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A Totally Not-Depressing Look at Downtown

The arrival of a New Year always brings about in me a strange and unaccustomed desire to be un-depressing. And I don't even drink. I don't know what does it. This year I'm blaming it on Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston.

He and I had an interesting chat about downtown office vacancy rates. Oh, I know what you're thinking: There is no such thing as an interesting chat about vacancy rates.

No, no, but this was interesting, because it was really about the future of the city, which is where the not-depressing part comes in. First, however, just let me be a tiny bit depressing so I can get it out of my system. According to The Dallas Business Journal, Dallas still has a generally suck record on office rentals, with a vacancy rate that leads the nation among large cities. But things are getting better here faster than elsewhere, giving us a generally less suck record than we used to have.

So-called "office-using jobs" are growing here at twice the national rate, according to CBRE Global Research and Reporting, which has to be a good thing for people with office space to rent. The Dallas Morning News has reported that downtown retail is still anomalously suck given the good recent growth rate in downtown residential, but that's a glass half full if you look at it as opportunity — a market ripe for the plucking.

Kingston told me he had chatted with a commercial real estate broker who was telling him that downtown is never going to be the region's Class A commercial center again. But that's a good thing, the guy told Kingston, because it means downtown can be a vast center of good solid Class B office space, restored or never decayed, and even Class C stuff capable of being bought and restored at profitable rates.

The Class B, in particular, can be home to back-office and regional operations, as opposed to headquarters — the kind of enterprises more likely to be occupied by people who would also live downtown near their work. How many CEOs really want to live the auto-free life in downtown Dallas, as opposed to young worker bees? So go for the worker bees.

In other words, we need to stop thinking of restoring downtown to a status it last occupied in the 1960s and early '70s, a half a century ago, as a cluster of corporate headquarters, and begin thinking of it instead as a good old-fashioned 21st century working-class neighborhood.

Take that retail situation, for example. If you can pour enough people into apartments downtown while keeping the street-level rental rates less than sky-high, then you have the right medium for breeding all kinds of retail from bars to organic baby-food outlets. That seems to me like a much more likely scenario than the one City Hall seems to have pursued for the last decade, trying to re-create Manhattan somehow.

Three years ago, just before he died, I had lunch with M. Thomas Lardner, the visionary developer who was an early force in the creation of Uptown, the smart and fashionable Dallas apartment and office district just north of downtown, which on any given evening can be the closest thing to Paris you can experience without getting on an airplane and risking getting stuck next to me. I asked him what single policy he thought Dallas should adopt ahead of any other to make downtown bloom the way Uptown had. He told me the one thing Dallas should do first is find a way to subsidize rents for working people.

The secret to Uptown's success, he said, was always sidewalks full of young people, fully employed and able to afford a few drinks, not making enough money to pay high-end rents, living the walk-to-drink lifestyle if not always walk-to-work. Lardner said the high-end rent people are important too, but they don't get out as much, and when they do get out they don't look as good.

I have been sitting here putting together Lardner's vision of Uptown in downtown with what Kingston was telling me, and as I think about it, another vision comes back. A long time ago when I was beating the drum about the Trinity River toll road, I had a conversation with former council member Angela Hunt in which I asked her what she really wanted. Beyond just defeating plans to stick a super highway right next to the river through downtown, what did she see there instead?

It's been too long for me to quote her exactly, but I think I still have a vivid image in my mind: Hunt told me she had this daydream in which Dallas was a place where you could live in a downtown tower, take your bike down the elevator on Saturday morning, glide down through downtown to the river and roll out onto miles and miles of bike path through soccer fields, ball diamonds and picnics, on out into the largest urban forest in America.

That's going to happen. It will happen. That's what Dallas is going to be in the future — an uber-cool city combining the very best of urban walkable living with healthy living in the out-of-doors.

By the time it happens, downtown will no longer be a distinct neighborhood. It will have melded and joined up with North Oak Cliff, Uptown, Baylor/Near East Dallas, South Dallas and the Cedars. All of those close-in residential areas will form foothills ringing the mountain range of towers downtown, but altogether they will form a connected entity.

No, you're never going to have a huge Central Market or Kroger at street-level downtown, but, yes, you could have one across Interstate 30 on Cesar Chavez Boulevard related to the Farmers Market. No, you're not going to have a street of cool funky start-up restaurants and bistros downtown, but, yes, you will be able to jump on the trolley and get to them in Bishop Arts.

The tough part is that it will not happen by itself. City Hall is still very much under the thumb of an anachronistic leadership with a view of the city from 1950. Let me give you just one example.

We have to build one or two more rail lines through downtown in order to keep the light rail system from overloading and coming to a screeching halt. But where we build them has everything to say about how we see the future of the city.

One of most effective things we can do to make the center city a mecca for 21st century urban dwellers is to create a critical mass right downtown where people could live their lives totally or almost without cars. If you can create an area downtown where people can live and get to the rest of the city by rail, bus and bike, that will allow you to do all kinds of creative things with development downtown. If you are no longer assuming there must be 1.5 parking spaces for every apartment, then you can reduce parking requirements for downtown developers and help get rents lower.

An effective way to make that vision happen would be to put the second rail line downtown a block or two away from the first one and put underground stations between. With tunnels and covered escalators, you could create an entire weather-sheltered secure network. Develop apartments up and down that corridor, and suddenly you've suddenly got the bone structure of a true no-auto zone.

Instead, the old guard leadership wants to put the second rail line way across town from the first one in order to run it to the convention center and to a lot of real estate owned by the same people who own The Dallas Morning News. They want to devote all of our major resources to a downtown based on the convention trade, which is a dying industry anyway, and to the last century's model of cities as office-centers surrounded by automotive suburbs. It's exactly the wrong vision at the wrong time.

They won't win. The people who will build the new city and build it the right way are already getting elected to office, already beginning to show up in the halls of power, already making their voices heard and there will be more and more of them in the very near future. They will carry the day in the long run for many reasons, but one big reason will be something that Dallas will grasp quickly when it gets a good look. The money.

Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution and the University of Michigan, author of The Option of Urbanism, has already demonstrated how the price premium for land goes up in this city, as in most big American cities these days, the closer you get to the old downtown core. He explains it culturally as the coming of the "Seinfeld Generation" — people who grew up in bland suburbs watching Jerry Seinfeld live the cool urban life on TV and wishing they could be there with him.

Whatever. The important truth here is that Dallas has all of these enormous assets in hand as it confronts its future — a downtown full of cool old buildings that will never be corporate headquarters again, a ring of vibrant walkable neighborhoods all around downtown and a population of young people committed to making this the Brooklyn where your parents don't have to support you.

There will be sturm und drang, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on the road from here to there, because old visions never relinquish willingly. Just look at their hairdos. But what kind of really worthwhile future could you hope to get without a fight?

If you blur your eyes for a moment and think about it, you can see that the new city is already just right there, right there, just at the horizon. You know it's coming, because it's already what's happening all around you. It is that close to us, and it is worth the fight.

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