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A Q&A With Michael Ennis

The writer-at-large on the development of West Dallas, Big D’s need for an urban middle class, and what a standout twenty-first-century city looks like.

By August 2011Comments

Michael Ennis has written many stories about Dallas, the arts, and politics over the years. And he admits that it is easy to get swept up in the next civic cause. So, for this piece, he tirelessly researched land use plans and historic plans and pored over many other documents to arm himself with as many facts as possible. His thorough understanding of the challenges that Dallas faces as it tries to turn itself into a twenty-first-century city is spot on. Here’s the story behind the story.

How did the idea to write this story come about?
People in the arts community have been talking about CityDesign Studio for some time, but it wasn’t until the buzz starting getting around the city as a whole that it seemed like time for a story, particularly as the Calatrava bridge is nearing completion. Without the new plans for West Dallas, the striking bridge is just a symbol of twentieth-century Dallas, an imported monument with little connection to twenty-first-century realities. Ironically, it takes the relatively low-tech West Dallas plan to make Calatrava’s sleek engineering marvel a real symbol of the future.

You’ve written about Dallas and the arts for many years. What kind of research was involved for this particular piece?
I’m one of those elders who remembers Goals for Dallas, The Dallas Plan, etc. Having lived through these episodes of civic ambition and hopefulness, it was important for me not to be swept up in the excitement about the next big thing. That’s why I revisited the history of Dallas urban planning, beginning with George Kessler in the early twentieth century and continuing on to the present. In addition to those historic plans and the hundred page “West Dallas Urban Structure and Guidelines” that is the centerpiece of my story, I read dozens of Dallas’s master plans, land use plans, TIF (Tax Increment Finance) district plans, as well as quite a number of other cities’ plans as points of comparison. That was the real focus of my research, to step away from the immediacy of events and present a more panoramic picture, so that if I say, “Well, this really might be the next big thing after all,” I can do so with conviction and authority.

Dallas has an apparent concern with its status as an international city. Is the development of West Dallas another attempt to push the city as a global frontrunner, or does it stem from genuine concerns raised by activists that inhabit the largely neglected neighborhood?
It’s both. The European star architects—Renzo Piano, Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, and Spencer de Grey—who worked in the Dallas Arts District over the past decade see themselves as urban planners capable of renewing whole neighborhoods, and unlike the profession as a whole a couple of decades ago, they’ve become much more interested in respecting existing architecture and nurturing indigenous communities and culture. A standout twenty-first-century city now has to have texture, diversity, and gritty authenticity to go along with its prize-winning architecture; that’s one reason the Dallas establishment suddenly sees value in the city’s distinctive neighborhoods and urban activists.

If the “West Dallas Urban Structure and Guidelines” urban design manifesto you wrote about is successfully carried out, the area will theoretically retain its distinct character while also encouraging new customers to take advantage of the restored living and work spaces and the pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly streets. Will the new customers bite? Who are they?
It’s pretty clear that a new generation is being drawn to the “new urbanist” lifestyle, and Dallas already has a number of existing enclaves—Uptown, Oak Cliff, Deep Ellum/Fair Park, Design District, downtown. But to succeed as a city of the future, Dallas will have to put much more effort into actively wooing younger transplants aspiring to a creative urban lifestyle. Right now the DFW area remains a more attractive destination for families seeking a conservative, outer-rim suburban lifestyle. Dallas needs a middle class, but it’s going to have to be a different sort of middle class than you find in the suburbs.

You said that this urbanization project could potentially become the symbol of twenty-first-century Dallas. What do you think the glitzy “donor class” will think of this?
Actually Dallas’s donor class has gotten much more sophisticated recently; a number of the leading influencers have been immersed in cutting-edge art for a decade or two, and that has liberalized their thinking on cultural issues. As the story points out, the donor class was instrumental in getting the CityDesign Studio set up inside city hall. Even if most of the plutocrats still don’t quite get it, the trendsetters among them do.

When reporting and writing a piece such as this, how difficult is it to include all sides of the discussion? Do you feel yourself leaning more in one direction over the other?
That’s actually kind of funny with regard to this story, because one side has had its say for a hundred years—their argument is called Dallas. And right now a great many people across a broad spectrum aren’t terribly enchanted with how that worked out. The West Dallas plan was unanimously endorsed by the city council and every credible candidate in the recent mayoral and city council elections. So in this instance the story isn’t he-said, she-said; it’s “Why are they all saying the same thing, and what does this consensus mean?”

Larry Beasley’s “Vancouver Model” has been imitated since its beginnings in the mid-nineties. Where has this been successfully implemented? How do the size and economic factors of these places compare with Big D?
In Vancouver, Beasley was able to build on practices that dated back to the fifties, when developers were required to build high-rises with setbacks that wouldn’t block the waterfront views; in the sixties, Vancouver voted to keep freeways out of downtown, sparing the Chinese immigrant neighborhoods that now contribute to its Pan-Pacific cosmopolitanism. The point is, this kind of planning requires more than a generation to come to fruition. Among the many cities all over the world—including Dallas’s arch-rival, Fort Worth—that have looked seriously at the Vancouver Model, Dallas stands out with its demographic diversity, booming metropolitan area, and existing cultural infrastructure. In the long run, there’s no reason why Dallas shouldn’t be the most successful adopter of the Vancouver Model—maybe even more so than Vancouver itself.

Although some of West Dallas’s original areas, like La Bajada, will be protected, what effect will the revamping of the neighborhoods have on longtime residents? Will they eventually be forced to move because of gentrification and higher rents?
The idea is that they will prosper as the surrounding area prospers. The plan will have succeeded if La Bajada is gentrified by the children of the current residents—but that depends on those children graduating from high school and attending a trade school, community college, or four-year college. And right now that doesn’t seem to be a terribly high priority for the people who are running Texas.

What would George Kessler think of this new plan?
In Kessler’s time people walked because they had to and sat on their porches most of the year because they didn’t have air conditioning—his plan was scaled to a low-speed, interactive urbanscape. The new urbanism is a return to that kind of community, so Kessler would recognize those features of the West Dallas plan at once and think that little has changed. But I suspect he would be more than a little disappointed in the city across the Trinity River, which today is as carved up by freeways as it was by railroad tracks a hundred years ago—and is still struggling to grasp the meaning of Kessler’s “city beautiful.”

Are there other areas in Dallas that would benefit from adopting and implementing a similar plan?
I think one of the main reasons a lot of people are so excited about this plan is precisely because many of the urban design tools it offers could work anywhere in the city, including the northern suburbs, which are showing their age. The entire city of Dallas is going to have to learn how to reuse, recycle, slow down, and get real. If it does, it just might get great.

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