At Least One Developer Thinks a Toll Road Taking People Away from the City's a Bad Idea

Categories: Schutze
M. Thomas Lardner -- and the M, apparently, stands for "Man, that dude is smart and handsome!"

All these snap-crackle-pops at The Dallas Morning News want to tell me that of course the Trinity River toll road will be good for development downtown. How in the hell would they know? I had a 45-minute chat the other day with Dallas real-estate bigwig-slash-hotshot M. Thomas Lardner, and he said the toll road won’t do a damn thing for downtown real estate. Sad for me, he doesn’t think parks do much either.

He says if the city is serious about wanting to turn downtown into a vibrant neighborhood, it needs to subsidize rents so people in their 20s can afford to live there. Reminds me of a post I saw on a blog somewhere the other day -- something to the effect of, “You don’t move to New York to be near the Statue of Liberty. You move there because it’s a cool place to be.”

Tom Lardner may be cool, but he is not a hippie. His bio's longer than a short story, but among the highlights: He's the retired chairman, president, CEO and major shareholder of L&B Group, a real estate advisory firm; former president of the Lehndorff Group, a top American real estate firm in ownership of institutional quality assets; a founding board member for the John Tower Center for Political Studies at SMU and chairman of the 1988 committee of the Central Dallas Association on the revitalization of downtown Dallas. He was the main re-developer of State-Thomas. He’s the guy who thought up the name “Uptown.”

I wasn’t in a good position to take notes or tape when we chatted, so I’m not comfortable doing direct quotes. But Lardner expresses himself very clearly, and I got what he was telling me. He said the toll road will take people around downtown. It will help suburbanites avoid downtown. He said that doesn’t help real estate downtown.

If the city wants to fill up downtown with the kind of energetic young people who might want to live there, he said, the city needs to get the rents downtown way down from the $1,400 level. He gave me a theoretical example of a project downtown where the owner needs to get $850 a month per unit to make money. What the city should do, he said, is subsidize those units so the rent will be $600 a month.

The key, he said, is not poverty-level housing or rich-people housing. It’s affordable housing. If the city were willing to spend its money making downtown affordable, then the city could develop the kind of occupancies downtown that would support retail, entertainment and neighborhood service industries.

I got the idea he thinks the big push for parks downtown is a waste of time right now. Why build parks in a ghost town? But he thinks the toll road is just as bad an idea.

People. That’s what we need. Lots and lots of people. And not just old rich people out walking their Yorkies. Or poor people panhandling. People in the middle. Get tons of them living down there first, and then you can re-direct the tax base to a campaign of park-building.

Several weeks ago another very successful real estate guy of a slightly different profile, Ralph Isenberg, told me exactly the same thing. Isenberg is all over Oak Cliff and West Dallas, right by the river. But he said the toll road will mean zip to him. What he looks for are little clots of people clustering here and here, connected by filaments of commonality -- streets, bars, schools, grocery stores. Isenberg is famous for knowing all of his commercial tenants on a first-name basis.

I think he, like Lardner, knows what the hell he’s talking about, unlike certain people.

Kris Hudson had a good story in The Wall Street Journal the other day about our referendum, pointing out that many other cities have spent money tearing down highways in front of their waterfronts. He quoted me in a way that I thought made me sound like a beatnik idiot -- as if I were opposed to the toll road because it will raise property values and help people make profits.

Perhaps I did a poor job of communicating my feelings to him when he was working on his story. I know how I feel about property values downtown, and I think I know how Angela Hunt feels: Anything that will raise values and incentivize investment in downtown is all to the good.

I told him I didn’t think the toll road would do that. I said I thought it would help only a few property owners in the old Stemmons Industrial district and right downtown where Belo and Ray Hunt have their land. As I read his story, I thought I came off sounding like a Commie beardo fool who was opposed to any and all improvements in value in downtown generally.

Yeah! I’m for poverty and desolation! They are necessary to my poetics, man.

Ah, well. Journalists. What’re you gonna do? But I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do -- listen to a bunch of flap-doodles at The Dallas Morning News about what creates value downtown. Bastards all live in Sunnyvale anyway. --Jim Schutze


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