Are ‘walkable’ areas that are ‘all the rage’ realistic for our neighborhood?

The Skillman-635 DART station offers an opportunity for a modern mixed-use space.
The Skillman-635 DART station offers an opportunity for a modern mixed-use space.

Dallas Design District resident Shea Byers is spearheading Dallas-Fort Worth’s “WalkUp Wake Up Call, a massive, metro-wide effort to identify and make the most of DFW’s precious walkable neighborhoods.

Receiving the Advocate magazine at home is one indication that you have rejected suburban sprawl for the convenience of urban living. But can you imagine going a step further, ditching the car and living in one of those totally walkable, mixed-use developments you’ve been hearing so much about over the past decade or so? If you have millennial generation children, odds are they are attracted to the idea. If you are a senior, you also might be considering the benefits of living in a walkable/mixed-use community, whose benefits, some experts say, include lower rates of obesity and associated chronic diseases; reduced emissions of greenhouse gases; improved sustainability and resilience; and even increased happiness.

(A Transportation for America survey shows that 80 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds want to live in walkable neighborhoods, and an AARP survey found that an average of 60 percent of those over 50 want to live within one mile [0.6 km] of daily goods and services.)

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Even if you want to keep your home and lawn and single-family living lifestyle, the benefits of living near mixed-use developments, whose presence reportedly draws retailers and restaurants and big companies, are becoming increasingly evident. A detailed economic case for more walkable cities can be read here.

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In a nutshell, developers are, or at least should be and will be, honing in on these “walkable urban places,” or “WalkUPs,” as Byers and his contemporaries call them.

“Mixed-use development is all the rage,” Byers says, and it is something on which major corporations are basing relocation decisions. (He writes more extensively about his own experience here.)

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He believes that Dallas can be a “top-tier investment market” provided we address our biggest challenge which is “commuter transportation and walkability.”

The DFW area, including Oak Cliff, is rich with untapped walkability potential, “The Communities of Tomorrow.” But someone needs to identify these spaces before they can be sold and developed in a way that most benefits the surrounding neighborhoods.

Shea Byers
Shea Byers

That’s where DFW’s WalkUp Wake Up Call, led by Byers in collaboration with George Washington University, comes in. The first task involves “determining where the walkable nooks and crannies are and where they’re going to emerge.” Once that is accomplished, Byers says, “the private and public sectors would invest in those areas.”

“If we can predict these communities of tomorrow,” Byers explains, “we can begin to funnel limited public and private resources to those areas rather than spreading them out.”

The identification and utilization of these spaces also necessarily precedes the “conversation of societal equity,” Byers says — that is, the availability and accessibility of “inclusionary housing for the working middle class.” (Like for journalists, he points out.)

He notes that “in car-dependent cities, it is more difficult to ascend from poverty.” Here’s one study that backs up the notion that, “upward mobility is significantly higher in compact areas than sprawling areas.”

He points out the significance of DART’s participation in and support of the study. Not only does it lend validity, but it also is essential that our city’s transportation system in intertwined with the development of walkable and potentially walkable communities — the mixed-use developments should also be transit-oriented developments, like Shops at Park Lane, which is close to the DART rail station.

GWU already has conducted similar studies in Boston, D.C. and Detroit, to name a few. Byers’ mentor, Chris Leinberger, says the studies are incredibly important because the next real estate cycle will be defined by the rise of Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs) and the fall of sprawl development… Rents for commercial spaces in walkable pockets of otherwise car-dependent regions command a 74 percent premium over non-walkable areas. It is symptomatic of a steady societal shift, he adds, a trend that is not expected to change course in the foreseeable future.

Bringing the study and the effort that follows to DFW, Byers says, will “be a game changer for our city and neighborhood … Indirectly it will sell real estate. It will be a road map to show something we have never seen before here,” he says, adding that we will see, once potentially walkable spaces are identified, we will see a difference in valuation of premium office and residential spaces.

Determining for sure what parts of our metroplex are walkable or potentially so is a huge undertaking, though, so how does Byers aim to get there? And how precisely will the intel be used?

It begins with a census, he says. “The project would recruit UT-Arlington doctoral students in architecture and design to identify every piece of real estate in the area. Every apartment. Every retail establishment. Every office building.”

The study area will include all of Dallas and Fort Worth and everything in between, Byers says.

Once they raise enough funds to conduct the study, which they estimate at about a $300,000-$400,000 cost, he thinks the census and mapping could be achieved in four to six months. In addition to help from UTA, the project has secured support from DART, North Texas Council of Governments and Texas Real Estate Commission, Byers says, which should generate momentum.

About $100,000 of those funds will be used to create a marketing campaign to bring the results to communities and incite change, he says.

“A lot of times you see someone get the money to do a study, then they don’t do anything with the results,” Byers says. “And we have all these groups committed to providing manpower when we get to that point.”

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The results give neighborhoods a tool to attract desirable real estate projects. It also can help homeowners make informed decisions about whether to support a proposed development. Is a certain space like the Skillman-I-635 DART area a realistic opportunity for redevelopment?

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And brokers of commercial real estate, like Byers, can use the intel to sell land, part of the impetus for the project, though Byers insists that idealistic reasons have fueled his passion for and participation in this campaign — he loves his city and wants it to be the best it can possibly be.

Byers was working in real estate in the mid-2000s when the market sunk. “I lost just about, you could say, everything,” he explains.

So he enrolled at George Washington University where he earned an MBA in real estate and economics; as importantly, it’s where he met Leinberger, gained intense interest in urban planning and became associated with the Walk Up Wake Up efforts.

While in D.C., he lived in Colombia Heights, an area that once looked a lot like Dallas’ Forest Audelia area, he says.

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He saw the neighborhood change before his eyes. That transformation was a product of the city and developers working together, and it was rooted a belief that walkable communities are safer, lovelier and simply better than the alternatives. As for bringing the concepts and study home to Dallas, he says, “I think we can do better. I want to see a better, more sustainable city that looks at infill rather than sprawl.”

And other cities have seen this study prove groundbreaking, disruptive and transformative, he says.

He recently launched a formal campaign to raise the funds needed for Walk Up Wake Up Dallas, about $300,000-$400,000, he says. With half that, he believes, the census can get underway.

Email Shea Byers with questions at sbyers@pmrg.com.

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