To reimagine a city one must first explore how a city is in a constant flux of decline, rejuvenation, transformation, and rebirth. The best Dallas examples of the fragility, flux and reimagining of a city can be seen in three successful projects that turned desolate areas into strong areas in the Arts District, Trinity River and Trinity Groves, and the Munger Place Historic District and restoration area.
At the New Cities Summit the attending CEOs, urban planners, writers, museum directors, artists, architects, and thought leaders should never underestimate the fragility of cities. In 2014, Dallas is arguably the city with the brightest future in America aesthetically, economically, and civically. Detroit had this mantel in the 1950s. Planners can be more destructive than helpful. An inventory or a rendering of buildings and people sitting on park benches and projected vibrancy on a map does not provide a recipe that guarantees that people, homeowners, and property owners will invest in the concept of the neighborhood or district.
City and thought leaders should focus on what will create confidence in the direction of a neighborhood. Only then will people invest their time and money or engage in a neighborhood or district. For example, a city can build a downtown arena as an attraction, but that gives no guarantee that the restaurants around the area will be successful. On the other hand, a collection of restaurants can be put in the middle of a desolate area and people flock to them as is the case with Trinity Groves.
For a plan to come to fruition, it must contain more than the planner’s plan on where and how they want people to live. A plan must contain more than an inventory of desired uses codified on a map. Compelling reasons why the direction of an area is positive is far more important than a map that is being drawn and planners declaring the renderings on the map will happen.
People look at neighborhoods and cities as a glass being half-empty or half-full. Some will see a neighborhood or city as vibrant while others will see it as noisy, dirty, and congested. Some will see a neighborhood in decline that others see as improving. Some will take pride in compact density and diversity while others will long for a front yard or a second home in the country. There is a very tenuous relationship between vibrancy and stability.
Here are three examples of stakeholders implementing bold visions versus traditional zoning plans.
City planners could have created dozens of plans for an arts districts in Fair park, South Dallas or downtown and not one plan by itself would have created a new opera house or theater, much less a vibrant district that is becoming the new center of Dallas.
The Dallas Arts District was a bold plan developed by the business, civic, and philanthropic leaders rather than planners. The Arts District is embraced by the citizens of Dallas and visited by people from around the world. One stand alone museum would not necessarily have been engaging, or even a few museums. The Arts District is a success because Dallas created a district with expensive housing, offices, restaurants, an arts magnet school and a deck park over an expressway that connects with already vibrant and emerging parts of Dallas.
In the 1990s potential calls to revitalize downtown with federal government subsidized low income housing was overridden by a vision of a vibrant city center with expensive housing built by private developers, the finest arts magnet schools, and programming that would make the arts available to everyone. Philanthropists provided a greater portion of funding for the opera hall and museums designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects than cultural buildings in other cities. The Arts District is a perfect example of a project being envisioned during the economic downturn of the city and now is thriving along with the rest of the city.
For 30 years city planners have focused on Southern Dallas but struggled with task forces and economic incentives. For 100 years Dallas has struggled to come up with a plan for the Trinity River. Then-City Manager Mary Suhm suggested that if a new bridge were required over the Trinity, let’s make it architecturally special.
The civic leaders, business leaders and philanthropists grasped the vision and funded the design and much of the construction cost of the Santiago Calatrava architect-designed bridge and began the funding for Trinity Park which is larger than the entire city of San Francisco.
The thought of the Calatrava bridge inspired two Dallas businessmen to have a vision for a Dallas legacy project. Stuart Fitts and Phil Romano are not developers, but early on they realized the potential of central business district development on the south side of the Trinity at the foot of the Calatrava-designed bridge and assembled a large amount of land. Dallas has always reacted to the large gesture. Consultants and planners and newcomers to Dallas do not understand what motivates and inspires Dallas. Often we hear that Dallas should not be so consumed with starchitecture or that Dallas always swings for the fences and should strive for more singles and doubles.
Planners have been striving for decades for singles in Southern Dallas – attract a hardware store or maybe a Starbucks or a Whole Foods, maybe a few good restaurants.
Stuart Fitts and Phil Romano are businessmen who wanted a 100-year project that would transform Dallas and South Dallas with high density, tall buildings and lower density mixed-uses that would put the central business district on both sides of the river.
Fitts and Romano are successfully incubating the development with concept restaurants that people flock to in an area that a few years ago people would not have known about or dared to go. A proposed project of this magnitude has attracted other developers to South Dallas. Years ago planners begged for some commitment to South Dallas, now investors and developers are clamoring to be a part of a vision shaped by philanthropists and businessmen. The Trinity Park is larger than the entire city of San Francisco. The developed sites surrounding Trinity Groves is several times larger than the Arts District. These are grand slam projects that inspire home runs and lots of triples, doubles and singles along the way.
How is it possible that the best neighborhood in Dallas became the worst neighborhood in Dallas?
While the New Cities Summit participants are in town, it would be interesting for them to visit Munger Place. This was the best neighborhood in Dallas 100 years ago and by the 1970s it became the worst neighborhood. Property owners reversed its decline and became what FNMA called the most successful revitalization neighborhood in the United States. The 100-block area now comprises three single-family historic districts and homeowners here have spent $500 million on renovation. Some now see this as a beautiful neighborhood while others still focus on the remnants of decay and consider it forsaken and undesirable.
Munger Place was the home of the finest families, from those of Margaret Milam McDermott to Governor Colquist. They enjoyed a planned deed restricted neighborhood with homes designed by the finest architects such as Lang and Witchell, C.D. Hill, and Hal Thomson. When Dallas refused to annex Highland Park, Munger Place was described as the finest residence park in the entire Southland.
In 1974, city councilman Pedro Aguirre’s housing report identified Munger Place as having the highest disease rate, murder rate, transience, and the most bars and slum housing. Five percent of the housing was torn down each year and there was no new construction.
D Magazine put on their cover The Meanest Bar in Dallas – it was in Munger Place, one of 100 neighborhood beer bars economically sustained by an interesting variety of vices. These low rent bars had only $50 beer licenses and were not monitored by the state. The bright spots were the half-way houses, the friendliest faces were the parade of prostitutes.
In real estate terms, 5011 Junius in Munger Place sold for $10,500 in 1907. In 1977 it only sold for $7,500. You know the neighborhood hit bottom when it started to attract young artists like James Surls, who introduced me to the neighborhood and to artists like David Bates, David McManaway, Francis Bagley and others.
Think gentle density. In stable, attractive neighborhoods, planners love to add gentle density or impose mixed-use zoning to add economic diversity, vibrancy, density. In the 1940s experimenting with a little gentle density seemed harmless – renting a room to a school teacher, or adding a mother-in-law apartment to a single-family home.
But adding the gentle density fed a craving for more density. Homeowners started converting their second floors to duplex apartments or renting out all of their rooms to weekly boarders.
Investors and speculators sniffed the powder. They bought homes and turned them into fourplexes or fiveplexes by just portioning off rooms and adding small kitchens and bathrooms.
Soon the city planners were hooked. With visions of density conducive for mass transit buses, vibrancy and bars, the planners blanket zoned the entire area multi- family.
Replacing turn of the century mansions, trendy apartments were built on Gaston Avenue – a hotbed for stewardesses. Ten years later flight attendants would not have considered the street for all the gunshots.
Slumlords bought up multiple properties to milk the rent before the properties were torn down.
By the 1970s, typically 10 people would share the $25 a week rent for a one-bedroom apartment in a converted fourplex that might have a hole in the floor from the dripping plumbing from above. Tenants might only have access to a second floor apartment by outdoor rotted stairs through a second floor window.
The urban economics chair at SMU said maybe 25 or 50 people might be willing to move into the neighborhood and turn a fourplex back into a home, but you would never find 1,000 or 2,000 people who would.
How was it possible for anyone to imagine Munger Place becoming the first single-family historic district or that homeowners would spend $500 million on renovation by 2014?
Actually, a few early residents really did think the neighborhood might improve. There was a right-wing gay astrologer, the secretary general of the Public Employees union, a young republican accountant-type, and a few others.
The solution to turn around the neighborhood was simple: just rezone 100 blocks of 2,000 properties, mostly apartments and overgrown vacant lots, to single-family zoning.
Here was the conflict – no one was in favor of it. The opposition included apartment owners who were planning on renting their apartments until someone bought them to tear down and build new apartments; the mayor, Robert Folsom, a developer who campaigned against any loss of property rights; the plan department director Weiming Lu, who was receiving awards for new types of zoning and was wanting to unveil new types of mixed use zoning; the Plan Commission which was committed to a proposed citywide land use plan that called for more and different types of density in this area; and churches with parishioners who lived in expensive neighborhoods were concerned that single-family zoning would cause gentrification and the displacement of transient tenants. Even homeowners were opposed to single-family zoning for years because they believed the only potential buyers for their homes were from speculators that would buy them to eventually build apartments.
Eventually apartment owner Bob Logan, who just yelled at me when I first suggested single-family zoning was the solution, became an advocate and helped convince 800 other apartment owners of the single-family zoning. Mayor Robert Folsom became the champion of single-family zoning because he realized the economic advantages. He understood developers were not going to build new apartments in slums, that lenders would not lend to homeowners if the area was zoned multi-family, and property owners had no incentive to maintain their rental properties if they were zoned for new apartments.
Joining the mayor and the apartment owners, who supported rezoning, was the regional director of HUD, FNMA, the neighborhood banks, the school principals, David Fox of Fox and Jacobs Homes who at the time was developing Bryan Place, the first new inner city housing in decades at the edge of downtown all of whom endorsed the single-family zoning. The homeowners understood the vision of the 100 blocks and supported the single-family zoning for the entire area. Careers were at stake. The planners proposed land use plans for the entire city was in jeopardy if the single-family zoning passed for these 100 blocks. The zoning battle was fierce and the planners played rough. The day the single-family zoning passed and Munger Place designated a historic district, Bob Logan triumphantly said that now, if everything went perfectly, it would take 30 years for the neighborhood to come back.
Thirty years later, the 100 blocks that had been apartments and overgrown lots now comprised three single-family historic districts: Jefferson Peak Historic District, Munger Place Historic District, and Junius Heights Historic District. The majority of original homes has been renovated and $500,000,000 spent on renovations and new homes that complied with historic guidelines. Most of the crime infested beer bars were no longer in existence.
I was feeling pretty good about this Old East Dallas neighborhood until I heard the keynote speaker at TEDxSMU, a bearded young SMU seminarian, say he was part of a new monastic order with a mission to live in forsaken neighborhoods where no one else wanted to live. For this reason he chose Old East Dallas. This idealistic SMU graduate student, imploring people to live more like him, was on a treasure hunt to find those that were low-income or disadvantaged. He saw the neighborhood as a glass half empty, celebrating the remnants of the neighborhood at its worst. The remaining low income fourplexes or apartments with high vacancy rates were still ample to house transients. While it is still easy for an SMU student to not think the neighborhood is posh enough for their taste, thousands of others enjoy the positive trend of the neighborhood that is becoming more single-family every year.
Shortly after the TEDxSMU address I heard a cheerier view from Larry Beasley, the internationally acclaimed rock star city planner from Vancouver who Dallas had hired as a consultant. He gave a beautiful slide show of Munger Place and Old East Dallas at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and said what Dallas needed to do in these high-priced, close-in, single-family neighborhoods like Munger Place was to add some gentle density –maybe allow mother-in-law apartments, or allow an apartment over a garage, or some rooms for rent, maybe even an occasional bar, restaurant or office. He said they would add economic diversity and vibrancy to these close-in neighborhoods.
Larry Beasley was looking at a planning result he wanted, but not considering what people desired if they were going to live in a neighborhood that could be interpreted as good or bad, declining or improving.
While there is a long history of planners planning how and where they want people to live, it is more important to understand what will give confidence and serve as an impetus for people to invest, engage and live in a neighborhood.
The planners demand for more density was well intentioned in the 1950s and it decimated the neighborhood. The planners resolute call for mixed-use zoning in the 1970s was well intentioned but it would not have stopped the property owners from continuing to disinvest in their properties. It would have killed off the single-family renovation movement. Larry Beasley and Brent Brown, the CityDesignStudio director, have good intentions when they say Munger Place and Lakewood should have added gentle density zoning to give these neighborhoods more economic diversity, but it would reverse the positive progress. It is easier for a planner to add economic diversity by diluting a good neighborhood with zoning than it is to attract middle income families to a low income neighborhood.
Planners will always be for economic diversity, density and vibrancy even if it unravels and existing neighborhood. Homeowners will always be more attracted to an area that shows promise and a positive trend. A growing sense of stability and prosperity will always trump density, vibrancy and despair.