A Formula for Culture

I’ve had the privilege of traveling all over our country as well as overseas. Specifically with the Deep Ellum Market and with the P&G (rest in peace), my objective had been to take things I enjoyed in my travels and bring them back to my home town. In the attempt to bring new concepts to Dallas, I have consistently run crossways with local culture, or the habits that people are accustomed to. Given this experience, I’ve come up with a formula for culture: culture=habitsxtime.

Google search of the term ‘culture’ yields various results from scientific to artistic, but for me, it’s more useful to apply a quantitative metric for culture in order to dig deep into an otherwise nebulous term. Instead of trying to define ‘Dallas culture’ or assign it some definition, we can look at a certain subset of people who maintain particular habits and analyze the cause and effect of those habits in an effort to understand that group. Ultimately, if we want to affect change in people’s eating or commuting or even hygiene, we have to understand what needs to change in their habits and how to sustain those changes over a period of time. This is the only way to reform culture.

Bike lane, no bikes in Salt Lake City via Google Maps

I observe cycling culture when I travel. From Oakland to Milwaukee, I see many American cities implementing more shared and separated bike lanes, but I don’t see many people riding in them. I fear the same thing in Dallas, that if we build bike lanes, would people actually bike more? Would it be worth the investment to build infrastructure before understanding how we want to affect people’s habits first?

I share similar misgivings about Dallas’ car culture. While it’s easy to say that our city will always be a car-centric, if we look deeper into the habits of commuters, we find that road rage occurs more often than we care to admit. Could it be that we love our cars, but we hate to drive in traffic?

If we are to have a multi-modal transportation network, we have to consider the daily habits of what we want that culture to yield and do everything we can to make those habits as viable, convenient, and dignified as possible. If we’re able to maintain this over a long period of time, our commuting culture will build value for the city.

My intention is not to render culture heartless by assigning it a formula, but rather to gain a better understanding of how we use the word and a deeper perspective of how people behave. It’s fun to observe brunch culture, voting culture, development culture, and even cell phone culture. After all, our habits define our behavior, which defines our identity, which we often share with other people. If we can look at the behavior that we’ve maintained over time, we can find better solutions for ourselves and our city, provided we’re willing to improve our habits.

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Strategies to Allow More Small Development

I love downtowns, not only the one here in Dallas, but other ones in the surrounding suburbs and all around Texas. The thing is, we don’t make downtowns anymore, despite our mixed-use attempts. If you haven’t read the previous blog, feel free to read the reasons why. We know we collectively love walkable, diverse, and interesting places, but we’ve rendered them illegal and impossible to develop. This entry will suggest strategies to enable more developers to create places we know we love so that the “downtown” environment isn’t secluded to the oldest and most expensive sections of our city.

A question I’ve been asking myself lately is who should build downtowns and where would they be built? Because the diversity of buildings appeals to me in a downtown setting, naturally we need to allow for a diversity of ownership as well. Rather than investing in a single family home in Little Elm, what if Dallas’ development policy incentivized a financially responsible person to develop Casa View’s empty parking lots instead? What if we made it more favorable for plumbers, professors, and computer engineers to develop three-story walk-ups that could house their families as well as other tenants? What if you could build a legacy instead of just building debt?

In order to create value in our empty spaces and build wealth in our communities, development policy needs to be both profitable, so that lenders can make a money by financing through normal home building loans, and simple, so that accountants, dentists, and restaurant owners can develop downtowns themselves out of our aging strip-malls and empty parking lots. The idea is to relieve the traffic that floods Lowest Greenville, Bishop Arts, and Deep Ellum by creating more places with character, gathering spaces, and opportunity in areas that lack these things.

Forest and Webb Chapel via Google Maps

Here are a few strategies that may help to enable people to develop on their own:

  1. Split up large properties – Keep it difficult to consolidate parcels of land, but make it easier to split up larger properties. For example, strip mall parking lots are too big and no one wants to be there. People will come if you allow others to invest in small plots where they can build downtown style apartments and a legacy onto the next generation. Re-dedicate space for cars into space for people, which will create value where there is little and increase the tax base for the city.
  2. Pre-approve 6-10 designs of buildings – I have no idea the implications for liability, as architects absorb much blame in development, but we should have a handful of designs that can be green-lit as soon as possible. We can have standard designs for 1/2, 3/4, or 1 acre lots that will be quickly approved, provided the developer follows the plan exactly. This can help reduce the risk of lending, as long as we can make it work with local banks. If banks can free up money, then developers will come following. If we standardize the construction, then that can lead to more cost predictability for builders, since wholesalers will know what to stock and contractors will know what to build.
  3. Land value transparency – In the State of Texas, you don’t have to disclose real estate sales prices, but this is one of the mechanisms that fuels land value speculation, specifically when new zoning is approved. If there’s the possibility of “up-zoning” in an area, the market value of the land jumps up, making development that much more expensive. I’m not too knowledgeable about economics, but knowing how much people pay for a product may stabilize prices by exposing that product’s true value.
  4. Power to the Precinct – Change is difficult. People are difficult. And voter turnout is abysmal. So much seems out of people’s control, so give people’s vote more meaning and power in order to bring them to the polls. Because the county already organizes us into precincts of about 8000 people each, we can give power to the precinct by allowing them to decide whether or not they want a particular rule in their area. So if a precinct in Dallas is 8000 people, then 480 people will vote, therefore if you’d want change, 241 people would have to vote in favor of it.

As stated in the previous post, policy is the only thing normal citizens can affect in their communities that isn’t market-based. Good policy can unlock markets by establishing new rules in the investment game. The strategies that I suggest are meant to invite more developers, more banks, more builders, and more citizens to participate in the game, since development in Dallas today is confined to the few who can afford the high price.

If our goal is to foster wealth in our communities, we have to create opportunities with the resources we have in Dallas right now, which are random empty plots of land, sprawling parking lots, and a desperate foreboding of the future. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles that make traditional downtown development difficult and expensive to pursue, however our municipal policies that govern development can be the tools citizens use to build downtowns in their communities, whether on Webb Chapel or on Henderson Ave.

Henderson Ave via Google Maps

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.

Entertainment Districts and Dallas’ Restaurant Bubble

The Dallas Observer’s article on the Dallas Restaurant Bubble is a fascinating view of local food culture from chefs and restauranteurs, and what I want to do is portray the same issue from an urban planning and development point of view. I’ve been harping on and on about entertainment districts for years now, but I haven’t tied my opinions directly to our restaurant scene.

In the context of suburban sprawled city planning, entertainment districts were necessary release valves for people who chose to live far from the city center. Places like Deep Ellum and the West End became adult playgrounds where there were no consequences for locals because practically no one lived there. By the turn of the century, both places lost popularity and nightlife moved to other areas.

Contemporary developers have responded to “Live. Work. Play.” marketing and are providing plenty of that product in Dallas that somehow misses the mark in creating authentic places. Constructing huge products (200+ units) that allow people to Live. Work. Play. relies on putting luxury apartments (at $2+/sqft) on top of entertainment districts. These new bars and restaurants are expected to bring in people from all over the city in order for them to hit their revenue numbers so that the property owners can pay off their investors.

Because of financing criteria for huge projects, the system in place mitigates risk by limiting creativity but relying very heavily on marketing. Notice the nationwide trend of renaming revitalized neighborhoods: PoCo, LoBlo, ButHol. Since the internet and big box stores are killing the retail market, restaurants and the chefs that drive them are a crucial piece to keeping the wheel turning, which means that they inflate the value of a fancy restaurant, and we get our bubble.

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As an urban planning consultant, I hope that developers see that creating better places help to preserve the value of their product. After all, stable neighborhoods can create stable environments for restauranteurs to thrive. But since the entertainment district inevitably collapses, it’s extremely difficult to have stability when all the marketing in the world can’t save an undesirable place.

The game is currently rigged to supply the 200+ unit product, and to build smaller development and spreading the wealth would require major changes in policy and financing. In other words we have to get creative in a system that hates change and risk.

A Higher Standard for Ross Avenue

I just got back from New York City where I completed a pilgrimage to Hell’s Kitchen. The wife and I have been enjoying Daredevil on Netflix, whose antagonist is a real estate developer using crime to finance various “revitalization projects” throughout the neighborhood. So we wanted to see what the actual Hell’s Kitchen looks like and how real life has inspired Daredevil.

Like so many other cities, including Dallas, we found old buildings destroyed in favor of larger, high-end construction in Hell’s Kitchen. Unlike many other cities, however, I actually like the way that these buildings look.
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On the ground floor, these buildings make sense at the human scale. But in order to satisfy the checklist for multi-million dollar financing, this building accommodates the hundreds of units needed above eye-level. Most importantly for current zoning and financing requirements, the building also features multilevel parking.

Further down the 10th Avenue from this development, we found the Hell’s Kitchen Park that was perfect in size with a splash pad that many people were enjoying.
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Not all buildings have to be beautiful, but this one is practical and functional. It even has underground parking!
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I couldn’t help but that 10th Avenue could serve as a model for development on Ross Avenue. Like 10th Ave, Ross Ave is a very important thoroughfare that many people use for many different purposes. Unlike 10th Ave, however, new development on Ross caters to people passing through the neighborhood.

I know that development is going to happen, and I personally don’t have the means or energy to stop change from happening. On the other hand, I hope that people do want well designed places and that this helps to contribute to that conversation.

If development is going to happen, why not make sure it looks better? If the financing is out there and the money needs to be used, why not make development attractive?

“Revenge of the Nerds” and what could have been

image from worhol.org

One section that stood out to me in Jim Schutze’s The Accommodation is his explanation of how it was never an option for middle class whites to politically team up with middle class blacks. It’s a shame that middle class whites teamed up with elite whites when it’s not necessarily in middle class whites’ best interest.

Last weekend, I persuaded the wife to watch Revenge of the Nerds with me. We watch Star Wars and read Harry Potter, so I wanted to give her a different perspective of geekiness. While Revenge of the Nerds does have its flaws, it’s still a funny movie. There are plenty of examples of mysogyny and chauvinism in Hollywood film, but this blogger will suspend feminism in order to examine another aspect of the movie.

Regardless, Revenge of the Nerds is one of the few examples we Americans have of downtrodden, neglected, and bullied version of white people teaming up with black people. Alas, proof that there is room in American society for normal white people and black people to share ideas, resources, and man power at the expense of the elite, white ruling class. Huzzah!