I went to to the same New Cities Summit that Economist blogger “A.B.” went to, but I had a much different takeaway. Maybe that’s because I live here, or because I’m jaded, or because I’ve seen how Dallas works, but I can’t do much more than give a slow nod to the blogger’s “Prime Time” post on the magazine’s Schumpeter blog.
You see, and I pretty much spelled it out in my post dissecting and recapping the “Dallas: A Case Study” panel from the first day of the summit. Here’s what A.B. gleaned from that session:
ONE of the first things Veletta Forsythe-Lill recalls from driving through Dallas 30 years ago was the “atrophied downtown”. A former city councilwoman, Mrs Forsythe-Lill remembers vacant land, empty buildings and desolate sidewalks. That was at the beginning of Dallas’s downturn, when office towers emptied out and most retailers followed their consumers to suburban shopping malls (apart from the Neiman Marcus at the corner of Main Street and Ervay Street, which has been there for a century).
At a recent New Cities Summit it is clear that the old Dallas is fading into a distant memory. Today the downtown of America’s ninth-most populous city has thriving museums, performing-arts spaces, a green market, restaurants and innovative retailers that are bringing people back to its pavements. Detroit, Kansas City and Cleveland may be struggling to reinvent themselves, but Dallas has prospered, not only because of its oil wealth and low taxes, but also because the city and private-sector developers and investors have combined their efforts.
But what A.B. missed was actually walking the streets of downtown, actually taking the time to see what life is like in Dallas outside the small bubble of the Arts District. Walk to the Farmer’s Market via Harwood Street, past Main Street Garden, all the way to the Farmer’s Market area, and what you’ll see 90 percent of the time are surface parking lots, pot holes, and empty sidewalks. Why? Because there’s nothing there to attract street-level activity. The roads of downtown become impossible after 4 p.m., and at 6 they become desolate. While we sell bonds to finance new convention center hotels that will host only transient populations of visitors, real change fueled by neighborhoods and new ideas are balked at.
We don’t have the money for them, it is said. But why not?
But what we really need to remember is that when we’re building new structures or renovating old ones, that no matter how much private money or public money, or the combination of the two are invested into that building, we need to fund the infrastructure the serves it. It bears remembering the words former Dallas city councilwoman Ann Margolin shared with me just after the panel:
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.