A week ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 17th annual Neighborhood Boot Camp, which is offered by the Dallas Homeowners League. It was my first time to attend, but I have to say – it’s a must for anyone who has had trouble getting help from City Hall in the past – or who belongs to a neighborhood association or crime watch.
The morning was chock-a-block full of useful information from the beginning panel discussion moderated by the Dallas Morning News‘ Robert Wilonsky (panel members included Monte Anderson, Patrick Kennedy and Wick Allison), to the workshops after covering things like navigating City Hall, defining a strong neighborhood, adapting to change in neighborhoods, supporting and promoting DISD, historic preservation and water conservation tips.
I attended the workshop on navigating city hall, conducted by Philip Kingston, and the workshop on promoting and supporting DISD, conducted by Melissa Kingston (more on those tomorrow).
The morning began, however, with a panel discussion on the challenges Dallas faces, as well how to build a vibrant downtown Dallas. “Many of us live in neighborhoods with terrible streets,” Wilonsky acknowledged, adding that many neighborhoods lack amenities you can walk to, as well.
One question the group tackled was how to reconnect downtown to the city neighborhoods – and how to navigate city hall while trying to do so.
“We’re used to going on our own,” Anderson said, adding that fixes can be complex, or as easy as changing unneeded fourth lanes in now-less-traveled streets into bike lanes with paint and signage, which better connects neighborhoods to transit, which brings them to the downtown core.
“It’s just paint on the street, but it’s a very simple start,” Anderson said.
Kennedy said the city needs a great urban core, because the tax base a good urban core provides can bring in a lot of dollars. Uptown, for instance, brings in 30 times the tax dollars per capita citywide.
With that money, the city then has funds to upgrade infrastructure, he added.
Addressing the efficiency of the city transit can also help revitalize downtown, because studies show that riders are more willing to walk a little longer distance to a bus or train stop if the bus system is more reliable and efficient. Houston, for instance, recently reviewed and re-drew bus routes for maximum efficiency.
Kennedy also said he would like to see it be a goal to have more “complete neighborhoods” – i.e., neighborhoods where all amenities are within a 20 minute walk.
“It is very clear that we have to be very frank with ourselves,” Allison said. A deterioriating financial situation is occurring because homeowners are carrying the tax burden usually carried by commercial enterprise. “The way to restore that is through downtown.”
“We’re not going to get a Toyota,” Allison continued, bluntly, “but 100 businesses with with 15 employees each – we can do that – and it’s stronger.”
Uptown, Allison said, produces more value to the city than downtown with all its sky scrapers. And those amenities that Kennedy mentioned, that commercial activity, could all be brought in to struggling south and southeast Dallas, he said.
“Instead of arguing about how to divide the pie, increase the damned pie,” he said. “Reverse the trend of commerce not contributing as much as homeowners do.”
Wilonsky asked the panel if they found they had to ignore or go around city hall to get things done.
“City Hall is a barrier for south Dallas,” Anderson said. City Hall, he added, incentivizes developers who build apartments that deteriorate, and makes it hard for lower-level entrepreneurs to get started and do business. “Put real estate in teh hands of local owners, not developers,” he said. “Let them get the tax incentives and TIF funds.”
Places like Bishop Arts and others, he says, are good because they are in the hands of locals. “I don’t believe in developers getting money from the city anymore,” he said. “And I’m not going to take money from the city anymore.”
Kennedy said that if neighborhoods want things to happen, they have to collaborate to work with the city. The city, he said, needs to engage in targeted economic incentive spending. “How do we make 30 Bishop Arts?” he asked.
As it stands, multiple neighborhoods support Lower Greenville and Bishop Arts. But those neighborhoods also feel the growing pains involved with being one of a handful of complete neighborhoods that encourage walkability – meaning people from outlying areas crowd in to enjoy those spaces. Thirty complete neighborhoods like Bishop Arts or Lower Greenville would relieve that.
Neighborhood building, Anderson said, often starts at “looking at the space between the buildings.” He said, as an example, allowing a developer to buy a lot between two anchor businesses and rent out trailers to small business people could eventually result in the entire block or neighborhood becoming first an incubator for small businesses and then home to mature businesses that support the neighborhood and provide jobs. It could start, he said, with something as simple as a snow cone stand, “but the city won’t work with you.”
Care does have to be taken to make sure that the neighborhood has amenities – and doesn’t become what Kennedy called a “monoculture.” For instance, he said, Lower Greenville was meant to be a neighborhood center, but as bars and nightclubs took over, for a while it was a monoculture of bars. The neighborhoods and city council members representing that area worked to change the culture, and it is once again a walkable destination.
Wilonsky also asked about dying strip mall centers. “Are they dragging neighborhoods down?” he asked.
Anderson gave the example of an empty big box in south Dallas. Talk was made about putting in a used furniture store that would employee three or four people. Instead, a tortilla factory and restaurant employees 200 people – and many of them are from the neighborhoods around the building.
“The use of old strip centers is going to have to change,” Anderson said, but said he was against tearing them down wholesale. Again, he would see those places become incubator spaces for neighborhood entrepreneurs, which would lead to more jobs and a better chance for complete neighborhoods.