"What am I, the Flying Dutchman?" I'm sitting on this DART train wondering. Outside I see a flat rolling moonscape, crumbling cinder-block walls, ranks of dusty 18-wheelers, an endless procession of small tumble-down frame houses. The back yard of Dallas. Add some minarets, I could be in Fallujah.
And me, I'm looking for Toronto. Imagine how disappointed I must be.
I came out here last week and rode every single mile of light rail in the Dallas Area Rapid Transit System, looking for what they promised us when DART began operations 20 years ago. Toronto in the Southwest. That was the promise.
The whole dream was that DART would change the way we live by sucking people in from scattered huts on the prairie to live instead in glittering towers. Step off that evening train into a cool little gas-lit cobblestone village of shops, pick up dinner at the deli, say hi to your doorman, zoom-zoom up 14 stories on the elevator to your crib and gaze out over the endless prairie where the munchkins live. That was the dream.
I don't see it. Not here. What I see out these train windows is bleak, man. I am gazing at backs of U-Store-It warehouses. I see vast parking lots full of automobiles that belong to munchkins. Where am I, Dorothy?
Wait, wait, it's coming to me. Aha. I think I know where I am after all. I'm on the bus.
That's it. This vast rail system in which we have invested billions of tax dollars is just a big sprawling version of the bus. It has changed squat.
I don't see no Toronto. Do you? I just see buses on railroad tracks, plowing through exactly the same shotgun spray of low-rise cheap-ass development that was here before they launched the first choo-choo.
No, no, hold on, there I go leaping to conclusions again. Bear with me. Wait another minute. This has been a long journey. I'm stepping off the train at Mockingbird Station, and I'm riding up the escalator, and I'm standing on a mezzanine. And I think I see something.
I do. I see the Angelika theater. I see a cafe where I could get a latte. And I see the Mockingbird Station lofts, which would be a very cool place to live.
So I could step off the train here in the evening and stroll through a very happening neat little village of things going on, pick up some carry-out or walk the other direction to Kroger and get actual food, then ascend to my fashionable loft. I could be even cooler than I am now, if that were humanly possible.
Does anybody here really do that?
Ken Hughes, who developed and still operates the Mockingbird Station lofts, tells me lots of people do exactly that.
"I have 211 rental apartments in that project," he said from a cell phone somewhere on the planet. "It has a separate parking garage. If you go to the typical suburban garden apartment parking lot during the daytime, the lots will be substantially vacant.
"That is not true at Mockingbird Station. Our garage is 50 to 60 percent occupied at that time of the day. We know just from our own observation that our residents are using the train.
"We also have a way of metering it, because we get people coming in from out of town that want to rent apartments and go through our Web site. They specifically are looking for places on transit, because they may be coming from Philadelphia or Chicago, and they're used to having that."
So I was wrong. It's not that there is no Toronto there. In fact, I should be looking at Mockingbird Station as a little tiny babykins Toronto, a seedling striving to stretch up out of hostile soil.
We do have a fledgling population of cosmopolites living the good life almost without cars. And as I keep traveling the rails for the better part of two days--where in the heck is the bar car, by the way?--I do discover other bits and pieces of cool here and there.
Downtown Plano, of all places: It's just on the verge of quite nice, with some neat "transit-oriented development" right at the station stop. Not high-rise, of course, but attractively urban all the same. Keep this up, and they'll have to change its name to Not-So-Plano.
Now, whoa up here, what is this business? I am not prepared for this at all. At the rail terminus in Garland, I don't see Toronto, but I do see an inviting civic center of theaters and other facilities. It's sort of barricaded by fences and parking lots, but if you squint your eyes just the right way and tilt your head, you can imagine an amusing destination of theater and dance and public events reachable by train.
It's not that there are no beginnings out there. The question is why the beginnings haven't begun more in the 20 years since DART launched operations. I talked with another developer who didn't want me to quote him by name, because he's afraid of getting in Dutch with DART. He says DART can be very regal and vindictive.
He said the question is why DART didn't develop Mockingbird Station to be even bigger and better--or any of its other developable station sites. Instead of surrounding its stations with huge surface parking lots to keep the hut people happy, why doesn't DART move the parking a block or two away and sell or lease the land right next to the stations for high-rise development?
I tried to get through to DART to discuss these issues and failed. There was some phone tag between us, and I'm not sure whom to blame for our ultimate failure to communicate--them or me. I wanted to ask about high-rise residential at DART stations.
But I went back to Hughes with that question. Instead of redeveloping existing mid-rise structures the way he did, why not also do major high-rise development where the DART parking lots are?
He said a couple of things. First of all, when he was pitching Mockingbird Station to money people in the mid-1990s, it was tough enough to do what he did. His basic vision of Dallas, he said, is "an East Coast city with a West Coast lifestyle," but that was not the first thing he wanted to say to the checkbook guys.
"We had to finance that deal based just more on its common market fundamentals: great corner, great neighborhood, good atmosphere, things which help any kind of development, whether it's transit-oriented or otherwise. But we sort of sold the financial end of the deal as, 'Oh, and by the way, there's this rail station.'"
So that makes sense. In the beginning there was light rail. But there wasn't enough light rail to talk about high-rise buildings full of people without cars. Pitch it that way in 1994, and the reaction would have been the fluttering whir of checkbooks snapping shut.
But this is 10 years later. Believe it or not, in 10 years a lot has changed. The Center for Transit Oriented Development in Oakland, California, published a report last September called "Hidden in Plain Sight," arguing that demand for Toronto-style living is going to grow dramatically in this country in the next decade, especially among people young and old who don't have kids. The Center is a joint venture of urban think tanks in Chicago and Berkeley.
Something I found especially intriguing in their study was a table showing that demand for transit-oriented housing will grow faster in Dallas than in any other city in America except Los Angeles--a projected increase of 364 percent from 2000 to 2025.
And there are major checkbook people now who see the same thing. Fannie Mae, the nation's largest supplier of mortgage money, is offering what are called "smart commute" mortgages: You can buy up to $30,000 more in house value if you live near transit and agree to limit the number of cars you own.
Guess what: Fannie Mae in Dallas told me the smart commute loans are available in Plano but not in Dallas, because Dallas doesn't have an agreement on it with Fannie Mae. Apparently Plano has been a bit more forward-looking about transit than Dallas.
Don't even get me started on that.
Hughes agreed with my unnamed guy that high-rise development right next to the stations makes more sense now than it did back in the day. He thinks it may happen.
"DART is now beginning to get the message," he said, "that the surface parking lots at Mockingbird Station that are close to the station are potential development sites. The parking can be placed a five-minute walk away, and it will not change their ridership from cars."
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I asked everybody I talked to about downtown Dallas. If we can have Toronto some day at Mockingbird and Central, in Not-So-Plano of all places, then why can't it happen downtown? Everybody said the same thing: Find a way to get 50,000 people to move into downtown. Then downtown can become whatever you want it to be.
One guy told me DART is half-built. He said it's like looking at a 12-year-old and saying, "Where's the world-class ballerina?" The answer is that she'll be here in about 10 years. I just worry that when Toronto finally arrives, it'll be in Plano and Garland.
It's the vision thing. Meanwhile I'm back on the rails, and my vision is blurring. Did you know the DART trains have to stop for red lights downtown? The pedestrians are moving faster than we are.
And the trains go "ding-ding." I hate that. It's embarrassing. Please, somebody make something bigger happen. Soon.