Every once in a while, I’ll write something that seems to give e-mailers a sore index finger from hitting the enter button on their computers so angrily and so often. This is not a bad thing. One of the reasons I got into this business was because I like discussion, the chance to talk about issues, the idea that solutions to problems come from people talking to each other, and not from bosses and politicians imposing them from the top down.

 

       So any e-mail is a welcome e-mail (although I do appreciate them more when “imbecile” and “moron” are spelled correctly). But I was surprised that so many e-mailers insisted — some of them quite vehemently — that I was in cahoots with Wal-Mart and other assorted evil multi-nationals after the Advocate’s September story about the state of neighborhood retail (“What Drives Retail?”).

 

       This would have made my grandfather, who owned a men’s clothing store in central Ohio (where I often worked summers and vacations as a teenager), smile his wry smile. Today, the county seat downtown where his store was located is a bunch of empty storefronts, and most people shop at the Wal-Mart on the outskirts of town. So no, I’m not in cahoots with Wal-Mart. I also don’t care much for shopping malls, $5 cups of latte and designer blue jeans.

 

       What I am is pragmatic. Yes, I’d rather buy pants at the local clothing store, buy books at the local bookstore, buy aspirin at the local drug store. But those things are gone, never to return, victims of the Wal-Marts and Amazons and CVSes of the world. This is a fact of life, part of the free market, capitalist system that everyone loves to pay homage to these days (while all too often neglecting to take the time to consider the consequences of all those empty storefronts). My grandfather’s store is just as dead as he is, and you can’t shop at memories.

 

       What we should be doing, instead of rehashing the past and running around in a panic at rumored sightings of the 12-million pound gorilla from Bentonville, Ark., is figuring out what we’re going to do with the strip centers and retail spaces that were designed and built for the local clothing stores, bookstores and drug stores that don’t exist any more. It’s easy to draw a line in the sand, send e-mails, and tell politicians what we don’t want. What’s more difficult — but much more conducive to the quality of life that each of us cherishes about this neighborhood — is to come up with a plan to make sure the retail we get is the retail that fits the neighborhood.

 

       And that means urban planning, and urban planning means zoning, and that means working with city officials, developers and retailers — not to tell them what we don’t want, but to tell them what we do want and to come up with a way to get it.

 

This will not be easy. Dallas is hardly at the forefront of urban planning, too many developers don’t even take the time to pretend they care, and retailers are usually too preoccupied to care. But there are City Council elections next spring, and that’s the time to ask the candidates if they’re willing to work with us to come up with a feasible plan. Business as usual — which means no planning, shrieking and hollering when there’s a crisis, and dollar stores cluttering up strip centers — should not be good enough any more.

 

       If we don’t make the effort, the alternative is what has happened in Lake Highlands, where there seems to be an empty strip center on every corner, and where the residents pray for retail we’d picket to keep out. My grandfather taught me better than that.

 


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