A Totally Not-Depressing Look at Downtown

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.

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.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze