Repent, Dallas, Downtown Heaven Could Be Yours With the Right Subway

This game is called Fantasy Downtown: The Dallas Daydream. Imagine first that you live in a really nice downtown apartment, and the rent is substantially below going rates today. Up and down the block from your building's front door are grocery stores, drug stores, housewares shops, coffee shops, small restaurants, dog parks, all that stuff.

Plus, the sidewalks are jumping pretty much 24/7, all kinds of people out there rubbing elbows day and night. Not only do you feel safe and secure walking around, it's kind of fun to be out and about.

A short walk from your building are churches, synagogues and mosques. And good bars and a strip club or two. Take your pick. You are also close to great private schools and a choice of super-charged, enormously improved public schools.

Two and a half blocks from your door is the entrance to a system of weather-proof escalators, cool and dry in the summer, warm and dry in winter, lighted, patrolled, under control at all times. You ride three escalators — one down, one back up, one back down, to arrive in a mega-mall where you find all the shops, the big box stores, movie theaters and restaurants you would find in the best suburban shopping mall.

But this is my favorite part of Fantasy Downtown. I got this part several years ago from former City Council member Angela Hunt. It's a little late on Saturday morning. You are rested and recovered from whatever — too much time in church, probably.

Go pick your bicycle off its hooks in the foyer. Take it down the elevator and out the front door. Stick it in the street.

And drift. Drift down the length of downtown through the hubbub and the jibber-jabber, down past the Old Red Courthouse, now you've got to downshift and pedal, get up over the big earthen levee separating downtown from the floodway of the Trinity River, and there you go, up and over. Now you're flying down the other side and out onto a paved trail along the river with hours of biking ahead, if you want them, through open field and forest, as if there weren't a city within 100 miles of you.

The key to making all this work is a rail system that's cheap to use, very easy to get to, fast-moving, safe and secure, capable of carrying you out to the four corners of the city. And that's what those escalators are all about. The thing that makes Fantasy Downtown work is a subway line down Elm Street.

But what have I forgotten in the meantime abut Fantasy Downtown? Oh, yeah. Your cars. You and the person with whom you share your apartment used to have two cars with two gasoline bills, two insurance bills, two sets of maintenance bills. Now you have either no cars and no car bills at all or one car with half the bills.

That life, that vision, that Fantasy Downtown is right in front of us, a thing that we can make happen. But it involves some important choices that are on the table right now.

Do we take whatever disposable or discretionary resources we think we have as a city and put them toward that vision of a new transit-based community downtown, or do we spend that money on an expressway to help suburbanites get in and out of an entertainment and convention district in the southwest corner of downtown?

The person who understands the role of the subway better than anybody else I know is John Tatum, a real estate developer who was way ahead of the curve in the West End in the 1980s, then again in Deep Ellum in the '90s and more recently downtown. Tatum was a member of the founding board of directors of DART in 1982 and has immersed himself in urban rail research ever since.

We may all have our own personal impressions of what it would take to get us out of our cars and onto mass transit, either rail or bus, but Tatum is aware that these things have been reduced to a fine science by both academics and the administrators and decision-makers in the transit industry. All of the factors taken together are something that the science of transit calls "impedance," which is a measurement of every single factor that influences whether people choose transit over automobiles.

The reason to run the second downtown line down Elm Street between Pacific Avenue and Main Street is at least twofold, maybe more folds, but the first two are: 1) Reducing impedance by allowing more people to transfer between lines more quickly within a closed and controlled environment, and 2) Creating a three-block real estate development corridor the length of downtown where developers can build high-rise residential buildings with reduced parking capacity. Not having to build separate buildings for cars would significantly reduce rents, Tatum believes.

Putting the second line underground between Pacific and Main creates a safe zone from one end of downtown for transit users. "You're only an escalator ride away from the subway all along Pacific and Main streets," he said. "The coverage is that entire zone with the security, the lighting, the air conditioning, the shade from the sun.

"It all goes into the model. How frequent are the trains? How many transfers do you have to make on a given trip? All those things enter into this equation determining the probability whether or not a person rides transit. All that stuff is further embedded into that model, trying to normalize the coefficient for the behavior in your specific area."

Tatum said he has no doubt that coefficients for transit use vary also according to socioeconomic factors. "Poor people are going to use mass transit no matter what," he said. More affluent people not so much.

When I wrote about the subway alignment last week on Unfair Park, some commenters asked if Tatum's ideas had been rendered anywhere as concrete plans. They have, and I have included Scribd links below to a white paper and other detailed versions.

See also: Forget a Car-Free Week. A Better DART Is What Downtown Needs to Be Car-Free Forever.

The tragedy Tatum sees about to unfold downtown is that Dallas is about to make two decisions — the second downtown DART rail alignment and the Trinity River toll road — that will seriously cripple if not kill the chances for achieving Fantasy Downtown. A decision to build the toll road would waste a huge sum of money, $1 billion to $2 billion, that the city should spend on rail instead. With that kind of money to spend on itself, Dallas could achieve some all-important independence of suburban DART board members who have always fought any concentration of resources downtown.

But the alignment decision he fears is ahead instead, City Hall's so-called preferred local option, is a meandering surface-rail line that will lie far from walking connections with the existing downtown alignment on Pacific Avenue and will not be in a protected, secure zone. It's an alignment, in fact, that ignores all of the state of the art knowledge about impedance.

Worse, the alignment City Hall seems to prefer squanders this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a car-free or reduced-car residential and shopping zone the length of downtown on Pacific, Elm and Main. We would sacrifice this opportunity to service instead a so-called transit and entertainment zone in the southwest corner of downtown.

The southwest corner entertainment center is an idea based on attracting large event crowds of rubber-tired suburbanites — a mid-20th century concept pushed by mid-20th century people. It would contribute nothing to the creation of a new transit-based community downtown.

It's not as if the jury is still out on Tatum's basic idea. Much of his thinking is based on hugely successful models already in existence elsewhere around the world — Eaton Centre shopping mall in downtown Toronto, for example. The agony for him is that people who study transit already know what works and what does not work.

They have, as we have already discussed, reduced "impedance" to a science. But Dallas plunges ahead without any reference to that science, tugged by the snout into two deals that will squander enormous public resources for the gain of a handful of landowners in a moribund corner of downtown.

His last point is the one I find most compelling. He begins with the question any heads-up developer ought to ask: What can I offer that will be attractive to a sufficiently large market of people that they can't get somewhere else at a better price? Put another way, what can downtown Dallas do that the suburbs can't?

That something is Fantasy Downtown. Fantasy Downtown, we all know, probably isn't everybody's fantasy and certainly isn't everybody's need. Lots of people will always want suburban-style single-family residences with yards and garages, and some people will want horse-farmettes farther out in the boonies, all for perfectly legitimate reasons.

But if you want Fantasy Downtown in this region, then only downtown Dallas can give it to you. "It's the one thing the suburbs can't compete with," Tatum told me. So why wouldn't making the fantasy come true be the city's first goal and sole strategy?

Tatum Proposal by Schutze

Will Dart Rail Come to Main Street by Schutze

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

Latest Stories