Forward Dallas! Or Stuck Dallas?

Should Forward Dallas! pass, the city of the future could look a lot like the city of the past. But in a good way, right?

Wednesday ought to be one hell of a day at City Hall: Not only is the city council scheduled to vote on Forward Dallas!, the comprehensive zoning plan that the Plan Commission substantially tinkered with last week, but Mayor Laura has also added Wright Amendment talk to the agenda. The council's supposed to give its thumbs-up to an agreement the mayor and her Fort Worth counterpart hashed out over the weekend--something about closing gates at Love Field and slowly lifting Wright restrictions over nine years or three Calatrava bridges, whichever comes first.

Of course, there's always the chance Wright talk gets tabled after Mayor Laura's noon press conference at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Grand Hyatt Hotel, but the Forward Dallas! thing's going forward. I talked to John Fregonese yesterday, the man who came up with the plan in the first place (for about $1.2 mil of yer hard-earned), and he says he wouldn't miss Wednesday for the world. "I will be there to act as a resource, to answer questions anyone might have," he said from his car, on the way to his daughter's graduation from elementary school up in Portland, Oregon. "This will be a debate down to the last dollar, and everybody who worked on the plan wants everybody there to answer the questions and to bring the birthing along. And it is like a birthing, because there will be a lot of wailing at the last minute."

That's putting it lightly: Last week, the city Plan Commission approved Forward Dallas!, but only after council members begged the commission to get off its ass and stop stalling; months and months of meetings and meetings could have pushed back its approval till after the council's summer vacation. Now, if I could make heads or tails of the details of the plan--which reads like an amalgam of the 1987 City of Dallas Growth Policy Plan, the 1989 Downtown Dallas: 2010 master plan, the 1994 Dallas Plan and assorted other plans that cost all-for-nothing fortunes and wound up planted in a downtown desk drawer--I could tell you whether the commission screwed it up or got it right. But not even Jim Schutze can decipher the thing; he says as much in tomorrow's paper, because he shares like that. But this much is certain: Forward Dallas! treats Dallas as a giant interconnected neighborhood--a living organism not broken down into "Junius Heights" and "Deep Ellum" and "Northwest Dallas," but a single cell. And what's good for one part of town's good for the entire city. Simple as that, innit, Mr. Fregonese?

"We're thinking about the city as a whole," Fregonese says. "During our workshops these past months, we have discovered that people are skilled in Dallas--they know what they need, they care. But there's kind of a missing picture there, and this is the first effort to fix it. What makes Dallas a city? What are the parts, and how do they work together? And that will evolve. When I looked at the [Plan Commission's] edits I thought, 'These are pretty good, this makes it more precise, this took out some things that were unintended and unwanted.' This recognizes the [good parts of Dallas] and gets them working together. It increases the linkages."

Suffice it to say one of the most controversial changes the Plan Commission made deals with so-called transportation corridors, which essentially allow for the building of multi-family housing and retail and office centers along some of Dallas' most used throughfares. See, Fregonese loves row houses; says people don't actually want backyards; insists the suburbs are a bad thing; wants to fill this town with multi-family units. He says you must cater to the person who rents and doesn't own; he says you need more apartments than houses. He envisions Dallas as one giant neighborhood--like New York City, if it all looked like the West Village. Problem is, of course, Dallas isn't Manhattan or Portland or any other city with which Fregonese and his firm have worked, and there are some serious concerns with Forward Dallas! as it moves forward--like the fact it dictates to the neighborhoods how to zone their own neighborhoods, since, apparently and for the first time in Dallas' history, city government knows best. The Plan Commission sought to change that in its amendments to Forward Dallas! It also wants to get going on trouble spots, chief among them the Trinity River Corridor and South Dallas, while leaving most of the city alone; it's saying, let's fix what's broken before we start screwing with the parts of town that need tuning up and freshening up. There are also significant issues with everything from the width of the sidewalks to the size of the transporation corridors, the latter of which Jim deals with tomorrow.

Now, even some on the council have a problem with the city staff's version of Forward Dallas!, which ignored the Plan Commission's changes; you can read Angela Hunt's blog about this, which includes this just-posted item concerning this morning's meeting of the five-member Council Comprehensive Plan Committee--which Hunt calls "a sham." Why? Blame the city staff.

"Staff explained very generally why the most significant changes the Plan Commission recommended were bad. Staff explained that transit corridors are terrific (even though there are no plans for mass transit service to them); that the map is perfect as it is (even though it doesn't focus on specific areas of change and protect our neighborhoods as stable); and that a bottom-up, community-focused planning process is wrong --we need staff telling us how our communities should be.

Despite the fact that the City Council hasn't even held a SINGLE public hearing yet; despite the fact that 13 of 15 CPC members support all the changes; despite the fact that the COMMITTEE DIDN'T EVEN DISCUSS THE MAJORITY OF THE CPC'S PLAN; Mr. Oakley nonetheless moved to approve the minor changes proposed by the CPC, but not the major ones I mention above. The Committee approved it on a vote of 4-1; I voted 'no.'"

Even Fregonese has no issues with the Plan Commission's changes; says he likes most of what they had to offer. But, of course, he would take issue with Hunt's description that this isn't a community-focused plan. Says the man with the plan: "As fractious as the debate's been, it made the plan better. The last six months have made this much more of a Dallas plan, and whatever the results over the next few days, people ought to calm down after it's adopted and work together. Any time you have a heated debate like this at the end you can have hard feelings, but when the dust clears it will be good for everyone... [Forward Dallas!] has been made into an issue of the people's plans versus the big, bad bureaucracy, but that's not the tradeoff. When neighborhoods make plans, they can't be insulated. They can't wall themselves off from the rest of the city." (Tell that to Don Henley.)

Whether or not the council passes this tomorrow, the discussion about Forward Dallas! is set for 1:30 p.m. at City Hall; really, feel free to sign up for a speaking slot. I wouldn't miss it; the phrase "live blogging" comes to mind. But keep this in your head as it hits the pillow tonight: Even if Forward Dallas! does get the go-ahead, so too did dozens of other plans that have long since been forgotten. That's just the way Dallas moves forward. --Robert Wilonsky


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