City Hall

With DART Rail Vote, Dallas Is On the Verge of Blowing a Huge Opportunity for Downtown

You, my fellow citizen, can do a study of the development potential associated with a single DART light rail line through downtown. I’m serious. You can do this.

All you have to do is walk east to west through downtown on Bryan Street and Pacific Avenue along the existing DART rail alignment. It’s been there for almost 20 years. The lesson is loud and clear. The development potential of a single DART line running on surface streets through downtown is zip.

Nothing. There isn’t a single brick of development along this dreary stretch that wasn’t already in place or wouldn’t be there anyway without the rail line.

We already had struggling half-empty worn-out office towers all over downtown competing with new buildings outside of downtown. According to Steve Brown at The Dallas Morning News, downtown office space isn’t doing terribly, but it’s still barely doing catch-up with competing areas. So as a commercial center it’s sort of meh.

Downtown residential is still … downtown residential. The buildings that get redone fill up quickly when they come online, but a ton of space still hasn’t been redone and stands empty because it still takes huge public subsidies to turn those suckers into space people can live in. Your trip down San Jacinto and Elm streets, in fact, is going to be downright depressing if you do it after the rush-hour freeways have sucked the air out of that side of downtown.
Think about it. What does the DART light rail line change? We see plainly now that a single strand of it does not have the power to create its own weather, to spark its own community of dense residential and commercial development, to serve as the spine of a new social organism. What it does do is slow down car traffic irritatingly during most of the day and then run empty most of the night.

So here we are, a few weeks at most from a City Council decision on where to put a second DART line through downtown, and all of the favored routes so far, the true contenders, are mirror images of the existing line — single solitary rail lines running mostly on the surface, only this time on the other side of downtown.

And here’s the unbelievable part. The justification for taking a single solitary DART line way over toward downtown’s southern border is to share the “development potential” with a side of downtown that supposedly somehow has been overlooked.

What development potential? And what do they mean, overlooked? That side of downtown has the Farmers Market, City Hall, the Convention Center, the Omni Hotel, a big federal office center and Reunion Station — more public infrastructure than the entire rest of the city. How much more help does it need? And why does anybody think it would be helped by a DART line anyway?

The top candidate for a route through downtown for the second line is supposed to add about 5,000 new riders to the rail system, which carries about 96,000 riders now, at a cost of half a billion dollars to build and two and a half million dollars a year to operate. Each trip on the rail system now must be subsidized with public money at a rate of $4.21 per trip.

DART says it needs the second line through downtown because right now all four of its far-flung rail lines have to connect through that single strand along Bryan and Pacific, forming a serious bottleneck when something happens to throw trains off schedule. And that makes sense. The entire system needs another way through downtown.

But if we’re going to spend half a billion in tax dollars on that new line (probably twice that by the time it’s done), why not use the new line to do something much bigger than adding some fractional increase in ridership? Why squander it on some kind of hoped-for development potential that we already know isn’t there?

What about 40,000 new riders? What about a whole new beating heart for downtown like Toronto’s Eaton Centre, built above two subway stations, or the wonderful new downtown Indianapolis that people from here discovered last spring during March Madness? 

The secret is in holding the downtown rail lines tightly bundled, as former DART board member John Tatum has been urging, and putting as much of them underground as possible. Tatum, a true student of urban rail worldwide, has been trying to get Dallas decision-makers to understand what happens when downtown lines are cheek-by-jowl instead of spread far apart.

Those lines, close to each other, form a walking zone that really can create its own weather; it can be cooled, heated and secured. You can catch an escalator up, walk a corridor, take another escalator down, and you are in reach of every corner of the city that can be traveled by rail.

Along that spine, the city could create a whole new type of zoning where developers are allowed to offer residential and even commercial space with greatly reduced automobile parking, on the theory that the rail connectivity of the district will render people who live and work there less car-dependent. All of a sudden, rents can become reasonable without enormous subsidies.

The city might also make creative use of so-called inclusionary zoning, by which the city would trade development rights to developers in exchange for their agreement to include some affordable units at controlled rents. Then we might start having young people, working people and families downtown, like a real community.

The chance to build this second rail line through downtown is an opportunity of a scale we may not see for another half century. Pushing the line south, away from the existing line, and building it on the surface is a concept we already know will do nothing to change downtown. It calls on us to spend half a billion dollars to achieve a chump change boost in ridership — an increase that will only cost us more money in ridership subsidy.

The City Council is getting a typical bureaucratic bum’s rush to hurry its decision on the second downtown alignment, on the argument that there’s some big federal money available and we might miss it if we dawdle. But that’s a lousy way to make a decision this important.

The Tatum concept, putting the new line underground beneath Elm Street, is a magic wand, a way to raise a whole new city from the streets of downtown. It’s the one thing the suburbs can’t offer and won’t be able to compete with, a truly new way to live. Losing this rare opportunity will be a tragedy. Grabbing it and running with it will be more exciting than anything we’ve ever 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

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