clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Density does Dallas

As seeds of progressive urbanism take root in the mammoth sprawl of the Metroplex, how will the city evolve?

Dallas is a booming city within a booming region. The epicenter of the Metroplex—a constellation of cities, including Fort Worth, that saw its population grow 35 percent between 2000 and 2014 and added 717,000 jobs—Dallas, and its surrounding cities and suburbs, is swelling with new arrivals from coastal cities and other countries. The region is constantly evolving and reinventing itself.

But Dallas is also, as Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster describes it, a “Paradox City.” A survey conducted by the Congress for the New Urbanism found that 68 percent of Dallas residents want to live in walkable neighborhoods with clusters of stores and other amenities reachable by foot—but only 4 percent of the metro area’s geography qualifies.

This is a car-centric city, with 11-story interchange ramps, the infamous Mixmaster exchange, and the Texas Doughnut, the name given to a common housing development that’s basically a multistory parking garage wrapped in apartments. Dallas is also a mercantile city on a large scale, shaped by big-name developers such as Trammell Crow and run by the business class, “the headquarters of corporate headquarters,” Lamster says. How quickly can a Metroplex built to be big embrace small-scale, incremental urban development?

“Dallas is especially confusing and contradictory,” Lamster says. “We’re making efforts to change it, but it’s hard to turn around an ocean liner.”

Outsiders taking stock of Dallas focus on stereotypes and size—the city’s tourism slogan is “Dallas Big”—and easy symbolism like the gargantuan new Cowboys stadium. The city alone takes up 340 square miles. But they miss the ways Dallas has come to reflect the rest of the country, via an influx of immigrants, growth in families (it has had the highest growth in its child population of major U.S. cities), and the increasing numbers of its Hispanic population, part of growing diversity in the Metroplex. An amalgam of cities and metros connected by ribbons of roads, the Dallas metro area has a profile akin to Los Angeles, without the movie stars and sky-high real estate prices. (An average home here costs just $265,000.) The middle-class, family-friendly “American Dream” is alive and well here relative to other cities.

“It doesn’t hurt to have an economy that’s booming and a lot of land to develop,” says urbanist Joel Kotkin. “It allows Dallas to innovate and create a variety of housing that people in their 20s and 30s actually want. Compare that to California. You have people living with roommates at 35 who just turn and leave. Product just isn’t there at an affordable price.”

Another surprise to those who think of the city as spreading ever outward are the pockets of increasing housing density.

“People who don’t follow these things closely don’t see what’s happening,” says Rik Adamski, principal of local planning and design firm Ash + Lime. “It’s an exciting time to be in Dallas.”

He counts off numerous places where development is different. New high-rises and hotels are helping the booming Design District go vertical. Places like Uptown are becoming rivals to downtown. And there are plenty of suburban examples as well. Draw a 50-mile radius from Dallas, and you’ll hit 83 downtowns, many of which, like Garland, are starting to recognize their potential.

Dallas will build the second-most apartment units of any major city this year, 24,000, just behind New York’s 27,000. Paradox City is changing. But how fast, and for how many?

“There’s not a silver bullet that can get you better neighborhoods overnight,” Adamski says. “It’s about getting a lot of the little things right.”

Incremental isn’t in Dallas’s DNA. Because it’s set on flat plains in North Texas, no mountains or waterways block the city and region’s sprawl, and for decades, it favored low-slung, single-family development. Caught up in the same highway-first urban renewal fever as the rest of the country, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was christened the Metroplex in the ’70s, after the federal government defined the region by building a single airport for the spread-out area. Since then, the growing airport, lax regulations, and corporate relocations have helped the city bloom.

“Dallas is always chasing the chance to be a modern, cosmopolitan city, and not to be thought of as a small country town,” says Jason Roberts, a local urbanist. “We tore down our building stock and pushed modernity. There’s always been a desire to be seen as a player and force on the world stage, along with a lack of self-awareness.”

Downtown symbolized this type—or lack—of urbanism. Candy Evans, a real estate writer who runs a local site called, recalls that when she moved to Dallas in the early ’80s to work at a local TV station, she was amazed at how the city rolled up its sidewalks at night. Everyone got in their cars, hit the highways, and went home to single-family residences throughout the Metroplex. Even during the day, there wasn’t much there there; writer Norman Mailer once described the city’s skyline as “a collection of Kleenex boxes standing on end.”

“Dallas evolved at the whim of developers—just buy land and plop a building down here and there,” she says. “They got whatever they could wrestle out of the city. Downtown struggles with that.”

Attempts at remedying the sprawl have had mixed results. DART, the regional rapid-transit and light-rail system that started construction in the ’80s, famously boasts that it has the most miles of rail, 93, of any comparable agency in the country. But, spread out over the 13 cities that contribute funds for DART, it’s a mixed bag, with stations far from housing, low ridership, and holes in the service map where municipalities have refused to participate.

“Transit is just miniscule in this city,” says Kotkin.

The overwhelming architectural response to the city’s current growth spurt, according to Lamster, is “terrible, five-story brick-and-stucco beige things.” They’re not unique to Dallas—most cities have no shortage of similarly uninspired structures—but in a flat, spread-out city, where there’s so little connectivity and walkability, they stand out, and not in a good way.

“The good news is that more of these are going up, and two standing next to each other look better than one,” Lamster says.

While many developers have continued these bad habits—local developers can get “moderately rich” with mediocrity and low expectations—a counter-current has begun to slowly reshape parts of Dallas. A wave of urbanists and more socially conscious developers have, over the last few decades, helped bring a small-bore, nuts-and-bolts approach to designing the city. One of the places this started was the former warehouse district of Deep Ellum.

Established at the end of the 19th century, Deep Ellum, a warren of warehouses and music clubs, emerged as a commercial district for immigrants and African Americans. The neighborhood was the site of a Model T factory, hosted blues and jazz clubs for decades, but the I-45 highway, finished in 1973, cut it off from downtown. White flight and suburban expansion soon emptied it out, and artists and musicians took over in the early ’80s, turning it into a nightlife and gallery district.

Deep Ellum neighborhood.

Dallas has a long history of destroying its history, but entrepreneur Brandon Castillo saw promise in the brick boxes of Deep Ellum, one of the few places in the Metroplex that held onto its stock of old buildings, classic signage, and tree-lined sidewalks. In 2010, he opened the Deep Ellum Outdoor Market, a showcase for local makers and businesses, to give the neighborhood more activity than bars and clubs.

“When I opened the market at 8 a.m., there was nobody on the streets,” he says. “I’d pretty much be the only person out other than wedding photographers doing engagement photos. They intrinsically knew it was just a cool place, but nobody else was there.”

Seven years later, others have followed Castillo’s lead. New businesses are flourishing; multifamily projects, such as the Case Building and the $250 million multi-use project the Epic, are under construction; and one of the neighborhood’s largest landlords, 42 Real Estate, plans a pedestrian-friendly makeover with new public plazas. A proposal to tear down the adjacent I-345 would be a developer’s dream. Touted in tour guides and popular with young renters, it’s become a walkable, desirable place to live and work—a towering, $25 million, 7-story mixed-use project is about to break ground—and an inspiration for other developers and neighborhood advocates. But as far as Castillo is concerned, real repetition is rare.

Stores in Deep Ellum.

“Much of what’s going on now is ugly concrete slabs, like Soviet apartment buildings,” he says. “Just because you market them as live-work-play doesn’t mean you’re creating the street life that Jane Jacobs would appreciate.”

For Castillo, translating the desire for more Deep Ellums into a true development strategy means starting small.

That’s Roberts’s approach. Roberts, founder of tactical urbanism non-profit the Better Block, is most famous for helping spur more street-level development in his neighborhood of Oak Cliff in 2010, including painting DIY bike lanes and pushing for walkable streets and a trolley line under the rubric of the Oak Cliff Transit Authority. Now, when walking (or riding) down Zang Boulevard, Roberts says the impact is immediately apparent. New businesses have opened and cranes swing overhead, helping assemble apartment buildings.

While Roberts’s block has taken shape, and he’s seeing dense, walkable, mixed-use development happening, it’s too slow to meet the need and demand (others have said the same about the streetcar line, which cost $50 million for a rail line that covers the equivalent of four bus stations). His work has helped inspire the city and its Complete Streets Manual, which has embarked on a number of trial projects in an effort to create more sustainable, healthy, and walkable transit options.

Other big U.S. cities have it easier. “New York and San Francisco have great bones,” Roberts says. “But in Dallas, we have to fix the bones, too.”

Monte Anderson, who run Options Real Estate, says he’s simply a “South Dallas guy with a 10th grade education doing it out of desperation.” A former motocross racer, he got into construction and eventually real estate when he couldn’t get financing for a motorcycle store he wanted to open. But for many urbanists in the city, including Castillo, Roberts, and Adamski, he’s a forward-thinking folk hero.

Tyler Station, coworking village.

Instead of gentrification, Anderson believes in what he calls “gentlefication,” or creating affordable projects that offer local entrepreneurs and business owners the chance to build capital and succeed. In a city known for developments with million-dollar swimming pools and entertainment districts, his portfolio stands out.

At Tyler Station, a transit-oriented development at the Tyler/Vernon DART stop in Oak Cliff, he gutted the old Dixie Wax Paper Company factory to create what he calls a coworking village. Inside are dozens of community-based businesses, from yoga studios and wedding planners to a brewery, with cages separating offices instead of walls. Anderson once turned a Kmart into a tortilla factory, and planned to add trailers to mall parking lots to create a denser, more active commercial space.

“We’re way too wasteful when we tear down buildings,” Anderson says. “And we can’t afford to do it. Instead, I just add dividers and create a bazaar-like space. It’s a way of repurposing the big boxes.”

Other developers have found success with similar projects, creating new types of communities near transit hubs. Zad Roumaya, a former tech investor who runs Buzzworks, just opened a new development called Digit 1919, a transit-oriented development on South Akard Street at the Cedars DART stop, in the middle of a burgeoning neighborhood of the same name.

Squarely aimed at high-income millennials, the “young managerial” types that come with corporate relocations, units at Digit 1919, which start at $1,200 a month, are smart home-enabled. But this place doesn’t boast the typical high-end amenities of traditional Dallas developments. The building has a bike share and a coffee roastery across the street, as well as online parcel management for residents shopping on Amazon.

“This isn’t about the traditional amenities,” he says. “People don’t care. That’s for institutional investors. The magic sauce here is bringing all these craft purveyors to the area. You see people walking back and forth, and the knitting of a neighborhood starts to occur.”

Urban infill, focused on the millennial move-ins who want to be close to bars, restaurants, and amenities, is a big draw. Carl Anderson, a partner at Larkspur Capital, says that’s the inspiration behind their new townhome project on Elsbeth Street, 16 three-story units with rooftop decks near the Bishop Arts District, a small cluster of old homes and shops 10 minutes from downtown.

“Two years ago, this was barely on the citywide radar,” he says. “People on the other side of the Trinity River wouldn’t even come here.”

Bishop Arts is what Evans is calling one of the city’s new “depot” areas, a flowering of stores, small businesses, and multifamily buildings around Dallas’s major intersections. After artsy shops and local restaurants and bakeries set the stage, multifamily projects have moved in, such as the $57 million mixed-use development by Alamo Manhattan. Anderson credits these changes to new form-based zoning, the improved accessibility created by the addition of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity River, as well as the extension of the streetcar line.

“What’s driving development is increased accessibility,” he says.

What should Dallas do as a city to feed the hunger for more walkable, urban lifestyles?

“It doesn’t come without density,” says Roberts. “Single-family homes don’t make it happen. We don’t have the land use to support that kind of infrastructure.”

Roberts does see some important steps forward, focused on the street-level work that needs to happen for walkable, mixed-use development. Since Dallas became one of the last big cities to get bike share, dockless bike-share systems have become a hit. The DART board, for the first time, finally has some people who use public transit: Patrick Kennedy, an urbanist famous for his blog, “Car Free in Big D,” about living in Dallas without a car, is now helping shape city policy. Mark Brown, the city planner behind the city’s Complete Streets push and a future traffic-calming manual, says more protected bike lanes are on the way, one of many transit and streetscape programs trying to make it easier to live car-free. And the city’s new manager, T.C. Broadnax, who comes from Tacoma, Washington, has been hailed for a no-nonsense approach not beholden to traditional political alliances.

“We’re learning the wrong lessons from the examples of success in our city,” says Castillo. “Deep Ellum and Bishop Arts are successful; we need to build on top of it. But in Dallas, it seems like the bigger and more expensive always get the attention.”

In fact, slowing—and scaling—down may be the best solution.

“If you lift, you lift from the bottom up,” says Monte Anderson. “Is it a world-class city if you have a big, shiny building or bridge right next to a neighborhood where kids don’t have a basketball court to play on, or where somebody can’t afford health insurance? I don’t want to fix it fast. I don’t want to run the drug dealers off. I want to help them become entrepreneurs.”