Big Boys vs. Little Guys: Who Builds a Better Dallas?

The redevelopment of West Dallas as a hip dining and apartment area proves one thing: Give the big boys in Dallas a quarter billion dollars in public subsidy, and they’ll make some money for themselves.

The renaissance of nearby North Oak Cliff proves another thing: Stay the hell out of the way of the little guys who are smart, give them some air and they’ll make some money for everybody.

Last week I got into it with a guy about my having said 100 years ago, before the new Calatrava bridge across the Trinity River near downtown was built, that it was going to be a bridge to nowhere. He was pointing out last week how wrong I turned out to be, because now there’s a lot of apartment and restaurant development going on in West Dallas.

I ate crow and said he was right, because he was right, sort of. The Calatrava bridge opened itself to traffic three years ago, linking what had been a disused industrial area on the west bank of the Trinity River to the design district on the downtown side. Now a tremendous amount of development is underway in West Dallas.

But after my crow-eating column had been published, I went outside and stuck a finger down my throat, because … crow is disgusting. And anyway when the bridge was opened three years ago, I was right. West Dallas was still nowhere.

Now that West Dallas is somewhere, I wanted to know why. What made it happen? I talked to two people whose judgment I have come to trust in these matters. One was David Spence, who was an early pioneer developer in the hugely successful renaissance of the Bishop Arts District in the neighboring area of North Oak Cliff. Bishop Arts, a pre-World War II commercial area designed around trolley lines, has been brought back as one of the city’s most successful dining and shopping districts.

And I spoke with Scott Griggs, the City Council representative for a district that includes Bishop Arts but not West Dallas. Why didn’t I talk to Monica Alonzo, the representative for West Dallas? More on that in a moment.

Spence told me the initial necessary ingredient that allowed West Dallas to light up as a desirable development area was not the Calatrava bridge but the redevelopment of a 1940s motel by Monte Anderson, a far-sighted maverick developer who saw a jewel beneath the grunge.

When the Belmont re-opened in 2005, with a capacious Art Moderne patio bar looking down on downtown, West Dallas suddenly became a place that could be taken seriously. “The Belmont was a watershed in West Dallas,” Spence said, “much like Hattie’s opening up in 2002 as the first nice restaurant in Bishop Arts.”

My own predilection, the minute I heard Spence say that, was to give Anderson and the Belmont all the credit for the subsequent rebirth of West Dallas, so I wouldn’t have to give the bridge any credit. (I don’t like the bridge. It’s too long a story, and you wouldn’t be interested by now. Let’s just agree I don’t like the bridge and I don’t want it to get credit for anything good.)

But both Spence and Griggs said I was wrong. Both said the bridge does get a lot of credit for what has happened since. Both tied it to a key difference between the redevelopment of North Oak Cliff, which came first, and West Dallas, which is just happening now.

North Oak Cliff until very recently was all little guys and pioneers taking big chances with their own and their mothers-in-laws’ money. Only very recently have big players backed by institutional money come into North Oak Cliff and not always with happy results.
The big players like Trammell Crow started piling into West Dallas almost as soon as the bridge opened. Part of that, Spence and Griggs said, had to do with the size of parcels in West Dallas — big industrial chunks of land without much on them in terms of structure that can be repurposed, tough for small independents to digest.

But Griggs said the bridge also has to be viewed as part of a larger public subsidy that you and I put on the table, my fellow taxpayer, before the big boys stuck a toe in. Griggs said after the very early stages, when Anderson and a few other people were doing small hip things, the factor that brought in the big investors was “massive public subsidies,” beginning with the bridge.

“The Calatrava bridge is $182 million, with maybe $12 million from the private sector,” he said. “Then you have the other improvements. In all you’ve got over a quarter of a billion dollars of taxpayer money going into it.”

So the formula here so far, if I may observe, is this: West Dallas was a burned-out neglected industrial hulk which I still feel safe describing as “nowhere,” at least if somebody’s looking for a place to put a $200 million bridge piping a high-speed multi-lane expressway straight into a five-lane local street. But after a quarter billion dollars in tax money, yeah, it’s somewhere.

I asked Griggs about return-on-investment, hoping he would say it was a rip-off, but he hedged. “That’s a tough question,” he said. “You do want to over-incentivize it, because the area has been neglected for so long.”

We talked about what he thinks works generally and what makes for trouble in the regeneration of long neglected inner-city districts, and in that part of the conversation I can explain why I didn’t even try to talk to Alonzo, the council representative for West Dallas.

Griggs said the starting point in talking about the inner-city is acknowledging that nothing stands still in old neighborhoods. “It either improves, or it declines. Nothing stays the same. So which way is it going to go?”

When things improve — when an area such as Bishop Arts catches on — that new popularity creates tremendous new pressures, most notably and first in traffic and parking, later in higher rents and displacement. The city can keep pouring in infrastructure to service the demand — street widenings, cut-throughs and bridges, public parking structures — which will have the effect of causing even more displacement.

Or the city can share the wealth — lance the boil and take the pressure off by helping other nearby areas regenerate. Griggs said that’s what he and other Oak Cliff leaders are trying to do.

“You always try to make other new places,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to do in Oak Cliff with getting Jefferson Avenue going. You’ve always got to keep growing your new places. It actually makes things better. You can sustain it. You actually start to build up a city,” Griggs said.

So that’s how it’s done when growth and renaissance are being driven organically by a community, when leadership understands profit, acknowledges the need for positive movement but also has a higher line of sight to comprehend the entire body of the community and its overall well-being.

As far as I can tell, that is not at all how things are going in West Dallas, where events are controlled by City Hall’s more customary arrangement of big developers working fist-in-glove with the city manager’s staff.

There, even though the developers have received massive tax-payer subsidies, they and their City Hall partners tend to operate far from the public eye. In fact, in West Dallas the curtain of secrecy has been drawn down even tighter with the creation of a “design studio,” privately funded, to which the city has delegated some of its planning duties.

My own window into that situation has been through the plight of David Jensen, who lives in a small warehouse in West Dallas. I have written a lot about him. The city is about to use eminent domain to take his home in order to enable the platting of a big apartment project across the street from him.

Of course, the city can’t say that’s why they’re doing it, because it would be against the law to use eminent domain to force a private person from his home in order to benefit another private party. So the city is saying they are taking Jensen’s home in order to “straighten” his street.

That’s one thing. Worse, in my own view, is that the “straightening” the city intends to carry out will pour traffic from the new apartment complex into a small, modest and embattled residential neighborhood that has been there forever and that the private design studio vowed to protect. In effect a narrow residential street is about to become a prime shortcut from the apartments to downtown. Talk about displacement.

Alonzo has consistently refused over a period of months to meet with Jensen or talk to me. City staff have made it plain to me and to Jensen that this deal is done and Jensen is out.

Do I think this is wickedness in people’s hearts? No. It’s business people being business people and bureaucrats sucking up to them. A business person’s job is to squeeze the maximum juice from the orange. But in the inner-city where things go either up or down, good businesspeople are a necessary ingredient. They know how to get things done.

The difference between growth in North Oak Cliff and growth in West Dallas illustrates an important truth about cities in general, our city in particular. It takes more than business people. It takes more than the bureaucrats who fear and serve them.

The city needs leaders who can see out beyond the needs of business to the best interests of community. Those interests need not conflict, if the community has a strong champion standing over all others. If the city opens the feast by throwing a quarter billion dollars on the table, it should at least be able to ask everyone who sits down not to eat with their fingers.

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