Old Guard Will Screw Up Dallas Downtown, New Guard Will Have to Fix It

Maybe we need to accept a certain bottom line here and prepare to deal with it. Dallas is becoming a much cooler city — almost more cool than it has a right to be — because of the coming change in who's in control. But the change-over is not here yet, and the old people who still control things are going to leave a lot of bad mistakes on the ground when they finally shuffle off to their everlasting rewards.

Therefore 10 years or so from now when the new culture gets its roots deep enough to achieve real leverage, new leaders are going to have a whole bunch of stuff in front of them to tear down. Now is not too soon to start laying that groundwork.

These grim thoughts come to me as I reap reports from informants about a joint breakfast meeting Thursday morning of the Greater Dallas Planning Council and the Urban Land Institute. Panelists discussing the future of downtown were John Scovell, surrogate for oilman Ray HuntJohn Crawford, head of the booster group DowntownDallas; and Gary Thomas, boss of DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit).

The report I got was of absolute baked-in enthusiastic unanimity among these guys on what the city needs to do. These guys are going to steer all of the city’s disposable resources (whatever those might be) into some kind of Trump Tower, baseball park, casino, convention center, mega-tanning salon, Vegas-World fantasy theme park in the southwest corner of downtown on land owned by Hunt and the families who control The Dallas Morning News.

It’s just going to happen. Nobody has the steam to stop it.

Never mind that this kind of urban development is an anachronistic hold-over from the previous century and the exact opposite of what is beginning be so successful in the city now. The Dallas success story is the kind of tightly woven “chaotic but smart” organic growth and development that proved its mettle long ago in Old East Dallas and is in riotous bloom again today in North Oak Cliff.

Yeah, maybe you’d think people who want to make money would look at what’s working and do that, not what worked a half century ago. But the fact is that people can’t see outside their cultures. Culture is the universe. And the culture of the people who still have an icy grip on City Hall is the worldview of comb-overed, burnt-orange, white-goggle-eyed, pumpkin-faced Trumponians. Nothing personal.

Ten years from now Dallas will no longer be in their grip. The city by then will be run by people like Angela Hunt, Scott Griggs,  Philip Kingston, Adam Medrano,  Mark Clayton, Adam McGough — wow, I’m out of breath — a totally different generation leaders with a completely new culture, already becoming numerous and influential, soon to take control. And they’re going to have great mountains of crap left in their way by the Trumponians.

Not just Tanning-Salon-World in the Southwest corner. It’s clear by now that no matter what they say the old leadership will not leave the house without having nailed down some kind of toll road along the Trinity River. In fact the toll road probably is a necessary adjunct of Tanning-Salon-World, although I don’t think I could stand to sit through an explanation.

And maybe these great pyramids of anachronism will be, in and of themselves, the lesser part of the damage done. The real wound to the future will be the opportunity cost — the things we won’t have because we wasted our time and treasure on dumb ideas.

We will not have the exciting densely woven true community downtown that we could have had, because the city will have squandered the resources and energy that should have been used to make that better vision happen. Because of whatever toll road they build, we will not have the magical prairie and forest park along the river that could have changed the culture of the city forever.

But here’s the deal. Just because things downtown will be pretty messed up when the new generation does take over, that doesn’t mean the new leaders will just give up and leave it the way the goggle-eyed pumpkin-faces left it. Hell no. Not in their DNA. It means all that stuff the old guys left behind will have to be ripped out root and branch over time to make way for the new city. And, as I said before, the time to lay the groundwork is right now.

Example: The only way to get rid of the toll road will be to starve it of traffic so it withers on the vine. That really won’t be hard to do, given the basic bad design of the road itself. The city will have to provide competing routes for traffic.

Here’s the challenge now. When they do get ready to put a toll road in place, they’re going to try to do what most toll road projects do and squeeze the city into signing a no-compete agreement. By such an agreement the city would be barred from building or even improving competing streets.

That’s a big no-no. Signing an agreement like that will only make it that much more difficult to get rid of the thing when the time comes.

What about a baseball stadium or casino? The poison pill there is public debt. They already bamboozled the public into signing a mortgage on a new convention hotel. If they can get us deeper into hock on the rest of Tanning-Salon-World, we will have that much more trouble escaping their shackles.

It doesn’t have to be a bitter fight every inch of the way forever, because even before we get to the day of inauguration for the new regime there will be a tipping point. The smart money will look at the robust success stories in Old East Dallas, North Oak Cliff, Oak Lawn and Uptown. They will look long and hard at what the old leadership has put in place. And they will move their bets to the new.

The best way to look ahead is with a wary aggressive optimism. Dallas is going to get there. It’s going to take a lot of trash-hauling. But that can be done.

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