Imagine if someone walked up to you and said:
“I want to give you $100 million to transform our neighborhood, but you have to invest the money so it generates enough cash flow to pay me back.”
That’s essentially the question we posed to two Winnetka Heights residents, architect Stephen Pickard and urban planner Kevin Sloan.
But this isn’t just a money-dropping-from-the-sky scenario plucked from thin air.
Instead, this is the basic premise of revenue bonds, a term you may have heard recently in conjunction with the proposed convention center hotel, which the Dallas city council wants to build using $500 million in taxpayer-guaranteed money.
It’s not the norm for a government entity to get into the commercial real estate business — in a capitalist society, that’s usually left up to those in the private sector. But in this case, citing long-term economic benefits for Dallas, the city council appears to be channeling real estate developers.
So if the city has decided to pour $500 million into the convention center neighborhood, what’s stopping it from spending a chunk of change here in Oak Cliff?
According to council plans, revenue generated by the convention center hotel would pay back the loan the city takes out to construct it — that’s how revenue bonds work. It’s not a novel idea: The DFW International Airport’s Grand Hyatt Hotel is one example of a privately operated project financed by public revenue bonds; another is the parking garage at Dallas Love Field. In both cases, fees paid by people booking a room or renting a parking space pay the mortgages, so to speak.
Maybe a government entity hasn’t embarked upon some sort of mixed-use, walkable, New Urbanism-style project in Dallas yet, but who’s to say it couldn’t? Or shouldn’t?
The important questions are: Would the revenues from the project be able to pay off the bonds? And would the public benefit justify the government’s financial contribution and exposure to risk?
In the case of the convention center hotel, the city believes the answer to both questions is yes. And if the city council believes it could work for the convention center, why not put taxpayer dollars behind projects in our neighborhood, right down the street from where we live?
To that end, we’ve asked leading architects and urban planners to pick a project in each of the five Dallas neighborhoods where we publish magazines (visit advocatemag.com to read the others and see how Oak Cliff bucked the trend).
Our charge: Use $100 million to create practical, neighborhood-friendly and walkable New Urbanism-style developments to help take our neighborhoods into the 21st century — exactly the kind of development the council is encouraging in Dallas these days.
A couple of caveats: We assumed that the land for this theoretical project would be acquired at a reasonable price, and we assumed the targeted land could be re-zoned, where necessary, without any complications — neither condition, of course, is a given.
Finally, we aren’t saying this is the best or the only alternative where $100 million could be spent improving our neighborhood. We aren’t saying it’s the most practical project. And we aren’t saying that having the city act as a real estate developer anywhere in the city — including Downtown — is a good idea.
But the council opened the door to this idea by committing $500 million to build a hotel Downtown, and this neighborhood proposal is certainly another option.
Here in Oak Cliff, Pickard and Sloan aren’t interested in plopping down a mixed-use development at a particular intersection. That’s exactly what our neighborhood doesn’t need, the architect and urban planner argue.
“People fear that someone is going to come in, and what they bring in is really going to have nothing to do with our situation,” Pickard says.
“Anytime you ask, ‘What do you like most about Oak Cliff?’ people say, ‘I love its diversity.’ I think that’s the reason why many of us live there. We can’t stand the idea of the sort of sameness that exists in the suburbs.”
What Pickard and Sloan envision is not a singular project, but instead the creation of a “community charm bracelet” of sorts, with a nexus of nodes, or “charms”, connected by walkable streets and a neighborhood transit authority “that’s not like the McKinney Avenue Trolley, but [instead] a very usable piece of public transportation,” Sloan says.
Along these streets and transit routes, they picture frequently placed parks, and community plazas or gathering spaces, all working together to link the charms.
Some of the charms might be new additions to the neighborhood, but for the most part, “it has to do with making do with what you have rather than bulldozing it and creating something on a larger scale,” Sloan says. “I wouldn’t break what doesn’t need to be fixed.”
They cite the new Jack’s Backyard restaurant, which “embraced that kind of Commerce Street industrial feel,” Pickard says, or Bolsa, which worked with what it had, and “now people are paying $100 per person to eat in a garage,” Sloan says.
Creating a community charm bracelet would result in “our version of something unique — not something cooked up in a board room … a shopping center that looks like a cultural village,” Sloan says. “We don’t need that — just give us a garage or an old gas station and stay out of our way.”
Their re-imagined Oak Cliff might include:
• New life in old vessels along Davis. The Bishop Arts District is an obvious charm, but Pickard and Sloan see plenty of potential in the street’s pre-World War II architecture. One node could be the Tyler, Davis and Polk triangle, including where Kings Highway comes in at an angle. “The property ownership is atomized right now, but it could turn into the next Bishop street,” Pickard says. Another might be the historical theater building at Clinton and Davis, and the old mechanic buildings on the northern side “just kind of waiting for something to happen — for the next Bolsa to come along,” Sloan says. “Look at the way Kavala has moved into the old Dairy Queen.” In places like these, money could be spent to buy the properties and restore the buildings for potential tenants.
• Jefferson, “a totally different kind of street than Davis,” Pickard says, is an “authentic Main Street USA … it’s not so much a matter of going in and recreating, but stripping away. It already has the kinds of characteristics we’re trying to create in New Urbanism.” Again, money could be spent to buy up the property and restore the buildings along a series of blocks. Sloan might focus on the block near Bishop, around Gonzalez Restaurant, transforming the existing multi-story buildings on either side and breathing life into the businesses “to give the community a greater range of support — more than the pawn shops in place.” Jefferson might also be a good place for “mid-rise projects with views of Downtown,” Sloan says, and nestled-in parking structures, “to make sure parking doesn’t eat the neighborhood behind it.”
• More than just a transit system — which Sloan envisions as air-conditioned modern streetcars or even solar-powered electric buses — he pictures a network of shops that double as the transit stops. “Maybe Oak Cliff transit buys the real estate where the stops are, and the real estate is not a grungy concrete bench and a shelter falling apart, but a coffee shop, cakes and pastries place, or bookstore — an air-conditioned place out of summer heat to wait.”
• The central node of this charm bracelet should be a world-class charter school, Sloan says. “There is a phenomena that families will move and choose a neighborhood because the school district is so good — even if they don’t really want to live there,” he says. “The best planners will say, ‘You can hire me and pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars, or you can build a great public school.’” Sloan suggests using money to assemble the land, and then the charter school would sign a 99-year lease. The neighborhood should decide the best spot for it, and “not just where there’s something un-built — here is a property and it’s available — but [build it] exactly where it needs to be,” Sloan says.
• Another charm, Sloan says, is near Lake Cliff, where Beckley and Zang intersect, and restaurants like Spiral Diner and Beckley BrewHouse have found homes in existing buildings. And of course, Pickard says, “the greatest resource we have as a neighborhood that probably distinguishes it from all the other neighborhoods is the Trinity River, and I would look into investing dollars into a development oriented to the Trinity River.” Pickard doesn’t have a specific site chosen or a set mix of retail, residential or office space, but says it needs to be “a definitive asset that is uniquely related to Oak Cliff.”
Ultimately, this vision “allows the physical form of the community to be the determiner of what we do,” Sloan says. “What’s the most strategic set of moves here that won’t harm what really makes Oak Cliff, Oak Cliff?”
“This is a strategy that tends to have the opposite effect of most development, which is divisive,” Sloan says. “This is the kind of project that brings people together, which is what good urban design does.”
Not only that, he and Pickard say, but it’s doable now, and all for about $100 million.
What’s lacking appears to be the vision and leadership to make it possible. According to individual council members, not even a “yes” vote on the May 9 convention center hotel referendum (a “yes” vote is a vote against the hotel) will stop the city from spending $500 million to build the hotel, so clearly the council is willing to jump into the commercial real estate development business.
And that’s why we thought the council might want to consider an alternative or an addition to their plans: Maybe we should begin a similar conversation about using revenue bonds to spur neighborhood-appropriate development, like Pickard and Sloan’s re-imagination of Oak Cliff, throughout the city.