DMN's Tod Robberson Thinks Golf Alone Saved East Lake and Can Save Southern Dallas Too

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In an interview with the Morning News over the weekend, Mayor Mike Rawlings qualified some of his previous statements about the potential of AT&T and SMU's proposed Trinity Forest Golf Course to be an economic game-changer in southern Dallas. The project could spur lots and lots of economic development and transform the area, he said, but that would take a more concerted effort on the part of the city and the businesspeople and investors that play there.

That leaves the Morning News' Tod Robberson as the most vocal proponent of the golf-course-as-magic-bullet theory, which he first introduced in a column last week. His thesis was more or less dismantled here, so Robberson gave it another shot this week.

He refined his argument in a Monday evening blog post carrying the headline, "Evidence suggests golf courses do transform neighborhoods." That evidence comes from East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, which went to seed before Tom Cousins, a local real estate developer, helped finance an extensive renovation in the mid-1990s.

Robberson explains:

In 1990, per-capita income for a one-mile radius surrounding the club was $7,174, according to an analysis I did using ESRI's Community Analyst. The first Census after the renovation was 2000. By then, per capita income stood at $15,700 -- more than double, and representing a whopping 8.15 percent annual growth rate. According to the latest Census figures, per capita income stands at $16, 686. It's important to remember that per capita income is the average of all earnings divided by the total population. That is, not just the working population, but every man, woman and child, employed, retired or unemployed. So a low figure like $16,686 can be deceptive.

In 1990, average household income was $23,416. By 2000, it was $43,284. Today it's at $40,276. Yes, the level has dropped slightly since 2000, probably because of the recession. But the difference between the pre-renovation, 1990 figures and today's remains staggering. There is no other major feature in East Lake that would explain such a dramatic jump in household incomes.

Pre-renovation, 33 percent of East Lake's population lived below the poverty level. By 2000, it had been halved, to 18.3 percent. The population was nearly 94 percent black in 1990. It remains majority African American (around 60 percent) but represents a far more healthy racial mix.

We'll leave you to puzzle over what Robberson considers a "healthy racial mix" -- three cups white, two cups black and sprinkle in some brown for taste? -- and focus on the rest of his argument.

It's true that the East Lake neighborhood has undergone a transformation, from a racially homogeneous pocket of high poverty and crime to a more diverse, economically vibrant and even trendy part of Atlanta. But "no other major feature?" Is the News' Google-maker broken?

The golf course played one part in an ensemble cast of change. As The Atlantic explored over the summer, the course was accompanied by a host of measures aimed at making the neighborhood more palatable to higher incomes. The city razed East Lake Meadows, a notoriously terrible housing project, scattering 400 of the neighborhood's poorest residents and replacing most of them with well-to-do white people. City and private funds were poured into redevelopment efforts. A pioneering charter school was established. The East Lake Foundation raised and distributed money to steer the revitalization efforts.

In other words, East Lake's skyrocketing incomes occurred as part of a big, targeted, multi-pronged effort to remake an entire neighborhood into something "healthier."

That will prove more difficult here. Unlike East Lake, much of the land surrounding the proposed Dallas course is in a floodplain, a river or a forest. As City Manager Mary Suhm said last week, it can't be developed. And East Lake was a once thriving neighborhood of historic homes that had been neglected for a few decades. The area surrounding the Trinity Forest course has been neglected forever.

Then there's the question of who benefits from an East Lake-style makeover. As two Georgia State researchers concluded in a 2003 paper paper examining redevelopment of East Atlanta, it's not, for the most part, the poor people who lived there. They were forced out by changes in public housing and rising property taxes and replaced by well-to-do white people -- the migration that explains the area's increasing incomes.

Still, though, Tod's right: East Lake was a net positive for Atlanta, and a similar transformation would be a net positive here. And if it takes a high-priced golf course to kick-start it, great. But just like East Lake did, we're going to need a lot of "other major features."

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