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Dear Mayor-Elect Johnson:
Congratulations on your election victory, and making it through a challenging campaign. But I hope you didn’t find it too challenging, because now your troubles really begin. This weekend’s flash storm, leaving trees down and power out across the city, is a good premonition of what you’re in for.
You ran on a platform of bridging divides and improving civic decorum, both laudable goals; but now the rubber of those ideals will hit our deeply scarred roads. Getting along for the sake of getting along isn’t always a winning formula; many of our civic problems are the result of a ruffle-no-feathers attitude. So, sure, let’s keep things polite, even when push must come to shove.
In that spirit of comity and cooperation, let me offer you a short to-do list of items that demand your immediate attention. Call it a blueprint for the city’s future.
1. Fix the sidewalks
Crumbling streets and roads should be repaired, but we must also address the dire state of Dallas sidewalks — where they even exist. Cracked, cluttered with detritus, too small, and always placed in deference to the automobile, our sidewalks are a civic disgrace. Dallasites want a more walkable city, and the first step — literally, the first step — is prioritizing the sidewalk. The city should be for people, not machines.
2. Build dedicated bike lanes
You gamble with your life every time you bike on Dallas streets. If the potholes don’t get you, the speeding traffic will. That’s why we need dedicated, protected bike lanes. Also, if we had better alternative transit infrastructure, all those bikes and scooters wouldn’t be clogging the sidewalks. Their presence is more a symptom of a problem than the problem itself.
3. Housing. Housing. Housing.
This whole letter could be devoted to housing. The city needs more housing for the homeless, and it needs more affordable housing, and it needs it all across the city. In San Francisco, every large residential development must include a certain proportion of affordable housing. That’s the kind of solution we need here. And while we’re building, we need to protect our neighborhoods from the displacements that come with rapid gentrification.
4. Expand preservation protections
Dallas needs to understand that preservation is an economic engine for the city and not an attack on property rights. It’s well past time for the city to expand its demolition delay ordinance beyond the downtown core, and to think proactively about the expansion of historic protections across the city.
5. Build the Trinity Park
It took a long time to get here, but the dreaded toll road is finally a goner, and we now have a legitimate plan for the kind of transformative park between the Trinity levees that Dallasites deserve and have long wanted. Building it will be a challenging process, and it is your responsibility to lead that effort, and keep it moving forward.
6. Fair Park, not fare park
The city has privatized the operation of Fair Park, which is probably a good thing. But that doesn’t mean giving up oversight. That means making sure it remains truly public, better integrating with its neighbors, and not shutting them out. It also means taking care of the city’s crown architectural jewel, which is in dire need of restoration.
7. Zoning reform
We need a task force that can address the institutionalized abuse of Dallas zoning codes. In certain areas, there are literally hundreds of zoning variances, called Planned Developments or PDs in the local parlance. It often seems like anyone with a decent lawyer can get their own PD, which means things go up where they don’t belong, often before residents can do anything about it.
8. Stop the dawdling on I-345
The elevated connector between I-45 and U.S. Highway 75, which cuts off Deep Ellum from downtown, is past its useful life and should come down, to be replaced by a street-level arterial system. And while we’re waiting, a little light and paint beneath the underpasses wouldn’t hurt.
9. Introduce Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
Continue the push for the expansion of DART downtown and implement a BRT system, as so many other major cities of similar scale have done. BRT is a fast, inexpensive and flexible alternative to rail, and it’s perfect for a sprawling city like Dallas.
10. Restore the Kalita Humphreys Theater
Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark is a neglected wreck, but it doesn’t have to be. The city has a plan to turn it into a genuine icon and tourist attraction. That’s the right thing to do. The wrong thing to do is give a sweetheart deal to a theater company with powerful friends that has managed it straight into decline.
You claimed to be a uniter. Here’s the ultimate challenge: Find a resolution to the long-running Nasher-Museum Tower death ray dispute. It is the Arab-Israeli conflict of Dallas architecture, and if you can solve it, a Nobel Prize would not be too high an honor.
Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.
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