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Is the West Dallas Urban Structure Our Future?

by Jerome Weeks 2 Mar 2011 7:21 AM

The West Dallas Urban Structure is coming up before the Dallas City Council. It’s a set of development guidelines created by the new office, the CityDesign Studio — guidelines for preserving neighborhoods, encouraging high-rises, improving streets. They may become a model for future development in the rest of Dallas.


A new proposal for improving West Dallas could be a blueprint for the future of development throughout Dallas. It would transform parts of the area while preserving older neighborhoods. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this report on the plan called the West Dallas Urban Structure.

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Many Dallasites have jokingly dismissed the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge (above) as a “bridge to nowhere.”

That’s because the Santiago Calatrava-designed span bridges the Trinity River from downtown to — West Dallas. And West Dallas has been the dumping ground for much of  what the rest of the city hasn’t wanted. This is where Bonnie and Clyde grew up, among the criminal hangouts and concrete plants of Cement City. Since their time, the city has parked a huge, low-income public housing project there and the RSR smelting firm that created the largest lead-contaminated Superfund site in America. West Dallas was also late in being incorporated into the city of Dallas — in 1954 — meaning it was last in line for getting ordinary city services like sewers and streets. West Dallas also runs right along the Trinity River, which in North Texas thinking, has rarely been a major selling point for a piece of real estate.

But now the city’s newest bridge is headed there. Regardless of what may happen with the Trinity Tollway or the Trinity Parks — cast into some doubt over the safety of the Trinity levees —  the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge opens in October, and it makes the area a more attractive location. Not that it wasn’t a choice site before. West Dallas is close to freeways, close to downtown and also just across the river from the Medical Center and the Design District.  That’s one reason low-income families — often working two or three jobs in construction or the service sector — have found it convenient. Just hop on I-30 or drive across the Sylvan Bridge and you’re at work.

But perhaps what most distinguishes West Dallas at the moment is that it has lots of undeveloped and underdeveloped land.

[ambient crowd talk, “Good evening” from a speaker, then his muffled, echoey, amplified address to the audience continues under]

At a public meeting in a ballroom of the Salon Las Americas on Fort Worth Avenue (above), people listen to speakers extol a plan called the West Dallas Urban Structure. It’s a set of development guidelines that encourage the preservation of older, residential neighborhoods. They permit other uses for existing buildings like warehouses. They confine any high-rise development along the river. They provide for streets that actually accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit, along with cars. And they emphasize being flexible with the marketplace over time.

“Incremental change” is the watchword here, not the land rush of teardowns and flipping that have overrun other Dallas neighborhoods.

The speakers are from the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group, the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce and other business and property owners. All of them call for the adoption of the new guidelines. This is a united front, rallying its troops. Bob Stimson is president of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce.

Stimson [amplified]: “We need eight votes on the Dallas City Council to start the transformation of the southern sector somewhere – and let’s do it in West Dallas.”

But despite its public image of warehouses and smelters, West Dallas is also home to long-established, family neighborhoods like La Bajada. There have been dozens of meetings with residents and neighborhood groups there. Rosa Lopez thinks that many residents still haven’t had a chance to question and understand what’s happening. Not enough is being done for them. Lopez is executive director of Vecinos Unidos, an outreach program that has provided services for the Hispanic community since 1997.

Rosa: “The economic development plan is very progressive, but it falls short of bringing the residents to the table.”

Residents have good reason to be wary – considering what happened to Little Mexico and the State-Thomas neighborhood. They were more or less bulldozed to create Uptown.

Robert Hernandez is a landscaper and a fourth-generation resident of La Bajada. At first, he says, news about possible development did indeed worry him. Residents could lose their homes through higher taxes. Or his old neighborhood could lose its character.

But the meetings have helped change his mind.

Hernandez: “We’re learning a little bit more about how the negatives are becoming positives We want to live there, we want to stay there, but if there is a positive change for the neighborhood, then so be it.”

This is one reason the CityDesign Studio was established, one reason it set about creating the Urban Structure through public meetings. The studio is a new city office, a private-public venture, initially funded with money from the Trinity River Trust (the city will eventually take over the studio’s budget). The studio’s mandate is to help coordinate and direct economic and community growth along the Trinity River. The Trust wants to re-orient Dallas back to the river, and West Dallas was the logical place to start. Right now, it has all of the concerns — the environment, race, class, government, history, traffic, urban planning  — in play.

Brent Brown is an architect and is head of the CityDesign Studio.

Brown: “The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, the new Continental Bridge, a lot of investment in the area putting pressure on a sitting neighborhood – engaging all those interests around a table to come up with a concept: That’s been what the Urban Structure’s about.”

In those meetings, the studio asked residents and developers what did they want for West Dallas. The studio uses urban design and consensus-building to try to get past the typical angry stand-offs over zoning.

Monte Anderson (below) is a real estate investor who pioneered redevelopment in West Dallas, buying the Belmont Hotel (above) and significantly renovating and expanding the landmark in 2005. His company, Options Real Estate, has other sizable holdings along Fort Worth Avenue.

Anderson: “In my experience, zoning – in that conventional way we’ve been doing it since World War II – does not work. It never gets us the look that we thought we were going to get in the pretty pictures.”

Unlike the zoning process, the CityDesign Studio addresses what should happen in an area but also how it should be decided. And if it succeeds, that process could make West Dallas – neglected West Dallas – a model for the rest of the city.