Strong Towns North Texas Tour Highlights

Our VERDUNITY Model encourages communities to focus on two primary goals: reducing environmental impacts and increasing fiscal productivity. There's been plenty of discussion recently about addressing environmental issues, including water supply and quality, air quality, and shrinking availability of critical natural resources. Today, most people understand that we must address our consumption and development patterns if we're going to be able to sustain the 9 billion people projected to live on this planet by the year 2050. A subject that has not gotten much publicity is the fact that the post-WW II development pattern is not fiscally sustainable, either. Across the country, and especially here in north Texas, many communities have fervently pursued economic development and a perceived higher quality of life in the short-term without consideration of the long-term fiscal impacts. One of the groups pushing this fiscal message is a non-profit group based in Minnesota called Strong Towns. Earlier this month, VERDUNITY sponsored a series of Curbside Chats with Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn to raise awareness in our area about the financial fragility of our current development pattern.

Chuck Marohn presenting his Curbside Chat at UTA

Chuck Marohn presenting his Curbside Chat at UTA

Our first event was held in Arlington, Texas on the UTA campus. The School of Urban and Public Affairs (SUPA) graciously agreed to host the event, and our friends at the Downtown Arlington Management Corporation (DAMC) were co-sponsors. I wanted to give Chuck and Jim Kumon (Strong Towns Exec. Director) an opportunity to get a feel for the community he would be speaking in that evening, so that afternoon we met with Tony Rutigliano and Alex Pietroforte from DAMC to walk a portion of Abram Street and the UTA campus. Abram is currently a classic STROAD where cars fly by at 50 mph and you rarely see anyone daring to walk in the area. There are some great destinations nearby like the Founders Plaza and Levitt Pavilion, the city's main public library, some local restaurants and businesses, and some really promising mixed-use buildings on the north side of the UTA campus. All of these would be much more fiscally productive if this corridor were converted to pedestrian-friendly environment. As we walked, Tony gave us some history on the development of the area and some of the challenges they have faced in their efforts to make the downtown area more urbanized. Our team and the Strong Towns guys have a follow-up meeting scheduled with Tony to discuss some ideas we have, which will hopefully get incorporated into the redesign of Abram Street. I'll share some of those ideas in a future post. The Curbside Chat that evening was well attended by a diverse group of UTA students, professors, citizens, business leaders and staff from a number of cities. There were a few saysayers in the audience, but overall the crowd was engaged and the follow-up questions indicated an interest to learn and do more. DAMC is producing a video from the presentation, which we'll be sharing on our site when it's ready.

Mayor Athas giving Chuck and Jim an overview of the City Center development efforts.

Mayor Athas giving Chuck and Jim an overview of the City Center development efforts.

Fifth Street Crossing development in Garland, TX

Fifth Street Crossing development in Garland, TX

Thursday, we moved east a bit to Garland. Our VERDUNITY team spent the morning discussing some strategic initiatives and partnering opportunities with the Strong Towns guys. After that, we headed over to walk the downtown area with Mayor Doug Athas. Despite the chilly weather, it was a great tour. We started on the square, visiting a few of the local businesses, and worked our way north to the Fifth Street Crossing development and DART station. The big takeaway I had personally was that while there were some great things happening around the station and down to the square, the downtown square itself and adjacent blocks in the other directions have even more opportunity. We'll be following up with Doug and his staff in coming weeks to discuss some ideas here as well. 

Mayor Athas is an advocate for the Congress of New Urbanism and Chuck's Strong Towns group, so when we started looking for locations who wanted to host, Garland was the first to step up. The chat Thursday evening was held at the historic Plaza Theater downtown, and despite the icy conditions, still had 50+ in attendance. Feedback during and after the presentation was overwhelmingly positive, and we believe the Chat will lead to more and better conversations amongst city staff and residents about how to improve the Garland community. Garland also recorded the presentation, so we'll post that video soon as well.

The final day of the tour was split between my hometown of Rockwall and the third Curbside Chat, which was held in downtown Dallas at Jefferson Tower. Friday morning, Chuck and Jim joined my partner Kristin and I to talk around the historic downtown in Rockwall. I offered them a balance of resident's perspective on things our city is doing well, and professional opinions of what I'd like to see improved. Chuck and Jim were quick to offer their opinions as well. Chuck recorded some of our observations, which you may see show up in a future episode on his See it Differently (SIDtv) channel. After the tour and lunch at local favorite Zanata's on the square, we headed to the Chamber office to visit with a collection of local elected officials, staff and business leaders from the Rockwall County area. Chuck overcame some technical difficulties with the projector and tap-danced his way through an abbreviated version of his Curbside Chat material sans slides. As a resident, I was very encouraged by the response and willingness to be open to the ideas we discussed. I'll be exploring a lot of our ideas for Rockwall in coming posts.

The trip wrapped up with the last Curbside Chat, which was hosted by the Jim Lake Companies at Jefferson Tower in Oak Cliff. Despite being on a Friday evening, this event was very well attended, so much so that we had standing room only. We had a nice mix of city leaders like Jill Jordan from Dallas and Cedar Hill's Planning Director Rod Tyler, Monte Anderson from Options Real Estate Investments, Jason and Andrew from Team Better Block, and a host of other planning, engineering and urban design professionals. Many of the attendees at this presentation were familiar with the new urbanism movement, so the post-talk discussion focused more on what we can do to do more of the right stuff, as opposed to clarifying details for why we need to change as Chuck did the first two nights. There was a general sense among the group that we're making progress in Dallas, but there's still much, much more to accomplish.

There are fiscal consequences to the suburban sprawl development many communities have committed to over the past 30-50 years. Whether it's transforming larger cities like Dallas and Arlington, revitalizing older neighborhoods in inner-tier suburbs like Garland, or changing approaches in newer outer-tier communities like Rockwall, we have some very difficult choices ahead, and lots of work to do once those choices are made. Before people will embrace the changes we need to make though, they need to understand why things are broken. Chuck changed my perspective when I stumbled upon his blog back in 2009. Through a series of posts with specific, well researched examples, I began to see the flaws in the typical engineering approaches, economic development philosophies, and financial models our cities were using. It was the spark that made me want to work my way into more planning and outreach efforts at my former firm, and the foundation of our work here at VERDUNITY. Today, it's no accident that his start-up blog has turned into a Strong Towns movement with nearly 4000 followers around the country and requests to deliver keynotes at the country's premier conferences. Every community and every state is a little bit different, but the core premise of the Strong Towns message applies to every town, every state, and every country. After three days of Curbside Chats in north Texas, I believe we've set many more people on the same path of realization.

~ Kevin