We knew this day was coming. The day we’d see new construction of high-density, mixed-use projects all over North Oak Cliff. We rezoned less than a year ago to allow the growth we knew was coming, and hopefully have some control over how it transpires.
So here we are, faced with a developer wanting to listen to the community and do a ‘good’ project. Enter: Matt Segrest and Wade Johns of Dallas-based Alamo Manhattan. They’re developing the proposed Bishop Arts Gateway project, three 5-story buildings along Zang Blvd at Davis St and Seventh St. They say they’re in it for the long term, and that they cut their teeth developing in Portland and Seattle so they understand Streetcars and well-built neighborhoods. So they called a meeting with the neighborhood Thursday to get our input.
It’s all a bit ironic if you think about it – a meeting of past gentrifiers to talk about future gentrification. Granted, not all of us at the meeting moved to O.C. from somewhere else. A couple attendees had a tenure longer than a few decades. The rest of us moved here after the police station storefront opened and closed on Bishop, after the city spent over a million dollars to build great sidewalks and plant trees, after the Texas Theatre and The Kessler were restored…
So what are we really talking about here? The changing character of a neighborhood and its people. The issue isn’t unique to Bishop Arts though, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Some call it gentrification (that dirty word), others progress.
I keeping remembering the namesake data for the theme of the recent Congress for the New Urbanism conference in Dallas last month: “Meeting the Demand for Walkable Places.” The demand (67 percent of residents in DFW want to live in a walkable community at some point in their lives) far outstrips the supply (only 4 percent of Dallas and 1.5 percent of the region qualifies as a walkable neighborhood.) So maybe this project is just meeting the market demand. Maybe we’re just creating great vibrant places that people will love — it’ll make our neighborhood more livable, a destination people will cross the country to experience, or maybe just increase our property values and bring our shops more sales.
Some people hate change at any cost, and most people are at least resistant to change. So yes, change is hard, but it’s coming whether we like it or not. “This Gateway to Bishop Arts deal is already done, it’s just a matter of who builds it,” as my banker friend put it.
So what’s really bothering us is how to keep the unique flavor of the neighborhood in as authentic a way as possible. That’s what every good neighborhood with growing pains is struggling with. Especially a neighborhood where the market is hot, in a region where growth is strong.
And the region’s urban core, Dallas has an obligation to live up to its potential to supply a majority of the walkable, transit-oriented, higher-density, mixed-use neighborhoods for the region. Just look at where the TIF Districts have been created. City staff know this is the direction we’re headed.
Back to the meeting. We can’t just be NIMBYs — we need to be able to express what it is about a development that makes it “work,” and explain to a developer who is willing to listen how we want them to build. This has to be an ongoing conversation in multiple communities around Dallas (I’m looking at you East Dallas, Lakewood, Uptown, Deep Ellum, Downtown, Henderson, Knox, Turtle Creek …)
To kick off these conversations, here are my thoughts and observations related to what makes Bishop Arts “work.”
New development needs to pay attention to:
- Architectural details: In the language of architecture it says ‘this is quality’, ‘people here care’, ‘look at me! I’m great!’, and ‘worth every penny you pay to eat lunch here.’
- Rent prices: So my young waiter friends at Oddfellows can still walk to work because a lot of them don’t own cars, along with the rest of the Millennials who will be drawn to Bishop Arts by the creative vibe and access to transit. How we’re creating vibrant and affordable places for the next generation is a whole other conversation we should be having. Now.
- Size of shops: Many small spaces makes it more interesting to walk past. And a small shop enables a local entrepreneur to test a new business model. And small spaces don’t work for most national-credit tenants, so they won’t lease here anyway!
- Distinctive feel, sense of place: Make a statement. Be bold within reason — see next bullet.
- Pedestrian scale and detail: Architecture preferences aside, there are design elements that are primary for good development. Such as a wide sidewalk, parallel or back-in parking between sidewalk and through traffic lanes, ‘permeable’ storefronts where you easily see inside and those inside can see out. Some of these cost more money. But the value will appreciate even more over time.
- Tenant mix: If we get two more flower shops in Bishop Arts, DIRT’s going to have a tough time. Be selective and aim for the perfect mix.
- Neighborhood services: We can’t just eat and shop all day every day — we and all those new residents need to buy dental floss, bandaids, and printer paper somewhere.
- Local ownership: Not as in real estate ownership, though that would be nice, but a willingness to invest our own time and energy, in addition to money.
Let’s elaborate on that last point, because I think therein lies the key: We can tell when people care. When waiters aren’t just civil, but are helpful. When shop owners genuinely listen and adjust their stock for their customers. This investment of people’s time, in other people and things in the place, add the magic we fall in love with, and make us want to buy a house nearby and invest our time in the place as well. We volunteer, meet neighbors, make new friends, and start our own business venture there with the support of our neighbors. It sounds romantic but it’s also true.
It’s the attention to detail that the small-scale local owners, developers, residents, interior designers, craftsmen and artists have the luxury of providing. Because they’re physically present, in touch with their market, and invested and engaged in creating their own success — that is what I think we’re asking for when we residents ask a developer to do a ‘good’ development. It’s hard to fake. But it’s also a great way to create real lasting value if you’re able to.