Trolley Issue Shifts Political Paradigm to North Oak Cliff; How Will City Hall React?

It will be really interesting to see how city staff handles this week's stunning announcement of a $23 million federal grant to fund a trolley connecting downtown with North Oak Cliff. This is not at all where the staff wanted to go.

Last October I covered a city council briefing in which assistant city manager Jill Jordan basically told the council to forget about an Oak Cliff connection for any downtown trolley system to be built. Of course, that was back when city staff thought they were running the show on this thing.

Since then, an organization called the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, basically a bunch of bicycle enthusiasts, wrote their own damn grant application for federal money, and, guess what? The feds liked their app better than City Hall's.

There are reasons for that. People like Jason Roberts of Bike Friendly Oak Cliff have been eyeballing the street grid in North Oak Cliff in the last couple years, wondering why it's the way it is. Why are all the old commercial buildings so close to the sidewalks instead of having parking lots in front? Why are there these little nodes of old commercial development -- boarded up barbershops, bakeries and so on -- stuck in the middle of residential areas?

Trolleys! The street grid in North Oak Cliff was laid out with mass transit in mind, not cars and parking lots. It's a "new urbanist" street grid lying there waiting for somebody to bring it back to life.

Roberts and others have done some amazing sleuthing since then, including unearthing the crumbling original blueprints for the Houston Street viaduct, which show that it was built specifically to accommodate a trolley system.

So why wouldn't City Hall be delighted? Hey, all that stuff about ForwardDallas, the big hoopla deal to create new urbanism in places like Preston Hollow that don't want it: Why not just go to North Oak Cliff where the bone structure is already in place?

I can think of lots of reasons. Deeply ingrained in the traditional City Hall mindset is the idea that Oak Cliff doesn't count. How else do you explain the city council spending a year talking about trolley without even mentioning Oak Cliff?

Now, given this grant, the trolley system has to connect to Oak Cliff. It's just impossible to exaggerate what a paradigm shift that is. It will mean that North Oak Cliff is going to be the hot area.

But there is more to it than that. North Oak Cliff is old-fashioned in the sense that it's pre-automobile. And it wants to embrace that. Not many other areas of town will feel the same way.

Look at Old East Dallas, my part of town, for example. People there will tell you they'd love to have trolleys. But would they? Is East Dallas ready to start granting development rights that do not require developers to build parking lots? Is East Dallas ready for lots and lots of commercial development jammed right up against the sidewalks? The neighborhood near Henderson Avenue doesn't even want to let the new restaurants there have crank-out awnings for their sidewalk tables.

I'm just saying. This trolley thing has ramifications that run really deep. It shifts the paradigm toward North Oak Cliff. It shifts an entire political important paradigm away from Avi Adelman to Jason Roberts. And eventually it will push things toward a new, quite different, much more urban culture, as opposed, for example, to East Dallas, which is more single-family small-town than urban.

You're going to see a whole new element of younger neighborhood people empowered by this, and their message will be quite new for City Hall. It's going to be: "Cut the developers a break so we can have walkable commercial development."

A new day dawns in Dallas.