The new urbanism

This seems like a good month to step back and take a look at the “big picture” of what all this inner-city development activity means – not just for developers, politicians, brokers and lawyers, but for homeowners and residents, too.

If you’ve been reading the business news lately, you’ve seen a slew of announcements about inner-city redevelopment projects in Uptown, Deep Ellum, Downtown, and even the Cedars area south of Downtown.

In most cases, these projects are based on what urban planners call “adaptive reuse” – that is, taking an old industrial or office building and “recycling” it into residential and retail use.

These old buildings, which may have been used as factories, warehouses, or offices in their earlier incarnation, are usually well-constructed and frequently have interesting architectural detail. Because of this, they can often qualify for historic landmark status, which makes them eligible for tax breaks and other benefits and makes them more marketable to potential tenants.

The City and the public benefit by getting these buildings back on the tax rolls at a much higher value, bringing people back into the City, supporting intown retail and preserving architecturally interesting buildings.

The trend has picked up a lot of momentum lately, and a number of the more missionary developers have gotten on board the bandwagon. Cheaper Downtown and inner-city land, a hangover from the late ‘80s real estate crash, has also made the redevelopment boom economically possible, as has the City’s willingness to enter into “public-private partnership” deals and the increasing market demand for intown housing.

This movement isn’t unique to Dallas, and similar projects are popping up in cities throughout the country, representing a hopeful reversal of post-World War II urban development trends.

After the war, massive highway construction programs and government real estate loan programs (both subsidized by urban taxpayers), cheap gas, and the decline of many transit systems (with a push from the auto industry), helped foster explosive growth of low-density suburbs, which quickly filled up with returning G.I.s and their Baby Boomer kids.

As the inner-cities were deserted by the middle class, a cycle of decay began that was accelerated by the large-scale destruction of inner-city residential and retail uses by the “Urban Renewal” programs of the ‘60s, along with yet more freeway construction and herding of public housing clients into massive, high-rise housing developments.

Looking back, we can see that all these factors almost killed a number of great American cities, most of which are still struggling with their impact.

Now, however, planners and other public officials are starting to catch on to the idea that intown “mixed-use” projects, mostly more dense residential units with ground-floor retail, are a key to resuscitating America’s big cities, along with the return of mass transit and other components.

The proponents of this movement in urban planning, called the “new urbanism” or “neotraditionalism,” advocate more density, narrower streets, more street trees, lighting and other pedestrian amenities, neighborhood-serving retail mixed in with residential, and similar features as a way to bring people back to the inner-city.

As this happens, economic activity and the tax base revives, and Downtown again becomes a place where people want to be. Nowadays, even suburbs like Plano and Addison are looking for development projects that combine mid-rise multi-family with ground-floor retail in a mixed-use format to try to replicate what they see in Uptown and Deep Ellum.

While the typical suburbanite may still drive in his or her private vehicle on a freeway to a Downtown job, park in a secure garage, stay in his or her building all day, and return home at night to a “bedroom community” of tract homes, chain restaurants and struggling saplings, the continuation of the trend towards intown living should meet not just economic, but social and ecological benefits such as more community interaction, less sprawl and less pollution.

By the way, if you own a home in East Dallas, all of this urban development should raise your property value and help ensure your tax burden doesn’t keep going up on a percentage basis.


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