Dallas' Fork in the Road: One Way Leads to the Future, the Other to Plano

All these years later, this still cracks us up.
All these years later, this still cracks us up.
City of Dallas

Every once in a while, somebody repeats some random anecdote to me, and it all comes together — all this Trinity River toll road, HUD segregation complaint, DISD school reform stuff that I pay attention to. After all, it's the same ball of wax — life in the city.

This is the anecdote I heard the other day: young couple with young kids, with a starter home in the inner city, love city life, work downtown, last thing they ever wanted was to be car commuters like their parents. But the schools in their area really suck. Really. Suck.

So they looked at Richardson, closest suburb with good schools. But, yeah, so did everybody else with young kids, with the result that small, fairly crapped-out houses cost unbelievable amounts of money there. So they're moving farther out to Plano — bigger house for less, great schools.

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Email the author at jim.schutze@dallasobserver.com.

Oh, but they'll commute to work downtown on the train, right, like in Mad Men? Well, DART, the nation's longest, dumbest and slowest trolley system, is eight miles from their new home and far slower than driving. So they're going to wind up in their cars, commuting like their parents.

It's built in.

Last week I covered a thing put on by the American Institute of Architects Dallas chapter called "Choices for a 21st Century Dallas," where a number of renowned planners and urbanologists said Dallas is right now at a huge crossroads. The city can do one of two things. It can keep crashing on along the same path it has been on since 1950, basically making it harder and harder to live inside the city and easier to move out, or it can turn 180 degrees, make living in the core easier while at the same time either dis-incentivizing or at least no longer actively incentivizing the suburban trend of the last seven decades.

"Easier said than done," was my own thought, which I kept to myself out there in the peanut gallery at the Latino Cultural Center. Somewhat to myself, anyhow. There may have been a few Tourette-like outbursts. I did blurt something after they showed a map of areas in the city with the longest commute times and another map of where the most jobs are.

Surprise, surprise, the areas with the longest commute times are in the city's minority neighborhoods to the south, and the areas with the most jobs are in the majority white areas in the north. But they didn't mention the white/minority thing, just the commute times and the jobs, as if this were all a race-neutral problem of transportation infrastructure.

So, yes, Tourette syndrome did cause my hand to fly up on its own, and I did blurt, "That's the face of racial segregation, is it not? I wonder if any of you have thoughts about how transportation decisions can be used to incentivize residential desegregation."

I wound up in a brief little back-and-forth with Jeffrey Tumlin, a planner with an international consulting firm called Nelson/Nygaard involved in city planning all over the world. Tumlin suggested the answer to segregation is less in moving people around than in improving things where people already are and giving them more choices.

He said it's about "facilitating the creation of jobs closer to where you live ... small manufacturing and service jobs in new neighborhood centers that are underserved, investing in sidewalks, in street trees, in utility under-grounding, in storm drain improvements, Internet access.

"These are the small things that collectively add up to great economic opportunity, some of them focusing not just on infrastructure but on the social equation as well, on job training, on entrepreneurialism training, on all of the social things that create social cohesion within a neighborhood."

I said, "I don't mean to argue [a lie], but don't those things keep people where they are? How do you get them to move from south to north?"

"Why would we want to do that?" Tumlin asked. "It [south] is a great neighborhood."

"Because the city's segregated racially," I said.

"Segregation in and of itself I would argue is not necessarily a big problem," he said. "It's our instinct. It's our DNA. The problem is not necessarily segregation itself. It's the lack of opportunity that is correlated with certain socioeconomic groups."

I was aghast. Here I am in the audience, an old dude from the '60s. Here's this sharp-looking young guy in a hipster suit who's been out helping to design Abu Dhabi and shit. He's telling me something about how segregation is OK. I keep looking up there expecting to see Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus standing in the schoolhouse door in Little Rock in 1959, but instead I see this young smart guy. It was very cognitively dissonant.

I hunted him down afterward in the coffee area and we had a more normal, less Tourettey chat. Of course he's not a racist or a segregationist or any of that. His main mantra, in fact, is that truly forward-looking cities will market themselves to people of color, women and young people, who will be the major urban market of the near future.

 

He said he thought legal desegregation was enormously important to break down the barriers of Jim Crow. But once those barriers were down, he said he doesn't see a whole lot of virtue or promise in other government programs designed to push large numbers of people around on the checkerboard not of their own volition. The goal, he said, must be opportunity and individual choice, not mass relocation.

I sat by myself and nursed a lukewarm coffee. "Mass relocation," I thought. "Not a good history." Gotta think about that one.

The really big event for me, however, was an appearance by Harvard professor Alex Krieger, who in 2003 helped author something here called the "Balanced Vision Plan" for the Trinity River. His speech had been billed in advance as an apology for having helped create the Frankenstein that has become the planned but as yet unbuilt Trinity River toll road.

He and I had spoken when he was here in 2003. Then in 2007 just before the Trinity River toll road referendum, he accused me of twisting his words. I didn't want to get back into that with him, because everybody does that. I swear my dog, Dorothy, has a certain cock-headed ears-back look that means, "You twist my words, sir." I always say to her, "What words, you dog?"

I listened closely last Friday to Krieger's words. I do not believe I heard him apologize for having helped design a road in the Trinity River bottom on the bottom of the bathtub between the levees. Instead I thought I heard him express regret that this road has turned into exactly the opposite of what he intended.

Instead of a "context-sensitive" element designed to make living in the core of the city more attractive and expedient, he said it has become something that, if built, will be, "detrimental to the Trinity corridor and probably would not serve traffic particularly well long-term in Dallas."

And that's because it's now designed to be a vast, roaring, rumbling, smoke-spewing truck bypass right through downtown and jammed almost on top of the river where it will cut off and probably kill the wonderful urban park citizens voted for and thought they were getting in 1998 when this whole business was authorized at the polls.

I tracked Krieger down, too, and asked him what's the difference? What makes one city go for a dirty truck route through downtown on the bottom of the bathtub, and another one goes for bicycle paths and dog parks instead?

Some of it, he said, is sheer leadership. He cited elected leaders around the world who have simply put their feet down and fought against highways. But more of it, he seemed to suggest, is people. Krieger cited numbers indicating that the couple in my anecdote, the ones moving to Plano, are a smaller and smaller slice of the demographic pie, now down to 20 percent of all households. Way more people now are childless, unmarried or living alone.

"When that household for which the American dream was designed and supported with policy becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of households," he said, "other things come into play.

"This is why lots of people are moving back into town. People just want something else."

I sipped coffee by myself over that one, too, because it made me think of Angela Hunt, the former City Council member who at a very young age and in her first term as an elected official, brought about the almost successful 2007 referendum to whip the toll road back into its cage. Her opponents, the proponents of the truck route in the tub, have always painted her in an entirely negative light, as the person who tried to get in the way of their road.

I see her in a very positive light, as a person with a wonderful vision for the Dallas of the future. It just happens to be a vision that does not have a big honking half-flooded truck route slicing through its heart.

All the speakers at the AIA thing talked about this moment as enormously decisive and determinant in shaping the future of Dallas, but I noticed they all did it in a very non-confrontational tone, as if maybe a touch of modesty and openness to the opinions of others would be of benefit to people on all sides of all the issues.

Ah, yes. I can see that. Now, please excuse me while I go home and shoot myself.


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