CITY DISTRICT OFFERS FREEDOM FROM THE CAR
Where in the United States are the great city neighborhoods? Cities on the East and West Coasts, such as San Francisco, New York, or Boston come to mind. Few would think of Sunbelt cities, which are better known for their explosive suburban growth and car-dependent lifestyles. But in Dallas, a reborn neighborhood is defying those stereotypes.
Paradise for City Lovers
Dallas Uptown is a city lover's paradise. Located just north of downtown Dallas, its apartments, townhouses, and lofts are only a short walk from restaurants, pubs, cafes, gyms, galleries, museums, and nightclubs, as well as a large concentration of jobs within a three-mile radius. The Dallas Morning News painted a compelling picture of Uptown's urban features:
Parts of Uptown . . . are beautifully set up for street life. Sidewalks are broad, often bricked. Trees shade them. Benches line them. Streetlights cast a soft glow on them. Cars park on streets without meters. Balconies open to the sidewalks. At night, rooftop gardens feature a glittering backdrop of skyline. Courtyards with flowers and statues are glimpsed through doorways. The soft splash of fountains can be heard. . . . People who live here walk to work. They wave at neighbors passing on the sidewalk. They go to museums and plays. They deal with shopkeepers who will run a tab without a credit card. 4
Less than two decades ago, the area could be more accurately described as an urban nightmare. The neighborhood suffered from disinvestment, crime, and decrepit infrastructure -- urban ills that have plagued many inner-city neighborhoods around the country. What was once one of Dallas's most affluent areas had become one of its most undesirable. Nevertheless, speculators bought and cleared land in the 1980s in the area, hoping for a new wave of office development. Their hopes turned sour when the real estate market collapsed in the mid-1980s.
But the weak market created favorable conditions for building new housing in Uptown. When land prices are high, developers usually prefer to build office space, because of its much greater return on their high upfront investments. Low land prices in Dallas made housing development economically feasible close to the central business district.
Seizing the opportunity, Columbus Realty Trust (now Post Properties) bought eight properties in the Uptown area, with plans to build apartments, lofts, and townhouses within walking distance of the area's existing businesses on McKinney Avenue. In 1988, Columbus formed a partnership with the city of Dallas to revitalize the area. The city created a tax increment-financing (TIF) district, which allowed a portion of tax revenues collected in the area to be dedicated to improving the district's infrastructure. The water and sewage systems were revamped, utilities were buried, and streets were repaved.
A Developer's Dedication Turns "Folly" into Success
With improved infrastructure in place, the developers began sketching out their plans for the residences. Art Lomenick of Columbus/Post described the development company's approach: "When we first decided to move into Uptown, we became passionate about urban housing. It became a strong personal interest and much more than a business strategy. The studies went beyond books: I was constantly looking at urban form details: stoops, storefronts, doorknobs, cornices, court yards, and pocket parks."
Columbus launched its Uptown building boom in 1991 with the Meridian at State-Thomas, a 132-unit luxury apartment complex derided as folly by Dallas's real estate community. However, the pioneer effort proved that there was pent-up demand for high-quality city living in the Dallas market. Within weeks, every unit in the Meridian was leased. Uptown's next three residential complexes were equally successful.
Bell tower in Dallas Uptown Village.
Steve Hinds Photography
In 1993, the Dallas City Council approved the creation of the Uptown Public Improvement District, in which property owners pay a special assessment to cover varied improvements throughout the district. (Such arrangements, usually called business improvement districts or BIDs, are becoming increasingly popular. See the box in our discussion of the MCI Center for an example in Washington, D.C.) Funds have been devoted primarily to security, special events, and capital improvements, including sidewalks, street lighting, and small public parks. Also in 1993, Columbus merged with Post Properties, another company dedicated to urban revitalization through developing high-quality rental properties.
Other developers took notice of the changes in Uptown, resulting in a wave of investment. Businesses flourished as more and more people moved to the neighborhood. By 1998, there were 56 restaurants in the 128-block area. The neighborhood also has a large grocery and drug store, a hardware store, several gyms, and a number of smaller specialty shops.
The Uptown World
An important aspect of Uptown's appeal is that many of its attractions are within walking distance. Wide tree-shaded brick sidewalks connect residential areas with work places, quiet neighborhood parks, and the hopping bars, cafes, and entertainment venues on McKinney Avenue. The city's only trolley line also runs along McKinney, providing another attractive alternative to driving. It is not uncommon to find Uptown residents like Sandra Christie, who estimates that she had put only 6,000 miles on her car in the six years she had lived in the neighborhood.5
Uptown is providing the urban character that its name promises. The housing stock is varied, including both new and renovated buildings, and comprising lofts, luxury units, and townhouses, all at a range of prices. But the new neighborhood is also predominantly affluent: the average Uptown household income was $99,000 per year in 1998, suggesting that, unfortunately, not all people can enjoy its urban delights.For those who can, Uptown offers convenience, community, and freedom from their cars. As Ron Baker, a businessman, explains: "I could have gotten a large place for less money in North Dallas or Addison, but I didn't want the suburban feel. And there's just a lot of very positive energy here."6 As Uptown proves, there is a very real market for urban living.
4. Christine Wicker, "Uptown: A life in the City," Dallas Morning News, October 18, 1998, page 30A. "Neighborhood Bringing Lifeblood to the Heart of the City," Dallas Morning News, October 18, 1998, p. 30A.
6. "Uptown Living," The Dallas Morning News, April 21, 1996. p. 1A.
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Kaid Benfield's Blog
Kaid Benfield writes about development, community and the environment on Switchboard.
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