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The Man With the Latest Downtown Plan Says We're "A City of Districts" In Need of "Unity"

Daniel Iacofano -- the "I" in MIG, Inc., which the city hired to develop the latest downtown master plan -- was at the Dallas Convention Center a couple of weeks ago collecting wish-list items from stakeholders and civilians; more than a few Friends of Unfair Park have offered suggestions since then, for which he's grateful. But, of course, there's much to be done: Downtown Dallas 360, which joins Dallas Central Business District and Visions for Dallas and Dallas Downtown Plan and myriad other studies and suggestions done since the early 1960s, won't be turned in till June 2010. And until that due date, Iacofano and his team of urban planners, architects and economists will be in and out of town meeting with downtowners; their next visit is in a matter of days, matter of fact.

Iacofano spoke with Unfair Park a few days ago to discuss the plan's progress -- and, more to the point, what he's learned about the city during his travels to and fro in recent weeks, and how that intel gathering will impact the plan he'll present to City Hall next summer. And so a Q&A with Iacofano follows. Jump for it, but mind you don't knock over the stack of binders.

First question is: To whom do you report? Because I've heard varying reports -- it's either Economic Development or Development Services. When I asked officials with both recently, even they didn't seem to know for sure.

Development Services. Theresa O'Donnell is in charge with Peer Chacko, who is our immediate.

The Man With the Latest Downtown Plan Says We're "A City of Districts" In Need of "Unity"
Patrick Michels

So, then, you were here recently for the big meet-and-greet at the Convention Center. How's your fact-finding going so far?

I think it's going extremely well. We have been very excited to learn about Dallas and how much progress it's made as a downtown over the last 10, 20 years. That is very evident as you look at new venues in the Arts District. It's evident in the various entertainment districts, in new offices. New housing has come in. Uptown is obviously doing well. We're very positive about what we're seeing and hearing from the community. We have talked to property owners, city officials including, the mayor and the council, city staff, developers, residents of downtown and business owners operating inside and outside the loop. All of that is part of our process of understanding what the issues and needs and challenges are, and also to gain a sense of some of the top priorities for downtown revitalization. We bring a lot of experience, having worked in other cities across the U.S., but those experiences and projects and ideas have to be meshed and melded into the stakeholders and the property owners' desires.

Let's begin, then, with the issues you mentioned. They are ...?

First of all, you have areas within the loop that are not fully utilized, as we would say in the planning profession. A lot of land is vacant. It might be a parking lot of low quality or a low story building not befitting of an urban center like Dallas and not contributing the kind of energy and vitality needed from every block. That's a huge challenge. And the land is potentially valuable because of its proximity to the financial core of the city. That's where people want to see growth, and that's where the highest-value real estate is. So how can we incentivize the development community to make investments there? That's one big challenge.

And another is clearly in the retail area. We're lucky to have the Neimans flagship downtown, and they're keen to see us take downtown to the next level. The Main Street Garden will be a huge improvement. That's a great project. But you look at the Main Street retail and, in general, the other areas, and they're not at the level you'd like them to be if you compare them to Chicago and New York. But other cities, not unlike Dallas, have lost that retail concentration. It's not an unusual problem, but it's a difficult one.

The Man With the Latest Downtown Plan Says We're "A City of Districts" In Need of "Unity"

When people talk about downtown, streetcars come up quite a ...

Cities like Portland, for one, have done very well with streetcars, because it's essentially a lower cost and a less disruptive means of transportation. You can make it fit into a space light rail can't access, so it has flexibility and a relatively lower cost. I would say that Dallas can be more pedestrian and walkable with the added feature of a streetcar, which can only be good for retail. People use that as a boost. They maneuver better. You get hot weather, but a lot of cities make that work. It's not a deterrent.

How does that dovetail with the city's interest in the Complete Streets initiative?

That's a very good topic. We're very much in sync with that. We featured that in our Convention Center session. That's because so many of the city initiatives are pointed in that direction. We think that's precisely where we need to be. Going back, in the last 50, 60 years of urban development you see the auto taking hold and the infrastructure. Cities were built to develop that, and we did in an extensive way -- in fact, it took over the place. And now we see the effect that has: It divides cities. It can be an impediment to further development. So how do we humanize that?

Complete Streets is geared to that: looking at the right of way and how we allocate that space. We can achieve some of that urban mobility by increasing walkability and by bringing in new design ideas. How much space does the automobile need? The bicyclist? The pedestrian? These will all be incorporated into our plan.

Let's get back to retail for a moment. Because, fact is, even if people come to downtown Dallas and stay at the Joule, say, sure, they can go to the Main Street Garden come November or find a place to eat. But where's the retail -- the bookstore, the music store, a clothing store not named Neiman Marcus ... ?

That's exactly what we heard and are hearing. I believe people know what they want, and we should listen to that. They may not know from an urban design standpoint how to achieve their end goal, but they know what they're looking for from an urban experience, which is where it's a partnership to get from Point A to B to C to Z. We talk about creating a greater focus on the total downtown potential. DART has spent billions -- with more to come with the D2 line -- and people say, "I want a return on the investment, not just help get from Point A to Point B." It has to act as a spark plug for revitalization.

The Brooking Institution shows Dallas has seen an uptick in the surrounding property as a result of increased mobility light rail has brought. But if you compare Dallas to other cities, we have more potential, and that's what we're trying to focus on: How we can add value and make property owners even more successful? Their success translates into a more vibrant city if it's designed well. As to whether that will be the proper use in the end, the mayor and the city council will weigh in, but it'll be a point of emphasis from what I can see already. I think people also saw how other cities have leveraged their transit investment. Right now, we're talking about the city center, the Central Business District. But I've heard that at some of your meetings with city officials, some people keep steering the development toward the Trinity River.

The Trinity is its own unique thing. It's also very bold vision and a very intriguing project with great promise. It's a potential signature element for the city to have access to a recreational and cultural area of that magnitude. We see that as very much one of the features we'd like to use to help attract residential development into the center city. For residential to be successful you want access to the outdoors. You want recreational opportunity. People are very much into the outdoor active lifestyle, and downtowns are following a trend in that regard, and those that can provide the outdoor recreational element have an advantage for residential development.

In general we are always looking for a way to make our downtown development as intense as possible because of the value for the property owner, but also because of the life and vibrancy you get from it. That's more of a general rule. We're not concerned about high-rise buildings. It's what the building is at street level. Is it an active frontage? Does it engage people? Does it invite people to enter the building and contribute something to street life? It doesn't have to be retail -- just something inviting, catching. We are, after all, a visual people.

The Man With the Latest Downtown Plan Says We're "A City of Districts" In Need of "Unity"

So, then, on the subject of buildings in need of an active frontage: Where does the Statler Hilton come into your research so far?

I don't know yet. It's an interesting building, and the shape of it frames the Main Street Garden well. From what I've learned about it, the trick will be repurposing that building given its structural and code issues so it can once again be a contributing building to the life of downtown. And that will take some work.

Have you spoken with the owners yet?

Not yet. But our partners and colleagues at DowntownDallas are very involved in that discussion. We're plugged in.

So, in talking with downtown owners and downtown users, for lack of a better word, do you find their visions are aligned?

That's exactly the case. Any time you have a prominent address, it's at the location people want to be at, whether it's for retail, living, recreating, office, whatever. All of these addresses downtown have a certain prestige associated with them, and demand affects value. Developers see that. You know, sometimes I see this discussion framed as people versus development, and it doesn't need to be the case going forward. Our interest is common in terms of: What do you want at the end? The issue is helping people achieve that. What are the tools needed to get this done so everyone profits and raises all boats? That's where we need to be; implementation is the key.

We have to have real tools and action strategies to make this work, and given the financial conditions of every city, Dallas is not unique in the respect. We have to be savvy about where we spend the public resources. We want something back and we'll have to partner with the private sector, so it'll require practical thinking and solutions.

Speaking of public-private partnerships, the city's putting quite an investment, in terms of tax abatements and other incentives, into getting stagnant projects off the ground -- like, say, Forest City's Continental Building. When you're putting together this plan, do you take into account the kind of public dollars needed for downtown revitalization?

We have an economist on our team. We have people who do understand what it takes to put a deal together, what are reasonable expectations for public investment to make something happen. You need that advice. So in the end, the public can say, "We invested Z, and we expect Y in terms of increased value and increased quality." The public doesn't pay for these projects to make somebody better off financially. We're trying to create a financially healthier city. That type of argument is how we're going to express this. We're too early in this process to be able to say what those financial requirements are. We can look at other examples, other cities and bring that to bear to see if we can learn from their examples.

You must have come to Dallas with some kind of expectations. What were they, and how have they changed as you've gotten to know Dallas, at least from a certain distance?

One thing I would say right off is: This idea of the city of districts is alive and well in Dallas. I mean, you have Uptown, Victory, the West End, Deep Ellum, Fair Park, the Arts District ...

All of which have had their own master plans over the years.

And you have top get those districts to a certain level of cohesion and unity. New York, Chicago, London, Paris -- those are cities where there's a continuous fabric. In those places the infrastructure has been tamed. The city is seamless. That's a big challenge in a newer city like Dallas or Los Angeles. These cities grew up at a time when the auto was the dominant technology for urban mobility. Dallas, because of its later birthing process, its newness, has an opportunity some of the other cities don't.

Space has become a potential asset. It will take time to fill it up, but the space is there to do cool things maybe we haven't developed yet from an urban design standpoint. We have that opportunity here. Dallas represents a vast sheet of opportunity that can be drawn upon. It can be turned into that Chinese rug, that detailed fabric of urbanity. But it will take time. If we expect the plan gets done in 2010, and we'll have this in the near or medium term ... [He laughs.] It's an evolutionary process.

I came to Dallas in the '80s, and I see a huge difference now. It's a much more urban and vibrant city that it was. We had people in our meeting talking about that. In the last five years, they've seen positive change. We're on the right track. The trend is in motion. We need to find the high points of leverage, and in five, 10 years they'll do another plan because there will be newer ideas.


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