Look around the country and you’ll see that rail transit projects are flourishing in the places you’d least expect. When it came to Dallas, building community consensus and solid ridership weren’t things we could take for granted.
In 1996,when our light rail system first got going, we were retrofitting a sprawling metropolitan area – one that’s almost synonymous with “car culture” – with rail transit for the first time since the last streetcars, considered dinosaurs, had been retired a half-century before. And light rail was more than a little controversial.
We knew right off the bat that, to be successful, we were going to have to give people reasons to ride. And so we made a concerted effort to work with city planning departments and developers to create destinations that would enhance and encourage use of our light rail system.
Today, researchers at the University of North Texas have identified more than $3.3 billion in transit-oriented development (TOD) along our rail corridors – or nearly double what local taxpayers invested to build the system in the first place. "Clearly, DART is helping to stimulate the local economy and to bring new vitality both to the city of Dallas and to the core areas of DART's suburban member cities," researchers Bernard L. Weinstein and Terry L. Clower concluded.
Indeed, the DART rail system has emerged as one of the national standard-bearers of transit-oriented development. That’s really saying something, when you consider the national scope of the TOD trend. Research shows that, nationwide, the number of homebuyers and renters who want to live within walking distance of public transportation will more than double in the next 20 years. And the Dallas area will be one of the top cities in the country for TOD.
With about two dozen new rail stations about to be constructed as DART pursues its expansion plans, the Federal Transit Administration predicts that the demand for transit-oriented housing in the Dallas area will increase to more than 260,000 units by 2025 - a 364 percent increase, second only to Los Angeles.
Robert Shaw of Columbus Realty Partners, builder of Eastside Village adjacent to DART’s Downtown Plano Station, was one of the local pioneers of the trend. "I think everyone now generally recognizes that building near transit is a big positive. It's like waterfront property – it's physically limited and can't be duplicated just anywhere."
Residential Renewal in Downtown
The positive effects of light rail are particularly dramatic in downtown Dallas – for decades a ghost town after 6 p.m., but fast becoming one of the hottest addresses in town. About 3,500 people already live in downtown proper, and that’s expected to double within a year-and-a-half and nearly triple by 2010. According to the city of Dallas Office of Economic Development, more than $800 million in private funds has been invested in the downtown area since the initial light-rail segment opened in 1996.
Especially notable downtown has been the redevelopment of existing, often half-empty buildings – including several classic office towers, repurposed for the 21st century to house lofts, apartments and luxury units. Many of these feature ample retail space at street level, as well. Invariably, these buildings fill up quickly, with hip professionals, empty nesters and even young families wasting no time in becoming Dallas’ newest generation of urban pioneers.
Some of these projects are particularly high-profile. In a $270-million deal with the city of Dallas, Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland is converting the mammoth 31-story Mercantile Bank complex into a luxury retail and residential tower – the "holy grail" of downtown Dallas projects. The 65-year-old structure sat vacant for more than a decade, and many observers believe this project will provide the impetus for a truly urban, 24/7 downtown Dallas.