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.
Most promisingly, for-sale units are entering the mix, which indicates that the market is maturing. "We think that downtown is ready for more home buyers," Westmount Realty president Cliff Booth told The Dallas Morning News in late 2005, when downtown’s largest loft apartment building was converted into condominiums. And he was right on track: Today, 80% of those 205 units – which range in price from $95,000 to more than $300,000 - have been sold.
DART Rail has also sparked new construction downtown, with more than 200 units plus retail going up adjacent to DART’s West End Station. A second phase, with another 150 units and additional retail, is under construction.
Street life is beginning to return to downtown Dallas, too, with restaurants, clubs and theaters clustering mostly within a few blocks of the downtown “transit mall.”
And south of downtown Dallas, the area around Cedars Station was long-neglected but is now filling up with artists, young professionals and other urban pioneers. DART breathed life into this area, starting when investors spent more than $200 million to convert an historic warehouse complex into 455 loft apartments, entertainment facilities, office and retail space and a hotel.
The converted loft complex helped turn the Cedars into an emerging hotspot with clubs, restaurants and coffehouses. Additionally, a developer is building new townhomes in the area.
Mixed-use projects are critical
Mockingbird Station, which takes its name from the adjacent DART rail station, was Dallas' first true transit village. Opened in 2001, the complex is anchored by a renovated former Southwestern Bell telephone warehouse, which was converted to retail and 211 loft apartments. Additional mixed-use development includes a movie theater, restaurants, and office space. The final phase, which will include 23,000 square feet of retail, is under way. "The proximity of the DART station and growing ridership made the Mockingbird Station project attractive and doable," said Dallas developer, and project founder, Ken Hughes.
Right across the street from Mockingbird Station, developers spent $90 million to turn a derelict hotel property into the four-star Hotel Palomar, plus an upmarket shopping and condo complex.
And DART's Victory Station at the American Airlines Center – home of the Stars and the Mavericks – is a hotbed of mixed-use development. The 32-story W Dallas Victory Hotel and Residences, which includes retail, opened in July 2006, and a second, 15-story condominium tower was added to the south side of the building to accommodate brisk pre-sales. Victory Plaza, billed as “Dallas’ Times Square,” is complete, as are two mid-rise residences with street-level retail. Also in the works are the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel and condominiums, and the Philippe Starck-designed House condo tower.
New Rail Lines, New Opportunities
In August, following the awarding of a $700 million Full Funding Grant Agreement, DART began work on one of North America’s most aggressive rail expansion projects, which will extend from Southeast to Northwest Dallas into the cities of Farmers Branch and Carrollton and extend west to the city of Irving and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. And new projects totaling north of $3.5 billion are in the works along DART’s expansion corridors.
Carrollton city planners envision revitalizing Old Downtown at the site of a proposed DART Rail station with a mix of high-density business and residential development. The city expanded its “transit impact zone” from 100 to 300 acres and implemented a new tax increment financing district to attract residential, retail and commercial projects.
And Irving plans to integrate DART Rail into a transit mall extending from the area near Texas Stadium north through the Las Colinas Urban Center. The vast project will span a state highway with a signature "sky-park." The stadium area – which will become vacant when the Dallas Cowboys relocate in 2009 – will be become a mixed-use transit district.
The $400 million Water Street development will be on 13 acres with 780 apartments, condominiums and a hotel, plus office and retail space. "DART is a big amenity for developments," Doug Chesnut, Gables' senior vice president, told The Dallas Morning News. He added, "We are counting on the DART line for access to our site."
Another high-profile project will be Las Colinas Live!, a public/private $600-million development totaling 40 acres. It will contain a convention center, an equestrian arena, restaurant/retail space and a concert hall that will seat about 7,500 people.
Economic impact takes many forms
These TODs pay off when it comes to building ridership on a fledgling system: Last year, DART’s 45-mile light rail network added more than one million passenger trips.
But these TODs are more than new buildings and destinations that enhance our system – they serve as a major economic engine for the region. Existing developments are projected to yield $78 million in annual property tax revenues (based on 2006 rates) for North Texas cities, counties and schools districts. Weinstein and Clower’s 2007 review estimates the new retail developments located near DART Rail stations will produce $650 million in annual taxable sales. This is projected to generate $40.6 million in sales tax income for the state and $6.5 million for local municipalities.
No Limit to Future Growth
Already the country’s second-fastest growing area, our region will be home to more than nine million people by 2030. While DART will be challenged to offer comprehensive transit solutions, area business, community and government leaders will be challenged to take full advantage of the opportunities our vibrant rail system will create.
Based on what’s been accomplished in the short time since the first DART trains rolled in 1996, it’s going to be a great ride for everyone.
Gary Thomas is the president/executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.