New Cities Summit: Transforming Dallas Panel Covers What Big D Does Well, But There’s a Lot of Room For Improvement

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From left: Rena Pederson, Brent Brown, DPD Chief David Brown, Veletta Forsythe Lill, Ramon Miguez, and Michael Tregoning

I had a chance to attend the New Cities Summit this morning, and I am glad I managed to catch the “Dallas: A Case Study in Re-imagination and Transformation” panel discussion.

Of course, I expected a lot of talk about how far Dallas has come, and I got it. Moderator Rena Pederson, who was chief of the editorial department when the paper started it’s forward-thinking “The New Dallas” series, said Big D has a “try, try again” mentality, and I definitely agree. In fact, that’s the consensus I heard from the non-Dallas contingent I spoke to this morning. I asked them what they thought of our city and how it compares to their mental image of Dallas, and they said that we are definitely trying very hard.

But are we sacrificing too much in the process? And where are we falling behind? These are the questions I wish we had been able to ask.

Brent Brown of bcWORKSHOP, who has worked to engage neighborhoods in West Dallas as their areas face times of transition, said that for our city, anything is possible. When the Trinity River stood in the way of development inside downtown Dallas, we didn’t bat an eye. “We moved the river,” Brown said, adding that this action speaks to the power of the city. Likewise, there’s an intense association between residents and their neighborhood identity. Brown says that this connection is crucial. “The marrying of urban design matters,” Brown said. “It’s made through the deliberate design of cities for people.”

That’s a theme the Veletta Forsythe Lill reiterated. All of the people who’ve just moved to Dallas thanks to our booming job market think that our city is evolving at a breakneck pace, “but it’s actually been evolving for a long time,” she said. The idea to bring the Arts District downtown was a concerted effort to breathe new life into our deteriorating urban core, showing that in our city, the arts has a home. It’s made Dallas a destination, too, with world-class architecture such as the Winspear Opera House, the location for the New Cities Foundation’s summit, as well as many new buildings that have sprung up around it. Next, though, we need to build a neighborhood.

“We’ve invested in the buildings,” Lill said, “now we need to make sure we’re investing in the human factor.”

Exactly. Our infrastructure is a big part of that equation, and engineer and  HDR VP Ramon Miguez said that in order for our city to adapt to changing demands placed on its urban areas, we need more flexible infrastructure. Downtown Dallas wasn’t designed to support a 24-hour population. “Main street transformation takes infrastructure,” Miguez said, and those resources need to be prioritized in a more fluid way. That means better communication on the costs of maintaining the infrastructure system, more focused reinvestment, and better access to resources.

Michael Tregoning focused on the needs of urban areas when it comes to creating spaces that people want to occupy, like Headington Companies’ Joule Hotel. It’s become a trendy hotspot in downtown, full of gathering spaces. “You want to build with a personality that is consistent with the neighborhood,” Tregoning said. If we’re to follow that logic, though, then the Tony Tasset three-story “Eye” sculpture adjacent to the Joule must cater to downtown’s exploding population of optometrists. OK, OK, that wasn’t fair. Tregoning did have some pretty keen ideas, saying that we need to get people living back in the city even more so than they do now. To do that, developers need to build more attractive and vibrant places where people want to live.

And then we heard a short presentation from Dallas Chief of Police David Brown, who says that thanks to community engagement, technology, data-driven crime prevention efforts, “Dallas is the safest it’s been since the 1960s.” I think that’s pretty fair to say when you look at the diversity of the city now, the population explosion we’re experiencing, and the new platforms on which residents can engage Dallas Police officers.

After the panel, I managed to get a few moments with former city councilmember Ann Margolin. I wanted to know who had a hand in transforming Dallas that wasn’t on today’s panel. She said that the Communities Foundation of Texas has worked hard to serve those in poverty, but that’s not really what was missing from today’s discussion on Dallas’ transformation. It’s what we’re not doing so well that we need to shed light on, so that we can transform all of our city for the better.

“I want us to be careful that we only build things we can afford to maintain,” Margolin said. I think my head was nodding so vigorously as she said this, she probably thought it would pop right off. In a time where we have to choose between maintaining services at our overtaxed animal shelter or whether to maintain our jail and pay our police and firefighters, keep our libraries open, and fix our roads, we’re building new parks and new bridges while the existing ones crumble.

“My property taxes —my property valuation — went up this year, so I’m paying more taxes, and they tell us that we’re still $30 million in the hole? How does that happen?” Margolin asked.

That’s a very, very good question. One worthy of a panel discussion.

 

 

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