Suburban is the New Urban as Town Centers Draw More People Out of Traditional Cities

Lee, James NEW 2013

James Lee of the Counselors of Real Estate presented on the top 10 issues affecting real estate at the National Association of Real Estate Editors 2016 convention on June 8.

I had the chance to pick the brain of James Lee, 2016 chair of the Counselors of Real Estate, after he presented the Top 10 Issues Affecting Real Estate at the National Association of Real Estate Editors Spring Conference in hot-and-muggy New Orleans. While the full list (available after the jump) was far-reaching in scope, we wanted a closer look at issues affecting our region.

I had some questions for Lee about a few very specific issues and new realities that Dallas and North Texas is facing, highlighted by his list of issues. While densification and urbanization was No. 4 on the list, it’s either close to or at the top of the growing list of hurdles our region is attempting to surmount.

One of Dallas’ long-term goals is creating effective urban infill and adapting the existing landscape to the needs of today’s resident, but it seems that our suburbs got the message long before we did, and have worked with developers to build the kinds of town centers and live/work/play mixed-use developments that attract corporations that bring jobs and long-term stability.

Is it too late for Dallas to adapt? Can we really turn unused and stagnant existing structures into a vibrant, dense city?

“Well, Minneapolis, for example, has done it really well,” Lee said. “It took the 30 years or more to implement. It’s really very difficult.”

If you look a bit closer, Dallas faces a lot of the same challenges as this Midwest city.

The two cities approached urban renewal the same way, bulldozing swaths of the city to make room for new development back in the 1950s and 60s. Although whether or not that was the right move is still debated, what it did for Minneapolis was create new opportunities for architecture, some of which is stunning.

Dallas Aerial from 1953 (Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma)

Dallas in 1953 (Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma)

However, it also created room for highways that have diced up and segmented the city, a problem that Dallas is dealing with today. It’s even more prescient as the Texas Department of Transportation has recommended the razing of a key Dallas highway, which could go a long way toward connecting the urban city center to some of its close-in neighborhoods.

Minneapolis Aerial 2013

Minneapolis in 2013 (Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma)

Dallas Aerial 2013

Dallas in 2013 (Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma)

 

Of course, Dallas appears to have a bigger highway addiction than Minneapolis, but when it comes to transportation issues, Lee says that there’s no easy fix. What this essentially does is make it easy to create a commuter culture, ushering people out of the city at 5 p.m. Slowly but surely, those suburbs start to build out and become denser, more urbanized, Lee noted.

“They create their own town centers,” Lee said. “Frisco is a good example of this.”

Yes, Frisco has worked hard to build the infrastructure that will attract new corporate relocations, with excellent schools, public safety, top-of-the-line amenities, and proximity to a larger cultural sphere. Frisco, along with Plano, have built-out or are in the middle of building these mixed-use town centers the provide a walkable experience with restaurants and retail, and even luxury high-rise condos.

Of course, with more densification and urbanization, you cannot overlook transportation. “A good city, as you know, has transportation in place,” Lee added. “It’s really hard to put that in after the fact.”

Dallas is all too familiar with this quandary, especially as we try to bring a second light rail line to downtown Dallas. Some see an above-ground line that carves up the streets and buildings on Jackson Street as the only viable answer, while Dallas City Councilmember Philip Kingston is a dog with a bone over the promised subway line DART sold many people on. How will our increasingly urban suburbs deal with that as they grow? Will they join DART?

And while we love to make comparisons, Lee cautions spending too much time chasing after the dream of perfect urbanism. “You look at ideas that will work well in San Francisco, but Dallas is not San Francisco,” Lee said. While bringing back residential populations and fostering greater density in urban centers is important, you have to look at it from a cultural standpoint. Dallas has a car culture, and that culture is resistant to change. Just ask the many cyclists who have to deal with horns and angry drivers on their commutes.

And technology, with automated cars no longer in the realm of science fiction, is another factor. Imagine how much easier it would be to commute from Prosper to downtown Dallas and beyond without human error behind the wheel? And how would that affect mass transit? And what about affordable housing?

It seems that right now, there are a lot more questions than answers.

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