Drive west on Mockingbird, between Abrams and Skillman. On the north side of the street are older apartment buildings, interspersed with a Luby’s and a grade school. On the south side are storefronts — some banks, a car wash, a couple of two-story office buildings.
Now imagine that stretch of Mockingbird with new, six-story apartment buildings on the north side, and new, six-story retail/office on the south. In other words, it would look a little like the stretch of Blackburn between Central Expressway and Turtle Creek, except without the trees and with a lot more traffic. Is that what we want for our neighborhood?
This is not a hypothetical question. The new, big buzzword being bandied about by the politicians and bureaucrats downtown is density, and density means development exactly like what I have described on that stretch of Mockingbird. I don’t know that that sort of change is imminent in that area, but the idea is — we need to cram more things into the same space, be they homes or businesses.
Density, as a concept, is neither good nor bad. It’s also not the same thing as development, because you can do sensible development with sensible density. What we’re getting is density for density’s sake, and we should be very, very afraid. Because that is bad.
Theresa O’Donnell, the city’s director of development services, is very sharp, very smart and very savvy. When she talks, she isn’t doing it to hear her voice, and she isn’t afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear. She told the audience of a town hall meeting in Lake Highlands — a very unfriendly town hall meeting in Lake Highlands — that “Lake Highlands is going to face change for at least the next 20 years. It’s about how we manage that change. Everything in Dallas will increase in density.”
Which sounds nifty if you’re a planner or politician downtown who gets an almost mystic glow when talking about construction cranes (which I have seen, and it’s not pretty sight). But for those of us who live in the neighborhoods, this focus on density raises a lot of troubling questions.
First and foremost, how did we get to this spot? Why has density become such a big deal, given the city’s centuries-long history of sprawling in every which direction? I’d like to think it’s because we have suddenly discovered that sprawl is a bad thing, but it more likely revolves around three ideas: That density is very hip in urban planning circles, and that everyone wants to be hip; that density is a way to increase the tax base and generate more tax revenue without raising taxes; and that density is good for business, which is not necessarily the same thing as being good for the neighborhoods.
The elite downtown are doing this not because anyone in the neighborhoods wants to do it. In fact, hardly anyone in the neighborhoods is even aware that they’re doing it. Rather, they’re doing it for the same reasons they do so much else, whether it’s building the Trinity toll road or the convention center hotel. It seems like a really, really good idea, and we’ll worry about the ramifications later.
Because there are ramifications — serious, neighborhood-altering ramifications. We live here because we like the single-family home neighborhoods, the corner strip centers, and the traffic that has remained more or less manageable. What happens to the things we like when we get five or six mini-West Villages on Mockingbird? West Village worked because there was nothing else there, and the road network in place could support the eventual density. On that stretch of Mockingbird, on the other hand, there is already something there, and the road network is barely sufficient to handle what’s already there. How much worse will more density make it?
The people downtown will read this and call me an obstructionist and an East Dallas naysayer. That’s their way of confusing the issue, because they don’t want to address the issue. They want construction cranes, and we want neighborhoods, and that’s something they have never understood.
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