The Reasons We Don’t Have Small Development by Small Developers

Since I was a kid, Dallas’ landscape has always been in constant flux. I would leave for six months or more and come back to a city that looked different or changed inexorably. Real estate development is natural in any healthy city, and it’s a good sign that there’s investment in ours. But what really matters to me is what gets made and how.

à la boulangerie après Trader Joes sur Greenville Ave avec mon chien

We know for a fact that Lowest Greenville, Deep Ellum, and Bishop Arts are some of the most popular places to be right now. Walking around those districts just feels good and you want to be there. I’ve also shown that these places are very good investments for the city. We also know that because DFW is in short supply of these districts, demand is very high and cost of business is rising. So why are there so few of these places, and why can’t we build more of them?

Talking to financial people, policy makers, and developers themselves, I’ve come up with 4 reasons why we only develop huge 300-unit apartment complexes and town homes instead of the beautiful older districts that we love.

  1. Financial – It’s difficult today to find $800K-$1M to build a three-story walk up with retail on the ground floor that’s less than 1 acre, but investors are more than ready to finance 30 million dollar, 300-unit, 6 acre+ developments. There’s a checklist that big banks will require of a developer before financing construction, and none of those factors (like mandating a leasing office and 1.5 parking spaces per unit) benefit small development.
  2. Policy – Given the current process that governs development, a bureaucrat would much rather deal with one applicant (who has an existing relationship with the city) over 6 acres than 24 applicants over the same area. Since the paperwork is the same regardless of the size of development, small development has no advantage. Additionally, our parking requirements make Bishop Arts, Deep Ellum, and Lowest Greenville impossible and illegal to replicate.
  3. Construction – Cost of construction is increasing. From cost of materials and labor to permitting, nothing is getting cheaper in the 21st Century. Economy of scale dictates cutting cost by building bigger, quicker, and cheaper.
  4. Developers – The game is rigged to build big, so it’s a huge risk to develop land in a way that goes against code and is difficult to finance, despite the fact that the market proves traditional development to be successful. In turn, development is left in the hands of those who have experience handling 30 million dollars worth of project management. In order to have small development, we need to equip and empower small developers.

Reflecting on these four reasons, 3 of them are explicitly subject to market forces: Financial, Construction, and Developers. Policy is the only thing that citizens can control through elected representation, so our voter turnout rate is directly related to how much control we have over development. Still, voter engagement has no bearing on the kinds of places where we want to be.

The policies in place that govern development should allow for a diversity of developers who want to create places that we know citizens will like and will want to invest in. My next blog will detail some of the strategies for policies that equip communities and empower small developers to build places we will love instead of financial formulae that waste opportunities to make our city better.

The Case Against the Old Dallas Way

On the East Side of town, there are a lot of conspiracies and paranoia surrounding the Dallas Citizens Council, so to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing, watch this video that was produced this year:

The DCC was officially formed in 1937, after Dallas served as host to the Texas Centennial at Fair Park. The reason Dallas won the honor of hosting was that R.L. Thornton, before he was a highway, personally presented a $3 million check to the selection committee, a significant amount especially during the Great Depression.

Since even before the Centennial, the Dallas Way has always been to flex financial muscle in order to eschew red tape in favor of a vision agreed upon by the group. Given the financial state of our city in the 21st Century, this strategy has proven to be flawed at best.

In the epic fantasy novel I’m currently reading, one of the main characters admonishes the policy making elite for similar failures in public administration:

For years, you … have studied together and read each other’s essays until you have formed a consensus of what is persuasive and what is pleasing. You then taught these to your students, who in turn taught theirs, propagating a certain ideal. … What you call beauty and grace … are nothing but the consensus of men who have grown used to hearing each other.

Within an echo chamber, it’s easy to congratulate yourself for serving your city and improving your environment, but questioning those results has led to felony charges, blasphemy accusations, and privately sponsored antipathy. Dallas’ traditional leadership’s extreme reactions attempt to preserve their expensively fragile vision of our city. In the end, who does the Dallas Citizens Council really serve?

As shown in the video above, the Dallas Way prides itself on ignoring polls and the opinions of the skeptical population. In doing so, Dallas’ wealthy elite have broken their toy, which unfortunately affects millions of people. Our traditional leadership needs to find the courage to face its many mistakes and the scrutiny of the general public. After all, they can’t fix this city without us, just as we can’t fix Dallas without them.

 

Another Case for Phillip Kingston

Philip Kingston may be a controversial figure throughout Dallas, but he’s what you should expect coming from the East Side, which doesn’t usually fall in with this city’s status quo. One of my favorite quotes of his is that he’s “really running against 50 years of bad government in Dallas.”

Now more than ever, our city seems on the verge of real culture change. Dallas’ traditional power structure has gravely failed our city, proven by what they have done with their time in the drivers seat. Philip’s rudeness opens the door a little wider for other people to be accepted within our political environment.

At City Hall, Philip has stretched the political spectrum and created room for less boisterous new blood to fit in. As he pushes the envelope of the policy-making landscape, someone like Patrick Kennedy (who has some relatively radical ideas) seems like an obvious commonsense choice to serve on the DART Board. Or CM Mark Clayton who surprised everyone two years ago by taking his seat without a much anticipated run-off.

Philip is like the basketball player who’s throwing elbows in the paint and attracting the attention of the defense, which leaves his teammates open in the backcourt for open shots.

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via TheRinger.com

The Griggs-Medrano-Kingston trio has built great excitement for our city and brought hope to us who know Dallas has so much untapped potential that has failed to flourish. It’s important that we not kill this momentum. A friend of mine says that Dallas is always a few funerals away from being a great city. Maybe soon we’ll only be a few council elections away.

cover photo was via Lakewood Advocate Magazine

Harry Potter and the Dallas Citizens Council

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Professor Horace Slughorn

As a citizen of this city and a nerd in general, I’ve taken it upon myself to learn about Dallas history to understand the place we live in today. An organization that always comes up in my reading is the Dallas Citizens Council, made up of Dallas’ business elite. There’s a lot of vilification and conspiracy surrounding the group within my East Dallas bubble, but I’ve stumbled upon an analogy that helps me to better understand the Citizens Council.

I recently rewatched Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince because you can never be too old to appreciate magic and mystery. Horace Slughorn is the new professor this year at Hogwarts, and his characterization strikes me as relevant to my studies in how Dallas works.

Professor Slughorn is a very powerful and knowledgeable wizard, but what makes him unique are his connections with the elite of the wizarding world. Like the Dallas Citizens Council, Slughorn won’t remember your name unless you’re powerful, successful, or well-connected. The Professor’s “Slug Club” dinners suggest to me of what Dallas Breakfast Group events might be like (since I’ve never been to one, I can only speculate).

giphyBeyond his ambition, Slughorn is significant to both the book and this analogy because of his connections: he’s been privy to important conversations that have significant consequences to the world in which he lives. The Catholic in me recognizes the Professor’s guilt and denial in his reluctance to own up to a terrible decision he made in the past that gave information and power to Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s evil antagonist. Still, Professor Slughorn possesses the knowledge and key to defeating the wizarding world’s greatest enemy, which he eventually shares with Harry.

Since its inception in 1937, members of the Dallas Citizens Council have been privy to important conversations and decisions that haven’t been open to public scrutiny. Just as Slughorn reconciled his past sins, our past leaders need to unpack bad decisions and revisit past mistakes in order to fix our housing problem, to make the best out of the Trinity, and to repair Fair Park.

The organization has pivoted and wants to “work within the system,” in which case, reaching beyond its Slug Club will be necessary in order to find the best solutions to the myriad problems in our city. Otherwise, we’ll need an unfathomable amount of felix felicis to get us out of this mess.

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Raising Cane’s Ross Ave Drive Thru

I love Raising Cane’s fried chicken fingers. I don’t leave Old East Dallas for any random reason, but I will drive to Lovers and Greenville just to grab some Cane’s chicken strips more often than I care to admit. That said, I have mixed feelings about the new Cane’s going up on Ross Ave.

I’ve complained enough about Ross on this forum. But to sum up my frustration with how we develop the Eastside, I’m extremely disappointed with the design and form of the most important corridor that links Downtown to East Dallas. We have had the opportunity to extend the greatness of Lowest Greenville, but we’ve chosen to replicate Coit and Campbell. And the brand new Raising Cane’s drive thru is case in point of wasted opportunity.

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Before and during construction

To make numbers up to prove a point, let’s say that the new location will bring in 500 cars per day, so over 7 days a week and 52 weeks a year, that would be 182,000 cars per year that will come in and out of this location, where previously there was no activity at all, in addition to the car traffic that currently passes through this section of Ross (19,387/day in 2002 according to the city). The question I have is: will this facility produce enough tax revenue to make up for the traffic wear and tear on the roads that serve it?

I did a quick analysis of two properties on Lowest Greenville: a traditional development vs a modern drive thru.

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According to 2016 data from DCAD.org, the traditional development yields a 90% higher return on property tax yield and has increased in value more than 100% over a decade, as opposed to the drive thru that decreased in value by 14% over the same period of time. I calculated the value over an acre to imagine what a neighborhood of these types of developments would look like financially.

If our goal is to build wealth in our city that is quickly losing value, then Raising Cane’s drive thru development is nothing more than a band aid over a gushing laceration. Dallas needs creative solutions to solve our myriad financial problems. While not providing a quick fix, reforming how we develop our land will be similar to establishing healthier habits to stave off larger medical bills down the road.

In the end, Cane’s will have my business, as Taco Cabana already does, but the dopamine starts and ends with fried chicken, and not with civic pride.

The rarest house money can buy in Dallas


My wife and I are Old East Dallas people. While we dated, she lived on Worth St and I lived on Junius. I raised my dog Oprah living behind Henderson on Moser Ave. When we told our realtor that we were looking for a house within two miles of Downtown, west of Munger, north of Fair Park, and under $200,000, “Umm, have you ever considered a condo?” he responded. I bet he was thinking to himself, “Good luck, young ones.”

We took the realtor’s advice seriously and found exactly what we were looking for in a fortnight. It was a two bedroom, two bathroom 1000 sqft home inside our price range and within our specified location. When we found our Swiss Ave condo, we knew we had to secure it quickly. There wasn’t necessarily a rush, since the previous owner had dropped the price over two weeks previous to the day we made our offer. My wife and I had to buy the place and soon or else we’d have gone mad with anticipation.

We now own a portion of Viola Courts, a building that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. A building so odd in Dallas that the units have been difficult to market since the building’s construction in 1923, still Viola Courts is a residence that would be typical in neighborhoods of its era in New York or Chicago. Our building is located in the Peak Suburban Addition neighborhood, which dates back to 1855, when 2 miles from Downtown was more similar to Frisco than San Francisco. So its urban form is out of place among the foursquare and craftsman homes.

A century later, however, Viola Courts is perfect for my wife and I. We are close enough to her job that Oprah and I walk her to work every morning. We’re able to remain a one-car household. Jimmy’s Italian is our local grocery, again within walking distance. We are a quick bike ride away from Deep Ellum, Klyde Warren, Lowest Greenville, Lakewood Shopping Center, and the Asian restaurants on Bryan St. But the best thing about our condo is living on Swiss Ave.


We’re across the street from the gates that mark the Swiss Historic District, so I promise our address won’t get to our heads. Still, I am able to leave the building’s vestibule, cross the street, and enjoy a parkway with beautiful homes and people walking, jogging, and riding at all hours of the day. The shaded medians are our dogpark. We exemplify the Millennial movement to live closer to the city center, eschew the automobile, and occupy less space.

It’s unfortunate that this opportunity is so rare in Dallas because I know we’re not alone in wanting this kind of residence. There are plenty of single family homes of this age, but very few multi-family for sale. Most properties for sale in our desired area bottom out at half a million dollars.

In Old East Dallas, we’re seeing plenty of townhomes being constructed that are double the area of our home, include a two-car garage, and triple the price. There’s little incentive to build a similar condo product as Viola Courts, since the number of units don’t match models that are easy to finance. Also, predatory law practices target architects and builders who choose to build this kind of structure.

We understand that our single-car, minimalist lifestyle is not a typical situation in our region, but Dallas is a big enough city to attract and keep weird people like us. I wish there were more diversity of options for our contemporaries where couples with similar priorities as us can thrive.

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Dallas, Where Dumb Ideas Have Thrived

A friend of mine on the FaceSpace posted this, and I overthought my response when I should have just written a blog.

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I’ve been thinking about this too, and of myriad reasons, I’m drawn to two: 1) Old South politics (see Colin Woodard’s American Nations for clarification) doesn’t exactly understand democracy. Nor does the local population, 6% of whom participate in municipal elections. Dallas just isn’t very experienced in the democratic process, which entails research, transparency, debate, and compromise.

American Nations by Colin Woodard

2) Being home to advertising firms such as the Richards Group, Dallas responds well to marketing. Even our mayor is an accomplished marketer. We’re really good at crafting a story of the region that inflates our pride. Conversely, the stories that require a nuanced understanding of culture, history, and economics are much more difficult to craft and require longer range thinking, which are not particularly strengths of marketing and advertising. So it’s easy to sell the people who advocate the Humann Plan and the Trinity Toll Road because they’re so susceptible to a good story. Ultimately, these well crafted stories built on shaky facts are supported by a fragile and insecure few, who are able to withstand the the voices of hundreds.

The Dallas Myth by Harvey J Graff

The irony of Dallas is that while we’re so good at crafting a story about ourselves, we don’t have a solid foundation that defines our identity. Dallas has always leaned on its business class for leadership and direction, and after the Kennedy assassination in 1963, Dallas did as it always did, when we really needed leadership from cultural and spiritual communities. As such, we swept our problems under the rug and allowed JR Ewing and the Dallas Cowboys to define this city (Prof. Graff’s Dallas Myth provides a great treatment of this story. Find it at your local library!).

Moving forward, we’re currently seeing a new life and dimension to the history, events, and personalities that define Dallas, which those hundreds of voices Nathaniel refers to have taken on. Still, we haven’t really developed a comprehensive vocabulary for discussing these changes, but it’s just something that you can feel happening. Right now.