'd have to take on an entirely different function than what they have at present.


The fantasies of the last century are the realities of the next. Sometimes it is necessary to move to find them. The Dallas mindset seems more Detroit than Seattle. That is depressing.