The Future of Bishop Arts: A Neighborhood Conversation on The Pedestrian Scale

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Rob Shearer leads panelists (left to right) Sarah Tillman, Councilman Scott Griggs, Michael Nazarian, Jim Lake Jr., Robbie Good, Mark Lamster, Allison Cuellar, and Patrick Kennedy.

Surprisingly, the discussion this past Tuesday (last week) over the future of Bishop Arts didn’t devolve into a gripe-fest. The evening began with a showing of The Human Scale at the Texas Theater. The film by Scandinavian architect Jan Ghel explores the state of cities and the evolution of our understanding of  the human habitat.

The tone of the conversation was “How do we get more of what’s great about Bishop Arts?” Rob Shearer, principal at Kickstand marketing and host of the program, pointed out that there are thousands of apartments and hundreds of square feet of retail planned for the North Oak Cliff neighborhood over the next few years.

In the lobby, two boards covered with butcher paper asked attendees what they fear losing the most, and how they feel about Oak Cliff.

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What is one positive word you would use to describe how you feel about Oak Cliff?

After the film, a panel of local business owners and experts convened to share their insights and answer audience questions.

“The pedestrians make Bishop Arts District what it is,” began Jim Lake Jr. “It’s running into people you know, and the walk-ability  — it slows traffic so you feel comfortable.”

Patrick Kennedy (of D Magazine’s Streets Smart and Space Between Design Studio) chimed-in that what’s most important is what happens between the buildings. We want places such as one mentioned in the film where, “the streets are now our living room.” Yet there’s typically no design direction (much less, requirements) for developers to achieve this. If we don’t decide where we want a plaza, we won’t get one.

Over and over again, the panelists mentioned pedestrian-scale like a refrain, in both the architecture and in the space between the buildings. So why aren’t we more picky about what’s allowed to be built in our neighborhoods? We don’t NEED development AT ANY COST. We need GOOD development that will contribute to the value of our places and spaces over the longer-term.

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Jim Lake Jr. tells it like it is. His firm has owned property in Bishop Arts since 1995 and in the Design District since 1998.

The audience passed questions to the stage. How do we learn more about all these projects coming to Bishop Arts? Councilman Scott Griggs gave his email and phone number and cited his weekly newsletter, the Planning and Zoning agenda,  and The Advocate (and CandysDirt?) as resources for up-to-the minute info. He also explained what a TIF is (Tax Increment Finance district) and how an informed TIF Board is the only guard against bad development. But there’s really no teeth in a TIF, despite it being the only process at City Hall that includes a Urban Design Peer Review Panel. A developer can decide not to take the TIF funds and just build whatever they want if the Board’s recommendations become too high of a standard. There’s no other requirement to analyze a project’s impact on the public realm.

Organizing and paying attention is a community’s best line of defense against poorly-designed development. Jim Lake echoed that sentiment, emphasizing the need for us to demand higher standards for developers. That’s tough with projects funded by institutional money – that’s not usually part of the pro forma.

Michael Nazarian, Bishop Village developer, seems to have won over Oak Cliff residents with his attention to detail — not just in design, but in his pro forma. “Large retailers, (The GAPs of the world) are on the way out.” he quipped. “Small spaces incubate entrepreneurs.” And small small retail spaces fit for start-ups often don’t even fit the business model of national credit tenants. It’s an intentionally different strategy, based on a long-term investment in the place.

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Shearer brought affordable housing into the conversation, citing that the algorithm to determine the “affordable” rate is based on the region’s median household income: $58,000. For the city of Dallas however, the median household income is more like $42,000. In the Census tract just south of Davis and Bishop, it’s $26,000. How do we keep service-industry employees, teachers, and firemen in our neighborhood?

Smart development from the ’20s created lots of value, even today, as Mark Lamster pointed out. There could be a whole  amazing neighborhood beyond just the Bishop Arts District.

We need to increase walk-able or walk-friendly areas like this ALL OVER Dallas, so this isn’t one of the few places everyone has to visit to experience it. That’s probably part of the supply-and-demand algorithm that enables affordability. The Human Scale made the point that we measure what we care about.

Maybe our focus should be on:

-measuring a well-designed public realm

-long-term quality investments

-diverse neighborhoods with a variety of housing price points

-pro formas that favor local retail.

Luckily, District 1 has a councilman with a keen interest in good design of the public realm and involving his constituents. That’s a start.

In The Human Scale, the story of Christchurch, New Zealand, illustrated the ability of citizens and an engaged City government to influence redevelopment of the city center. After an earthquake destroyed the city in 2011, the citizens decided they wanted buildings no taller than 7 stories in the city core. The City passed a resolution and fought to see it enforced.

As it stands, without the involvement and cooperation between citizens, City Hall, and developers to make our neighborhoods great places for people, I think our plight is stated best in The Human Scale: “There are bigger economic forces at play that will determine the future of our city.” And citizens will not be the beneficiaries.

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What is one thing you fear losing the most in a changing Oak Cliff?

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