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.

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