Dallas Commuter Rail

WIth four different trains and a total of 93 miles of track, DART really IS the biggest light rail operator in the country.

By Hayley Enoch
Special Contributor

To many, public transportation is a fixture of large Eastern cities like New York or Washington, D.C.

It might come as a surprise to learn that Dallas Area Rapid Transit holds its own when measured against more established public transportation systems. Let’s take a look at why DART’s system is unique, and how it is essential to the future of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

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Sprawl 1

The last 70 years of urban planning were a colossal mistake that we’re all suffering with and are only just beginning to unravel.

Pretty bold claim, eh? Maybe I’m having an Urban Land Institute convention hangover, but think about it:  The post WWII suburbanization of America led to a long-term evacuation of major cities.  It was in the post-war era that Dallas’ once vibrant downtown began its death spiral into a 9-to-5 office park. It was the post-war era that saw the rise of strip centers, malls, and most recently big box stores that all sucked the life out of towns of all sizes across the nation.

“Drive until you can afford it,” was the jingle to home buyers for many bedroom communities right up to the recession.

Now, 70 years after that horrible experiment began, what are we seeing?  Manufactured Main Streets filled with the exact same dense, mixed-use, vibrancy once enjoyed in cities and small towns everywhere. We’re turning back the clock to the way people have lived for millennia.  Every human settlement since … forever … has centralized its services and clustered living. No one visits Venice or Machu Picchu to see the suburbs.

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Dallas Arts District: Empty by Day

Dallas Arts District: Empty by Day

There’s always a second side to a coin.  While some of the sessions at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) meeting were inspiring, others demonstrated developers’ tone-deafness to the world around them. While proud of their achievements, few reflected on the effects of their developments.

“The Uptown Lowdown: Dallas’ Hottest Urban Market”

I suspect even the dead know how hot Uptown Dallas has become. It’s so hot, the area can even shell out for world-class architects, something Dallas skyline hasn’t seen in decades. In the 1980s every other architectural word seemed to be I.M. Pei or Philip Johnson.  In the decades since, our skyline has been shaped seemingly by graduates of box-building school.

Crescent Court Lot an "Arrow" to the Future of Uptown

Crescent Court Lot an “Arrow” to the Future of Uptown

Crescent Development points out that the newly opened McKinney and Olive building, designed by Cesar Pelli, is “the first internationally acclaimed architect to design a commercial building in Dallas since the 1980s.”  Not coincidentally, in 1986 Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed the Crescent Court, which kick-started the commercial transformation of Uptown.  Sitting on a triangular lot, the Crescent seems to be pointing the way out of downtown.

And don’t get me wrong, Uptown has been a great story of urban renewal that has extended the core of Dallas northward.  But at the same time, listening to the stories of its birth were squirmy.  Attracting initial residents was difficult, as is often the case when downtrodden areas are renewed (we fear the poor). But the indifference and mocking of the area’s original residents was discomforting.

And again, I’m fine with mocking Uptown as having been full of used car lots, antique stores, and tarot card readers … they’re businesses.  But listening to the derision towards the residents who’d called Uptown home was distasteful.  We heard about developers cutting deals with “crack heads” on the corner and “showing apartments while stepping over chalk outlines on the sidewalks.” All of this seemed to be code for the people of color who lived in Uptown before the area was whitewashed by development.

Before you get in a snit, talk of crack heads and chalk outlines does not bring to mind white neighborhoods.  It also doesn’t bring to mind middle or upper class neighborhoods. I didn’t live in Dallas at the time, but I knew what the speakers meant.  Poor, black people.

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ULIFall2016

The Urban Land Institute held its 2016 Fall Meeting in Dallas last week with a tizzy of tours, sessions, networking events, and dinners. In my experience, the biggest benefit of a conference is in the networking. But the content at this one also covered a large array of subjects, from community engagement to redeveloping skyscrapers, to global trends, to niche discussions like “To Sell or To Hold,” and “The Fundamentals of Attracting and Keeping Companies North Texas Style.”

Tuesday I led a tour of the seven new development projects going up in the Bishop Arts District for the Colorado ULI chapter through the North Central Texas Congress for New Urbanism (more on that to come!) Wednesday and Thursday I got to catch a few sessions.

Highlights from the sessions included:

  • new metrics to qualify which dense urban cities are the best investment opportunities
  • innovative ideas for community engagement (from Detroit, of course)
  • the argument for building wood frame apartments above concrete podium parking.

And one topic repeatedly came up in each session — whether in the presentation,  in conversations with attendees, or by Q&A with audiences — affordable housing.

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CityMAP main graphic 1

If you missed part one, click here.  Overall, the documents and scenarios CityMAP put together are logical and straight-forward.  Most call for the submersion of key highways surrounding Dallas’ core aiding in traffic flow and neighborhood revitalization.

One calls for the rerouting of I-30 to the distant south and one calls for the removal of a portion of I-45 and US-75.  I’m all for the submersion and covering of these highways.  I’m faaaaaar from convinced on these other two.

Are you HIGH?

What happens to 45/75 traffic when it's partially removed. Everything scatters before returning to the highway.

What happens to 45/75 traffic when it’s partially removed. Everything scatters before returning to the highway.

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CityMAP main graphic 1

Last night I attended the first public roundup for the CityMAP project.  Haven’t heard of it?  Well, neither had I until 72 hours ago.  Turns out it’s a framework for traffic mitigation and neighborhood revitalization that’s been put together for the past 15 months based on input from people who know about traffic and neighboring residents.  So far, it’s unlike the crony-driven Preston Center plan.  CityMAP is based more on research than avarice.

And … oh my … is there research.  There’s a 15-page summary for the kiddies or the 351-page doorstop for the minutia-driven.

Guess what I read?  Yup.  Both.  What can I say, I need more fiber in my diet.

Before I get too far in, don’t expect a bloodbath from me.  There’s only one plan component that I question and just one scenario I think is totally doolally … but it’s the internet, so I have to tease you into reading more.

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SamsCityplace

Interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal (sub req.) on Sunday raised a sacreligious question: are the billions we are spending on light rail really worth it, especially real-estate wise? Los Angeles and other auto-heavy Sunbelt cities such as Phoenix, Denver and Charlotte, N.C., are building out expensive light rail systems costing billions of dollars, funded by sales taxes and federal dollars. Urban experts tell us light rail encourages dense development, helps unclog traffic arteries, and boosts real estate values and development at station points. And of course, it’s so green.

In fact,

A 2014 study of the Phoenix area’s light-rail system co-written by Arizona State University professor Michael Kuby showed an increase in residential and commercial property values after the system was introduced, extending more than a mile from stations.

But not so in Charlotte, where a 2012 study of property values near the light-rail system stations there produced a “mixed bag of results.” Apparently a few high end developers put up some fancy digs near the stations that would have been built anyhow. As for creating a real estate boom, light rail may be like robbing Peter to pay Paul: just pilfers real estate values from another part of the city:

Randal O’Toole, a transportation and land use expert for the conservative Cato Institute, said he believes local governments are investing in light rail only “because the federal government is offering money for it.” If proximity to transit lines does boost property values, “it does so at the expense of values somewhere else in the same city or urban area,” he said.

Of course, we have a DART station on Central Expressway at CityPlace. And what do we have across from it? A big box Sam’s Club. Yeah, don’t get me started. Haskell is becoming a whole new world. But no, we couldn’t have some mixed-use something with housing, developer went for the quick buck. (more…)

It took years for the Oak Cliff Streetcar route to go from a dream to reality. Rail expert Hayley Enoch breaks down the long process of how new mass transit comes on line.

It took years for the Oak Cliff Streetcar route to go from a dream to reality. Rail expert Hayley Enoch breaks down the long process of how new mass transit comes on line.

By Hayley Enoch
Special Contributor

[Editor’s note: The now free Dallas Festival of Ideas kicks off tomorrow and runs through Saturday, with speakers and panels focusing on the future of our city. One subject that comes up time and again is the need for walkable cities and more accessible mass transit. To facilitate that discussion, we asked rail journalist Hayley Enoch to break down the long process of how mass transit ideas become reality.]

Dallas-area residents don’t have to travel too far from their driveways to see that our local highway system has not kept up with demand. One hour drive times, even for small errands, have created a population eager to invest in light rail, streetcars, and other forms of public transportation.

Despite the demand, new public transportation projects and expansions to the existing system have been slow to materialize. This gives ammunition to those who call for wider highways and more toll roads, and believe that public transportation cannot efficiently serve Dallas-area residents. However, what makes expanding the system to keep up with demand difficult isn’t so much that civic planners are unaware of the need for additional capacity, but that there is a  complex pre-planning process that must be carried out before any new construction can begin. A better understanding of the process could help residents of Dallas-Fort Worth plan for our transportation future.

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