Bridge to Somewhere
The white paint on Felix Losada's home in West Dallas is wearing away. His brittle wooden porch swing seems ready to snap at any moment. Old but neatly maintained, the house fades into a swath of similar homes, worn and seemingly attached to the ground by winding roots rather than foundations. Residents of La Bajada, a mostly Hispanic neighborhood, are firmly settled here. That much is clear, even on a brief drive through the neighborhood.
Losada, whose parents were born in Mexico, will be 90 next year. His five children grew up in his home on Bataan Street. His father died in one bedroom, his first wife in another, and his second wife has lived with him since 1999. He wants to spend the rest of his life peacefully in the same space where he's lived out his most significant memories, but he's worried. In the past several years, investors have realized that land in his neighborhood is cheap, close to downtown, and perhaps most important, at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, the sleek white arched pathway that will provide a new link to West Dallas when it's completed. Men with money and an eye to the future have been knocking on doors offering to buy properties, and he fears rapid development could boost property values, leaving him unable to pay his property taxes from his modest fixed income.
Losada doesn't care much about bridges, and he hasn't been downtown in years. He cares even less about his property value unless its increase would mean moving. This is why for the past year and a half he has attended every planning meeting about the fate of his neighborhood and has become one of La Bajada's most outspoken advocates for a zoning restriction that would preserve the area for single-family homes. "If they come here, the value of the land is going to skyrocket," he says, "they" being developers with plans for high-rise apartments. "I've seen too many changes, too much water going under the bridge." So this time, he's doing his best to shore up his property against the threat of a rapid tax increase, which could reshape his flood-prone neighborhood even more than the many deluges it's seen throughout the years.
What Losada and many of his neighbors want is called a neighborhood stabilization overlay (NSO), a system of zoning restrictions established by the city in 2005 to maintain the character of residential neighborhoods. Twelve Dallas neighborhoods have adopted overlay ordinances, and La Bajada is poised to be the next.
The small neighborhood just across the Trinity River from downtown has been Losada's home since long before most of the other small cottage-style houses were built. He recalls shooting rabbits and squirrels with a rifle in the 1930s, and even before that with a slingshot. He was a small child when his family moved from a farm south of Dallas and settled in the neighborhood in the mid-1920s. His mother raised chickens, and his father was a sharecropper until a hail storm drove him out of business and into La Bajada, where he secured a job fixing trolley rails.
Neatly dressed, robust and wearing gold wire-rimmed glasses, Losada appears more properly suited for a beach-side retirement condo than the modest home he bought for $4,250 in 1961. His living room is as neat as he is, with photos of family and friends gracing every shelf, table and wall. Portraits of his five grown children sit alongside a snapshot of the neighborhood baseball team he coached when his children were young. "That's the sentimental value that money can't replace," he says. "I've had letters asking me if I wanted to sell my home, but I'm not interested." He threw the letters in the trash without even noting who sent them. He wouldn't sell for a million dollars.
The zoning restrictions Losada supports would restrict the heights of new buildings in his neighborhood. Currently, the city is determining what the limits should be, then residents will sign a petition, the city will verify signatures, and after the planning commission holds a public hearing, the city council will vote on the NSO. The neighborhood, dotted with signs reading, "Not 4 Sale, Support NSO," buzzes with rumors of property sales, comings and goings of developers and with cautiously optimistic chatter about the future of West Dallas.
In a city where development and gentrification have often arrived on bulldozers scraping away older, working-class neighborhoods, Losada and his neighbors have reason to worry. On the far side of a signature bridge that is the symbol of Dallas' costly program to reinvigorate the Trinity River corridor, La Bajada sits squarely in the path of city planners and real estate investors' plans for progress.
City Manager Mary Suhm sees the Trinity riverfront area becoming the city's "front door instead of the alley." Hope for the neighborhood's future comes from a new approach to development led by community-minded urban planners whose goal is to meld neighborhood preservation and development. They're busy sketching a future in which people like Losada aren't priced out of their homes but are instead part of a livable, walkable neighborhood that stitches people of all incomes into a community. Of course, how that all works out will depend partly on how developers implement the West Dallas plan.
Losada is among many residents who have heard a rumor that local developers have knocked on doors offering to take over elderly people's mortgages in exchange for acquiring the properties when the homeowner dies. Eva Elvove, the co-chair of the La Bajada Neighborhood Association, says she's noticed that developers have stopped knocking on neighborhood doors since neighbors supporting the overlay have become more vocal.
Though Losada is concerned about staying put for the remainder of his life, he is not against progress. "It's going to be a lot of fun for those who will get to enjoy it," he says of the neighborhood's imminent growth. He just doesn't want to be blindsided. "I've got one foot on the grave, and another on a banana peel," he says, smiling.
The part of West Dallas across the river from downtown is unknown to many and extremely dear to some. From the time Losada moved to the area—about the time the area's most infamous residents, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, were making their names—the largely industrial neighborhood had been written off as high-crime and generally undesirable. Few people who don't live there go there, and with few businesses, there has never been much reason to venture across the river. Throughout its troubled history, West Dallas has been consistently overlooked by mainstream business-minded Dallasites. That's why critics of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, have often dismissed it by asking "Where is this bridge going?" ("Nowhere" is the unspoken answer.)
"Nowhere" is now both a business opportunity and a neighborhood to preserve at all costs. At the very least, all agree the area harbors much room for growth. With that in mind, the city designated the area bordered by Canada Drive along the river, Interstate 30 to the south and Sylvan Avenue to the west as the first project of a new City Hall-based urban design initiative, CityDesign Studio, started in October 2009. The studio's plan for West Dallas is a guideline for development and was unanimously adopted by city council on March 9.
Funded by donors and intended to focus on neighborhoods along the Trinity, CityDesign Studio is led by architect Brent Brown of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a nonprofit aimed at designing "livable" communities. Brown is known for his bcWORKSHOP Congo Street project, for which his team joined with neighborhood residents to renovate homes along a rundown area a few blocks north of Fair Park. That project included residents in the process, a move that seemed almost revolutionary in a city where development often means pushing out poor people in favor of sky-high buildings with pretty views of other sky-high buildings. As the director of CityDesign Studio, Brown must balance the needs of residents, real estate investors and entrepreneurs. It's as though this initiative is meant to right the city's past wrongs.
"I don't think we think a whole lot about sustainable communities," Suhm says of the city's history. With CityDesign Studio putting a new process in motion, she hopes development will increasingly take into account streets, transportation and "sustainable relationships."
"It's participatory," she says of the approach.
Sitting at a planning table in the studio's City Hall office, an open light-filled space lined with colorful drawings of what West Dallas could be, Brown speaks with the measured assurance and depth of knowledge of someone who listens closely and reflects before acting. "It's a vibrant small neighborhood. We took the time before planning to engage in public discourse," from "living rooms to boardrooms," Brown says of La Bajada, looking the part of the progressive architect from his thick-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses to his striped socks and leather clogs.
To preserve La Bajada, the plan creates a north to south "spine" of businesses and higher-density residential buildings running from Singleton Avenue along Herbert Street to West Commerce Street. Expansion is positioned to run from east to west, keeping the higher density area from encroaching on La Bajada. The area south of Singleton Avenue would also host high-rise buildings with businesses on the ground level, and just south of Commerce Street, along Beckley Avenue, would be a high-density residential area (i.e. apartments). The plan focuses on usable public space and includes three underpasses for cars and pedestrians to cross the Union Pacific Railroad. The CityDesign Studio's "urban structure and guidelines" is a mixed-use model where people will live, work and play in close proximity.
Larry Beasley, a renowned urban designer credited with revitalizing Vancouver, is a CityDesign Studio consultant. Also assisting is Chalonda Jackson-Mangwiro, the community engagement coordinator who describes her job as translating design-speak into language the community can understand.
"There was maybe, I don't want to say 'fear'...uncertainty, because of things that happened before," Jackson-Mangwiro says, acknowledging the worries that West Dallas would become the new Little Mexico or Freedmans Town, once vibrant low-income minority neighborhoods near downtown that development wiped away seemingly overnight.
The 18-month process of trying to balance the desires of residents and developers didn't start smoothly. "It was set up where somebody's going to win, and somebody's going to lose," Brown says. The studio's role was to ensure everyone benefits. The defensive undercurrent to the initial meetings dissipated when the studio presented drawings of plans for the area. Brown also had to overcome community backlash over the controversial bridge. In the early stages of the project, he remembers having to flat-out tell a group at one meeting, "We didn't ask for that bridge." CityDesign Studio is charged with making the best of the plans already in place and countering the perception that it's a bridge to nowhere.
Part of the three-phase plan is built-in flexibility to accommodate changing economic conditions, community needs and a larger population. "Every chance we could, we said, 'Guys, these are a cartoon,'" says David Whitley, associate director of the CityDesign Studio. He means the plans are a flexible guideline, not a dictate.
Then he hit on what seems to be the community's raw nerve. "I don't think the skepticism is completely gone. How it happens is the real test," he says. Most who've seen it agree the plan looks great on paper, but if and when disputes arise between new developers and old neighbors, the question is whether the plan will remain intact. Development projects that require zoning changes will be evaluated in the context of the Design Studio guidelines. "We'll be a player" in implementation, Whitley says, but "to some extent, we've passed the baton."
It's this baton pass that concerns Rosa Lopez, director of Vecinos Unidos, a West Dallas nonprofit that supports affordable housing. "As much as the community wants the improvements...will there be a balance in trying to help the community maintain its presence?" she asks, echoing Losada. "We've got a lot of older folks in the area. We know that they've had difficulty maintaining their houses...They want to stay here. They want to be able to afford their property taxes."
Even if the NSO is put in place and zoning restrictions work in favor of La Bajada protection, "it's never a guarantee," she says. "It is a gamble. Everybody's just guessing at this point. It's all a gamble. It's all a design...Is it going to happen in five years, 10 years, 30 years? Something is going to happen."
Much of the outcome rests on developers. The developer whose name is most commonly heard in La Bajada is Larry "Butch" McGregor. He and his partners in West Dallas Investments own more than 60 acres of land, including several buildings along Singleton Avenue painted in bold and neon colors. McGregor works behind a desk in the bright red building, one of the first they purchased nearly 10 years ago.
"He's been seeing the light for a long time," Lopez says of McGregor, acknowledging with a laugh that the Trinity River is what's driving the development. "He's been seeing the water for a long time.
"He's a businessperson. I would say he's out for the best interest of Butch McGregor. His idea is that he owns the property, and people will have to pay to have a spot. I think that's just par for the course. Anytime business people want to come into the community, I think people are going to be concerned. But that's the way of the world, that's capitalism. There's nothing wrong with being a businessperson. It's just a matter of the way businesses want to be connected to people in the community. I don't think I've heard a lot of negative things about Butch McGregor. Now is Butch coming over here as a business person to preserve the neighborhood? No. I don't think he is. But he certainly has made his point about wanting as much land as possible along the riverfront."
McGregor might have nodded along with Lopez's characterization.
McGregor, like many West Dallas residents, wants to attract grocery stores, dry cleaners, coffee shops, restaurants and all the makings of an active, busy neighborhood full of pedestrians. His company's profits depend on it.
In his purchases of West Dallas land, he has stayed away from La Bajada. Mostly. Several properties came along with other land acquisitions as a package deal. Then, there were a few instances in which he asked whether the property owners adjacent to what he owned would be interested in selling. Once, he even offered to build a woman a nicer home right across the street.
She turned him down. "She grew up there. Her kids grew up there, and her grandkids," McGregor says. He lowers his voice to a whisper. "The house needs to be torn down. It's pitiful."
"I keep hearing that they want to save the La Bajada neighborhood in its entirety. You know, sometimes you ask for things that you may or may not really want," McGregor says. "Do you want to keep the drug houses? Do you want to keep it the way it is with no grocery stores, no neighborhood services? So, when you say you want to keep it in its entirety, you have to be very careful."
To attract businesses, West Dallas needs one key ingredient: more people—specifically, more people with more money. The neighborhood overlay Losada advocates would preserve La Bajada for single-family homes and work against high-rise development, so it's not in step with increasing population density. Additionally, McGregor says, a rise in property values is a good thing. "These homes are these people's greatest asset, just like most Americans...and they want their greatest asset to be worth as much as possible...By putting that NSO on it, it certainly doesn't do that...If you're a developer and you want to come in and buy a piece of property to build a high-rise apartment condo project on it, you can pay a lot of money for it. If it's got an NSO on it, you're not going to touch it."
If there is a point of reconciliation between high-rise development and neighborhood preservation, McGregor isn't sure where it would fall. "What do you do? I don't know," he says.
CityDesign Studio's plan centralizes high-rise development south of Singleton Boulevard. Buildings would increase in height gradually from La Bajada so it doesn't appear as though the neighborhood is surrounded by a giant wall. McGregor attended the CityDesign Studio meetings with residents, but his feelings toward the final plan are mixed: "Some of [the ideas] are good, some of them we don't agree with." As to which are which, he's fairly vague. "I haven't thought about it that much lately...They put townhouses up against the railroad tracks. Well, that's not going to fly. I mean, that's just an example." Later he says that "density" and "heights" were points of contention between his plan and the city's.
But it may not matter anyway. "It didn't influence our plans whatsoever," McGregor says. "We had plans before they existed." CityDesign Studio was created eight years after West Dallas Investments began buying in the area.
"When somebody comes along and tells you how to do something, you say, 'To hell with you. You go do it,'" he says, drumming his hands on the table, adding that by "somebody" he means, "Oh, just anybody."
Nevertheless, he says he feels a duty to develop the area responsibly. "We have to set a standard that will be a benefit to the city for the future...We're not looking at a quick nickel or something. That's not our agenda at all."
Though their means and motivations may differ, McGregor, like Brown, sees this as a progressive step for Dallas. "West Dallas isn't West Dallas...This is Dallas. This is the future of Dallas, it's not just West Dallas," McGregor says. He and his business partners, Phil Romano and Stuart Fisk, originally wanted to call their company "Long Term Investments," but the name was taken. The three partners met because their children go to school together, and they plan on this project benefiting their children more than themselves.
Monte Anderson, another area developer who is also a real estate broker and the owner of the Belmont Hotel and Smoke restaurant in Oak Cliff, also takes a long-term approach. "My mission is to build better communities...for seven generations," Anderson says. "What I build is for my great-granddaughter's grandkids." When Anderson discusses development, it sounds like a spiritual experience, and in the case of West Dallas, that would make CityDesign Studio his religious guide. "I think that plan is one of the most progressive, unbelievable beginnings of any plan or plans I've ever seen," he says. "The plan implemented and followed through will be incredible...It will be very soulful. It will be a soulful place." Anderson grew up in Oak Cliff and has made it his mission to improve southern Dallas County. "I make my money rebuilding old properties," he says. The Texas Theatre and the restored Bishop Arts firehouse, now Gloria's restaurant, were his projects.
He purchased the Belmont Hotel on St. Patrick's Day 2004, when it was a "fleabag," and he reopened it in 2005 as a trendy boutique hotel. He included a hotel bar with a patio furnished with reclaimed wood benches and tables. Anderson is a master of turning down-and-out spaces into desirable and profitable hangouts. He's working with another local landowner to create a mobile marketplace along the Fort Worth Avenue side of the trailer park less than a mile down the street from the Belmont. "We'll have an insurance office, snow-cone stand, shoe repair, just general services," he says. And these businesses will all be housed in trailers. "It's a portable space for small entrepreneurs," he says. "I'm obsessed with small, affordable, cool spaces."
His preferred method of development is to consider the culture of an existing neighborhood and fill in the voids with new businesses and improved neighborhood spaces or "figure out what the missing parts are." His ideal neighborhood is a mix of cultures and incomes. "Any time you build a neighborhood with cul-de-sacs and all the same income level lives there, you've failed," Anderson says. This is why he favors slowing gentrification in La Bajada. "I think we evolve as humans, and it allows us to evolve and not just throw us out of our house overnight...So, if the overlay helps that process, I would be in favor of it," Anderson says. He hasn't given the possible outcomes of an NSO enough thought to wholeheartedly stand behind it, but he would like to see the neighborhood preserved, even down to the style of "old cottage" homes.
"It's really about creating walkable, sustainable—when I say 'sustainable,' that doesn't only mean environmentally sustainable, but economically sustainable. I'm interested in the evolution of land, of what it can be today," Anderson says. He identifies himself as a "hardcore New Urbanist" who's worked within these basic tenets since before he even heard the phrase. New Urbanism centers on creating walkable, mixed-use communities with integrated commercial and retail locations. "We're all made for something, and I was made for this," Anderson says. Not surprisingly, Beasley, who worked with the CityDesign Studio, is known around the world as a leader of New Urbanism.
Though neither Beasley nor Brown describes the CityDesign Studio plan as a model of "new urbanism," it aligns with many of the movement's principles. "We want to make sure that it's a net benefit in character and quality for Dallas itself...We want to make sure those existing communities, that we respect and honor them," Beasley says.
This community-focused change in attitude toward development is taking shape all over the world, says Beasley, a consultant for the Abu Dhabi government, and it's not simply a matter of beautification through design. A well-planned urban structure that takes into account existing culture and blends people with varying incomes has larger implications. "In taking this approach, it makes the city an economic competitor, and it provides a more balanced social and economic structure," Beasley says. "I'm now seeing that cities who pay attention to design are finding that economic opportunities are opening up to them."
The entire plan, including the protection of La Bajada, didn't come about by a happy accident. Everything that's about to happen in the area is both purposeful and organic in that it's dictated by economic conditions and the needs of the area. "Dallas is going to be different because of that CityDesign Studio," Beasley says.
Still, West Dallas' final shape hinges on the plans of large landholders like McGregor and Anderson. "This is a comic book, according to Larry Beasley," McGregor says, echoing Whitley's description of the plan's built-in flexibility. Whether McGregor sees the CityDesign Studio as a serious governor of urban planning or as an insignificant little project is hard to tell.
"What do you want me to say?" he says. "Larry Beasley said it was a comic book, so what do you want me to say? He's the one that put it together. In my mind, he said, well, it's a comic book. It can be changed. It doesn't mean anything, but it does," he says, making his stance a bit unclear but adding, "I think there are some really good ideas that came out of it."
Asked to clarify what he meant by "comic," Beasley says, "Actually, I have on numerous occasions called the drawing a 'cartoon' because it reflects only one unfolding of development events over time, whereas there are many possibilities of what comes first, second, et cetera. The sense of a cartoon is that the plan is inherently flexible. It has a set of principles and a policy statement with clear guidelines, all of which are very serious and are expected to be 100 percent achieved, but then it can unfold in many ways according to the nature of private initiatives. So the actual overall sketch plan drawing is just one version of what might happen."
West Dallas residents wonder where this is all going. "I don't have any idea," McGregor says. "Only time will tell." Well, time together with market conditions, he adds.
The only certainties are that the area has a carefully developed plan, an iconic bridge on its way to completion and a collection of land purchased by developers who intend to use it to its potential, whatever that may be. Elvove, of the La Bajada neighborhood association, has a "Not 4 Sale, Support NSO" sign on her fence and looks forward to the new development in her neighborhood. "Why not stay here and make this the best neighborhood?" she says, encouraging her neighbors to fix up their homes to transform the area from the inside out. "It's going to be fabulous...It's going to be fantastic, everything that's south of Singleton," she says. But even so, she hopes the character of the place will remain solid. "We are a humble neighborhood."
With that, she calls the white-arched bridge "an embarrassment."
"I mean what's here, give me a break," she says, pointing out the irony of the city building a fancy bridge before it had any notion of where exactly the bridge would lead or who might cross it. "What are they doing putting the cart before the horse?"
Randall White, a board member of the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce, sees her point from another vantage. "When that neighbor says it seems reversed, I understand that. It's basically like building a door into a room when you're not quite sure what the room's going to be like. But the plan for the room is in place. And you helped develop the plan. That doesn't often happen in Dallas development."
In the meantime, Losada is doing his best not to get caught up in the vague competing forces in his neighborhood, and he does his best to protect it from meeting the fate of its name, which loosely translates to "the descent."
"You can understand what this neighborhood means to me," Losada says. "Where would I find another home where I would be so comfortable?" As Losada continues advocating the NSO, the bridge's completion has again been delayed until later than November 2011; West Dallas property is being bought cheaply and at a fast clip, and to the naked eye, the area in the bridge's shadow appears mostly unchanged.
But it's clearly poised for something big, however that something takes shape.
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