Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Dallas wrestles with its future

Several interesting pieces on Dallas recently, with obvious parallels to Houston. They're really very similar cities in many ways. Below is Otis White's writeup on density issues in Dallas (in full as usual - no permalinks). Although our city has similarities to Dallas, a few key differences keep us from having to grapple with the same issues they describe:
  1. We don't have the straightjacket of zoning, so development can easily and dynamically flex with demand
  2. That lack of zoning means we always have an adequate supply of multi-family housing
  3. We still have annexation options for growth
The Dallas Morning News has op-eds on their "Forward Dallas" plan and how a zoning thicket tangles it up (thanks to Erik for the pointers).
Right now, Dallas is the Dillard's of zoning, with dozens of narrow categories containing hundreds of specific conditions and criteria that require an act of divination or a team of lawyers to figure out. The code has produced confusion, frustration and costly delays, leading to the creation of nearly 800 planned development districts, otherwise known as zoning by exception. While some PDDs are excellent, most are conventional, repetitious and, if the zoning ordinance were streamlined, completely unnecessary.
For the most part, however, Forward Dallas identifies the city's most critical land-use issues: more area plans and fewer planned development districts, an updated parking ordinance, and a simpler, more transparent development process. Collectively, these changes will help make Dallas more livable, attractive and accessible.
Even though they seem to be pointed in many of the right directions, the devil is in the details. Zoning changes can easily lead to homeowner and business riots. Broad visions are easy to get agreement around - specific changes rally opponents, which politicians are usually all to happy to pander to by throwing sand in the gears if it adds to their vote tally in the next election (ok, maybe that's a bit too harshly cynical - but it has been known to happen from time to time). I think Dallas has a very long, very painful road ahead. For the nth time, I find myself very, very grateful we avoided the zoning quagmire in Houston.

Growing Pains - Dallas Does Density, by Otis White

Cities change faster — much faster, in fact — than our mental images of them. What this means is that leaders are constantly having to accept things that they’ve long resisted. An example of how painful this realization and acceptance process can be is the Dallas city council’s struggles with multi-family housing.

For years, the council has made its wishes clear: It doesn’t want more apartments and condos; it prefers single-family housing. Reason: Home ownership rates are higher with detached housing, and renters sometimes bring problems, from poverty to higher rates of crime. By insisting on single-family housing, then, council members are trying to encourage a more peaceful and prosperous city.

But you can see the problem: As big and sprawling as it is, Dallas isn’t getting any bigger geographically. As population grows in the Dallas area, then, the council has to choose: Does it wish to continue adding residents, or is it willing to accept a much smaller portion of the region’s population? And if it wants to continue growing, how can it so without adding another square inch of land?

Actually, the answer is clear: It has to accept greater density, which means condos and apartments. But this is difficult for council members who’ve been adamant about single-family housing over the years. This bubbled up recently in a discussion about a new comprehensive plan, which looked at development patterns over the next 25 years and, not surprisingly, saw a lot more multi-family housing ahead. “We’re not a suburb; we’re the urban center of this region,” the city development director told the council. “This is about competition. The region is growing. The question is, how much growth will Dallas capture?”

Just how great a shift is ahead was clear from the plan’s housing forecasts, which were published in the Dallas Morning News. In 2000, 54 percent of the housing units in Dallas were multi-family; by 2030, the plan predicts, it will be 62 percent. In 2000, 57 percent of housing units were occupied by their owners; by 2030, a majority will be occupied by renters.

These numbers did not go down well with one council member in particular. “This isn’t an ’if you build it, they will come’ city,” Angela Hunt said. “Townhouses are not really our culture right now.” But, the development director pointed out, in 25 years Dallas will be a far different place. By then, people who choose to live there will be doing so because of its urban character. They won’t come expecting the suburbs.

At least one other council member had no problem with this notion. “If you live up north, inside the LBJ Freeway, anything that gets redone is going to be high density,” Bill Blaydes said. “You want to talk suburban? Go to McKinney and Allen.”

Footnote: There will, of course, be some single-family construction in Dallas in the next quarter century, but it will be mostly in struggling South Dallas, which still has undeveloped land, or will involve teardowns. Both will be controversial, since the single-family construction is likely to encourage gentrification in largely minority neighborhoods, and the teardowns will bring McMansions.


At 9:52 PM, May 10, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote that "We don't have the straightjacket of zoning, so development can easily and dynamically flex with demand," and then "That lack of zoning means we always have an adequate supply of multi-family housing." But let's not gloss over what those lack of controls and that rapid construction of apartments has brought to Houston. There are several areas of town where arguably too many apartment complexes were constructed at the same time, and they deteriorated similarly, and those area quickly began to resemble slums.


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