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

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.