by Eric Miller, January, 2013
Several things have struck me recently about Dallas. The first is that if you left for a couple years, it would be a long time and you might not recognize it on your return. That's because the current pace of building is so great.
That's not the case in Pittsburgh. When I return to my old neighborhood there, it looks basically the same. The Garden Theater block, if you are familiar with goings-on in the city, is still the same vacant eyesore after what must be more than 20 years of planning now. The pace of change there might be familiar to a visitor from Vatican City.
I'm not sure my old neighborhood in San Francisco has changed much either. The stores may have changed, and there's a new building here and there, but overall it stays pretty much the same. The reasons for San Francisco's continuity are different from those in Pittsburgh. It isn't a lack of can-do or financing; it's a profound interest in keeping things as they are.
While Dallas may not change with the pace of, say, Shanghai, change here is ongoing and rapid. I've only been in my present spot for a little over a year, and there are a half dozen significant new apartment buildings, in various stages of completion, around me.
It's a can-do-now kind of place.
Change can be good or bad of course. In Dallas it's unlikely that buildings like those on the Garden Theater Block would have survived. They would have been bulldozed if there was any notion that we might not know what to do with them. And sure, lots of historic buildings have been lost here.
But in thinking over the last 30 years, I'd say change in Dallas has been good. I look at pictures of the place in the 1970s and 1980s and honestly wonder whether I could have been at all happy living here. Everything being built now is pretty high-density. And the transit, parks and trails are being improved at a steady pace. It makes me think of Pittsburgh's "Spine-line," which has been in the on-and-off planning stages for a century or more!
In my short time in the city I've seen the opening of a major new park and the renovation of another; I've ridden on two new light-rail lines, attended the opening of a new streetcar turntable, and witnessed the quick construction of a new downtown streetcar loop and light-rail airport connector.
Unlike Pittsburgh, cities like Dallas, and especially neighborhoods like Uptown, are changing from single-family houses to large apartment blocks. Historic preservation must be seen in a different context when the existing structures may be historic, but not urban. Some single-family structures have been saved, and the ones that have mostly house businesses.
If our goal is to create more vibrant cities, often favoring density over historic preservation is necessary. And I have to think that instead of building infill townhouses, planners should add higher density apartment blocks to urban neighborhoods in cities like Pittsburgh—and even, say, along the edges of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. With that density, zoning should be eased to allow commercial uses of once-residential buildings. Most of them have had the interiors dismantled anyway, so there's not much sense of history left.
Dallas is building a lot of new things the right way, but part of the recipe for a lively and liveable city is the mix. Dallas doesn't have enough of the old, low-rise urban structures to house the mom-and-pop stores hat make living in one city over another unique—the rents in the new buildings are often only affordable to chains.
Other cities don't want the big new buildings, instead pretending to build new old buildings that just don't have the density to support the businesses that had tenanted the actual old buildings.
But it's the mix that makes a city healthy, and achieving that mix should be the goal.
Text and photo by Eric Miller