Downtown Has a Great Future. Forget the Past.

Had an interesting chat a while back with Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston about downtown office vacancy rates. Hey! What? It's what people like us talk about. Just be glad you didn't get stuck between us on an airplane.

It's interesting. Really. 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. Like Nancy Pelosi says, you know.

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 embrace the worker bees, as Pelosi might also say, maybe.

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 recreate Manhattan somehow.

Not to wander back into the HUD racial segregation complaint story -- no, no, I promise, I know you're stuck next to me on the plane here, and I've already talked about the HUD case all the way from Dallas to somewhere over St. Louis, so I promise not to go on about it for too long -- but the vision of downtown as a working neighborhood is exactly what City Hall has missed and why it got in trouble with HUD. It's what the muckety-mucks on the Dallas Citizens Council just can't get straight in their heads.

The future of downtown is not as a center of top-end condos for limousine riders. Downtown is much more likely to bloom as a neighborhood for bicycle-riding hipsters and sipsters who want to live, work and drink according to a lifestyle that does not include DUIs or having to wake up too early. In other words, like the French.

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.

He and I did not know, as we spoke that day, that Dallas already had hundreds of millions of dollars in the till it could have spent to subsidize rents downtown for working people. But it didn't use the money that way, because it was afraid some of them might be black. In great sins, a major element is always stupidity.

OK, I'm done. Hey, wake up! I said I'm done.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze