Lack of Trust Could Stunt "Grow South"

Lack of Trust Could Stunt "Grow South"
Daniel Fishel

"Grow South" is Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings' initiative to erase or at least soften the hard economic border dividing white North Dallas from black and Hispanic southern Dallas. When Rawlings ad libs about it from a chair out front of his desk in his City Hall office, he can reel off neighborhoods and what's going on in each of them, showing that he's been there and he knows where all the chess pieces are on the board. It's not possible to hear him talk about it and doubt his sincerity or commitment.

But what a bitch. Bitter memory and a hundred miles of bad road stand in the way of trust. Don't forget. In the 1950s, within the living memory of the city, an alliance of white church groups hired criminals to set off bombs in the homes of middle-class black families amid ample evidence that the Dallas Police Department was assisting the bombers. People remember that shit.

So trust is hard for us, but trust is also the only gate. If we can't go through that gate, we can't go. Oh, well. You know what they say. If this were easy, Canadians could do it.

Which brings us to Larry Beasley. Beasley is the retired director of planning for the city of Vancouver. He is now distinguished practice professor of planning at the University of British Columbia and founding principal of Beasley and Associates, an international planning consulting company. And guess what? He's here in Dallas a lot. In recent years, this charming, dapper, sort of European-seeming planning expert has become the darling of a certain set in Dallas — people with power and money who would like to do better.

Better than what? Well, look at North Dallas, look at the glitzy area around the toll road and Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway in far North Dallas anchored by the Galleria shopping center. Sure it's fancy and schmancy, but did you ever try to walk 10 feet outside the shopping center? It's auto-pedestrian whack-a-mole everywhere you go, and don't be the mole.

All that stuff went up in two blizzards of building — the early '80s drunk boom and the '90s crazy boom — out in the middle of a cow patch with about as much mind to comprehensive planning as you'd expect in a mass defection from the loony bin. Getting back in there now with sidewalks or, God forbid, a rail line would be almost out of the question.

So why not do better? Beasley's whole line is that dense urban development can take place in ways that make all the developers rich as Croesus but also leave behind a humane, livable and logistically manageable landscape. But to pull that off, he says, you have to think ahead a little bit.

I spoke to him again last week — it's always exciting, and I always have trouble keeping up — because his name was invoked in an especially bitter chapter of the whole Grow South deal. It's a chapter I have written about a lot recently involving the area around the new UNT-Dallas campus in southern Dallas. In the area just outside the campus, there is no sewer system.

Longtime major landholders in that area — one of them, Robert Pitre, owns more than 120 acres — accuse the city of deliberately withholding a promised and already funded sewer system in order to hold down land values and simultaneously keep them from developing their own land. They say the city wants to hold back their sewer system, even though the authorized date of construction has long since passed, so the city can deliver the goodies to somebody else who will come in first, before the sewer, and scoop up the land for cheap.

Guess what? The city admits it. It says they're right. Last week on our news blog I published a 2012 memo written by interim First Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans in which Evans quoted Beasley to justify deliberately tamping down development around the UNT-Dallas campus. Evans said the city should wait for "a lead developer with a large catalyst project" rather than do things that might encourage piecemeal projects.

"In difficult economic times [2012] it is tempting to rush to accept any and all development activity," he wrote. "Haste for short-term solutions will diminish the upside potential."

He quoted Beasley saying, "If entitlements get too far ahead of the market, it can actually arrest development by falsely inflating land values, driving up development costs and causing the end developer to seek future subsidies in order to fill the gap that the market cannot provide."

Hey, these are not bad points, some of them, at least in the abstract. That whole deal about rushing to accept all development activity, that's what I used to call City Hall's penchant for whoring after every bullshit development deal even if it screws the neighborhoods around it.

Two points on the other side of the coin: First, it's a sewer system. Can you think of any large areas of the city up in the white half of town that don't have sewers? Isn't withholding sewers sort of like withholding food — effective, maybe, but sick? And secondly, all that bad road behind us: It's not like City Hall comes into this picture with clean hands. How could black people in southern Dallas avoid putting the very worst interpretation on an action to keep them from getting a sewer system?

But what about Beasley's point? What is he saying really? When I spoke to him last week, he stipulated that he has no knowledge of the actual process around UNT-Dallas, who's involved or what the city has or has not done, and could speak only of general principles. He said the problem, however, is that putting in major public infrastructure, like a sewer system, drives up land prices. If demand is not strong yet in an area and risk is therefore high, higher land prices will just make major development that much harder to do.

"Often the existing landowner is never going to be the developer," he said. "If you incentivize the existing landowner, often all that landowner does is up the value of their land and wait for someone to come along who's willing to pay for that, which may not happen for years if there is not a really strong profile of demand."

If the city waits, on the other hand, and agrees to put in the infrastructure only if some big-deal developer shows up with a really big deal, it can use the carrot of the infrastructure to coax somebody into an area that might be a tough sale otherwise.

"The public investment is a way to moderate risk for a developer who is actually going to put stakes in the ground and make change and build buildings and cause things to happen differently," he said.

Another way to look at it: The city has only so many arrows in its quiver. If it uses up the sewer arrow just to make the landowners happy, and if demand is still soft afterward, then in order to make anything happen it's going to have to give away something else, usually money. (My own side note: Dallas City Hall has a long history of enthusiasm for giving away money to developers in North Dallas.)

But, wait. Is Beasley saying we should screw the landowners around UNT? Tell them to kiss off? Tell them something is going to happen there, just not for them? No. He told me just the opposite, in fact. He said any city in this position would be "prudent" (his word) to bring all those landowners to the table and make sure they know they're going to be in on the deal and there at the table when the money gets divvied up.

"It would be a smart initiative," he said, "for the existing landowners who are worrying about this and have something to say about this and the city to get into a process to determine what the change is going to be, how it's going to happen, when it's going to happen. In other words, negotiate that, so that they can work collaboratively to make sure that the investment occurs when it needs to occur and also that they get some benefit out of that.

"I would argue that to say to that group of people, 'Well, we're just going to wait until some developer comes along,' is not as prudent as to say to that group of people, 'How do we facilitate you bringing that developer or that development interest to the table?"

OK, right there. Put your finger on that spot on the table. That's it. I told you a Canadian could do it. Beasley's point is exactly what we are missing in Dallas: the talking to, the eyeball-to-eyeball, the basic human respect, sure, but also real power-sharing. Instead of City Hall telling them who is going to develop their land, they tell City Hall who they want to develop their land.

Of course there must be negotiation beyond that point. But you don't just start out with an assumption that the landowners are mere obstacles to development, like trees to be bulldozed out of the way.

The people who own land there have an important stake and deserve respect. The way to show real respect with the existing landowners is to engage in real power sharing and real negotiations. Otherwise all we wind up with is 110 miles of bad road. Do we need the extra 10?

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