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"Leveraging Our Resources," or: If You Read One Council Briefing All Day, Make It This One

The Dallas skyline circa 1982, as depicted in this morning's economic development council briefing
The Dallas skyline circa 1982, as depicted in this morning's economic development council briefing

At the end of February, city and council officials explained Dallas's meager 0.8 percent population growth over the last decade thusly: "The third-largest city in Texas is simply built out." Which lead police chief-turned-mayoral candidate David Kunkle to wonder whether it wasn't time to re-brand Big D as the "'donut hole' of stagnant growth surrounded by prosperous cities."

At some point today, Karl Zavitkovsky, head of the Office of Economic Development, will attempt to offer the Dallas City Council some context surrounding those Census stats, as well as insist that low growth isn't necessarily a bad thing. As in: "There is no statistical association whatsoever between population growth and productivity growth," to quote Richard Florida's quote that appears in this morning's PowerPoint.

I spoke with Zavitkovsky late Monday about the reasoning behind the briefing, which is full of demographics maps, before-and-after pictures and stats ranging from education to income to population shifts. You'll be able to watch it here, of course; not sure when it'll happen -- it appears the gas-drilling task force debate has just been moved from the after-lunch session to this morning. But his sneak peek, in which he addresses everything from Dallas's inability to annex land to the need to address public education, follows.

What purpose do you hope this presentation serves?

When something like a Census report comes out, you want to put that in context. The Census report is just a snapshot at a point in time, like a corporate balance sheet is year-end picture. With us, you had a relatively small number in terms of population increase but a lot of movement inside the city relative to a lot of different groups. And there was a lot of relative activity between the different cities in the region. The whole idea was, let's look at this in context. Let's look at how far the city's come in the last 25, 30 years; let's look at the type of policies we've put in place. The fact is, we know we don't have an ability to annex land. Most of the growth that's taken place in the U.S. over the last 50, 60 years has come from annexation and sprawl, and we recognized long ago that couldn't really happen here, which is why we put Forward Dallas! in place and supported DART in terms of expansion effort.

The inability to annex land doesn't mean you'll have huge population growth, so you have to leverage the resources you have most effectively. We need to leverage our downtown and find ways to be able to stabilize neighborhoods and leverage our public transportation. That's a very long-term term process, and redevelopment is often more costly and time-consuming than new development. We wanted to make sure you can't really compare growth in an older center city with the outlying suburbs, and you also begin to see -- what you really see -- is a much closer identification with the outer-ring suburbs and the city center. If you look at Plano and Richardson and Garland, in terms of education and income stats, they're dealing with a lack of ability to grow physically also. And you're also having to make sure you're willing to provide basic services and destinations for people to go and places where people want to be.

The 800-pound gorilla in all this is the public education system, and that's something we have to come to grips with as a city and as a region. We at the city don't have direct control over that, but there are certainly ways where we can collaborate with other institutions, whether it's charters or DISD or some of the education institutes.

When The Times story came out at the end of February, Kunkle seized upon it, wondering if Dallas wasn't becoming the doughnut hole of stagnation surrounded by other areas doing far better than the city center. How much of this briefing is intended to counter the sentiment behind that statement?

Let's set the facts straight before we begin to distort them. That's what we're trying to do here: lay out some of the facts and the context of what's taken place over the last 30 years and lay out the fact it's important to plan and to tie your development strategy and planning strategy together and look for serious partners in the whole execution phase. The idea is to tell the council, "Look, guys, here are some real opportunities going forward, many of which we've launched." Some are further along than others, but take West Dallas: You have a planning structure in place. There are a lot of initiatives along the transit lines. There's a lot of this that's in place, and you have to think along a longer longer time horizon.

For me, I think you only have so much you can say in a soundbite. I don't think there was any intention to deal with any of the programs that the various candidates have mentioned. But it doesn't make any sense to compare smalll cities in the region with a large city. It isn't a reasonable comparison.

The other point there is most of the cities that have grown in population have done so because they can annex additional land. And then there are Chicago and Pittsburgh, which have been thought of as successful urban re-developers, and they actually lost population. Yet even with that loss -- in Chicago's case, at least -- its wealth indicators went up. There are a lot of complicated measures, and you can play with those numbers a lot. But the fact is, we're in the midst of a lartge redevelopment initiative, which means redeveloping old buildings, replacing infrastructure, taking on things like the Bishop Arts area, where you're trying to build on a very organic growth and maintain the character of that neighborhood. And then there's West Dallas, were you're asking: How do we leverage off this public-works project -- the Trinity -- and do so in the context of the existing neighborhoods.

And you can feel pretty good about a lot of things that have happened downtown, even though we're a ways away. We had nobody living downtown in the mid-'90s, so a lot of things have happened to change that. But all this time takes a lot of time, so if you take your eyes off the ball or you allow yourself to get too distracted, you forget what's really important and what kind of urban identity you want to have a decade or so from now.

How do you interpret and reconcile the stats contained within the presentation -- like, say, "Per capita income grew faster in Dallas than in the region and faster than in most of the largest DFW cities" and "Median household income grew slower in Dallas compared to per capita income"?

What that says to you is you have some potentially inequitable income distribution. In your center city you don't have a lot of families coming into that area. You have young professionals, empty-nesters. You have a whole different dynamic, so your income levels come up;. Something not in that briefing is you have 18,000 African-American students who departed the DISD from 2000 to 2010, and that might say to you, as there's upward mobility it might be moving to a suburb where there's perceived to be a higher quality public education. That's a valid point, which reinforces the fact that at the top of everybody radar's screen ought to be the education issue and not who's fault it is but how we can start dealing with it in the context of who can do what and how can you make some inroads. But there's no question in terms of the immigration, it's largely Hispanic, and the income levels and perhaps the education levels are lower in terms of the input, so you need to develop a social infrastructure to be able to integrate that and a school system that can be able to take that input and be more successful in terms of the outcome.

The real point here was: Look, we've got real choices to make as we go forward -- not only with our budget but also our next bond program. And we need to figure out how to take the resources we have and get the most bang for our buck and where should we be putting them.


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