Carol Coletta, a dynamic and knowledgeable expert on urban trends, spoke on Jan. 24 to the most highly attended annual meeting of Downtown Dallas Inc. ever. She spoke about the evolution of downtowns, urban redevelopment trends, and the infamous “walkability” that has become the battle cry of mixed-use urban developers and planners.
Her talk was reaffirming and energetic, but two of her themes deserve our careful focus.
The first is that the American dream with respect to home ownership and the traditional suburban lifestyle is, and has been, changing. Coletta’s assertion, supported by a 30-year study of people between the ages of 25 and 34, was that these people are more likely to choose to live close to downtown than prior generations. The numbers look like this:
1980—10 percent more likely than other Americans to live within 3 miles of a Central Business District
1990—12 percent more likely
2000—29 percent more likely
2010—42 percent more likely; in fact, college educated 25—34 year olds were 105 percent more likely in 2010.
This demographic is seeking association with creative people, energy, access to the arts, public transportation and, yes, walkability. (Keep in mind that Coletta’s statistics represent a national trend, and not specifically tailored for Dallas.) She contends that this demographic will look for cities that provide these elements.
To me, her comment is a call to action. Dallas, as a city, is achieving some wonderful things downtown. I won’t list all of the grand accomplishments because you all know them. But we need to concentrate on delivering the things this demographic group is seeking. Some of the desired elements, such as the Arts District, parks and public safety, are in place; but we need to work on the retail component that’s necessary to complete the environment that will attract and serve these future inhabitants of Downtown Dallas.
The second point worth hearing from Coletta’s talk was that we need to “get going.” This was not a casual admonishment. We at UCR Urban have been studying the re-emergence of several blighted inner city areas across the country; they have reinvented themselves to become sophisticated urban retail neighborhoods. We are trying to determine how they achieved success, so that we can apply those methods to downtown Dallas. On average, the process of going from mostly vacant retail at very low rents to mostly leased, chic retail at very high rents has required 20 years or more of public-private effort.
In short, we don’t have time for standard practices if we want to capture these young future urban dwellers. We know what has succeeded in other markets, and what has failed. It’s time for us to aggressively pursue the simultaneous implementation of the common initiatives used by a handful of successful cities and deliver downtown retail spaces to the street wherever possible. This effort to accelerate retail development is in addition to, but compatible with, the 360 Plan and the amazing efforts and progress achieved by Downtown Dallas Inc. during the last 10 years.
We will lose some of our potential future residents if we start the retail initiatives today. If we fail to act soon, we could lose all of them.