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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 12.44.53 PM

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.

pianodistrict_web

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.